Thursday, 9 April 2015

Meditation: WE NEED EASTER by John de Gruchy


Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude...crying out

Many years ago Isobel and I spent a year at Princeton Theological Seminary.  I taught some courses, and on one occasion was invited to preach in the seminary chapel.  One of my students came to me prior to the service and asked whether he could shout out "Hallelujah" from time to time during my sermon for that was, he said, the custom in his church.  When the congregation enthusiastically agreed with the preacher, he said, people spontaneously cried out "Hallelujah," the Hebrew word for "Praise the Lord!"  Now I was accustomed to this because in my younger days I had attended worship services where this was normal practice.  But it was, at least at that time, something seldom done, if done at all, in the more sober and conservative Presbyterian environment of the Princeton seminary chapel.  I told him I had no objection and thought no more about it.  That is, until I was preaching, when all of a sudden I heard a loud "Hallelujah" shouted out from somewhere near the back of the chapel.  This was repeated several times during my sermon to the consternation of some in the congregation. But I was also a little taken aback, not because he shouted out "Hallelujah!" but because he seemed to be doing so at inappropriate times.  For example, if I said something like ":the world is in a very sorry mess," or "tragedy strikes people when they least expect it," he would shout "Hallelujah!"  But that was surely not something to praise the Lord about.

During Lent, as you well know, we refrain from crying out "Hallelujah" at the end of our service.  There are two main reasons for this.  The first is because our focus during Lent is on the cost of discipleship, on the journey to the cross.  Traditionally it is the season for repentance.  Nothing to cheer about.  But every reason to shout out "Aha!" as we remember that we are called to serve others and acknowledge that we often fail to do so. "Aha" is, if you like, a call to change our way of living in relation to those who are poor. A good and necessary discipline during Lent, and, of course, throughout the year.  

The second reason is that shouting out Hallelujah can just become a meaningless formality if we keep on saying it without thinking about what we are doing.  It becomes inappropriate.  It is like shouting out the word, as my student did, at the inappropriate time.  Of course, we can shout our "Hallelujah!" throughout the year, during Lent as well if we want to.  We do not stop praising the Lord in Lent.  But by refraining to do so for a period we come to appreciate its meaning again.  When Easter comes there is something very special to cheer about.  "Hallelujah" becomes the appropriate response to the good news that "Christ is risen!"  Then the Hallelujah chorus demands to be sung.  The time comes when, without forgetting "Aha!" we need to cry out "Hallelujah!" once again.   We need to affirm that we are Easter people, people who live in the light and the hope of the Easter message.  "Christ is risen! Hallelujah!"  Yes, we need Easter as Isobel wrote in a poem some years ago:

Lord, I see the beauty of your world,
the sparkling turquoise of the sea,
the solid mass of the mountains,
the fragile loveliness of a flower,
and I can praise you.

But there is that other ugly world
that frightens me -
it overwhelms me, renders me helpless:
that world where people are prisoners to poverty,
violence and misery mark the measure of their lives,
they trudge an endless treadmill
without a break – to stop is to fall off
into worse - a dark and bottomless pit.

I can’t bear to hear about it, to think about it.
I don’t know how – do I even care enough? -  to act.
Lord, it is Good Friday – bad Friday - writ large,
Bad Friday, Black Saturday, repeated
endlessly, like the treadmill.

We need Easter, Lord,
send Easter! – to the city’s slums
to the shacks, to the shebeens,
to the country’s desolation,
to the hearts and minds and wills of all.
Break upon our world with Easter.
Break open our world with Easter.

Yes, we need Easter.  We need good news amidst all the bad news that bombards us every day.  We can barely cope sometimes with all the problems we have to deal with day by day, at work or at home, without even thinking about the problems facing us in our society and the world at large.  We need something to shout "Hallelujah" about in dark times when daily there are news reports of mass murders and plane crashes, of friends who are dying of cancer, and corruption in high places, of Christians being slaughtered for their faith.  We need light in the midst of darkness.  We need hope in times when we are driven to despair.

The message of Easter is the good news that death and despair, destruction and darkness, do not have the final say, that there is light at the end of the tunnel, that there is something to cheer about.  This is not easy to believe or do given the circumstances in which many people often find themselves.  Like Thomas we sometimes or even often doubt whether it can be true.  But it is the very foundation on which our Christian faith is based; it is our core belief.  Without Easter there would not, could not be, Christianity.  That is why on Easter day we cry out "Hallelujah" not once but many times, and why every Sunday, indeed, every day from here on through the year we cry our "Hallelujah!" not because it is liturgically correct, but because we need Easter, we need a reason to hope, to believe, to love. 

