Tuesday 25 June 2013

Prayers for Madiba, and those who watch and wait with him

Below is a prayer used on visiting Pretoria Heart Hospital on 25 June 2013, to offer spiritual support to, and pray with, Me Graça, the family, and all attending to Madiba.

Scripture says that Rachel wept for the loss of her children and could not be consoled. Yet it also tells us that you, Lord Jesus, who wept at the death of your dear friend Lazarus, promise to be with us, and to stay with us, to the end of time.

Thank you that you who have walked the long valley of the shadow will never forsake us, neither in life nor in death – and your everlasting arms embrace us always, in this life and the life to come.

Make your compassionate and strengthening presence known to Graça, and to all who love Madiba, at this hard time of watching and waiting. Fill them with your holy courage and the gift of trusting faith, and take away their fears so that they may dare to face their grief and bring it to your presence. May they know the truth of your promise that ‘blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.’

Guide the medical staff so that they may know how to use their skills wisely and well, in caring for Madiba and keeping him comfortable. And uphold all of us with your steadfast love so that we may be filled with gratitude for all the good that he has done for us and for our nation, and may honour his legacy through our lives.

And so we bring our prayers to you:
Lord Jesus Christ, you are a God who knows vulnerability, weakness and frailty,
You are Lord of Lords, King of Kings, Lord of life and death,
Your power sustains us in life and death.

May your arms of love, stretched wide on the cross for us,
Now enfold Madiba, and Graça, with compassion, comfort and
the conviction that you will never forsake them but that
you will grant Madiba eternal healing and relief from pain and suffering.

And may your blessing rest upon Madiba now and always. Grant him, we pray, a quiet night and a peaceful, perfect, end.

The peace of God, which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord; and the blessing of God almighty, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, be among you and remain with you always. Amen.

Sunday 23 June 2013

Death: it’s time to break the taboo

This opinion piece was published in the Sunday Independent on 23 June 2013

Death: it’s time to break the taboo

When I was a child, certain subjects were never discussed. Adults might make guarded references, in oblique terms, when they thought the children weren’t listening. And if we dared even to hint at the issue, we’d probably earn ourselves a klap round the ear. There was no open, honest discussion, even though we all knew, and we all knew that we knew, this stuff existed. Local scandals were just such subjects. There were huge no-go areas across most topics associated with sex. Nowadays, it seems sex is everywhere, while death is the subject we find increasingly difficult to discuss openly.

Madiba’s latest spell in hospital has had us once again dancing around the subject, though I was glad to see that alongside our heartfelt prayers for his recovery, there is also growing acceptance that he cannot go on for ever, and calls that we must learn to let him go. This is both good and necessary, for Madiba’s sake and for ours. In fact, a more honest attitude to our own mortality helps us all in the daily business of life.

It troubles me that we have become so poor at addressing this fundamental part of what it means to be truly human. Being in denial risks diminishing our capacity to lead a full life. Sometimes, especially when death comes through accidents, our language can carry the implication that dying only happens to an unfortunate few, as if the rest of us went on for ever.

We also try to cushion ourselves, with euphemistic references to people “passing”. Too often, all this has the opposite effect of what it is designed to do. It makes dealing with dying and death – whether our own or others’ – far harder, because it denies the reality and normality, as well as the enormity and the awfulness, of death. And it gets in the way of proper grieving. We cannot avoid these, and we ought not to, if we wish to be emotionally healthy.

Urbanisation may have a lot to do with the rise of death as the “last taboo”. We are increasingly distant from the creation of which we are a part: the natural cycles of the seasons, and the mysteries of birth and growth, life and death, all around us. Instead, we create concrete jungles, as if with good enough technology we can control our environment and everything that happens within it, from managing our workplace climate through to buying fresh strawberries all year round. But there are things that we cannot control, and mortality is one of them.

If we admit to our own mortality, we are more able to appreciate the seasons of our own lives, and our own and others’ intrinsic dignity, whatever our age or circumstances. The elderly and frail should never be treated like some obsolete products that have outlived their usefulness and are fit only to be “discontinued”.

Yet, we must not belittle the awfulness of death, even when we have faith in life beyond the grave. It will always remain a frightening prospect, unknowable and inescapable. Even Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, prayed he might avoid his impending death, saying: “May this cup pass my lips.” But through wrestling with the prospect before him, he was able to reach a point of resolution, praying to God the Father: “Yet not my will but yours be done.”

