Monday, 23 February 2015

Meditation: AHA by John de Gruchy


James 2:14-18
"Faith without works is dead!"

Pessimists say that the cup is half empty; and optimists, that it is half full.  Some people are pessimists by nature.  For them the world, the Hermanus town council, and the church are hopelessly falling apart, South Africa is going to the dogs (don't ask me what dogs have to do with it!), the government is totally corrupt,  people always let you down, young people have no discipline, tomorrow is going to be worse than today -- even when they hear good news they automatically add a negative comment, "yes, but!".  Optimists also seem to be optimists by nature.  South Africa is getting better, the dogs don't bite and snakes are more afraid of you than you are of them, people are always so nice, young people are a pleasure, and what a great day it is today despite the heat and south-easter, it could be worse.  It is easy to understand why people are pessimists, especially in circumstances such as we see every day on TV.   "It is," Bonhoeffer wrote shortly before his arrest, "more sensible to be pessimistic, disappointments are left behind, and one can face people unembarrassed.  Hence, the clever frown upon optimism."  But then he goes on to praise optimism because it is:

a power of life, a power of hope when others resign, a power to hold our heads high when all seems to come to naught, a power to tolerate setbacks, a power that never abandons the future to the opponent but lays claim to it, 

Pessimists may keep our feet on the ground but optimists keep hope alive.  But perhaps it would be best if we were all realists who accepted the way things are, for good or ill, and then got off our butts to make things better, neither bemoaning nor turning a blind eye to what is wrong or bad.  In the end, does it really matter if the glass is half empty or half full ?  What matters is whether we are going to do what needs to be done to fill the cup to the brim.  If we are not working to make the world a better place, things will get worse whether we are pessimists or optimists.

There were plenty of prophets of doom in the Old Testament.  The difference between a true prophet and false one was that whereas the true prophet told the political and religious leaders how bad things were and they had better change their ways, the false prophets always said things were just fine, "peace, peace, when there was no peace."  But the true prophets were actually being realists.  They were not just saying how bad things were, they were calling on people to change, to change their attitudes, change their hearts and minds, and start doing things differently.  The same was true of Jesus,  Jesus laid it on the line when speaking truth to power, when castigating the religious hypocrites of his day, and the corrupt rulers in the Temple and the Palaces of Jerusalem and Tiberias.  He did not have much faith in their willingness to change.  But he saw possibilities for healing and change in seemingly hopeless situation.  He saw the good in people rejected as irreligious, isolated because they had contagious diseases, shunned because they were tax-collectors and prostitutes, or simply ignored because they were poor.  He did not give up on them.  He exuded the power of life, and  hope.

The apostle James was clearly a realist.  He knew about the great gulf between wealth and poverty in his day but decided to do something about it.  To those who said they believed in God but did nothing to help the poor he retorted "faith without works is dead" and went on to say "Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith."  Sparklekid Theo likewise tells us "Just get on with it!"  Yes, politicians are corrupt, the power outages are unacceptable, the conditions in the township are bad, but let's get on and do something to make life better for everyone.  That attitude releases the power of life and hope.  And there are many such good news stories being told today around South Africa that demonstrate this in big or small ways.  Listen to one from the kindergarten across the road from Volmoed:

January 2015 kicked off with great excitement and a school filled with 38 little children, some more happy than others to join our school.  Our classes bursting at their seams with small little faces eager to embark on this new exciting path of their lives.  From our 38 students 4 are from Hamilton Russell Vineyards, a number from farms in the area and then a host of children from Zwelihle.  Two of our 3 teachers will continue their education this year via Klein Karoo and I am so excited to see how quickly they are developing, not only in their teaching abilities but also in their confidence.

Immediately after the conference held in Stellenbosch last September to celebrate my 75th birthday, a group of participants got together and decided to do something about poverty in South Africa.  They called the project AHA! which stands for "Authentic, Hopeful Action."  They were realists who  did not simply want to talk about change but to act in ways that made a real difference to the lives of the poor.  I was not at that meeting, but I was made the Patron of AHA.  This means that even though  my "shelf-life" is coming to an end I can cajole people into doing things that might make a difference in the lives of poor people.   

