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Repentant Reflections on Jean Vanier

For those who know (of) Jean Vanier, the recent disclosures by six women of his alleged sexual relationship with them, is profoundly distressing, to say the least. For those who don’t know of him, it might not be a big issue. It is, however, a HUGE issue. Especially for the women. And sadly, once again, for all spiritual leadership and God’s integrity in the eyes of the world.

My reflections explore WHY? What can we learn from this?

Yesterday morning before leaving for our church service I read a tweet about this breaking news, which led me to the statement released by L’Arche International, reported in The Guardian. Read L’Arche’s official report of its credible investigation. It is harrowing.

What a shock! I felt so grieved and gutted that I could hardly sing. My worship was an inner lament, “O God! O God! Have mercy! Christ have mercy!” The whole day of Sunday I felt a heaviness of spirit, a dark mourning in my soul. It took me another day to get to the point of reflecting and processing in writing before God.

I repeatedly asked why I felt so strongly about this? So broken and repentant? Was it for Jean Vanier, a (now) fallen hero of the faith? Was it for the shattering of my own deep respect for him? Or was it for the women who were abused by him, spiritually manipulated into a sexual relationship with him? They are the ones for whom God weeps – they carry this shame. Probably more will come out into the light of truth, as always happens in such cases.

The brief story.

Jean Vanier was founder-leader of L’Arche (The Ark). Started in 1964. He died 7 May 2019. It was a ministry to care for folk with (develop)mental disabilities. This remarkable charity has communities in 38 countries that care for thousands of people. I heard about Vanier while reading Henri Nouwen – who, in his later years, went to live and work in a L’Arche community. I read all I could of Vanier’s life, work, and writings. A profound lived “reality of love” in selfless service, intentional community, healing and spirituality.[1] Vanier and Nouwen, among others, were formative for me in my years in Soweto, as we worked for Kingdom reconciliation under Apartheid, and set up an intentional inter-racial Christian community. I held Vanier in as high regard as Henri Nouwen. Many who knew him in his Catholic circles considered him “a living saint” – as Mother Teresa. He was a layman, not an ordained priest. He never married.

After investigating the women’s accusations, L’Arche International reports: “Evidence shows that Jean Vanier engaged in ‘manipulative sexual relationships’ from 1970 to 2005, usually with a ‘psychological hold’ over the alleged victims.” They came to him for spiritual direction. His pattern was similar to that of Rev Thomas Philippe, a Catholic priest Vanier called his “spiritual father”. Philippe, who died in 1993, was banned from exercising any public or private ministry in a trial led by the Catholic Church in 1956, for his theories and the sexual practices that stemmed from them. Several women accused him of sexual abuse.

Why is this such a big issue? What can we learn from it?

Here is my repentant reflection before God:  

Why is this disclosure about yet another respected spiritual leader so dismaying for me?
Is it a time for sackcloth and ashes?
Who knows the (dark) thoughts and (devious) motivations of the human heart?
Ultimately only you, Lord.
Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is ANY offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

Our hearts seduce and deceive us in its slow but sure moral corruption.
If we allow it.
Only ruthless self-honesty with God and significant others, to our own hurt (even death), will save us from ourselves.
S/he who thinks they stand, TAKE HEED, lest you fall.
It’s the little foxes that destroy the vine.
Each little temptation, deviant thought, “white lie”, corrupted appetite, self-justifying belief, must immediately be brought to the light of community with God and significant others.
It’s called confession, living a fully disclosed life.

If left unattended, or excused, malformation of moral character sets in.
Corruption of sexual character – in fact, the Big Three: Money, Sex and Power.
It gives power to evil in self-deception, in the silent prison of guilt and shame.
The lie of self-preservation: “whatever happens, don’t let anyone know, don’t be caught out”
So, we progressively live a double life, sworn to secrecy.
We are as sick as the (dark) secrets we keep.
It remains unseen for years till the fruit pops out in certain attitudes, words and behaviour.
Often when we least expect it. Others see and notice it.
Disintegrates our integrity of being into other “selfs”, sick “parts” that we compartmentalise and accommodate and live with – for 35 years in Vanier’s case.
These “identities” then drive us, eventually with tormenting demonic energy.
Which seek to deceive and destroy – through us – those around us, those to whom we minister.

