Friday, 27 November 2015

Meditation: VENGEANCE IS MINE by John de Gruchy


Romans 12:9-21

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." No, if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Dear Presidents, Prime Ministers and Chancellors of the West, and everyone else in their premier league of world politics.  I, John of Volmoed, was lying in my bed early one morning and thinking about the terrible and tragic events that have recently occurred in Paris and elsewhere, and I decided to write this letter to you. Greetings!

I know you probably won't receive this letter but if somehow it lands on your desk, please know that the saints at Volmoed daily pray for you as you exercise your awesome responsibility in times like these when everything seems to be falling apart.  We would not want to be in your shoes, and nobody would want us to be.  We also know that politics is about the art of the possible not the impossible dream, and that you have to weigh up many conflicting interests in making your decisions -- those of the people who vote you into power, big business, the military and armaments industry, international relations and national pride, and your own values, hopes and ambitions. 

We understand that when the enemy strikes and innocent people are slaughtered, then the response the people want, and the gut response of most political leaders and every nation under the sun since Cain took vengeance on Abel, is, to retaliate.  The more threatening your response, the less you will lose face amongst your peers and people.  Therefore  war must be declared and bombers launched to destroy the strongholds of the enemy.  This has invariably happened in history and most people support such action.  In this climate of fear and revenge, daily fed by the media, it is unlikely you will want to read the Bible or listen to the pope before you respond, though you might get religious support from those who are ready to give you their divine blessing.  But if by chance you do listen to the prophets and open the Bible you will find this passage written by Paul to Christians living in Rome, the heart of the Empire, the ancient equivalent of Washington DC.

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." No, if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Of course, these words were not addressed to political leaders responsible for taking care of the weighty affairs of government but to a small congregation of Christians  who were suffering persecution.  They could not really have taken vengeance on the Empire persecuting them; they were powerless.  By contrast you have the power to play God, and your oath of office does not include making a commitment to ,love your enemies. Who can possibly love ISIS, except those thousands of angry, alienated and vengeful Muslim young people and former Sunni soldiers of Saddam Hussein? 

Even though not all of you would claim to be Christian, for political reasons at least it is convenient at such a time to evoke the historical myth of Western Christian Civilization.  Our leaders did that during the dark days of apartheid.  We were engaged, they told us, in a life and death struggle against godless Communism.  But in the end we discovered that we were not defending Christian civilization, we were defending our own interests and that the way we were doing so was anything but Christian.  In fact, Western civilization is not necessarily or normally Christian at all if by Christian we mean following the teaching of Jesus.  After all, the so-called Christian nations of Europe which are now united in a fragile alliance fighting terrorism  have often been at war with each other, killing and maiming millions for the sake of honour and revenge, or control of resources.  There was nothing Christian about the bombing of Coventry or the vengeance that then led to the destruction of the city of Dresden.  We at Volmoed are particularly aware of this because we are part of the Community of the Cross of Nails which grew out of these terrible bombings and the decision of the Dean of Coventry Cathedral to forgive and work for reconciliation.  Vengeance was not Christian; forgiveness and reconciliation was.  You see, to defend Christian civilization means defending Christian values, and acting accordingly. The issue is not about protecting your citizens, that is your duty, but the danger of fostering a culture of fear, hate and revenge in which humanity and dignity is eroded in a spiral of violent reprisal.  The only victors are those who manufacture weapons, which are increasingly used against all of us. 

You cannot always govern according to "Christian principles, turning the other cheek when terrorists blow up taverns.  Hitler has to be stopped in his tracksas does ISIS.  But if vengeance is the driving motive in doing so, it will devour you as much as it devours your enemies, for vengeance begets retaliation.  The bombing of Baghdad begets terrorism in Boston, London and Paris.  So consider the consequences.  The more jihadists you bomb the more are born.  Today's terrorists are the grandchildren of those who suffered from brutal wars in Algeria, Palestine, Iraq, and other countries that were once European colonies, even though these disillusioned and dangerous young men and women have grown up in Europe and now have European passports.   Why is it that after living in and being educated in Europe they have turned against Europe and the West?  What has gone wrong?  Has Western civilization failed in convincing them about the values which we all cherish?  Has the Christian West lost its soul in trying to gain the whole world?

