Thursday, October 29, 2009

The miracle of touch

An Anglican colleague this week told me an interesting story of an invitation he had several years ago to stay with friends in America. During this time he was asked by the local priest to help with the morning services. And so it happened that one specific morning he was sharing from the gospels, talking about Jesus’s ministry of healing. In his sermon he told the congregation how healing was one of the sure signs of the coming of God’s kingdom – also of how Jesus, while healing different people, made a special effort to embrace and touch them with compassion and love.

To make his own sermon more tangible, my friend, who is a very warm and approachable person, on this specific morning left the pulpit and started to walk from person to person, touching and embracing them just as he imagined Jesus would have done. As a stranger among them he felt more free and entitled to take this risk than he perhaps otherwise would have.

For him it was immediately clear that the people in the congregation were not used to this kind of expression of affection, but that they were also not overly suspicious of his unconventional action. In fact, from their warm and appreciative expressions he could see that they were willing to receive his unexpected and spontaneous gift of loving touch and to embrace it with open arms and hearts.

However, to his surprise the local minister came to him afterwards with an almost bewildered look on his face. Although not angry or overly upset – he was more surprised and uncertain about what had happened - he informed my friend that what he had done had been a total novelty in the church. He also explained clearly why such a thing had never happened before. Apparently many, even within the safe space of the church, felt reluctant to reach out and touch indiscriminately for fear of - listen to this - trespassing a law that protected people from sexual harassment or harm.

My friend, coming from a context where sharing in a personal way was part and parcel of the service, was completely taken aback by the minister’s reaction and especially by the reasons he offered. This however did not inhibit him. It also did not change his conviction that what he had done in a moment of spontaneity, was important and also uplifting and healing for the members of the congregation. So the following Sunday he repeated the ritual. This time, according to him, the reaction was even more positive, if not overwhelming.

In fact when he left after a month there was a visible change in the atmosphere of the service, as well as the attitude and well-being of the members. Apart from showering him with goodwill and affection, his perception was that they were also more free and relaxed in relating to one another. Even the minister eventually came to give him a hug and thank him for what he observed as his invaluable contribution to a significant change in the life and culture of the congregation. And that: because one person simply dared to follow the example of Christ … to reach out and embrace.

While we are cautious not to intrude or abuse another’s personal space or privacy, as Christians who believe in the power of love, we should also be brave enough to reach out and draw others close, especially where the other person’s eyes tell us that they need to be healed.

Carel Anthonissen

Remembering the rythm of our togetherness

For a long time people in our country, we have been able to find far too many reasons for excluding, for keeping things and people apart. We have emphasised almost solely the differences between people. But this has caused devastation as it broke people’s lives into millions of pieces – it caused widespread fragmentation and destruction in our society. Today we want to choose differently – we are seeking a new vision: we are remembering the rhythm of our togetherness.

We come from a beautiful but troubled mother Africa. The gift that we received from this mother of ours is a gift of wholeness, of being one with the whole world. But beyond the good gift, our mother also carries the scars of distortion and fear. She has almost forgotten her dream of ubuntu; her passion has devoured her; she has all but forgotten her beauty.

In traditional African cultures and religions one finds appreciation for community. Harvey Sindima of Malawi says: “The African idea of community refers to bondedness, the act of sharing and living in the one common symbol – life – which enables people to live in communion and communication with each other and with nature”.

How necessary it is in our time to re-find this rhythm of togetherness – of that which needs to be held together rather than be kept apart. Things like body and spirit, male and female, humanity and nature. Drawing strict lines between these things causes pain. We’ve just seen it again being played out in references to the body of a young athlete, one who deserves to be embraced - Caster Semenya.

A biographer writes about Brother Roger, the founder of the Taizé community in France, that he "always thought that Christians would be reconciled by broadening their horizons, by going out to those who differed from themselves, by being open to non-believers, by carrying the preoccupations of those who were in difficulty and by being attentive to the poorest of the poor. It was the vision of reconciliation of the whole of humanity which made the effort of striving for reconciliation between Christians worthwhile".

Surely this gives us an agenda to work for. Like Brother Roger we should have a reconciled world in mind. This means, amongst other things, that peace needs to be made between the sexes and sexual orientations; peace needs to be made between a frustrated Malema-generation of claiming rights and a UDF-generation of non-racialism. Real peace needs to be made when the dangerous rhetoric of “shoot to kill” is doing the rounds as response to a violent society.

We need to piece the fragmented parts of our lives and our world together to bring about the healing which our society desperately yearns for. Perhaps we should start by sharing the stories of spaces where we have encountered or been able to create such healing?

Laurie Gaum

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The courage to enter the palace

There is a very strange story in the Bible (Judges 3:12-30) about an extremely fat Moabite king, Eglon, who was brutally killed by Ehud, one of the first Judges in the history of Israel. Eglon was at the height of his reign of terror when this happened, and Ehud had to work in a rather underhand way to succeed in assassinating the king. Although the story is one of extreme violence, it is clear that the writer was very animated in telling and retelling it to a next generation. This partly explains the gruesome detail of how Ehud plunged his sword into the king’s belly…and how the whole sword disappeared, handle and all, because it was covered by the abundance of soft flesh, and also how Ehud did not pull out the sword, which had entered deep enough, humiliatingly to stick out at the back between the king’s legs (v. 21-22).

As a young minister I was intrigued by this strange story, wondering why it had been recorded in the Bible and how one could (or should) present it in a sermon. Recently I had to study the book of Judges in more detail, and then discovered to my surprise that there was indeed a strong message, in fact a challenge in this unusual and rather offensive story – one, which proves to be quite relevant for our time.

