Monday, August 31, 2009

From selfdoubt to faith

Psalm 42 has always been one of my favourites, probably because it movingly portrays a person who was overwhelmed by life’s burdens, who felt overcome by sorrow and selfdoubt, but who eventually stood up, regained his faith and started living with new confidence. It shows how a person who had been through a time of darkness and depression, who was paralyzed by his unfortunate circumstances, starts seeing the light again so that, contrary to his earlier agony, we can hear him singing songs of praise and joy (v. 11).

To appreciate this remarkable transition from desperation and despondency to deep content and good faith, we have first to understand the reason for this man’s tremendous sorrow and disillusionment. He belonged to a nation that, in the sixth century before Christ, suffered a most terrible fate: the Babylonians had destroyed their land, killed their loved ones and had taken their leadership, their most talented people, into exile. Perhaps the most shattering part of this humiliating experience was that it also put their faith in jeopardy as for many years they had believed that they were God’s chosen people, that God permanently resided with them in His temple and would therefore never forsake them. But now the holy city together with the temple were gone, totally destroyed by an enemy who, adding insult to their injury, kept mocking them daily with the question: “Where is your God? Why has He forsaken you?” In their lonely hours these were the recurring questions, which haunted them day and night.

However, as one reads through the psalm you can’t help sensing a slow and very subtle change in mood. This is the beauty of psalm 42, that while we see the psalmist battling as if in helpless despair, we also see that his struggle is no passive surrender to the terrors of the night. In fact, slowly and determinately he rises up and comes through, almost like the proverbial phoenix from the ashes. When we reach the end of the psalm the tone of sadness, although still there, has been subdued, integrated and eventually transcended by a tone of hope and joy. “Why am I so sad? Why am I so troubled? I will put my hope in God, and once again I will praise him, my saviour and my God.”

Perhaps this is the great art of living – that we learn to embrace the paradoxes of life and remain hopeful in spite of the ambiguities; or as someone else put it, that we accept our lives as reflections of a line which constantly twists and turns in an up- and downward fashion, and still keep trusting and seeing to it that the main trajectory of this line holds a steady upward curve. And we may indeed believe that this is possible because as the psalmist slowly realised, God remains the living God, our Defender, the One who will again show his constant love during the day, so that we may have a song at night, a prayer to the God of our lives (v 8). We can feel secure even if our prayer is at times only uttered by way of a deep sigh, an honest longing for God like a deer panting for water.

Carel Anthonissen

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The courage to surrender

Recently a retired professor in Theology, who played a major role in helping to facilitate change in the church and society in South Africa, was honoured for his life work by the University of the Western Cape where he had taught and eventually also served as Vice Rector. Of the many things he did to contribute to a more reasonable and just society, he also was involved in the drafting of the much discussed Belhar confession, and he was the first chairperson of the Western Cape Peace Committee that was established to monitor and assist in the run-up to the 1994 elections. As part of the celebratory occasion a “Festschrift”, a compilation of articles and personal anecdotes, written by some of his colleagues, friends and former students, was offered to him.

On reading one of the articles in this Festschrift which analyses the main trends, characteristics and development of his theology I picked up something, which I had not realised before. In the course of his personal journey and struggle as a Reformed Christian who wanted to keep the faith even in difficult times, he had gradually begun to realise the importance of the mystical tradition. For me this came as a surprise because within the broader Reformed circles there has long been certain reservations if not outright scepticism towards mysticism, and especially to its claim that humans are able to unify with God and experience God’s love in a direct, almost virginal, way. Here however was somebody, a respected theologian who knew all the arguments, who surprisingly reminded us that perhaps, as Frederick Bauerschmidt puts it, the mystics do matter after all.

Because I was curious and intrigued, I made an appointment for the following week - specifically to enquire about such a shift in his own theological journey and his own understanding of mysticism. His answer touched me deeply and although simple and straightforward it offered a profound insight. “In essence”, he said, “mysticism is about the very core of our Christian faith and that is the courage to surrender”.

To illustrate what he meant he picked up a book that was lying next to him and started to read from it. In this book titled “The Language of God”, one of the world’s leading scientists and a former atheist, Francois Collins, presents evidence he finds for believing in God; he also recounts in a moving way the decisive moment in his own life when he surrendered to the God of Christ. In his words: “A full year had passed since I decided to believe in some God, and now I was being called to account. On a beautiful fall day, as I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains during my first trip west of the Mississippi, the majesty and beauty of God’s creation overwhelmed my resistance. As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered my life to Jesus Christ”.