The AHA website has many practical suggestions that could make a difference, some of them we could all do without too much effort.  For example if you don't already, you can give R 5 to the garage attendant whenever your car is filled.  This won't fundamentally alter the material conditions in poor communities, but if each garage attendant at Engen down the road got R5 from  five people a day, he or she would earn at least a R100 extra per week.  Multiply that by 10 garage attendants and that would mean a R 1000 would find its way into the life of the township!  And then multiply it across the country at every filing station! 

The list of possibilities whereby we can help make a difference to the lives of other people through authentic, hopeful action is endless if only we put our minds to it and get on with it.   At the very least we could go onto the AHA webpage, or talk to Theo over coffee,  to find out what even those of us whose shelf-life is short can do.  This is surely better than talking ourselves into a state of despair about the state of the nation!  Whether congenitally pessimists or optimists, let us be realists.  Poverty is a crime against humanity, especially in a country where there is so much wealth. We don't need a AHA moment or movement to tell us.  But we do need to act authentically and hopefully, and maybe.  some help to know what we can do, to show by our works what our faith means.  Instead of saying AMEN or ALLELUIA today, let  us all shout  "AHA!" 

John de Gruchy
Volmoed 12 February 2015

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Meditation: SEEING THE OTHER DIFFERENTLY by John de Gruchy


II Corinthians 5:14-16
The love of Christ urges us on,,, He died for all, so that those who live night no longer live for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.  From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view.

Last Friday evening we went to see "Orpheus in Africa," a new musical show directed by David Kramer currently playing at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town.  I always like going to the Fugard because it is located in one of the first Congregational church buildings in the city, now rebuilt like an old theatre in Piccadilly Circus in London.  The show is about the life of Orpheus McAdoo, an African-American singer and impresario who lived in the second half of the nineteenth century.  Orpheus toured Britain, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia several times with his Virginia Jubilee Singers.  The group was well received in South Africa which they visited twice for several years during the 1890's.  While in Cape Town they strongly influenced the minstrel singing tradition which the so-called "Coon Carnival" has made famous.  On their last visit the Jubilee Singers included dancers and a comedian. One of their jokes, adapted to the South African situation from the plantations in the American Deep South, was told during the performance last week at the Fugard:

One of the men asks a brother where he would like to be buried when he died. The brother replied that he would like a resting place in a nice, quiet Methodist cemetery and then asked where his questioner would like to be laid. The latter answered: 'In a Dutch cemetery.' 'Why?' asked the brother. The answer was: 'Because a Dutch cemetery is the last place the devil would go to look for a black man."'[12]

The reference to the Dutch referred to the Boers in the Transvaal where the Jubilee Singers went to sing to President Paul Kruger.  Kruger liked their songs, but the Singers had some bad experiences of naked racism, even worse, they said, than what they experienced back home in Georgia and Virginia.  But what they found equally hurtful was the paternalism they encountered.  They were treated as "honorary white" Americans and therefore different from the local  "natives."   As they regarded themselves proudly African in origin, this was insulting and also indicative of the harsh injustices which black South Africans experienced.  For the Jubilee Singers black was beautiful, not inferior and second class.

"Orpheus in Africa" is a timely production because  racism continues to rear its ugly head across our beautiful country, whether in crude or more subtle ways.  Even when those of us who are white protest that we are not being racist, we often give ourselves away through our paternalism or casual remarks.  The truth is, racism is deeply rooted in our European background, something we probably imbibed with our mothers' milk,  and now seems embedded in our DNA.   But white racism is not the only sin of this kind that scars our landscape. The recent outbursts of xenophobia against Somali shop owners in some townships is also a denial of all we are meant to espouse in the "new South Africa."   But that is not all.  I keep on getting material on the internet that is virulently anti-Islamic, especially after the Charlie affair in Paris. Even one of the well-known evangelist-pastors in Hermanus last week made a speech that was highly inflammatory and decidedly un-Christian in the way he attacked Islam as evil.  And alongside Islamophobia,  there have been fresh outbursts of anti-Semitism across the globe.  What is the reason for this ongoing animosity towards those who are different from us which so often turns to hatred and violence?