Who we really are, our true character, is known ultimately only to God.
Will be fully revealed when we die and appear before The Judgement Seat of Christ.
Then all will be known.
Lord, have mercy!
Better to come clean NOW, disclose our dark secrets and devious thoughts.
And get help, so that we don’t deceive ourselves and destroy others.

Paul says: watch your life – your believing, teaching and behaviour – very closely, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers (1 Timothy 4:15-16)
What will it profit you to gain the whole world’s respect by admirable selfless service in the Name of Jesus, and yet lose your own integrity and personhood while doing so?      

This might appear selfish. It’s not.
The real concern is the women and others, “the hearers” who were left spiritually manipulated, sexually abused, deeply damaged.
At the hands of a male Christian spiritual leader… again. Again. Again. Again.
When will it ever end? Only in the age to come.
As part of this spurious specie of (male) pastors/leaders, all I can say is, “God forgive us! Women and children, please forgive us!”  

Do I now disrespect and throw out all Jean Vanier has done? No, not at all. Do I discount what he’s written? Not at all. I now read it with clearer discerning lenses. We honour the good work that has been done – God uses broken people, we’re all wounded healers – while honestly facing the loss of integrity that has now tarnished his legacy (the first sexual abuse he engaged in, if disclosed at the time, should’ve disqualified him from leadership). Above all, however, we pray for the healing restoration of these women.

What can we learn?

Be radically honest with yourself. Be in touch with your needs, with your brokenness. With what drives you in certain contexts with certain people. And get help.

Do not remain unmarried if you are not “gifted” with celibacy, as Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 7:1-7. The doctrine and practice of celibacy of the priesthood has caused untold pain for many victims of abuse. It should be re-examined, even abandoned.

Do not over-react with generalisations (“don’t trust leaders”, “Catholics are bad”, “mystical spirituality is spurious”). Don’t under-react with excusing or minimising it all in the name of “love” or “mercy” or “good works” (that enhances the pain of the abused. We forgive sin, even patterns of immoral character, but that doesn’t mean the perpetrator must not be held accountable).

Be careful of (exclusive) one-on-one relationships in spiritual companionship or direction, in discipling, mentoring, fathering and mothering.

Be discerning of any spiritual manipulation, of any emotional pressure, relational dependence, deceptive beliefs, character failure.

Never idolise human leaders. We only have one human-God, Messiah Jesus. The rest of us are merely servant leaders in recovery all the way to heaven!

Don’t follow or entrust yourself to leaders who are not in touch with their brokenness. Who are not led or do not allow themselves to be led. Who are not genuinely accountable to others. Who do not work in team. They are dangerous.

Above all else, guard your heart, keep your integrity, grow your character, for it’s the fountain from which we all live, whether we know it or not, for better or for worse, with eternal consequence.
In other words, model the real deal of life to the full, due to godly character formation before the audience of One – Who sees all, knows all, and gives us the grace we need when we need it.

[1] “L’Arche is founded on love for people with mental disabilities. If we keep our eyes fixed on them, if we are faithful to them, we will always find our path. We are constantly called to draw this love from the heart of God, and from God’s mysterious presence at the heart of poor people.” Jean Vanier, From Brokenness to Community (Paulist Press, 1992), p.7.

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Post Resurrection Encounters – Peter’s Call Renewed (Part 2)

The text: John 21:15-23 (continue from previous sermon). The audio is available to listen online or download with notes.

This is Peter’s story: the emotional drama of how Jesus tenderly restores him, renewing his calling to follow… to minister… and to lead. How does Jesus do this?

Firstly, by the miracle of the large catch of fish (John 21:1-14), re-enacting Peter’s first encounter with Jesus, thus renewing his call to follow, form and fish (Luke 5:1-11).

Secondly, by making a fire of burning coals, re-enacting and reversing Peter’s threefold denial, which took place around a fire (read John 13:36-38 cf. John 18:15-18, 25-27).

Reflection: Jesus takes us back to unresolved pain and failure, to relive and resolve it in light of his intervening and healing presence. When & where has this happened for you?