And so John, at a time when the world was falling apart, when the iron rod of imperial Rome was oppressing the nations, and  when Christians in the Middle East were being persecuted for the first time, had his amazing vision which he describes in the book of Revelation.  When all is said and done, when the victory over evil is finally won, there is, as he sees and describes,, a great multitude crying out "Hallelujah!  For the Lord our God, the Almighty reigns.  Let us rejoice and exult, and give him the glory."

We need Easter, Lord,
send Easter! – to the city’s slums
to the shacks, to the shebeens,
to the country’s desolation,
to the hearts and minds and wills of all.
Break upon our world with Easter.
Break open our world with Easter.

John de Gruchy
Volmoed  9 April 2015

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Meditation: THE JUDAS ENIGMA by John de Gruchy


Matthew 26:17-25
"Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me...Surely not I Lord?"

Jesus' journey to Jerusalem has come to an end.  As we read the story of the Passover spent with his disciples in the Upper Room we know that by tomorrow evening Jesus will be dead.  But Jesus' disciples did not know that,  even if they had premonitions of impending doom.  They still hoped that Jesus would save Israel from despotic Roman rule and those religious authorities who connived with Rome to oppress the people.  But one of Jesus' disciples sharing that Last Supper had already decided that Jesus' was a failure.  He should never have followed Jesus in the first place.  His name was Judas, a central character in the unfolding drama.  For it was on the night in which he was betrayed, that Jesus took bread, blessed it and gave it to his disciples.  Judas' proverbial  kiss of betrayal stands in stark contrast to that of Mary Magdalene who kissed Jesus' feet a few days earlier and wiped them with her hair.  Unlike the twelve male disciples, she intuitively knew that Jesus had to suffer and die in order to complete his mission.

In his Inferno Dante condemns Judas to the deepest place in Hell for all eternity.  Yet if you read the many accounts that have tried to explain what Judas betrayal of Jesus, you will know that it is not as straightforward as we might think.  In fact, no one amongst the disciples has caused more controversy than Judas; no disciple has been scrutinized by scholars more than him.  The story of his betrayal of Jesus is, in short, a disturbing one.  After all, why did one of Jesus' own disciples turn out to be a traitor?  Surely Jesus would have been more careful in choosing his inner circle of followers.  Or did Jesus choose Judas knowing full well that he would betray him, hand him over to the authorities to be put to death, and then commit suicide?  That certainly seems the case if you take the gospel texts literally.  "One of you will betray me..." and "woe to the one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed."

In any case, why was it necessary for Judas to betray Jesus?  Was not Jesus going to be arrested anyway?  Was Judas simply doing what God had long planned?  If so, he could not have done otherwise. He was only doing God's will and surely cannot be blamed for doing so.  He was a pawn in the hand of God,  which makes God was responsible for Jesus' death, God using Judas to betray and kill his son.  What a frightful understanding of God.  But such a view also undermines human freedom and responsibility because Judas could not have chosen any other path.   It's like saying that the Germanwings plane crash was God's will irrespective of what the pilot did, irrespective of his mental state or his decision to commit suicide and mass murder. 

Or is there another possibility that helps us understand the Judas enigma?  I think there is, and that the clue lies in the Matthew's comment that this happened "so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled."  The problem is that there are no texts in the Old Testament that foretell Jesus' betrayal.   So what did Matthew mean?  I am not sure.  But I think he could be referring to the fact that the prophets who proclaim God's kingdom of justice and peace are invariably rejected, persecuted and sometimes murdered by the rulers of Israel. This was something that Jesus himself declared.  We recall his words on the day he arrived in Jerusalem: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who stones the prophets and kills those sent to you!" 

Prophets come proclaiming God's justice and peace, as they have done in South Africa and in many places over the years, but those in power generally refuse to listen to them.  In fact if you want to know why there is so much intrigue, nastiness, corruption and betrayal in politics, you do not have to look further than the events of Holy Week and the Crucifixion.  Just as in Jesus' day the crowds could cry Hosanna one moment and Crucify the next, so today the crowds can cry "we will kill for Zuma" one day and then do everything to destroy him the next.  If necessary bribery, betrayal, and corruption are all acceptable in gaining and keeping power.  It's the prophets who see through all this political backstabbing and thuggery; it's the prophets who are concerned about justice and peace, not those who win elections on dubious promises or by violent means.  If you don't believe me just think about what is happening in Egypt, across north Africa, in Israel-Palestine, in fact throughout the world.  Peacemakers are crucified by those who wish to keep power.  So back to Judas.

