Friday, 29 April 2016

Meditation: ADVENTURES IN GOING NOWHERE by John de Gruchy


Psalm 46:1-3,8-11
Luke 17:20-21

"Be still and know that I am God!"
"The kingdom of God is already among you."

When she recently visited Volmoed, our American friend Sandi Levi gave me a book by a well known travel writer, Pico Iyer, entitled The Art of Stillness. I took the slim volume with me on our recent travels to Italy, intrigued by its sub-title, Adventures in Going Nowhere.  What could that possibly mean, I thought, as we embarked on the plane with a very long journey and many adventures ahead of us.  We were not going nowhere; we were definitely going somewhere and, moreover,  with the help of Google, we could already visualise the towns we would visit and the apartments we had booked.  But there I was, taking my seat on the airplane and settling down to read about Adventures in Going Nowhere. 

Within a page or two I had got the message.  "Going nowhere," Pico Iyer told me, "isn't about turning your back on the world; its about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply."  It is an adventurous journey into stillness even in the midst of busyness or a hectic travel schedule, in order to gain fresh perspective on life and what it means to love. A journey inward that enables us to perceive reality differently whether we are on a jet plane to Europe, a ship in the Antarctic, a car ride into the Karoo, or simply staying at home.  Nowhere is everywhere and anywhere we find ourselves.  And "adventuring into nowhere" is not turning our backs on the world but learning to see the  world more clearly and loving it more deeply.  As such, it is not an escape from reality but an adventure in living and loving, an adventure as great if not greater than setting off for distant lands on a jet aircraft.

Pico Iyer does not write as a Christian, but his words brought to mind two passages in Scripture.  In Psalm 46, written and sung during a time of turmoil in Israel, the psalmist exhorts his people to "be still" in order to discern the presence of God n the midst of what was happening all around them.  This was not an invitation to navel gaze or escape from the world into some pious ghetto, but an invitation to embark on a journey into the mystery we call God in order to see the bigger picture and live accordingly. "Be still and know that I am God."  The psalmist's invitation remains pertinent for us.  We desperately need to be still in order to discern the reality of God's purpose and activity in a world in crisis, as well as in the many situations that cause us sorrow and grief, hurt and harm. To be still and know that  "God is our refuge and strength...a very present help in trouble" does not eradicate the threats we experience, but it provides us with the resources to respond to them with courage and hope.  To be still and know God is an adventure in faith into that dimension within reality we call the kingdom or reign of God.

This brings us to the other passage of scripture that comes to mind,  the story we read from Luke's gospel. Some Pharisees put Jesus to the test.  When would the kingdom of God come, they demanded.  Jesus replied: "The kingdom of God does not come by counting the days on the calendar.  Nor when someone says 'Look here!' or "There it is!' Because the kingdom is already among you."  These words of Jesus have been variously translated.  I have used Eugene Peterson's translation in The Message.  Most people will be more familiar with the KJV translation "the kingdom of God is within you."  But this is misleading for it suggests that the kingdom of God is confined to personal piety separate from what is going on around us in the world.  Jesus' answer to the Pharisees' is simple: you do not need to look to the future or seek God's kingdom somewhere inside you, for God's kingdom is staring us in the face if only we would open our eyes to see the signs of what God is doing to bring healing and wholeness to people and the world. But this requires practising the "art of stillness" whether we are engaged in the struggle for justice and peace, simply trying to cope with everyday life, or going through the dark night of grief, sorrow and pain.  It is all about the adventure of faith discovering the treasure of God's grace for our lives which as Jesus said, is often hidden in our own backyard (Matthew 13:44).

The adventurous "journey going nowhere" then, is not a journey into empty space or nothingness, but a journey into the presence of the mystery we call God, the God we have come to know in Jesus.  And as we embark on this adventure we discover that this mystery is none other than the One "in whom we live, move and have our being," the mystery that fills all space and time, the mystery that enfolds us in love.  So let us for a moment journey into stillness with the help of the Psalmist who discovered that wherever he journeyed God was already there:

Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.  (Psalm 139:7-10)

John de Gruchy

Volmoed    28 April 2016

Thursday, 31 March 2016

Meditation: CHRIST IS RISEN! IS HE INDEED? by John de Gruchy


"The Lord has risen , indeed...."
"Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?"

