The Rambling Man

Scattered thoughts about theology and anything else interesting…

A Tale of Three Hashtags

Over the past two or three years I’ve published several pieces with PTT on the theological significance of South Africa’s democratic evolution and the involvement of churches there. The last of these concerned the #rhodesmustfall movement, which began with a statue fronting the University of Cape Town’s Upper Campus. With a fresh hashtag (#feesmustfall), the extension of the movement across the country over the past year has signalled the difficult situation poverty-stricken Africans face in educating themselves for a better life. The doors of education, while in principle open, remain difficult to pass through. Moreover, academia itself is seen to be in need of foundational transformation—a fascinating debate which I will not enter at this moment.

The particular situation signalled by #feesmustfall is the plight of South Africa at another election season. According to a study published in this past May⁠1, 63 percent of South Africa’s children grow up in poverty. While this is an improvement from earlier figures, it remains staggering in a nation hailed as an icon of democracy and hope only 20 years ago. Violent service delivery protests continue, though now unreported by the national broadcaster⁠2 which in a chilling reminder of the old days is looking more and more like the propaganda arm of the ruling ANC.

And there is President Jacob Zuma. Long held to be a necessary evil for maintaining the unity of the party and its alliance partners⁠3, Zuma’s incompetence and corruption lies at the heart of the protests, and the election campaigns. Late last year, a new hashtag emerged: #zumamustfall. Launched⁠4 with an eight-story-tall banner⁠5 (which was immediately torn down by ANC supporters) in Cape Town’s CBD, the hashtag signalled yet another gatvol⁠6 moment.

The year 2016 has indeed been one series of “falls” after another: first there were the after-effects of the firing of Nhlanhla Nene⁠7, a Finance Minister generally respected for his refusal to give blind support to the President’s deals. Then followed attempts to use special investigators on Nene’s eventual successor, Pravin Gordhan⁠8, ostensibly for insisting on the independence of the Treasury and Revenue services. Just as he had done for the Public Protector, the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Thabo Makgoba, responded with a “Statement of Support⁠9” for Gordhan’s commitment to fiscal discipline. While this was going on, the media were exposing the Gupta family’s attempts to influence ⁠10government appointments. And then there was the Constitutional Court’s condemnation of Zuma⁠11’s failure to act on the Public Protector’s recommendation that he return to the public purse funds taken for upgrades to his Nkandla homestead.

“SA Churches unanimous – President Jacob Zuma must resign.”⁠12

Examples could be multiplied. But it was the latter, Constitutional Court decision on March 31 that galvanized South African churches to embrace the #zumamustfall hashtag.

Terming the decision “a devastating judgement on the constitutional and moral conduct of the President, the National Parliament and the leadership of the Speaker.”⁠13 the South African Council of Churches (SACC) issued a statement calling for Zuma to do “the honourable thing” and resign. Addressing students and faculty at the University of the Witwatersrand, Makgoba echoed it, calling for “a tsunami of truth⁠14-telling”. Similar public sentiments were expressed by the Methodist Church of South Africa⁠15, and a number of Catholic sources⁠16. After a meeting between the The National Religious Leaders’ Council and senior ANC leaders, SACC General Secretary Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana revealed that four of the six⁠17 were wrestling with consciences on the question of Zuma’s resignation. Several ANC struggle stalwarts, including Ahmed Kathrada (Nelson Mandela’s friend and fellow prisoner) voiced the same sentiment.

It is doubtful that all South African churches are unanimous. Such is the complexity of the South African religious scene. And Zuma can still command a large, Christian audience as he did on Good Friday at the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God⁠18. Likewise, the ZCC—South Africa’s largest denomination—has dissented⁠19 from the call for Zuma’s resignation.

Nevertheless, this is an important moment for the public witness of the churches. I believe we are seeing the “coming out” party of the SACC.

“A Cocktail for Regime Change⁠20

Nearly four months later, the President retains his hold on power. But pressure has been maintained in protests and petitions. The current elections have focused this pressure. While for local government, the elections are widely seen as a referendum on Zuma and the ANC at a federal level. Sadly, the campaigns have not been without incident, and once again the churches and other religious groups have called for calm⁠21 as forces of anger and betrayal are unleashed by partisanship.

That the actual elections have proceeded without incident is a testament to the solidity of democracy as an institution in South Africa. And a vote—even now routinized—still has powerful significance⁠22 for people who in living memory paid so dearly for that privilege. What follows over the next few months will no doubt continue to test how well the other institutions (the Public Protector and the Constitutional Court especially) that have been sorely tried will stand.

That the #rhodesmustfall and #feesmustfall hashtags initiated by students were succeeded by a broader, #zumamustfall movement taken up by the churches and other civil society organs is a sign perhaps even more positive than the survival of “Chapter Nine” structures. For they signal the health of another kind of democracy: a restless yearning for a just future for the whole demos, the whole people.

The Beyond in the Midst

Here though South Africa’s churches must exercise theological restraint—especially if they are to learn the lessons of the recent past.

After all, the ANC’s origins are tied-in to early twentieth-century African Christianity. And its role in the anti-Apartheid movement was mediated in part by many church leaders in the 1980s. The election of Nelson Mandela in 1994 was not just a victory for the ANC, it was a vindication of those churches who had supported the liberation movements. In fact, it was this association that made criticism so awkward in the intervening years.

Unlike other civil society agents the church always points beyond the immediate dynamics and movements of a situation. Or perhaps better stated: the church points to the “beyond” that is partially visible, partially hidden, in such situations. For even if Zuma’s failures ultimately add up to his fall, it is not the end. The world and its contests for control goes on… until Christ announces its end.

At the same time, it is only by being situated “in the midst” that the church can truly see the “beyond”. To place itself “above” or “beyond” the struggles of the people is precisely to lose the vision of the Kingdom. This also is a hard-won lesson of the South African church.

Theologically speaking Christians must assert that the world, not just its local manifestations, must fall. That is the true regime change we all long for.