Judas was an idealistic young revolutionary in search of an authentic leader when Jesus called him.  He really believed that Jesus would lead a successful revolt against Rome.  He really believed that utopia was around the corner and that the Kingdom of God could be brought into being through Jesus, by force if necessary.  Judas was committed to getting rid of the corrupt political and religious establishment of the day, and by whatever means possible. And Jesus seemed to be the one who would make this come true, But as Jesus' ministry unfolded, as Jesus spoke about the need for his disciples to be agents of God's justice and peace, about suffering love and service, and as he finally rode into Jerusalem on a donkey rather than a warhorse,  it dawned on Judas that Jesus' way of going about things would not work, it could not achieve the goal to which he, Judas, was passionately committed.  And in his disillusionment Judas was seduced by the voices of those who wanted to get rid of this would-be Messiah.  Judas became the victim of failed expectations.  He was not a pawn in the hands of God, but a dispensable pawn in the hands of corrupt and violent rulers.

But Jesus' fate was sealed long before Judas decided to betray him.  From the moment he began his ministry proclaiming God's kingdom of liberation for the poor and the oppressed, from the moment he challenged the abuse of religion and power until he finally drove out the money lenders from the Temple.  Jesus' death on the cross was not a religious event, it was a political act.  He was put to death because he challenged  the sins of the world that dehumanize people, the sins of violence and war, the sins that lead to poverty, the sins of greed and corruption, of falsehood and hatred, and the sins of those who used religion to justify all this -- these are the sins that crucified Jesus, and continue to do so. And we betray Jesus not when we miss going to church or fail to say our prayers and read the Bible, but when we act in ways contrary to the way of Jesus.  And God alone knows how often the church and Christians have done that in the course of history.  We have all been caught up in the betrayal of Judas. 

But the good news of Good Friday is that Jesus' way is God's way of salvation, liberation, justice and reconciliation.  The message of the cross may seem to be foolish and weak, but in fact it is the wisdom and power of God that stands in vivid contrast and contradiction to the way of the world.  Mary Magdalene was right.  Jesus had to suffer, but that was not because he had failed as Judas thought, it was because he was faithful to his mission to redeem the world. 

John de Gruchy
Volmoed  2 April 2015

Monday, 30 March 2015



Invites you to the BOOK LAUNCH

'SAWDUST & SOUL' - John de Gruchy
Woodwork, creativity and spirituality…

We launch John's new book with William J. Everett going under above mentioned title with a talk by De Gruchy on 'Christianity & the Arts', comments by Peter Storey and responses by Lerato Maduna.
Monday, 13 April 7pm

The venue for this site-specific event is:
{fleld office} Coffee Shop, WOODSTOCK EXCHANGE, 66 Albert Rd., Woodstock. Parking secured and directions to follow.
Book for R30 your space at or 021 686 1269
Refreshments and books for sale.

Meditation: THE GOD WHO BRINGS US HOME - by John de Gruchy


Luke 15:11-20
"He ran and put his arms around him and kissed him."

We know the story Jesus tells very well.  A father, and presumably also a mother, has two sons.  The younger grabs his inheritance and sets off to find freedom, fun and fortune.  He is glad to be shot of his elder brother who is a self-righteous pain the neck.  The elder son says good riddance to bad rubbish.  He now has his parents to himself and will make sure that when the old folk die he will not only get his share of the inheritance, but the house and all its contents as well!   But each day the parents anxiously wait for news from the far country.  They hear nothing. Their prodigal is too busy using his freedom and inheritance to have fun. No time for SMS' or e-mails.  He is also making bad choices, bad friends, and finally ends up in a bad place, his life spiralling downwards.  When he hits rock bottom he know he has made a terrible mistake, but a homing instinct gets to work, picks him up and leads him back home.  The parents are overjoyed. They welcome him with embraces and kisses, and throw a party to celebrate his homecoming.  Meanwhile the elder self-righteous brother who played by the book and diligently and scrupulously kept the rules, is peeved, complains that his father is far too lenient, is now  ignoring him, and in a huff refuses to join the party.  He slams his door shut and plugs his ears to keep out the sound of the celebration.

Some early church interpreters thought the parable was about the relationship between Jews and Gentiles.  The son that stayed home and obeyed the rules represents the righteous Jews who remained faithful to the Law of Moses and at home in the household of God; the son who left home, broke all the rules and wandered in the wilderness, represented the Gentiles, estranged from God and aliens in the household of faith.  In the context of the early struggles between the church and the synagogue we can understand why the parable was interpreted in that way. 

But the story is universal,  We immediately recognise the characters.   We might even recognise ourselves in them.  For it is about us, our relationships and what we do with our lives.  Whether we focus on the prodigal or the elder son, it is about human self-centredness,  our self-centredness; it is about the culture of me and mine.   The prodigal is hell-bent on self-gratification; the elder son is equally hell-bent on self-righteousness.  In his desire for personal freedom the prodigal broke of the rules that make freedom possible.  In his desire for self-righteousness, the elder son made a fetish of the rules.  He forgot that all they are summed up in the law of  love.

