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Funeral Oration for the Very Revd. Lubabalo Livingstone Ngewu delivered by the Revd. Prof. Barney Pityana

Jesus said: I am the Way, the Truth and the Life…

-          John 14:6

 

 

It was the 9th of December 2011 when I went to visit Fr Lubabalo Livingstone Ngewu, the Dean of Pretoria at his home in Pretoria North. The Dean had been suspended by the Bishop and forbidden from exercising any form of ministry in the diocese. The Dean had also been on an extended sick leave, virtually since March.

 

The week before I had a briefing from the Bishop on the situation regarding the Dean. I listened, and wondered whether this matter could not be resolved in a spirit of Christian charity. I felt, and I said to the bishop, that we may well be in danger of boxing ourselves into a legalistic corner where no solutions could be found.

 

Having listened to the Dean, who appeared very pained, and in pain not just from physical ill health, but from a deeper spiritual pain he was going through, and having heard his story, none of this made sense to me. I had been Dean Ngewu’s Sub-Dean from the time of his appointment. We had worked together with the Bishop; we had regular Wednesday morning sessions over coffee. I did not have an inkling of a breakdown in the relationship of this magnitude. I was also with the Dean back in 2010, when a rather distressed Fr Nami reported on his correspondence from the bishop. We counseled him to seek a meeting with the Bishop for clarification. I just did not understand.

 

So, I told the Dean that I did not understand. There must surely be more to the story than I was being let into. The Dean steeled himself, turned to me and said, in his inimitable manner: “You see, Prof (he always insisted on calling me Prof, even though I had been his deputy for some time!), St Augustine of Hippo wrote his classic work, CITY OF GOD to try to understand for himself, and to help others, about God’s activities in human affairs. You see, the City of Rome had been attacked and sacked by Alaric in 410 CE. The Roman authorities could not understand; the pagan pietists blamed the Christians. For Augustine, the earthly city with its material wealth and values was never to be a final resting place for God’s people. Instead events in history were mere moments in the implementation of the divine purposes.  The CITY OF GOD strays beyond the apocalyptic and into moral and political philosophy. It was he from whom this profound statement about Justice emanates: “If justice be absent, what is a kingdom but a crowd of gangsters? And what is a gang but a minor kingdom?” There can therefore be no justice where the commands of God are not observed.

 

For Lubabalo, I surmised, that all that was happening was part of God’s plan, and what was necessary was to rather look to the Heavenly City, where God reigns. The problem for the church, he went on, was that too much time and effort and energy was being spent on peripheral matters, and that we have lost sight of the Heavenly City, and the purposes of God on earth.

 

That may have sounded like a note of resignation, but it was not. Chad Myers, in his work on a political reading of Mark’s Gospel, tells us that to pray is to dare to believe, to resist impotence and despair, and to believe in a transformation of self and the world – in other words the possibility of the impossible – the faith that moves mountains! Lubabalo, the Church Historian, was drawing inspiration from the lessons of history, the story of our faith. He was, indeed, placing himself in the hands of God. Like the pilgrim in John Bunyan’s PILGRIM’S PROGRESS, he was at crossroads, at considerable pain and sacrifice. God charged the People of Israel that, as they approached the Promised Land, they choose life; that they recognise that they had arrived at crossroads, and that the choices they made were critical and life transforming. Therefore, “Choose life…loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you…”

 

We are therefore gathered here today to celebrate the life of one who did not flinch from the hard choices of life, who trusted God, and sought to stand alongside God’s people. We have gathered here today from different parts of our land and our church. We are here to trace the pilgrim journey that Lubabalo Livingstone Ngewu, travelled from the time he was called to ministry – at St Bede’s College, and at Fort Hare, in Glasgow Scotland, and as a teacher of the faith, and ultimately as a priest and pastor. But we also know Fr Ngewu as a faithful husband, father to his children, and grandfather.

 

Lubabalo was a big man, with a big heart. He cared deeply about the people in his care. I often said to him that after an almost lifetime in ministry as a theologian, he had found his vocation as a parish priest. He also had a way with words, big words at times, but always words that heal and grow in those who listen and hear him, and from which we learn! He was assiduous in prayer, energetic as a pastoral visitor, caring to people in the Pretoria CBD, many of whom had no link to the church. He recognized that so many of his parishioners who might on the surface look like successful people, deep down they were often fragile, lonely, in an alien cultural and linguistic environment, and they were looking for a worshipping fellowship they could call home.

