Tuesday, June 1, 2010

On the poison of prejudice

A few months ago I had a very disappointing encounter that also turned out to be a highly ironic incident. Several days earlier I had heard about a particular person with special talents and gifts, a sharp intellect and especially an ability to motivate and influence people. I was therefore keen to meet him. I expected a warm and welcoming person, someone open to the signs and possibilities of new acquaintance and friendship. But when we actually got to meet one another, I found almost the opposite.

When we were introduced I could not help noticing that he was extremely wary and guarded, all the while avoiding to look at me directly. At first I mistook his cautiousness for a nervous shyness – given the fact that I was older and that he did not know me. However, when we eventually sat down to discuss some issues, his initial reticence turned into open animosity. He made it clear that he was sceptical of my viewpoints (which he could hardly have gained first hand as we had not had time to share much); he was not keen to engage. In fact, when he eventually talked, he suggested that I was compromising what to him was the truth and was misleading the group to which we both belonged. You can imagine my surprise, having come to the meeting with such different expectations.

Of course I was perplexed and disturbed. Nevertheless, remaining composed, I tried to work out where things had gone wrong. It was only later that it dawned on me that this was something not completely unusual in interpersonal encounters which I had not experienced for a long time. It was one of those unhappy occurrences when a person hears about someone’s ideas and then, often without even having seen or met personally, he decides beforehand that he doesn’t like the other. It shows in a seemingly unwarranted agitation and unwillingness to start any honest exchange where each will hear the other. We have all had the experience of hearing or reading stories, rumours perhaps, which do not appeal to us, so that we ignore, slight or even completely write off another person or group. This kind of negative conditioning can cause one to reproach people blindly or to engage with them distancingly without really listening and with all one’s proverbial weapons and defenses out, ready for the attack. Such a behavioural pattern has been named the poison of prejudice.

The history of Jacob and his uncle Laban shows that even in biblical times precious relationships could be infected and damaged by the poison of prejudice. In Genesis 31 we read of Jacob’s disappointment when he noticed that as if overnight, his uncle’s face had changed – he no longer carried the same expression of friendliness as he had the previous day and the day before that.
Prejudice can harm personal relationships, which is bad enough; but worse is when this becomes a societal attitude. Recently in Rwanda one group’s prejudices were allowed to determine their view of the other so that they started to talk of their neighbours as “cockroaches”. This is what fuelled the terrible genocide which is still fresh in African memory. The danger of prejudice, no matter whether it has a personal, provincial, racist or cultural flavour, is that it can be nurtured for many years, until a day when a seemingly insignificant event sparks confrontation. Then differences become deep rifts or even battle zones. We need constantly to guard against such destructive prejudices that have the potential to poison faith communities, churches as well as other societal structures.

Carel Anthonissen

Thursday, May 20, 2010

You don't take a high note, you collapse into it

Most people carry within them some hidden talent or passion - something they have not been able to express or practice properly, due to various kinds of circumstances. Because this longing, this unfulfilled gift or dream is often part and parcel of their inner being, the way they really are, they tend to feel restless… until such time as this secret need or longing has at least in some way been met, expressed and fulfilled. For some it can be the romantic longing to act or to dance or to make wild music. For others it can be the more mundane need to set up an own business, something that draws on their special interests and abilities – it could be a bakery, a clothing shop … it could be starting a blog or taking up further studies.

In my own life I related to music I was introduced to by my father and by inspiring teachers. From an early age I was touched by voices singing. I virtually fell in love with opera in my primary school days. In the same way that our children now collect CDs, I collected records; my first ones were wonderful sound tracks of Caruso, Gigli, Bj√∂rling, Merril, Galli-Curci, Sutherland, Callas. And I wanted to sing along…always. The longing to sing did not subside as I grew older. I remember moments when I was listening to live performances of music that by then I knew by heart, how it felt almost unbearable not to be able to just stand up and join in, even take to over the show! I truly felt capable on some occasions to perform even better than the artist himself.

Eventually I actually found an opportunity to respond to my longing to sing some of the really great pieces of music. For two years I took singing lessons and although I realised very quickly that I was not bound to become a second Pavarotti, these lessons became one of my very rewarding life-experiences. I learned many new things: the importance of how you breathe, of posture, of standing and projecting your voice, putting yourself out there without being abashed or self-consciousness. I learnt the art of relaxation. A short sentence, a brief piece of advice from the teacher, will always remain with me: “Remember, you never take a high note, you collapse into it”

I often return to this little remark, because it not only expresses one of the most basic principles of singing very concisely - it also quite tellingingly expresses an aspect of what is essential of a true spiritual way of life. As Christians we believe that we are called to really occupy high planes, to be a the light for the world, a shining star in heaven as Paul puts it in Phil 2:15 - to sing out, to echo songs of the psalmists, giving voice to songs that express human experience: low notes in songs of woe, but also the high notes of joy and jubilation, of praise and compassion to which we are called and need constantly to learn. As believers we also know that we can only reach this goal, can only express our true calling, when we are prepared to let go, to collapse into grace, to allow God to be our rock, our security, and to take us where we need to be, to where God’s dream for and in us is fulfilled. In short: things come together when we are willing to become part of His flow – the flow of the Holy Spirit.

