Friday, 17 February 2017

Meditation: ON LISTENING AND SPEAKING by John de Gruchy


Mark 7:31-37
"He even makes the deaf to hear and the dumb to speak."

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, recently said that the best thing that had happened to him in his life was meeting Jesus.  I am sure many, many others down the years and still today, would say the same, though I suspect that on St. Valentine's Day this week the rhetoric might have been different.  I am not sure exactly why the Archbishop said what he did, but for many of us meeting Jesus was a life changing experience.  This was certainly true for the mute man we read about in the gospel today.

Meeting Jesus must surely have been the best thing that happened to him. It was the day he began to hear for the first time, and began to speak without the impediment with which he had been born.  When Jesus put his fingers in the man's ears and touched his tongue, so the story tells us, the man's  "eyes were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly."

Jesus was undoubtedly a healer who, time and again, brought physical healing to people.  The gospel stories are full of such stories.  But this story, like many others, can be understood in an allegorical as well as a literal way.  In meeting Jesus many people who had normal hearing and speaking ability often began to hear in a new way and speak with a new voice, and to speak plainly.  The physical healing, as it so often does, points us to a deeper meaning that is relevant for all of us, not just for those who are literally deaf and dumb.  When we meet Jesus we begin to hear differently, and speak in a new way.

Tim Stones, one of my former students whom some of you may remember from a visit he made to Volmoed some years ago with his wife and children, works with the deaf and dumb in Worcester.  He is exercising a great ministry there helping them excel at sport.  I am sure Tim would tells us that those who are deaf or who have difficulty speaking are often people who listen at a deeper level than some of us who have no hearing disability, and they may also communicate with others at a deeper level than we often do.  Because hearing is not just a matter of hearing, it is a matter of listening and discerning, of hearing more than the words that are spoken -- reading body language, listening to the tone in which the words are expressed, listening intently rather than with half our attention.  And speaking is not just about saying things, but communicating with people -- speaking plainly, not speaking down to people, but speaking appropriately, finding the right words whether of challenge or comfort..

The Old Testament prophets kept on telling us the people of Israel that they "hear, hear" but buty do not grasp what is being said to them.  Jesus said the same.  In a story that soon follows the one we read about the healing of the mute man, the disciples misunderstand something he tells them.  So Jesus says to them:

Do you still not perceive or understand?  Are your hearts hardened?  Do you have eyes and fail to see?  Do you have ears, and fail to hear?  (Mark 817-18)

The disciples had already been journeying with Jesus for some time, they had often listened to his teaching and observed his actions.  Yet they so often did not get the point of what he was saying and doing.  It was as though they were hearing but not listening, something Isobel tells meI do far too often.   But I suspect this is probably true for most of us.  How often we don't really hear, and too often we therefore fail to get what others are trying to tell us or misunderstand what they are saying!  And then when we speak we actually pass on what we think we heared rather than what was actually spoken to us.  It's much like that game we used to play when, sitting in a circle, someone whispered something to the person next to her, and he in turn passed it on.  And so the message went round the circle.  But when the last person reported it, it was significantly different from what was originally said.  Despite everyone having ears and the ability to hear, not everyone actually heard the message or communicated it accurately.  This is how gossip turns into slander, and how truth becomes half-true and eventually turns into lies.  And that in turn will affect attitudes and actions.  Listening to debates in Parliament, and often in conferences of one kind or another, I am certain that many members or participants simply do not listen to others most of the time, and when they speak, they don't always speak the truth about what they have heard.  They might as well be deaf and dumb, except that I think the deaf and dumb people are much better than they are.

The fact is, hearing is about more than just hearing, it is about listening in order to understand what is being spoken, and speaking is about more than uttering words, it is communicating what has actually been said and speaking truthfully and honestly.  Misunderstanding, whether wilful or not, not only distorts or subverts the truth, when passed on whether  through education or gossip, whether through the media or in passing conversation, breaks down communication and reinforces the lie.  That is why hearing rightly is so important, and therefore listening intently in order to hear rightly, is so important; and that is why communicating accurately and speaking the truth is so fundamental to human relations and well-being.  There is far too much fake news circulating today, far too many lies being spread.  But those of us who have met Jesus should know better.  We should have ears that truly hear and lips that speak the truth.