 Seeing we share 97% of our DNA with other mammals, it is not surprising that we fear those who are different from us.  Fear is an animal mechanism for survival and protection.  But we are not simply animals, we are human beings who have the capacity to control our fears so that they are not destructive.  Reason can control fear.  Racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are irrational.  You are as likely to be hurt or even killed by someone like you, as you are by someone who is different from you.  When European nations slaughtered one another on the battle-field they were not fighting aliens or Turks or Nigerians, they were fighting fellow-Christians of the same skin colour.  Many of the murders committed in our country and elsewhere are by members of the same family. 

This does not mean that those who are different are never a threat, but they are not normally a threat because they different.  So let us not lose our critical faculties and sense of responsibility  and go along with the crowd, accepting and reinforcing the stereotypes and prejudices that abound in our society.  And that means not circulating documents on the internet that may seem funny to some but are hurtful to others and reinforce prejudice and even hatred.  More positively,  we should respect and appreciate difference, and discover how those who are different from us can actually enrich our own lives and we theirs.

Listen again to the words of St. Paul: "The love of Christ urges us on,,, He died for all, so that those who live night no longer live for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.  From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view."  The love of Christ urges us.  Don't treat others who are different "from a human point of view."  That is, don't relate to them in ways dictated by our inborn, cultural and personal prejudices and irrational fears.  See them through the eyes of Christ who died for us all,  and was raised that we might be reconciled to each other.  Let us see others beyond appearance, beyond skin colour, and beyond accent to the person who is human like the rest of us.  "The love of Christ urges us... From now on... regard no one from a human point of view."

John de Gruchy

Volmoed   5 February 2015

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Meditation: TABLES by John de Gruchy


Psalm 34:8; Matthew 11:16-19
O taste and see that the Lord is good.
The Son of Man came eating and drinking

People often ask me what I talk about when I meet with student groups who come to Volmoed.  The answer, in short, is many things.  Usually the format for our time together is an ongoing conversation about things that matter to them, and things that matter in life.  The topics cover much ground, some to do with the church, some with politics or theology or art, and so it goes, backwards and forwards.  We go where the conversation takes us.  And sometimes it takes us into interesting places as it did last week when the final year theological students from Stellenbosch came to Volmoed and we ended up talking about coffee shops, shebeens and the smell of baking bread. 

Why is it, asked one student from Delft, a tough township on the Cape Flats, that young people prefer to spend their time in shebeens and taverns rather than church?  Is it the booze, or maybe drugs, or is there something deeper, something about being human?  We humans might like solitude on occasion, and we might make much use of social media, but most of us hanker after community, being together with others. We are social creatures.  Being on line is not the same as being together, laughing and crying together, seeing each other face to face rather than on Facebook.   

Understandably, many people, young and old, find a greater sense of community outside the church and even on the internet than they do sitting in pews and listening to sermons.  Which is also why pubs play such a central role in every village and suburb in England and elsewhere.  Of course, there are many churches and youth fellowships that do provide community, churches whose worship builds and sustain community, and there are many people who find friendship and a sense of belonging in the church.  But too often building community is not regarded as an integral part of worship, or as important as preaching the Word.  There is, in fact, little appreciation that our deep desire for community is part of our hunger for God, part of our hunger for an authentic Word.  

In August 2007 we had a visitor on Volmoed by the name of Barbara Glasson who, while here, wrote the prayer that is now on the back cover of our prayer book.  At that time Barbara was a Methodist minister in England.  One morning she shared her story with us.  She had been sent by the Methodist Church to start a new congregation in the centre of Liverpool where the old Methodist church had closed  after its membership had dwindled.  When she got to there, she had to start from scratch.  She rented an apartment in the city centre above a store and each Sunday began to bake bread in the kitchen.  But she left the windows open so that the smell of the fresh bread drifted down into the street below.  Soon people began to arrive attracted by the smell, some of them homeless and most of them down-and-out.  As the weeks passed, a community began to form around the kitchen table, attracted first by the smell and taste of bread, and then by becoming a community of caring people.  So the church was born.  "O taste and see, the Lord is good!"  Thank you, God, she wrote in her prayer, "for writing us into your story!"

