Saturday, 18 October 2014

Meditation: DELIVER US FROM EVIL by John De Gruchy


Matthew 6:7-13
"Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil."
"Save us from the time of trial, and deliver us from evil."

Every now and again I attend services where the old version of the Lord's Prayer is said and we pray that God will not lead us into temptation.  But why on earth would God want to do that in the first place?  Yet in countless places this very day, the prayer is said by unruly schoolboys at church schools and Catholic cardinals saying Mass in English.  And what temptations do we not want to be led into? There is quite a range from those associated with sex, food and money, to pride.  Please God, we have prayed all these years, don't tempt us with these things, rather let others do so!  The truth is, God does not lead us into temptation, so we don't have to ask God him to refrain from doing so.  But God does want to save from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.  The problem lies in translation.  So what did Jesus have in mind when he told his disciples to pray not "Lead us not into temptation," but  "save us from the time of trial, and deliver us from evil?"

In the year 4 CE, Roman legions crushed a wide-spread Jewish revolt in Judaea and Galilee.  Village after village was sacked, and many towns including Sepphoris, the capital of Galilee, were razed to the ground in a frenzy of fire and blood.  Resisters were crucified, beheaded or burnt to death.  Inhabitants who could not hide were slaughtered if male, raped if female, and the young were taken into slavery.  Sepphoris was not far from Nazareth, the town where Jesus grew up shortly after this terrible Roman onslaught. Nazareth survived but as a young boy Jesus would have been familiar with stories told about those awful days, about people who had died and heroes who had resisted, and he may well have seen with his own eyes the ruins of houses and farms that had not yet been restored.  It was a time of tribulation well remembered but which nobody would want to experience again, though it did happen, again at the hands of the Romans in year 64 CE and finally in 132 CE.  When Jesus taught his disciples to pray "save us from the time of trial," he and they knew exactly what he meant.  His generation knew what previous generations had experienced; they certainly did not want to go through that again. "Do not bring us to the test as you brought our parents!"

We are not strangers to such times of tribulation and trial.  What happened in Palestine in Jesus' era happened to millions of people during the Second World War.  Even if we did not experience those awful events, we have seen images of the world at war, and  throughout the past half century the scenario has been repeated in countless places across the world.  And now we witness on the news the barbaric advances of ISIL forces as they capture one town after another across northern Syria and deep into Iraq, beheading, raping, plundering.  How many right at this moment in such places are praying "save us from the time of trial."  This is not just a prayer which Jesus composed in order to teach his disciples how to pray; it is a prayer which arises from the depths of human experience, a universal petition of every generation, a cry of anguish from the heart.  When we pray these words every day and again this morning, as Jesus told us to, we are joining all our fellow human beings who cry out "save us from the time of trial."

But there is more to consider.  For parallel to  the words "save us from the time or trial" is the phrase "rescue us from the evil one" or "deliver us from evil."  Notice that these two translations have a different nuance.  The first personalizes evil.  "Rescue us from the evil one."  Which immediately conjures up the image of the devil, the symbol of personal evil and brings to mind passages such Jesus' temptation in the wilderness, or the letter to the Ephesians: "Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.  For our struggle is not against enemies of flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places." (6:11-12)  Yes, we do, and rightly personalise evil.  There are evil people behind the scourge of drug addiction, the manipulation of the stock markets, sex slavery, war and the advances of ISIL in Syria and Iraq,  just as there were evil Roman emperors in Jesus day and tyrants throughout history.  

The personal embodiment of evil symbolized by the devil is a reality, but we must be careful how we understand the word devil.  Christian faith rejects the idea  that there are, in fact, two Gods, the one good and the other evil.  There is only one God and that God is all-loving, all-good.  This does not mean we don't recognise the awful reality of evil, or that we do not experience that evil power in personal ways, as C.S. Lewis graphically describes in the Screwtape Letters.   But to believe in God means that we do not believe in the devil, that is, we do not put our trust in evil or believe that evil has the final word.. To believe in God means that even in times of trial we trust the power of God's love, grace and forgiveness.  That is why we pray both "save us from the time of trial" and "deliver us from evil!"  Save us from ourselves becoming instruments of evil as we face the evil in the world today.  Save us from the despair that leads us to doubt God's love and care for us.  Save us from doubting that Jesus' way is the way that leads to life. 