The only long term solution to the crisis we face and defeat the ideology that is threatening to destroy civilization, is one driven by moral values that transcend selfish national interests.  The alternative, the path of vengeance, is war without end.  Is that the kind of world we and future generations really want to live in?  Maybe those who manufacture armaments don't want wars to end, maybe terrorists don't, and maybe those religious extremists who are wanting Armageddon to erupt don't, but sane people do, and those who seriously follow Jesus do. 

So our prayer for you is that you may be able to see beyond the immediate challenge and count the longer term cost and consequences of your actions.  Our prayer for you as you search for solutions is that you do do not compromise your own moral integrity.  Our prayer is that you and we together may cherish those values which are fundamental to human flourishing even in these critical times of terror: justice, compassion, tolerance, hospitality, and a respect for human dignity among them.  If we lose these even in fighting a just cause, we will lose our souls just as empires and nations have lost their theirs the more they have expanded and conquered. That is why the words of St. Paul, even though written to a small band of powerless Christians in the belly of the Empire still speak to all of us today.

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." No, if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

John de Gruchy

Volmoed 26 November 2015

Monday, 16 November 2015

Meditation: IN CHRIST by John de Gruchy


II Corinthians 5:16-20
Acts 19:1-9
If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.

One of the books I read as a student which has left a life-long impression on me was entitled A Man in Christ.  The book, by a Scottish scholar James Stewart, is about St. Paul, hence "man" in the title!  I took the book off my library shelf again this week and was struck by how much I had underlined, sentence after sentence, passage after passage.  It  is a study of Paul's  understanding of the Christian life and faith based on his conversion to Christ which began so dramatically on the road to Damascus, an experience that turned his life around. The whole of Paul's understanding of what it means to be a Christian was premised on what happened to him that day.  It was the hinge factor which changed the way in which he understood himself, as well as God and the world.  He became a new creation, he saw things in a completely new way, he had a new direction and purpose in life.  "If anyone is in Christ," he would later write, "there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new."

Even though some non-human animals may have something similar, it is generally thought that what distinguishes us human beings from the rest is our self-consciousness .  That is, our ability to reflect on our experience, whether of suffering or love, of fear or of hope, of one another or of God, in order to understand what it all means for us and our lives.   Self-consciousness is the ability to know ourselves, to know what is going on inside, in the deep recesses of our being.  Sometimes when we do so we throw up our hands in dismay and acknowledge that our lives are in a mess, they are falling apart, or as Paul himself put it, "the good we want to do we don't, and the evil we don't want to do, we simply go ahead and do" despite our good intentions.  We may even feel like that this morning.  That is why some people today go as regularly to a clinical psychologist or counsellor as they do to the dentist or doctor.  They need help to put their lives together. The truth is, at some time or other we may all need such help to find an integrating a centre to our lives that will hold everything together and provide stability as well as direction in our lives.

This process began for St. Paul on the Damascus Road.  His old self-disintegrated, and out of the broken pieces a new person began to emerge like clay on a potter's wheel.  To begin with he did not fully understand what was happening to him, even though it was clear that something dramatic had taken hold of his life.  But in due course and with the help of others he began to understand that the Christ he had formerly rejected with a passion had become the centre of his existence.  As a result the direction of his life changed and everything had a new focus.  And as he grew into his new life in Christ over the months and years that followed, so his perceptions changed and his understanding deepened.  He  found the words to express what had happened to him and what could happen to others as well: grace, forgiveness, joy, peace, and a deep desire to share the good news.  In addition, he no longer saw anyone from his old human point of view and within the confines of a narrow ethnic legalism.  In Christ, he declared, there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave or free person, man or woman, for all of them are equally part of the Christian community. 

In one of his prison letters Dietrich Bonhoeffer refers to Christ as the "cantus firmus" of his life.  The term was originally a musical one that referred to the melody line in the work of composers like J.S. Bach.  But it equally refers to all types of music that have a similar structure.  If you watch a jazz band play you will know that there is a controlling melody played by all the instruments together.  But then, one by one, the trumpeter, or drummer, or saxophonist will take centre stage and improvise while the rest of the band keep on playing the melody.  The melody provides the "cantus firmus," it holds it all together, but it also allows each instrument to do their thing -- in musical terminology that is called  "polyphony," the many voices that make the music come alive.  But these many voices are able to do this only because there is a strong core, a centre, a "cantus firmus."  Christ, says Bonhoeffer, is that centre, the "cantus firmus" which enabled him to experience the "polyphony of life," life in all its variety and different parts, but without fragmenting.  With Christ the centre, Bonhoeffer is saying,  things no longer fall apart, there is in fact a new creation which is driven a love for others and a passion for justice.

