When I was very young one of the few American sitcoms that made it into sanctioned South Africa was Cheers.
I would watch it with my dad. Almost all of the dialogue went over my head, but like most people I knew the opening lines of the song by heart, and I still do.
Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name,
And they’re always glad you came.
In 1995 Nelson Mandela stunned the world when he wore a Number 6 Springbok rugby jersey at the final of the Rugby World Cup. As a young girl I totally embraced the promise of a world that is open minded and respectful to every human being.
And then I heard that this is a promise of God: the kingdom of heaven is open to everyone who will believe. And men and women of every tribe, nation, people and language are equally lifted to the royalty they were born for, ruling over a diverse world of beauty, colour and delight in a humble saviour who also delights in them. The Christian song that really chokes me up is one by the Getty’s with these lyrics:
And there we’ll find our home
Our life before the throne
We’ll honour him in perfect song
Where we belong.
Where we belong.
Belonging is one of the hardest things to find. People look for reasons to exclude: it is often learnt early by the bullied child on the school playground, then there are job interviews, the immigration process where we submit files of personal emails for a stranger to trawl through to find a reason to not believe our marriage is genuine, to the passport interview where it seems they are waiting for us to slip up and say that we’ve been lying all along, and even in the church that is supposed to proclaim the all embracing good news.
The most joyful times of my life were spent in places that not only taught but lived out that good news. Where I walked in and someone knew my name, said it out loud and came over to greet me, genuinely happy to see me. Where there was unashamed interest in people. Where a smile wasn’t treated with suspicion; where kindness wasn’t regarded with skepticism; where my race or nationality didn’t label me. Where I was accepted.
I come home from running an errand and my kids open the door and dance with delight at my return. They are happy to see me.
Yesterday I helped invigilate an exam for around 80 people. They are young up-and-coming accountants, mostly from South Africa with some from Namibia and Zimbabwe.
The exam is 8 hours long. It is very hard. It was held in central London. It was icy cold outside and there is a train strike. These are kids whose degree was interrupted by covid and, if they were at Cape Town, possibly fires and protests. They have written many exams, jumped over many hurdles. They are intelligent, they work hard, they probably still do scut work, and aren’t paid much. They’ve left home, family, sunshine, to work in London to earn the added respect of international experience. Now just when they are at the cusp of things, there is inflation and a looming recession. Again.
They arrived when it was not yet dawn, looking stressed, vulnerable, cold and a little frustrated. As they walked in they looked me in the eye with so much natural respect and said, “Hello. How are you?” I wanted to say to them, “How are you?!? You are incredible. You are amazing to have come this far despite everything that has stood in your way.”
They settled in, nervously opened their exam packs and were keen to finally get going. Some had brought snacks to eat as they worked. Some didn’t touch their food the whole time.
At the end I went round collecting their things. As I sent them off, I said well done to them and they were taken aback. All they could think about was passing the exam. They had no idea.
I wanted to tell them their dreams are within reach. They only have a little bit further to go. Everything is going to be ok. It will soon be their turn to change the world. They deserve good things for ploughing onwards in the face of being let down by so many people so many times at such a critical time in their lives.
They had no idea.
At the coffee station there was an arty poster in the wall that with more than a touch of derision said, “I’m not young enough to know everything.”
During the exam, I said quiet prayers for them, especially for the ones who looked extra tired. I lifted up the stressed ones, the ones who looked confused. They are such good examples. They are so inspiring.
Well he wasn’t the king at the time. He was HRH the Prince of Wales.
I am not extremely well-connected. I’m not in any way an übermensch, but I was invited to meet him because I was part of a team that had done work that had impressed him – forecasting the UK’s greenhouse gas emission pathways to 2050 to achieve the 80% reduction target.
I read the memo on what words I should use to address him. Actually I should say – I remember being tacitly told to avoid speaking entirely because my accent would give away the fact that some of the skills of the Civil Service come from the Commonwealth (South Africans were allowed to work in the Civil Service but it was not something they liked to advertise).
I also read the instructions on how to curtsy. Now this was necessary. A lot of my adolescence was spent doing ballet, so my instinctive response when told to curtsy is to do something like this:
Or the next few seconds of this:
Not kidding – my natural instinct.
I remember practicing the simple “bob” and feeling more silly than ever.
