Sin: A Clarification

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Listening to hymns this morning, I heard an old song that included this refrain: “I’m so glad He took my sins away. He took my sins away.” Though the sentiment the song expresses is meant to be fully in line with orthodoxy, the lyrics themselves struck me as espousing faulty theology.

The lyrics reminded me that there is a good deal of talk about sin that leads to a lack of clarity with respect to what we believe. Here, then, is my clarification of what we mean when we talk about sin.

There is a categorical distinction to maintain between the noun “sin” and the noun “sins.” Just as there is a difference between the concepts of light and lights.

Sin is the spiritual-genetic trait that all humanity inherited from our first parents. Sin is a spiritual-genetic trait that is ultimately fatal. Jesus’ work on the cross is the cure for this spiritual-genetic defect. By Christ’s atoning act, our sin condition is cured.

It is this sin condition, which affects us like a traumatic brain injury, that makes us people who commit sins. Sin contorts our thoughts and intentions, our desires and our deeds. However, since our sin condition has been cured, sin no longer has to drive our being in the world. Though we can still engage in sins ( in other words we can “sin” (verb)), we can also NOT engage in sins.  The end of sin, resulting in the power to not sin (verb), is the gift that we celebrate when we talk about our gain from Christ’s sacrifice.

The trouble is that the habit of committing sins (sinning), passed down from generation to generation like language, is easy to continue in, and seemingly impossible to quit. These habits, like our first languages, feel natural to our lives.  We began in them before we were born, while we were in our mothers’ wombs.  Despite feeling natural, and pervasive, though, committing sins is habit only. Habit that, because of Christ, can be unlearned and resisted.

To return to the lyrics of the hymn, it would be a better expression of why we are joyful, to exchange the word “sins” for the word “sin” in this hymn.  “I’m so glad he took my SIN away. He took my SIN away.” Our sin is gone. Our sins we will work on being rehabilitated from committing throughout our lives on earth.

Father’s Day Reflection 2016

IMG_2612I am still getting to know my father, though he died 20+ years ago when I was in college.

I’ve known all along that he was an intellectual who had a kind of poetic romanticism about him.

He never attended college, as far as I know, but had shelves overflowing with books and bibles.

He loved Man of La Mancha, and Cervantes’ Don Quixote. I was singing “The Impossible Dream,” from the time I was young:

“This is my quest to follow that star, no mater how hopeless, no matter how far. To fight for the right, without question or pause. To be willing to march into Hell for a heavenly cause…”

He fell in love with my mother upon hearing her operatic soprano voice on his first visit to Freeport Church of God—as the guest of another woman.

My grandmother told me that he was a Christian who really knew how to pray, which is why she let her daughter marry him.

These are things I have known.

But now I am living in South Africa. I am reading history, and philosophy, and of freedom. I am realizing that my father was born in 1925, the same general time period as Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X, and MLK. By the time he was a young man, he was living in New York City—the cradle of Black Consciousness.

As I read the works of some of the original Black male literati—brilliant Black men who articulated the pain of Black existence, who temporarily or permanently exiled themselves to France, where they tasted the freedom to simply be –I am learning the dimensions of my father’s struggle. I am glimpsing to roots of his violence. I am grasping the depths of his longing.

I know why he gave all three of his children French middle names.

But for the woman with that dazzling voice, and the children, and the lack of money, I believe he, too, would have eventually chosen exile.

My father, I’m sure, is smiling to know that I am finding my own Paris in Cape Town.

Feeling at Home and Getting to Work

It’s been about one month since I relocated from my friends’ suburban home.

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The block in the suburbs where I lived with my friends.

Relocation and settling in has gone well.

I moved into my very own micro-flat. It is housing intended for students, so the space is very, very small. It’s almost a dorm room. The micro-flat is in an old building. This means that the windows are drafty. The walls are not sound-proofed. There is no heat or air conditioning, and the laundry room is located somewhere that I have yet to find in the building.

But I love it!

I feel very comfortable living in this micro-space, and to my surprise, my mini-desk has become my preferred place to work.IMG_2292

 

Top 5 things I love about my micro-flat:

5.  Location! I am in the heart of downtown. Parliament, museums, the park, shops, Long Street’s social hum, trains, buses, taxis, and, most importantly, coffee shops galore, are right on my doorstep.

(Actually, I’ve begun drinking instant coffee at home. Sad, but true.) IMG_2310

 

My location is also great because I have a clear view of Table Mountain when I am lying in bed. And, though I’m in the heart of the city, there are nights when the smell of the sea wafts into my flat and gives me the sense of living in a cottage on the beach.

