Wednesday, May 29, 2013

real presence

I believe in paying attention to patterns and repetitions.  When teaching the Bible, I tell our students to look for them in the text; in life, when two or more events of a similar nature pop up without warning, I take notice.

Recently, South Africa mourned the sudden loss of Vuyo Mbuli, one of its most popular television and radio personalities.  In the tribute of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, "Vuyo Mbuli was a constantly reassuring presence on our television screens over two tumultuous decades", perhaps something like the voice of a free and democratic South Africa trying to recover from its long night of apartheid.  At the same time, I found myself riveted by reader comments--usually a worthless lot of discouragement and negativity--addended to internet news releases about the passing of longtime Kansas City Royals' Radio broadcaster Fred White.  For me, White's voice, like the internet readers whose own loving memories of listening to Royals' baseball so nearly matched my own, was the record of the highs and lows, triumphs and defeats, wins and losses, of a midwestern American ball club and an adolescent boy whose heart it had captured.  For me, the Royals very nearly lived, came alive through, became really present, by the voices of White and broadcast partner Denny Mathews.

As some voices bridge space, others bridge time.  On her work with victims and perpetrators of heinous crimes during apartheid, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela has spoken of the way in which the narration of past traumatic experiences makes them present.  When giving voice to their experiences of trauma, Gobodo-Madikizela has observed that victims often unconsciously move back and forth from the past to the present tense.  She observed of one woman's story that "the event seemed so vivid to me that it was as if it were happening in the moment" (Gobodo-Madikizela, 2003: 89)  The speaking of the past made it real in the present.

Similarly, at the heart of Christian worship is a recollection of trauma, a memory of suffering, that through word and spirit collapses the distance between past and present and here and there.  "The
Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me" (1 Cor 11:23-24).  The memory begins, in the words of Paul to the Corinthians or any person who commemorates the event for others, in the past--"betrayed", "took", "had given thanks", "broke", "said"--but suddenly--"This is my body"--slips into the present.  As the victim's narration made the past real in the present for Gobodo-Madikizela, so the church's remembrance in word and spirit makes present the betrayed one who gave his life "for us."

Christian worship at its best, like the spontaneous passion or "reassuring presence" of a broadcaster bringing to life events his audience cannot see, makes real the presence of the one who loved us and gave himself for us.  If God therefore presents himself through our worship, it is particularly incumbent upon those whose task it is to speak for others to be truly attentive to reality as it unfolds.

-Joe

Gobodo-Madikizela's reflections can be read in her book, A Human Being Died That Night: A Story of Forgiveness (Claremont, South Africa: David Philip, 2003), especially pp. 88ff.        

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