Eileen and I met Desmond Tutu only a few days after we had met each other, writes Rev Sydney Maitland, and I ‘volunteered’ us to give him an evening meal before we went off to a meeting of the William Temple Association, some 10 minutes’ walk away.
I think that I really dropped Eileen into it (and have been doing so ever since) – and likewise Desmond Tutu, who was a friend of the then provost of Glasgow’s Episcopal Cathedral and was visiting the city.
This was in the autumn of 1973, two years before he became Dean of St Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg. It was many years before Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and Desmond Tutu was far from being the household name he was to become.
Bishop Tutu’s address to the William Temple Association was ‘Black Theology’ and had nothing to do with the Marxist accommodations of the church to Liberation Theology. Far from it: it was all about coping with the difficult, even impossible circumstances of daily life that black people in South Africa had to deal with as a matter of routine. There was no revolutionary bravado: it was all about getting by.
I had been dealing with some personal difficulties in the recent past and what Desmond Tutu had to say opened a door to it all. I cannot now recall his words but I still have the sense of what he was saying as it has given me a lifelong direction to my own prayers and meditations, and indeed to my preaching. It was all about the Cross: dealing with impossibilities of life as the Lord’s purpose for my life in this moment. It meant the abandonment of self but not the loss of personality or individuality and so it was a further journey into the will of God, through the very things that had been so impossible.
Since then I have been deeply focused on the atonement of Jesus on the cross, as He laid His life down, trusting in the providence of God to raise Him up again. It is there in Hosea: ‘Therefore I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak comfort to her … and the Valley of Achor as a door of hope’ (chapter 2: 12-13). The sense of trust and commitment is there in John’s gospel, chapter 15: ‘I am the true vine, you are the branches. Each branch that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes that it may bear more fruit.… Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in Me’ (verses 2, 4). The sense of abiding in Christ while being pruned is all there to be seen.
But then there is the enormity of Jesus’ atonement on the cross. Again, it is about self-denial, and of St Paul’s many references to it I choose two.
• The first is in Philippians 2: ‘Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus who being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal to God but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a servant, an coming in the likeness of men’ (verses 5-6).
• But then it is expanded beyond all comprehension in what we take as our Ash Wednesday epistle, 2 Corinthians 5: 21: ‘For He made Him to be sin who knew no sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.’
A situation of personal difficulty can become the portal through which we may begin to glimpse a realm far greater than anything we can imagine through our own senses. In this someone had to open the curtain and let the light in. For me, this was Desmond Tutu.
May he rest in peace and rise in glory.