This is a liberating truth and challenge – especially during this time of Pentecost where we believe that the Spirit has been poured out and is already moving within us.

Carel Anthonissen

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Count your blessings ...

A dear friend of mine suffers not so much from depression as from a deep melancholy which affects his whole life. His outlook is pessimistic, his mood usually sad. For the sake of family and friends (and I dare say for his own sake), he tries to overcome or at least to control this dullness of spirit, but it remains an uphill battle.

Once, discussing his malady (for malady, dis-ease it is), he told me an interesting tale. The other night, he said, held captive by a deep darkness which seemed to envelop his very soul, and in a desperate attempt to find some light, he started recalling his blessings and reciting them aloud : I have a roof over my head, I have food on the table, I have the use of all my limbs, I am employed, I have beauty around me, I can read….

And an hour later, still finding yet another blessing to name, he fell blessedly asleep.

Like a coin, my friend’s tale has an obverse side which became clear to me some years ago. It was May in Johannesburg and autumn had already come. But the two young children of a friend who had dropped in for a cup of coffee, insisted on swimming. We were sitting next to the pool in the dappled shade of a white stinkwood tree, and the pool certainly looked inviting. But although the sun was shining, the water was already very cold. A mother would never had allowed the little ones into the water, but the father obligingly helped them to undress and watched them go naked down the steps of the pool, where they splashed and played until they were practically blue with cold. Then he took them out, and rubbed them warm and dry with the towels I had brought from the house.

And as they stood, happily smiling, next to his knee, a sudden small whirlwind wrapped itself around the tree, shaking off its yellow leaves, and causing them to fly about. And just for a moment the naked children stood there amazed and laughing, in a shower of gold.

The two sides of one coin….

Some of us must strive to count every blessing to become aware of God’s love, but others, like children, accept the shower of blessings as their due and laugh at the sheer joy of it.

But laughing child or melancholy adult, both thrive in the blessing of God’s grace.

Cecile Cilliers

Friday, April 30, 2010

We live in a benevolent universe

Apparently Albert Einstein, that brilliant physicist who became known for his theory of relativism and who also provided the theoretical building blocks for the development of the first atomic bomb, towards the end of his life made this remarkable statement: “Now I see that the only question is ‘Is the universe friendly?’…I have begun to discover its physical meaning, but the question that haunts me is ‘Is it friendly?’ ".

What an extremely important question to ask – this question: whether our environment, our world, the universe that encompasses us, is hostile or benevolent. Is it against us or for us? The answer to this very fundamental riddle, will in the end determine the outcome and quality of our life on earth, will shape the basic sense, belief or instinct with which we enter into and handle each day.

If for instance we believe that everything out there is hostile and working against us then most of what we do will finally be dominated by fear. Our life will become a constant effort to counter this fear by looking for ways to control it or insure our life against it. Mistrust and anxiety will be our daily bread. If however we trust the opposite, accepting in the words of John O’Donohue, “…that at the deepest level of reality some intimate kindness holds sway”, life becomes a space where we may explore and taste hope and love, beauty and trust, every day - an opportunity to continuously open our lives to God’s grace and blessings.

In Everything Belongs Richard Rohr has a pertinent chapter in which he also refers to Einstein’s question, reminding us that this is exactly the liberating perspective that those of us who claim to be true believers, owe to the world.

“The gift of true religion is that it parts the veil, returns us to the garden and tells us our primal experience was trustworthy. It reassures us that we live in a benevolent universe, and it is on our side. The universe, it reassures us, is radical grace. Therefore we need not be afraid. Scarcity is not the primary experience, but abundance. Knowing this we can relax and let go…”

In a way Rohr’s words remind us of Jesus’ remark when, parting from his disciples, he consoled them:

“Do not be worried and upset: do not be afraid…(John 14:27)…The world (that is the negative and evil forces in life) will make you suffer. But be brave! I have defeated the world”.

We need to demonstrate to the world, especially to those who feel lost, hopeless and desperate, that this is indeed true. We need to positively embrace the abundance of our universe and also share it with others.

