Thursday, 4 February 2016

Meditation: DISCERNMENT AS A WAY OF BEING by John de Gruchy


Acts 16:6-10
Romans 12:1-2

Be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God -- what is good and acceptable and perfect.

How do you decide which path to take when you come to a fork in the road?  I decided to check this out on the web.  When I did, I came across a chain of restaurants in America called "Fork in the Road".  I was also presented with their menus so that I could choose what I wanted to eat long before I got to the restaurant.  That, I thought, was an excellent idea.   If you are like me, you will know how much time we spend trying to make up our minds about what to order.  We listen to what others are ordering, we look around at other tables to see what other people have chosen, and when we finally decide, we are still not sure, and then change our minds at the last minute and end up choosing what we always choose.  Most people in the world never have to deal with this problem because they can't afford to eat at restaurants.  They have to subsist on the same food day after day if they have any in the first place.  So we should consider ourselves lucky when we have a choice, not just about food but about much else besides.  In fact we often have too many choices on offer and some people I know spend much time weighing up the pros and cons of each before making their decision. 

But how much time do we give to discerning the will of God for our lives?  What choices we should make when we are faced with decisions about what to do?  How do we discern what is right, good, acceptable. and even perfect, as Paul counsels?  Do we act on impulse without too much reflection, as I sometimes do, and perhaps some of you as well, then live to regret what we did?  Or do we do the opposite, procrastinate, unable to make up our minds, unable to make a decision whether it is in ordering from a menu, buying a dress, or making life determining choices?  If we procrastinate too much we miss opportunities we should have grasped, and sometimes end up making bad choices in any case.  It is not a sin to act impulsively or procrastinate; some of us are just like that.  It is who we are.  But when it comes to life determining choices, or choices that affect others, we need are impulsive or procrastinate by nature, and we need to be more discerning.  Discernment is wisdom in action,  whether we make up our minds slowly or swiftly. 

I have benefitted greatly from people of wisdom who have helped me in making life-determining choices.  We  all need such friends whose discernment we can trust, friends who are going to help us make choices that are right and good, not just pleasing, expedient or convenient.  Friends who can walk with us through good and bad times, friends who are with us when we come to that dreaded fork in the road where the alternatives are not always clear, and the right way not obvious. But in the end, we ourselves have to make the decisions necessary for living our lives.  And we have to do so in a world that is increasingly complex, a world that is in danger of imploding because there is much knowledge but not a great deal of wisdom or even common sense!  That is why we need to exercise discernment, and practice doing so ir order that it becomes a habit, a way of being Christian in the world.

St. Paul tells us that discernment is a gift of the Spirit.  It is, we might say, sanctified common sense.  For us as Christians,  such Spirit-led discernment is fundamental to living because we are not just asking what is the right thing to do, or the right path to choose, but what is God's will for us, for you and me.  But if  we are to exercise discernment, Paul tells us, we "have to be transformed by the renewing of our minds."  In other words, we have undergo a daily conversion, a turning around, in order to see things differently, from God's perspective.  And this can only happen if  we daily reflect on the gospel so that our minds can be renewed by the Spirit, open to the Spirit's guidance, and do what was discern is God's will for us.

 I remember the time when I was thinking about going into the ministry.  I was still very young so I discussed it with various people whose insight I trusted.  But my father, who was not a very spiritual person at all, took me aside and said "I hope you know what you are doing.  Ministers are badly paid so you won't make any money!"  In other words, if I knew what was good for me I would not choose to become a minister or a priest.  He wanted me to do a reality check and not be carried away by impulsive enthusiasm!   How necessary that was.  I was being forced to ask whether this was really what God wanted me to do.  And that  was not a question that common sense could answer.  It required discernment, not just my own, but also that of others who had to test my sense of vocation.