I wasn’t British at the time or from a country that was subject to the British monarch. So I was more a visitor to his realm than a subject of his. Many people in my home country despised what the British monarchy represented to them: the painful trampling of their ancestors and their culture that caused devastation for generations. The whole thing felt strange, but I should bob. On top of that, to be told that my identity should be a secret, even though he liked my work, left me less than enthused about the whole thing.
Nevertheless here was, I granted, an important man, related to important people. He wanted to meet my team.
So I read up and prepared myself to bob.
But something happened when he walked in. Suddenly the man I’d seen on TV and in magazines was standing in front of displays of our work. I had made my judgments and formed opinions and I thought I knew him, and then he was standing right in front of me. He was (if he’ll forgive me, though I doubt he’ll stray so far into social media as to read my blog) shorter than I expected. More gentlemanly than I expected. His handshake was softer than I expected. I had read and listened to so many stories of his life but as he stood in front of me to shake my hand, be it ever so briefly, I saw something altogether different. I saw a human being as complicated and immeasurable as any other.
As I looked directly at the head that would one day wear the crown, eye to eye, I realised that if I bent my knees at all to curtsy I would risk them giving way and literally collapsing on the floor. So I quickly concluded that the collapse would be the more humiliating option and I just stood straight, looked him in the eye and shook his hand firmly like I was being interviewed for a job. I didn’t do the bob. He moved on graciously without a second glance. I didn’t want to pretend to be British but at least out of respect, I wanted to bob. I like to tell myself that maybe I did bob. Even a little. It’s so easy to do. Of course I did.
No. Despite my best intentions, I didn’t.
I was, like many, struck by the significance of it all: his position in the world, his heritage, and his humanity. But also, to be honest, I’ve never been one for putting on airs and graces. So the two attitudes collided in my brain which was also, frustratingly, still telling me to do a grand and flamboyant ballet curtsy – which thankfully, I didn’t do.
There wasn’t enough space anyway.
Most likely you’d be better at this than I was.
But people are often not what we expect – even if we prepare ourselves. We also don’t always react in the way we expect ourselves to.
Jesus was not exactly what people expected. There was a lot written about the Messiah in holy writ before he came. Then he came and he didn’t keep the law the way they thought he should. He didn’t perform miracles the way they thought he should. He didn’t hang out with the right people. He didn’t kowtow to the experts. They had read up on him. They thought they had it pinned down, but time after time, what he said and did was confusing to many. They could not find a single thing wrong with him, but he made them feel uncomfortable.
They had read about a God who was consistently reliable, who made the sun rise and set every day, who gave warmth and water and food. Who stood by His Word. Perhaps they concluded he was entirely predictable.
But sometimes he did do things that seemed wildly random.
This is, after all, a God who sent a fish to swallow a prophet and vomit him up again.
And Jesus comes: the son of Mary and Joseph the carpenter, with brothers and sisters, eating, drinking – and then suddenly walking on water. I mean, of all the amazing things he did, who expected that?
Could they really have him all worked out? Can we?
If you were waiting for someone to make everything right, if you were to see the Messiah in front of you, eye to eye, would he be what you expect? And if you had been thinking about it and studying it for years, would you be confident that you had him all worked out, that you would respond appropriately, or would certain ideas, that right now are not up for discussion, simply fall apart under his gaze?
And if his pathway seemed to lead to humiliation and defeat, when all your life you’ve been told to reach for the stars, would you press on, holding on to the hope he offers, or would you run away like his disciples did – the ones who presumably knew him best?
The man I met 11 years ago has now become king and I too have technically become British. So I am now his subject. Although his appearance confused me at the time, although there is lots of vile murkiness to British history, the British monarch now has a lot of authority over me.
There is another man I met but not in the flesh. There is no vile murkiness in him at all but he certainly confuses me at times. He won me over, but since then I’ve tried to put him in a box and claim I had him all worked out. It does make a person feel good about themselves. Reading up and educating yourself certainly has it’s place, but now I’ve learnt an attitude of waiting and listening, paying more attention to what he said and how he treated people and also being open to things that seem wild.
Jesus claims authority as big as ruling over heaven and earth, so I can never really claim to have him all worked out.
