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