And how much of that story of our journey  into the mystery of God has to do with tables around which we meet others.  The kitchen, dining room and coffee tables around which we gather with family and friends, or on which we play games.  All these are important in shaping our lives and in meeting our hunger for both bread and the bread of life.  But for us, at the centre is the Lord's table where everyone should be welcome, where there should be no winners and losers, but where we all should be reconciled as friends, the table around which we gather each week and  Jesus becomes known in the "breaking of bread."  Every table should, in fact, be an extension of the Lord's Table, every meal, every meeting over coffee, can become a Eucharist,  an occasion when we experience the presence of Christ in a way that binds us both to him and to each other.  Indeed, according to the Psalmist, God prepares tables for us to gather around as we journey in the wilderness (Ps. 78:19), even in the presence of our enemies (Ps. 23:5).  Table fellowship is at the heart of Christian community.  Breaking bread together binds us together.

The gospels tell us that Jesus was as often at table sharing meals with his friends as he was in the synagogue, and even ate with sinners, publicans and those who challenged  him!  Jesus' ministry often occurred in the equivalent of our coffee shops and pizzerias.  Jesus was infamous among religious people because, unlike John the Baptist, "he came eating and drinking!"  So it is not surprising that on the night before he died, he had his last supper with his friends and told them to keep on doing that till he came back.  And every time we do that we become the body of Christ, members of one another.

But every table can become the Lord's Table, a place of meeting where the body of Christ becomes a reality; the focal point where community is formed, where we "taste and see that the Lord is good!"  No matter how big or small, how splendid or crude, whether round, square or oblong, no matter whether it is in the sanctuary or the restaurant, the kitchen or the wilderness, every  table can be the Lord's where meals become celebrations, where conversation builds community, where enemies become friends, where Jesus is known in the breaking of bread and the sharing of a glass of wine or a cup of coffee.  Every table can become an altar, every meal a Eucharist, every room a sanctuary where Christ is truly present to feed our hunger for genuine community, our human hunger for God.  The church is being the church of Jesus who came eating and drinking when it helps people hungry for food, hungry for community, and hungry for God, to sit at table and taste and see that the Lord is good.

John de Gruchy

Volmoed   29 January 2015

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Meditation: CHRISTIAN CHARLIES by John de Gruchy


Galatians 5:1, 13-15
Matthew 23:13:24

For freedom Christ has set us free...only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for shall love your neighbour as yourself.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert  twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.

A new slogan has been violently born: Je suis Charlie! I am Charlie, an  outcome of the  murderous attack by militant Jahadists on the satirical French magazine, Charlie Hebdo last week.  Within hours Je suis Charlie was adopted around the world by millions of people who came out in solidarity with those who had been killed and in defence of the freedom of speech.  Yesterday over five million copies of the newspaper were sold, and it was as defiant and outspoken as ever.

Charlie Hebdo (Hebdo means a weekly magazine.)  was founded  in 1969 with the name Hara-Kiri Hebdo. In November 1970 it was banned when it joked about the death of former French president Charles de Gaulle.  It then published under its present name inspired by Charlie Brown of Peanuts fame, and became Charlie Hebdo.  By 1981 Charlie had closed down for lack of support, but ten years later it restarted and began attacking religious fundamentalism, in fact, religion of any kind, and declared itself to be an atheist paper.  In 2006 it gained global notoriety when it published images of the Prophet Mohammed drawn by a Danish cartoonist.  Muslims in France were deeply offended and took Charlie Hebdo to court but lost the case.  Four years later its offices were fire bombed after naming Mohammed their "editor-in-chief" and saying: "100 lashes if you don't die of laughter".  Charlie also depicted Pope Benedict XVI in amorous embrace with a Vatican guard; former French President Nicolas Sarkozy looking like a sick vampire; and an Orthodox Jew kissing a Nazi soldier.

