Friday, December 18, 2009

We serve a modest king

I have a memory of Christmas time as a child, when my father used to read his favourite Christmas stories to us. Many of them came from a colourful and richly illustrated book by the famous American preacher, Peter Marshall. My father had bought the book as a young man and cherished it for many years. Although all of the stories were special, there was one particular story, which somehow touched me more deeply than the others.

This story was about some children who had received the almost unimaginable news that the king of that country was planning to pay them a visit. What news, what discussion, what excitement!!

On the day that the king was due the children got up very early to prepare everything for this very special occasion. All on their own they decorated their back garden with flowers and holly; they laid some tables with cookies and drinks that they had specially prepared. And then they sat down to wait. In my mind’s eye I can still see the picture in the book, of the children sitting on the wall, staring out in eager anticipation, waiting for the king.

But the king never came. This was the disappointing truth that started to dawn on them as the hours dragged on and nothing appeared on the horizon. However, just as they had started to accept that the news had been all rumour and were ready to pack up, something unforeseen happened. Looking up, they saw a stranger standing at their front gate. He was shabbily dressed and looked extremely weary. So the children invited him in and offered him what they had prepared for the king, what he had failed to claim.

The encounter with the stranger turned into a special occasion: the children served him with all their pent up energy and he graciously accepted their gifts of generosity and kindness, also allowing them to share in his gifts of love, acceptance and concern. In fact, their time with the stranger became such a happy and intriguing experience that their disappointment about the king’s aborted visit gradually disappeared.

When the stranger eventually continued his journey, slowly disappearing into the distance with the setting sun catching his golden hair, the children suddenly realised that a king had been with them. This king was indeed totally different from the one they had imagined and expected. He was a much more humble and simple person, without conspicuous glamour, influence or following. He came as a lonely and weary traveller with friendly eyes and a loving aura.

Peter Marshall of course told this story to remind us of the very old truth that the God who came to us on Christmas day came to us as a stranger, in the guise of an ordinary humble person. The God who appeared in Christ came to serve us with love and forgiveness and not in the first place with all the material goods or glamour that we tend to seek or strive for so anxiously. His spirit of childlike modesty and sobriety should also inform our lifestyle and outlook this Christmas, especially where we are tempted once again to buy indiscriminately and consume unabatedly. According to the gospel, the gift of modesty and containment is God’s great gift to us at Christmas. In the words of an old Irish song:

It’s a gift to be simple, it’s a gift to be free
It’s a gift to come round where we ought to be
And when we find ourselves in a way that’s right
We will live in a valley of love and delight.

Carel Anthonissen

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Advent, a time to learn from the poor

According to the church calendar, as Christians we are currently in the season of Advent. During this time two important traditions of our faith usually come together. First of all we are invited to remember and to celebrate the birth of Jesus with joy and happiness. Yes, there is joy and happiness because His coming, according to the Bible, marks the breaking through of God’s kingdom on earth, the fulfillment of his redemptive and hope giving promise for all humanity. It is indeed as someone wrote, a season of outrageous promise!

Since Jesus’ coming we may therefore start believing, as many did whose lives were touched by His presence and inspired by his words and deeds, that there is hope for tomorrow. Nothing needs to stay the same anymore. In the words of one faithful prayer, all battered souls and bodies can be healed, the hungry can be fed, the imprisoned set free, the weary eyes lifted up and the splendour and dignity of the earth restored.

In and through Jesus we are offered a glimpse of this new world – a world where enemies embrace, criminals are healed and peace and justice may reign. This does give cause for joy and gladness, for exuberant celebration.

But advent – and this is the other side, the second part of our tradition – is also a time of waiting patiently, of watching and praying; it is a time of urgent invocation, of crying to God, of deep longing. Because although we believe that Jesus brought and introduced God’s kingdom to us, we also know that this kingdom has not yet been fully realised, that it is still coming and that the new possibilities it offers are only grasped and experienced in faith. In fact, the promises of God’s kingdom of which Jesus gave us a glimpse, are challenged daily by the harsh and dark realities of our materialistic, greedy and violent world. In such a world we are constantly reminded that we still live between the times – the time of Jesus’ first coming and that time when God Himself will come to live among us… so that there shall be no more death, grief, crying and pain (Revelations 21:3-4).

During advent we are invited not to give up our longing, to keep praying that something of this tremendous vision and dream may be seen and experienced, even if only provisionally. We are offered a glimpse, allowed a soft leap, given an encouraging nudge, an unassailable intuition, a new but firm knowledge.

Being modern people living today, how do we embark on such a prayer? How do modern consumerists like us overcome our insatiable and selfish needs (and moans) for more and change it into a true prayer for justice and peace. Perhaps we should follow Janet Morley’s considered suggestion to learn from the poor and reclaim prayer as desire – real desire for the kind of justice that will make all of us whole. In fact “our very salvation depends on our response to the poor, in whom God waits to be recognised” (Janet Morley).

Carel Anthonissen

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Onbeing naked and vulnerable

This week I received this moving letter from a dear friend. He is a very private person but was not unwilling to share this with us. May it touch you as it did me. It goes as follows:

“Every December I write a letter to my friends. This year the letter has a different tone. It is a little more quiet. A little softer. But still hopeful.

In my dreams I am naked, vulnerable. When I wake up I toss around, restless, and I wonder about the fear that sits so heavily upon me, just by the mentioning of a single small word. Our whole life we run away from being naked and vulnerable. We build walls and windows with bars and doors with trelllidoors. We buy toy guns as well as the real thing. We become able-bodied, defensible, secure, entrenched. We prove our manliness or our own maturity. The map of our life should run along straight lines. So we believe. So we insist.

We hide it away, this nakedness – in our poems and our favourite songs, and deep, deep within ourselves. We find our security in our gods – they who are supposed to put forward nakedness, even real knowledge and open hearts. We destroy nakedness in nature, in our dialogue, in ourselves, in each other. Naked and vulnerable children live in danger. Defenseless hearts break. Naked lovers are far too early. Then never. To be defenseless and naked is to be poor, is to be delivered, is to be sad and therefore not suited for us.

Even our language makes our nakedness something to fear, to flee from.
But that is the truth in us. That is where we store love, charity and compassion. This is where our heart abides. My heart, that is where you abide!

Fear is anger, is fear. I fear because I am angry, because I fear. I am angry because I fear, because I am angry. Vulnerability, nakedness. Deeply buried and walled in and secure as I was taught and my parents were taught and all before them were taught. But it is all around me and in all that I find beautiful. A wheel that is only half can’t turn. Defensive and vulnerable.

Shall I risk to find it in myself?

In the year that lies ahead I consider to find out. At least to make a beginning. Too much fear, angry for too long, being fortified out of proportion can teach me nothing of myself, or of you. And it leaves me fearful. Yes, barricading and defending myself all the time leaves me fearful.

Tread softly my friends because I am on the lookout for my open vulnerable heart and I am still thrown into panic much too easily.

With love for the part of the year that remains and for that which is coming.

Your friend”

Carel Anthonissen