Wednesday, 22 December 2010
Christmas Letter: The Year That Was
2010 - The Year that was
This year 2010 has been a very special year and a very rich year. I like to see it through the eyes of a believer, to whom God is present (incarnate) in a real sense in this world, which is also the message of Christmas. My first letter from South Africa to Sweden in 1976 was about this. God is no doubt present in what God has created and this view and experience is not unique to Christians. I said in that letter that looking out from our house in Rondebosch towards the busy Klipfontein Road and also further afield towards the mountains in the east, I sensed that God was here way before me. I made it a point in saying that in God’s mission God is always first. God is there before the messenger comes with the good news. In the same vein one could also say that Africa has been endowed with a sense of God that has become an integral part of the self-understanding of almost all Africans. A European or Western secular world where God is excluded as it were, for all practical purposes, does not exist here. Thanks to my pious roots in Sweden I have also always had some reservations against such a view. It is true that the secular (i.e. the world) is our responsibility as humans and we must somehow take charge, but that does not mean that God is not there in the very things which occupy us. We are learning anew that faith in God cannot be divorced from other realities.
During the following seven events or movements during 2010 I have felt the presence of God intensively. I have felt connected to a reality that is absolutely saturated with meaning. It has been a journey that has told me about the richness and the suffering of the world.
In January we travelled to Ulundi in KwaZuluNatal and back, along the coast. It is a long stretch, ca 2x 1700km. I never tire of travelling in South Africa. These unbelievable sceneries, mountains, valleys, plains, mountain passes, the forlorn small towns… and the other side of the coin, the people of South Africa, the main asset. Wherever you come there is someone to talk to, and which group they are from does not matter too much. In a way the very movement, as in the Swedish 18th century writer Jonas Love Almquist’s ‘Det går an’, is a guarantee for contact but on the other hand a rather casual contact, not very deep. This is feasible also in South Africa where the various race groups have not quite jelled yet. What I wanted to see I saw, the Zululand hill country, some of which is densely populated. We had talks with bishop Biyela in Durban about ecclesiology (study of the church) and some Lutheran priests. The church in sub-Saharan Africa is the least studied part of Christianity and yet the most vibrant. The challenge is there. The remaining image of this trip is the ever present sea board not far from the road and the often densely populated areas along this fantastic coast. We had seen part of the sub-continent of Africa.
In March I went on my own to Nigeria. It was difficult and expensive to get a visa. I went with apprehensions as kidnappings had taken place in the days before. Corrupt practices and violent crime stared into my face. I was not even sure who to get from the international airport to the domestic airport in Lagos. I should not have worried. Two nuns took care of me that first morning, one of whom is my dear friend Teresa Okure. The problems of Nigeria are real and cannot be overlooked, but there is another side to this country that must become known. It has a huge population of nearly 150 million. The wealth in terms of human activity in all walks of life is overwhelming. The churches are hyperactive and for example the Roman Catholic Church which had invited me has some 30 million members. Nigeria is a sleeping giant and in a vision I can see this giant rising and making itself known within a decade or two. Democratic practices will take root for good, corruption and other kinds of crime will diminish radically. It will be a place of African wholeness. It will be a country where Christian and Muslims live peacefully together. I also remember with fondness the new Arik Airlines, a Nigerian private airline.
On Easter Saturday I ran the Two Oceans Marathon, which in my case meant the half marathon. The start in Newlands within running distance from our house in Rondebosch; take off at 06h15 in the morning, still dark, 11 000 people in one heap. It is a very real experience of being in a way one body with all these unknowns, yet without touching any of them. One can also be carried away by being in the crowd, at least for a while. After half an hour somewhere in Wynberg sunrise will come, not long after come the difficult parts, a lot of uphill and fatigue enters the body. You are testing your body and there is a point in doing this between Good Friday and Easter Sunday as one may almost be dead before finish and yet you live, the sense of relaxation and comfort and life afterward is spectacular. I did not do particularly well this year as I had had flu not long before but I was in good enough shape to run. Running has some wonderful benefits: you learn what it is to be thirsty and even hungry, the very feeling is great, and the very quenching of thirst is equally great.
In May and June we were in Sweden. Even if South Africa is home this was indeed homecoming. Meeting with our two sons and theirs; May was cold, I had forgotten; the quietness and orderliness were there and more than anything else, the obligatory walk at night in central Uppsala, a walk that never can be undertaken in Cape Town unfortunately. To see the leaves come out in Rottne, Småland at our country house during the month of May; to take part in the World Festival of the Church of Sweden in Växjö. Amongst the 3 – 4000 participants literally hundreds were known to us; people we had not seen for years. The liturgy, the spirituality, the being together as it happens in Church of Sweden (Evangelical Lutheran without many people having an idea about that) is so authentic, so conducive to my understanding of what church should be and at a festival like this all these things work together towards building the people of God.
June and July in Cape Town for the soccer world cup; the discussion whether it was worth the cost must be taken seriously as one rightly could ask: how many houses could be built for that sum of money? On the other hand, the world cup went well and there is a sense among all South Africans that we have achieved something, we have stood the test, and we are not just another banana republic but a land with some real substance. And in addition South Africans know that the friendliness and hospitality are assets that make us attractive all over the world. I won’t tell the story of how I had tickets for the match between Germany and Argentina that one special Saturday in Cape Town but how these tickets were given to someone else. However, I celebrated with so many others when this match was on in Cape Town and this particular Saturday people had come out in full force, nearly 300 000, out of which only 65 000 could see the match in the stadium. The rest just made a huge party in down town Cape Town, absolutely peacefully. This was unforgettable. South Africa can, yes we can. Bafana Bafana fell out of the tournament too soon, but then South Africans instantly became fans of other popular teams and this continued up to the final. The soccer world cup was real but at the same time also like a healthy breeze, when it was gone it was gone.
In November we travelled again, this time to Namibia. I have recently described this visit in another blog (21 December). What I like to mention though is that on the way back from Windhoek, on the way southwards to South Africa we saw the most conspicuous rainbow that I ever have seen, after some heavy rain, the first summer rain. It was also the largest I had seen seemingly rooted in the ground in both ends; the colours were bright. Namibia’s austerity, the scarceness of people, the aesthetic fine lines of the desert; Namibia is very special, still largely uninhabited virgin land…
November, and back in Cape Town; as far as our mother city is concerned this month could well carry the rubric: one murder too many. I have also written about the tragedy earlier (10 December). The murder of Anni Dewani, born Hindocha, in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, a Swedish girl from Mariestad, not far from where I grew up, on honey moon with her husband from England has made us aware of the dark side of our beloved city and the implications of it will spill over into next year. It is a brutal reminder that life is not only a steady movement from one place to another with pleasantries; rather, life is always a walk close to death and we should know about it. In an equally brutal way there is also not a long distance between the newborn child and the fate that this child is going towards later in life: inevitable death on a cross. I mention this tragic event here not only because it has shaken me, but also because it belongs to our life’s ingredients. We would lie if we did not include it and the hopeful thing, and I mean it, is that God’s presence is made manifest more than anywhere else in suffering and death because God went in under these conditions. It is the essential part of God being incarnate. There is a direct line between the birth of God and the death of God, a God that would ultimately turn tragedy into new life.