Sunday, November 29, 2009

The remarkable gift of the flute

In a wonderful little book on old age called “Dancing towards the light” a former hospital chaplain and pastoral theologian reminds us that in caring for people, especially those who are ill, it is often the small, almost insignificant deeds of love that count most.

According to him one of the big frustrations for those who really want to give care and make a difference when a friend or family member falls critically ill, is the discovery that in certain circumstances so little can actually be said and done to relieve the pain or plight of the other. Then we should realise that just being there, close and available - handing a glass of water, or just holding a hand when the other becomes restless - is often enough, the strongest evidence of sincere love and support. In the words of the Dutch writer Cornelis Verhoefen: “When true things happen, no words are needed”

To illustrate what this can mean the author-chaplain recounts a moving incident he experienced one day while doing his rounds in a rehabilitation centre for people paralyzed by a stroke. He was almost at the end of his visit, moving through the last ward, when he heard an unfamiliar sound. Moving closer he discovered a patient in a remote corner who for many months had been lying in a coma. According to the doctors there was no hope of any recovery. On a chair close to his bed an attractive young woman wearing a sparkling red dress was sitting, softly playing a flute.

Responding to the questioning look on the chaplain’s face she pointed at the patient and explained. “He used to be the minister of our parish, someone with a deep love for music; and he especially liked the psalms. Given that he has so little left, I have decided to come here every day, just to play for him. I think he hears me”. And then with her voice faltering slightly, she added: “You see, he is my father and I am his only daughter. This is all I can do”.

Reading this very touching story I was deeply consoled. Because apart from realising that those who are helpless can often still hear and appreciate their loved ones and the gifts they bring, it was also clear that the daughter’s unique gift, the flowing and soothing sounds of the wonderful flute, was more than enough.

Carel Anthonissen

Thursday, November 19, 2009

When the pain of injustice strikes

Reading through the psalms the other day, it struck me how many of them deal with the pain of persecution and injustice. There are indeed very few psalms which do not in some way or another refer to certain opponents or adversaries who at a time harshly oppressed God’s people and did them enormous harm through words and deeds. It is against this background that Israel often talks about her opponents as wicked men who plot against the good and the righteous (ps 37:12). They refer to evil persons who are full of poison, like snakes (58:3-4), who aim cruel words like arrows (64:3) and are constantly planning to hurt the other.

Most of us know the emotional pain and damage caused by injustices and although the latter can have many faces it is most hurtful when caused by those who are close to us – a loyal compatriot, a dependable ally, a good colleague, trusted friend, beloved spouse, etc. In such instances the pain of injustice is often experienced as a form of betrayal.

The big question is what to do when this happens, how to act when you feel betrayed or suffer the pain of injustice? One of the most common reactions is to retreat into a state of selfpity where you can lick your wounds while seeking the sympathy of others. Another reaction would be to stand your ground and defend or explain the motive for your actions. Still another way to deal with injustice would be to expose the harmful intentions or agenda of the unjust so that others can also recognise the evil and you can be justified. A more extreme choice would be for outright revenge and retribution.

Although all the above mentioned ways of reaction are understandable and in certain cases perhaps legitimate, the danger with most of them is that the deeper roots of evil and injustice are not always fully recognised or aknowledged. The dark and dangerous undercurrents are not in control and may be allowed to keep on flooding into thoughts and actions of either the victim or the perpetrator of injustice.

In essence all injustice, whether it is committed in a crude or subtle way, boils down to a disregard of human dignity. In order to honour and guard this, whether as a victim or an offender, we should never lose sight of our divine origins and vocation as humans. This will not only help us to refrain from acting unjustly, but also to handle the pain of injustice with dignity and hope.

What this means in practical terms was never better illustrated than in ps 37. There we are encouraged not to give in to worry or anger (v 8), but to give ourselves to the Lord (v 5), to be patient and wait for God to act. Because surely those who do wrong will eventually disappear like grass that dries up (v 2) because the Lord will vanguish all evil – God will take away the strength of the wicked (v 17). What is more: the Lord will take care of those who obey him (v 18). God wil never abandon a good person (v 25). In fact, God saves righteous people and protects them in times trouble. He helps them and rescues them; he saves them from the wicked, because they go to Him for protection (v. 39).