To begin with – and this is one of the vital keys to understanding this story – one should remember that Ehud’s story forms part of Israel’s popular folklore. In telling this particular folk tale Israel recalled and commemorated with pleasure one of the truly great moments in their history. It was the time when God lifted the yoke of slavery from their shoulders and restored their dignity as a nation. For eighteen years Israel had been harshly oppressed and exploited by their archenemies the Moabites - and now, through the brave deed of Ehud their woes were brought to an end. God’s people could now celebrate, singing and telling tales that were to inspire a next generation ... also through this story.

This gives another clue as to why Israel loved retelling this story. It reminded them of the surprising and highly creative way in which God had liberated them and changed their destiny. Given that he belonged to the smallest tribe in Israel, the Benjamites, and that to compound things he was left-handed, Ehud must surely have been an unlikely candidate to bring Israel relief from their suffering. But in an unprecedented turn of events God chose him, showing how the course of history can often be dramatically changed by the courage and ingenuity of an ordinary person. By using his apparent weakness as a strategic and secret weapon, he not only succeeded in entering the royal court, but also in eliminating the king. Once their leader was removed the Moabites were helpless and vulnerable to defeat.

It is of course not possible to apply Ehud’s story directly to our context – in that his actions were too violent, committed from a position where Israel felt assured of their status as God’s chosen people and of their right to take revenge. The time and context was vastly different to ours. Nevertheless, the story does pose the age-old question of civil society’s relationship to those in positions of power. Put differently, it obliges us to reflect on our responsibility as ordinary citizens in situations of extreme oppression, exploitation, corruption and suffering – whether this is caused by dictatorial and corrupt political leaders, by an unjust economic and social system, or by criminals who have succeed in intimidating a whole society, causing fear and paralysis by their brutal actions.

According to the Ehud story there are two options when we are faced by improper whims of the powerful. We can take on a victim-mentality and, like most Israelites in the time of Ehud, remain passive, subservient, fearful and fettered. Or we can stand up as Ehud did, “enter the palace” as it were, and confront the powers in new and surprising ways. What we need today as much as ever, is exactly this: courageous people who can come up with creative ideas and solutions that have not been tried or tested before, but that can make a difference in liberating the oppressed and making our society more open, humane and just. What we need are imaginative initiatives – actions that are totally unorthodox and different, deeds that can surprise and shake people up, inspiring them to live – perhaps for the first time - with those traits that Christ introduced: greater modesty, more respect, more kindness, more love, more tolerance. True liberation that we so urgently long for depends on this.

For Christians the call to such initiatives need not be difficult – in fact, our normal way of life should embody these values, because we confess and claim to follow an extremely original and imaginative God – a God who has not only conquered all evil, but has redeemed the world by giving himself in love and humility. The question remains: are we brave and trustful enough to follow the crucified and suffering God on such a journey?

Carel Anthonissen

Monday, October 5, 2009

A community of calm commuters!

A clear symptom of the pressures that we are living under in SA today, the rising fever as one of my friends called it, is illustrated in the way people drive, in how we behave on our roads. Even big trucks and lorries have become part of the hectic and impolite push, weaving and speeding their way through normal traffic.

Perhaps I am oversensitive to this madness or have an overdeveloped sense of what is good ‘crowd behaviour’; perhaps more honestly, I have a hang-up about misbehaviour on the roads. In a time when we desperately need ordinary citizens to be law-abiding and to live according to established values, it seems out of place, even arrogant to speed along without any respect for rules, for road safety, for values or the well-being of other people. My reaction until fairly recently whenever I encountered people who sped past me, jumped a red robot or held their cellphones to their ears while driving, was that I would start to fume and fight, even using my hooter to indicate that their behaviour is unacceptable, that I disapprove…

However, since returning from holiday not long ago where I, almost like during a retreat, could relax and gain new perspective on my own unhealthy habits from a distance, I have made some firm decisions, one of which is to calm down and not allow the bad behaviour of others, however out of line, to determine my mood or actions for the day. I have realised that my main challenge as an ordinary citizen and as a Christian, is to take the gift of quietness and peace that was granted to me during my holidays, into my day-to-day context and very specifically into my manner of driving on our busy roads.

Thus, when I am on the road - which is at least an hour every day - I now deliberately drive in the slow lane, diligently keep to the speed limit and do not allow the Speedy Gonzaleses to distract me too much. Not that I do not notice them or have lost my sense of righteousness, but I don’t allow them to get to me in a way that can spoil my day. Going more slowly has additionally offered me some observations, which currently make my travelling a much bigger pleasure than before.

I have, for instance, noticed that travelling in a slow civilized manner does not necessarily cost you time or cause you to arrive later than the others. In fact I am amazed some days at how, in a strange way, I often reach my destination at exactly the same time as those who passed me along the road at high speed. Sometimes I catch up with them and even pass them where they are held up at a traffic light. Leaving earlier and travelling in a more leisurely fashion, I have also experienced a strange shift in my experience of time. Don’t ask me how it works, but nowadays I have the experience that I travel faster and reach my destinations earlier than I planned.

The biggest surprise, however, is that I have discovered many others that have made a similar choice. In fact by just travelling more slowly you find yourself becoming part of a totally new group of travellers – a community of calm commuters. Once you have joined them you make a next surprising discovery: that this community is not only much bigger than the hectic hoppers, but also much more friendly, patient and civilized. You discover that it is actually a pleasure to share the road with them.

So next time when you take to the road, try this. Leave a little bit earlier than usual, take a deep breath as you turn onto the highway, deliberately move to the slow lane and enjoy the ride. In short, come and join the community of calm commuters. And really, don’t be surprised when you turn up at your work or at whichever destination earlier than you had planned to. It happens, and it does wonders for freeing your attention to things that really matter in life!

Carel Anthonissen