6 translation: “had it up to here”










16 The Southern African Conference of Catholic Bishops is a member of the SACC.


18 See

19 Bishop Barnabas Lekganyane, Letter dated 11 April 2016. See



22 Makgoba said he “still felt goosebumps” voting.


“God is not a Christian”

Several Facebook friends have recently posted an interview with Desmond Tutu entitled, “God is not a Christian.” Tutu has used this phrase for the past few years, and even published a book with the title. So it’s not new. But I must admit I’ve always been confused by it.

If “God is not a Christian” means “God is not subject to any construct of human language”–which the term “Christian” is: according to Acts 11:26, it was first used by pagans to describe followers of Jesus–then, yes, “God is not a Christian.” And we can understand in this way the truth in the subtitle, “Nor a Jew, Muslim, Hindu…” These designations were attempts to make sense of an unfamiliar set of practices (see W. Cantwell Smith’s Meaning and End of Religion).

But if it means that our particular understandings of God “don’t matter,” then we must think a little deeper. Clearly for Tutu understanding God as “nation,” or “capital,” or “race” is a problem. Because there is such a thing as idolatry, at least some understandings do matter. Indeed, there is an important contradiction in asserting “We are born for goodness, to love” while holding that particular beliefs don’t matter. For what is “we are born for goodness” if not a particular belief?

Even more so, if “God is not a Christian” means that the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is but one particularity among others, then my disagreement is even deeper. For if God did not become a human being in Jesus Christ, taking on the particularity of first century Jewish flesh, living in such a way as to reveal the root of human violence (in the desire to murder God), absorbing that violence in the cross and overcoming it in the resurrection, then I see little point in talking about “God” at all. If God did not say a radical “yes” to human being in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, and a radical “no” to human violence in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, then I see no basis for a divine “yes” to the human future (in Jesus Christ). We are on our own.

Despite all this, my deep respect for Desmond Tutu (and my awareness of his deep rootedness in the practices of Anglo-Catholic spirituality) leads me to take the statement not as a piece of reflective theology but as an expression of his generosity: that God welcomes all, regardless of people or class or race, and that God cannot be “tribalised”–even if one of those “tribes” is named “Christian”. As a piece of rhetoric, it’s merely a nice sentiment.

Broken Windows

Some of the windows broken at Holy Trinity on the evening of Oct 14. Five other Edmonton churches were similarly attacked.

Windows are portals to the world. They let light in, and they project light out. Some windows are functional. Other windows represent the artistry of love. Stained glass windows transfigure seeming ordinary light into colours displaying the gospel.

To those inside a church, windows remind people that there is an ‘outside’ called the world. And it is for the world that the church exists. But windows are fragile. They are easily broken. Having windows is risky.

Broken windows also refract light, but in shards that display the brokenness of the world. Broken windows also remind the church of its vulnerability in the world. Broken windows also remind the church of the vulnerability of the world, God’s world, in the face of the much greater vandalism of sin.

The good news is that windows can be repaired. Even better is the way the fragility that we feel upon looking at them can lead us to the one whose brokenness heals and restores.

But we are still dismayed, angry, and perhaps even vengeful at the sight of our 100 year old windows being so easily destroyed by random acts of vandalism.

Perhaps it is a truism to say that the church is not the building but the community of which the building is a visible sign. That is so. Our building has been a visible sign to our city of the community of Holy Trinity, meeting as the people of God in the midst of the neighbourhood of Old Strathcona. More than this: it is a visible sign of the presence of God’s kingdom in time and space, here and now, a sign that ‘the Word became flesh, and moved into the neighbourhood.’ (John 1:14, The Message)

Our beautiful old building is a way of saying to our neighbourhood, ‘come on in.’ And in coming in people will discover that the community of Holy Trinity is more than the building.

At various times in its history the church of Jesus Christ has existed without buildings, and it may well do so again. The challenge the church faces is to also be visible signs of God’s kingdom outside the security of the building, beyond the building–living windows to the world, if you will.

One way of doing this now is to display the light of Christ in our response to the mischief on our building. Yes, we can (and perhaps should) feel violated about the carelessness of those throwing stones. Yes, we can (and perhaps should) feel angry about the money that will be spent repairing windows before the onset of winter–money that could better have been spent helping the poor. Yes we can (and perhaps should) hope that the police apprehend those who caused the damage.

But we must insist that being windows to the gospel means that the brokenness displayed in our windows can be healed–and so can the broken who throw stones. As embodied stained glass windows who have ourselves been healed in Christ we stand for the justice of restoration, not the justice of retribution. And so we pray for the stone-throwers, that they might be convicted of sin (if not of the crime) and find hope in that which they sought to destroy. In the words of the Apostle:

Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Sermon: Why do Christians work on the sabbath?

Jesus Healing on the Sabbath, Strasbourg Cathedral

Preached at CentrePoint Christian Reformed Church, Edmonton
Sept 2, 2012
Texts: Gen 1:26–2:20; John 20:1–20

Labour issues are in the news. Those of us who love to watch hockey are aware of the millionaire players’ dispute with millionaire owners, with the upcoming season in the balance. It seems the language of unions and management, of lockouts and strikes, has gotten quite ridiculous.

We forget about the conditions 200 years ago that brought about the need for workers (often supported by churches) to unite. Those conditions still exist in other parts of the world. Some of you may have heard about the tragic events in South Africa last month. Striking miners (who extract from the depths of the earth materials that help power our iPhones and tablets), who are paid as little as $500 per month for doing dangerous work, went on strike and were met with a police force that opened fire on them killing 34.

This was a dark day for that country born in the hope of justice, peace, and a better life for all its people. It gives us pause as we think about the dignity of our work on this labour day weekend, and as many of us say goodbye to the recreation of summer and prepare to return to the routines that will take us through fall, winter, and spring.

The Sabbath and the fruit of our labour

The Bible contains the most radical charter for workers. This charter is found in our first reading. It has two components.

First, humans are created with a purpose, a task, a vocation.

This is the concern of the students that are arriving at King’s this week. What is my special task in the world? What will I do with my life?

