I have enjoyed listening to RSG (Afrikaans) radio for many years, and got to appreciate the input of senior radio producer and journalist, Suna Venter, whose body was discovered in her flat in Fairland, Johannesburg, very recently. Just thirty two, she had been diagnosed with a cardiac condition known as Stress Cardio-Myography or ‘Broken Heart Syndrome,’ which causes rapid and severe heart muscle weakness. Her family and colleagues spoke of her trauma and prolonged periods of unnatural stress over the past year. She was part of eight SABC journalists who were fired (seven since reinstated) for objecting to former COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s dictatorial and lunatic policy of no longer airing live footage of violent township protests embarassing the ANC government. A parliamentary Ad Hoc Committee investigation later revealed huge irregularities at the corporation. Despite reinstatement she was the victim of continued political intimidation and death threats. This pretty girl was shot in the face with pellets while leaving a restaurant, requiring surgery to remove them. She received many death threats on her phone. Her flat was broken into numerous times, her car tyres slashed and brake cables cut. She was abducted and tied to a tree at Melville Koppies (hills) while the grass around her was set alight. The police failed to respond and she was rescued by a colleague.
She was involved with humanitarian organisations in various visits to Libya, Gaza, Egypt and Syria. She took unpaid leave to report from Syria. She was especially passionate about the welfare of children, having trained as a teacher. The country stopped to salute her for her sense of justice, compassion and above all courage. Her story touched my own heart in a profound way, and I simply had to blog her story. I have no idea as to any profession of faith on her part, simply that she was buried from a Dutch Reformed congregation.
What struck me and others was the report of a small tattoo on her arm, Were You Brave? Now that stirred something in me, as I took a quick review of my life…
- I recalled my primary school motto (from Shakespeare) To Thine Own Self Be True, my high school motto Vivite Fortes i.e. ‘Live courageously.’
- I recalled my ‘induction’ into my first pastorate. My College Principal preached on 2 Tim. 2:3, ‘Share in suffering like a good soldier of Jesus Christ.’ An unusual text!
- I recalled a fair share of personal and family suffering during thirty-eight years of denominational ministry, until the Lord’s release almost eleven years ago to engage in organic church expressions and ministry to the poor.
- I’m certainly not competing with Suna, simply asking, have I been a good soldier of Jesus Christ? Only the Lord knows the answer.
You see we live, as believers, in a time of unprecedented church compromise, materialism, consumerism, individualism, ego-centricity, hunger for power, identity preservation and many other diseases. Recently I found an article by Brian McLaren, whom years ago I was privileged to have preach from my pulpit. It’s about Millenials departing the ranks of the churched. A young pastor, Clarke, wrote to him recently: ‘The longer I work in the church the more I wonder if the church has any impact in our world. I often feel the church caters to the expectations and needs of insiders who have lost sight of our call to be radical change agents charged with advocating for and with people who have been pushed to the margins and to fight against the walls that keep them there. It seems all too often, the church has become a comfortable place where we learn about God but the not the place where we expect to actually wrestle with and be transformed by God.’ She goes on, ‘Worship is safe, service projects are safe, Bible study is safe, talking about bulletin size is safe. I don’t think passion is ever found in the safe and I don’t think change comes from there either and so we have become passionless and barren.’ She concludes, ‘As a church I believe we have an opportunity to be inventive and creative, curious, questioning and impactful… But we have to stop being afraid… insecure… and we have to stop being religious over being followers of Christ.’ Eish! (a South Africanism for ‘frustration’ or something like that) One organic church leader in the USA put it this way in his most recent newsletter: Jesus offers his would-be disciples a yoke, a cross and living water! Are we prepared to settle for that?
In a recent house church gathering one of our women mentioned re-reading The Strength to Love by Martin Luther King Jr, renowned Baptist pastor and social activist. In one section he focuses on Jesus’ command to his disciples in Mt. 10 to be ‘as wise as serpents and harmless as doves’ (v. 16). King challenges believers to combine the toughness of the serpent with the softness of the dove, i.e. we need tough minds and tender hearts.
- Tough minds (rooted in faith) are characterised by incisive thinking, realistic appraisal and decisive judgment. Believers generally don’t like to engage in hard and solid thinking (perhaps thinking it ‘unspiritual’ to do so), often being happy with easy answers and half-baked solutions. My own observation is that so many believers are amazingly gullible and even plainly superstitious, fearing Friday the 13th and black cats! Small wonder many mega-congregations swallow hook, line and sinker the pontifications of the popular gurus of our time. Tough minds also don’t fear change, they put their security not in the status quo but in Christ. They aren’t afraid of the findings of science, for they know that ultimately such findings will endorse God’s divine revelation. I was reminded of this anew when attending a recent apologetics conference in our city. Often honest Christian thinkers are more in touch with our world than many atheists and agnostics peddling outdated arguments and hopeless generalisations.
- King reminds us that the gospel also requires tender hearts. Hard-hearted people never truly love. They ‘use’ people. They don’t enjoy the beauty of close friendships, they are too cold to feel affection for one another and too self-centred to share in the joys and sorrows of others. They give with cold hearts, but not from their spirit. They are essentially pharisees at heart, and we know what Jesus thought of pharisaism!
Of course this bravery we are called to is not a humanistic ‘whistling in the dark’ or being ‘good to granny and kind to the cat.’ It is deeply rooted in Christ and his risen life. Driving back recently from Cape Town through the magnificent Boland with its mountains and valleys, we witnessed its renowned vineyards on either side of the winding road, being readied for next year’s harvest of fruit and wine. It reminded me of Jesus’ profound teaching on the Vine and the Branches (Jn.15): ‘I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing’ (v. 5). That’s the bedrock of all true discipleship! The apostle Paul had the same understanding: he spends more than half of his Ephesian Letter expounding what it is to be ‘in Christ’ by faith. Before exhorting his readers to put on the Armour of God (Eph. 6), he lays down the foundation: ‘Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power’ (v. 10). It’s the kind of thing that took Jesus through Gethsemane and on to the Cross, to die for us all.
Such bravery demands some hard choices: perhaps turning our back on a ‘church’ almost totally compromised with worldliness; perhaps choosing ‘a road less travelled’ with a few ragamuffin believers determined to be/serve Jesus in our world; perhaps speaking uncomfortable truth to power and society, e.g. exposing political corruption and fighting ‘abortion on demand;’ perhaps identifying some marginalised people, and being Christ in their midst; perhaps facing a dread disease with the fortitude and cheer of the Lord…
Ultimately it’s about bravely ‘filling the world with love,’ remembering that for believers its a tough and cross-shaped love. All glory to Jesus!