Meditation on John 21:15-23: become silent before God; live into the scene by imagining you’re Peter around the fire, now warm and fed. Jesus probes your depths… the key issue is: Jesus wants to know if you truly love him – love for him to be THE motivation for your life, your following of him, your ministry, and leadership (if you’re a leader)

John 21:15 Why did Jesus use his full formal name, Simon son of John (after he had changed his name to Peter – ‘rock’, strong & stable, John 1:40-42)? Does God ever do this to you? Continue reading Post Resurrection Encounters – Peter’s Call Renewed (Part 2)

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South African Crisis of Violent Rape and Murder

What is the cause of the unbelievable levels of violence in South Africa – specially in terms of rape and murder – what men do to women and children in our country? Our society and the public media, including the government, is debating what’s behind this, trying to isolate the cause of this pandemic of violence. What are your comments?

Continue reading South African Crisis of Violent Rape and Murder

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Update on Repentance Paper re SA situation

I’m reminded that I did not comment further on the repentance paper that my colleague and I wrote for a possible process in regard to the South African situation. We drafted the paper (see below), but it’s still in process of discussion and decision making with a group of church leaders. However, they have agreed that we publicize what we have written so far. Any later changes or papers will come online as and when they’re finalized.

A Kairos Moment: A Call to Confession & Repentance

“You have planted wickedness and have reaped evil,

You have eaten the fruit of deception and corruption.

Plough up your fallow ground,

Sow righteousness and reap mercy,

For it is time to seek the Lord

Until he comes and rains righteousness on you”

The words of the prophet Hosea (10:12-13) ring true in our ears in South Africa today. We have sown greed and reaped lies. We have said, “It is our time to eat!” But we are eating the fruit of deception and corruption. Where is righteousness and mercy? Where is justice for all? We have reached a kairos moment: It is time to face what is happening and turn to God by ploughing up our hard hearts with confession, repentance and action, to save our nation. God may then come and rain righteousness – the reign of justice – on our land.

Greek kairos means “a time” of impending disaster and/or opportunity for God’s intervention – a miraculous turn around for good. It can go either way depending on how we respond. Carry on as normal? Or intervene? We have reached a “tipping point” of decay due to the corruption of character in leadership and in ordinary South Africans. The way of the leaders is the way of people. We are indeed a corrupt nation! Unless we repent – intervene for a radical turn around – we will come under God’s judgement. Violent social unrest will overtake us all.

The Signs of The Times

Archbishop Desmond Tutu held a press conference on 4th October 2011 in regard to the Dalai Lama visa debacle. With prophetic fury he rebuked the ruling party as “arrogant and disgraceful… worse than the Apartheid government.” It marked a symbolic turning point in the Church–State relationship in particular, and in South Africa in general. As concerned Christian pastors and leaders we stand with Tutu and say, “Watch out! Watch out! I warn you, watch out!”

This prophetic outburst was not the isolated ranting of an old man as some have said. It came after a sustained period of constant revelations of corruption at high levels in government and all sectors of society – with deceptive cover-ups and arrogant denials. This has all but broken the good faith and morale of ordinary citizens. So much good has been done in our new democracy, but it’s fast unraveling. The miracle of 1994, built on the high moral ground and sacrifice of the Nelson Mandelas and Desmond Tutus and others, seems like a distant dream. How have we become so sinfully arrogant and corrupt so quickly?

Jesus said, “interpret the signs of the times” (Matthew 16:1-4). Beside the culture of entitlement – now unbridled greed and brazen corruption – other dark clouds are coming together, threatening a storm that can destroy our young democracy. Crime and violent-power have become endemic. Every twenty-six seconds a so-called man rapes a woman or child. Sexual trafficking is rife. Moral values and social ethics are in serious crisis. Our liberal laws have empowered a holocaust of abortions. The HIV/AIDS pandemic is overwhelming – surely God weeps? Unresolved issues of race face us on many fronts, the result of a superficial reconciliation. Political reconciliation without meaningful social and economic reconciliation has not worked; e.g. restorative justice, reparations, land restitution, poverty and unemployment, still define themselves along racial lines.

Polarization is once again taking place. Most whites are perceived as having opted out of the project of redressing the past and building a common future, becoming critics from the sideline. Black Economic Empowerment with affirmative action, employment equity, housing for the poor, etc, has not reversed past inequalities. In many instances it has fed nepotism and greed. The poor are not empowered. They cry out for justice. The lack of service delivery because of corrupt and incompetent government officials – local and national – is leading to violent protests. The call of the ANC Youth League to appropriate land without compensation and nationalize the mines, further fuels the fires of unrealistic expectations, white fears, and social unrest.

These are some of the signs… how do we respond to this?