 

As Dean therefore he was more of an enabler, resisted the urge to control, trusted people to achieve what they set out to do, and created conditions in that congregation for people to love one another, to care for each other, to pray together. He was a teacher and guide, the spiritual glue that held the community of faith together. But, he was also the one who often learns from others, and from his own people discovered oftentimes how God reveals God self in the lives of the ordinary faithful. No wonder therefore that he referred to himself playfully as “Living-Stone” – a stone from which life-giving waters gush out of the rock at Horeb, a place Moses named Massah and Meribah - the source of life to all who thirst in the wilderness (Gen 17: 6 – 7).

 

That sentiment is captured beautifully in John’s Apocalypse from the Island of Patmos: In the City of God there is a river of the water of life with streams flowing through the centre of the city. The source of the water of life is the throne of God and of the Lamb. The waters of life nourish the tree of life, and the fruits of the tree feed the servants of God for “the healing of the nations” … and “his servants will worship him, they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads…” In this we catch a glimpse of St Augustine’s City of God, an abode indwelt by the majesty of God.

 

That is the pilgrim journey Lubabalo himself walked, and sought to teach, and to bring God’s people to the presence of God. One would have expected that such service and ministry, complementing as it does the episcopal ministry of the bishop, would have been enough. After all it is in Christ, and through Christ that the people of faith find the Way. Christ is the journey we are called to traverse. That journey is progress through the Cross. It is a journey that, from tomorrow, we shall walk with the Christ of Temptations through the season of Lent, but ultimately it is the hope that issues from the blood of Christ in Calvary.

 

It is, however, in living and being the Truth of Christ that we are sorely tested. It surely must be that, in such circumstances, one can never tell whether Lubabalo as Dean of Pretoria took all the correct decisions, made the right judgments that he could responsibly have taken. If he had he would have been super-human. What we do know is that whatever it was that he did, he embraced the cost of discipleship. He did not avoid the moral consequences of his decisions.  He was never the one to open his hands to receive cheap grace, and he was no mere supplicant at the altar ecclesiastical power games and politicking - whether as Rector of the College of the Transfiguration at Provincial Synod, at PSC or at the Synod of Bishops, or as Dean of Pretoria. He was robust in expressing himself, truthful in his observations, and challenging, even to himself, in seeking solutions consistent with Christian morality.

 

We Anglicans pride ourselves for being a church “episcopally led, and synodically governed.” The Anglican Way links us with the historic episcopate, and connects us in modernity with democratic governance. That balance of purposive action and driven spirituality, translates into that choice expression of Archbishop Njongo, “Gracious Magnanimity” – that capacity to acknowledge difference, but bring it into consensus in search of the mind of Christ, something Anglicans have appropriately called “the via media”.

 

To put it bluntly, there are no ‘Prince Bishops’ in our Church, as Archbishop Njongo so presciently stated in his Charge to his last Provincial Synod. What we do have, and we celebrate, is an episcopate that is a focus of unity, a symbol of the peace of Christ, a shepherd of shepherds. In other words we aspire towards the marks of the holy, catholic apostolate defined by Christ as servanthood: “If any of you would be first, he must be last of all, and servant of all” (Mark 9:35), and later,

 

You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:42 – 45).

 

The Charge at the Ordination and Consecration of Bishops, according to the APB 1989 Ordinal, states clearly that the bishop is to “teach and interpret the truth as it is in Christ Jesus, to further the unity of the Church, to banish error, to proclaim the demands of justice and to lead God’s people in their mission to the world.” And that is in keeping with the historic episcopate before it was contaminated by delusions of power and influence. As a reconciler and peacemaker, I believe that the Psalmist captures this beautifully: “Truth shall flourish out of the earth:/ and righteousness shall look down from heaven” (Ps 85: 9-10), hence this “meeting” that is reconciling, which the Psalmist says, they “kiss each other”. It is my view, a kissing that comes from seeing in the other “the face of God”, as Jacob said to his estranged brother Esau, “for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God.” (Gen 33:10).

 

I can say confidently that Fr Lubabalo took seriously the oath of canonical obedience that we all subscribe to. It is important for us to recognize the authority of the bishop, to honour the office he occupies, and the dignity of the person in the office at all times. In return bishops must earn our respect by their spiritual manner and practice, their care of those in trouble, their respect of others even where they may differ profoundly, to be an embodiment of love, especially towards the clergy, and their willingness to listen to an alternative point of view. A bishop does not become bishop merely by his exercise of power, or in the function of discipline, but by being gentle, loving, caring and merciful, fair and just, caring less about his own sense of esteem, but the faith and witness of the church.