Carel Anthonissen

Friday, April 23, 2010

Bellfry, where it is easy to talk about God

Mimi Saayman, a team member of the Centre, and I returned from the United States last Monday, having attended a retreat that turned out to be a very unique experience. Shalem, a contemplative community in Washington, had invited us to attend a 7-day workshop on personal spiritual deepening with a view not only to our own personal enrichment, but also to being introduced to their course built on material developed over the past 15 years. The idea or long-term purpose is to bring it back and present it in our own community in South Africa. So, even if I relate personal impressions first – eventually what we received will be moulded into a programme that will be shared and passed on to others.

What a rich and special gift it has been! Besides being overwhelmed by the novelty of an American spring – a first for me – there was a further surprise waiting for us when, after almost 4 hours on the road to the south west of Washington, we arrived at the Broadway Bellfry Retreat Centre in Virginia where the workshop was to be held.

Words cannot really do justice to the beauty and splendour of this venue, but I’ll try to give an impression: the Bellfry, set in magnificent surroundings, welcomes one into loving spaces, inviting silences and has colourful symbols that represent the concrete embodiment of a poetic and imaginative God-given dream – one which Anne Grizzle, the current owner, had nurtured for many years and which eventually materialised three years ago. Entering this small paradise I was taken back to John Denver’s celebration of the country roads that he loved: “Almost heaven, West Virginia, Blue Ridge mountains, Shanandoah river…”. These were all there, or at least very close by.

I will remember this special course/workshop and especially the Bellfry for a number of reasons. First, one was brought to a standstill that enabled new awareness and reflection. As Kendrick, one of the other participants, observed: “here the vital sense of slowing down and becoming centred inevitably begins to grow”. And then there were special moments with special people, kindred spirits, a contemplative tribe – the opportunity for deep sharing of our doubts, fears, joys and passions, at night in a small circle, or during our walks in the forest; the singing and celebrating together during the sessions which made us “part of the flow”. Perhaps Ann Dean described the mystery and joy of such communion best when her first letter after our return reminded us: “Should you or I ever feel alone or isolated, let us remember we are eternally connected in soul and purpose”.

Bellfry took me back, after many years, to a special moment in my life when I experienced myself a true child of the earth – probably for the first time. It triggered a wonderful memory from my teenage years, when a schoolfriend and I swam naked in the upper stream of a waterfall in the mountains close to our hometown in the Northwestern Cape. The question that was gently posed after I shared this moment of vulnerability, still lingers: “Where is that place today? Where is that boy?”

Looking back on the remarkable time of becoming quiet, systematically exploring one’s own spirituality through carefully directed, rich experiences, barely a week on, I realise that perhaps the most significant shift that took place in me, is manifest in the subtle, almost obscure way it became easier than before to talk about, and even with and to God.

When we arrived at Bellfry after a very busy term I felt fragmented and blocked, almost like Thomas when he was tormented by nagging questions and doubts. When we left however, it was with the song of Job in my heart: “… I knew only what others had told me, but now I have seen you with my own eyes”. Because for me, anew, God was – is – undeniably there; I met Him/Her in the splendour of nature, in the birdsong at daybreak, in the amazing stories of the Bible, in our shared brokenness and joys as children of God, in the warm embraces of appreciation, hospitality and love and then most of all…in the silence which is, so it seems, always God’s first and most clear language.

Carel Anthonissen.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

In search of common decency

My elderly friend was outraged. Perhaps not outraged, but certainly highly indignant. Was it necessary, he spluttered, for a young driver to overtake him at speed, hooting all the while, simply because he had refused to turn into the lane designated for the use of emergency vehicles, merely for this young whippersnapper to be able to pass? And that at a speed far beyond the limit! What, he demanded, (and I would love to use the phrase ‘in high dudgeon’ here), has become of common decency?
What indeed? Reading a Dorothy Sayers crime novel published some decades ago, I was delighted and I admit, amused, to find phrases which seem to have disappeared from the English language: ‘Jolly decent of you!’ ; ‘She’s a decent sort’ ; ‘He did a decent day’s work’….
What gives one pause is that with the disappearance of the word decent the sentiment of decency seems to have disappeared also. We hardly understand what it means anymore. And looking at the events in South Africa during the past week or two and at the growing polarization in the country, it might be worth looking anew at decency, and the meaning of it.
The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines decency as follows: Propriety of behaviour; what is accepted as being required by good taste or delicacy; avoidance of obscene language and gestures and of undue exposure of person; respectability…
The definition of the adjective decent, includes seemly, not immodest, and used colloquially: kind, generous, obliging. It comes from the Latin decentia / decere – to be fitting.
Our beloved country is being torn apart by violence and anger and growing racial hatred. And fingers are being pointed in every possible direction – always away from ourselves. Paul might have been talking to South Africans when he writes to the Galatians: If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other…
In the sermon to my congregation this past Sunday morning we were urged to allow the Holy Spirit to change our sinful nature, and according to Galatians 5, to live a life by the Spirit. And the fruit of the Spirit, proclaims the well-known verse 22, is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Common decency, in fact.
Cecile Cilliers

