Dear Church [and in my brain i’m thinking church of Cape Town, but this really is good stuff for the church at large to hear],
i have a deep love for you and a desire for you to be everything you were made to be. But it is a lot of love-hate relationship cos man, you confound me so much sometimes. Especially on the man bit. But i had a dream about you last night and i thought it was time to share some words.
i am not known for dreaming elaborately and remembering it afterwards and even this one feels a bit sketchy already, but the bit i remember had me present at a young adult gathering in the evening at the Common Ground Rondebosch venue. It didn’t feel like a Sunday so not a church meeting per say. Just a bunch of young people hanging out.
There was a moment when for some reason i got to address the crowd with some kind of i-have-a-dream-Braveheart combo type speech but then there was another group arriving for some other meeting and so a lot of controlled chaos as our group started to leave and this new group was arriving. The only part of the dream that remains vivid to me now was this part with me continuing to talk to a group of people at this crowded doorway and looking inside at Ryan Saville [who i don’t even think is part of Common Ground – last time i looked he was part of Jubilee – i really don’t dream in an orderly fashion] and i was making some point and i gestured at him and said, “i would die for this guy” and i remember seeing such a startled look on his face [Ryan and i are not the closest of friends for various random different-sides-of-an-argument reasons in the past] and then kind of this moment of it sinking in and him realising that even though we may not be best friends, i still absolutely see him as family.
‘Whoever is not against me is for me.’ i remember someone saying that.
Let’s build together
If i could address the church of Cape Town [and i strongly believe in the fact that there is one church, as complicated as this may play out, because Jesus had a bride and a body, not a harem and bodies] and indeed the greater church in the world today, and i only had the opportunity to say one thing, i think it would be, “Let’s build sandcastles together.”
With the emphasis on the ‘together’ and not the sandcastles, because as i think of this analogy now [and always helpful to remember: an analogy is only as strong as the point it is trying to make] i think how terrible it is because of how short-term sandcastles are and how easy they get washed away. So maybe houses. Let’s build houses together. And in the context of Cape Town and South Africa and even the world, maybe that’s a whole lot more appropriate both on a metaphorical and a practical level. But i’m not going to spend a bunch more time looking for pictures of diverse people building houses together so let’s stick with the sandcastles for now.
There are a number of denominational churches i could mention in Cape Town who seem to be working towards a kingdom of [insert denomination] rather than a kingdom of God, and this is very problematic for me in the light of the Scriptures we tend to hold up as our guide and anchor and Truth. Then there are a whole bunch of churches in different areas who are working together and this is very exciting for me. Not necessarily doing everything together and in the same way, but seeking opportunities to do ministry or outreach or learning or serving together. And this always feels more like what i signed up for.
Who is walking by?
The other image i woke up to was the story of the Good Samaritan which could also have been titled ‘The Parable of the Lousy Self-Focused Clergy’ and probably would have if i’d had anything to do with it.
Two areas of church absence in particular were brought to my attention and these are both things i think about a lot so there is not really much surprise there. When we look at the Good Samaritan, as we call him, we focus on his presence in terms of time, money and energy. The skin he put in the game. Invested commitment. In contrast, we can look at the priest and the Levite and think ‘Absence’.
* The first is the role of women in the church and in life in general and in my dream it was churches who still hold firmly to a patriarchal men-are-on-top-woman-are-somewhere-lower-somewhere who were the priest walking by. This was confirmed to me by a Lisa Sharon Harper response to a John Piper article [on how women should not be police officers and stuff – that guy!] that i read via a number of connected tweets on the Twitterer.
What is interesting to me and probably most loud on the topic is how Jesus acts with regards to women. Despite the patriarchal nature of the day and of the religion of the day, Jesus never seems to buy into it. He is constantly calling women to the front, giving them spaces of honour, affirming them, lifting them up, giving them focus and attention.
i can think of a number of times when Jesus calls men out on their behaviour – the Pharisees, the disciples, Pilate – but none come to mind of him rebuking women. In fact even when the mother of James and John comes to ask if they can be seated besides Him in His kingdom it seems like the men get the rebuke. Actually the one time we see Jesus challenging a woman might be the Mary/Martha interaction, but even then it is done with a perspective of honouring Mary for the choice she had made to sit by the feet of Jesus instead of getting on with the “necessary chores”.