The only way to truly hear what Jesus is saying to us in the gospel and through other people is to develop the habit of listening carefully.  Let's not assume that because we may have been a Christian for a long time, and journeyed with him as a disciple, we have actually understood what he has been trying to tell us.    That is why ongoing meditation and reflection on the gospel is so important if we are going to truly follow Jesus.  Our ears have to be opened through the practice of listening.  That is why when we meet Jesus and begin to follow him he touches our ears and our lips so that we may truly listen and plainly speak.

John de Gruchy

Volmoed  16 February 2017

Monday, 13 February 2017

Meditation: ON NOT BEING SUCKED INTO DESPAIR by John de Gruchy


Jeremiah 17:7-9; II Corinthians 4:
The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse-- who can understand it?
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair.

It is May 1943.  The Allies are bombing Berlin.  Bonhoeffer has been arrested by the Gestapo and is in prison awaiting trial. He takes up his pen and writes a letter to his parents, Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer:
It is of course difficult on the outside to imagine realistically what being in prison is like. The situation ... is in fact often not so different from being someplace else. I read, reflect, work, write, pace the room - and I really do so without rubbing myself sore on the wall like a polar bear.  What matters is being focused on what one still has |and what can be done ... and on restraining within oneself the rising thoughts about what one  cannot do,  and the inner restlessness and resentment about the entire situation.
Bonhoeffer then goes on to write about something that bothered him, something you often find in the writings of saints, people you would expect to be full of joy, without a doubt, never tempted to despair.  This is what he says to his parents:
I have never understood as clearly as I have here what the Bible and Luther mean by “temptation” [Anfechtung]. The peace and serenity by which one had been carried is suddenly shaken without any apparent physical or psychological reason, and the heart becomes, as Jeremiah very aptly put it, an obstinate and anxious thing that one is unable to fathom.  One experiences this as an attack from the outside, as evil powers that seek to rob one of what is most essential.
Jeremiah's words Bonhoeffer has in mind are those we read this morning: "The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse-- who can understand it?"  What was Bonhoeffer thinking about?  A clue comes l in another letter he wrote to his friend Eberhard Bethge:  
You are the only person who knows that “acedia” (resignation) -“tristitia” (despair) with its ominous consequences has often haunted me, and you perhaps worried about me in this respect – so I feared at the time.  .
Acedia is a sadness of the heart which makes us feel that life is no longer worth living, and tristitia refers to becoming depressed, even to the point that it led Bonhoeffer to contemplate suicide.  
There are times when most of us feel that life has lost its purpose.  All joy and meaning has departed.  It is a feeling many have as we grow older, hear about the death of close friends, or accidents and illness that have afflicted others.  It is the feeling we get when our children are far from us whether physically or in spirit.  It is the feeling of loneliness, of being confined in some claustrophobic prison, maybe even one of our own making.  It is the feeling we get as we read the news or watch it on TV and start despairing of the state of the world or the nation. 

For some people, this deep, dark mood is diagnosed as "clinical depression" needing medical help, but for most of us, even though it only afflicts us from time to time, it is still a disconcerting experience.  It is as though our heart, the seat of our affections, is deceiving us. You can no longer trust your feelings for they are tearing you apart.  Note how Bonhoeffer speaks of this as a "temptation,"  the temptation to let the joy of living and gratitude for our many blessings be sucked out of our lives, the temptation to lose hope and resign ourselves to fate.  Isobel has captured this mood in a poem:

Poured over us like a disfiguring acid,
Is the pain of the world,
To intermingle with our own pain.

How easy to fall into despair,
To think, God, that you have left us,
Left us because we will not listen.

