Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Meditation: FROM CRUTCH TO CROSS by John de Gruchy


I Corinthians 1:17-18
John 19:13-18
"For the message of the cross ...is the power of God."

For the past few weeks, at the request of the Abbot, I have taken the phrase "turning the soul" as the theme for our Lenten meditations.  Lent, I said at the outset, is about conversion. Turning us around to follow Jesus more faithfully and in the process being shaped into the person  God intends us to be.  Then as you turn a bowl on a lathe you soon come to the heart-wood, that which gives the piece of wood its character and sustains its life.  The heart as metaphor refers to who we really are, what is central to our lives, that which makes you, you and me, me.  Lent takes us on a journey both into  who we really are, uncovering the masks behind which we hide, and deeper into the mystery of God whose broken heart is uncovered on Good Friday.  Lent is the season of breaking hard hearts so that we can learn to love again, a time to recover the church as the broken hearts club, the AHA community that stands with God in solidarity with the struggling people of the earth.  And then, last week we considered how vital it is in woodturning and in life to achieve balance.  Lent is a good time to regain balance in our lives through getting centred in Christ as we contemplate the gospel story anew. 

As we journey with Jesus and the disciples towards Jerusalem and the cross we are once again helped to find the centre around which everything else turns -- God's love and grace towards us in Christ through which we find forgiveness and wholeness again.  In this way we might even be  turned into something beautiful for God.  And it is this sense of being turned into something beautiful that leads me to share with you a story told by Bill Everett in our book Sawdust and Soul.  I tell it in his own words:

A few years ago Beth Follum Hoffman participated in a workshop with me and others on “Wood, Rocks, and Worship” at Andover Newton Theological School. We had asked participants to bring some wood that was significant to them and that they wanted to work with in the course of the week. Beth brought a pair of old wooden crutches. She had been born with one leg shorter than the other and it had only been through years of painful surgery and therapy that she was now able to walk unassisted by the crutches, which she had stored some years ago in her attic. The course requirement led her to take them out, knowing that these maple crutches were very important but not knowing what she would do with them. In the course of the workshop she transformed these crutches in a way that transformed her in the process. Despite her complete lack of experience with woodworking tools, she discovered that “I had a lot to say to the wood and … the wood also had a lot to say to me.” She decided, with the support, help, and encouragement of the other participants, to re-fashion them into a cross, a third life for the maple tree that would reflect the painful journey she had experienced in her own life.

As she went back and forth between her own experience and the actual shape of the wooden pieces, she began to see a way the crutches might become a cross. In the process she confronted her own struggle to absorb her traumatic childhood experience and refashion it so it might provide a language and symbolism for her own emerging ministry amid the myriad forms of brokenness and healing she was encountering in the lives of people in her church. At the end emerged a cross that clearly reflected its earlier form but in a new arrangement that would absorb its old meanings into a more universal symbol of suffering and new life. She didn’t build a base for it, but wanted it to hang over the (communion table I had made).  It would dance in the air, just as her spirit was lifting her own body, and with it the spirits of everyone who gathered around the table on our final day together for communion. It remains one of the most moving experiences with wood in my own life and in hers...

Beth, Bill goes on to tell us, "is now a minister in Maine, where the cross hangs in her office as a sign to everyone of the transformation that is possible in their lives."

Years ago, in the middle of winter with snow all around us, Isobel and I walked past a church in a small town in Wisconsin and stopped to read the notice board outside.  We were taken by surprised as we read   "In this church the hymn 'The old rugged cross' was composed and first sung."  Yes, at the heart of our faith is not a fine piece of furniture made out of a raw wood, but two pieces of rough, un-planed cedar (I would think) crudely nailed together on which criminals were crucified.  Yet that symbol of punishment and pain speaks to us of God's saving love, of healing and restoration, of forgiveness and grace.  In a strange way, a symbol of death has been transformed into an icon of beauty which attracts us and changes us.  The cross has become the sign of God's power to save and make whole, a means whereby our crutches become transfigured.