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View from my flat (when lying on my bed and leaning a little to the left :-))

4.  Security. Before I arrived here, I hoped that whichever apartment I lived in would have a security desk/doorman at the main door. I got my wish. Also, each floor has biometric security access. There’s a sense of safety here.

3.  Utilities (mostly) all included. I hate having several little bills to pay each month for housing related things. Don’t you? Here, water, internet, and satellite television are included in the rent. Since there is no heating, I only pay for electricity. There’s a meter on the wall that shows how much you’ve used and when you need to top up. Nice.

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2.  Modern appointments. My micro-flat has poured and polished concrete floors, extra high ceilings, and an industrial looking exposed vent.IMG_2304

It has a granite countertop, long-neck faucet, exposed shelving, plenty of storage and a painted accent wall.

There’s an upmarket feel to this little place.

Bonus: the tv, which is mounted to the wall and can be viewed wherever I am in the flat (yes, I’ve succumbed to tv watching), doubles as a large monitor for my laptop! I usually have two computer screens going at once. I am a Boss!

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And the No. 1 thing that I love about this particular flat:

The Cleaning Lady! Since I was but a wee lass, forced to do my share of chores at home, I have dreamed of having a cleaning lady. I never thought I would have one in South Africa, but cleaning, every 7 to 10 days, comes with the apartment!

A) It’s like 1950s America here–Black women clean. Since jobs are scarce, though, this is considered a win-win situation. B) My micro-flat is in housing meant for students. Students can be very busy, somewhat lazy, and perfectly willing to live in filth messy flats. But messy flats create the kinds of problems that significantly diminish property value. The owner is apparently taking smart precautions! Having our flats cleaned is not optional.

Truthfully, my micro-flat is so small that even a little messiness overwhelms the living space. I have to keep things neat in order to function here. So, though I do not really need a cleaning lady, how wonderful it is to have someone come in and take care of my bathroom and mop my floor!

My lease runs until August. Hopefully I’m still feeling the love when it’s time to renew.

Number of Protests/Marches Seen From My Flat in Past 30 days:

Seven

Research Accomplishments To Date:

Reading–lots

Dissertation—Topic identified! The general subject of focus is protest, violence and Just War Theory. Proposal in very rough draft form.

Submitted—1 Article, 2 Paper proposals

Attended—1 Conference (Societas Homileticas–International Society of Professors of Preaching), 2 on-campus lectures (Alan Boesek and Grant Ward), 2 Center for Conflict Resolution Public Discussions

Working on–Church Conference workshop proposal on Protest and the Church

Random New Thing:

I’m learning to run. Radical fitness measures are required since sitting at my desk for most of the day, alone with snacks, has wreaked havoc on my body.

 

I arrived in January and now April is just about here. So far, so good.

Back Together Again

(One more love note during this honeymoon phase. AB)

Central heating is extremely rare in apartments in Cape Town, despite the fact that winters here are cold. Thus it happened that on my trip here in 2014, when my heated church/office building was closed, I often rode the bus to the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, to the V&A mall. The mall provided an escape from my frigid apartment.

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I became a semi-regular at a little coffee place there. I would order coffee, sometimes chat with the server if it wasn’t busy, and then sit and write for a while.

Naturally I was anxious to revisit this place of refuge when I arrived back in Cape Town. When I managed to get there, I saw that a few stores that I planned to one day enter were gone. And there is an H&M that I don’t remember from before. But overall, the mall is just the same. The post office, the movie theater, the drug store, the good supermarket were all where I had left them.

And my little coffee shop was still there, too.

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As I wandered into the coffee place and drank in the memories, the server on duty looked intently in my direction, smiled and said, “You’re back!” My server was still there. And I was so happy to be remembered.

The last time I was here, part of my internship involved attending sessions of Parliament. On one visit towards the end of my stay, I was having a time getting through security. A Cape Townian who worked in Parliament intervened and volunteered to escort me. Because, he told me, “You are at the church on Greenmarket. I heard you preach at the lunchtime service yesterday.” I struggled to pronounce his name, Mbulelo, even after he repeated it more than once. I jokingly asked what people called him for short. He replied, “People call me Mbulelo.” In that instant I comprehended it all–centuries and continents of information. With great mental exertion, my American tongue pronounced that African name. Em-boo-LAY-lo.

Mbulelo adopted me, briefed me on the political currents, introduced me to his progressive friends, and encouraged me that, of course, if I wanted to come back, then I would.

Well I lost touch with my friend, and this trip I have no plans to visit Parliament. I was excited, though, to have arrived in time for the President’s much-anticipated State of the Nation Address (the “SONA”). The morning after the address there was a public gathering of journalists and public intellectuals to analyze the SONA event.

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What a stimulating assembly of thinkers! What a delicious free buffet!