Perhaps Jesus hasn’t arranged things the way you wanted him to, and you haven’t reacted the way you expected you would. There is nothing wrong with him, but sometimes things feel somewhat uncomfortable. Doctrine gives us discernment, but when Jesus confuses us, it is his authority that we fall back on. It is much better to let go and accept that Jesus is not merely a story or an idea – he is a living person.
Yes I met the King.
One day I’ll give him a proper curtsy as I’ve been trained to do.
And if I happen to meet King Charles II again, I’ll be better at the bob.
A few days ago we got back from our summer holiday. The blisters from my flip-flops are still healing. My young son’s hair still smells of sand. The mild tan that I got despite religiously applying sunscreen, is still there.
I didn’t always love the beach. Growing up every vacation was spent in a caravan right on the edge of the rocky beaches of KwaZulu-Natal. The sand was too much. It was everywhere. It stuck to my feet like it had bonded with my skin. It spread across the tent floor. It was in my camper bed. As a little girl I loved to sweep it up and declare the tent spotless. It wasn’t as comfortable as the holiday homes my friends had, but every night we went to sleep listening to the waves and my dad would wake up early and watch the sunrise in silence (my dad likes silence). It suited our budgets and gave us contented hearts.
Then after many times being driven in a car over a hill to see the expanse opening out before me in its blue glory; after sitting in rock pools with my mum, pretending to be a hair dresser and “washing her hair” with sand and sea water (thanks, mum); after long, long walks along the east coast of South Africa with my parents and my sister, looking for cowries, taking giant leaps to step into my dad’s footprints; after dusky evenings sipping Sprite on the rocks with my mum and sister (mum would get white wine…necessary after the hair wash I gave her); and after being old enough to explore the beach and climb up onto tall rocks on my own, I found that it had wooed me. I loved it. I was alone. I could hear God. I absolutely loved it.
Those Indian Ocean waves would rumble and roll and crash wildly at high tide and in storms. At low tide I discovered another world snorkelling in those rocky pools full of colourful fish. They evaded my reach with incomprehensible ease as I brushed past. That sun was warm as I became a teenager and tried to get a tan. And when I moved to Cape Town and the beaches were more upmarket, with mansions lining the streets, claiming the kinds of sea views that our humble caravan had enjoyed, the sea temperature felt colder than ice, the waves were smaller and the water was turquoise instead of Prussion Blue, but the beach hadn’t lost it’s appeal.
For the waves spoke of love as they lapped the shores. I heard it when I closed my eyes and felt the warmth on my cheeks and eyelids and the breeze through my hair. The sunlight still sprinkled diamonds on the sapphire expanse. We would gather after volleyball and watch the sunset over the sea (now being in the west). As the luminous circle slipped below the clear purple horizon we would jump to “see it twice” and giggle at our ridiculousness and our delight. I soaked it all up in all its goodness. This was creation and it wrapped around me in a warm embrace.
I met someone who claimed that one night she had seen a vision of angels on the beach. They were moving along the waves holding them back. They didn’t have wings. “This far and no further.” I believe her.
On good days and bad days and on uneventful days I’ve gone there. When I was a young adult and had finished my degree I went there by myself on Saturday mornings to bake until I was warm, then I would run into the ice-cold waves to cool down for 10 seconds, walk briskly, shivering back to my warm towel, and wait there until I was ready to do it all over again. I’ve sat on a bench on cloudy days and breathed in salty air. I’ve gone there when I’ve been lonely. And when someone I had been praying for died of cancer, it was to the beach that I went to let the waves sooth my mind and remind me that God is still good. The waves still lap.
And now I take my children to the beach. It’s in a different hemisphere but it’s still the same. The waves lap; sometimes they crash. There are rocks and pools and dry sand that sinks against my feet and runs between my toes with a comforting scratchiness. It still gets everywhere. There is lots of cleaning off with towels and sweeping and my daughter hasn’t yet got past the point of being annoyed by it. My husband took them to the farm park when they’d had enough, but I went in the other direction for a long swim. When I got out and stood facing the sun to dry off, I closed my eyes and felt the warmth on my checks and eyes just like I did down south. The breeze stroked my hair. For the first time in a long time, I was at peace. Everything is going to be alright. I have hope my children will find that too.
Because the sea is still there. After all the pain of the years it is still there. Like a mountain it is mighty and it is steady. It goes only as far as God lets it. It is inviting. The waves lap. The sun shines beams on it in the morning. It’s as if God is saying, “Look!” Look what I made for you! Come and see, and hear, taste and smell it. Come and play in it!” And I feel loved.
