An evening with Philip Yancey

Philip Yancey, award-winning writer and journalist, recently visited South Africa and spoke on 16 May at St James Church, Kenilworth. Kyle, Kirsty, JP and i were fortunate to attend. 

After a brief, jocular introduction, the relaxed tone of the evening was set. Though Yancey’s books are most often profoundly personal, we were afforded additional glimpses at his background and family upbringing. The host began by interviewing Yancey informally, and Yancey — who has sold more than 14 million books, won numerous awards, and travelled extensively — spoke plainly and frankly about some of the challenges of his own life and upbringing: growing up, fatherless, in a trailer park at the back of a Southern church steeped in legalism and racism, and how that all but put him off Christianity; and the struggles and joys that occasioned, and are humbly evident in, some of his books.

These personal glimpses were punctuated by short, memorable cameos by an excellent drama trio, the Saltmine Theatre Company. The parables they acted out illustrated some of the points Yancey made during the evening. Various “award ceremonies” teased the pride and “ungrace” that Christians so often evince even in well-intentioned acts. The Professor’s School of Evangelism provided knowing laughs as the Professor tutored his student in how to win over her neighbour. This occasion, while they were gardening and chatting, was an all-too-real portrayal of the lack of grace, understanding, and sincere desire for friendship which well-meaning Christians, in their zeal, so often show towards their neighbours.

A stirring sketch presented moments from the life of Corrie ten Boom, the young woman who hid many Jews during the terrors of the Holocaust, and who herself watched her sister dying in Ravensbruck concentration camp. Some years after the war, after talking at a church in Munich, she was approached by a former guard of Ravensbruck. She recognised this man, who had in the interim become a Christian, knew God’s forgiveness, and now asked her forgiveness. As she stood there trembling, battling against the coldness she felt towards this man, she prayed silently — “Jesus, help me! I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling” — and then, “I forgive you, brother! With all my heart!”

“If we do not deal with the problem of unforgiveness,” Yancey went on to say later that evening, “we dig not one grave, but two.” Yancey weaved his talk around the themes of “gravity” (the way the fallen world works) and “grace”, bringing insights from his family and other experiences. Many of these are recounted in his books, most notably in What’s so amazing about grace?.

As a skilled journalist, Yancey had also noted many experiences and encounters during his brief visit to South Africa. He ruefully contrasted South Africa’s apartheid experiences with his own early experiences. He told of his encounter with Joanna, a staunch lady who was wakened to the plight of prisoners in Pollsmoor by news that, in the previous year, 279 violent acts had been committed among those prisoners. Joanna began to work among them, bringing the hope of the gospel into their hopelessness. In the past year, there have been only two violent acts in that prison.

“God was already present in this place; we just had to make Him visible,” Joanna said. Yancey visited Pollsmoor while in Cape Town, and there, on a wall of one of the cells, were these words: “Surely the LORD is in this place” (Genesis 28:16)

These are some of the stories that have touched Philip Yancey’s life, and which he recounts to touch others’ lives: stories of grace in a world fighting against gravity. The evening was a challenge to show grace, “the church’s distinctive”, in a world in which grace has become so foreign. The evening closed with the audience rising in song to sing Amazing Grace, reminding everyone of the meaning of grace.

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