Thursday, 23 July 2015

Meditation: Prayer at Breaking Point by John de Gruchy


Psalm 13
II Corinthians 4:8-12

How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?

We are afflicted in every way but not crushed, perplexed but not driven to despair.

The abbot said something last week that struck a chord.  Just as we began Wednesday morning prayers which, as usual on that day, centred on justice and peace, he reminded us that there was little justice and peace in the world at the moment.  In fact, we often feel overwhelmed and helpless.  Yet, despite everything, we came together to pray for justice and peace in the world.  However inadequate, even escapist this might seem, we pray.  That might not be all we do, all we can and must do, but this we do.  At one level, prayer is a protest against all that causes strife,  as such it is also an expression of faith in God,  especially when our faith is pushed to breaking point.   In such times, the Psalmist expresses our feelings:

How long, O Lord?  ...
How long must I bear pain in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?

Last week one of my colleagues over many years died as a result of Parkinson's Disease, and two other life-long friends informed us that they had been diagnosed with advanced cancer.  Every day we all hear such news.  The books on the altar are full of the names of people who are seriously ill or dying.  And today, again, we will pray for all who are in need, especially those who are seriously ill,  those living in squalor or in conflict zones, and we ask God to bless Africa, guard her children and guide her rulers.   It may seem inadequate, perhaps even meaningless to some.  But nevertheless we pray in protest against the causes of pain and grief, and because we believe in God even though our faith may be reaching breaking point.

How long, O Lord?  ...
How long must I bear pain in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?

Every day on the news we hear of strikes, gang warfare, political blunders and stupidity, service delivery protests, hospitals understaffed and ill-equipped, dysfunctional schools, and violent crimes to such an extent that we can no longer watch or listen.  We find it difficult to cope with reality; we seek mechanisms of escape, we are on the brink of despair.  But we still come to chapel, and the words of the Psalmist bring us back to reality, as do those of the prophets and Jesus.  This is how it is, this is the world as it has always been.  It is not that the Psalmist is being morbid, or needs to lighten up, it is because he has come face to face with the shocking reality of his own circumstances and that of others. We are glad when can turn the page and find a Psalm that is more comforting, less sobering, just as we switch TV channels from the news to Masterchef.  Yet we know the Psalmist is in touch with the way things really are,  and so we pray with him in protest even though our faith may be at breaking point.

How long, O Lord?  ...
How long must I bear pain in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?

Having said this, it may not surprise you that I have been thinking lately about depression.  Not clinical depression, for that is an illness that makes us lose all interest in life and needs special treatment.  No, I am talking about the depression that sometimes envelops us when we receive news about friends who are ill or dying, hear the news about seemingly endless wars and violence, drive past shanties, and face the day to day things that make us depressed.  And yet, as the abbot said, "we still pray!"  Even when faith reaches breaking point, we pray, just as we prayed for an end to unjust rule during the apartheid years, and even as Volmoed was founded to pray for reconciliation when that seemed a long way off.  Looking back that's simply astounding, isn't it?  After all, we are rational human beings, we know that the world won't change overnight, we are not living in an illusory bubble.  But we still pray because we believe in the mystery we name God..

It is easy to believe in God when everything is going well, when the sun is shining, and winter gloom has given way to spring-time and the song of the cuckoo.  It is easy to believe in God when we are healthy and have enough money in our pockets to pay the bills, go on holiday and get good medical care.  It is easy to believe in God when prayers are answered.  But, the truth is,  faith is not easy, it  is often a daily struggle to affirm that there is purpose and meaning in life, that love does endure and ultimately conquers, that miracles do happen, and that there are signs of hope that keep budding like the fynbos after a fire.  It was such faith which enabled St. Paul to say that though he was afflicted in every way he was not crushed, and though he was perplexed he was not driven to despair.