Luke 24:33-38

Why are we so frightened, and why do doubts keep arising in our hearts?  That is the question the risen Christ keeps asking us as he asked the disciples in Jerusalem  that first evening of  Easter.  In reflecting on the question I am conflating two stories that Luke connects.  The story of the two travellers on the road to Emmaus who encountered Jesus over their evening meal and hastened back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples: "the Lord has risen indeed" they exclaim!  Is he indeed? they might have responded with scepticism, as do many of us  to this day.  Then Jesus appears again to them all.  They are understandably startled and terrified, which prompts Jesus to ask them "Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?"  They had great difficulty in accepting the testimony of the two from Emmaus; they wanted more proof.   Like them, we  who have heard and believed the good news, and even exclaimed with great enthusiasm "Christ is risen! Alleluia!", are not always so sure.  Risen? Indeed?  Is that why we too are often frightened as doubts arise in our hearts?  Is it because for us he remains in the tomb rather than journeying with us on the road?

There is much to be fearful about, not least the terror that strikes without warning, and there are so many reasons to doubt the loving power of God.   We might have been spared terrorist attacks in South Africa thus far, but we have our share of fears about the future and our own personal fate.  This has always been the case.  It is built into the rhythm of life. We know that life is a risk, for we are acutely aware of our own mortality and the mortality of those we love.  Even as we celebrate Easter and heartily sing that death has lost its sting, or acclaim "Christ is risen!", even as we celebrate the joys of life, even as we taste the sweetness of love, we know that being human requires that we accept our mortality.  Even great saints go through dark nights of doubt.  

So the one who travels with us along our journey, the one who has suffered greatly, been betrayed, denied and forsaken, is the one who asks us why we are frightened and why we doubt. He is not judging us for our fear and doubt, in fact he knows why we are frightened and why we doubt because he has himself been to hell and back.  And just as some cholesterol is good and necessary for us and some bad and potentially deadly, so like a good physician Jesus knows that not all fear or doubt is bad.  Good fear helps us avoid danger, genuine doubt helps us discover new knowledge and may even strengthen our faith.  But whether our fear and doubt is good or bad, you cannot live life to the full if you are fearful of venturing along the road, unable to trust the testimony of others or God.  So Jesus understands and respects our fears, he does not manipulate them like some politicians, preachers and other fear-mongers who use our fear s to their advantage, making us doubt what is right and good and true.   That is why Jesus keeps asking us at every turn, up every cul-de-sac, and at every fork that we face: "Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?"

I have been reading the life story of Brother Roger the founder and abbot of the TaizĂ© Community in France whose songs we now often sing.  The autobiography, called Choose to Love, is a beautiful account of a remarkable life.  In it Brother Roger tells us about the founding of the Community during the terrible days of the Second World War ,and how he feared for his life as he provided a place of refuge for Jews on the run from the Gestapo.  In later chapters he recounts his visits to many parts of the world where there is great suffering and hardship, and where, for weeks on end he lived among the poorest of the poor.  He also tells about visits to countries in Eastern Europe during the Cold War and how difficult it was for Christians there even to openly meet with him for fear of arrest of punishment.  On one occasion in Budapest there was a youth service to welcome him, but it was under strict security surveillance.  After the distribution of communion, Brother Roger writes, "I go from one person to another to say in Hungarian "Christ is risen!"  That is all he can say.   That is all he needs to say. That evening he goes to another church, it is full to capacity with young people, many of them dealing with doubt and fearing the surveillance of the police, and once more he says: "Christ is risen": "these are the only words that I say, hundreds of times," and each time they evoke an expression of hope on the faces of people, for Brother Roger has spoken directly to their fears and doubts far more than any sermon or lecture could ever have done.  

The Easter message "Christ is risen! Alleluia!" resounds through history to help us overcome fear and doubt.  But it is not a carefully reasoned statement that will magically turn the fearful into the faithful or doubters into believers.  Such reasoned arguments are necessary.  After all Jesus reasoned with the two travellers as they discussed Scripture during the meal they shared together.  But the acclamation "Christ is risen! Alleluia!" is the shout of those who have already met the stranger on the road and discovered as they have travelled with the risen Christ who enables them to overcome fear and doubt despite those that continue to beset them and niggle their minds. 