Afterwards, as I was walking down the street away from the event, I heard a voice saying, “Alease, is it you?” I looked, and there was Mbulelo! He said, “I saw you inside and thought, ‘No, it can’t be her.’” But there we both were. What a marvelous happenstance, to run into my old friend! I’m so glad to know that he is still here, still politically engaged, and that he remembers me!

Most stores close around 3 or 4 p.m. on Saturday here, and are not open at all on Sundays. During my last trip to Cape Town, I went out one Saturday exploring and hoping to buy a novel for pre-sleep reading. Before I knew it, hours of exploring had gone by, shops were closing all around me, and I had not found a bookstore or a book to read. I despondently wondered why I had to be the kind of person who always gets distracted from the main thing she’s meant to be doing.

As I tried to navigate my way back towards the direction of my apartment downtown, I remembered that I needed to turn down a street where there were old records on the sidewalk outside of a shop. I found the street, and the shop, and saw that the shop was still open. I felt the kiss of the Lord’s delight in me when a peek inside that old shop revealed that they had used books for sale and novels galore!

That shop turned out to be the super-cheap, used book/music/dvd store that I would return to repeatedly while I was there. The proprietor was a Rastafarian, partly from Jamaica, with long black dreadlocks.

This time around, my student status gives me reciprocity with the University of Cape Town. I have begun using their library and taking their free bus to get from campus to near downtown. I got my bearings after a couple of rides on the bus, and realized that if, instead of turning right towards downtown, I proceeded straight ahead from the bus stop, I would walk right past the spot where my super-cheap, used bookshop used to be. So the other day I walked straight ahead. As I approached the place where the bookshop should be, out onto the sidewalk came a man with dreadlocks tucked into a cap. He smiled as I approached and said, “You’re back!” Holding out his hand to shake mine, he asked, “How is the church?”

Downtown, at the mall, even in the next neighborhood over, my return has been welcomed. How can this be? In all of the United States, I cannot think of a city or town or neighborhood that I might return to and find this kind of warm embrace–especially after only 9 or 10 weeks of acquaintance, with an almost 2 year absence, and a reappearance with a very different look.

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(Then, I had long extensions, and was always wrapped up from head to toe for warmth. Now, I have short hair, loose clothes, and eyes shaded from the sun.)

 

Some people fall in love quickly. It happens so fast that the watching world can hardly believe that the love is legit. How, reasonable people wonder, can you really love someone whom you barely know?

I don’t know. But I know that you can.

Some people can look at you once, twice maybe, and see all the beauty inside of you, and you them; beauty that might be concealed from the myopic gaze of the world; beauty that you yourself barely knew was there. Other people might spend half a lifetime looking, and never see the beautiful you, the wonder of you.

Yes, to know takes a lifetime–and then some, but love happens fast all the time. Like the first time a baby girl is placed in her father’s arms.

In 2014 I came to Cape Town. I saw this place, who it is and how it is, and, miraculously, this place saw me. Love happened. Love is still happening. I marvel at the mystery of it all.

Why South Africa?

I have been asked repeatedly, “Why South Africa?”

I want to respond, simply, that this is where I have sensed the Lord leading me. But I have found that this response is not helpful, or compelling, for many people.

Instead of speaking this dialect of spiritualese, I usually share about how rich the South African context is for contemplating the issues of war and peace that are the subject of my research. Truth and Reconciliation originated here, after all.

(Me and Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 2014.)

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Or, I sometimes share with people that I really appreciate how different my colleagues  here in South Africa are from my colleagues back in the States. I talk about how important it is for me to engage the diverse viewpoints of Black Africans from all over the continent, as well as to engage with the different African ways of being, knowing and communicating as I think about war, race, power and money.

Lately, though, a deeper reason for my being in South Africa has bubbled to the surface of my consciousness. More than the social and political significance of my location, and more than the diversity of cultural perspective that adds immeasurably to my project, what makes my being in South Africa so necessary to the research and writing that I am doing, is that my Being is different when I am in this place.

Here in South Africa, I live with internal tensions related to issues of racial, economic, social, and religious identity that are simply not a part of my life when I am in the U.S.

For example, in the U.S. I am Black. In South Africa, despite the fact that Black South Africans frequently mistake me for isiXhosa, I am not a South African Black person. Nor am I Colored or White. I am not Malay Indian, Chinese, or Persian either. I am none of the above. It is not clear who people say that I am.

When I am in the U.S. I see in predictable places those without homes and those who beg as a means of supporting themselves, and I may or may not choose to be in such places and to interact with such people on any particular day. In Cape Town, homelessness and poverty are inescapable parts of the city wherever you go. The relentless reminder of impoverishment requires a continuous decision on my part as to how, not if, I will engage with the poor. In the U.S. I do not have wealth. In South Africa I do.