Genesis tells us that humans have a single task, but one which unfolds in many different areas. That single task is to take care of the creation, to serve and protect it, to tend and nurture it. Creation must not simply exist: it must flower. It’s a task for which we are gifted and equipped. God gives us what we need to sustain us in our task: food and companionship.

There are other gifts as well scripture talks about. Discovering those gifts will set the course for our lives. There are also limits to our calling: things which we cannot do without violating it. If we go beyond these limits–as humans did (and continue to do)–then labour becomes enslavement, flowers become thorns, companionship becomes bondage.

The second thing found in our Genesis reading is a complement to the first. While we are given the vocation to serve creation and in so doing image the creator, our work is not to define our lives. God is not a God who works 24/7. He rests. And we who are created in his image also are created to rest. While our task is to imitate the God who creates, that task is only understood as we rest.

The sabbath becomes so important to Israel that it comes to define who Israel is as a people.
The sabbath taught Israel to trust in the God who provided. Remember the story of the manna in the wilderness? Israel was to gather for six days and rest on the seventh day, trusting that God would provide enough to get them through to the first day. That God was responsible for all they had (and not their own labour) is demonstrated by the prayer found in Deuteronomy 26:

"The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.”

This rhythm of work and rest is something radical in our world today. For consumerism will not let us rest. We are always made restless by the urge to buy the latest app, or trade up to a better car or a bigger home.

The sabbath however was not just a principle for work. Everything was to imitate God’s day of rest, including animals and the land itself which rested every seven years. Again there was the principle of trust: Israel had to trust that God would give them enough of a harvest during the sixth year to get them through to the first of the new cycle.

The principle of Jubilee took this idea to the greatest length. Every seven sabbath years slaves were to be released, debts were to be cancelled, and the land returned to its original owner if a family had fallen into hard times. This reboot of the whole economic system was to prevent injustice from reigning in the land.

Of course, Israel did not in fact practice jubilee, and that’s why they went into exile. The land “expelled” them in order to rest. But they hoped for God to intervene and bring jubilee himself. This was the acceptable year of the Lord that Jesus proclaimed in his first sermon: that in his ministry the sabbath would be truly fulfilled.

And so it was. Jesus fed, healed, and restored the poor, the sick, and the hungry. He welcomed the stranger and outcast to his table–even when it seemed he was violating the law, even when it seemed he was violating the sabbath. In truth, he was giving the sabbath its true meaning.

The Lord’s Day and the labour of the Kingdom

So then why do Christians work on the sabbath and worship on the Lord’s day? This question might surprise some of you. After all, isn’t the Lord’s day the same as the sabbath?


The sabbath is the seventh day of the week. Just as it brought the week of God’s creation to a close, so it brings the work week to a close. It was a day to rest, to reflect, to give thanks.
But nowhere in the New Testament are Christians told to keep the sabbath. Of the ten commandments, every one (understood in the light of the Gospel) is repeated in the New Testament… except the fourth.

This brings us to our second reading.

In chapter 20 of his Gospel, John takes great pains to emphasize the significance of the day on which Jesus rose. Twice he calls it “the first day”.

Two scenes take place on this first day: in the morning when the disciples discover Jesus is risen, and the evening when the disciples discover Jesus standing in their midst. In between these is the encounter with Mary Magdalene that we read.

Now John knows his Bible, and he especially knows Genesis. He begins his gospel with the same words that Genesis begins with: “in the beginning.” However, his retelling of Genesis talks about the Word who was with God in the beginning, the Word who became flesh in Jesus Christ.
Genesis tells us that it was dark on the first day when light burst forth at God’s command. John tells us that in Jesus Christ the light came into the world.

And yet the world rejected the Word.

So when on the sixth day of the week Pilate parades Jesus before the crowds and says, “behold the Man”! he’s echoing both the creation of humans as God’s image and the rejection of God’s image by humans.

Jesus is crucified on that sixth day. His life ends with the words: “it is finished” (the same words that marked the completion of creation in Genesis). And on the seventh day, the sabbath, Jesus is resting in the tomb. The old creation is now finished.

And now… the first day of the new week. As I said, Jesus appears twice. He appears first to Mary, who doesn’t recognize him as the Jesus she knew, but as the gardener. How sad, we think, that in her grief she is unable to see such a wondrous thing. However, as Tom Wright says,

“Mary’s intuitive guess, that he must be the gardener, was deeply right at another level. ‘Behold the man’! Here he is: the New Adam, the gardener, charged with bringing creation into new order, into its flower, its fruitfulness. He has come to uproot the thorns and thistles and replace them with flowers and harvests.” (John for Everyone, 146)

When Jesus appears later to the disciples, who had gathered on that first day in a secret place, his first word is “peace”, “shalom”, wholeness and healing to them. Just as he announced a new beginning to Mary, so he does to his church. They are to be the people who bring the blessing of God to creation. As they are from the dust of the old creation, Jesus breathes on them the Holy Spirit–-yet one more reference to Genesis. Just as God’s breath made Adam a living being in the first creation so Jesus’ breath made the church alive again to the new creation.

So the day of resurrection is the first day of a new week–-a week that begins a new creation. And on the first day of this new week of creation (and in the early church this happened at sunrise) Christians gather to remember that for them the new creation is here. We gather to hear the blessing of peace, shalom, wholeness. We gather to receive the Holy Spirit to empower our work in the world.

But what about the sabbath principle?

While it’s clear that Saturday as a day of rest seems to have lost its place, the early church most certainly practiced sabbath in their life together.They shared all they had, putting their possessions, the fruit of their labour, into a common pool which was distributed to anyone who had need. And the Jewish emphasis on gathering in worship and making offerings shifted from the last to the first day of the week (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 16:2).

It’s plain that they were in fact “keeping the sabbath”, but they were emphasising less the day and more the reality to which the day pointed.

Keeping the Sabbath Today

How do we then “keep the sabbath”?

My mother grew up in a strict Presbyterian home where all the cooking was done on Saturday evening. Was that “keeping the sabbath?”
When I first encountered Christian Reformed people I knew them as those who refused to go to Swiss Chalet on Sundays. Was that keeping the sabbath?