The same is true for Volmoed.  If we really want to make money we could sell Volmoed to some big property developer who could turn the farm it into an upmarket housing estate.  That would be good business sense.  But those who started the Volmoed Community thirty years ago, who had no money to speak of, were not buying Volmoed as a business venture.  They had a vision of something God wanted them to do.  To create a place that God could use for healing and reconciliation.  This was not a common sense decision; this was the result of Christian discernment.  It was discovering where the Spirit was leading them.  In the same way, those of us who have met here at Volmoed this week to think and pray about the Volmoed Youth Leadership Training Project have not just been planning what to do, but seeking discern what God wants us to do.  Communal discernment lies at the heart of being a Christian community.  This is what we continually read about in the Acts of the Apostles, as we did today in the story about Paul and Timothy who, being prevented by the Spirit to turn east, crossed over into Macedonia and so planted the church in Greece.  And what a momentous decision that turned out to be!

Wherever you are in your journey of faith, and whatever decisions you may still have to make, whether large or small, use your common sense, think clearly for that is why we have brains!  But as a Christian let your common sense be sanctified by the Spirit, and allow your mind to be renewed so that you may learn to discern God's will for you in the decisions you make.  This requires prayer and contemplation as it does reflection on the gospel.  But it is only in this the way as individuals and communities of faith that we discern what is good, acceptable and perfect for us, because it is the will of God for us.

John de Gruchy
Volmoed 8 February 2016

Monday, 1 February 2016



I Corinthians 5:16-19
Matthew 5:21-24
In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself.
God has entrusted the message of reconciliation to us.

Twenty years ago this year, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established and mandated by Parliament to spearhead the process of reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa.   Soon the TRC attracted global interest, and was daily referred to in the media here and abroad.  It was meant to complete its work in two years, but only did so in six when, in 2002, it submitted its final report to President Mbeki.  While it continued to attract attention, especially among scholars, many of them beyond our borders, by then most South Africans seemed to have lost interest and tired of the subject, many victims who gave evidence at its hearings were disillusioned, perpetrators were desperately trying to get amnesty for themselves, and the government was not taking some of its main recommendations seriously.  The process of reconciliation seemed to stagnate.  We can't blame the TRC for this.  Rather as South Africans we, especially those of us who are white along with the government, must blame ourselves for failing to grasp the opportunity the TRC gave us.  It would have saved much anguish today if we hadn't.  But instead, the impetus towards reconciliation weakened and the word, like the Rand, was devalued.

So now, twenty years later,  reconciliation  has become a dirty word for many angry young blacks who regard all talk about reconciliation as cheap talk, and have concluded that whites who say they are for reconciliation are not really serious.  Reconciliation-talk, for them, simply benefits those who have made it in the new South Africa rather than contributing to significant changes on the ground for those who are poor or unemployed, young, black and uneducated. Nothing has really changed they chant. Some have even turned their backs on the national icons of reconciliation, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, saying that they sold them down the river. 

These young people, for whom reconciliation has become a symbol of oppression rather than transformation, are almost all "born-frees." They did not grow up under apartheid, nor did they participate in the struggle against it.  Many are college or university students who, like young people the world over are critical of their elders, and articulate in their criticism. At one level they have come of age like young people everywhere.  But they are not without cause. They may not have grown up under apartheid, but they experience its legacy in too many ways.  They are daily aware of the gap between rich and poor, between the growing middle-class and the unemployed, between the skilled and unskilled, the educated and less educated, the well-housed and shack dwellers -- inequities that largely mirror the divide between black people and white, or those who have benefitted from Black Economic Empowerment and those who have not.  Reconciliation for them, has simply come to mean that whites and blacks can now be friends on Face Book, play in the same rugby teams to fill quotas, go to the same restaurants and churches if they wish, ride on the same trains, and even intermarry.  So reconciliation-talk has become suspect, and the word itself is becoming unusable along with the words "God" and "Christianity" with which it is usually associated.  It is much like Donald Trump telling us that he is a Presbyterian and proud of it!  I doubt that many Presbyterians welcome his affirmation, but in saying this Trump has debased the word.  This is what has happened to the term "reconciliation."  It now conveys to many young and angry blacks what is wrong with South Africa, not what is right.