A young man came to see me last week.  He is from England and is married to a South African.  They studied theology in the UK, but for the past six years have lived in Mannenberg on the Cape Flats -- the home of gangsterism, drugs, and daily violence on the streets -- where they are building a house church where drug addicts can find a new beginning.  I was deeply moved by his story.  They live and work where reality hits the proverbial fan each day from the moment they wake until they go to sleep to the sound of gunfire.  Yet, so he told me, they pray because they believe that God is active in healing  broken people in a broken community.  They believe that in the midst of death there is the possibility of life, and in the midst of despair there is hope.  That is why we  pray, especially when we find ourselves with others  pushed to breaking point.  Prayer is not all we do, it is not an escape from action;  prayer is a protest against all that is wrong, an expression of our hope for a better world, a means of grace that enables us to face reality and not be driven beyond our perplexity to despair.  Prayer is waiting expectantly to be surprised by God.

John de Gruchy

Volmoed  16 July 2015

Meditation: A PERSONAL RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD? by John de Gruchy


Song of Songs 3:1-4
I John 4:7-21
"On my bed at night, I sought him whom my soul loves... but found him not... But when I found him, I held him, and would not let him go."
"We love because he first loved us."

In response to my meditation last week someone asked me whether I believe it is possible to have a personal relationship with God.  Is it not more rational to believe that the ultimate mystery behind the universe is an impersonal force, however majestic and creative? We may then relate to it in mystic contemplation, but we would not pray in the way Jesus taught us saying: "Our Father," for that implies that God is personal.  The God portrayed in the Bible is not an object, an "it," even though the Bible sometimes speaks of God as a "rock"  or a mighty fortress.  God is rather a "Thou" or subject, the Eternal Father to whom we can personally relate whether in prayer or worship, or in other ways..  But in saying God is personal we are not saying he is simply a big one of us.  "We speak of God as personal," as Sam Keen says, "because we are personal, and we have only metaphors created by our time-bound, space-bound imaginations with which to reach the ultimate reality that forever exceeds our grasp."  And nothing could be more personal or relational than to say with St. John, "God is love."  We may love mountains, trees and beautiful places, but they don't love us.  To say God is love means that God loves us and relates to us. The story at the heart of a the Bible is, in fact,  a love story. 

The Song of Songs (or Solomon) is often interpreted as an allegory of this love story between God and us humans.   In the passage we read, the writer describes how he searched everywhere for his lover: "I sought him whom my soul loves; but found him not, I called him but he gave no answer." She went searching all over the town, but still could not find her lover.  She asked this person and that, but they did not know where her lover was.  Then, all of a sudden she discovered that her lover in the very place from which he had set out in search of him.  And when she found him, she held him, and would not let him go.

But the love story in the Bible turns that around.  It is not we who are the lovers seeking God, but God who is the lover seeking us to hold and not let go. Right at the beginning God comes looking for Adam in the Garden: "Where are you?" God asks.  It is a question God addresses to all of us as he seeks for us. The story of Jesus likewise is the good news that God comes looking for us.  "God loved the world so much that he gave his only son..." God, the cosmic lover comes searching for us in a far country, and the moment we turn towards him, he comes running to embrace us. The good news is not that we have to find God in order to establish a relationship with him, but that God comes to us, seeks us out, and finds us right where wherever we are and in whatever condition we might be.  "We love God," St. John writes, "because he first loved us!" Even though, like Adam, we may play hide-and seek with God, God does not give up the search, for it is the nature of divine love to seek and to save that which is lost.  God is like a bloodhound as Francis Thompson discovered, the veritable "Hound of Heaven":

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
   I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
   Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears
I hid from Him...

Halts by me that footfall:
   Is my gloom, after all,
Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?
   'Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
   I am He Whom thou seekest!
Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me.

We can hide with Adam or run away with the prodigal, but we cannot escape because we live, move and have our being in the God who is love. And when he finds us he holds us, and will not let us go.   