When you next visit the sanctuary next door, look again at the Christ figure which Bill Davis carved from a broken tree branch here on Volmoed, now hanging behind the altar.  There is a photograph of it in Sawdust and Soul and an extract from Bill's account of what carving it from a broken branch of a camphor tree meant to him.  During Lent we bring the brokenness of our lives, the pain of the past and present, our failures and our sins, into the orbit of God's transforming and healing love, that we might be made whole, balanced, and turned around in our journey into the mystery of God's love revealed in Christ nailed to the old rugged cross.

John de Gruchy
Volmoed 12 March 2015

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Meditation: VITAL BALANCE by John de Gruchy


Mark 2:1-10
Your sins are forgiven...stand up, take your mat and walk.

There was drama on Volmoed two weeks ago.  A large Pittosporum, whose roots were cracking Old Farm House, had to be cut down.  Professional tree cutters did the job, but near the end a gust of wind snapped a branch which fell across the veranda smashing its roof.  By that time Anton and I had already left the scene with the bakkie loaded up with large chunks of wood which we planned to turn into bowls on my lathe.  We had no idea whether Pittosporum, otherwise known as Cheesewood, was any good for turning.  But it is one of the most attractive of all indigenous garden trees, its  bark is good for stomach ailments and malaria, and its roots are used to treat chest complaints.  So why not give it a new life by turning it into a beautiful bowl?   That was the challenge as we looked at two large pieces on our work bench. 

But first of all we had to cut the chunks with a chain saw and shape them with a power plane to get them more or less round and balanced.  You cannot turn wood on a lathe if it is not well balanced before you start.  Otherwise as it turns and gathers speed your whole bench, even if securely fixed to the floor, will begin to shake making it is impossible to work the wood.  Balance is vital in woodturning.  And that also requires making sure it is centred on the lathe.  The wood can be balanced, but if it is not centred, it will still wobble.  Getting it balanced and centred is vital.

Many years ago as a student in Chicago I took a course on ministry to the mentally ill.  This required that I spend one day a week for a semester in a psychiatric hospital interviewing patients, then discussing these in a seminar with the professor and other students.  The patients were graded according to the types of mental illness diagnosed.  We had to go through a series of locked doors to visit them. So those through the third door were badly disturbed, prone to violence and almost incapable of communicating, and labelled accordingly.  We did not often go through that door.  But even so I came away after each day totally drained by the experience.  

At that time I read one of the latest books on psychiatry entitled The Vital Balance written by a leading psychiatrist, Karl Menninger.  Menninger was against labelling mentally ill patients because that  led to treating them according to a label rather than as unique individuals, and also led people to think that they were incurable. Diagnosis was necessary for medication, but labelling could impede healing.  The truth is, Menninger argued,  just as we all suffer from some physical ailment, to some extent we are all mentally ill or unbalanced.  For Menninger the aim of psychiatry was using the illness as a starting point to help his patients to become more centred and therefore more ba;anced,  and therefore, as he put it, "weller than well."

As we grow older we begin to understand the importance of balance.  My balance is not what it used to be.  I am not talking about my mental balance, though some might think that is in need of help, but physical balance.  I can no longer stand on one foot for any length of time without some kind of support -- as I regularly discover when I go to gym!  But balance is vital, and the ability to recover balance is essential to prevent one from falling and hurting oneself.  It is precisely what infants learn when they begin to walk, or when we begin to ride a bicycle.  In the same way, learning to balance is fundamental to coping with life, just as a chunk of wood needs to be balanced before it can be turned.   But balance is also vital for our spiritual journey, for "turning the soul" if you like, and that requires establishing a firm centre around which the rest can revolve.  In fact this is critical for our physical and mental well-being as a whole.  For if there is no centre, or the centre does not hold, the rest becomes unstable.  This is equally true for society. A major reason for the world's ailments is the loss of an integrating moral centre that holds things together, and without which things fall apart. So the rich get richer and the poor, poorer; people become dysfunctional through bad social conditions and parenting, and turn to drugs, crime and violence, and nations go to war. 