All of us, too, should dare to wrestle with our own eventual mortality – and those who are terminally ill or old and frail particularly need emotional space to do this, as do their nearest and dearest. Being able to speak together with honesty at such times is one of the greatest gifts we can give to one another.

Honesty around death is also the greatest help we can give at times of bereavement. One of the best pieces of advice I have heard is “Be strong and weep”.

Death can feel incomprehensible. It is almost more than our minds can grasp that someone who was so alive is now gone from us. We need our rituals at these times. These long-established practices around death and funerals, which time has taught our communities to follow, can act as effective vehicles for carrying us through unavoidable pain and sorrow. Engaging with them constructively can enable us to look back later and know that we have done what we ought, for the one who has died, and for ourselves. They may also offer the words we cannot find ourselves, and provide “safe” places for us to let our grief flow freely. We should all be able to admit how hard we find a loved one’s death, and to do whatever our mourning requires of us.

I’m always shocked when journalists report that people or communities are “still coming to terms” with tragic events, only a day or so after they have taken place. Surely we all know that it takes a year, even two, truly to deal with the death of a close family member? Some deaths leave us changed for ever, as when parents lose a child. Let us be tender with one another, when life brings such agony.

At first sight, one of the strangest of the Beatitudes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” It is important to realise that this certainly does not mean death and bereavement are a good thing. By no means. But it does mean that we all need to do our “grief work”, if we are not to remain stuck and unable to go forward. Being real about death helps us better live in the present and plan for the future of those we love – even if it is a future in which we know we shall not ourselves participate. It gives a truer perspective, not least enabling us to use our resources well, for the common good and for future generations, rather than in our fear feeling we must use everything for ourselves “before it is too late”.

As a country, we also need to do our grief work. There is much unfinished mourning to be done for the pains and sorrows of apartheid.

And, of course, we also need to do our grief work about the inevitable passing of all our great Struggle heroes. Many we have mourned well, letting them go while retaining their legacy. Walter and Albertina Sisulu are two I often recall, and though I miss Ma Sisulu in particular, my emotions are dominated by gratitude for all she was and all she did, and by determination to honour her life through the choices and actions of my own life.

Now the time is drawing close when we must do the same for Madiba. Let us not be afraid to use the ancient words of the Night Prayer – may God grant him a peaceful night, and a good end.

Thursday 13 June 2013

Prayers for Madiba

This open letter was issued on 13 June 2013

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, dear friends of South Africa everywhere, I invite you to join with me in praying for God's tender merciful hand to be upon our former President, Nelson Mandela at this time, and for his love to enfold dear Madiba, and all who are close to him. The Bible reassures us that 'God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble' (Psalm 46) and it is often when we feel most weak and vulnerable that God's reassurance comes to us most powerfully. It reminds us that in life, and in death, nothing can ever separate us from his love, and that his everlasting arms will never let us slip from his safe June grasp.

As I pray for Madiba, I also join many others, around the Anglican Communion and around the Commonwealth, in praying too for Prince Philip, as he recovers from surgery in a London hospital.

We thank God for these men who, in very different ways, have each given so much of their lives in the service of their nations, and of the wider good.

May God hear our prayers, and may his perfect will be done, in their lives and in ours. Amen.

Issued by the Office of the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town
Inquiries: Ms Wendy Kelderman 021 763 1320 (office hours)

Wednesday 12 June 2013

To the Laos - To the People of God, June 2013

Dear People of God

These ‘weeks after Pentecost’, with its green liturgical colour, we tend to think of as a season for growing in our faith – including growing in knowledge and love of God, in the depth of our prayer life, in Christian maturity, and in numbers. The number one best way to keep growing is to ensure we have well-trained clergy and lay leaders – which is why we are prioritising theological education this year.

To help all of us grapple more deeply with this theme, we shall shortly be issuing the From Root to Branch study guide. Four studies look at what it means to develop a mission-shaped church, and the role of theological training, and especially the College of the Transfiguration, in achieving this. The studies are intended for use in August, when we also mark Theological Education Sunday on 18 August.

I am writing to you on the Feast of St Barnabas, one of the most influential, even if not most well-known, Saints of the New Testament. His name means ‘Son of Encouragement’, and it is the theme of encouragement – especially encouragement of the ministry of people ‘set apart for the work of the Lord’ that I want to address in this letter. For St Barnabas is a wonderful example for us, as we consider how we too can support those ‘set apart for the work of the Lord’ (see Acts 13:2).