Jesus himself faced this challenge at the beginning of his ministry and through his life even up to the cross.  He was tempted by the devil, and encouraged by some of his followers, to seize power and lead an insurrection to overthrow the Romans and establish God's Messianic kingdom on earth.  In times of trial we are always tempted to hate our enemies, taking vengeance and embarking on acts of retaliation.  That is a natural reaction, but for Jesus it was being led into evil, acting in ways which are as barbaric as those performed by our adversaries.  The way of God's kingdom or rule is one of love for enemies and forgiveness of those who persecute us.   So we pray to God: "Save us from those times of trial  when we are tempted to lose our faith and act in ways that deny your will; but if and when we have to face them, when we find ourselves in the Wilderness and confronted by the devil, deliver us from doing evil ourselves lest we become evil.  "For yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory."

John de Gruchy
Volmoed 16 October 2014


Monday, 13 October 2014

Meditation: TWO LANGUAGES by John de Gruchy


Luke 10:25-37
"Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus."

Early last Sunday, Isobel and I, together with Iain McGilchrist, a visiting friend from Scotland, climbed up to the cross that stands tall on the central peak above Volmoed.  On a clear day such as Sunday the views are spectacular.  You can see the coastal road to Hangklip and beyond; the whole sweep of Walker Bay; right up the Hemel and Aarde Valley; and well into the Fernkloof Mountains.  One way to capture the scene is to take a photograph that accurately records what you see.  Another way is to write a poem that captures your experience in metaphors that go beyond the literal and touch the soul.  The photograph records the clouds over the distant mountains as though frozen in time;  the poem describes the clouds moving across the sky like sailing ships on an ocean.  Literally and scientifically speaking the clouds are dense collections of water molecules, just as the rocks are made of Cape sandstone, and the flora is described as fynbos.  All this is true, but none of it actually expresses  the beauty and wonder of the scene that surrounds you on the mountain top.  We knew that the earth turns on its axis around the sun, for that is the scientific explanation, the literal truth; but we actually spoke about the sun rising to dispel the darkness, and it we had stayed long enough we might have experienced a magnificent sunset. 

Iain McGilchrist, with whom we climbed the mountain, is a world renowned neuroscientist whose book The Master and his Emissary has made a major contribution to our understanding of the way in which our brains work.  He was also, at one time, a professor of English at Oxford, and is well-versed in the language of poetry and art.  So he understands well both the language of science and that of the arts; the way in which the left-hand and right-hand sides of the brain function together in grasping the truth through reason and the imagination.  We need both languages, that of science which gets at the literal truth; and that of art, the language of metaphor that speaks to our imagination and soul.  When the two sides of our brain are in conflict with each other, or when the literal language of the one and the poetic language of the other are in conflict, then our grasp of reality is either reduced to facts and figures, which is the literal truth, or we live solely in a world of fantasy that has lost touch with reality.  We need the language that tells us the clouds like our brains are comprised of busy molecules, and the language that describes their beauty as they sail across the ocean sky or process our experience of the setting sun.  

The language of Christian faith takes both seriously.  So, for example, we can, do and must speak at the same time about the evolution of human life and rejoice in the science that helps us understand it better,  as well as the language of the mystery of being human created in the image of God.  Michelangelo's painting of the creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel can be analysed in terms of the paint and pigments he used, and the techniques of which he was a master craftsman, and we might debate the proportions of Adam which are clearly not accurate or the image of the Creator as misleadingly anthropomorphic.  But if this is all we do we have missed the majestic point of the scene that dazzles our eyes as we look above us.

However, since the seventeenth century it has increasingly been the case that the Bible has been read by many people, both believers and unbelievers, only through the left hand side of the brain which analyzes and organisers reality in literal terms.  So the Bible it has to be "literally" true or else it is false.  The creation story in which God made the world in six days is either scientifically true or the Bible has got it wrong. When the Bible says the sun stood still for a day, it is either literally the case or nonsense; Jonah either swallowed a big fish or the story is childish fantasy; the virgin birth must be literally true or it is not true at all.  Pushed to an extreme, we would have to accept that Jesus is a loaf of bread, or a vine stock, that we are salt, and that God is an oversized male with eyes that see and ears that hear.