Listening while my professor read this gripping account of God’s amazing grace breaking through in the life of such a man, I suddenly knew why the atheist viewpoint would never attract me. Apart from it being, in the Jungian James Hollis’s words “a posture of ignorance”, it also lacks the courage of true surrender. Because it is only by surrendering in faith, that we discover the living springs of God’s amazing love in our lives; so also do we experience our mystical bond with Christ. Louis Armstrong expressed something similar regarding the art of jazz: “Those who have to have it explained to them, will never know”.

We need to surrender to know. We need to love to understand. That is the constant challenge and invitation of the gospel, expressed so profoundly by the mystical tradition.

Carel Anthonissen

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A rare mystical experience

Grace is often the experience of God’s consoling and loving presence in circumstances where we least expect or deserve it – as I experienced it one afternoon on the Klipfontein road in the Somerset East district where as a young minister I had to conduct a prayer meeting on a fairly remote farm. On this particular day I was not looking forward to the meeting. For whatever reason I felt tired, moody and uninspired, almost like a soldier who had become weary of battle and had only one wish: to retreat and get some rest. But there was no way out – I had to see through my designated task, although I silently hoped for some special grace or outcome.

What happened in the next 40 minutes – the time it took me to reach the farm – was something rare I had not anticipated. Looking back on it today I still count what happened that afternoon as a profound mystical experience which restored my lost energy in an instant, and at the same time strengthened my awareness of God’s unique involvement in our lives. Such involvement never fails to surprise, even overwhelm us when we are open and attentive enough to receive it.

The surprise started just outside of town when I noticed a group of about fifteen baboons to the left hand side of the road. Although I had to stop to allow them to pass safely, this was not too unusual. Baboons were a common feature of the district. They mostly roamed the mountains, but from time to time came down to feed near the road. Then, a bit further on, just after I had turned onto the Klipfontein road, I came across a second group of animals – this time two meerkats (mongooses) basking in the sun in touching distance from where I passed. Again, this was no big surprise. But then two or three kilometeres on I had to stop unexpectedly again to allow a really big lizard (a leguana) to slowly make her way across the road, forcing me to wait ... and to reflect.

I think it was at this moment that I felt that something unusual was taking place, because from that point onwards, for the next 30 kilometeres, I was confronted by all the familiar animals of the veld and of farms along the road: grazing sheep, staring cattle, playing buck and even some runaway horses. At one stage two startling white horses suddenly appeared in the veld close to the road as if out of nowhere, frolicking - I just watched in silent amazement with cold shivers running down my spine. And this was not the end of the spectacle, because as I was about to take the last turn towards the farm, an enormous eagle was waiting there for me, sitting on a post at the entrance as if to guide me in.

I know that for many people this story may sound either incredulous, or a report of a merely accidental chain of events without any hidden significance. For me however, to this day it remains a benchmark experience on my spiritual journey; something I often remember and draw on when my mood turns black or I tend to lose faith. Not that I fully understand what happened that day, but as with Job (in Job 38-42) I could not escape the feeling that God had spoken to me in a unique way. By offering me a glimpse into the wonder of his creation, I was not only reminded of my own special place and value as a human being on earth, but more specifically of God’s constant love and concern for us, even as sinful creatures. The fact that God’s love was offered to me in this very concrete, and yet in a strange, mystical way, and on a day when I felt down and undeserving, was particularly consoling.

This is of course what God’s amazing grace and concern for us is all about!

Carel Anthonissen

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The tragic fruits of ignorance

During a retreat last year I read again the story of the judge Jephtah (Judges 11-12). What an extremely sad, tragic and heart-rending story – this tale of a man who, in a moment of thoughtless over-enthusiasm, made a preposterous if not completely outrageous promise to God. “I will sacrifice whoever comes out to meet me first if you will let me defeat the Ammonites and come home safely” (Judges 11:34) - that was what he whispered in prayer before going into battle. And we read that God heard his plea, gave him victory and brought him home safely…

But then, of all unthinkable possibilities, who should come out to meet him first? – It turned out to be his one and only daughter, playing a tambourine, laughing and dancing wildly to celebrate his victory. Surely it must have been the most devastating experience of Jephtah’s life - that moment when he saw her coming towards him, realising that he had just lost this child, his most precious gift, the innocent young woman who had been the constant light in his eyes. No wonder we read that he cried out in agony and tore his clothes in sorrow and dismay (Judges 11:35).

