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Reflection – Susan Tang

Date: 25/06/2017/Speaker: Susan Tang

You, and therefore us from Walter Brueggemann’s “Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth”

The day demands that we begin in praise of you
for the day is yours and we are yours;
We begin with praise,
for the gift of life
for the gift of our lives together
for the gift of life in your world
with all your beloved creatures.
You, you alone, only you
you who made and makes and remakes heaven and earth,
you who executes justice and gives food we know not how,
you who sets prisoners free and sights the blind,
you who lifts up and watches and upholds,
you who reigns forever,
you …. and therefore us.
You, except that we turn to lesser trusts,
all of us with our trust in powers,
You, except we turn to ignoble aims,
all of us preoccupied with ourselves.
You, except we invest in our little controls and our larger fears, all of us marked with anxiety.
And then we watch as you ease us out of anxiety,
as you heal us turned new,
as you topple powers and bring new chances
for truthful public life.
You …. except … but then finally, always, everywhere you …..
and us on the receiving end.
And we are grateful. Amen.

On 13th April, the U.S. government used the ‘Mother of All Bombs’, weighing 9800 kg, killing at least 90.
On 31st May, an extremist group used a wastewater tanker packed with explosives, weighing 1500 kg, killing at least 90. Protesters took to the streets and at least five of them were killed. Not extremists. Protesters. At the burial prayers of one of the protestors, three suicide bombers blew their way onto the graveyard soil and into their fantasy flight to ‘heaven’. 17 mourners were killed.
On 6th June, representatives of 27 countries met, in the name of ‘peace’, to ‘conference’ about ‘war’, again. The day was declared a public holiday, ‘shutting down’ Kabul for ‘security’. A rocket was fired into the house compound of the Indian Ambassador to Afghanistan. A suicide bomber in Kabul killed at least four persons. An attack in a mosque in Herat Province killed at least seven.

Against this backdrop Dr Wee Teck Young pens his thoughts. Teck Young is a Singaporean who first went to Pakistan in 2002 to work in an Afghan refugee camp in Quetta (city on Pakistan-Afghanistan border). After 2 years there he moved to Kabul to continue his medical humanitarian work with the Afghans in their war-torn country that he now calls home. More than medical help, he has founded a group called Afghan Peace Volunteers gathering young people from different ethnic backgrounds to work together for peace. He is literally your boy-next-door as his parents’ flat is next door to us at Holland Close. Teck Young is one unique human being – living with the constant threat of danger but knowing he is standing with the least of these his brothers and sisters.

This is how I feel this week in Kabul – written on 7 June 2017 by Wee Teck Young (Dr Hakim)
Elsewhere, we brush our teeth,
we commute to work,
we buy stuff,
we use our smart phones.
But most of us are disconnected with the other reality
that millions of lives are threatened and hurt every day.
As a physician, my life took a turn when I realized
that the Earth and her inhabitants are ill;
we don’t relate very well,
and in practice, we’re not fair.
People everywhere sense this inside,
but socio-political systems herd us without effort
into accepting that as ordinary folk,
we should mind our own business,
provide for ourselves and our families,
and send our children to school
to be ‘educated and successful’.
We can work hard, they say,
while many children labour very hard and from very young,
to earn enough money for a dream.
We should dutifully pay our taxes,
much of it spent on ‘defense and weapons’,
and obey laws we haven’t read or written.
We can aspire to be famous
if ‘talent’ and luck allows.
Be someone who’s admired
by relatives, friends and society.
We all want to be good people,
and be loved
and happy.
Afghans (and Syrians and Iraqis and Yemenis and…)
also want to be loved and happy,
they don’t enter our minds
over our busy days,
and though they still muster enough
humour and resilience
to smile and to care,
the global armed machine
won’t let them be free.
Their troubles are not ours.
For seconds, we think we’re wishing them well
by hoping that the bombs, guns and soldiers
we send their way
can deal with the ‘bad’ and ‘evil’ types,
and will ‘win’,
so as to keep us safe.
We sympathize with the ‘innocents’
who get killed by the way.
But what can we do?
It’s their sorry fate, their misery,
their bad luck,
not ours.
It’s their violent deaths,
not ours.
But, I plead with you for a quiet moment.
Every life,
here in the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan,
is connected to ours,
because we’re all related,
born without being asked,
and trying to figure out how best to live.
Every life snuffed-out
by the wheeling and dealing of authoritarian, forceful elites
who infest the ‘insurgent groups’ and the establishment,
is an attack on our humanity,
is a drain on our well-being.

Love exists here.

Be open to her.

Do google Wee Teck Young on the net and follow the work he does, and support him in your prayers.