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(A business, a home, and the communal toilets in a Black township.)

In my U.S. world, Jesus loves me and Christianity means church on Sunday, prayer, bible reading, and doing good to others. In my South Africa, Jesus loves each and every one of us, and Christianity means resisting injustice, speaking out for the voiceless, and championing the cause of the powerless. In the U.S., my being Spirit-filled means one thing, in South Africa it means another.

All of these issues of personal identity—race, economic and social class, as well as religious tradition—are implicated in the research that I do with respect to war. Though I have not fully worked out the connection between personal identity and war, I know that war is absolutely personal—both for the victors and for the vanquished. I know that our individual identities, who we think we are and who we think they are, are what make us move toward or away from armed conflict, both individually and as nation-states. I know that who makes decisions about war, who fights and where/how they fight in war, and who is deemed an enemy or an ally in war, all hinge on issues of personal identity.

The unplanned shifts in my identity resulting from my locatedness in South Africa, and my ability to blur the edges and move between the rigid categories that define so much of our conversation about who we are, will serve me well, I think, as I work on understanding the relationship that God, the church, and humanity have with war.

 

First Things

Greetings from Cape Town!
How amazing that I am able to write those words! A year ago, a month ago even, the prospect of being here was merely a dream and a hope. Up until the moment that I boarded the plane, I had doubts that I would actually arrive. But, praise the Lord! I am here!

My time in South Africa began with a great deal of resting and eating. My hosts, Malia and Terence, are amazing beyond words, and Malia is a fantastic cook!  Weight has definitely been gained. But that is a worry for another day.

I have reacquainted myself with the city of Cape Town, and I have introduced myself to the town of Stellenbosch, where my university is located. Stellenbosch is about 30 minutes from the city, in the winelands of the Western Cape. Stellenbosch is beautiful. The town itself reminds me very much of Palo Alto and the surrounds of Stanford University.


Of late, I have been apartment hunting. It seemed to me, and to my friends here who are helping me look, that Stellenbosch would be the ideal location for me to live. Primarily because rents are much lower outside of the city.

As we began our search, however, we learned that the Stellenbosch housing market is as bustling as the New York City housing market! Literally overnight, 7 appointments to see apartments dwindled to 2 appointments, as apartments were leased before we could view them. There are many students who want to live within walking distance of campus, it seems.  I am hoping that as the days pass, and students settle in, the housing market will cool off and the right place for me will present itself. Alternatively, there is the possibility of moving into an adorable, tiny, flat in a student housing development in the city.

There’s a saying that you never step in the same river twice, and the church I attended here is proof of that. The congregation has grown and diversified, there is a new worship team, and the preaching that was so transformative for me when I was here last, is different in a very good way. How beautiful to come back and see such signs of renewal! How beautiful that, despite the changes, the warmth and love of the people at the church remains the same.


Work on my dissertation has not yet begun in earnest. I will be meeting with my supervisor this week to strategize the crafting of my initial research proposal that must be presented to the PhD Committee in late April.

In three days Lent 2016 will begin.

It is like I am on a plane that has just taken off, and while I have been leafing through a magazine the plane has left January and entered February. Then after a quick meal the plane is arriving at Lent. In the time it takes to watch an in-flight movie, I will be passing Easter on this plane, I’m sure, and then the half-year mark will be in sight.

I only want to remember, to savor, every one of these gorgeous days.

Homesickness in Reverse

What I have noticed so far upon my return is that everything is too expensive. $10 for a cup of coffee, a bagel with cream cheese, and a small square of chocolate? Too much.

I’ve also noticed that the weather is not as warm and sunny as I would have expected for summer. I’ve been looking forward to  hot days and sunshine, since I’ve been in the Cape Town winter for months. But cool, overcast skies greeted me upon my return to Durham and have lasted for a week.

The coffee is all wrong, forcing me to become a fast expert in relaying how I like my brew. Latte, 12 oz., single shot, whole milk. And it’s still not the same. The tea is equally wrong. It’s supposed to come in a cup and saucer, not a mug. Brown sugar is supposed to be on the table. And there should be a choice of teas–White Rose or Rooibos–not just Lipton.

Within days of being back I met a new guy, Joe. He approached me in Target on a ponytail-yoga pants-no make-up wearing kind of day and we chatted. He’s 50, attractive, divorced, Christian, retired army, and super-nice. We’ve been to coffee and a movie so far. But. I’m not interested. He’s too southern. Too settled. He’s not a man of ideas.

And I guess what you could say is, the root of the root is, that I’ve left my heart in Cape Town.

It’s been 17 days. How long does it take to feel at home again?