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A truly holy man

Updated: Jan 18, 2022

On Boxing Day, the world lost one of the finest Christian leaders and one of the finest human beings of the last 90 years. Archbishop Desmond Tutu was a truly wonderful person.

As far as I know, he never read or had even heard of Holy Habits, but he certainly embodied and exemplified all that Holy Habits seeks to encourage.

As readers of this blog may know, one of the catalytic quotes that led me to write Holy Habits (Malcolm Down Publishing, 2016) came from the Durham theologian James Dunn. In his commentary on Acts 2 he said that Luke’s picture of the earliest Christian community would be recognised by ‘anyone who is familiar with movements of enthusiastic spiritual renewal’ (James Dunn, The Acts of the Apostle, Epworth, 1996, p. 34).

Desmond Tutu was a living, breathing, dancing and singing embodiment of enthusiastic spiritual renewal. I love the fact that our English word ‘enthusiasm’ comes from two Greek words en theos – in God. That was the ground of the archbishop’s enthusiasm for all he did. He was completely rooted in the God he knew loved him, loved all humanity and all creation, and whom he loved in return. For Tutu, spiritual renewal was both divine and human, heavenly – he spoke a lot about heaven – and earthly. It involved both prayer and politics. Wherever he went, whether the shanty town of Soweto or the corridors of Buckingham Palace, through his stories, speeches and own lived example, he offered a vision of how spiritual renewal could be a present reality as well as a future hope. Enthusiastic spiritual renewal positively flowed out of him.

Desmond Tutu never did a Holy Habits programme, but he embodied every single one of the habits. For anyone actively exploring Luke’s model of discipleship, it would not take long to find a Tutu story or quote to illustrate every one of the habits or practices, Luke highlights. Here are just three examples of the habits Archbishop Tutu exemplified.

The first is biblical teaching. Whenever I introduce this habit, I stress the importance of living biblical teaching. There is, doubtless, some merit in learning or memorising portions of scripture (although I admit I am hopeless at this) but what really matters is living out the teaching that comes to us through the gift of the Bible.

There is something deeply poignant about Desmond Tutu dying in the Christmas season. Around the world on Christmas Day, the great words of John 1 will have been read in church services, including the majestic affirmation in verse 14: ‘The Word was made flesh.’ Of course, this was uniquely so in Jesus. But in another way, this is precisely what God wants to do in all of those who name Jesus as Lord – to make the word flesh in us too. When people met Desmond Tutu, they met God’s word made flesh and Tutu longed for God’s word to be at the very heart of all human life and engagement. Among his many famous sayings, this one is typical:

When people say that religion and politics don’t mix, I wonder which Bible it is they are reading.

The second habit I will always associate with the archbishop is serving. Service was at the heart of the discipleship and leadership he offered to his Lord and to the world. The service he offered was to all humanity; with great dignity and enormous courage, throughout the bleak years of apartheid and beyond, he served others by pressing relentlessly for dignity and equality for all human beings.

The third habit I always associate, and perhaps most associate, with Desmond Tutu is gladness and generosity. If you have read Holy Habits you will know that I suggest this is a habit that takes us from the playful to the deadly serious. Desmond Tutu totally embodied that whole spectrum.

Some years ago, on Radio 2 he was the voice on the Mystery Voice competition. The clip that was played featured him saying, ‘I want to jump up and down and shout Yippee!’ His voice had all the wonder, energy and delight of a child opening presents on Christmas morning. He could be so very glad and loved to express that in dancing, singing and shrieks of delight.

He could be so very generous too. This was seen most powerfully and profoundly in his founding of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, with its ethic of generosity based on Christlike forgiveness. It was an extraordinary generosity on the part of those who had been abused and oppressed towards those who had denied them their human dignity. This was no cheap grace; it was hard and costly and I will always remember Tutu getting very angry with those who spurned this generosity, from whom the truth had to be dragged out. Today, it’s widely agreed that this deeply biblical model saved South Africa from the catastrophe of civil war and offered the world a model of grace and generosity that can bring lasting peace and reconciliation in deeply divided communities.

The affirmation in John 1:14 continues: ‘The Word became flesh and lived among us… full of grace and truth.’ What was true of Jesus was also, I believe, true of Desmond Tutu. May he rest in peace and rise in joyous glory.


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