Those who shared in our Easter service here last Monday when we celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of the Volmoed Community will know that we did not have to prove that Christ is risen, we acclaimed him, and we did so because those who came to celebrate, many of them having struggled and suffered over the years, knew that the risen Christ had joined them on the road along the journey of their lives.  

When you are in the midst of poverty or grief, when you face tragedy, or are  living in fear of arrest, you do not take time out to engage in academic debate about the resurrection or to discuss and analyse the crises facing our world.  What you hunger for is a word of assurance that gives hope and awakens faith, a word that liberates you from your captivity in the cold tombs of death and leads us through an open door  out of its darkness into the light. As Pope Francis declared in his Easter Vigil homily: "Let us not allow darkness and fear to distract us and control our hearts.  Today is the celebration of our hope."  The Easter message, he went on to say, "awakens and resurrects hope in our hearts burdened by sadness."  In another Easter meditation posted on Facebook this week I came across this appeal:

May you leave behind you a string of empty tombs! That is the challenge of Easter. To resurrect daily, to leave behind us a string of empty tombs, to let our crucified hopes and dreams be resurrected so that like Christ, our lives will radiate the truth that in the end, everything is good, reality can be trusted.’

So as we celebrate this meal like the two travellers who invited Jesus to share at their table on the road to  Emmaus, we too discover Jesus "in the breaking of the bread" and can shout with them and multitudes across the world even in the midst of our fears and doubts: "Christ is risen! Alleluia!". 

John de Gruchy

Volmoed 31 March 2016

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Meditation: BETRAYAL by John de Gruchy


Luke 22:14-27

"The one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table."
"For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves?"

Isobel and I have been fortunate to obtain tickets to see Leonardo da Vinci's painting of The Last Supper in the church of St. Maria delle Grazie in Milan in two weeks time.  We have only been given 15 minutes to contemplate the masterpiece, so in preparation we have read the account of another visitor, H.V. Morton, a travel writer from our parents' generation, which he describes in his book In Search of Italy. One of his comments especially struck me:

No notebook or technical achievement can explain that moment when Leonardo rejected as the theme of his painting the institution of the Eucharist but selected instead the terrible moment when Jesus said: "But, behold, the hand of him that betrays me is with me on the table."

The painting takes up the whole of one wall in what used to be the dining room of a Franciscan monastery.  Every day the friars would enter the room to sit at table and have their meals.  In doing so they would they undoubtedly at times felt they were part of the Last Supper.  They were at table with Jesus and his disciples.  And they would not have been able to escape the dramatic moment Leonardo wanted them see:  the one who shall betray me is right here with us at table.

The message is unnerving, for while the focus of attention is on Judas, everyone at the table asks "is it me, Lord?"  It could be any of them; it could be any of the friars, and given the state of the church at that time, it could have been the church as a whole that had betrayed Jesus.  The friars might well have thought that because their movement, started by St. Francis of Assisi, was an attempt to revive a moribund and corrupt church.  And over the years even they had sometimes betrayed St. Francis' vision.  They had lost sight of the fact that before the Last Supper began Jesus washed his disciples' feet, including those of Judas, and said to them that the greatest are not those who sit at table with him but those who serve.   

While many people go to Milan to see Leonardo's Last Supper not many will know about the Edict of  Milan which changed the course of history and especially of Christianity.  It was a decree issued by emperor Constantine in 313 which prepared the way for Christianity to become the established imperial religion, binding church and state together.  As a result, by the end of the fourth century Christianity had become the only legitimate religion of the Empire. The full might of the state was now used to protect and further the church's interests, and the church gave its support to the state.  Not all Christians thought this a good idea, and some went into the desert to establish small communities of disciples which, later became the first monasteries.  But for the main,  the way was prepared for crusades and inquisitions and much else that has brought Christianity into disrepute over the centuries, and well into our own time.  Still today  Christianity is identified by many with the interests of Western nations who claim to embody Christian civilization, but continually betray that inheritance by their actions and attitudes.   Instead of Christianity being a religion of peace and justice. of compassion, service and love, it has too often been used to justify war and injustice, slavery, imperialism, racism and apartheid, patriarchy and homophobia. Too often the church has betrayed Jesus. Yes, we have to ask ourselves as the rest of the disciples did that sombre night: "Is it us Lord?"  Surely not us?

