Thursday, 27 August 2015

Meditation: EYES THAT HAVE CRIED by John de Gruchy


Romans 12:9-21
John 11:28-37
"Weep with those who weep."
"Jesus began to weep."

Last week, as you know, I was at the Kairos Conference in Johannesburg.  You can read about it in the recent Volmoed Newsletter where you can also see Alyson's wonderful painting of the women in Jerusalem who journeyed with Jesus to the cross.  And, of course, I was there, in the Catholic Cathedral in Soweto when Alyson's painting was displayed in public for the first time.   But let me recount another  experience I had on the previous evening of the Conference.  We were all entertained by the Mayor of Johannesburg at a splendid banquet held in the Sandton Conference Centre.  It was the first time that I had been there, and what a huge and splendid place it turned out to be!  And I was honoured to be asked to sit at the Mayor's table, which made it even more special for me.  At the end of the banquet we bordered the bus that was to take us back to our hotel in Empire Road near the University of Johannesburg, and I found myself sitting next to a Palestinian Christian woman from Jerusalem whom I had met earlier in the day. 

During the next half hour, as we journeyed along the darkened highways of the city, she poured out her soul to me about the situation she faced every day of her life in East Jerusalem as a result of the Israeli occupation, and the ongoing settler confiscation of Palestinian property and land.  She told me about her family and what was happening to young Palestinians she knew, about the way in which they were humiliated and were losing hope.  As she did so, I became aware that she was crying like the women of Jerusalem cried on the way to the cross and at its foot.  Her story was too painful to tell without tears.  The next day, during one of the sessions, someone remarked: "some things can only be seen through eyes that have cried."  I knew this already, because everyone who has lost a child or someone dear to them knows its truth.  But its truth was reinforced for me in a new way.

In his letter to the Romans Paul describes the marks of a true Christian.  We read the passage this morning.  It begins with the words "Let love be genuine" and then in a few terse, but telling  sentences,  Paul describes how such love works itself out in practice.  Amongst these is his injunction that we should not only "rejoice with those who rejoice," but "weep with those who weep."  I have always thought that we should cry with those who cry in order to express our empathy and solidarity, which is, of course, true.  But now I also see that it is only as we weep with those who weep  that we begin to see things that have been previously hidden and obscured.  For "some things can only be seen through eyes that have cried."  And that is undoubtedly true in Palestine and in all places of suffering.

Jesus once said that those who weep now are blessed, and he himself regularly wept.  He wept over Jerusalem, he wept in Gethsemane, and he wept with Mary and Martha at the tomb of their brother Lazarus in Bethany not far from Jerusalem.  As we read from the gospel:   'When Jesus saw Mary weeping, and the Jews who came with her weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.  He said, "Where have you laid him?"  They said to him, "Lord come and see," and Jesus began to weep.'  As Jesus saw reality through their eyes, he began to weep with them.  So it is that our solidarity with those who nightly shed tears and daily cry until their eyes are empty of moisture, only starts when we see their world through their weeping and our weeping with them.

As the rain poured down early on Tuesday morning and I looked out of our bedroom window at the Hemel en Aarde Valley, it was difficult to see the trees and the contours of the land.  The rain almost blotted out the view as do tears when we are crying.  But the rain also washed away the dust as do tears cleanse our sight.  And as heaven's tears ceased so I saw the valley clothed with a crisp freshness and I could see it with a new clarity.  Such are the AHA moments that come when we weep with those who weep.  And while it was still raining in the early hours of Tuesday morning Isobel wrote this poem mindful of the meditation I was preparing:

Looking through Tears
You see the view through spectacles,
spectacles that colour the scene,
a highlight here, but too dark in that corner to see,
tilting the view and infusing all with a deceptive glow,
making well what is not well.

But some see the same view through tears,
tears that spring from experience,
 that do not blur the scene,
but that clarify reality;
tears that flow like a river of redemption.

When we are tempted to switch off the TV or change channels in order to avoid seeing the horrors that confront us even in our lounges far from reality on the ground, we should pause for a moment because we are glimpsing, even if only remotely, the suffering in the eyes and through the tears of those who are living through today's terrible traumas.  For it is only then that we can weep with those who weep even in our comfort zones. How true that is as we try to understand the plight of all those who suffer in our own time, whether in South Africa or Syria, the Philippines or Palestine, or in Alexander Township which was so near and yet so far from the Sandton Conference where we had that splendid dinner last week.  The truth is, we see and understand the reality of their plight only when we begin to see it through their tears,  "when we weep with those who weep." 

As the final chapters in the Bible in the book of Revelation draw to a close;  after we have read about the struggle between the faithful followers of Christ and the Roman Empire -- and all empires from then until now; after we have read about the ravages of war and the suffering of the saints  -- as though what we have read has been written again for us today, written to help us weep with the women of Jerusalem and everyone in all corners of the globe where tears are shed,  we come to these words of encouragement and hope:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth,,, and I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven...and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying:
            See, the home of God is among mortals.
            He will dwell with them as their God,
            they will be his peoples,
            and God will be with them,
            and he will wipe every tear from their eyes...  (Rev.21:1-4)

John de Gruchy

Volmoed  27 August 2015

Monday, 17 August 2015

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Meditation: THE PROPHETIC MOMENT by John de Gruchy


Micah 6:6-8
Matthew 13:54-58
"What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with you God?"
"Prophets are not without honour except in their own country and in their own house."