To participate in the life and love of God is not some kind of mystical trance that takes us away from life in the world.  On the contrary our relationship with God is inseparable from our relationship with others.  It is not only personal but interpersonal.   "Those who do not love a brother or sister who they have seen," John writes,  "cannot love God whom they have not seen."  Right from the beginning of the Bible's love story, love for God is inseparable from love for others.  To speak of God as personal and relational, to speak of being in relation to God, about being embraced by God, is inseparable from loving and embracing others. John puts in bluntly:  "Those who say, 'I love God,' and hate their brothers or sisters are liars."  To be in a truly personal relationship with God means being in a truly personal relationship with others.  We don't have to look for God somewhere else because the image of God is sitting, walking, living beside us! 

Yes, the God "whom we live, move and have our being" becomes known to us in personal ways, precisely because we are persons who are loved by him.  It is for this reason that we are perplexed when God seems to hide his face from us,  rather than us from him, or when bad things happen to good people.  Yes, the problem of pain and suffering perplexes us and sometimes makes us angry with God and even lose faith.  But if God is love it is a love that suffers with us, a love that walks with us through the "valley of the shadow of death," a love which having found us, holds us and does not let us go even when our faith falters.

John de Gruchy

Volmoed 23 July 2015

Monday, 13 July 2015

Meditation: THE BLAME GAME by John de Gruchy


Genesis 3:8-14
Luke 10:25-29
The man said, "the woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree. and I ate...The woman said, "The serpent tricked me and I ate."
"But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbour?"

Ever since I was a boy I have lived with the story of how my ancestor, Field Marshall Emmanuel Grouchy was blamed for losing the Battle of Waterloo which, incidentally, occurred two-hundred years ago, on Sunday 18th June 1815.  According to the story, Grouchy was having strawberries for breakfast  -- an admirable pastime you will agree -- in a village near the town of Wavre, when he and his staff heard the guns beginning their opening barrage at Waterloo.  Grouchy had been ordered by Napoleon to pursue the Prussian army which was in retreat, back towards Germany, and he was determined to obey his orders. But the wily old Prussian General Blucher divided his army into two sections, one of which hurried to Waterloo while Grouchy chased the other.  So Grouchy failed to arrive at Waterloo in time to give Napoleon the support he needed at the crucial moment.  Instead, the Prussians arrived and turned the tide in favour of Wellington and his allies.  So Grouchy got all the blame even though there were several other reasons why Napoleon lost the battle.  So who really was to blame?  There were several culprits, including Napoleon himself and undoubtedly Grouchy, but no one was prepared to accept responsibility.

Whoever first told the primordial story of Adam and Eve knew a thing or two about the blame game. Man blames woman, woman blames snake, and snake gets its revenge -- it's a recurring theme in the story of human relationships.  To complete the cycle, Cain kills his brother Abel, but refuses to accept responsibility.  "Am I my brother's keeper!"  I refuse to be held accountable for my actions.  I am not only not sorry for what I have done, I have no intention of acknowledging that I might have done something wrong.

The blame game is daily played  out across the world, in every institution and every home.   Who was to blame for apartheid?  Who is to blame for the economic crisis in Greece?  Who is to blame for the Marikana Massacre?  Who is to blame for our power outages?  Or, for leaving the lights on in these days of soaring electricity costs?  Definitely not Grouchy!  So it must be Mrs Grouchy who is at fault, or an unknown third force.   No one, it seems, is willing to accept accountability and say sorry.   In fact, we continually try to justify our actions or lack of them.

Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan begins by telling us that a lawyer asked Jesus to tell him who his neighbour was -- a perfectly reasonable question.  But then we are told that his motivation for asking Jesus was that he wanted to justify himself. In other words, to prove that he was blameless. He always obeyed the law of Moses.  Oh, yes, retorts Jesus, you are not as blameless as you think you are!  Are you really the neighbour to despised Samaritans?  No one is blameless because we all fail to love those in need as we should.  In any case, to love someone to prove a point or to justify oneself, is to misunderstand what love is all about.