Are you still present in everything you have made?
Still care about it?
Still direct it towards your purpose?

Julian saw that you do indeed,
But felt greatly tested by this insight,
and so do I.
for her world showed a different reality,,
It was god-forsaken, like ours.

In a leap of faith, she believed
And so do I, but....
Help me Lord!
Help me not to be sucked into darkness and despair,
Help me to see that you are indeed in everything;
That you will triumph in the end.

Unless our depression is diagnosed as clinical, we need to understand that it is a very normal, part of being human.  Jesus despaired of the world and his disciples, as does every saint worthy the name if you read their diaries, letters or meditations.  Like St. Paul they did not let these moods destroy them: "We are afflicted in every way," writes Paul, "but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair."
Or, as Bonhoeffer wrote in his letter to Bethge, we can regard  "even these experiences" as "good and necessary in order to learn to understand human life better."  We can also begin to learn again what it means to trust God and discover afresh that God's grace is sufficient for us in our hour of need.  For even when we descend into the depths of despair, says the Psalmist, "You are there!"

There are some practical ways to deal with our times of despair.  Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama provide many suggestions on how to do this in their Book of Joy.  No wonder it is high up on the best seller books list of the New York Times.  I commend it to you.  Spending some minutes each day in meditation, slowly reading a favourite Psalm, coming to Holy Communion, visiting a friend, sharing a cup of coffee, or doing something to help someone in need -- these become means of God's grace that help us negotiate our depression and prevent us from being sucked into darkness and despair.  But remember, you are not alone.  You are with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, you are with Job when his while world collapses around him, you are with Paul on his journeys, despairing of the churches he has helped to established, Mother Theresa as she is overwhelmed by the suffering around her, and with Dietrich Bonhoeffer in prison and many others like him, cut off from friends and loved ones, uncertain about the future.  You are with all for whom life has lost its purpose and joy.  And you are with the Psalmist many times over,

Why are you cast down, O My soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God, for I shall again praise him,
my help and my God. (Psalm 42:1-5)