I am not pessimistic about the reconciliation process.  I think we have come a long way in the past twenty years, but it is not nearly far enough to meet the expectations of many people, not least young blacks.  So all of us who believe in and work for reconciliation have to sit up and take notice of their anger and the bored yawns of those who have lost interest or are indifferent.  This is a particularly urgent challenge for us Christians for whom reconciliation is the core message of the gospel which, as St. Paul tells us, has been entrusted to us.  

When Paul wrote that "in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself," he was not just speaking about Jesus' death on the cross, but reminding us that throughout his ministry Jesus was the agent of God's work of reconciliation.  He is saying that in Jesus, God took the initiative to reconcile and heal the world.  In Jesus' every act of healing, every protest against injustice, every challenge to the hypocritical religious elite of his day, as well as to the rich and powerful, every parable about the coming of God's reign of justice, every embrace of the outsider, the despised and the vulnerable, God was at work "reconciling the world to himself."  And it was because of this costly ministry of reconciliation in which Jesus confronted the dehumanising and destructive powers of evil, that he was crucified.  This is what the gospel of reconciliation is about, and why it is costly, not cheap.  For cheap reconciliation is no reconciliation.   Reconciliation is not just being nice to one another, though that always helps!  It is about the deep healing of broken relationships and enmities through grace and forgiveness; it is about the deep healing of society through working for justice and therefore social and economic transformation. 

Jesus tells us that we cannot worship God if we are estranged from other people because of what we have done to them.  Like the prophets of old, he tells us that faith in God is meaningless unless we love our neighbours and seek God's justice in the world.  So when we say that the church exists in order to witness to God's reconciliation of the world in Christ, this is what we are committed to doing. It is the only promising way into the future, not just for us in South Africa, but for the world, as becomes ever more obvious each day as we watch the news on TV.  And that is why we here at Volmoed continue to be inspired in our ministry by the story that gave birth to the Community of the Cross of Nails to which we belong.

During the Second World War, Coventry Cathedral in England was totally destroyed by German bombs.  In retaliation, in an act of vengeance that had no strategic importance, the Royal Air Force destroyed the German city of Dresden. After the war, as an expression of penitence and reconciliation, the Dean of Coventry invited young Germans from Dresden to come to Coventry where they worked alongside local young people to clear the ruins of the Cathedral.  In doing so, they discovered some Medieval roof nails lying in the rubble.  They made a cross from two of them and placed it on the damaged altar as a sign of the process of reconciliation to which they were committing themselves.  So the Community of the Cross of Nails was born, which now has over two hundred affiliates across the world including Volmoed, each working for justice and peace in places of conflict, enmity and violence.  So today we reaffirm our core conviction: that "in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself" and renew our commitment to "the message of reconciliation" he has entrusted to us. And as a sign of that commitment we say the Litany which every community associated with the Community of the Cross of Nails says every week. 

All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God

Father forgive
the hatred that divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class.

Father forgive
the covetous desires of people and nations to possess what is not their own.

Father forgive
the greed which exploits the work of human hands and lays waste the earth.

Father forgive
our envy of the welfare and happiness of others.

Father forgive
our indifference to the plight of the imprisoned, the homeless, the refugee.

Father forgive
the lust which dishonours the bodies of men, women and children.

Father forgive
the pride that leads us to trust in ourselves and not in God.

Be kind to each other, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, as God in Christ forgave us.

John de Gruchy

Volmoed 28th January 2016

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Meditation: RACISM AND RAINBOWS by John de Gruchy


Philippians: 2:1-4
Matthew 7:12
"In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets."

I had a dream. Once long ago in a land far away, there lived a beautiful people.  Some of the people were purple others blue, some of them were orange others crimson, and some pink and vermillion.  There were also green people and yellow people, in fact people of every colour of the rainbow.  They were beautiful as individuals, but when they were all together on special occasions they made a spectacular sight.  Their colours blended in rich harmony as they acknowledged each other as part of a tapestry in which each was necessary, none superior, each an important part of the whole, but none insignificant on their own.  They were known far and wide as the rainbow people.  Unlike other nations, there were no white people or black people, for those colours are absent from the rainbow, only people of all colours, shapes, shades and sizes, like pieces in a magnificent jigsaw puzzle.  Each piece was necessary to complete the picture, none more special than any other, but when each piece linked arms the picture was stunning even though while still incomplete.

