Lessons On The Way 4: Tables and chairs are spiritual

“When do you discuss the drains?”

It’s a strange question to lodge in my mind a good few years later.

It was voiced in a room full of us who were training for full-time for ministry in the church. The class in question was, I think, supposed to be teaching us about the nuts-and-bolts aspects of leadership. A local minister was leading the session, and the questioner (not me) was asking a perfectly reasonable and sensible question. When and how do you take decisions to do with buildings and maintenance and technicalities?

There lies behind that question a strong and often verbalised feeling, one with which I fully identify. Namely that those of us who are chosen from within the church to lead churches are usually neither able to address, nor enjoy dealing with, such things.  So when and how do I deal with these parts of church life which are unavoidable but in relation to which I am neither passionate nor gifted?

One way we’ve tried to deal with this at the church I currently lead (a small-medium sized church in urban Cape Town, South Africa) is to do something that first seems to be counter-intuitive: we’ve created more committees. These are all sub-committees of the church council with at least one member of the council on them. Anyone who’s interested in or able in these areas can join them. I am on three or four of them. I don’t touch finance or buildings and maintenance. I just stay in touch as I need to. The result is that I’m much less stressed, more gets done and more members of the church are involved with different parts of the church’s life. It’s by no means a perfect system, but it’s working well for us now in this season.

We can’t, though, avoid everything we don’t enjoy. As our church council meeting came up last week, I glanced at the agenda and realised with a sinking heart that we’d be most likely spending a long time discussing things like tables and chairs. I sighed. I don’t lead council meetings (another decision that has been good for all of us; the woman who leads the meeting is really good at doing so) and I knew we needed to talk about these things. I could just see, however, the tedium coming down the track towards me.

So much for that. What I got was a deep and rich experience of the Holy Spirit; the chairs and tables put us on holy ground.

Our church is located in one of those areas of Cape Town which was affected by the Group Areas Act, one of the legal planks of apartheid which zoned cities by skin colour and forcibly moved black and coloured people to less desirable areas exposed to the elements and with less access to basic amenities. White people had the pick of what remained. One of the few things those removed could still do was travel to their parish church, even if they’d been forcibly removed long distances. So they did that  – taking unreliable public transport every Sunday morning to the place of worship of their choice. Apartheid may be long dead, but the symptoms remain. Still these people and their descendants travel to their family’s church. Apartheid couldn’t stop them, so nothing else will.

There was no great resistance to replacing the tables and chairs. They’re heavy and unwieldy, recognised as impractical for our needs. The chairs have been there longer than a parishioner who’s been worshipping in this church for over 50 years. What was an issue was what to do with the chairs – made from fine quality wood, they’re in good condition even now. There was talk of selling them for scrap for the price of the wood; the response to that was that we need to make sure they went somewhere they were wanted or needed  – or if we couldn’t find such a place, sell them for scrap and donate the receipts to a church or project with which we are in relationship.

Throughout the meeting stories were told and barriers broken through – people talked about the past and the future, with hope and expectation as well as holy trepidation. It was only after the meeting, in conversation with one person, that the penny finally dropped for me. People who had experienced forced removal from their homes were now rightly seeking to ensure that the chairs and tables, part of their church throughout much of apartheid, were not also forcibly removed. Their removal needed to be positive – not just to make way for an incomer. In the course of the conversation lights went on throughout my mind, scanning the history of our 4 years here, seeing the same theme pop up. Forced removals – named or not – remain a scar which is still visible.

A while back a tentative plan was made to have some days of story-telling in the church; getting the saints young and old to relate the joys and sorrows of life, capturing the triumphs of grace that make up our church’s life. Two weeks ago we had arranged a date for the first of these days; no sooner is it in the church diary then this happens. Chairs, tables, drains and bank balances in 2014 merging with the first-time expressions of hurts and injustices long since past but very  much alive.

Few of us who lead and work around churches decided to do so because we are interested in or capable in relation to tables and chairs, spreadsheets and budgets, drains and kitchens. We were set aside for the divine, devoted to the spiritual. Or so we like to think. Much to our embarrassment, it turns out that everything is spiritual, that as one theologian put it:

Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’ (Abraham Kuyper)

Christ is all in all; everything, everywhere. He is unavoidable, inescapable. Even in the tables and chairs and spreadsheets and drains.

It’s not wrong to encourage those who are good at these things to deal with such matters; if they suck the life from you, don’t do them if it all possible. They’ll get done better and quicker if I’m not involved. Never assume, though, that where you are is spiritual. It is spiritual, of course. So is everything and everywhere else. Even if we don’t like it, even if the very thought of it makes my heart heavy. It’s still spiritual, and touching it may be the gateway for Christ’s good work.