Thursday, April 8, 2010

I will find you again

The well known spiritual writer Ken Wilber tragically lost his wife Treya to cancer a mere five years after their wedding. In his book “Grace and Grit” he gives an account of their last days together and touchingly recalls what passed between them in the final hours preceding her death. For him these hours remained the most precious and tender moment in his life. This was due mainly to a promise he had made to her on their wedding day and of which she now reminded him.
Five years earlier he had whispered in her ear: “Where have you been? I have been searching for you for lifetimes. I finally found you. I had to slay dragons to find you, you know. And if anything happens, I will find you again”.
At the time Wilber did not exactly know why he had uttered these profound words. Nor did he know where their lives would end. He simply wanted to express how he felt at the time about his special bride and their loving relationship. And now in this hour of death she took him back to the promise he had made. It was as if to hear it again gave her a feeling of tremendous security and peace; as if the whole world would be in order if he could only keep this promise. Therefore her question: “You promise you will find me?” “I promise.” Forever and ever?” “Yes, forever and ever”.
It seems significant to me that I came across this very moving piece during Easter weekend. Wilber’s promise seems to represent in a moving and surprising way the message of Easter which others such as Mary Magdalene (John 20:11-18), Simon Peter (John 21:1-19), the men from Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) and eventually all the disciples (John 20:19-25, 1 Cor 15:3-8) had experienced, namely that the God of Jesus had finally found them after they had lost their way. God had kept his promise never to leave or forsake them, even when they forsook God, even after they had given up hope in the face of persecution, sickness, betrayal, death.
On account of Jesus’s resurrection, his victory over human weakness – in fact over evil, we may also hear again, just like Treya on her wedding day: “I had to slay dragons to find you, you know. And if anything happens, I will find you again”.
Is there anything more consoling, more renewing and full of hope than this promise that we will be found by God, particularly when we, often with fear and trepidation, have to leave our earthly home and tread the unknown path of death.
According to the Gospel, we may count on this promise…now and forever.
Carel Anthonissen

Thursday, April 1, 2010

A new take on an old parable

A woman pastor from the Netherlands came across my path recently, and meeting her was a mentally and spiritually stimulating and uplifting experience.
Trained in the reform tradition, she found herself drawn not to large congregations, but to smaller groups, groups of carers and caregivers, or those in need of care. To this end, she immersed herself also in the catholic tradition, so that little would estrange from those groups who would benefit from her spiritual support. At the moment, in Holland, she is the pastor at an institution for the mentally disabled, among them sufferers of dementia, Alzheimer’s and some bad cases of epilepsy.

Her sermons in this institution, she told me, however well prepared, were subject to surprising responses and sometimes interjections from her listeners which could change the whole tone and even theme of the homily. I’m learning to think on my feet, she laughed. And told me the story of the parable of the lost sheep.

She had based her sermon that morning, she said, on Luke 15, and was telling the story of the lost sheep with lots of drama : the weather was wild, but the shepherd left his 99 other sheep out in the open and went off to search for the one, poor, lost lamb. And could not find it, and kept searching, until at last he heard a soft bleating, a solitary mmaa-aaa…

Her audience had been so quiet, you could hear a pin drop, and she was thrilled, she said, with the impact she was making, assuring her listeners that Jesus would not let one sheep go astray. But at this point an elderly man rose and interrupted her without apology or preamble : That is not the sound a sheep makes, he said. A sheep bleats baa-aaa. What the shepherd found must have been a small goat; it’s a goat that goes mmaa-aa !

And so, laughingly, she ended her story (and her sermon), with the shepherd going home with a kid over the one shoulder and a lamb over the other…

With what grace and love was the parable retold, reflecting the love and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. And giving new meaning, so I thought, to Matthew 25 : 31 – 46.