Then I woke up.  It had been a wonderful dream, but it was not reality on the ground, certainly not if you scratched beneath the surface.  How could it be when for centuries all people saw was black and white, and when laws insisted that they should never mingle, never form a rainbow, and laws, guns and dogs were used to keep them apart.  Water-canons were also used to suppress their protests and wash all the colours down the gutter.  So only black and white remained to make sure that everyone knew who they were, that all that mattered was that you were white or black.  From childhood we learnt  we all learnt that we were not part of a rainbow. but as different as daylight and midnight, some superior others inferior, some privileged others oppressed.  Most whites imbibed  this belief with their mother's milk and their father's talk who, in turn, learnt this from their ancestors who lived over the seas and thought blacks were alien creatures inhabiting a dark continent alongside strange beasts. 

Many thought that this was just how God intended it to be, that it had been like this since the foundation of the world.  Some were predestined to rule and others to serve, some were intelligent and could play cricket because they were white, and others dumb and could only play soccer because they were black.  Yes, everything was in black and white, like the laws written down to ensure that they remained separate and knew their place.  Scholars and politicians  thought long and hard how to describe this and eventually they found a word that seemed to fit. They called it  "race" and insisted there was a white race and a black race,  even though we know that there is only the human race made up of many cultures of all colours.  So racism was born and racism ruled.  In protest black became beautiful and white the colour of oppression.

But things don't work well in black and white.  It is like watching old movies where people are not only black and white, cowboys and Indians,  good guys and bad, who shoot each other but never talk to each other.  Just like living in a colourless world makes you ill, so racism was a disease which made society sick.  People lost their humanity, and committed crimes against humanity.  And even though not everyone had the disease, it affected everyone, for when some are in bondage to racism all are in bondage and end up doing hurtful things to each other.  So people began to dream of and struggle  for a non-racial nation, a nation made whole. 

After many years, too many deaths and much suffering, enough people came to their senses and helped construct a rainbow.  Their dream became reality.  And they all settled down to live happily ever after.  Except for one thing.  They did not take into account that the racism virus, like the plague, had not been eradicated, it was only dormant waiting its chance to reappear and infect the fragile rainbow.  Too little had been done to get rid of the virus;  it had only been brushed under the carpet.  Too few acknowledged that establishing a non-racial society could not be achieved by the stroke of pen.  Human nature had to change, and that is a tough call. 

So twenty years after the rainbow nation was born, and much achieved,  the reality of racism cannot be ignored or denied.  Its symptoms keep showing themselves, both crude and subtle, for not everyone is afflicted to the same degree.  Some forms are mild like the common cold, others as violent, abusive and deadly as Ebola.  Everyone knows a crude racist when they see one or hears them speak.  But subtle racism is more difficult to detect, and even those who are afflicted do not always acknowledge that they have the disease, and sometimes vehemently deny it.  So they are taken by surprise when someone calls them racists.  "Who, me?" they ask in shock.

There is no easy cure for racism, no antibiotic.   But we do know that unlike Ebola and the plague, it can't be dealt with by isolation.  Isolation only strengthens the virus.  The way to overcome the disease is through contact, through discovering that people who are different are just like oneself; that we are all human beings, all of the same human race.  We belong together because God has made us so and history has brought us together.   It is only as we learn to respect each other so that our differences actually enrich each of us, that the virus can be contained and eventually overcome.   It is a long, hard battle, because racism has perverted justice and robbed people of their land.  But we have to start somewhere, and we can and must begin with ourselves.  We can acknowledge that the virus is real and not deny its reality.    So we have to be careful about what we say about others, about the attitudes we have, the way we act, the off-the-cuff comments we post on Facebook.  This is not all that is required to build a rainbow nation, but without this we haven't begun. 

Oh, and by the way, Jesus gave us a golden rule to deal with the racism virus.  Do to others what you would want them to do to you and therefore speak about them in ways that you would like them to speak about you.  Imagine such a world!  Is it only be a dream?  Or can we make it a reality?