Jesus' ministry of healing, of making us whole, is all about helping us recover our vital balance in which the spiritual, mental and physical aspects of our lives are integrated around a centre or core that holds everything together.  That is the message of the gospel story for today.  "Your sins are forgiven...take up your mat and walk!"   Healing the body and mind, and forgiving sins are part of the same process of healing.  Inner healing, the healing of memories, dealing with guilt and the past, restoring relationships through forgiving and accepting forgiveness, learning to trust and to love, discovering hope, even becoming a child again in order to get fresh perspective and learn to walk again  are the keys to the way in which Jesus wants to make us whole.  And we can recover this vital balance even if we are not physically as well as we would like, or our mental faculties are beginning to weaken. 

What is fundamental for a balanced life according to Christian faith  is that our lives are centred in Christ.  That is why we are here today sharing in this Eucharist.  That is why we read the gospel day by day.  That is why we pray. That is why we have AHA moments when we share with those in need.  And in doing so, each day we regain our balance and become whole.  You can't become a balanced person without becoming centred day by day, just as you can't learn to ride a bicycle unless you keep trying.

Lent is a good time to work at restoring balance to our lives because it draws our attention to the spiritual disciplines that are so fundamental for doing so. how to meditate on the gospel, get centred in our prayers, practice the presence of God, and live lives of compassion and caring.  Lent is not meant to make us pious ascetics through much fasting in order to prove how spiritual we are.  Its purpose is not to batter our bodies, though some of us might need the equivalent of a chainsaw in order to get balanced.   But as we journey with Jesus and the disciples towards Jerusalem and the cross we are once again helped to find the centre around which everything else turns -- God's love and grace towards us in Christ through which we find forgiveness and wholeness again.  In this way we might even be  turned into something beautiful for God. 

John de Gruchy

Volmoed 12 March 2015

Monday, 2 March 2015

Meditation: TURNING THE SOUL by John de Gruchy


Isaiah 64:1-8
Matthew 9:9-13
"We are the clay and you are the potter."
"I have come to call not the righteous but sinners."

The Abbot, who recently read my new  book Sawdust and Soul, asked me to give a meditation on "turning the soul."  So I have been obedient and prepared one.  But first I want to demonstrate how not to interpret the Bible, just in case some of you missed the workshops on Biblical Interpretation during the past fortnight. We know that we can prove most things from the Bible, and we also know that it is not a good idea to read into the Bible what is not there.  And that, of course, was the danger in doing what the abbot asked me to do.  For where in the Bible is wood turning mentioned, let alone turning the soul?

One possible text comes from Ecclesiastes " So I turned -- to consider wisdom and madness and folly." (2:8-13)  After all, there is good reason to I go into my workshop to consider wisdom and folly while I turn.  But no, that is not what the text is about however you look at it.  But there are other texts I could possibly use.  "You shall not turn -- to the right or to the left.."(Deut. 5:32)  ""Turn -- to me and be gracious to me." (Psalm 119:132)  "Turn now, all of you --- from your evil ways." (Jer. 18:11), an appropriate text for Lent.   "I will turn ---their mourning into joy." (Jer. 31:13)  And Jesus words: "Turn the other cheek."  It does not take a biblical scholar to know that none of these have to do with woodturning. so it would be a travesty of Biblical interpretation to use any of them for my meditation.  The fact is, the English word "turn" can be used in different ways:  "take your turn," or "he had a turn for the worse," being two more of them, and wood-turning another.  No wonder people who are not English-speakers find learning English rather difficult. Yet there is a connection between the different uses of the word.  For turning means to rotate or change direction.  And both are appropriate in thinking about turning the soul."