Cecile Cilliers

Monday, March 29, 2010

Remembering the poor

I was taking a last turn off the highway onto the Strand road towards the town, when from the corner of my eye I caught sight of them – a mother and her small boy on my lefthand side, next to the road. The sun was fading fast and there was some cold air drifting in from the ocean some five kilometres to the east. I was already late and in a hurry, my mind occupied by what lay ahead, but the passing glimpse of these two lonely travellers slowed me down for a while. It was clear that they had stopped for a brief moment to prepare themselves for the walk further into the cool night, homewards perhaps.
The mother, a well-dressed middelaged woman, had a concerned but a determined look on her face as she was bending down towards her son, helping him to put on some warmer clothes. Later I regretted it that I had not stopped or turned back, because although this was a moving scene of motherly care, it was also a disturbing one. As I was driving on all kinds of questions came to me: Who were they? Where were they going? Why were they walking? How far had they still to go? Was there a home somewhere nearby – perhaps on a farm or in a neighbour’s shelter? And then the more painful questions: How did they feel? What would the night with its darkness and strange shadows do to the little boy? And the mother who had to carry a burden of care and provision for a frail and frightened child – what was she feeling?
Eventually I realised that I had again been offered a picture of South Africa and of the vulnerable position in which so many people, especially the poor, find themselves. I also realised that I should try not to forget these images; that this was an important picture, which should remain with me, reminding me constantly of so many others who are desolate, lonely, homeless, vulnerable, often faceless – people in need of care, of shelter, of human concern and help.
We have a friend who is regularly confronted by beggars on his way to work, many are apparently crafty, perhaps wily, some quite intrusive and reeking of alcohol. Discussing the merits (or not) of many sad stories, he told us that he had made up his mind about how to deal with them. He just stops and gives them something when they ask. Because, this is his argument: “You do not know whose plea is false and whose genuine. So just in case their need is real, I give…God will take care of the rest”.
Although I know that questions of how to help the poor and the destitute in a way that will really make a difference are thorny issues in our society, I have found our friend’s approach helpful, more so when the disturbing memory of a lonely mother and child tends to fade…
Carel Anthonissen

Monday, March 8, 2010

When problems become lifegiving

Not long ago, talking to a good friend, I expressed some concerns about a range of difficulties, which had unexpectedly arisen in my workplace. Such problems tend to make one tense and threaten to dampen one’s enthusiasm. The friend then reminded me of an important distinction, which not only gave a new perspective on the particular challenges, but also helped me to deal with them more positively and constructively
Looking intently at me as I was telling him what we were encountering, his response was unexpected:” these are good problems”, he said, “because they are problems of life”. He went on to explain that one can encounter two kinds of problems – those that signal life and those that signal demise and death. The “problems of life” are so named because, although they may appear as obstacles, which seem to block our way and undermine our faith, they actually arise from the fact that things are developing, that there is new life; such difficulties turn out to be hidden doors which eventually open up to new, liberating discoveries. In short, they are problems, which carry the seeds of fresh life and opportunity.
In contrast, the “problems of death” are so named because they signal doom and destruction. These are difficulties that we experience as dark forces, which sweep us along in their strong current - Like an unhealthy addiction that can get the better of us and gradually wear away the core of our humanity.
Reflecting on my friend’s words, it dawned on me that very many things, which seem to be insurmountable problems, have the potential to become life giving – depending on how we view them and engage with them. In fact, to see properly, to gain the right perspective, is often the key to transforming our problems into life giving forces.
In his book on the contribution of the Mystics in our age, Frank Tuoti has a wonderful chapter titled “The Gifts of Night” in which he describes what happens when this gift of knowledge, this right perspective is given. He articulates it metaphorically as an experience in which our spiritual taste buds are purified. Then “the problems that once almost totally absorbed us no longer usurp our time, for we have discovered that most of these problems either take care of themselves or were never really substantial problems to begin with”.
Relating this to the suggestion of my friend, problems that seem to wear us down can be transformed, can become avenues to new life, pure gifts of the night – what is given in darkness, can become the harbinger of dawn. Lent is the ideal time to discover again this profound truth, and to keep remembering that Jesus endured the cross…for what?...for the sake of the joy that lay ahead of him (Hebrew 12:2) .
Carel Anthonissen

Do not abandon me

When I was a child, and growing up in Montagu in the Cape, the Dutch Reformed Church of which we were members, had a custom which I have seen nowhere since. On Mother’s Day the children in the Sunday School were each given a celluloid (no plastic then) rosette to wear – blue if both your parents were still alive, purple if a mother or father was no more, black if you were an orphan. It sounds macabre now, even cruel, but it brought the minister’s homily home to us, left (for me, at least) a lasting impression : Plant flowers now, he pleaded, on your parents’ hearts – do not wait to put flowers on their grave….

This past week both a beloved sister and a young friend passed away. I felt surrounded by death, and as so often before, turned to the psalms for comfort. I would like to share some of the verses with you, using The Good News Bible, the translation being closer to the Afrikaans, which I know so well.