Or, to come to the passage we read today, we would have to assume that Jesus' story of the Good Samaritan was a newspaper report of something that actually happened, and not a parable that leads us into the truth through imagination and story telling.   I once heard a tour guide tell a bunch of gullible tourists that he would show them the very place on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho where the man was beaten and robbed, and where the inn was located.  Just as another tour guide showed me the very place where Jesus had ascended into heaven, pointing to a large rock that had markings on it that been scorched by the heat of Jesus taking off like a space craft!  Early Christian commentators on the Bible certainly did not think in such literal terms.  In fact, quite the opposite.  They often interpreted bible in an allegorical way to get at its spiritual significance.  So every detail in the parable of the Good Samaritan had some theological meaning. Gregory of Nyssa, for example, said that Samaritan was actually Jesus himself, that the donkey he rode referred to his humanity, that the Levite passing by meant that the Jewish law could not save, and the two pence paid to the innkeeper meant the law and the gospel.  Jesus himself would have been surprised at St. Gregory's ingenuity, as he would be by many of the literal interpretations of the biblical stories.  He used the language of the imagination to help us grasp the meaning of faith and, in this parable, the meaning of love. 

The lawyer asks a very precise question, as lawyers do in court. He wants a straightforward literal answer.   OK Jesus, if I must love my neighbour, who is my neighbour?  The literal answer is that our neighbour is the person living next door.  In my case Bernhard Turkstra.  So, Jesus, are you telling me that I must love God and Bernhard in order to inherit eternal life?  Well, yes, Jesus could say, if you love Bernhard you certainly will have earned eternal life!  In fact, you will have earned a darn side more!  But Jesus does not say that to the lawyer in the parable.  He moves away from the literal truth and and in a surprising twist to the tale he concludes by asking the lawyer to answer his own question.  "Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?" Suddenly the truth dawns on the lawyer not in the language of the court room, but in the language of faith.  "The one who showed him mercy!"  Yes, the lawyer has seen things differently that he did before.  He  himself is the neighbour, everyone's neighbour.  The literal truth remains true, Bernhard is my neighbour; but on its own it is inadequate.  The language of faith, hope and love, takes us beyond the literal not only in helping is to understand what it means to love my neighbour and therefore God, but in helping us to grasp the truth, beauty and goodness of God, to see the world and ourselves through different eyes.  This is not the language of facts and figures, of molecules and pigments, or the language of lawyers and the courthouse, however necessary and precise that may be; it is the language of wonder and worship, of grace and forgiveness, the music of the soul without which we would lose our humanity and be incapable of expressing our gratitude and love. 

John de Gruchy

Volmoed 9 October 2014

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Meditation: PROSPERITY GOSPEL? By John de Gruchy


John 10:1-10
"I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly."

Long before the collapse of the hostel of the Synagogue Church of all Nations in Lagos, Nigeria, resulting in the death of eighty South Africans, I had heard that many of our compatriots were regularly going there for  services.  I had also heard about its wealthy prophet, T.B. Joshua who, after church services, flies off in his private jet from an airstrip behind his church to return to his mansion in a smart resort town.  And I had heard about the ways in which he makes his fortune, from selling books and holy water to insurance policies and the tithing of his flock.  The church's official website claims that T.B. Joshua is a genuine prophet with a global ministry of healing, performing miracles and forecasting the future, and that the church has programmes to help the poor and sick, educate the young, and pursue deeds of mercy.  More critical websites list T.B. Joshua's faults, question his integrity, claims and accountability. They say that the hostel collapsed because two new floors were being added on inadequate foundations. Nigeria is notorious for bad building regulations and dodgy construction. 

How are we to evaluate these conflicting reports?  For starters we do well to recall that Jesus' disciples once came to him and said that there were people healing and casting our demons in his name who did not belong to their circle.  Let them be, he Jesus.  He also said that we should not cast the first stone.  So let's leave God be the judge of T.B. Joshua.   In any case, over the centuries some mainline churches have become enormously wealthy.  Consider the real estate controlled by them, the enormous trade from pilgrims to Rome, and the dubious transactions of the Vatican Bank.  No wonder St. Francis of Assisi turned his back on the ill-gotten wealth of the popes, cardinals and bishops of his day, and tried to rebuild the church according to the gospel of the Jesus who for our sakes became poor.  No wonder Martin Luther as a young and pious monk castigated the religious trafficking in indulgences when he visited Rome.  No, we dare not cast the first stone at Joshua and his Synagogue Church.  In any case, our first response should be to pray for all who died and were injured in that terrible tragedy and for their loved ones left behind.