Today in our church I know parents who struggle with their kids playing sports on Sundays. Is that keeping the sabbath?

These are not bad things to do–as long as the rest of the week we live as in the Kingdom of God and its justice. It is possible to strictly enforce Sunday as a day of rest, as did many of those who kept slaves in the old South, and live the rest of one’s life as violation of the Sabbath. And there are contemporary examples of slavery, not least our support for companies that force their employees to labour under inhumane conditions–such as the miners of Marikana.

The everyday choices we make determine whether or not we are truly keeping the sabbath.

Christians–those who have been baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection–are to be signs of a different world, a new age. And we bear witness “as the father sent Jesus” even amidst the decay, the devastation, the injustice of the old creation.

N.T. Wright suggests that if we see the old creation as brought to a close in the death of Jesus and his resting in the tomb, and if we see the new creation as coming with the resurrection of Jesus, then challenging ourselves to live into this new creation should mark the Lord’s day.

Every day is the Lord’s day for Christians, because every day carries the call to do sabbath justice, mercy, and healing.

But just like it’s helpful to take one day out of the year to honour those who labour, so one day in seven we focus on how the resurrection of Jesus Christ has brought the new creation into being, that in him we are a new creation, and that we are called to bear witness in our work to a world still suffering.

The Lord’s day should be a day where we call the world to get ready for the coming justice of God.

That the world of work contains people who dispute over millions while others enslave themselves to bring bread and water to their families tells us that the old creation of thorns and thistles remains. That the miners at Marikana and so many others in our world don’t experience the blessings of sabbath should mark the day as a day of lament, but also as a day of provocation where we commit ourselves again to repent and take action.

But it should also be a day of joy where we give thanks for the provision of God–a joy that should inflect our own work throughout the coming new week.

Our work, after all, is from and for a new creation.


Coming Home, or How I Became an Anglican

With the choir at St. Mary’s Anglican Church, Stellenbosch, South Africa

Like almost everyone in Belfast, Northern Ireland, the city of my birth, I was baptized as an infant. But by my teens I had rejected church as being an outdated relic at best and a source of violent conflict at worst. It was a something called “the Jesus Movement” of the 1970s that drew me into the Christian fold. But this was a kind of Christianity that had little time for the institutional church. At our home Bible studies and prayer meetings we would call mainline denominations “dead” and Pentecostals and evangelicals “compromised”. That’s where I began.

So how did I wind up at an Anglican Church?

Like many small sects our group was eventually torn apart by divisions over leadership. We drifted from place to place afterward, trying this church and that. I spent time in Presbyterianism and Pentecostalism before wandering into an Anglican church in downtown Toronto at the age of 28.

What did I find there? Well, there were many things I was used to in other churches, especially the rhythm of singing, listening, then singing again. There was prayer for members of the congregation, for the community, and for the world. There was special music. There was an offering. Like the Pentecostal church, the momentum of the service was toward the congregation coming forward, gathering around a table (called an “altar”), and receiving a special gift from God. Everything, the songs, the readings, the preaching, reached a climax at that moment. Like the Presbyterian church, the building and the ministers wore special, seasonal colours. The readings were also tied to the special calendar used by Christians. But I especially enjoyed the way the service appealed to my body, to my senses, like in Pentecostal worship, rather than to my ears and intellect, as did the Presbyterian. People were worshipping with gestures, responding physically to what was being said and done by the leaders. Bowing and kneeling, making the sign of the cross, raising hands to receive the bread and the wine–all these things communicated more than words. Something was going on in the service that, while fascinating, couldn’t be captured by rational thought. It was a drama, and I found myself caught up in it.

But most of all, what struck me in the Anglican church was the sense of being part of a community greater than the local church–a community that had existed, and would continue to exist, across time and space. This idea of being enfolded in a larger community is called “catholicity”, and it was brought to my attention most powerfully in two experiences.

The first happened on February 11, 1990. That was the date Nelson Mandela walked free from Victor Verster prision in South Africa. I had followed events in South Africa closely for several years, especially the involvement of the churches in supporting or resisting apartheid. Like many around the world, I was glued to my TV, waiting for the moment when this icon of the freedom struggle would emerge from twenty-seven years of confinement. That morning I went to church, where the lectionary reading (the passage of the Bible Anglicans around the world would read that day) was from Isaiah 58. The preacher talked about the significance of “breaking the chains” and “setting the oppressed free” on this particular Sunday, and that in Anglican churches throughout the world (and especially in South Africa) this same text was being read. Like the ancient Jews, South Africans were finally coming out of exile. “Today, this scripture is being fulfilled in your hearing.” And the church around the world was bearing witness.

I also thought of the visible, public role of the Anglican church in South Africa, and another icon, Desmond Tutu, who played emcee to Mandela’s welcome to Cape Town. While the history of the church has had its low points, it certainly felt good and right to be part of that global event.

The second experience happened about five years later. Again it involved South Africa. This time I found myself sitting in an Anglican church adjacent to the campus of the University of Cape Town. It was a Sunday evening student service, and most of the congregants in the small gathering were African. As the liturgy reached the point where the Lord’s Prayer (the “our Father”) was said, the priest invited each of us to pray in his or her own mother tongue. It was something that took me out of my shoes and transported me to heaven. For there were seven or eight distinctive languages being spoken among the fifteen of us. Yet we were each praying the same prayer. Unlike in my Pentecostal experience (which was the closest I’ve come to something similar) these were not “ecstatic utterances”. They were real, empirical languages, the native language of each pray-er. I thought of this church which speaks so many languages, and exists in so many different places and among so many different cultures. And yet we were all gathered together here and now, in one accord–just like the early church on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2).

It was in South Africa, at that service, that I finally felt I’d come home to the church. Not long after this, I asked the priest to confirm me as an Anglican.

And I’ve never looked back. In my studies I have learned the reasons for my experience, and the theology behind them. I have experienced more and different kinds of Anglicanism, from smoky high to low charismatic, from activist liberal to old-money conservative. I have worshipped accompanied by pipe organs and choirs in one place, and by drums and marimbas in another–all using the same prayer book. I have learned how many of the prayers and practices in that book are shared across the communion and go right back to the very beginnings of Christianity. What holds us together is not a confession (as in the Presbyterian or Reformed traditions) nor a statement of faith (as in the Pentecostal or evangelical churches), but a way of worship. It’s primarily what we do, rather than what we think, that makes us Anglicans.