We cannot be held responsible for everything that goes wrong, and there is no need to, but we all find it difficult to admit our mistakes and accept blame when we are responsible.  Instead, we indulge in self-justification or blame others.  It seems as if we are programmed to deny culpability.  "Am I my brother's keeper?"  "Who is my neighbour?"   Even when we know that we have done wrong, we look for scapegoats for what has gone wrong, or excuses for our actions that shift the blame:  it's in my genes, it's  because of my parents, my spouse, my colleagues, the coach, the abbot,  the weather, God, the devil,  a talking snake, or the "screw-up fairy" who regularly visits my workshop!  Yes, everything and everyone else is to blame for my mistakes, except me! We are all experts at playing the blame game and justifying ourselves.

 I have not read the Marikana Commission Report, but I am willing to wager that the word "sorry" does not appear; and I am equally sure that there is a great deal of self-justification embedded in the text.  Politicians are past masters at denying they did any wrong, as are many CEO's, bankers, and heads of parastatals.  It seems as if this is part of their training  Rule number one: "never say sorry, I made a mistake."  Point fingers at others, never at yourself. If politicians accept blame, it is so rare that it makes headlines.  Saying sorry it seems is a sign of weakness. 

One reason why we cannot take blame or say we are sorry is because we fear the consequences of doing so.  For politicians to admit mistakes means that they will not only lose face but also lose their seats and their salaries.  And, of course, lawyers are waiting to pounce on anyone who admits that it was his or her fault for crashing into someone else's car.  Admit you are wrong and your day in court will be over even before you hear the judge pronounces the verdict.  But even when our misdemeanours are minor we don't like owning up.  "Yes, but," is my usual response to Isobel when she points out some failure on my part.  "Yes, but!"  Followed by, "and don't think you are blameless, you do the same thing!"  To say, as some do, that love means you never have to say sorry is not true.  To say sorry is part and parcel of being in love.  

Every day chapel or week by week in church we confess our sins as individuals and as part of the human race.  This is an acknowledgment of culpability.  It is not that we are each guilt for every sin in the book, but we are all implicated in one way of another through our actions or lack of them.  The prayer of confession is not some kind of morbid guilt trip, or a liturgical formality -- it is a necessary reminder that we are not blameless, it is a regular reminder of the need for us to accept responsibility for our actions and, if necessary,  to change direction and move on.  We are breaking the cycle of self-justification and the compulsive need to play the blame game.  Jesus does not condemn us because of our faults, failures and sins; he has come to redeem us and therefore to set us free from them in order to live life fully.  But he knows that the way to such freedom is not the path of self-justification, but grace and forgiveness.  So to be sorry for our mistakes is not a sign of weakness, it is the necessary and often courageous first step towards reconciliation and healing.

John de Gruchy

Volmoed 9th July 2015

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Meditation: GRASPED BY THE TRUTH by John de Gruchy


Psalm 51:6-12
John 18:33-38
"You desire truth in the inward being."
"For this I was born, and for this I came into the world. to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice." Pilate asked him, "What is truth?"

I unexpectedly ended up in hospital last Friday and Saturday with a nasty stomach bug.  Dr. du Toit told me that I was seriously ill, and I certainly felt seriously so!  But medical skill and wifely care has helped me onto my feet again.  And in the process I met a splendid nurse who looked after me very well.  His name was Emeth Madlauzi, a striking figure with a long pony-tail and dressed in an immaculate blue uniform.  Efficient and professional, pleasant and friendly, and obviously enjoying his work.  He told me he was born in Murraysburg in the Karoo, a small town near Beaufort West.  I asked him how he got his name "Emeth."  He told me that his mother had a very sickly daughter before he was born, and that the doctor who looked after her very kindly had the name "Emeth."  He did not know what it meant, so I told him it was Hebrew for "truth," and I surmised that the doctor must have been Jewish.  The story of that doctor's care for his mother and sister, which led to his name, must have left a deep impression on Emeth, and perhaps was the reason he himself became a nurse.  And, I think a clue to the meaning of truth itself lies in the story. For truth is not simply something we believe but something that grasps us, something that we seek to embody.  "You desire truth in the inward being," says the Psalmist.