The parable is also about God as parent.  Not everyone understands God in this way.  I have sympathy for atheists who are honest enough to say they cannot believe in God, at least in God as understood by many people who claim to be believers.  Give me an honest atheist any day, especially one who is concerned about justice and serves those in need, than someone who believes that God sanctions war, approves racism, and condemns people to hell whether in this life of or hereafter.  If that is who God is, then I too am an atheist.  I want my freedom from the shackles of such religion; I want my inheritance as a human being; I want to get as far away as possible from the church that proclaims this God,  and make my own way in the world.  If my elder brother wants to stay home, go to church, keep all the rules, and worship that kind of God, good luck to him.  I need fresh air!  Not rules that dehumanize both me and others.

The story of the prodigal son can also be read as a journey of self-discovery, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz who has to leave home in order to find herself.  As such it is a story about the awakening of self-consciousness, the  dawning of adolescence, the time when we discover that Father Christmas and the tooth-fairy are childish fantasies and that religion is a threat to well-being -- it is time to move on, to discover the wide world, find freedom and stand on your own two feet in freedom.   By contrast, for his older brother,  the way to negotiate adolescence is through religion -- but religion as  a set of rules and traditions that answers all questions with absolutes, providing status and security.   Not for him the wide horizons and risks of experience, or even the risk of loving someone as foolish as his brother.  He is comfortable in his isolation from those unclean, has no doubts only certainties.  But he is beginning to doubt his parents' sanity.  Why are they so extravagantly and foolishly  welcoming his brother home, and making such a fuss about him?  Have they lost their senses?  Whatever happened to all the family rules?  They are forgiving even before his brother is repenting; they are embracing him before he has even taken a hot bath to wash away the dirt and smells of his sojourn in the pigsty of iniquity. 

Now what if, for Jesus, the parents represent his understanding of God?  Who is this God he is talking about, who seems to break his own rules, the God beyond conventional religion and customary morality?  The God who sets us free to be ourselves, to be more truly human, to be there for others?  This foolish and weak God, as St. Paul describes the message of the cross.  This is not only the God who waits for us to return home, but the God who comes running to meet us, embracing us with kisses.  The God who forgives us in advance, already sensing that we are sorry  The God who prepares a banquet so that we can all celebrate the home-coming with music and laughter. 

But what about the elder son who is still sulking in his bedroom?  His parents love him equally and long for him to come to the party.  He stayed home  but has yet to discover what home is about, and he won't do so until he joins the celebration.   Maybe he, too, in time, will also come to his senses and know that faith in God is not primarily about rules and religion, but about grace and forgiveness.   It is not even about me; it is about us.   Only when the elder son learns that, and loves his brother truly,  will he be free of the shackles that bind him and able to join the party and truly be at home. 

So what does the parable tell us about home?  Is home a place?  Yes, of course, in some sense it is a place.  But it is far more than a place.  When Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz returns home from her wanderings in a far country,  home is still the farm she had left.  But she sees it differently as though she had visited it now for the first time.  Home has become the people she loved. Yes, home is that network of relations that gives meaning to our lives.  This slowly began to dawn on the prodigal in that far country; it had yet to dawn on his elder brother even though it was staring him in the face.  And, of course, in coming home we recognise at last that God is no longer the God of our adolescence.  God is the One who was with us in the pigsty as he was on the cross, the One who meets us on the road to bring us home, the One who is yearning for us to get out of the box of bad religion --  for God is the One in whom we "live move and have our being," the home towards which we are led, and where it all comes together.

John de Gruchy
Volmoed 26 March 2015 


BOOK LAUNCH: 'SAWDUST & SOUL' - John de Gruchy
Woodwork, creativity and spirituality...

We launch John's new book with William J. Everett going under above mentioned title with a talk by De Gruchy on 'Christianity & the Arts', comments by Peter Storey and responses by Lerato Maduna.

Monday, 13 April 7pm
The venue for this site-specific event is:
{fleld office} Coffee Shop, WOODSTOCK EXCHANGE, 66 Albert Rd., Woodstock. Parking secured and directions to follow.
Book for R30 your space at or 021 686 1269
Refreshments and books for sale.

Monday 20th April 6.30 for 7.00 p.m.
Rondebosch United Church, Belmont Road.
Roderick Hewitt, Jamaican theologian and author, currently teaching at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
“Bob Marley’s ‘Redemption song’ in conversation with Steve de Gruchy’s ‘Olive Agenda’.

Refreshments after the lecture

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 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