But that said, I’ve also come to a new appreciation of other Christian traditions, including those I previously was involved with. One of the characteristics of Anglicanism is “the middle way” between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, honouring the truth as it is found throughout the Christian world. We all make up the church, which in the creed is called “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic”. Coming home doesn’t mean finally finding the Truth absent in other churches, but rather a place where God’s movement to heal creation has become especially welcome for me.

We all need such a place.

Since moving to Edmonton in 2004, Holy Trinity has been my home parish. It embraces much of the diversity I’ve experienced in Anglican churches around the world. On any given Sunday you might hear folk-blues or choir and organ. Our congregation includes artists and university professors, stay-at-home parents and businesspeople, labourers and baristas. If the Anglican tradition brought me home to the church, Holy Trinity has been home in Edmonton. I hope you find that, or will find it, true as well.

Sermon: Competing for a Kingdom

This sermon was preached at CentrePoint Christian Reformed Church, August 12, 2012.


For the past two weeks the eyes of the world have been on London. Unlike the soccer World Cup where everyone plays the same game, the Olympics features a great diversity of games and an even greater number of participants from across the globe.

These games are more than a game. They are enfolded within the most memorable of liturgies in which all contestants participate: the torch relay, the procession of the nations each under their own banner, the reciting of the Olympic creed, the lighting of the Olympic flame, and the rewarding of successful contestants with gold, silver, and bronze medals.

This morning I want to ask three questions:
1. what do the Olympics say about our world?
2. what does the Gospel of Jesus Christ say about the Olympics?
3. what do the Olympics say to those of us who are followers of Jesus Christ?

1 What do the Olympics say about our world?

The Olympics as a whole, the fierce competition and the wondrous spectacle, the commercial hype and the patriotic pride, show us a divided world that longs to come together in a common cause, a violent world that longs for peaceful resolution of conflict, and a broken world in which the strong, the beautiful, the skilled are singled out as stand-ins–and inspiration–for ordinary people. The Olympics suspends the ordinary for two weeks every four years, showing us a vision of another world. Each event within this whole contains, in the words of London bid chair Sebastian Coe, “all that matters in life”.

At least that’s the way the Olympics is presented to us.

At a deeper level, the Olympics is a gospel. It proclaims the good news of peace in which wars are suspended. It announces happiness and joy to all humankind. It heralds the reign of an ideal–for a time. The Olympics is a gospel for athletes who aspire to commune with Olympians of the past, to participate publicly in their glory. Such an opportunity presents itself rarely in an athlete’s career. But most of all the Olympics is a gospel for nations. In the Olympics we see ourselves reflected back as members of nations. It is where the pride of nations is displayed, where nations compete for supremacy, not on the battlefield but in the sporting arena.

Like every gospel, the Olympics tells a story, a story which begins with nations divided internally by competing interests among the population and externally by rivalries and wars. Conflict is the character of our world. But this character is suspended by an agreement every four years to exchange wars for friendly games. The effects of this suspension include national unity and pride, the working together towards the more benign goal of “owning the podium”.

So the Olympics tells a story which begins with war but ends in hope–that in four years time the nations of the world will once again find the courage to accept the invitation to lay down their weapons, and to convert dangerous animosity into friendly competition. Implied but not stated is the ultimate hope, that there might come a time when there would be no need for an Olympiad to suspend war, but that peace and justice would reign over the world.

The modern games is based on the ancient practice of gathering athletes across the Hellenistic and Roman empires. The ancient games was banned by the Christian emperor Theodosius in the fourth century because of its pagan associations. The modern Olympic revival dates to the late nineteenth century. It was an educationist named Pierre de Coubertin who saw organized sports as a way of building national character and peaceful relations through friendly competition. This modern ideal employs the ancient games as a means to these ends. And so from the first games in 1896 the gospel of the Olympics has made itself visible in modern rituals with an ancient feel. In fact, the mythology of the Olympics is so successful that we rarely pause to consider where these ceremonies come from.

The answers may be surprising.

The lighting of the Olympic torch for example dates only to 1928, as does the tradition of the nation of Greece entering first. The memory of the Greeks (associated with the dawn of civilization) links past and present. So also does the procession of the torch from Olympia, the site of the ancient games, to the present site. Shaped by Hitler’s propaganda machine and documented in Leni Reifenstahl’s Olympia, the torch relay was first staged at Berlin in 1936. It was a powerful acknowledgement of the ancient, pagan ideals the games embodied.

The Olympic rings were also exploited by Nazi propaganda, even though their adoption in 1912 was to represent the global community. The Olympic creed and the Olympic motto are the creation of de Coubertin himself, first appearing in 1908. The motto Citius, Altius, Fortius (“faster, higher, stronger”) captures well the idea of progress in our modern world, the idea that highlights our obsession with breaking records. Perhaps this is why so many of the Olympics’ corporate sponsors make use of it. But the motto is also in tension with the creed of the games, which says it’s not about winning, but about competing. The creed of course has also evolved with the times, and now takes into account the problem of corruption of officials (remember Sale and Pelletier?) and doping (remember Ben Johnson?). Guided by an ever-evolving creed, the Olympic ideal must be maintained in a world ever able to find new ways of subverting it.

2 What does the gospel of Jesus Christ say about the Olympics?

And so when the Chair of the London bid committee Sebastian Coe told the gathered nations at the recent opening ceremonies that sport has a kind of purity [or holiness] and that in each event was contained all that mattered in life, he was preaching a gospel. But this is a gospel different to the gospel of Jesus Christ. For the gathering of the nations to play games not make war always takes place in the midst of conflict. Think of the boycotts of the 1970s, where African countries refused to share the Olympic peace with New Zealand for its sporting friendliness with apartheid South Africa. Think of the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Moscow games after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and the reprisal at Los Angeles in 1984. In London, the refusal by the International Olympic Committee to acknowledge the anniversary of the greatest violation of the Olympic peace 40 years ago during the ceremonies was telling, as was the fact that the games had to be protected by a blanket of security and a mobilization of troops the scale of which had not been seen in decades.