There are many theories on how it came about that Jephtah got himself into this predicament. Some see it as the bitter fruits of blind ambition. Others blame it on what they call, his overexuberant and misplaced diplomacy with God. According to the commentary of yet others, who take into account the testing circumstances of his childhood and youth as the son of a prostitute who had been rejected and driven into the wilderness at an early age – there is however, a deeper reason for Jephtah’s tragic lapse in discernment and judgement. They refer to it as ignorance.

Sadly, denied the opportunity of experiencing the warmth and safety of a normal home; also not being exposed to the traditions of his people – the stories of God’s dealings with them – he lacked some fundamental knowledge. In the words of one commentator: “Jephtah’s fatal flaw, his error portrays a lack of comprehension of the basic tenets of Jahwist belief…He does not comprehend the spirit of his faith and commits a basic error against God”.

If Jephtah had known God better he may timeously have reconsidered his own foolish pledge. Perhaps he would have pleaded and struggled with God more earnestly. Perhaps then he would have discovered that God is a God of mercy and love, a God who never intended children to be sacrificed in such a way, a God who offers life and who is willing to forgive us when we become foolish or make stupid decisions. Tragically, Jephtah did not know God. He persisted in his ignorant ways, thereby robbing his only child of her youth as well as ruining his own life.

The sad fact of Jephtah’s life is that, although he experienced a brief moment of glory in victory over enemies, he eventually died alone, almost in shame, without any descendants, without public recognition, without reaping the fruits of upright morality – all because he had been ignorant and foolish. A highly talented person, his life seems wasted because he failed to grasp the immensity of God’s love – the very same love that kept calling him, even after his tragic death, a hero of faith. Jephtah’s story not only calls us to review the course and meaning of our own life, but also to scrutinize again our relationship to, and our knowledge of, God.

Carel Anthonissen

Recognising and showing our "soft spots"

This week, during a time of quiet meditation, the leader of the session encouraged participants to become aware of and connect with what he called our “soft spot” – that is, a place in our body or psyche where we, at that moment, imagine or feel ourselves to be more open, vulnerable and endearing towards ourselves and others.

For me this was something new. It made me aware that, although we normally tend to identify our so-called soft spot as a place where our heart is, where there is an emotional attachment, it can also be more material. Sitting quietly, I discovered that my soft spot, at least during that hour, was a place somewhere on my forehead, close to my eyes – perhaps in the way I look and see. For others it turned out to be their stomach or their hands or even their whole body.

Apart from becoming aware of the shifting quality of our imagined soft spot, the exercise also turned my attention to how difficult it can often be to find and embrace such a soft spot. It seems we often shy away from, or deliberately conceal, the vulnerable and more emotional sides of our personality, fearing that it may disclose a weakness or an inappropriate emotion that can embarrass ourself or another.

In this regard I remember an occasion of probably 25 years ago, when during a circle meeting of ministers in Johannesburg an older colleague, who was an extremely sensitive, thoughtful person with a keen sense of humour, dared to show his soft spot to the rest of us. At the time he was asked as part of a group activity to share his thoughts on the value, riches and necessity of true community. Lamenting the lack of spiritual community, the enmity and competition that often prevail amongst colleagues, he suddenly broke down in tears. Not being used to such an unexpected flood of emotion, many felt uncomfortable. Afterwards one minister who had obviously been irritated by this expression of raw emotion, actually complained. He felt awkward he said, even angry at this man, for burdening us with what he perceived to be some hidden and unprocessed frustration.

As a younger minister however, I experienced it differently. The sudden and surprising outpour of emotion became a moment of truth, an extraordinary and profound experience, which I remember and treasure to this day. Something in me resonated with our colleague’s sincerity in addressing a core issue of our identity as ministers and as a church; I appreciated his courage in acknowledging a painful inadequacy in such an unpremeditated way. He had at the time recognised and embraced our shared soft spot: an inability to open our hearts and in complete honesty declare our love and care for each other. He could weep in sadness over our incapacity, if not outright unwillingness, to live compassionately.

This incident reminds me of the day when Jesus took it upon himself to show his disciples and the following crowds where his soft spot was. Looking at the multitude he did not, according to Matthew 9:35-38, become hard and irritated as had his disciples who wanted to send them away. To the contrary, we read that his heart was filled with pity for them, because he saw that they were worried and helpless like sheep without any shepherd.

Is this not the supreme example of love and compassion that as Christians, we are called upon to follow daily? We have an enduring invitation to recognise, embrace and show our own “soft spot”, even when in some instances it may bring tears, or cause embarrassment.

Carel Anthonissen