This is the opening devotional reflection shared with the Church Leaders' Consultation on 15 October 2012
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, let me share some reflections on what it might mean to ‘read the signs of the times’ through God’s eyes, at this time in our nation.
I shall begin with a verse which was part of the Old Testament passage set today within the lectionary of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa. As you might know, we have a two year cycle of readings for Morning and Evening Prayer, which takes us through the whole of the Bible – well, apart from a few genealogies, and some of the more duplicative parts of the books of Kings and Chronicles! Today, we were reading from the book of the prophet Micah – and chapter 7, verse 7, says this: ‘As for me, I will look to the Lord, I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me.’
There are two key points to note here. First, God listens. Second, God is the source of our salvation, our redemption. They are obvious – but they bear repeating, and applying to our own context.
Recent months have been very hard. I have been to Marikana a number of times – as have some of you. Though I grew up in dire conditions in Alexandra, I was shocked - my stomach was turned – at the conditions in which workers and their families are expected to live. And though I found a deep desire for solutions to be found, I also felt my soul deeply troubled. It was as though the very ground cried out, with all the sorrow, the despair, the anger, not only at recent deaths and violence, but at a long, long history of inhumanity and inequality, oppression and exploitation – not always by the employers, but also by loan sharks and others who feed off the needy and vulnerable.
Then, on Saturday, I presided at the funeral of Zwelakhe Sisulu – a man of high principle, a son of all that was best about the struggle. His death seemed to me to represent how so much of the values, the standards, the excellence, of the past are being lost to the present and the future.
Well, these are just two instances of what we face in South Africa today. We could compile a long, long, list of all that is wrong. It is easy enough to do. Journalists do it, commentators do it, opposition politicians do it – and so often, we do it too.
Criticism is easy. But then what?
Christians are called to something more. We are called to bring another narrative to bear: one that is not content to rest with the stories of all that is going wrong; all that is undermining the best for which so many strove.
Our task is to say God listens, and God saves. For we know that while our God is a God of both judgement and hope, ‘mercy triumphs over judgement’ as St James writes (Jas 2:13). Though God judges, the message of redemption that comes with judgement is always greater, louder, stronger. When I recall John 3:16, I always want to add John 3:17: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’
God is love – and it is through love that he implacably opposes all that diminishes humanity; and it is through love that his overwhelming desire is for the redemption, salvation, renewal, healing and wholeness of all humanity, and all human society.
This is what our country most needs to hear from us now. It does not need to hear how bad things are – everyone knows this. People want to be reassured that there can be a better way; and that things are not inevitably going to get worse and worse and worse.
St Paul wrote to the Philippians ‘Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things’ – or, as another translation puts it, ‘let your mind dwell on these things’ (Phil 4:8). Behavioural science tells us the same as St Paul: when the positive vision is central, it becomes magnet that draws us forward. If we always focus on problems, we lose sight of where we are going, and get dragged down.
So we should encourage people not to be focussed on the failings to uphold the values of the Freedom Charter, and the Constitution – but rather to continue to ensure that the vision they encapsulate remains the centre of their lives and the life of this country. We must let this be the touchstone that shapes all our words, our actions, our policy-making, and that draws us all forwards.
I started preaching in this way about two months ago – before the shootings at Marikana – and I was surprised at the strength of the response I received. People are hungry to hear us state God’s promises of new life, new hope, so clearly. People express such a sense of relief, when we say that ‘Yes, there can be a better way – and this is what God wants to bring. All we have to do is align ourselves with this, and God will help us.’
Earlier this month, we had a large conference of Anglicans from across Southern Africa, called Anglicans Ablaze. It was a wonderful time, with a sense of God’s comprehensive renewal in ways far broader than the evangelistic terms in which we often see renewal. It was as if God was wanting to breathe new life into us in a holistic way that encompasses evangelism and discipleship and mission and social justice.
As part of this, it seemed his message to us was that we must step back from criticism – from criticising and pulling down those who are different within our church, but also from criticising and pulling down our nation. We should ‘bless and not curse’, as St Paul writes to the Romans (Rom 12:14). In these dark days, our calling is to be beacons of hope and channels of blessing – to remind the world of God’s better way; and to say that this is a tangible, realistic, achievable, option before us.
Perhaps this is seems like a ‘big ask’ in these troubled times. But I am reminded that today, many of us celebrate the life of St Teresa of Avila. This visionary woman of the sixteenth century said this: ‘You pay God a compliment by asking great things of Him.’ So let us dare to pay him the compliment of asking him to help us be these beacons of hope, channels of blessing, to our nation.
Let us not be afraid to proclaim, with the prophet Micah, that God listens, and God saves. Let us be confident, and share our confidence with our nation – even if we feel ourselves challenged by the ways he calls us to live out this faith, in tangible and concrete ways.
And let us also pray with confidence, the famous prayer which St Teresa wrote:
‘Christ has no body now, but ours.
No hands, no feet on earth, but ours.
Ours are the eyes through which
Christ looks with compassion on the world.
Ours are the feet
with which Christ walks to do good.
Ours are the hands
with which Christ blesses the world. Amen’