I was daunted, as always, by the reality of Psalm 90, particularly verse 5 : You carry us away like a flood ; we last no longer than a dream. How short life is, and how quickly it passes.

I was deeply moved, as always, by Psalm 116 : 15 How painful it is to the Lord when one of his people dies ! Knowing that God shares in our grief is comfort indeed.

But I was reprimanded, albeit it indirectly, by an old person’s prayer, Psalm 71 : 9 Do not reject me now that I am old ; do not abandon me now that I am feeble.

God never rejects us, He never abandons us. But can the same be said of us, of his servants, those who follow Him in the Name of Christ ?

How many old people live and die alone, in old age homes, in hospitals, with only the hands of strangers for comfort. How many people die without ever being told that they were beautiful or good or wanted or loved.

Whatever the colour of the rosette you are wearing today, plant flowers on the heart instead of on the grave.

Cecile Cilliers

Friday, February 19, 2010

My birthday is coming soon

In Rom 12:3 Paul implores the believers in Rome not to be conceited nor to think too highly of themselves. In doing this he warns them against one of the oldest sins in the book, the so called “hubris” (pride), or what the church fathers named “superbia” - that is the very human inclination to see yourself as bigger and stronger and more important than you really are or ought to be; to be overly boastful and proud, to glory in your own gifts, achievements, contacts…and in the process look down upon others, think yourself better, smarter, more glamorous and even more pious and godly than they are. We all know how subtle and sweet this allurement of the “hubris” can be.

There is however another kind of sin, a perhaps more subtle temptation for the believers and that is that they think too little of themselves. This, in the words of Jesus, refers to an inclination to hide our light under the proverbial bushel, to live a life of constant apology - as if we have no inner dignity, possess no special quality or presence, don’t really belong where the others are. In fact, in “Eternal Echoes” John O’Donohue reminds us “the Western tradition of sinfulness and selfishness has trapped many people all their lives in a false inner civil war. Fearful of vaulting themselves in any way, they have shunned their own light and mystery”.

It is because so many Christians fall into this trap of playing too small, of embracing a false humility, that in Romans 12 Paul reminds them of their special gifts and their part in the body of Christ. He emphasises that although they should be modest, it has to be in accordance with the faith (and dignity) that God has given them (v 3). And he reminds them that this should be shared with others (v 10,13)

My wife has a younger colleague who understands this well. She is not overly confident, but she is aware that she is intelligent, charming, gifted and special – she also has a special sense of humour and sensitivity to false or sincere social positioning. One of her very endearing habits is to remind her colleagues and friends when her birthday is coming up. A month before the special day she writes it in glowing colours on the whiteboard in the staff room: “Remember, 25 days to L’s birthday!” And then, almost like with the upcoming worldcup soccer, she counts down the days: ”24, 23, 22, 21, etc.days to go”…until the big day when there are cakes and candles!

Many may find such an exuberant announcement of one’s own birthday rather awkward. But this friend has a different perspective: she enjoys the celebration of her birthday, and says if you do not tell people, they will not know – and mostly feel bad afterwards if they forgot or missed it! This shows the beauty and freedom of dignity, of a person who knows that she is somebody special and does not hesitate to claim and share it. As O’Donohue puts it: “When you have a worthy sense of yourself, this communicates itself in your physical presence and personality”.

So how about claiming your birthright and reminding us when your birthday is due, so that we can share in another happy return!

Carel Anthonissen

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The virtue of one thing only

A while ago my computer started playing up. It froze on certain programmes and despite my best efforts, it refused to open and allow me access. What a frustration! It almost felt as if I was dealing with a stubborn child who, without good reason, had withdrawn, shut himself off and become totally unresponsive.

Being no more than semi-computer literate, I followed the regular pattern of my generation: I called in my son – who was not particularly patient with his dad. After running through all the standard procedures to get the computer started he eventually also gave up. His final verdict was: “Your computer is full of junk, dad. It has seized. It is overloaded. You need to organise and manage your programmes better”.

Next step was off to the dealer who confirmed the problem. In fact, according to him my hard drive had given in and I was in danger of losing all my vital information. What a shock, what anxiety at the prospect of losing years’ worth of precious work: sermons, talks, letters, courses, poems, prayers and promises … the whole anthology of creative effort that I had collected, produced, stored quite diligently over many years - all gone in a moment!

I was obliged to consider my son’s opinion on the state of my hard drive. And, drawing comparisons in my usual way, it had to cross my mind that there is a parallel between the human mind, our own psyche in fact, and these modern information systems. Even if not in the same mechanical way, our mental awareness is vulnerable to becoming disorganised, cluttered and overloaded, sometimes to a point where it can also freeze, pack up, call it a day. With increasing demands and pressures, the exhausting claims and responsibilities of modern society, it is no surprise that many suffer from burnout, depression and anxiety.