About a third of the Old Testament is made up of books referred to as "The Prophets."  We are probably all familiar with some of them, or at least a few of their verses, whether from Isaiah or Jeremiah, Amos,  Ezekiel or Jonah, though we are probably less familiar with Obadiah and Zephaniah to say nothing of Habakkuk and Haggai.  Then in the New Testament we read about the "gift of prophecy" and how prophets in the early church brought messages of encouragement and guidance to congregations and individuals.  We also read about "false prophets" who proclaim "peace, peace" when there is no peace, and prophets who misled the church usually out of greed.  And then there are the self-proclaimed contemporary prophets who clam to predict the future, some who claim to have a hot-line to God, can heal you of all your diseases, and can tell you precisely when Jesus will return.   But there are also others we deem prophets today who. in the tradition of the great OT prophets, speak truth to power, proclaiming the need for justice if there is to be peace and reconciliation.  I generally use the word prophet in this sense, but  when we use the word we need to be sure  we know who we are referring to.  

The great prophets of social justice in the Old Testament were not religious leaders or professional preachers, neither were they fortune tellers who knew precisely when the end of the world would come, nor did they spend their time writing proof texts for the coming of the Messiah.  But as they witnessed injustice in the land, and saw the way in which the poor were oppressed conrary to God's commandments, they declared in no uncertain terms that if Israel did not change its ways, it would be judged by God with dire consequences.  But if they did change, the prophets declared, God would fulfil his promise of peace.  In that sense they predicted the likely future, and also indicated that one day God would send his anointed one, that is, Messiah, to establish God's kingdom on earth.  Christians believe Jesus was that anointed one and therefore fulfilled not just the law of Moses but also the promise and hope of the prophets. Jesus, for us, was more than a prophet, but he was also a prophet in the lineage of the great prophets of Israel.

In 1985 during the first State of Emergency while I was teaching at the University of Cape Town, a well-known South African Roman Catholic theologian, Albert Nolan, arrived, almost out of the blue it seemed, to give a seminar in our Department at UCT.  Albert, who was a leading figure in the anti-apartheid struggle was on the run from the Security Police,  so his sudden appearance was quite dramatic, and our graduate students, who were already familiar with his writings, were excited to meet him in person and listen to his seminar presentation.  It was all about a new theological document called the Kairos Document which was in the process of being drafted by a group of theologians in Soweto and Johannesburg.  As he read it to us and talked about it, we soon realised that this was a momentous event, for the Document  was the most frontal theological attack on apartheid we had yet heard.  It was, in the tradition of a Hebrew prophets, a prophetic statement. At the end of the seminar we all put our names to it and within a few weeks the document was made public, causing a major stir within the churches and in government.  And those of us who signed it soon came under attack from various quarters.

Next week Edwin Arrison and  I will be attending a conference in Johannesburg to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the  Kairos Document, and as a matter of interest, Alyson's great painting of one of the Stations of the Cross, will be unfurled at the opening ceremony in Regina Mundi Cathedral in Soweto.  Also attending the conference will be people from around South Africa and the rest of the world, some of whom have subsequently produced their own kairos documents. So what is so important about the Kairos Document that we should celebrate its thirtieth anniversary?

Kairos is a Greek word which means "time," not time understood in terms of years, months, days, hours, and seconds, that is chronological time; in the New Testament kairos refers to "God's time," the time of God's judgment and salvation.  Jesus arrived, St. Paul tells us, in the "fullness of kairos," (Galatians 4:4) in other words, at the right moment, and Mark begins his gospel by saying that "the kairos is fulfilled. and the kingdom of God has come near." (Mark 1:15).  God's time or kairos is, in short, a "prophetic moment."  That is, a moment in time when peoples and nations are in crisis and prophets arise calling them to grasp the opportunity to change their ways or else they will face catastrophe. 

The mid-nineteen-eighties was such a time in South Africa.  President P.W. Botha had infamously failed to cross the Rubicon in 1983 and the country was heading towards civil war.  At that "prophetic moment" the Kairos Document was  a call to Christians and the churches to actively resist injustice and work for a truly reconciled nation.   Neither the government nor most white South Africans, were prepared to accept this word of prophecy which so fundamentally challenged the status quo with its clear cut message.  But looking back, what the Kairos Document declared was right on target.  It was  in the tradition of the great prophets of ancient Israel.  It was, as it claimed, a prophetic theological document.

Prophets of God's justice are invariably rejected by the authorities and end up in prison or worse.  It was Jesus who declared that Jerusalem rejected and stoned the prophets, and they did so because they refused to acknowledge the things that made for peace, namely doing God's justice.  So, with reference to himself, Jesus declared in the passage we read today, "prophets are not without honour except in their own country and in their own house."   And that was so true in South Africa, of Beyers Naudé, Sheena Duncan, Desmond Tutu, Steve Biko and others, as it is of prophets around the world today who are speaking out about the ecological crisis facing us, or about the situation in Palestine, and a host of other issues, including poverty and corruption in South Africa.  The message is the same as it has always been, Unless you change your ways disaster will strike.

As we take note of what is happening around the world as well as in our own country, we would be foolishly blind if we did not recognise the global and national crises facing us.  The world has become a much more dangerous place than we ever imagined when we entered this new millennium.  So we should listen to the prophets.  They are not prophets of doom but prophets of justice and hope.  This is God's time, they declare, a time to grasp the opportunity to change.  So let us not be among those who, as Isaiah said, "look but do not see, or listen but do not hear."  Rather let us following the counsel of the prophet Micah and the Kairos Document " do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God."

John de Gruchy

Volmoed 13 August 2015

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Meditation: Prayer at Breaking Point by John de Gruchy


Psalm 13
II Corinthians 4:8-12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John de Gruchy

Volmoed  16 July 2015

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John de Gruchy

Volmoed 23 July 2015