All these things demonstrate the gospel of the Olympics as a faint echo of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Finally, the Olympics forms a piece with the greatest mass religion of modern times: the religion of consumerism. And so the participation we are encouraged towards is not only to run faster like Usain Bolt, or to score more goals like Christine Sinclair, but to watch them while consuming pseudo-food like Big Macs bought with our Visa card, and washed down with stomach-rotting Coca Cola!

The gospel of Jesus Christ also imagines the nations uniting, not on Mt Olympus but on God’s holy mountain. Isaiah 60 and Revelation 20 speak of a gathering of nations that begins with the gathering of the people of God, a people who are defined not by the banner or flag they carry, but by their membership in the covenant. This is a gathering not to watch people striving for faster, higher, and stronger feats, but to worship. This is a gathering not to mark an Olympiad, but the sabbath rest of God, now extended to all creation. The light of this New Jerusalem shines brighter than the glitter of London or any other Olympic venue. The nations are drawn to this light, to this city which has no need for police protection. There they bring their treasures as an offering to the God of creation.

The gospel of Jesus Christ also gives us a vision of peace. But this is not a peace created by wars that end war, nor does it need to be enforced by the armies of empire. In fact, it is a peace that reverses the normal course of the world’s affairs. It is a peace that comes at the very moment human violence and folly reaches its peak. It is a peace in the aftermath of which the strong and the swift, the rich and the powerful take second place to those they have oppressed and exploited.

This gathering is blessed with these words: “I will appoint Peace as your overseer and Righteousness as your taskmaster. Violence shall no more be heard in your land, devastation or destruction within your borders; you shall call your walls Salvation, and your gates Praise.” (Isaiah 60: 17b–18) Peace comes as a gift to those who wait with patience, dedication, and discipline. It comes as the overturning of oppression. Again the memory of enslavement is central, the terms “overseer” and “taskmaster” recall Israel’s experience prior to the Exodus.

In ancient times, the arena was a site for the supreme demonstration of the pax Romana–the peace of Rome that kept its provinces under its thumb. The gospel of Jesus Christ also creates a great arena for people to be involved. But this is not a gathering of spectators, but of participants. This brings us to the second scripture reading, which I’ll come to in a moment.

But first let me reiterate: the gospel of Jesus Christ affirms the desires present in the Olympics. The desires for unity, participation, and peace are good things, implanted by the image of God. But while these desires are displayed by the Olympics, they cannot be fulfilled in the Olympics. The true signs and wonders that accompany the spectacle of the reconciliation of the nations are not laser shows, fireworks, and death-defying stunts (not even Queen Elizabeth and James Bond together jumping from a helicopter), but the ultimate wonders of resurrection and new life.

3 What do the Olympics say to us?

In the ancient world, sports and worship simply went hand-in-hand, as did athletics and war. The games were accompanied by hymns of praise and sacrifices to their patron–Zeus / Jupiter in the case of the Olympics. This is why the ancient Jews were very suspicious of sports: they were inseparably linked to idolatry.

But this didn’t mean that the New Testament writers weren’t above using the games as examples of Christian life in the world, or the athlete as a model for discipleship. Of course in doing this they changed the story which the games told, the nature of its setting, and the rituals which communicated its goals.

So the letter to the Hebrews imagines faithful discipleship as a race run before spectators. But the spectators are not passive consumers of the spectacle. They are those who have run before us, who have finished the race, and who now await us in glory. Those who have gone before us are also around us and ahead of us.

What does the athlete model for us?
– focused training and preparation
– self discipline and dedication to a single goal
– cooperation and awareness of playing a role on a team (something different to the ancient world–but reflected in what Paul will say about the body of Christ).

For Paul, the athlete is the one who gives up their rights for the sake of attaining the prize, but who also must run in a certain way in order not to be disqualified. The virtues of preparation and self-discipline are not only for athletes, nor even for apostles. They are for all of us who are in pursuit of the Kingdom of God through following Jesus Christ.

They are exemplified not in those who run faster, who jump higher, who prove themselves stronger, but
– in the man who leaves his wealth and privilege to serve with dedication the poor of his community
– in the grandmother who perserveres in courage to care for HIV-positive children in South Africa
– in the church whose witness to the truth leads it to take a risk in opposing unjust laws, bearing the violence of the state on its shoulders.

These will not receive perishable gold, silver, or bronze medals, but a greater, imperishable prize.


You and I this morning are invited into this communion, this peace as we lay old ways aside, old habits that prevent us from running well and as we take on new ways that point us in the direction of the imperishable wreath of God’s destiny for us. This is what the Olympics shows us, and the gospel of Jesus Christ allows us to live into. May we all take this challenge to heart as we go forth to serve his Kingdom this week.


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The Truce of God 3: “Illusions of Peace”

The “illusions of peace” Williams speaks of concern peace either as escape from engagement with the other, or as an equilibrium which fears real engagement lest war break out. The former is typified in the hippie movement of the sixties; the latter by the nuclear detente ensured by the Cold War. In both cases the casualty is language, which ceases to be communication woven into genuine human exchange (where those involved give and receive, thereby opening and expanding their horizons) and becomes slogan. When pursuing peace becomes repetition of catchphrases (“All we are saying, is give peace a chance”) or bureaucratic doublespeak (“destroying the village in order to save it“), discourse has shut down. We live in “unreality”, which for Williams means to live in privacy, in an “impregnable castle of cliche and repetition” (53).