St Barnabas is best known for his relationship with St Paul. You will recall that before his conversion, St Paul – known as Saul – was notorious for persecuting the church, both in Jerusalem, and also searching out Christians across the region. He was on his way to Damascus when he experienced a miraculous encounter with Jesus, which not only changed his life, but changed the history of the world.

And yet history might not have been changed without St Barnabas. After his conversion, St Paul had to flee from Damascus. Finally he came to Jerusalem. But, as we read in Acts 9, the disciples were all afraid of him. They feared his conversion was not genuine, no doubt suspecting it was a plot so he could get to know them all, and then have them arrested and worse. But St Barnabas had the courage to find St Paul, and get to know him – and then he brought him to the disciples, into the family of God’s people. When they heard his testimony, the early church could recognise and acknowledge the genuine call of God upon St Paul’s life, and affirm his ministry.

Later, when the Jerusalem church heard of the congregation growing in Antioch, they sent St Barnabas to pastor it, and he brought in St Paul from Tarsus, so he too could share in teaching and leading the increasing number of people there. Later, St Paul and St Barnabas travelled and worked together for some years, before finally going their separate ways. It is interesting to read how their relationship develops, through the book of Acts. At first it is clear that St Barnabas is the ‘senior’ partner, mentioned first – but soon, St Paul, whom he has mentored and encouraged, becomes the one who is mentioned most prominently.

Now, all of this is a very lengthy invitation to you all to follow the example of St Barnabas! We too can encourage the ministry of those whom God is calling to be set apart for his special work within the church, and especially those called to be ordained. Like St Barnabas, all of us can play a role in helping the church to recognise those to whom God gives this special vocation.

And like St Barnabas, we can also help ensure that this ministry is not only recognised, but mentored and supported – until those who are called are sufficiently well trained to be able to lead God’s people without that close oversight, but as part of the broader network of Christians sharing in leadership of the Church.

Unlike St Barnabas, we don’t have to do all this ourselves! We are privileged to have the College of the Transfiguration (COTT) in Grahamstown, as a place to which we can send those the church discerns are called by God, so they can be well trained to serve as our clergy. Lay leaders may also be trained alongside them.

Theological Education is one of the key priorities of the Vision and Mission Statement of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa. For without well-trained clergy and lay ministers, the well-being of our congregations, and the ability of all God’s people to live lives of faithful worship, witness and service (as we pledge to do at our confirmation) is seriously undermined. Indeed, our whole future is put at risk.

Provincial Standing Committee therefore decided that we ought to look at how to safeguard theological education for the future. Rather than make continued appeals from time to time, we decided to make One Big Push this year. Therefore, on Theological Education Sunday, 18 August, we will hold a special collection.

Did you know that within ACSA we have about 4 million people. We are asking everyone who is able to give R10, or the equivalent – and of course, some will be able, and may feel called by God, to give rather more. Even if everyone gave R10, that would bring us R40million altogether. This would be enough for an Endowment Fund that will guarantee the continuing development of COTT – its buildings and grounds, its teaching facilities including library and computers, its full staffing, and, most of all, its capacity to provide quality teaching and training.

What matters is that we can ensure that future ordained and lay leaders are well equipped for guiding, directing and encouraging the life of faith among our people, so all of us together can keep on growing in the knowledge and love of God, and in sharing in God’s mission to God’s world.

R40million may seem a lot, but divided among all 4 million of us, it is entirely attainable – and so I am feeling hugely excited and encouraged that we have such a simple plan, to achieve so much! Yet I do realise that for some of you, even R10, for every family member, above your usual giving, is a significant sum. This is why I am writing to you in June, so you have time to start saving, if you need to do this.

We shall also be sending round posters and fliers in the coming months, so you can be reminded to be fully prepared for 18 August. We are hoping that special collection envelopes will be available in as many churches as possible – but if not, a special collection in the plate, or at the end of the service will do just as well.

Finally, let me recall the very first reference to St Barnabas in the New Testament. In Acts 4:37 we read this: ‘Barnabas sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.’ This Son of Encouragement did not only support ministry by his actions, his affirming and teaching and mentoring of St Paul. He also gave money to the church so it could follow God’s call.

So let us also dare to follow the example of St Barnabas, and give generously, so we too can contribute to building a firm foundation that will guarantee well-equipped leaders for our church, well into the future.

May God bless you through your giving – for he ‘loves a cheerful giver’ and promises that when we sow bountifully, we will also reap bountifully (2 Cor 9:6,7).

Yours in the service of Christ

+Thabo Cape Town