So I will enjoy the sandy smell in my son’s hair when I hug him. And I don’t mind the blisters.
Classic FM is one of the stations that are pre-programmed into cars and radios in this country. It regularly plays what I think is one of the most beautiful pieces ever written. It is a choral setting called Miserere Mei, Deus, originally composed in the 17th century by Gregorio Allegri.
It is loved by many. People are moved by it without even knowing what the words mean. There are comments on this video from people saying they’re “not religious” but would go to church if they could hear this being sung.
For those who can navigate the Latin, they still might not know that the lyrics were taken directly from Psalm 51, written about 3,000 years ago by David, King of Israel. He wrote it after he had broken God’s law in a way that is commonly seen today as utterly deplorable.
It plunges the depths of his regret. He had grieved a God whom he loved. His soul was so torn that his bones felt as though they were crushed.
But throughout the sober sorrow there is an undeniable sense of awe and grace.
Allegri knew this. Miserere is slow, with significant pauses. As I listen I hear the assuring rhythms and tones that speak of steadiness. God listens. He can be trusted. Through the ages he has spoken tenderly to unworthy people. His justice and mercy are expressed softly and humbly as one choir responds to another, and the male and female voices fill vaulted halls of cathedrals with a harmony that spans the centuries.
It’s all beautiful. But there is a moment that stops my heart. A solitary soprano lifts her voice and lowers it tenderly.
And then, after a brief pause, she lifts her voice higher, and then even higher, in a cry that seems to reach for the very throne room of God.
She sings the cry of faith. It is the cry of the church on earth, of all who would dare to believe. We’ve all messed up one way or another, but here is a prayer that asks for a grace so astonishing that even the words to ask for it were written down for us. Anyone can ask. It’s bigger than we can imagine.
My daughter and I regularly listen to it as we drive along the motorway. She loves all things Latin and Roman and Classical but she isn’t sentimental. This piece catches her breath.
God is on the radio. And across the country, in cars as people commute home from work, in kitchens as parents cook meals for their families, in earphones as people ramble to the pub for a drink, this cry rings out: Words that ask for mercy, and words that are answered by a God who loves to give it.
A week ago the church celebrated the feast of Pentecost: when we remember that first spectacular, fiery pouring out of the Holy Spirit.
About 6 days before, however, there was another feast that felt somewhat neglected: the feast of the Visitation, where the church remembers Mary, pregnant with Jesus, visiting Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John the Baptist.
I’m not sure why it’s largely ignored. It’s about Mary so perhaps it’s a Protestant knee-jerk reaction to her. I don’t know. But I am encouraged by the testimony recorded in Luke’s Gospel of two mothers quietly rejoicing together.
Mums are often unable to be a part of church gatherings. When my first child was a baby and I often found myself alone, people said it was “only a season”. Now after three children with various needs, that season for me has been a quarter of my life, half of my adult life, when I am unable to join in on most things. Prayer meetings and seminars are often scheduled at night when most children need to be sleeping. Church services can’t be relied upon to be uninterrupted. Even weekday gatherings are largely impossible when the kids refuse to go to Sunday school or Creche. Meaty Biblical studies favour those who can sit still and be quiet. Those who can’t need taking care of. So like the temple rules of old, we’re at the back. Far away.
And it’s at a time when we are entrusted with teaching. We are the Loises and Eunices of today. Our lives shape the brains of the future church leaders.
For most people, church is being together in a diverse gathering, encouraging each other, being ministered to by ordained clergy, taking part in liturgy.
The mum’s church however, is praying over the phone, short WhatsApp requests and quick conversations. It is in the back garden. It is at the dining room table as she takes on the teaching herself.
It is in the hidden places. But what makes all the difference is this: Jesus is there too.
Those chosen mums met unseen and rejoiced quietly together – mums who might have been isolated for similar reasons. Jesus visited them and their joy was expressed in worship.
Whatever is lacking in the church is more than made up for by direct access to God himself, who has visited and will visit us, like a brilliant, glorious dawn from on high (Luke 1:78). He is present in the quiet worship and rejoicing of mums.
“Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill what he has spoken to her!”” (Luke 1:45)
Malcolm Guite sums this up beautifully in his Sonnet for the Visitation.