So on this Maundy Thursday as we commemorate the institution of the Eucharist we gather at table to share this meal mindful of what took place that fateful evening in an upper room in Jerusalem.  But we might well be too familiar with what we are hearing or seeing that we miss what Leonardo wants us to see -- for him this was not just religious ceremony, the beginning of a ritual that would be repeated through the centuries.  No, this was a tragic moment when Jesus was betrayed  by one whose hand was on the table , and when those who had been closest to him missed the whole point of his life and ministry.  For even while they were still at table, even after Judas had left, Luke tells us: "a dispute arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest."  Can you believe it?  On that holy night after Jesus had washed their feet and had shared his last supper with them, the disciples argued about who was the greatest!  So Jesus had to rebuke them all: "who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves?"  They had still not got the message.  Peter was about to deny Jesus and the next day they would all run away. 

No, not all, for Mary and her women companions who were not at the table that night stayed with Jesus to the end.  They stood beneath the cross and wept as they watched, and in doing so entered into the mystery of Jesus' suffering. Is that not a sobering fact?  They had not sat with the disciples at the table the night before because women were excluded from such meals, just as gay people or strangers or people of other cultures are excluded even in our own day.  But they were always there in the background, watching, serving, and caring for Jesus.  We also recall, as  Mark's gospel tells us, that a day or two before, an unknown woman had washed Jesus' feet and anointed him with costly ointment as he and the disciples sat at table in Bethany, only to be scolded for doing so by Judas and the other disciples. But Jesus rebuked them:  "Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of  her."  Yes, indeed, as we break bread today in remembrance of Christ, we also remember this unknown woman as Jesus said we should.  For she is a sign of the true church, the servant church..

The true church through the ages has served Jesus, has stood with the women  beneath the cross, and  remained faithful to him.  This is the church we are called to be and become.  It is the church that has understood that before Jesus shared his last supper with them  he washed their feet, even the feet of Judas knowing full well that he was the one who would betray him! (John 13)  The moment the church stops serving Jesus through serving the needs of of those in need, or excludes from the table those it deems unworthy, it starts to betray him.  That is why each time we share this meal in remembrance of Jesus death, we should remember that he washed his betrayer's feet, and also remember the woman who washed his feet in love and gratitude but whom Judas and the others rebuked.  For the greatest  in God's kingdom are not those who sit at table with Jesus but those who serve him by serving those in need.

John de Gruchy

25 March 2016



Lamentations 1:6-12-15;
 Matthew 7:15-20

"Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?"
"You will know them by their fruits."

I hesitated longer than usual before deciding to go public on the unbelievably crass Republican race for presidential nomination in the United States, but the time has come to do so   And I do so not only because of the way in which the campaign is bringing out the worst in politics and bringing Christianity into even more disrepute than it already is in, but also because of the attacks being made on the dignity of those deemed outsiders or who happen to be poor. And, of course, what is happening over there has  implications for us in South Africa in this electioneering year as well. 

If it is true that Christians are known by their fruit, as Jesus put it, then the Pope is right, Trump is not a Christian whether evangelical or otherwise.  He is an imposter who claims to be a Christian in order to attract votes.  His life-style, values, and brash arrogance in saying he has never had to ask God for forgiveness, puts him beyond the pale even of being a proud Presbyterian as he claims!  Of course, Trump does not care in the slightest what we think any more than about what he says.  He has hoodwinked  the so-called evangelical vote, appealing to their ill-informed prejudices and baseless fears, and exposed the truth that they are not really evangelical at all if they can't distinguish between a wolf in sheep's clothing and the good shepherd.