But there are questions to be asked.  Is the "prosperity gospel" the prophet proclaims attracting the poor and sick, cancer sufferers and those with HIV & AIDS, with promises that cannot be met, raising false hopes, even if  some are healed and a handful become wealthy -- which might have happened anyway?  Is not the gospel of Christ about taking up our cross, endurance and faithfulness, rather than financial prosperity and worldly success?  Is  T.B. Joshua's message  one of cheap grace, though it costs his followers a great deal of  money?  Yet his followers go to him in droves because they believe he delivers on his promises.  They vote with their feet at considerable cost, while many walk out of our own churches and do not pay their dues in any case.  So could it be sour grapes and envy that makes us condemn T.B. Joshua and his gospel of prosperity?  Maybe we need to take another look at this "prosperity gospel" he and others like him preach.

The bottom line -- an appropriate phrase -- of the "prosperity gospel" is that God wants us to be  healthy, wealthy, and successful in every area of life.  No wonder many celebrities have found a spiritual home in churches that proclaim this gospel whether in Johannesburg, Nigeria or Cape Town. So the primary question is not whether T.B. Joshua is a charlatan, or how he makes and uses his money, but whether the "prosperity gospel" is the gospel of Jesus.   Have the "prosperity gospel" churches got it right?  Have they recovered something that we have lost?  Are they attracting the masses because the gospel they are preaching actually meets their needs? 

Some comments in one of Bonhoeffer's letters from prison prompt me to think that the "prosperity gospel" churches have, in fact, discovered something in the biblical message that we have neglected. He reminds us that God's blessing "encompasses all of earthly life,"  Too often we over spiritualize the gospel, Bonhoeffer says, or so emphasize suffering and the cross and the rewards that await us in heaven that we exclude God's promise of earthly happiness, blessings and prosperity here and now.   Surely God does not want people to be poor, sick, illiterate and unsuccessful.  Did not Jesus heal the sick and deliver those possessed by demons? Did he not come so that we "may have life, and have it abundantly," as we read in the gospel for today?  So is it not understandable that people who are in need, whatever that need may be, should go in their thousands to churches that offer them abundant life?  Or that those who are poor should seek out preachers who say God wants them to be prosperous, and can demonstrate that God has blessed them with abundance so that they can even own private jets?  Is it not reasonable that many politicians and sports men and women should go to churches that tell them that God wants them to do well and even win? 

Of course, this is not the whole gospel, and it is easily perverted to serve dubious ends.  But it is surely an important element in the gospel.  God wants us to be whole and to succeed in life, not walk around looking miserable, claiming that our  failures are a sign of holiness, or preaching that the poor should be happy because "theirs is the kingdom of heaven."  Otherwise why do we in Christ's name seek to help the poor, educate the young, and seek ways to ensure that our kids and grandchildren succeed in life?  Is this not God's will?  Yes, the gospel is about taking up our cross, it is about suffering love and struggling for truth and justice.  Yes, the Sermon on the Mount challenges ostentatious prosperity values, just as Jesus challenges those who put their hope in riches.  But this does not mean that there are no blessings attached, or that disciples of Jesus should be miserable, guilt-laden losers. 

To make dubious promises to people that they can be healed or become wealthy and succeed in order to make prophets profit may be deplorable.  But so too is preaching a gospel of promises in heaven when people are seeking abundant life here and now.  Or conveying the message that God does not want people to succeed in order to keep them humbly in their place, or feel inferior in order that God will seem greater.  So maybe before we cast stones at T.B. Joshua we need to recover the good news that Jesus offers us life to the full here and now.  We do not have to go to Lagos to discover or experience the prosperity of the Christ's gospel.  It is available everywhere, even here at Volmoed where we don't take a collection or sell bottles of blessed water from our river. But when we build, let us make sure we lay good foundations.

John de Gruchy

Volmoed 2 October 2014

Monday, 29 September 2014

Meditation: THE WAY by John de Gruchy


Acts 9:1-11
Luke 24:13-20, 28-32
"While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them...When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.  Then they recognized him and he vanished from their sight."

There is nothing more shattering than the phone call that tells you someone you love is missing or has unexpectedly died.  Isobel and I received such a call one Sunday afternoon in February 2010, the day Steve drowned in the Mooi River.  We were by no means the first or the last to receive such a call, and some of you are amongst that number.  It happens time and again, as it happened to Tom at the beginning of  the movie "The Way," which some of you have seen, and which the Congregational ministers on retreat watched last night.