Into our several hells – from “Awed to Heaven, Rooted to Earth” by Walter Brueggemann

There is evidence that our society is going to hell in a handbasket
The hell holes are easy to spot in the news;
And we, even in our privilege, know various signs and degrees of hell.
But we confess that you are the God
who has descended into our several hells
been present …
and then raised in power to new life.
We care not so much about your ascent to heaven
as we do about your restoration of the earth.
You are the God who raised others even as you ascend in new power.
So raise us this day from all our negativities
So raise our city this day from its cruel failures
So raise our world this day from its several hells
of brutality and uncaring.
So raise us to new praise and glad obedience.
You who descend and who are raised in splendour.
Hallelujah. Amen.

Today will be a ‘Reflection Sunday’, and I’ll merely share thoughts from far more insightful persons than myself – the humanitarian doctor, a spiritual activist, a singer-songwriter, a Benedictine sister.

The world is getting darker, tragedies are every day occurrences – the list is unending.

We, like Teck Young, desperately yearn for a day when peace reigns, love and care, kindness and generosity and a deep connection with the sacred in one another, comes.

Cat Zavis, Executive Director of the Network for Spiritual Progressives, whom my father quoted on his Facebook two days ago, says, “some of us, in our despair, turn to inner spirituality to soothe our pain and find solace. The feeling of powerlessness turns us to focus our energies on our inner work rather than align ourselves with larger social change movements. We find comfort in the belief that personal transformation alone can and will result in the transformation of the world. Surely we can see that when the earth is suffering, when other people and beings are suffering, then we all suffer as well.”

As Teck Young also believes, as most spiritually alive people do, we are truly all related and interconnected – our individual well-being and spiritual growth is dependent upon the well-being of others and of our society. How often do we say, “Who do I think I am to try and change the world? I myself am flawed, I am myself hurting – I need to find healing for myself!” This is not only untrue as my sharing this morning will unpack but there is just not enough time for us to all achieve the spiritual healing and enlightenment that we desire! There is not enough time!

Cat Zavis continues, “We need to find a way to love each other across our differences – to see the humanity in each and every person. To see each other’s brokenness and imperfections not as fundamental flaws, but as scars and wounds that have been inflicted upon each of us through a history of missed connections, misunderstandings, parental projections of pain, and societal structures and systems that fail to see our value beyond our capacity to produce and consume.

We are all interconnected with one another and are rooted on this planet we call home. We all come from the same atoms and will someday return to a unified whole. And so, we ourselves cannot be healed until we heal these disparate parts as well. We are all unhealed, damaged, and imperfect healers. Our true wholeness will come only through participating in spiritually engaged activism that is grounded in compassion, love, kindness, generosity, and seeing the sacred in each other and the universe.”

When I look at young people today and read about the things they do – I see movers and shakers, I see influencers and reformers, protestors even, not afraid to raise issues in the public sphere, in theatre, film and the arts, in community groups. But to be honest, I generally don’t see many seeking to reform or shake up the church. Like all institutions and systems need to grow and evolve, so does the church. So what happens instead? Well, the church stagnates, doing the same thing, telling the same stories, Sunday in and Sunday out. In fact the church is often the one that preserves injustice – we’ve seen it – gender inequality, LGBTQ discrimination – only a handful of churches/denominations have adopted enlightened policies on these issues. What then do you think God does? I think God will just move on with, or from the looks of it, without, the church. And so will our future generations of young people – they will either leave the church, stop attending church or never join a church in the first place.

In her sermon two weeks ago, Jamie asked what kind of church are we called to be? Have we fought for the marginalized, have we fought for social justice? Have we been the salt and light? Maybe a little here and there, she said but has it been enough? In other words, even if we have held regular church services over the last 13 years, are we worthy to be called a church in the first place? She said we are perhaps closer to being a Free Community. Period. Or Free Community Club!

So if we are not going to play our part in changing the Church then its stubborn and unchanging ways will prevail. The other option is to stop calling ourselves a church and do a new thing. But lest Miak accuse me of throwing the baby out with the bathwater – don’t throw the baby out. No. Raise the baby to be more relevant to today’s world, more humane, more caring, more generous, more responsible, …. We chose good when we named our baby the FREE Commune. It was not a name chosen by accident – it is who we are called to be – a commune where everyone is equal. A Free Community we are indeed, Jamie!

I have said before that I believe God has placed us in position, “for such a time, such a role and such a calling as this” – to be that prophetic faith community that will usher in that new world we look eagerly to. The same prophesy my father had at the birth of FCC when he preached that God is Doing a New Thing. Be that community where people are not afraid to do new things, to support the freedom to love, to speak up for unfair treatment of migrant workers, to question outdated church dogma, question that old-time religion, to not be afraid even to question God! We are to be God-fearing people, how dare we question God? Well, the prophets and psalmists did, even Jesus himself questioned God – why should we be afraid? Jesus will surely rebuke us saying if we keep silent even the stones will cry out. When tragedy strikes especially to the innocent, don’t we cry out in desperation and anger – and yes, even at God? Where are you God? Why the innocent child God? How long Lord, must you turn away from me?