Now let us be clear, it does not really matter whether or not Trump is a Christian in running for President of the United States.  There is nothing in the American Constitution, or our own for that matter, which says that the President must be a Christian let alone a "born again" one.  And rightly so.  You do not have to be a good Christian or even a religious person, to be a good political leader.   John Calvin, the Protestant Reformer dear to evangelicals knew that and said as much.   What makes a good political leader  is not religion but honesty, intelligence, wisdom, strength of character, and a commitment to the public good.  If he or she is also a good Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu or Buddhist,, that might be a bonus, but it does not mean anything if the other virtues of political leadership are absent.  When politicians seek the endorsement of churches and other faith communities in the way in which Trump and his fellow Republicans are doing,  red lights begin to flash, warning us of a potential unholy alliance that bodes ill for both politics and religion.  And that is as true in South Africa as it is anywhere else. 

I don't know whether to laugh at Trump with Trevor Noah, which I certainly do most evenings, or to weep with those genuine evangelicals and many other Americans who are dismayed, saddened, and angry at the way in which Trump and his trumpets are behaving while he drags Christianity through the mud under the banner of protecting it.  I guess my lamenting is greater than my laughter because the consequences of this campaign are already frightful and we are still months away from the end.  So I am lamenting now with my American friends as Jeremiah and Jesus lamented over Jerusalem because it did not listen to the prophets of justice and compassion, but pursued policies of self-interested national idolatry.

Lamentation is part of the Lenten journey.  Jesus wept over Jerusalem as he entered Jerusalem because the people were unrepentant for their sins, insensitive to the suffering of the poor,  and oblivious to the disaster awaiting them.  "Is it nothing to you all you who pass by to see such suffering?"  That is the prophet's call to lament.  It may seem a trifle to lament what is happening in American politics given all the pain and suffering in the world, but we all know that what happens in American politics affects the whole world.  Just as the flapping of a butterfly's wings in the Orient may cause a storm in the Amazon, so a decision in the White House can mean the raining down of bombs on towns and villages in the Middle East.  

So we lament with American friends over  Washington because the Republican race is bringing out the worst side of America and bringing Christianity into disrepute at the same time.  While each presidential contender claims  to be more Christian than the others, they all seem equally brash and self-centred, engaging in fear-mongering, and appealing to ill-informed people with promises of greatness and security that cannot be kept.  Just recently, Mr. Trump declared, “We are going to get greedy for the United States, and grab and grab and grab.”  Is that what makes a nation great?  It certainly does not give it any right to be regarded as Christian. After all, what makes a country great is not its fire power that enables it to dominate others, or its material wealth, but its striving for justice and its care for the poor.

I also I lament because unlike Trump and his more cynical speech-writers and campaign managers,  I do care for evangelical Christianity.  Evangelical simply means the good news about Jesus, his life, death and resurrection and what this means to us as Christian.  I was nurtured in the womb of evangelical Christianity.  It was not without its right-wing fundamentalist faults even back then, and I am very glad I grew beyond all of that.  But I did learn much that I treasure.  I learnt that we are made whole by God's amazing grace, I came to know the forgiveness of sins, and step by step as I grew beyond the narrowness of fundamentalism I discovered that the love of God for the world is so immense that it embraces everyone, not least outsiders, the stranger and disinherited.  And because evangelical Christianity taught me to take the Bible seriously, I discovered in its pages that God loves justice, mercy, and compassion, and wants us to do the same.  I also came to know the church as a community of caring people committed to serve the needs of the world.
This is the evangelical Christianity I espouse, the good news about Jesus who declares that he had been anointed by the  Spirit to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, let the oppressed go free, and announce the year of the Lord's favour in which wealth and land will be redistributed fairly and justly.  This good news is the very opposite of what Trump and his so-called evangelical trumpeters stand for.  That's just bad news.  And that is why I lament. But I also laugh.  I laugh because I know that God has a record of bringing down the proud and the mighty from their seats, and exalting the poor and humble.  And that is as true in South Africa as it is in America.  So as this year of electioneering hots up let us take a stand for justice in our own backyard and trust God to do the rest.  Let God take care of Donald Trump, but let us make sure that we are known by our good fruit not bad.   

John de Gruchy
3 March 2016