Some refer to this experience of Christ as the awakening of a "Christ consciousness."  I think that is a very rich and meaningful description as long as it does not become some kind of vague spirituality that has lost its connection with Jesus himself.  For the Christ of faith who becomes the centre of our lives, the Christ who stopped Paul on the Damascus Road and whom he would later describe in Cosmic terms, is the sam Jesus whose story is told in the gospels but in a different dimension.  Whereas before his resurrection and the outpouring of his Spirit, Jesus  was confined to a particular time and space, to the paths of Galilee and the Streets of Jerusalem, now people were encountered by him on the road to Emmaus and Damascus.  Through the Spirit Jesus the Christ had gone viral.  But the Spirit remains the Spirit of Jesus.  So when St. Paul tells the church in Philippi that they should "have the mind of Christ," he immediately reminds them of Jesus, the one who, though he had every right to claim divine status, became the humble servant who gave his life for the world.  Christian formation in Christ is all about the transformation of our minds into the "mind of Christ." That is "Christ consciousness."

Volmoed exists, as our motto has it, to make broken people whole.  And that includes all of us.  The fact of the matter is that all of us continually need to regain our centre in Christ, all of us need to be renewed and become whole, all of us need nurturing in the mind of Christ -- it is an ongoing process, it is the journey into the mystery we call God.  So when we come here on a Thursday to celebrate this Eucharist together, with Christ at the centre, we are centring our lives again in him.  As we listen to the gospel story, eat bread and drink wine together, so Christ enters our lives afresh to shape the way we live in the world.  If any of us begins to live in Christ, we become part of the new creation that God is grinding into being.

John de Gruchy
Volmoed  12 November 2015

©  John W. de Gruchy

If you wish to copy or distribute this material please ask for my consent.  Please acknowledge source and do not change content without permission.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Meditation: EMBODIED WORDS by John de Gruchy


John 1:1-5, 14
James 1:22-25

Be doers of the word.
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. (NRSV)
The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood. (Peterson)

When people who receive my weekly meditation by e-mail, and one of them is an Emeritus Archbishop, write to tell me that I spelt Zwelihle wrong in my meditation last week, I have to take note and gnash my teeth in contrition.  At the very least I should be,embarrassed, as I duly was.  After all,  I don't like it when people call me de Grunchy like most bank tellers, municipal officials, shop assistants  and the like, So I should take more care to remember names, and spell them correctly.  I can hear Isobel in the background saying "famous last words!" But at any rate I now know that there are some people who actually read my meditations, and that Zwelihle means "beautiful place." May the day come soon  when it will become what its name means.

Words are important, as the Book of Proverbs tells us, they can cheer people up and they can make them angry, and a word spoken at the right time can save a life or a nation.   Words are often trite and casually used, but sometimes they are powerful, moving crowds to action whether in a good cause or a bad one.  Words can encourage and comfort, they can also hurt and destroy.  So we need to take care when we use them to avoid misunderstanding, upsetting relationships, provoking bad actions.

Many people prefer the King James or Authorised Version of the Bible to modern translations like Eugene Peterson's The Message because there is something majestic about its language.  Yet, like Shakespeare's sonnets and plays, there are many words in that venerable version of the Bible that we no longer use or understand, words that have changed meaning over time. When last did you use "sanctification" in a conversation?  And when we talk about justification or election we don't mean what St. Paul meant.  Even the meaning of words like "salvation" or "sin", "grace", love or hope", "peace or righteousness" is not always clear, and even the word "God" means different things to different people and in the way we use it. And, of course,, the Bible was written in Hebrew and Greek, and Jesus spoke Aramaic  So all the words in our Bibles are translations, and the words do not necessarily have the identical meaning of the original.  That is one reason why new translations of the Bible keep on coming, and why we have decided to re-write our Volmoed Prayer Book. 

