Tag Archives: Religion and Spirituality

The Cross and the Flood

A prayer written for the sermon, Into the Flood: Priests First

Flood of June 2006
Image by marnanel via Flickr

Almighty God, our Father,
The raging flood terrifies us and we tremble at its edge.
We are paralysed with fear and we cry out to you.

You tamed the raging waters of creation,
When your Spirit brooded over the deep.
You split the Red Sea and held back the waters of the Jordan
You brought your people through on dry ground. 

Father, we too stand at the edge of the flood.
We cannot overcome the poverty that grips us;
We cannot defeat the sin that lures us;
We are twisted by years of criticism and negativity,
Trapped by bitterness and hatred,
Held back by our guilt and our shame.

The water threatens to sweep us away.
And in our despair we cry to you, O Lord,
We are powerless before the flood,
Yet you make a way for us.
You plant your cross and a crown of thorns;
Your broken body breaking the water’s power. 

Open our eyes to your cross, O Lord.
Help us see only the dry ground.
And, holding firm to the cross, help us bring others home. 


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Filed under Meditation & Prayer

The Fatted Calf and the Missing Goat: The Prodigal Son (2)

The problem with the older brother of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) is that he’s just as ‘prodigal’, just as wasteful of his relationship with his father, as his younger brother is.

His one valid complaint, the one we secretly sympathise with while turning our noses up at him, is that the rebel son got the fatted calf.  He, the faithful older son, didn’t even get a goat for a party with his friends.  He might be nasty, he might be vindictive, but this does seem unfair.

There are two things to consider regarding the fatted calf and the absent goat.  The first lies in the nature of the older brother; what he says should be taken with a pinch of salt.  He is, after all, the complaining type.  He’s a stickler for protocol, for the way things should be done; for rightness rather than relationship.  He’s the sort (and you find him everywhere—there is a bit of him in most of us), he’s the sort who will make sure that everything is done just right, no matter what it takes, or how many people are hurt, put down, or trampled on in the process.  Complaining comes naturally because he has taught himself to look for what is wrong (and to point it out of course) rather than to celebrate what is right.  The older brother won’t celebrate until everything is right.

We are inclined to believe the older brother when he (or she) is in full swing, even when he is chastising us for what we have failed to do, or we have not done correctly, and we feel the guilt.  But the father Jesus tells us about in this story is fair.  That’s the point.  This is no bumbling old man playing favourites.  His delight is not in the younger brother alone, but in the family.  He is just as concerned for the older brother to draw close as he was for the younger brother.  That’s what his comment means: “My son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours” (Luke 15:31).  While longing for the return of his younger son, the father has given himself to the older brother in love and appreciation.

Do you want a fatted calf, or do you want an on-going relationship in which you can grow and learn and be safe?  Most of us want a fatted calf every now and again, I guess, just like the prodigal longed for freedom and perceived thrills.  But the relationship is the real deal.  Of course the older brother would never ‘get’ that.  He can only see what he hasn’t got, and misses entirely, everything he does have.

The second thing to consider about the fatted calf is what it symbolises.  Some of you will remember (ok, you don’t have to own up), others may have heard about, the 70’s song by Tony Orlando and Dawn called “Tie a yellow ribbon round the old oak tree.”  The singer is an ex con, just out of prison; he doesn’t know if his wife (or lover) wants him back.  He asks her to tie a yellow ribbon round the oak tree that he would see from the bus on the way home, if she wants him back.  And, if he didn’t see one, he would just “stay on the bus/Forget about us/Put the blame on me….”  When he arrives he can’t bear to look but the other passengers cry out and he sees “a hundred yellow ribbons round the old oak tree.”  Corny perhaps, and maybe I’m just getting old and sentimental, or perhaps it speaks too closely to my own life, but that song still chokes me up.

The fatted calf was the father’s oak tree filled with yellow ribbons.  “How do I demonstrate forgiveness, welcome, reconciliation that goes way beyond a family putting up with a recalcitrant son because ‘it’s the right thing to do’?  What can I do so that next month, next year, when doubts begin to plague his mind, this son of mine will know for certain that he was not simply allowed home, he was welcomed and wanted?”  That’s what the fatted calf does.  And the father, shedding his dignity, running down the road, does it too; far better than any words could ever have done.

The older brother would miss all that because he has trained himself to see what is not there, what is wrong, what hasn’t been done; and to ignore and even despise, the glory that is.

To be brutally honest, the older brother is what we who are inside the church tend to be.  The challenge for us is to shed the comfort of our negativity and to practice looking beyond the façade, to the good and the kind and the beautiful within.  Because that is how Jesus most often touches our lives and we discover his generous, extravagant love, through our neighbours, our parents (with or without a fatted calf), and, dare I say it, even through that brat of a younger (or older) brother.


Filed under Community

An infinite appetite for distraction

Too much choiceThere is so much need around us and there are so many people caring for the poor, the sick, the lost, the abandoned, the abused, the environment…. The needs, causes and opportunities for service can become overwhelming. In my own small city there are individuals, non-profit organisations, and faith communities caring for a vast array of causes; and so many more beyond the city and around the world. Many are worthy; many deserve my attention; many deserve my time, energy and commitment. Most get none of these things from me.

With Facebook, everyone can create, quite painlessly, his or her own cause. It takes no more time or commitment than typing, “I support this, that, or the other, cause. Will you join my cause?” There, it’s done. Of course, some of these are set up and managed by folk who commit far more to these things than most and who do get involved collecting money or signatures, sending petitions, building and clearing, caring and helping. But for most of us the sheer multitude of appeals numbs our senses and we become overwhelmed by the intensity of it all; we are easily distracted away to something less intense and easier to cope with, something less demanding emotionally.