Now you might well be asking what has this to do with a meditation at the Eucharist, so let me refer to the gospel passage we read today in which Jesus pours scorn on the hypocrisy of the religious fundamentalists of his day. ”Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert  twice as much a child of hell as yourselves." The whole of chapter 23 in Matthew's gospel has the same message.  And on several occasions Jesus pokes fun at religious leaders and practices which dehumanize people and corrupt politicians who line their own purses.  No wonder he was attacked in return and accused of blasphemy, a charge which soon led to his death.

Christians have good reason, then, to support those who satirize corrupt rulers or bad religion, and make us cry tears of laughter at human folly.  When the comic strip Charlie Brown was at the height of its popularity someone even wrote a book called The Gospel according to Peanuts.  In fact, Christ depicted as a clown, as Charlie if you like, is part of Christian tradition precisely because it is through being foolish that he reveals the wisdom of God.  In Dostoevsky's great novel The Idiot, Prince Myshkin, the idiot, is a figure of Christ. So we  Christians can say with a good conscience "I am Charlie!" and salute cartoonists like Zapiro, and satirists like Pieter Dirk Uys.  And we should not take umbrage when Christianity is lampooned if we deserve it.  We do well to laugh at our foibles, misdeeds and idiosyncrasies.  But even if some caricatures of Christ are blasphemous,as they might well be, we do not kill those who draw them, or stone people who take his name in vain .  And we don't do so for Christ's sake who taught us to love even our enemies.  How foolish can you get!

Christ has set us free to be Charlies, then, but we are called not to abuse our freedom. The freedom Christ gives us is not to do what we like irrespective of the consequences, but the freedom to act responsibly for the common good.   This means that our primary concern is loving our neighbour, building relationships, nurturing community, working for reconciliation and a just peace.  After all, even the founding principles of the French Republic are not just liberty, but also equality and fraternity, and fraternity is about love for the neighbour if it means anything. There are, in other words, boundaries and limits to freedom which are determined by love for the other. 

So in defending the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press, as Christian Charlies we draw the line at what is deemed hate speech, speech which denigrates and dehumanizes others, speech which puts the lives of innocent people at risk.  It may be difficult sometimes to draw that line because who is to say when it has been crossed.  But as Christians we have to risk making a judgment if we are to be followers of Christ.  In the current euphoria of being Charlies, we dare not lose our critical faculties and that means being critical of Charlie Hebdo if necessary.  As one of the leaders of AVAAZ, the on-line human rights pressure group that stands for the freedom of the press,  has said, some of "the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo are offensive, racist and purposely inflammatory."  

While we must applaud the remarkable show of unity amongst the millions who marched in Paris in support of freedom, bringing together Jews, Muslims, Christians and secularists, something that will hopefully lead to better relations in France and elsewhere, we should not be blind to the hypocrisy in evidence.  There were some political leaders who led the march who are not defenders of free speech, and are many others who are using the attack on Charlie Hebdo to stir up anti-Islamism in pursuit of their own dubious agendas.  And let us not forget that some of those responsible for this awful deed in Paris were of Algerian descendent, and that Algeria was for long a colony of France often ruled by violent force.  The French Foreign Legion, the shock troops in the region, were mostly criminals and  by no means  paragons of virtue.  In fact, the Algerian war of not so long ago, was brutal, and we are now witnessing some of its consequences. This does not justify in any way what the Jihadist criminals did in Paris or elsewhere, nothing can do that, but it reminds us that the cycle of violence that arises out of conquest, resistance and repression lies at the heart of the crisis we face.  It is not a conflict between religions, but the abuse of religion in serving other agendas through destructive rhetoric and violent attacks on innocent people.  The crisis we face is certainly a clash between fundamentalism and democratic values, but it is also the consequence of the brutalization of a generation of the dispossessed.

We live in sobering times.  As Christian we need to defend the freedoms we have and support those who exercise them.  But we need to use our freedoms responsibly, seeking to speak the truth in ways that humanize rather than dehumanise, build up and not just break down, reconcile and not alienate.   Jesus calls us to break the cycle of violence in the struggle for justice, and the healing of human and social brokenness.   We are Charlies, to be sure, but we are Charlies for Christ's sake. 

John de Gruchy

Volmoed 14 January 2015