The truth of the matter is that language develops and the meaning of words change.  Just think about "awesome", which in the Bible refers to holiness and beauty, but for our grandchildren it describes granmas' cooking or a rugby match.  Even the words Christian and Christianity convey different meanings to different people because they conjures up different images, much like the words Islam or Muslim.  The same is true in political discourse.  The meaning of "reconciliation" is highly contested in South Africa, and "transformation" is no longer politically correct in some circles.  That is why we need to find the right words to express our faith today, words that mean something to us and to others.  Words that unpack rather than hide or distort the truth; words that are not simply religious jargon, but actually communicate the message of the good news about Jesus.

This was something that bothered Dietrich Bonhoeffer while he was thinking about the future of Christianity shortly before his death.  He wrote to his friend Eberhard Bethge about it:

At the moment I am thinking about how the concepts of repentance, faith, justification, rebirth, and sanctification should be reinterpreted in a “worldly” way – in the Old Testament sense and in the sense of John 1:14.

For him, this meant in a way that ordinary and especially secular people can understand.  And his reference to John 1:14 -- our text for today -- refers to the way God chose to speak to us, not just in words but in the Word become flesh.   "The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood."  A profound reminder that the words of faith are not just about ideas or concepts, they are words that have to be embodied in order to communicate what they mean..  When God wanted to tell us that he loves us, he did not just say the word, he became the word. The meaning of love  was demonstrated in action.   "The Word became flesh and dwelt among moved into our neighbourhood."

So while we need to find the right words to express our faith and tell about God's love and grace, we need to understand that the words of faith do not mean much in the abstract; they need to become embodied in life in order to have meaning.  You can say you love someone a thousand times, but love is not just a word, it needs to be expressed in order to have meaning.  You can say you believe in God as much as you like, but what faith means for you has to be embodied in the way you live. Yes, we need to find the right words, we need words that speak the truth to our time, we need to clarify what we mean, but in the end words only carry weight when they are embodied. That is why it is very difficult to understand a play by simply reading it, you have to see it acted out on the stage.  That is why we need to know the gospel story about Jesus, the drama of his life, in order to understand what it means to say "God so loved the world." That is why the word Christian has to be expressed in ways that reflect the true meaning of the gospel rather than convey the negativity so many people, for good reason, associate with Christianity today.

How then is the world to believe the good news that we as Christians are meant to share with others?  Or to put it differently, what is evangelism all about?  Is it about words?  Yes, it is, and we need to choose them carefully.  But our words need to be made flesh, our words of faith have to become embodied.  That is why in his letter, St. James tells us to "be doers of the word, and not merely hearers" or, for that matter, "merely speakers."People will never know what a word like "sanctification" means until they have met a real saint.  People will never understand the word "reconciliation" until they see justice restored in our land, or until they have actually experienced a forgiveness that changes relationships. They will never trust the word "transformation" unless things change for the good on the ground.   Zwelihle will not be the "beautiful place" it was intended to be unless there is the will and action to make it so. The gospel will never be good news to people unless they discover the renewing and healing power of Christ, unless they see that those who believe in Christ are truly making a difference for good in the world. Unless the Word becomes flesh and blood and moves into the neighbourhood no one will understand the grace and truth that is in Jesus.

John de Gruchy
Volmoed  5 November 2015

PS.  I am always delighted when people find my meditations helpful enough to want to share them with others.  But I have been advised to add the copyright note below, so I do so even if a little reluntantly.

©  John W. de Gruchy

If you wish to copy or distribute this material please ask for my consent.  Please acknowledge source and do not change content without permission.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Meditation: INTERPRETING THE PRESENT TIME by John de Gruchy


Luke 12:54-56
"Why do you not know how to interpret the present time?"

My father taught me when I was young that if even a small cloud settled on the top of Lion's Head, which we could clearly see from the veranda of our house in Cape Town, then it would soon rain.  However, if there was a "table cloth" covering Table Mountain, and a howling Southeaster blowing down into the city, then it would not rain, but it would do so in Johannesburg.  So I soon became an expert at predicting the weather by reading the "signs of the times" just as Jesus remarked to his disciples:

When you see a cloud rising in the west you immediately say that it is going to rain -- and so it happens.  And when you see the south wind howling you say, there will be scorching heat; and it happens.

