CLOSING AND OPENING DOORS
"No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."
"This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind, and straining forward to what lies ahead."
Last Thursday I visited Victor Verster prison where Nelson Mandela spent the last few years of his imprisonment, and from which he walked free on 11th February 1990. We all remember the famous picture of him and his wife Winnie walking through the gate at Victor Verster on his final journey to freedom. The prison has since been renamed Drakenstein Prison, lying as it does beneath the beautiful Drakenstein mountains on the road between Franschoek and Paarl. But the house, which originally belonged to a farmer named Victor Verster , has been left just as it was when Mandela lived in it, and is now maintained as a heritage site.
On the tour of the house, our excellent guide regaled us with stories and anecdotes from Mandela's years. He showed us the lemon tree which Mandela planted as a sign of hope. He told us about Mandela's first experience of a micro-wave oven which he thought was a TV, and about his decision not to use the very large main bedroom because after living in a prison cell he found it just too much! He also passed on wisdom he had gleaned from Madiba. Life, he said, was like a journey through those security doors installed in banks. You go through one door into a secure space, but there is still another in front of you which won't open to let you through until the first door has closed behind you. He recalled how in the bad old days when South Africa was on the brink of civil war, President P.W. Botha was incapable of closing the door on the past and taking the risk of moving into a different future, but President de Klerk and Nelson Mandela did exactly that. Often in life you have to shut one door and leave the past behind in order for the door to open that leads you into a new future.
Paul did this after his conversion on the Damascus Road. He put his previous life behind him and pressed forward as a disciple of Christ into a new life, and new way of being. Christian discipleship requires that. As Jesus said, we have to walk through a narrow gate in order to enter fully into life, and he also told us that we cannot keep looking back, just like a farmer in ploughing a field must keep looking ahead. Following Christ requires that certain things have to be left in the past whether it be selfishness and a lack of compassion for others, racism or a clinging to privilege at the expense of others. We have to shut the door on such attitudes and actions otherwise the door into life will not open. St. Paul knew this. "This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind, and straining forward to what lies ahead."
The story of our lives, not least our journey in faith, is marked more generally by doors that close and others that open, like chapters in a book. As we look back we can discern moments when we had to leave the past behind in order to move into the future, however cautiously. This, we have learnt, is sometimes difficult and often threatening. But if we cling to the past we become captive to it, and end up bemoaning the fact that we did not grasp those opportunities which came along, going through doors which opened for us, but which also required us to close others and take the risk of walking through. You can't move forward unless you let go. You can't follow Christ if you are continually hankering after your old life without him. It is best, as Paul says, to forget about that. But leaving the past behind is not necessarily mean forgetting the past. Isobel and I cannot forget our son Steve; we remember him every day in various ways. But we have had to learn to close the door on that wonderful chapter in our lives in order to turn the page and move ahead. This is not easy as many of you will know. But it is a lesson we all have to learn however difficult and reluctantly. Sometimes doors bang shut behind us leaving us in a empty space like doors in a bank. But we cannot remain in that empty space. We have to go through the door that faces us however difficult, and learn to trust that God will leads us through the emptiness into new possibilities.
It is true that as we grow older most doors have already been shut behind us, and there are not too many doors of opportunity in front of us. It is true that people trapped in poverty see no way of escape, and many young people see no future ahead. So I do not want to romanticise the notion that when doors close others automatically open, that when people lose their jobs others will simply come along for them. Life does not work like that. Yet the human spirit is such that people will go to extraordinary lengths to leave the past behind in order to find a new future. Consider all those refugees who are fleeing their horrific past in war-torn countries, shutting the door behind them in order to find a new life, hoping and praying for doors to open to them. And there are many in our own country who are, in remarkable ways, doing the same against all odds.
In thinking about where you are at this moment in your life and your journey in faith, are there doors that need to be shut in order for you to move forward? This does not necessarily or always mean that you have to stop doing what you are doing, or living where you are living, for leaving the past behind also has to do with forgiving people, accepting fresh insights and healing memories. Is there a door that God is opening and inviting you to pass through? And, of course, sometimes we are called to help open doors for other people, and to help them walk through to freedom and a new future as Mandela did. How can we help others to leave their past behind and walk into a better future? Is this not what programmes like Sparklekids is all about?
In the first chapter of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy explore the big house that had become their war-time home like we explored Mandela's house. Looking into,
a room that was quite empty except for one big wardrobe: the sort that has a looking-glass in the door. .. “Nothing there!” said Peter, and they all trooped out again – all except Lucy. She stayed behind because she thought it would be worth while trying the door of the wardrobe, even though she felt almost sure it would be locked. To her surprise it opened quite easily…she immediately stepped in…
Then Lucy went in further, and further again, until she discovered herself in a new world, a different space with surprises around every corner. Maybe there is a door we all need to close and a door waiting to be opened, a door that will open quite easily, allowing us to enter into a new space in which God will surprise us. This is how the Christian journey of faith begins, and how it continues to the end. For in the end we also have to let go in order to enter the door that leads us through death to life in a new dimension, into the mystery of God.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 8th October 2015