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