Perhaps that is the big challenge for us as christians when the pain of injustice strikes. To remain upright, patient and keep doing good, while we allow God to handle our case. It is only when we surrender our pain to God that we are also guided in the way that we should go (v 23).

Carel Anthonissen

Clothed in gold

Many years ago, and my husband still alive, a friend came to visit us, accompanied by his two young children. We were sitting next to the swimming pool under the wide canopy of a white stinkwood tree, and the children insisted on swimming. I was none too keen, it was May and the water already chilly, but their father allowed them to undress and to jump naked into the pool, where they swam and played like two little fish.

But the cold did get to them eventually, and they were very pleased to be hugged into the big towels I had fetched from the house to be rubbed dry. Then they lent, still unclothed, content against their father’s knee in the dappled sunlight under the tree.
As we watched, a wind sprang up, turning into a small whirlwind, a dust devil as it’s called. It spun into the tree and in a moment, stripped it of its yellow autumn leaves and whirled them around the two small bodies, clothing them for one wonderful instant, in a cloth of gold.

I was reminded of that incident when two or three Sundays ago, I attended my usual early morning service. I was ill at ease and lonely, missing my late husband and my children, all of whom live overseas.
And the weather certainly did not improve my mood. Summer is usually late in coming to Cape Town, but it has been particularly so this year, and days of grey with intermittent showers left me with a deep melancholy.
It was still early, and the church was dark and still and cold, and I toyed with the idea of just leaving, driving until I found a restaurant with hot coffee and a fire in the hearth.

As I stood uncertainly in the aisle, the sun broke through the clouds and fell in a wide beam through the rose window of the nave. Suddenly I was standing in a warm, bright light and I felt God’s presence like a cloak about my shoulders : like the children on that long ago day, I was clothed in gold.

Is there a moral to this story? Yes indeed. God’s blessings are all around us – all we need do is to look up and find his loving face.

Cecile Cilliers

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The righteous will occupy the land

Recently a friend who lives in Cape Town shared a very interesting and encouraging story with me.

Due to repeated incidents of crime and harassment, many of the parks in the upper part of Cape Town city, specifically some higher up against the mountain, have become no-go areas for many people. Even the so-called hobos, who often used to hang around in these parks and find a refuge there - especially at night - have become vulnerable to such criminal activities. However, according to our friend, some families and groups of friends who live in the neighbourhood recently decided that the time has come to claim back some of these parks and restore them to their original purpose, namely to serve as spaces in which people can freely enjoy being outdoors in peaceful leisure. So, over the weekend many of them now come together in groups, pack a picnic bag and set off to these parks, determined to show that these public spaces truly belong to ordinary citizens. Once in the park, they find a comfortable spot, unpack and enjoy their meal, play with the children or just walk around while they enjoy the sunshine and the gift of nature.

How widespread and significant this trend currently is, is not that easy to estimate. That it is a crucially important initiative is however not that difficult to see. In fact the time has really come for ordinary people, or what is popularly known today as “civil society”, to stand up and reclaim those spaces where peace, security and dignity – the normal rights of all citizens – can be enjoyed. And this can be done in a very concrete, simple and creative way, like coming together in bigger and safer groups to occupy and utilize the desolated parks anew. In a similar way the people of Gugulethu township came together after some policemen were killed in their community, to organise a street -or neighbourhoodwatch which can patrol the streets on a regular basis.

Such actions, which to some extent defy risk, can and must of course be applied to other sectors of the public domain as well, thus sending out a strong message to those who target such quiet and vulnerable spots for their own mean interests. At least it will remind them that they have no undisputed right or ownership to these areas. More importantly (and this is the ideal) it may just inspire growing numbers of people to move into a similar mode of action, thereby creating a wave of ongoing initiative and support – a wave which will not only neutralise and even eliminate threatening elements, but also empower more ordinary people to take responsibility for the well being and integrity of our society.

According to the Bible – and this is one of the more inspiring and hopeful texts in the Old Testament - “the righteous will indeed possess the land and live in it forever (29)… while the wicked will be driven out (v 28). Quite literally, some who long for a just and caring community are reclaiming what truly belongs to the just.

Carel Anthonissen