I pause here to share with you a song from the legendary Leonard Cohen – “You Want It Darker” from his 14th and final album released on 21 Oct 2016. Cohen died weeks later on 7 Nov 2016. This last song he wrote was released to critical acclaim. In the turmoil of the world, he challenges, even accuses God – “You want it darker? We kill the flame”; God, “If you are the dealer then I’m out of this game”. Before we listen to it together, I want to share Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ (spiritual head of the United Synagogue, the largest synagogue body in the UK) comments on how this is a song for our time – he said, … Cohen was Jewish and held a dissident view of religion and life, he was an inhabitant of the darkness. And this his final song was the most Jewish he wrote – it contained the kaddish – the Jewish prayer for the dead. It was like Cohen was saying kaddish for himself. You’ll hear this prayer in the chorus “magnified, sanctified” and then “Hineni” or “Here I Am” (sung 3 times) The word “Hineni” first appears in the story of Abraham – when God asks him to sacrifice his son Isaac. Abraham says: “Hineni, Here I Am”. Isaac says: “I’m ready Lord”.

There is something to be said about singing dark songs – they can be just as edifying:

Cohen must have been imagining how Abraham, though obedient, must have protested in his heart, never thinking it would come to this. That God would for ask the sacrifice of a child, his beloved son. That God could apparently be so cruel. Cohen was doing the same in this song – saying, “look at your world God, people you created in your image killing each other. If you are the dealer, I’m out of this game!”

So if we want to be one up on Cohen and stay in the game, how can we make the difference or the change in this world that God has put us in? Well for one, we can live up to the reputation that the mainstream churches have assigned us – that “church on the margins” yes, that free community on the edge, the cutting edge! That edgy commune of people. The ‘free’dom fighters fighting for what Jesus fought for in his lifetime. By keeping silent we are complicit with the evil and the unjust. It has been said that to sin by silence when we should protest makes us cowards. It is our duty – our shared duty. How many times do we need toconfess that “we have helped perpetuate systems that deny the dignity and worth of people”, that “our joy is never complete till everyone finds refuge and safety”, “till every child is fed”?

Elie Wiesel has said, “If we keep silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation, we are guilty and we are accomplices. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe.”

Some of you may have an image of climbing over the barricades, being arrested, laying our lives on the line — very dramatic. But a lot of the most important work starts with simple mundane daily work and it’s not glamorous nor exciting. It’s much more of a tedious, step by step, conversation by conversation, encounter by encounter work of change. But that’s where change can really happen.

Just look at how far we have come from where we started – not really that far – but you can also look at examples throughout history. It is often agonizingly slow — but we persevere because society never makes progress quickly enough – sadly, the same values of equality and justice, fairness and freedom, are what people have been fighting for for centuries. So we are called to view our place as in a struggle of humanity over a long period of time.

Every small step counts. If you can distil this “fight” down into socially conscious choices in our everyday lives, research shows that small changes made by large numbers of people can have very large effects. For example, a very simple conversation (like those in the pinkdot video) can impact somebody and who knows what ripple effects can occur.

Again, Wiesel has said, “there is much to be done, there is much that can be done. One person, … just one person of integrity, can make a difference, a difference of life and death. As long as one dissident is in prison, our freedom will not be true. As long as one child is hungry, our lives will be filled with anguish and shame. What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs. Our lives no longer belong to us alone; they belong to all those who need us desperately.”

You spend money every single day, so using even a small percentage of that money in a socially conscious way can make big differences. Someone has said, “every dollar you spend is a vote for the kind of world you believe in”. Everyday choices such as what we buy, our commuting habits, electricity usage, etc can have effects on a wide range of social issues. You don’t support child labour? Then don’t buy clothes made by them. You don’t support animal abuse? Then be a vegetarian. Don’t believe in the objectification of women (or men)? Don’t buy fashion brands who objectify them in their ad campaigns! Obvious right? But we only pay lip service.

Even our interactions on social media platforms where we are literally all connected – do we make good choices? Or do we get sucked into the shadow side of online life – spreading fake news and misinformation, fear-mongering, making rude and derogatory comments.

Be good allies as Miak has said, and stand up for our siblings. For our Muslim friends for example, when you hear a negative comment about Islam or Muslims. But stand up with love – everybody’s got an opinion. Everybody wants their opinion to be heard. So try to listen first, maybe ask questions, encourage deeper understanding of the issues.

These are some things we can do every single day as individuals. But as a faith community of people we can do even more. More than being light of the world, salt of the earth – we are God’s incarnate presence in human life.