The legacy of lost discourse remains with us in a post-Cold War world, perhaps captured in a common mistake my students make when they write “pacifism” as “passive-ism”. Peace means maintaining the status quo, refusing to act with a decisiveness that challenges the grain of society, or that places the self at risk. And so Williams writes of “a miserable link between militarized politics, consumer society, the corruption and decline of the arts, and the cheapening and trivializing of language—in politics, journalism, advertising, and worship.” (55)

Against peace as “intensified withdrawal”, Williams offers a surprising counter: the cloister. Not the romanticized cloister of popular fiction and singing nuns, but rather the cloister that “abandons privacy for a solitude which forces people to confront their fear and evasiveness and so equips them for involvement by a stripping down of the will.… having shed the impulses to self-protection and self-gratification which limit and distort its horizon.” (63) Williams recounts a story from Dom Hubert van Zeller: “a North Welsh convent where the garden gate had at some point in its chequered career been reversed—so that the side facing inwards now read ‘Private’ in large letters. The cloister was being warned to keep its distance from the privacy of the world.” (63) The point is that the world is a place of “isolated existence, fear of facing the cost of decision and involvement—haunted by the fantasy of ‘peace’.

The church faces its own temptations to withdrawal. Even the self-consciously prophetic church, can become “an impregnable castle” when its social engagement manifests a fondness for generalized denunciations”, launching missives from a comfortable distance (64). It will take distance from the world, but from “the tight huddle of fear, where people cling together to feed each other’s fantasies”, from “the decayed and corrupting language of self-justifying and self-perpetuating cliques”, and from “the manipulations and distortions of a self incapable of opening up to others.” (64)

Returning to the cloister, the three classic monastic practices: solitude, silence, and contemplation are necessary to create space for new patterns of community, speech, and action (65). This is indeed a kind of death, but one that “redraws the boundaries” of what a genuinely human life is: a life conformed to the pattern revealed in Jesus (65).

I’m put in mind of two rather extreme figures: Paul Tillich, who once said that the best thing the church of his day [1950s America] could do would be to renounce speech for a time, and Sting, who penned the immortal lines

poets, priests and politicians / have words to thank for their positions / words that scream for your submission / no-one’s jamming their transmission / when their eloquence escapes you / their logic ties you up and rapes you / da do do do, de da da da / is all I want to say to you.

OK, so repeating nonsense syllables to the powers that be is not exactly responsible protest politics, and the line

[words] are only cheques I’ve left unsigned / from the banks of chaos in my mind

is a little two nihlistic for my tastes. (Williams has an interesting paragraph in which he, via Thomas Merton, speculates on the pervasiveness of “speaking in tongues” amongst conservatives at times of social crisis that may well echo Sting’s sentiments here (54–55).) What is one to do “when language takes a holiday”? Perhaps silence is better than speaking. And silence can be its own eloquent protest—I’m thinking of the refusal of Bishop Barnabas Legkanyane at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1997—interrupting discourses that are so “word heavy” that they risk falling into the kind of ideology Williams warns against.

Silence as a way of non-violent protest, and as clearing space for the renewal of discourse, is an interesting idea. What kind of liturgical shape would such silence take? How would we worship without words? And what then would be the shape of “the peace of Christ” that we’d exchange? For that, we have to wait for the next chapter, entitled “Not as the World Gives.”

The Truce of God 2: “The Truce of God”

“The truce of God” was instituted by the Cluny monastery in medieval times. It sought to restrict the fighting amongst Christians to three days per week. Sound ridiculous? Well, that’s the point: Christians taking communion and then turning and fighting each other is ridiculous (25). “When King Henry II refused to give the kiss of peace at Mass to Thomas Beckett, he was a better theologian than he knew. He recognized that giving the kiss would not only suggest he was at peace with Thomas (which he was not), but would also commit him to seeking peace (which he did not want to do).” (26)

The suspension of hostilities is something that goes beyond governing Christians’ relations with Christians, however. For the call of God is extended to all humanity, and thus the church doesn’t know where its ultimate boundaries will lie. “The Church proclaims that there is one human destiny and that is found in relation to one focal figure, Jesus; but also that what this human destiny means cannot be worked out without ‘communion’, a relation of costly and profound involvement with each other and receiving from each other.” (27) Hence the church lives to unsettle [by its very nature], living in “creative dissatisfaction” as “a compelling symbol of a humanity able to live by sharing and by loving, reverent mutual attention” (29). And hence the church, as sacrament of common human destiny, is catholic. “It strives to show and interpret and share the gifts of one person or group or nation, offering them to all; and to each, it offers the resources of all.” (31) The church represents that future “given coherence by Jesus, in which each human partner in communion has a distinct and unrepeatable gift to share, and cannot therefore be ignored or discounted.” (39)

It is this which opposes, in political policy, any situation of “balance of terror”, that “the welfare of some may rightly be secured by the dispensability of others.” (38) Williams develops this by looking at the price paid by the world (especially Africa and Latin America, for the “peace” brought to the West through nuclear détente, the MADness of mutually assured destruction. The sixties and seventies should have been the decades of development and responsible government for newly de-colonized Africa, for instance. Instead, Africa became a site where the conflict of East and West was displaced in endless, bloody local conflicts (37).

How does the church bear witness to this future? Through [a good Williams word] “attentiveness”, [be]holding the other in contemplation. This is a theologically rooted and ethically directed contemplation. Contemplation is what is owed to God, and to other creatures: to God “because he is inexhaustibly what he is, resisting capture and analysis, always more, always further” (39); to creatures [which bear witness to God] which take us beyond the power of the ego to control through “rendering”, and which cannot be reduced to “our plans, projects and expectations” (39). That which is not reducible to human control bears witness to the Transcendent.