"What is truth?"  This question which Pilate asks Jesus before condemning him to death, is fundamental to John's gospel.  It is in John that we read that truth came into the world in Jesus, and that Jesus is, himself, "the truth."  So it is not surprising that at the final moment before Pilate condemns Jesus to death, Jesus says: "For this I was born and for this I came into the world. to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."  It is in response to this that Pilate asks him, but "What is truth?"  He was not asking about scientific truth, or historical truth, or the truth about the charges laid against Jesus; his question went much deeper, it was about the meaning of life.  A question asked long before Pilate came on the scene, and one that has resounded through the centuries ever since. 

There have been many answers given, for every philosophy, every religion, every ideology is guided by some conviction that its adherents claim is the truth about the meaning of life.  Even those who say that there is "no truth," that there is no meaning to life,  are making a truth-claim, because for them the truth is that there is none!   The truth, many people believe, is relative and subjective, it is what you make of it, and we should simply allow people to be guided by the truth as they see it. But if that is so, it is not a very helpful answer to Pilate's question, in fact it is dangerous, for then anything goes.  On that basis you can shoot people on a beach or behead them on the street, for that is according to the truth they claim to live by.   

So Pilate says to Jesus, "okay, you are claiming to speak the truth, but so are your opponents and everyone else, what, then, makes your claim to speak the truth right, and their claims wrong?"  Pilate was in a difficult position, especially as he was walking on a political knife-edge created by internal Jewish religious demands and those of Roman justice, and that was as complicated back then Middle Eastern politics is today.  No wonder he washed his hands of the whole affair and left it up to the crowd to decide.  Truth thus became subject to popular opinion, and the people sensing blood, were in no mood for legal process or rational debate.  Truth had become the victim of social and political forces.  All of which makes the work of judges and commissions of enquiry not only more difficult but also problematic.  Now that the Marikana Report is out, do we really know the truth of what happened that awful day?  How come it is always the victims who seem to be found guilty and the powerful get away with just a rap on the knuckles?  What is truth?  Who decides and on what grounds?

So let us go back to the central theme of John's gospel.  What does John mean when he says that Jesus is the truth?  Does it mean that only Christians have the truth, and all others, whether they be Muslims, Jews, Buddhists or secularists, live according to a lie?  But saying "Jesus is the truth" is not the same as saying that our religion has all the answers.  That is what fundamentalism is all about, whether it be Christian, Muslim or any other.   This  is one of the main reasons why there has been so much religious conflict and war over the centuries.  But can the claim that Jesus is the truth be the basis on which Christians reject other people as pagans and even put them to death, or go to war against them and bomb their cities?  Doesn't that go against everything Jesus taught and did?

So notice what Jesus actually says to Pilate: "Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."  This does not mean that only Christians belong to the truth, for historically mainstream Islam regards Jesus as a prophet, and all great religious traditions have a respect for his teaching that is, "to his voice."  In other words, Jesus' words about "being the truth" are not about whether Christianity is true and other religions are false, but about the truth that sets us free to live life faithfully and responsibly in relation to God and others.  In other words, Jesus does not teach a doctrine we have to believe, but he embodies the meaning of the life we are called to live.  Jesus is the message he proclaims.  And "his voice" tells us God is loving and just, gracious and forgiving, compassionate and merciful.  This is not some kind of wishy-washy sort of religion, on the contrary, in a world of religious and political intolerance and violence, it is the most demanding and costly way of living in the world.  After all, Pilate was about to put Jesus to death in an effort to silence "his voice" at the demand of his accusers.  And those who listen to his voice are often those who suffer for doing so.

As Christians we do not claim to know all the truth, but we do seek to embody the truth.  This truth, revealed in Jesus is not relative for it  has to do with what is fundamental to human life and relationships, to justice and peace, and to the flourishing of the world.   To grasp this truth is more than simply believing some doctrine, it is about how we live.  This is what "emeth," the Hebrew understanding of truth, is really about: living the truth.  It is why the Psalmist says that God desires "truth in the inward being."  To grasp the truth means to be grasped by the truth.

John de Gruchy

Volmoed 2 July 2015