Jesus never treats women as less than. This is an example i would love to see the church picking up a great deal more.
* The second is the attitude towards those who are not white which is closely tied in with a lack of focus on social justice issues.
You really have to ignore a whole lot of the first half of the bible to hold to a Christianity that is separate from justice issues. Like this passage in Isaiah 58:
‘Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.’
Or where it continues:
‘If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.’
Or even this piece from Isaiah 61 which is the passage that Jesus reads from when He is handed the scriptures in the temple:
‘The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion — to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor. They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.’
If this all seems a little confusing we can simply skip ahead to verse 8:
‘For I, the Lord, love justice; I hate robbery and wrongdoing. In my faithfulness I will reward my people and make an everlasting covenant with them.
So God seems to love Justice and Jesus seems to love Justice, but there is somehow still quite a disconnect between many who call themselves church and the idea of Justice being in our DNA? i don’t get that.
Back to the Sandcastles
The Justice Conference that took place last year [and is coming up again in October this year] was one of the first times i saw the greater collective church coming together in Cape Town to really explore some of these difficult conversations and tough questions and really commit to wrestling together towards answers. Although to be honest, groups like Scripture Union [SU], Youth For Christ [YFC], Youth With A Mission [YWAM] and others have been championing the idea for years – church beyond borders, beyond denomination. Jesus followers from all backgrounds doing Jesus following stuff together.
i spoke about it briefly in my book, ‘i, church’, how the word denomination is so close to the word demonisation and when the focus on denomination gets lifted above church at the expense of working with other groups of followers of Jesus, then i think we really have a problem.
i understand the idea of having different kinds of church denominations because people are different and have different styles or ways or doing things and so on and so am not suggesting doing away with them completely, but we should be looking for more ways to partner on kingdom things more than reasons to do things completely on our own.
The point being: What if the church showed up? Imagine the whole collective church of Cape Town arriving to protest lack of sanitation in the townships? Or the whole collective church of Cape Town standing alongside students who are protesting exorbitant fees or lack of study opportunities? Sho, there is so much we could do collectively way better than if we tried it alone.
i see St Johns Anglican church [which i am a part of] doing this with other churches in the Wynberg area in a variety of ways… i see this hugely with the Warehouse in Wetton, especially with some of the conversations they host which really encourage people to wrestle and give them a safe space to do so… i’ve seen this with More Than Peace volunteers who have been on varsity campuses during some of the most hectic activities and marched with tear gas and rubber bullets flying around… i’ve seen this just this week as RZM has hosted a series of Festival of Thought conversations in different church locations in Cape Town and around the country… so this is happening to different extents in different spaces…
The way i read the bible from beginning to end, i see God calling people to follow God. Not as different groups where the emphasis is on what the group is about. But as one family with a focus on God and God’s stuff. Deny yourself, take up your cross daily and follow Me. We see it in Israel in the Old Testament and as the church in the New Testament.
There are many ways in which we can see an issue God is calling us to work on and decide to cross the street and walk quickly on by on the other side of the road. Two of these are the way we treat women and the way we treat black, coloured and indian people compared to how we treat white people. In terms of leadership and glass ceilings and justifying why we somehow continue to live and operate as if white and male was somehow better in the eyes of God.
i had someone respond to me online this week: “I don’t have to answer to you.” Or actually it was in the context of church and denomination and so it was: “We don’t have to answer to you.” Which is absolutely true. But you [and i] do have to answer to God. And that is going to be a lot more significant than anything you might have to say or not say to me.
On the issue of treating women as less than, we will have to answer to God.
On the issue of treating black, coloured and indian people as less than; we will have to answer to God.
Let me finish where i began: Dear church, i have a deep love for you and a desire for us to become everything that God has called us to be. Chasing after kingdom things above all else. Ruthlessly pursuing a loving of God with all of our hearts, minds, strength and souls and a love for neighbour that is equal to the love we have for ourselves. A looking out for those who have been pushed to the margins and deemed as less worthy. Just as Jesus did. Continuously. Anything less is less than. We were made for so much more.
Are you with me? SPOILER ALERT: It is going to be messy.