Woodturning is all about rotation, for it is as the wood goes round and round that you are able to cut, shape and sand it.  Which provides a clue to what the abbot thinking about when he asked me to talk about "turning the soul?"  Maybe he had just read the following passage from Sawdust and Soul:

You can imagine my excitement ... as a bowl begins to take shape on my lathe, dictating its future form as much as I do, as though I am all the time consulting with the wood, moulding it like clay on a wheel according to its own inbred character. This is the fun, joy and wonder of turning. I also think this is what ... Christian formation is about: allowing the uniqueness of each person to be brought to the surface, enabling the inside core, or soul, to reveal itself in its own way and time, until the amazing grain that lies within is seen in all its beauty and radiance. Turning bowls is a parable of discerning and enabling the growth of embodied soul.

Even though woodturning is not the same process as working with clay on a potter's wheel, there is a striking resemblance. And the picture of clay being shaped by a potter is used more than once to describe the way in which God shapes the life of his people, and our own lives as well. 

This past week or two Anton and I have been making a large eight-seater dining room table.  My main task was to turn the four legs.  There are two basic ways to do that.  In furniture factories they use a duplicating lathe.  This means that every leg will turn out the same, in other words, they will all be identical.  But when you turn each leg separately, as I had to do, they are never identical.  They may look the same to most people, but the wood turner will see the differences.  I guess it is the same with pottery.  What a wonderful analogy this is for our own growth as persons.  We may all be human, just as all bowls turned on a lathe are made from wood,  but we are not clones of one another we are all different.  So "turning the soul" is all about enabling each person to become what God wants and intends him or her to be. 

There is a kind of Christianity which tries to force everyone into the same mould, often described as the "being born again" mould.  When evangelists seek to do that they are acting like duplicating lathes in a furniture factory, producing identical "born again" Christians.  But that is not how God works.  Consider Jesus' ministry as we read about it in the gospels.  Jesus treats each person in a way which recognises her or his uniqueness.  Peter is not Mary Magdalene, nor is Matthew the tax-collector Zacchaeus the publican, or doubting Thomas the single minded Pharisee turned apostle, St. Paul.  Yes, notice my choice of the word "turned."  Paul's whole life was turned around when he encountered Jesus.  Which brings me to the second meaning of turning.  It is not just rotation, but also about starting again, turning a corner, turning a new leaf, changing direction.  Before Peter or Paul, Matthew or Mary, Zacchaeus or Thomas could be turned and shaped, they had to change direction.

A synonym for "turning" in this sense is "converting,"  that is being turned around.  The word used in the OT is "return" to the Lord, turn back or repent.  Which is, of course, the message of Lent which we are now entering.  But now the two meanings: rotating and changing direction come together and help us understand what "turning the soul" is about.  When God turns us around -- conversion -- God respects our individual uniqueness just as a wood turner works with different pieces of wood, turning each according to its own character, grain, texture, size and potential.  You can make a salad bowl out of  a large piece of jacaranda, but not out of a small chunk of olive wood.  Yet each can become a useful or beautiful object.  So, we too, in the hands of the master wood turner, can not only start afresh but also become more truly ourselves.  Rabbi Zusya once said: "When I get to heaven, God will not ask me why I was not Moses; he will ask me 'Why were you not Rabbi Zusya?'"  Why were you not the person you were really meant to be?  That rough piece of wood being turned around and becoming all that it could become?  Lent is all about "turning the soul."  Turning us around to follow Jesus more faithfully and in the process being shaped and formed into the person  God intends us to be. 

John de Gruchy

 tVolmoed 19 February 2015

Meditation: THE BROKEN HEARTS CLUB by John de Gruchy


Joel 2:12-14
Matthew 6:16-21

Rend your hearts, not your garments.
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

I am not sure how many hearts I broke as a student. That is, if I broke any at all!  Isobel tells me that I only did so half-heartedly.  Be that as it may,  what a powerful metaphor it is when we speak about hearts that are broken, or breaking someone's heart.  This is not something that Dr. Chris Barnard, if he were still alive, would be able to fix.  He probably broke many more hearts than he fixed, and he did not do so half-heartedly! 