John de Gruchy

Volmoed    9 February 2017

Friday, 3 February 2017

Meditation: WE ARE KNOWN BY WHAT WE DO by John de Gruchy


James 2:14-17
Matthew 7:21-23

"Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead"
"Not everyone who says to me 'Lord, Lord," will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven."
My old high school had a Latin motto: "Spectamur agendo." Loosely translated it means "we are known by what we do."   My father, who was also a SACS "old boy" regularly reminded me about this in teaching me to do the right thing.  But if we, as school boys, thought about it all, we probably thought that it meant that we were known for our ability to defeat other schools on the sports field.  It was a battle cry, if you like, "watch out, you guys, we are about to crush you!"  "You will know who we are by what we do to you!"  The fact that we often lost games did not alter our conviction that we were the best, the greatest school, and determined to make our school great again after every loss.  But our opponents were not always impressed.  Prove what you say by what you do, and then we will start to believe what you say. 
This is precisely what St. James says to his critics in his New Testament letter.  "What good  is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say that you have faith but do not have works?  Can that faith save you?"  James specifically had in mind the way in which Christians act towards those who were poor and those engaged in spreading lies and scandal.  So in response to the misreading of St. Paul's teaching on "justification by faith," James says, OK, but if that does not result in good works that faith cannot save us.  It is cheap grace.  Nor will such faith convince anybody at all about what we believe, for we are "known by what we do" rather than sibymply what we say.  It is a tough message for preachers and those who deliver meditations such as this one.  We may be good at crafting words, but words are not enough.  Mea culpa! To throw in another Latin phrase.
Donald Trump has been most upset this past week because Pope Francis said that he could not be a Christian if he does the kind of things he is now doing with regard to refugees and others in need.  I can imagine Trump's angry response:
"How dare the Pope question my Christian faith!  After all my mother was a Presbyterian and I swore on the Bible she gave me at my inauguration!  We even read the Sermon on the Mount during that event, though I must confess I was not listening very carefully. And, yes, not only that, but millions, probably trillions of Bible-believing Christians voted for me.  In fact I have never needed forgiveness for anything for I have never done anything wrong.  I wasn't the guilty partner in my divorces for sure.   I can do anything I like.  So if I say I am a Christian even the Pope had better believe it or else I won't give him a visa to visit our great country where everyone has religious freedom, unless you happen to be Muslims from certain countries and, of course, if you are the Pope.  God bless America, the greatest Christian country on earth which I am making even greater by getting rid of those I don't like, teaching my fellow patriots to hate our enemies, and would like to encourage torture.  Yes, I will be known by what I do, because what I say and do is the same.  You bet!" 
Now let me make it clear.  A political leader is never expected to be a saint, in fact, not all popes have been saints and some were corrupt rogues.  Neither does a political leader have to be highly educated, though it does help if you can read and write.  He can even have several wives serially or at the same time.  And, it should go without saying, political leaders need not be Christians; even John Calvin said that he preferred competent pagan rulers to incompetent pious ones.  No, the problem is that President Trump, like President Zuma, claims to be a Christian and makes political capital out of doing so, and he has received support from multitudes who profess to be Christians for that reason.  But now Christianity is being judged by many non-Christians in terms of what Trump is doing.  So I think the Pope is right to speak up on behalf of us all.  He is a far better judge of what it means to be a Christian than the President of the United States.  If you claim to be a Christian you had better try and live like one.  The Bible tells us so.  Even Jesus told the disciples of John to judge him by what he was doing.
We must be careful, nevertheless, about throwing stones at Trump from our own glass chapels.  For how often do we also say "Lord, Lord" but don't do what Jesus asks us to do?  As much as we don't like it, there is a little bit of Trump in all of us.  He may be the chief narcissist, but who of us in this selfie generation are not narcissist to some degree?  He may  be a tax-evader, fraudster, and an adulterer, but we are not without sin ourselves.  In any case, James is not writing to Trump alone, but to all of us who claim to be Christians.  
We are known by what we do!  That is not only how God judges us, but also how the world in general judges us.  That is why it is so important for those of us who seek to be faithful Christians, those of us who seek to follow Jesus,  to take a firm and resolute stand against the racial and religious bigotry that has already come to characterise Trump's presidency just as it characterised his election campaign, and characterises much of our own national life.  We don't have to be self-righteous about it, but we have to be resolute and courageous in opposing and rejecting it.  Trump's, and his supporters' claims, to be Christian is not not just challenged by the Pope and other other Christian leaders, it is contradicted by the gospel, in fact by the very Bible on which Trump placed his hand in taking the oath of office.  It is not we who judge Trump, but God's Word that judges all of us.  And like Trump we all need forgiveness and grace to live as we should.

John de Gruchy
Volmoed 2 February 2017

Friday, 20 January 2017

Meditation: WE WON'T SURRENDER HOPE by John de Gruchy


Jeremiah 29:10-14
Romans 8:24-25
"I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not your harm, to give you a future with hope."

When the last days come, St. Paul tells us, a "trumpet will sound."  Some fear it will happen on Friday when the new President of the United States is inaugurated and blows his own trumpet.  Certainly, for those who elected him it will be a time of great expectation, but for many others, it will usher in a time uncertainty and fear for the future in America and world-wide.  The Christian response must be defiant hope. This is not the end of the world, so we we will not fear, be seduced by false promises, perpetuate racism, or give way to hatred. 

Imagine this morning that we are not in Washington DC, but in Babylon where God's people are in exile long before the birth of Christ.  Imagine how they felt as aliens in that foreign land far from home with little chance of returning.  They had lost all hope and even found it difficult to sing songs of praise.  It is in that situation that Jeremiah tells them that the Lord has plans for them, plans for good and not ill.  He promises them "a future with hope."  Jeremiah was defying the odds.  Things did not look good at all, and there was to be no immediate relief.  Jeremiah did not promise a quick fix, but his words gave the exiles courage, a "a hope that is against hope" as St. Paul calls it.