Aldous Huxley in his Brave New World was worried that we would be distracted into irrelevance.

Distractions come in all shapes and sizes. I want to write, but someone has commented on Facebook or posted a picture that demands a response; a newspaper has to be read; an email requires a reply; a blog post catches my attention and must be perused, which links to a multitude of other interesting posts and articles. Then the time for writing has gone and all I have done is read what others have read and added a word here or there.

In the Church too we create a smorgasbord of activities in which we think the Church should be involved and try to persuade individuals to become concerned and take charge. But there are more activities than people, so the same old faithful take on more and more, effectively doing less and less.

At this time of New Year resolutions and goal setting we need to take stock of what it is that God wants us to do. That is not something separate from who I am, since the God who wants me to do, is the God who made me, and who continually shapes my life. What is it that the One who knows me better than I know myself, who knows (better than my closest friend) to what I am best suited, what is that he wants from me; what is he shaping me to do and to become? The question is relevant whether I am concerned about my career or what I do in my spare time.

It’s a question we need to ask in our local Church. What difference can we make in this particular place, in this particular time? What does this disparate group of people that meets together in Christ’s name do best? Listening is the key: listening to the Christ who calls us here and who forms us, and listening humbly to the community in which we find ourselves. Through listening we put aside the distractions and become part of the community rather than simply joining a cause, however worthy it may be.

Three other posts of interest on this topic:
In a Clay Pot wrote: Church Planter not so bad after all
Sky Pilot wrote: Christmas comes to Mpophomeni
Jevlir Caravansary wrote: The Missionary’s House


Filed under Community, Odds & Ends

Katie Melua: The Flood

Katie Melua I’m quietly celebrating Katie Melua’s birthday (16 September) by writing about some of the songs that I enjoy and that challenge me.
(See Katie Melua, “Spider’s web” and Happy Birthday Katie.)

I don’t pretend to understand all (or even most) of the lyrics on Katie Melua latest Album, The House, but “The Flood” really appeals to me. I also know nothing about Katie Melua’s faith. Although her background is Eastern Orthodox and Catholic her songs are not Christian songs. But if I could preach as eloquently as she sings, I (and the congregation) would be very happy.

Quite different from her earlier song, “Spider’s Web”, “The Flood” has a similar theme. The “How do I know which is right?” of the former becomes, “I am certain nothing’s certain” in the latter.

In “The Flood” she sings, “What we own becomes our prison”. In “Spider’s Web” she says that what we believe becomes our prison; we focus so much on our differences that we fail to see the colour of the music we could create together.

In “Spider’s Web” the emphasis is on right and wrong, and how cautious we should be in passing judgement. In “The Flood” Katie takes that a step forward:

Blame no one is to blame
As natural as the rain that falls
Here comes the flood again

When there is so much crime and corruption, there are plenty of people we can blame. When the markets crash and our savings are gone, it’s easy to point fingers. Sometimes the blame is warranted but it doesn’t restore our fortunes or deal with corruption. We can blame others; we can blame ourselves; we can blame our past and our circumstances but it doesn’t do anything for us. When the flood comes and we are clinging to a rock in the swirling waters, it makes no difference where the flood came from, or whose fault it is or what we might have lost. What are we going to do now? Katie suggests something radical: let go of the rock. We can become prisoners of our possessions and of our certainties but Katie says,

See the rock that you hold onto
Is it gonna save you?
When the earth begins to crumble
Why do you feel you have to
Hold on imagine if you let go….
Wash away the weight that pulls you down
Ride the waves that free you from your doubts

The imagery is stunning and far more eloquent than most of us manage for a Sunday service. Let go; let go of guilt and of blame, let go of plans and certainties, let go of possessions and power.

She goes on to say, don’t trust your eyes (it’s easy to believe them) or your mind (it’s not always listening);

Know with your heart that
You can leave your prison

Didn’t Jesus warn us against trusting only what we can see and touch? And faith goes far beyond the intellectual understanding of the mind.

Keep it up Katie. “God on the drums, the Devil on the bass” next.


Filed under Katie Melua, Odds & Ends

Katie Melua, “Spider’s web”

Durban, September 2008 I’m celebrating Katie Melua’s birthday (16 September) with a few posts reflecting on some of her songs.

My favourite Katie Melua song is on her Piece by Piece album.  It’s one she wrote herself called “Spider’s web”. In it she touches on a number of issues that create tension and conflict as we take up our entrenched positions. She writes about racism, bullies, and war and peace, but always she asks, “How do I know which is right”? Because, as she reminds us in the chorus,

… the line between
Wrong and right
Is the width of a thread
From a spider’s web
The piano keys
Are black and white
But they sound like a million colours in your mind

Christians tend to struggle with this idea. Aren’t things supposed to be clear-cut, right or wrong? Aren’t we supposed to be decisive? We are uncomfortable with the lukewarm, “whatever” culture in which we find ourselves. We reject Katie’s uncertainty and want to make a stand on the issues that confront us. No compromise! We so easily retreat into that guaranteed conversation-stopper, “The Bible says….”

But such conviction is not as straight forward as we like to pretend. Sometimes the line between right and wrong is, as Katie sings, very, very fine. Most of the time when we say, “The Bible says…” we actually mean, “This one verse in the Bible says…” or “This is what I think the Bible says on this subject.” In fact the Gospel, and the entire history of God’s dealing with his people, is not about being right but about being in relationship. It’s not about law but about love.

Sometimes we focus so much attention on the colour of the keys that we fail to enjoy the colour of the music we can create together.


Filed under Katie Melua, Odds & Ends