Friday, January 30, 2009

Why do we pray?

Why do we pray? This is a question that has returned to me more than once during the past months. The reason being that I come across more and more people who simply do not practice this ancient ritual, or even explicitly do not find it of value in a pragmatic society where people want immediate results instead of vague promises. And prayer does not fall in a category of practices that deliver promptly.
So why then pray? To pray is first of all to acknowledge and trust that we are not alone in the universe, that there are some things bigger and more mysterious than we are able to understand, see or control. Karl Barth, under the impression of what he called the qualitative difference between an eternal God and temporal man, wrote: “God is in heaven and we as humans are on earth”. By praying we confirm this in a simple, elegant way.

In prayer we also confess that we are dependant on something outside of ourselves, that as humans we need a higher source to support and guide us and to endow our lives with meaning. Prayer is based on the trust that this God in heaven, is also a benevolent power who not only created life, but sustains it daily by holding and nurturing it with love and kindness.

Frederick Bauerschmidt, in a wonderful article on the thoughts of Meister Eckhardt, reminds us that humans are quite simply not an appropriate centre for the universe; that we cannot bear the burden of endowing the world with its significance. And this is because we are not suited to be sources; rather, we are receptacles. We are not first givers, but receivers; not first of all seekers, but as the gospels tell us, the ones who need to be found.

Once we overcome the illusion of self-sufficiency and detach ourselves from the ego and its desire to be its own source, we discover that life is fundamentally a gift and that we may thank and praise God for that. We find that we may pray. In the words of Bauerschmidt: “Once our egos accept their fundamentally receptive nature, a new world is opened to us…We do not master the world with our ideas and concepts, but receive the world as God’s gift, just as we receive ourselves as God’s gift and even receive God as God’s gift…”

Prayer therefore finally expresses the faith that God is a personal being with whom we may converse, share our deepest fears and joys, ask for help and support when needed and also joyfully praise and thank because we have discovered God’s goodness. Is this not what Jesus invited and encouraged us to do when he taught us the Lord’s prayer (Luke 11). And did Jesus not also promise us that God will vindicate those who cry out to God day and night (Luke 18:7).

So why not take the courage today to kneel down, lift up your eyes (and hands) and start praying to God. Dostoevsky identified prayer as education, the best education you can get.

Carel Anthonissen

Friday, January 23, 2009

To be young at heart and to live graciously

Of the many people I will never forget, I am thinking today of oom Outie
and tannie Margaret, as we used to call them. They were our next-door
neighbours when we came to live in Stellenbosch during the 1980s. I had
just started out in the student ministry and was looking forward to
working with young people and sharing in their worlds. Fragile and
slightly inquisitive old people were not an immediate part of my agenda.
And our neighbours were really ageing - both were in their eighties; they
had difficulty walking and taking basic care of themselves became
burdensome. There were hints of decay in accumulated rubble and a rather
musty scent of decay that struck one on entering their home. In many
things there was a subtle reminder that they were becoming increasingly
dependent and were battling to cope.

What I had completely underestimated was our older neighbours’ own brand
of youthfulness and the impact this would have on our family. Quite soon
we realised that in spite of their age, these were two extraordinary and
endearing people with an enduring zest for life and a keen, open interest
in other people. To them, having us as new neighbours not only offered a
new adventure, it was also a new opportunity to engage and share the
beauty of life with strangers.

Oom Outie, educated as a veterinarian, had been a university professor for
the larger part of his working life. He was an intelligent person who
could ask critical questions without being brutal or destructive. Auntie
Margaret had been a champion in doing fine knitting and embroidery, in
housekeeping and entertaining; she still carried the traces (and
confidence) of the remarkable beauty she had been in her younger days.

But it was their unique spirit and the gracious way in which they
approached life, that made the lasting impression. Having had their share
of heartache in their own family, they knew the pain of loss and
disappointment. But in a wonderful way they managed to overcome this,
refusing to become negative and cynical, remaining almost innocent in
their enjoyment of small pleasures like an outing to an exhibition and in
their appreciation of what they experienced as the undeserved richness
that life had to offer in things like their garden, the achievements of
friends, or the chatter of their neighbours’ two-year-old.

We remember very fondly how oom Outie and tannie Margaret celebrated
birthdays, bringing together numerous good and loyal friends who loved
them and enjoyed being with them. And we were lucky…even as newcomers, we
were always invited. We also remember with amazement the sincere interest
they took in our children who were busy, noisy, relatively selfish little
beings at the time. To this day I can still hear auntie Margaret
commenting on how sweet, how charming, how delightful they were. She had
the astonishing ability to pick up on positive energy, to focus on the
pleasurable, to remain oblivious to meanness or testiness.

I often think about our former neighbours at the start of the new year.
They were not pious or outspokenly religious, and yet they were living
examples of what I would call Christian values, of an almost childlike
capacity for happiness, care, hope and dignity. Their lives truly
expressed the title of a book I learnt to know in my parents’ home:
“Growing lovely, growing old”. May this also be true of our lives in SA
this coming year.

Carel Anthonissen

Thursday, January 15, 2009

God is with us, next to us, all the time

We are currently moving through the period of the liturgical year known as epiphany. The word originally means “appearance”; in the Christian tradition this points to the mysterious revelation, appearance or presentation of God in unexpected places. During this time we very specifically recall and celebrate the amazing, almost breathtaking, testimony of the apostles, that God who had revealed himself in many ways during the past, presented himself to us in an extraordinary new way through the birth of Jesus, by coming to us as a man from Nazareth (Hebr. 1: 1-2).

He is the one, so we are told by the first witnesses, in whom we discover the visible likeness of the invisible God (Col 1:15), the key to recognising all the hidden treasures of God’s wisdom and knowledge (Col 2:3), the glory and light of God shining on us all, the brightness of his presence (Isaiah 60:1-2). Working with the image of Christians as pilgrims, in this time we are invited to interrupt our tiresome journey, to come to rest, to attend more closely to this Jew from Nazareth and to reflect on the meaning his life has for us.

In the gospel the meaning of Jesus’ life is depicted in many ways, but in essence it points to one constant truth - that the God of heaven and earth entered into our human condition, declaring unequivocally that he is on our side. This means that as humans we are never lost or alone. We are constantly being cared for, safeguarded and kept by God’s unfathomable love and faithfulness, especially in times of darkness when we feel fragile and fearful.

There is a story which illustrates this truth in a moving way: as part of an initiation ritual a young native American boy was blindfolded and left alone in the darkness of the forest for a night. Before that night the boy had never left the safety his home, so it was a frightening, disconcerting experience. Each faint crackle of a twig or falling leaf sounded like a wild animal approaching. When the sun eventually came up and his blindfold was removed he was surprised to find that his father had been there all night long, standing next to him with his bow and arrows, quietly guarding and protecting him from any possible danger.

Entering the new year with all its dark uncertainties, as believers we may also count on this - that the God of Christ is there for us. In our darkest night God will constantly hold guard over us, protecting us from evil and kindling in us that fire of love and faith that will never die…

Carel Anthonissen