Jeremiah proclaimed hope in a time not unlike our own when there is so much uncertainty and anxiety in the world, as well as  in our  own hearts and minds, irrespective of where we live. It is a time of uncertainty and anxiety for peoples and nations across the globe,  for millions of refugees and others suffering from war and famine.  It is a time of uncertainty and anxiety for young people as they seek a better education or, having received one, cannot find employment and are losing hope.  And it is a time of uncertainty and anxiety for friends and family members whose lives are falling apart, some seriously ill, some diagnosed with cancer, and some facing imminent death.   

Every day here at Volmoed we counsel and pray for people who are going through such times.  But over the past few weeks we have been praying especially for a close family friend, and also a friend of Volmoed, who was suddenly diagnosed with a severe form of cancer a few weeks ago.  Suellen Shay is  the daughter of Carolyn Butler who comes here often and is known to several of you.  Suellen herself is the godmother of our grandchildren, a Faculty Dean at the University of Cape Town, a leader at the Rondebosch United Church, and she was with me the day I went to the place where our son Steve drowned in the Mooi River seven years ago.  Yesterday Isobel and I, along with other friends of the Shay family, received a letter from Suellen and Don her husband.  They wrote it from the Vincent Palotti hospital in Cape Town.  I take the liberty of reading a section.

... many of you have asked if there is something you can do to be helpful. So here’s an idea...  I propose some tangible act that would daily remind us, whether one is spiritual or not it doesn’t matter, that we are part of something that is collectively  ‘greater than the sum of the parts’. Hope can activate this. So my idea is to ask anyone who wishes to, to daily light a candle of hope – hope for me and my recovery but for anything else for which you seek hope -- hope for UCT’s restoration, hope for South Africa, hope for …. there is plenty of material. It is this hope that will protect us from being people of despair and cynicism and most of all fear.

For the past twelve years we have lit a candle in the sanctuary every Tuesday at Morning Prayer.  We called it the HIV candle because on Tuesdays, when we have prayed for the healing of the sick, we remember those suffering from HIV/AIDS.  Increasingly that prayer has enlarged to include those suffering from other virulent diseases, and increasingly on those with cancer which seems to be reaching epidemic proportions.  But in response to Suellen and Don Shay's letter we have decided to rename the candle the "candle of hope".  We will light it every day as we do today during this Eucharist.   

If you look at the candlestick you may see that it represents a pregnant woman, and specifically a pregnant African woman carrying, as they often do, something on her head.  Usually what they carry is a heavy burden, a large basket of food from the market, or some other load.  But as shown in this candlestick she is carrying a lit candle as a symbol of hope, hope for the child she is carrying within her, hope for her family, hope for the world.  It is no longer simply a candlestick reminding us of those who are suffering from some frightful disease;  it has become a symbol of "a future with hope" for all who suffer, all who are afraid, all who struggle for a better world, and for the next generation who will inherit what we leave them.

Such hope is more than cheerful optimism; it is a refusal to go along with anything that will make this world a worse place than it is, a defiant action that bucks the trend of self-interest, greed, and the misuse of power.  It is a response that lifts us out of resignation to fate, and commits us to making a difference, to care, to show compassion, to work for justice.  It is a refusal to believe that life is meaningless, and an affirmation that we live, move and have our being in a mystery of grace that is beyond our wildest dreams, one that transcends death  This is the hope that Suellen and Don ask us to affirm in lighting the "hope candle."  "This hope", they wrote, "will protect us from being people of despair and cynicism and most of all will translate to vigilance, courage, and maybe action. It will make a difference."   It is the hope that we have in Jesus the Christa, who is our  hope and has the power, to save the world.   I don't know what Trump or Zuma will do this year,  But Jeremiah tells us that the Lord will " give us a future with hope." That is a promise to hold on to in a time like this.  We won't surrender hope no matter how many trumpets blow of who blows them.

John de Gruchy

19 January 2017