John de Gruchy

Volmoed  21 January 2016

Monday, 11 January 2016

Meditation: LED BY A STAR by John de Gruchy


Matthew 2:1-11
“…there, ahead of them, went the star they had seen at its rising.”

The Christmas Carol "The Twelve Days of Christmas" traditionally begins with a Partridge in a Pear tree and ends with Twelve Drummers Drumming.  But there have been many versions of the carol since the 18th century.  There is even a South African version which begins with a Hadeda in a Gum Tree! 

The "twelve days of Christmas" start on 25th of December and end on January 6th, the feast of Epiphany.    “Epiphany” means manifestation of the light and, in particular, the manifestation of Christ as the light of the world not just for Jews but for Gentiles as well.  So Epiphany is the day on which we remember the Wisemen who came from the East to visit the Christ-child, being led by the light of a star.

We don’t know exactly who these Sages were except that they came from the East, maybe modern-day Iran, and  that they were pagan astrologers who believed that their lives were determined by the stars.  So led by a star they journeyed to Jerusalem to enquire about the birth of a king.  But Herod “and all Jerusalem,” were scared out of their wits by this enquiry.  Worried by the news and scheming how he could deal with it, Herod got all his court theologians together to ask their opinion.  And they, guided by the Scriptures informed him that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, a small town not too far from Jerusalem.  So the Magi continued their journey and, lo and behold, “there ahead of them, went the star they had seen at its rising” until it hovered over a cave in Bethlehem.

There are several layers of meaning to this magical story.  Matthew is telling us, that right from the beginning the coming of Jesus was welcomed by some but not by everyone.  There were those who, like Herod, were afraid of the arrival of the Christ-child because they sensed that he would challenge their authority, their status, and their religious convictions.  Matthew is also telling us that among those who celebrated that first Christmas were Gentiles and pagans.  Jesus appeal is not exclusive to some race or tribe or religious group, but universal.  Everyone is welcome at the manger.  He is also telling us that people come to Jesus by various paths and they start their journey in many different places 
The Wisemen came from the East guided by their own reading of the signs of the times in the heavens, though they also needed the guidance of the Scriptures to know more precisely where to find Jesus.  But when they arrived the star that had first evoked their keen interest and had gone before them. was already there!  And that is the point of the story – it was the light of the world symbolically reflected in the star that drew them to Bethlehem from afar.  Or as the prologue to John's Gospel puts it: "The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world."

Now it is this insight which Matthew captures in his telling of the story that is important for us today in a world where so many people insist that their way to Jesus is the only right way.  The story of the Wisemen suggests otherwise.  For the light that came into the world at Christmas attracts people in many different ways and for different reasons. As we read the stories of Jesus’ encounters with people, we are continuously aware of how each person is different, each is at a different point in their life's journey.  They not only come from different backgrounds and walks of life; they also range from the pious to the profane; they have different needs, different questions and expectations. But they are all in one way or another drawn to the same Jesus who attracted the Wisemen from the East and the Shepherds from the surrounding hills.  Some came well versed in Scripture, as did Nicodemus; some came endowed with authority, as did the Roman centurion; some came desperate for love and compassion, as did Mary of Magdala; some came because they were blind, or possessed, or crippled, and in need of healing.  The Wisemen from the East came because they were following the light they had received far from the land of Moses and the prophets, but which also brought them to the Christ-child. 

It does not matter who you are, where you come from, how much knowledge you have, what religion if any you espouse – what matters is whether or not you are willing to follow the God-given light that leads you.  This does not mean that everyone will arrive at Bethlehem or become a follower of Jesus, for the testimony of the Scriptures was necessary for the Wisemen to complete their journey and find the Christ-child.  But, if it is true that Jesus is “the light of the world that enlightens everyone,” then it could well happen to anyone, as it happened to the Wisemen, that they arrive at the manger where with the Wisemen "they are overwhelmed with joy… "  

But, as the poet T.S. Eliot perceptively noted, their journey did not end in Bethlehem, in a sense, it only really began there.  For when they returned to the place from which they originally came their lives were changed forever.  

'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears,  saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped in away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

John de Gruchy
Volmoed 7th January 2016