We can dream of our free community as one that would look outward with a bias toward action -welcoming the alien, providing care and food, supporting people in transition, working for justice. We would teach about God — not by doctrines, but by telling our stories and by our actions. We would draw on Scripture, but also on new theological thinking and on new discoveries in all fields of knowledge. We would encourage exploration and mutual respect, not right opinion and debate. We would value each member of our community equally.

Can you imagine such a community? It’s not easy. We are so accustomed to that old-time religion and how we’ve always done church. So I plead again, let the old church die – if we cling to structures and ideas that no longer convey meaning, we will naturally die. Churches are not empty because they have failed or that people are ungrateful. They are empty because people are finding life and meaning elsewhere.

I find myself turning always to Benedictine Sr Joan Chittister’s Lent meditation for inspiration – and I share her words with you as we ponder our role and mission:

“The waters part all around us, too, now. The road to Jerusalem is clear. We are surrounded by situations that have solutions without solvers with the political will to resolve them: The old cannot afford their prescriptions. The young have no food. The middle-aged work two jobs and slip silently into poverty whatever their efforts. The globe turns warmer and more vulnerable by the day. Species disappear. The unborn are unwanted. The born are uncared for. Racism, sexism and homophobia destroy families and poison relationships. The mighty buy more guns. The powerful pay fewer taxes. The national infrastructure slips into disrepair. Fundamentalist groups and governments everywhere seek to suppress opposition, to deny questions, to resist change, to block development. We are all on the road to Jerusalem again; some of us dedicated to restoring a long lost past; others committed to creating a better future.

It takes no special vision to see what is happening. We have an entirely new worldview to integrate into our spiritual lives. The cosmos is different now. The globe is different now. The unthinkable is thinkable now. What takes vision is to realize that this is the same Jerusalem over which Jesus wept. This is the great society that has forgotten the widow and the orphan, that enthrones the Pharisee and stones the prophets, that speaks of morality while it institutionalizes the immoral. We decry violence and practice it. We talk about equality and deny it. We practice religion and forget the gospel.

Into this mix of struggle and tension, of cultural divides and future possibilities, of global unsureties and dogmatic certainties, comes the question this Lent. It is a simple but a searing one: “Who will cry out?”

Finally, in case you think all is dark and there is no more light left, let me end with another powerful Leonard Cohen song “Anthem,” off his 1992 album The Future. It is one of Cohen’s most beautiful and hopeful songs. It took a decade, 10 years, for him to write it – or rather for him to be ready to release it. The message, of hope in darkness, is particularly pertinent in our troubled times. Cohen calls us to, despite of all the darkness surrounding us, to –

Ring the bell that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

So let’s not give excuses that we are ourselves flawed, that we ourselves need healing – Cohen says there is no excuse for an abdication of our personal responsibilities to save each other and our world, and we should “Ring the bells that still can ring” — go find them. Don’t wait for that perfect solution. We cannot expect to make things perfect, neither in our relationships, nor in our work, nor anything, nor our love of God, nor our love of family or country. Everything is imperfect. There is a crack in everything. Those of you who attended Kintsugi will have learned that it is the cracks, in the brokenness that we embrace where we find resurrection. Which is also why Leonard Cohen can declare in his famous song “Hallelujah” that “even if it all went wrong, I can stand before the Lord of Song, with nothing on my lips but Hallelujah”.

Before we watch this almost 10-min video, let me ask for your patience right to the end as Cohen takes the time to credit and honour each member of his music team. When I watched the images of the wild geese in the video, it reminded me of the poet Mary Oliver (she wrote a poem “Wild Geese” which I love) and the closing line and question of another of her poems, “The Summer Day”. I will flash this question up on the screen after the video ends, and ask us to ponder a few minutes on this important question, after which I will close us in prayer.

(here are the full lyrics):

The birds they sing, at the break of day
Start again, I heard them say.
Don’t dwell on what has passed away
Or what is yet to be.

Yes, the wars, they will be fought again
The holy dove she will be caught again
Bought, and soul, and bought again
The dove is never free.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

We asked for signs. The signs were sent
The birth betrayed. The marriage spent
Yeah, the widowhood of every government
Signs for all to see.

I can’t run no more, with that lawless crowd
While the killers in high places say their prayers out loud
But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up a thundercloud
They’re going to hear from me.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

You can add up the parts; you won’t have the sum
You can strike up the march, there is no drum
Every heart, every heart to love will come
But like a refugee.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? —Mary Oliver

GOD, whatever we plan to do with our one wild and precious life, we ask that you give us the spark to ignite our fires, the spark to light our lives. And in the dark corners and cracks of our lives help us to find a way to celebrate the dark things – yes, celebrate them – not because we are happy they happened, or happy that we are cracked and broken; but because they did happen, and we are broken — and we are still here, still standing with love – Every. Single. Day. After. Day. So we pray for and thank you for the courage it takes to be, to live, in the dark and in the light. Amen.