My Shorter Oxford Dictionary tells me that my heart is a "hollow organ keeping up circulation of blood by contracting and dilating."  It also tells me my heart is the seat of my emotions.  The heart is both a muscle and a metaphor.  If the heart stops beating we die.  But it is equally true that if the heart stops loving then our souls die.  And there, of course, lies the connection between muscle and metaphor, and why the heart as metaphor is as powerful as the heart as pump.  We all know how serious it is to have a heart attack, but the Bible tells us that it is equally serious for our well-being when our hearts are so hardened that we can no longer trust and love God or feel compassion for those in need.

Last week we considered what it means to "turn the soul," using the analogy of wood turning.  Turning the soul, I said, is all about our formation as persons and Christians.  This begins when we turn towards God in response to Jesus' gracious invitation.  Lent helps us focus again on this life-long process of conversion.  If I may return to the analogy of woodturning, we can now reflect on the fact that as you turn wood on a lathe you eventually come to the heart-wood.  That is its core or pith, that which gives wood its character and sustains its life.  Literally, the heart of the matter.  In the same way,  the heart as metaphor refers to the core of the soul, that which makes you, you and me, me. 

But the heart as seat of our emotions is not just about love. Bible tells us that the heart can be very deceitful, that evil deeds come out of the heart.  The heart may be the metaphor for love, but if our hearts are hardened against God and others, then those deep emotions function adversely in ways that are hurtful to others and ultimately self-destructive.  Sometimes our hearts are so hardened that nothing short of a heart transplant will make us caring and compassionate people.  There is an emotional connection between love and hatred -- the difference is that love reaches out to embrace others as we are all embraced in the love of God, while hatred excludes and despises the other.  The one is saving grace, the other sin.  Conversion is a turning from sin and embracing and being embraced by love.

If the heart is the symbol of love; a broken heart is the metaphor of love's pain.  A broken heart is love distraught, love denied, love spurned, love ignored, or the agony that follows profound loss.  Each one of us can tell stories about broken hearts, our own or that of others, or whether we have caused them.  Some of them have to do with broken romances or failed relationships, or dreams that have been shattered, or children that have brought disappointment.  And some are about grieving the loss of a loved one.  It is five years this week since our son Steve drowned in the Mooi River at the age of 48.  We remembered that day last Saturday and again on Sunday when we visited "Steve's Place" alongside the river with some friends who knew Steve.  We remembered this week five years ago when we sat as a family on the veranda of Steve and Marian's house in Pietermaritzburg, weeping and crying together as we remembered him.  Our hearts were broken. 

We cannot go deeper than this in exploring or seeking to understand what it means to be human, or it must also be said, divine.  For when St. John tells us that God is love, or that God loved the world so much, he is taking about the God's suffering, grieving love in Christ nailed to the cross.  In Jesus, God dies of a broken heart.  God's heart is broken by our lack of love, our hatreds, prejudices, and the violence we perpetrate against others.  Lent takes us on a journey deeper into God's brokenness of heart revealed fully on Good Friday.  It is a journey in which the hardness of our own hearts is softened by God's suffering love for us and the world.  In the process we begin to love God and others in a new way, sharing with them in their suffering and grief, and they in ours.  Lent is the season of breaking hearts open for love, making the church not the lonely hearts club, but the broken hearts club that stands with God in solidarity with the struggling people of the earth.  Yes, I believe in the broken hearts club as much as I do in the communion of saints and the forgiveness of sin!

So at the beginning of Lent the prophet Joel calls us to "rend our hearts, not our garments!"  And Jesus challenges us to consider what is really important in our lives, what is our treasure, because "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."  In a Lenten message while he was still a Cardinal in Argentina, Pope Francis reflected on the prophet's words:

Rend your hearts, so that through that gap we can really look at ourselves.
Rend your hearts, open your hearts, because only in a broken and open heart can the merciful love of God enter, God who loves and heals us....
To change one’s way of living is the sign and fruit of this broken heart, reconciled by a love that surpasses us.

Rend your hearts, and not your garments
Return now to the Lord your God,
Because He is compassionate and merciful,
Slow to anger and rich in mercy …

John de Gruchy
Volmoed  26 February 2015