As with my computer, banal as the comparison may be, many people today reach a point where everything has just become too much – and so they start to seize, becoming passive and negative. Eventually they lose their energy and perspective, they give up on life, shut down. This often starts with feelings of exhaustion and anxiety, a marked sense of irritation. These are the vital signs, the warning lights that our system has become overloaded, that it is in danger of giving in and shutting down.

It is not always easy to regain your calm and restore a healthy perspective once you have become trapped in this deadly cycle of ongoing work and pressure. One needs to stop and take stock; remember what is of real value, focus on those things that we know are reliable. Being concerned, distracted by many things is not a new or modern problem. In Matt 6:33-34, Jesus urges his followers to turn their attention to the one thing that really matters and will make a difference – “Set your mind on God’s kingdom and his justice before anything else, and all the rest will come to you as well. So do not be anxious about tomorrow, tomorrow will look after itself”.

Is this not also what Martha, overstressed by so many duties and obligations, had to learn.
“Martha, Martha you are fretting and fussing about so many things; but one thing is necessary” (Lk 11:41).

Carel Anthonissen

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

When brothers live together in unity

It is impossible to declare any one psalm more beautiful or more meaningful than another, but personally I have always had a great affection for Psalm 133: A song of ascents. Of David.

I’m not sure why it holds such appeal for me. Perhaps it is because of the lilting rhythms, the poetic repetition of certain phrases. Or perhaps it’s the sheer abundance of it – precious oil poured on the head of Aaron and overflowing like David’s cup in Psalm 23.

But most probably it is because we live in a world which is supposed to have become a global village, and yet neighbours are drifting further and further apart ; there is rancour among nations. Under such circumstances Psalm 133 provides a beautiful alternative.

As does the story of the two brothers in Korea . You may have heard it before, but I think it is worth the retelling.

Two brothers tended their rice fields together. After a very good year, the elder brother had gathered 68 bags of rice, the younger 62 – enough for the two families to live well during the winter.

One evening, the rice safely stored, the elder brother’s wife said : You know, Husband, your brother has five children, we have none. Will you not in the dark of night, take a bag of rice and add it to your brother’s store? The elder brother agreed happily, and that night he took a bag of rice and put it with his brother’s crop.

The following morning however, his wife chided him : Husband, you must have forgotten to take the rice to your brother, for there are still 68 bags of rice in our store…

The elder brother could not understand it. Had he dreamt taking the rice next door? So that night he went out again, putting the extra bag of rice in his brother’s storeroom. And yet again 68 bags of rice remained when they counted the following morning.

In the house next door, the young wife had said to her husband : We have been blessed this year; our house, Husband, is full of joy. Your brother has no children, but their house needs a new roof, which is very expensive. Will you not take one of our bags of rice tonight and secretly put it in his store? The younger brother gladly followed her advice, but when they counted their rice the following morning, there were still 62 bags, as before.

The brothers were mystified, but the solution came when the two brothers, each carrying a bag of rice on his back, met in the field between the two houses, and realised the love they had for one another : Love your neighbour, said Christ, like yourself.

How good, how pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity ! For there the Lord bestows his blessing.

Cecile Cilliers

Friday, January 29, 2010

It is as simple as that

One of the most common ways of avoiding one’s responsibility in a given situation is to rationalise - that is, to introduce false arguments that obscure the really important considerations; or it is to shift the blame, the burden of responsibility to other people or to circumstances over which one could have no control. Often people will argue that the issue at stake is much more complex and intricate than it seems. In this way the truth can be compromised and even denied. Bad things are made to look good, and good things are made to look naive and unachievable.

How easily this can happen and how our society has grown to tolerate such approaches to what I would like to call ‘respectful falsehoods’, was illustrated to me during the recent cricket tour of England to South Africa. During one of the tests one of South Africa’s key batsmen touched the ball and was caught out … but then was given not out, because the umpires on the field had not seen it, nor heard the sound of the bat on the ball. The microphones that were supposed to help the third umpire make a final decision were turned off when that judgement had to be made. Thus the third umpire also heard nothing - and so his decision was similarly “not out”! Of course this dismayed the English players who all had heard the sound of bat on ball and were convinced that the batsman was out and should go.