A Call to The Church – Especially its Leaders

As concerned Christian pastors and leaders we believe it must start with us: “It is time for judgment to begin at the house of God” (1Peter 4:17). If we take on symbols of judgment – like wearing black armbands or black clothes, even sackcloth and ashes – and mourn and weep before we come under God’s judgment, then we might avert it. We are in God’s hands; we are not at the mercy of evil. Therefore we should take up the “lament” of Jeremiah… ‘Why should we, mere humans, complain when we are punished for our sins? Instead, let us test and examine our ways. Let us turn again in repentance to the LORD. Let us lift our hearts and hands to God in heaven and say, “We have sinned and rebelled, and you have not forgiven us”’  (Lamentations 3:39-42).

How can we pray for our nation, for our government, when we have not confessed and repented from our own sin? What moral authority do we have as the Church in South Africa to speak to the government and the nation? We are compromised by our own sin, by our pride and arrogance, power and lies, anger and violence, lust and immorality, greed and corruption. We mirror society. Our churches are more a copy of our nation than a model of God’s kingdom. Are we, as spiritual leaders, any better than the socio-political leaders? If we confess and repent, God will have mercy and forgive. He will come and rain righteousness on us – the reign of godly and competent leadership, of ethical and good governance as in 1Timothy 2:1-8 (and see Romans 13).

Our focus on spiritual leaders, and then on our churches, does not mean we do not share this vision of intervening in our nation with a broader forum. It’s a matter of reality and priority – the ultimate power and battle is spiritual – God is our savior and no one else, no political party or ideology, or nothing else. Having said that, we do want this kairos call with the attached document to go out to all sectors of society: religious, political, business, labour, educational, community organizations, etc, for awareness, discussion and action.

Proposed Action

If we take up one major sin with confession and repentance, it will overflow to other issues by the conviction and work of the Holy Spirit.

We call on all Church leaders and congregations of Jesus Christ to confess and turn from deception and corruption in our personal lives, in our families, in our local churches, in our places of work and in society in general.

We call on all Church leaders and members to be radical about this matter: To disclose any form of corruption they have knowingly participated in; to disclose anything they have acquired through unethical means, no matter what this may entail. We call on them to make restitution as much as it is possible – to go and confess and return what has been taken, or to bring it to the Church (that will be identified) that it may be handed over to the relevant person or authorities.

To enact this, we call on all Church leaders to gather their people for specific public services of confession, repentance, restitution and prayer. We call on the leaders and people to put on symbols of repentance as mentioned above, to mourn and weep for the sins of leadership, of the Church and the nation. We take Daniel as our model – see Daniel chapter 9. The worship service is the place to disclose any form deception and/or corruption we have participated in, and to receive God’s forgiveness and cleansing.

We further call on all leaders and members to courageously confront and/or report any and every act of corruption in the family, in the local church, in the work place, in government and in society in general.

In this manner we are calling on the Church – all its leaders and members – to come clean and recover our integrity in the name of Jesus Christ. Perhaps God may use that in some way to intervene and save our nation.

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Pray! Writing Repentance Paper re South Africa

Can you please pray for my colleague (Trevor Ntlhola) and myself as we draft a call to confession and repentance for the Church in South Africa?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu recently had a much publicised press conference at which he challenged and rebuked the ANC government, calling it arrogant and disgraceful (regarding the debacle of Dalai Lama’s visa. See it on YouTube Video ). Tutu’s ‘prophetic outburst’ has been a catalyst to draw together a number of pastors in Johannesburg who have – for a considerable time now – been deeply concerned for the way our nation is going. TEASA (The Evangelical Alliance of South Africa) hosted a meeting of these concerned Christian leaders last week to plan some kind of response.

Trevor poured out his heart, saying that we (the Church, and particularly its leaders) must publicly take up a lament for the sins of deception, corruption and arrogance, etc. The meeting mandated Trevor and I to draft a short paper, a kind of clarion call to confession and repentance, which will be used as a basis for public meetings and action – to intervene is some way in the growing corruption and polarisation in the nation.

South Africa is indeed coming to another cross-roads, another kairos moment, and the Church must rise up by kneeling before God in confession and repentance, and make its presence felt by some actions for righteousness and justice. What shape or form this will take, is in God’s hands. All we know is that some of us are fed-up, like Desmond Tutu, and we want to do something… so please pray for us as we draft this paper and for this initiative that has been started. Thanks so much!