But contemplation is also God’s way with creation. “Creation is there because of the limitless capacity of God for contemplation—allowing the other to be, and engaging with the other, shaping a common story of God and the world, a shared ‘drama’.” (40) But God does not engage with creation out of need, for God’s love (contemplation) is his nature. And what for God “is nature, for us is destiny, vocation.” We are the image of God the creator, in time, while at the same time we have to grow into this image by living in a creation which “delights and assaults” us in its mystery, and by living in “a world of persons in which we can be invited to love by finding ourselves the objects of love, where we learn contemplative attention as we ourselves are attended to.” (41)

We can, however, also deny creatureliness in “a struggle to remake the world around [the] self”, to refuse the network of mutually supporting relationships (42). Beyond this stands “the privacy of Satan”, “diabolic detachment” (43), and at the limit “the Luciferian impulse to destroy reality for my sake” (42)—or suicide. This satanic “freedom” is actually bondage [a freedom to violate]. God’s freedom “is seen in the creation of bonds and networks of sharing, making a world which he wills, in Jesus and in his Church, to be engaged.” (43) To learn this kind of freedom and to refuse the other requires “the patience of attentive love.” (43)

This is quite a powerful chapter. It reminds me of what attracts me most to Williams: his ability to take essentially Augustinian themes [e.g. the complex relation between contemplatio, caritas and eros] and to present them in [nearly?] un-Platonized ways, but ways also profound for understand the church and the world. He also refuses recourse to political pragmatism or Niebuhrian realism [and if ever there was a case to prove that Reinhold Niebuhr misreads Augustine, it’s in this chapter], choosing instead to interpret the world in the light of its destiny in Christ. “Nuclear peace” [the peace of Mutually Assured Destruction] is wrong because it violates our destiny given in Christ, and makes impossible the kind of life the church is called to bear witness to.

I think one can also read the struggles of the Anglican communion here, as Christians particularly from the global South anathematize their brothers and sisters from the global North, and vice versa. In his response to our Anglican “wars of religion” Williams’ strategy has been to try to do two things [arguably neither particularly well]: (1) hold the different parts of the church together, compelling them to listen to each other (because the catholic vision says each has a gift that the other needs); (2) acknowledge the giftedness of all individual members of the church, especially those silenced (gays in particular). He’s been accused of “selling out the cause” by liberals in not pushing through the progressive agenda he championed in the 1990s. I don’t think this criticism is fair. His critics also complain that (2) is being sacrificed for the sake of (1). And in this criticism they’re not wrong, in my opinion. Learning “the patience of attentive love” is a [life]long and excruciating [and note well the etymology of that word!] at times difficult process. Is it also exclusionary? Can we learn “the patience of attentive love” in a covenant where an inner, conservative circle is separated from an outer, liberal circle?

That’s the question we can only answer in hindsight as a communion. Living in media res can be a bummer.

The Truce of God 1: Fears and Fantasies

This is the first in a series of summary reflections on Rowan Williams’ classic The Truce of God. This work was originally written as The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book, 1983 (when Robert Runcie held the See), and was revised in 2005 during +Rowan’s early tenure. I’m essentially posting my own notes on each chapter, along with reflections on how the book seems fresh and relevant now, and for the church in South Africa.

The book begins with myriad examples of pop culture’s obsession with the “monster” which unleashes violence and chaos on an otherwise innocent world. This monster can take many forms. So we have nature being itself, and humans tempting it (e.g. Jaws), and nature being out-of-control and invading human space (e.g. King Kong). And we have humans: sometimes in the grips of the supernatural (e.g. The Exorcist) or otherwise out-of-control or irrational (e.g. terrorists–both in the news and in the movies), and other times victims of their own technological creativity.

Williams extrapolates from all this the idea that “we” (and he means “we in the west”) feel or fear ourselves deeply bereft of agency. We sense we are passive victims of our own power (you just had to go into that water, didn’t you?), and that the world “outside” has responded to our power with threat—threat which has forced us against our better nature [because we really do see ourselves as basically peaceful and good] to arm ourselves to the teeth. As Williams comments, “… we are deeply determined to imagine violence as something whose origins lie outside ourselves, so that we can maintain some belief in our innocence. But the price of this is a real uneasiness and confusion about what we can and cannot do, about the nature of our power and freedom.” (Williams:17–18) Hence our fear… and our security gates, razor wire, and “Pasop!” signs.

Behind our fear lies what Williams terms a “sickness of the spirit”. The Gospel diagnoses such sickness, and gives hope through the possibility of repentance and conversion, which means “retriev[ing] the vision of one’s own responsibility, and [learning] to look with critical openness at one’s life and the shared life of society” (Williams:21). The embodiment of this possibility is the church: “the rationale of the Church’s life is irreducibly a matter of showing the results of an act of divine reconciliation in terms of a distinctive kind of community.” (Williams:23) Of course, the church fails at this, and “its own internal life is regularly the site of bitter and divisive conflict”, while “its interventions in the public square … are readily characterized (and written off) as both abstract and amateur.” (Williams:23) But since the existence of the church is itself a challenge to “fatalism and false claims to power”, so Williams will undertake in the rest of the book to show why this is, and what it asks of believers (Williams:24).

I think ‘sickness of the spirit’ is a good diagnosis of the passivity I’ve observed (and listened to) amongst many South Africans. Granting some significant exceptions, whites have yet to come to see their responsibility for the past. In a strange way, the mirror of their fears is the “bling culture” they disparage among the new elite (and the bulletproof Mercedes’ that whisk the President to and from state occasions in high speed, “blue light” convoys). All the while they can see the legacy of apartheid continue to ring the suburbs with shacks. What you hear from whites is a deep sense of powerlessness in opulence (economist Sampie Terreblanche at a conference here in Stellenbosch a couple of weeks argued that things have never been better for white South Africans economically, and that they have benefited enormously from the settlement of 1990-94).

I think the churches here (but not only here) have failed to embody the kind of community that challenges fatalism. In a society where still most people seem to live in what theologian Dirkie Smit once called “different symbolic universes”, the church is called to provide the means to encounter others in truth–even if that truth is disturbing. Or as another theologian, Nico Koopman, said a couple of days ago, the church should be a space where “proximity” to the other challenges reigning social constructions. Alas the churches I’ve visited during this trip (black and white) remain monolithic in terms of class or colour. So how does one “re-boot” the church?

The challenge to genuine encounter with the other is more than simply an intellectual call. I feel the paradox in myself: I occupy a place not untypical of whites here, safely ensconced behind a security gate in a flat with a wonderful view of the mountains. Yet with all that, I experience a greater sense of anxiety than I do in living in Edmonton (you just had to go out last night, didn’t you?). This is a sick society, and I also am sick. What remedy will Williams offer?