Afterwards there was an extended, sometimes heated, discussion on this controversial incident. The debate focused largely on the difficulty of being an umpire, on the technological limitations of a still developing system of televised assistance, and then of course on the dilemma of the poor batsman who had to wait in uncertainty for the decision, perhaps knowing that his future career could depend on this outcome. What struck me was that very few commentators even mentioned, let alone called on, the batsman’s own honesty and responsibility in these circumstances. However, there was one exception. An older former West Indian bowler who was here as a commentator, was quite outspoken. For me that was like a breath of fresh air, a testimony to the kind of integrity that we are desperately looking for in our society.

According to him every batsman knows instantly, when they have touched the ball. What is more, earlier on, before the technology of third umpires, it was customary – in fact, a matter of honour – for the batsman to turn and walk if he had been dismissed in such a way. In doing so they not only demonstrated their honesty, but also gained respect. Opponents, fellow players and onlookers applauded such conduct, and the umpire who was helped in his decision expected no less.

Listening to his arguments there were several oohs and ahs from his fellow commentators, most of then reminding him that the game has changed, that things are not that simple and that the onus of decisionmaking has shifted. When in such circumstances some walk and some stay, it is best to leave it to the umpires who now have the additional support of technology.

The West Indian commentator and former bowler remained insistent: “No, it is as simple as that. Because in the end it is about honesty, integrity, justice and truth. Just think what will happen when doctors and nurses, engineers and attorneys should start arguing and acting like this, not taking responsibility for their deeds and shifting it to others, especially when they have made a mistake. It will be disastrous.

Perhaps cricket is not that serious; perhaps it is just a game – a rather competitive one, but nevertheless. Well, I would say “even so”. A game does sometimes open a small window on life and on the values that people live by. Sport icons, like leaders elsewhere, can set the tone. That is why one sometimes wants to cry out: “No, not like this! Your arguments may look or sound sensible, but in essence they are a bluff”.

Carel Anthonissen

Friday, January 22, 2010

On the ghosts of anxiety

For me a very consoling part of the sermon on the mount remains Jesus’ speech in Matt 6: 22-34 on our daily worries and how we are supposed to deal with them.

We all know such worries and anxieties all too well – those irrational thoughts and fears, which often disturb and wake us at night, leaving us in a cold sweat or with a knot in the stomach…because we worry and agonise about so many things – unresolved conflict, concerns about the future, the long list of “to-do” things, bills that need to be paid, outstanding tax forms, even putting out the garbage and watering the plants!

At the beginning of the year, many people are plagued by feelings of anxiety about things that need to be started up and put in place. Seemingly trivial matters can, as we all know, make life really unpleasant, if not outrightly miserable, robbing us of our peace of mind and even of our hopeful prospects. When anxiety enters, our inner tranquility and often our much needed rest departs, and may even be destroyed. Then the mind wakes up with all kinds of irrational thoughts, fears and images. People who suffer from anxiety, often have limited control over it: they lose their calm, their bodies become tense, they feel overwhelmed and paralyzed, unable to pray or view things positively. The world suddenly seems a dark and unfriendly place, the way ahead untraversable, impossible, almost like an insurmountable mountain.

How does one deal with these daily worries, the ghosts that feed our anxiety?
According to Jesus most of our worries or feelings of anxiety are directly related to our daily concerns about physical and material sustenance, our economic and social security.

Of course, such concerns are not unimportant. Jesus does not suggest that we should be indifferent or careless regarding our health or the material and physical provision for ourselves, our family and others. But according to Matt 6, if we exclusively and constantly focus on these concerns, our vision may become blurred, murky, skewed (v 22-23); then our anxieties multiply and we become more vulnerable to disappointment and disaster than we need to be (v 19-21). Therefore, so Jesus reminds us, there should be a deeper concern in our lives, a greater worry, a higher priority – one to which we should constantly turn and return with more dedicated focus. Our attention should be directed towards what Jesus calls the kingdom of God.

This phrase may sound rather abstract, removed from our daily toils and nightly restlessness. But taken seriously, the kingdom of God in the long run generates a totally new and liberating perspective on life, a hopeful way ahead. To focus on God’s kingdom is to keep remembering and trusting that there is a God in heaven who knows us and who cares, a God to whom we may and also should call and pray daily, continuously. This God is one who today is still at work in history and has promised to answer us in some way, sooner or later – although we know, it does sometimes take a while.

In the past week I was myself put to shame in that my preoccupation with my own daunting responsibilities was met with an unexpected gift. I had become a bit overwhelmed, worrying about how we would manage all the different projects that the Centre has embarked on. It took so much of my energy and attention that I fretted like one without faith, with little trust even in prayer. And then unexpectedly, we received an answer in concrete, material terms. At times that is how it happens, some little sign is given, reminding us how important it is to keep the balance, to keep our attention in the right place. What a relief. What grace!

Carel Anthonissen