It shouldn’t surprise us that tables and chairs lead us to be seated on holy ground. After all, our central act of worship is a meal.

Are you on holy ground?

Also in this series: 

3: The dangers and offensiveness of grace

2: How to make sure you church leader doesn’t turn into a psychopath

1: I don’t have to do it all

Redeeming The Past by Michael Lapsley

Michael Lapsley is a white Anglican priest from New Zealand who became embroiled in the anti-apartheid struggle when his order sent him there in 1973. By his own admission he was a difficult character, one whose strength of opinion and conviction that he was right did not always sit as easily as it could have with authority.

It was in this that a defining aspect of his life found. He joined the ANC and eventually found himself exiled from South Africa, where he was the target of an assassination attempt in the form of a letter bomb. This left him devastatingly injured – two hands blown off being the longest lasting physical effect. On recovery he eventually connected with the next stage of his calling – to help the traumatised confront and experience healing for their memories. Running weekend workshops under the title ‘Healing of Memories’, stories are told, experiences understood and healing sought.

Redeeming the Past: From Freedom Fighter To Healer is, effectively, Michael Lapsely’s autobiography co-written with Stephen Karakashian. It’s difficult to respond to an autobiography sometimes; you feel you’re reviewing the person, which isn’t a healthy place to be. How do you separate the book from the man? I was at one of the launches for this book in Cape Town. Desmond Tutu spoke and Lapsley was lauded. Understandably he’s a significant and valued figure in South Africa. Lapsely’s talk that day was humbling and compelling; being in the presence of one who has carried his cross so vividly does something to you. Tutu, of course, was Tutu. Funny, compelling, heart-rending, impassioned.

The book itself is, at times, gripping. The story of how one life comes to carry such a public calling is a challenging one on which many of us would do well to reflect. Have I really taken up my cross, or do I sub-consciously water it down so as to save myself pain? At others points in the book I wanted to probe more – what’s the theological undergirding of healing of memories? What, when his approach is so clearly inter-faith, makes it distinctively Christian? At other points the book is troubling – and not necessarily in a good way. For a man so passionate about human right’s abuses, his attitude to Cuba is bizarre and worrying. He’s right to ask us to look behind propaganda about the country is good; his claim there is no hunger there and his effective dismissal of the well known human rights abuses in the country is staggering.

So what am I left with? A picture of a man whose life challenges me to the core; whose company I found it at times hard to endure in the form of the written word; whose commitment to live out what he seeks is admirable; whose story is one anyone interested in South Africa or justice should engage with. I’m left with a book that frustrates, challenges, engages and grips and sometimes disappoints.

A bit like every one of us, then.

I rated this book 3/5 on goodreads.com


District 9

There was a time when it was felt that every American film made was really about Vietnam. Such was the scar on the national psyche, there was a time of shock and denial when it couldn’t be broached as a subject; then it became clear that even many of the films that weren’t about Vietnam were, in fact, about Vietnam. The same has happened in recent years regarding the Iraq war.

Imagine, then, the choices facing South African film makers. At what point do you stop making films about the traumas, struggles and issues of prejudiced and apartheid? Opinion within the country is divided – some say move on. There are other issues to talk about. Other say we must, as with the Holocaust, constantly find new ways to tell the story to new generations. We must never forget.

Along comes District 9, a South African film produced by Peter Jackson, telling the story of an alien ship stalled over Johannesburg, from where the derogatorily nicknamed ‘prawns’ (aliens) are taken and housed in shanty towns, and then, years later, forcibly relocated. They are not welcome in town, there are aliens rights groups, there’s misunderstanding and misinformation.  In one especially brave touch, the alien language is comprised of clicks  – one character even tells an alien to ‘slow down with the clicks’, eerily reminiscent of how some respond to the Xhosa language. This is a film about it’s country’s history and prejudice  – but (and here’s the film’s ambiguity, which may feel suspicious) what’s not clear is exactly what’s being said about this history.

It’s important to say this is a really good, intelligent and well put-together film. It’s exciting, the special-effects on a budget work well, the characters are engaging and there’s a nice line of dark humour.  I especially like the fact we don’t get explanations for everything – why’s the spaceship there in the first place, not least. It’s put together in the hand-held camera traditions of Cloverfield, using a documentary device; and that device works in a nice, unforced way. Like all good science fiction it does have concerns for issues wider than the story – not just South African history, but issues of immigration, gun-running and identity. The problem the film has, though, it uses those issues, it doesn’t do anything with them. It doesn’t say anything other than use them as a backdrop – which is at best careless or at the (highly unlikely) very worst, in danger of its own encouragement of prejudice. Given the inflammatory nature of these issues, that’s more than a little careless.

I’d like to think the inevitable sequel will go deeper, but I can’t see it. This is still one of the better films of the year, but it could have been even more.