However, Jesus then went on to say to his hearers that they were hopeless at interpreting the signs of the times in which they were living.  They were clueless about the significance of what was happening before their very eyes at that moment in history. 

You hypocrites!  You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

This, too, is true of many people today. We can all know what the weather is like from Alaska to Samoa by looking on TV or checking the web, but we are not so good at interpreting the times in which we live and therefore how we should respond.

There are many Christian preachers in the world today who claim to be interpreting the signs of Jesus' Second Coming to solve all our problems, so all we have to do is wait and pray.  But Jesus was not speaking about a Second Coming, he was speaking about "interpreting the present times,"  about what God was doing in and through him right there and then, not at some future date, and therefore about what they had to do in response. In his sayings and actions, Jesus kept on trying open his hearers eyes to see what God was doing in the unfolding events of his day.  Sadly, even his disciples failed to understand.  and I fear that is sometimes true of us.  We know what is happening in the world, but we don't interpret them in terms of what is God doing and what God requires of us.   So we respond in fear not faith, in terms of self-interest rather than the common good.  But Jesus pushes us to ask what is God doing in what is happening, and what does God require of us.   

This brings me to the two dramatic events of the past week or so -- the #Feesmustfall student protest movement and the huge protest march by the EFF in Johannesburg and Sandton on Tuesday this week.  These do not herald the Second Coming of Jesus, though that would be a relief for university administrators, stock brokers and the government.  Like them we might also wish that it would all go away so that things may return to normal, but they won't.  But what if we interpret these events differently, that is as a God-given opportunity to make our country a more just society?  After all, the students are rightly protesting against something that is wrong, something that needs to be changed not just for their good, but also for ours and for the future of our country.  I do not know any academic, from Vice-Chancellors to Lecturers who would not agree.   After all, the demands are for a living and fair wage for all in South Africa.  This is surely not outrageous, it is what the government has been promising for twenty years but not been very good at delivering.  It is about spending our taxes rightly so that wealth in our country can be shared not squandered; it is about everyone having what they need to live meaningful lives, not a few having so much that they don't know what to do with it.  Uncomfortable as it may be, as Jesus followers, we have interpret the present times as God's call to us to  help find ways to respond to this cry for economic justice.  We cannot continue living as if the enormous gap between the rich and the poor, Sandton and Alexandria Township, plush Hermanus and overcrowded Zwelihle is acceptable.  It is not, and something has to be done else the consequences are going to be far worse than an occasional protest march.  

Many years ago when Isobel, Steve I were driving through the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York we came across the legendary place where Rip van Winkle slept through the American Revolutionary War.  The story, written by Washington Irving and published in 1819 is a classic.  You probably know how Rip van Winkle went to sleep before the Revolution and when he woke up afterwards he discovered that the world had changed beyond recognition.  The story is universal.  We humans often sleep through a revolution that is taking place all around us. We prefer to turn out the light, go to sleep, and hope it will all go away.  But that is not an option for the followers of Jesus.  The present times are not the time to bury our heads ostrich-like in the sand, or sit back, blame the government and pass the boerewors around. 

If we truly interpret these times in which we are living as a God-given opportunity to work for a more just world and society we will have at least made a start as Jesus' disciples in discerning what we might be able do, and acknowledge that as followers of Jesus we have to find ways to share the wealth of our country with those who are in need.  So let us pray that there is much wisdom for government to manage the process and find solutions that achieve the outcomes needed.  Let us pray that big business will get the message the EFF delivered on their doorstep and respond in ways that help change things for the better.  Let us pray for the Overstrand Council to use its resources wisely and rightly especially where they are most needed.  And let us keep asking ourselves what can we do within our own spheres of influence and with the resources we have, limited as they may be.  

As Christians we know that we cannot throw up our hands in despair, or wash our hands as though all this had nothing to do with us.  We know it has everything to do with us, and many of our community are already are involved in trying to make a difference in our society.   So let us spend less time forecasting the weather and more time seeking to discern what God is calling us to be and to do in these present times. 

John W. de Gruchy

Volmoed    29 October 2015