Tom, an ophthalmologist in California was playing golf when the call came from the Spanish police.  His son Daniel had died while starting the ancient Camino or pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.  Tom immediately sets off for Spain to identify the Dan's body, and decides that he is going to walk Camino himself to complete the journey that his son had failed to do.  He is a lapsed Catholic, totally unprepared for what lies ahead of him. But using Dan's hiking gear, and carrying his ashes to sprinkle along the path, Tom sets off on the Way to deal with his grief. Along the way he encounters other pilgrims.  But he is in no mood for company and brusquely pushes them away, keeping his story of grief to himself.  But he cannot shake off Joost, an overweight Dutchman who is hiking to lose weight, and in an unthinking moment he tells Joost why he is on "The Way."  Then there is Sarah, a blonde Canadian who is escaping an abusive husband and hopes to stop smoking when she reaches Santiago  de Compostela.  And finally, Jack, a quirky Irish writer suffering from "writer's block" and a perpetual hangover.  His hope is that he will be able to write again. 

Tom's need is obviously the most greatest.  He is grieving for the son he has lost, and wants to be left alone to face the road by himself.  But he can't because the way ahead is full of other people.  You cannot escape people even if you migrate to the Karoo or climb Mount Everest.  Nor can Tom escape the presence of his son who, like the living dead, keeps on appearing to help his dad find his way to healing.  The other three companions have less important reasons for their journey  Losing weight, stopping smoking, being able to write again -- none compare with the gravity of Tom's.  Yet, as they travel together, and begin to share their stories they become a community of fellow-travellers who share a common humanity.  
They laugh, cry, drink wine and eat bread together.  And as they do so we sense that the reasons they give for their pilgrimage are only symptoms of a deeper need. Their lives have lost meaning.  They are seeking for healing.   We can all identify with them because their stories are those of people we know and care about, they could well be our own story even though each of us has a different story to tell. 

"The Way" reminds me of the "Wizard of Oz." Dorothy, a young girl from Kansas is on a journey of self-discovery. Along the way she meets and is accompanied by a scarecrow searching for a brain, a tin man who needs a heart, and a cowardly lion who wants to find courage.  These are not just mythical characters, they are people we know, they are you and me. The first great account of such a journey in English was Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Not many of his pilgrims are pious or religious, some are simply rogues and others don't know why they are on the road.  But we hear their tales we begin to identify with them, for each is a human being like us in search for meaning and healing even when they do not know it. The story is, in fact, universal and perennial. 

The first followers of Jesus were known as "followers of the Way."  When Saul set off for Damascus hell-bent on capturing and killing them, he was, so Luke tells, seeking to find "any who belonged to the Way, men or women."  The early followers of Jesus not just believers who talked the talk, they were travellers who walked the walk.  Anybody can believe that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life,  but we only discover what that means when we set off and travel along the way ourselves, alone and yet in company with others.  We can read about, talk about and discuss the pilgrim way to Santiago de Compostela, but only those actually set off on the journey find what they are seeking.  Yet we are all on a journey, and each of us has a story to tell about hurts needing healing, sins needing forgiveness, hopes searching for fulfillment.  "The Way" is a mirror of the human journey, our journey, for all of us at some time have to deal with sorrow and grief, with sadness and loss.  

But to find our way it matters how we walk the Way.  It is often a lonely path, but made more lonely because we push others away, we do not want to talk about our story, it is too personal and painful.  We can sympathize with Tom, and we can learn from the experience of those whom he shunned.  As companions on the way we dare not intrude into the space of those who need solitude.  We have to keep a respectful distance and a knowing silence even when we draw near to embrace.  Yet we also feel for those whom Tom pushed away.  For we are all fellow travellers each wanting to be embraced even as we want to embrace others.  But on the way miracles happen. This disparate group of unlikely fellow-travellers begin to share their tears and their laughter, they share a glass of wine and break bread together, they become a ragbag community of pilgrims helping each other along the way which leads to the cathedral of St. James the apostle who bore witness to Jesus.  For the way does not lead nowhere, it leads to the one who is the Way. 

Is this not really what draws people to travel the Way, perhaps even without knowing it? There is another companion along the path, hidden from sight though present to us in those who travel with us.  The one who draws pilgrims to himself in Santiago travels with them like Tom's son Dan who is sometimes evident but more often not.  We might not always or even often recognize him as we travel, we might not see him in our companions.  But whether we are on the pilgrim journey to Santiago de Compostela, or Canterbury, or Volmoed, or simply on our way to work or home, we may be assured that there is someone else walking beside us, listening to our stories and sharing his own. as he did on the road to Emmaus. Slowly but surely he draws us into his embrace, giving us life and hope: 

"While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them...When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.  Then they recognized him and he vanished from their sight."

John de Gruchy
Volmoed 25 September 2014