 

Obedience must therefore be tampered with conscience.[1] Our church does not demand “blind obedience”, discharged without any rationality. We are, after all, a church of reasoned belief. Clergy must apply their minds to all matters that confront them. Otherwise this is not obedience but mere compliance.[2] Canonical Obedience has moral and theological effect only to the extent that the actions of the bishop are compatible with the teachings of the church, and display the will of God (Romans 12:2). Obedience is also a means of prophetic judgment, and a call to repentance, as the Ash Wednesday Liturgy puts it, to “turn away from sin and to follow Christ.” The task of a bishop is a very humbling one. It is about a prayerful life, sensitivity to others, and drawing others to Christ by the manner of one’s life and being.  Above all, in Pauline language, it is to recognize that we have this faith, our shared and common treasure, in earthen vessels, delicate and liable to breakage and corruption. By the grace of God, therefore, the church is entrusted to the shepherds and servants of the church to handle her with care and to treat her delicately.

 

At times, therefore, dis-obedience becomes obedience. It serves as a corrective, and yields accountability. Yes, after they are no more, the church will recognize its mistakes through the prophetic words of those who are no longer with us: a Galileo there, the Earl of Shaftesbury elsewhere, a Martin Luther elsewhere, or John Bunyan the non-conformist preacher, a Dietrich Bonheoffer, or a Martin Luther King Jr in our times. In the glare of history we are a church under judgment, and we repent and learn from our mistakes.  A church that fails to correct itself will not be renewed; and if it is not renewed it remains in a stunted state like the legendary Dodo. Sadly, those who bore the brunt of the truth will be no more by then. They cannot savour their vindication for the stand of faith and principle they took. And so it will be for Lubabalo. This is how the biographer of John Bunyan, R Williams sums up the mind of one who is turned to Christ. It is one who

 

Poverty cannot degrade, nor ignorance bedwarf, nor persecution crush, nor dungeon enthrall the faith of a child of God; erect in its richness, in its eternal hopes and heritage.”

 

I turn now to Fr Lubabalo’s dear family: to Nosipho, his widow, who in many ways stood alongside this man of the church, worked to support him, provide a warm and loving home, and shared much of Lubabalo’s painful end. It is now time to trust the God of all mercy, and to entrust Lubabalo and all that he ever was to you and your family to God’s loving embrace, where he will shine by the lamp of the Lamb, and he will see the face of God.

 

To Funeka, Xolani and Unathi: thank God for your father, remember always what he has been to you, and undertake this day to be faithful to what he taught. Be with your mother today and always, and be for her, and she to you, a shoulder to cry on and a pillar of strength in times of need.

 

To the Church, our church: we have lost a great priest, a gifted man of God, a gift and a resource to the Church – but never one without faults and foibles  - but one who loved the church and walked in the path of Christ. To many of us gathered here, Lubabalo’s death need not be in vain were the church to find it in itself, even at this late stage, after all it is never too late to mend, as Archbishop Thabo counseled in his sermon at the Memorial Service held at St Alban’s Cathedral on Thursday: to withdraw the suspension, and the processes that accompanied it – and thus wipe Lubabalo’s slate clean. In that way we can all make a new beginning. Beyond, there is the great act of reconciliation that lies ahead.

 

To the rest of us, now is no time for recriminations. It is time now to look afresh, learn some lessons, never look back but forward in faith. It is time to commend the soul of our dearly beloved to the mercy of God, and to comfort his bereaved family. Yes, there is much we do not know, and that we may never know. Only, let me end with a plea, that we must never repeat the mistakes of the past. God will judge us harshly.

 

“Jesus said: ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life…’”

 

Amen.

 

N Barney Pityana GCOB

Rector: College of the Transfiguration

Grahamstown.

 

19 February 2012.



[1]  See the elaboration of this in the ARCIC II Document, “The Gift of Life” which states as follows: There is also a discipline required in the exercise of authority. Those called to such a ministry must themselves submit to the discipline of Christ, observe the requirements of collegiality and the common good, and duly respect the consciences of those they are called to serve.” The Gift of Authority (1998), Para. 49.

 

[2] Archbishop Rowan Williams, for examples, makes the point that theological obedience is not mere docility or passivity. Theological Education and the Anglican Way; ANITEPAM JOURNAL; No. 52; November 2006, p. 15


Posted: 2/28/2012 (5:10:56 AM)


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