Thursday, 8 October 2015

Meditation: CLOSING AND OPENING DOORS by John de Gruchy


Philippians 3:12-16
Luke 9:57-62

"No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."
"This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind, and straining forward to what lies ahead."

Last Thursday I visited Victor Verster prison where Nelson Mandela spent the last few years of his imprisonment, and from which he walked free on 11th February 1990.  We all remember the famous picture of him and his wife Winnie walking through the gate at Victor Verster on his final journey to freedom.  The  prison  has since  been renamed Drakenstein Prison, lying as it does beneath the beautiful Drakenstein mountains on the road between Franschoek and Paarl. But the house, which originally belonged to a farmer named Victor Verster , has been left just as it was when Mandela lived in it, and is now maintained as a heritage site.  

On the tour of the house, our excellent guide regaled us with stories and anecdotes from Mandela's years.   He showed us the lemon tree which Mandela planted as a sign of hope.  He told us about Mandela's first experience of a micro-wave oven which he thought was a TV, and about his decision not to use the very large main bedroom because after living in a prison cell he found it just too much!  He also passed on wisdom he had gleaned from Madiba. Life, he said, was like a journey through those security doors installed in banks.  You go through one door into a secure space, but there is still another in front of you which won't open to let you through until the first door has closed behind you.  He recalled how in the bad old days when South Africa was on the brink of civil war, President P.W. Botha was incapable of closing the door on the past and taking the risk of moving into a different future, but President de Klerk and Nelson Mandela did exactly that. Often in life you have to shut one door and leave the past behind in order for the door to open that leads you into a new future. 

Paul did this after his conversion on the Damascus Road.  He put his previous life behind him and pressed forward as a disciple of Christ into a new life, and new way of being.  Christian discipleship requires that.  As Jesus said, we have to walk through a narrow gate in order to enter fully into life, and he also told us that we cannot keep looking back, just like a farmer in ploughing a field must keep looking ahead.  Following Christ requires that certain things have to be left in the past whether it be selfishness and a lack of compassion for others, racism or a clinging to privilege at the expense of others.  We have to shut the door on such attitudes and actions otherwise the door into life will not open.  St. Paul knew this.  "This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind, and straining forward to what lies ahead."

The story of our lives, not least our journey in faith, is marked more generally by doors that close and others that open, like chapters in a book.  As we look back we can discern moments when we had to leave the past behind in order to move into the future, however cautiously.  This, we have learnt, is sometimes difficult and often threatening.  But if we cling to the past we become captive to it, and end up bemoaning the fact that we did not grasp those opportunities which came along, going through doors which opened for us, but which also required us to close others and take the risk of  walking through.  You can't move forward unless you let go.  You can't follow Christ if you are continually hankering after your old life without him.  It is best, as Paul says, to forget about that.  But leaving the past behind is not necessarily mean forgetting the past.  Isobel and I cannot forget our son Steve; we remember him every day in various ways.  But we have had to learn to close the door on that wonderful chapter in our lives in order to turn the page and move ahead.  This is not easy as many of you will know.  But it is a lesson we all have to learn however difficult and reluctantly.  Sometimes doors bang shut behind us leaving us in a empty space like doors in a bank.  But we cannot remain in that empty space.  We have to go through the door that faces us however difficult, and learn to trust that God will leads us through the emptiness into new possibilities.  

It is true that as we grow older most doors have already been shut behind us, and there are  not too many doors of opportunity in front of us.  It is  true that people trapped in poverty see no way of escape, and many young people see no future ahead.  So I do not want to romanticise the notion that when doors close others automatically open, that when people lose their jobs others will simply come along for them.  Life does not work like that.  Yet the human spirit is such that people will go to extraordinary lengths to leave the past behind in order to find a new future.  Consider all those refugees who are fleeing their horrific past in war-torn countries, shutting the door behind them in order to find a new life, hoping and praying for doors to open to them.  And there are many in our own country who are, in remarkable ways, doing the same against all odds.

In thinking about where you are at this moment in your life and your journey in faith, are there doors that need to be shut in order for you to move forward?  This does not necessarily or always mean that you have to stop doing what you are doing, or living where you are living, for leaving the past behind also has to do with forgiving people, accepting fresh insights and healing memories.  Is there a door that God is opening and inviting you to pass through?  And, of course, sometimes we are called to help open doors for other people, and to help them walk through to freedom and a new future as Mandela did.  How can we help others to leave their past behind and walk into a better future?  Is this not what programmes like Sparklekids is all about?

In the first chapter of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe  Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy explore the big house that had become their war-time home like we explored Mandela's house. Looking into,

a room that was quite empty except for one big wardrobe: the sort that has a looking-glass in the door. .. “Nothing there!” said Peter, and they all trooped out again – all except Lucy.  She stayed behind because she thought it would be worth while trying the door of the wardrobe, even though she felt almost sure it would be locked.  To her surprise it opened quite easily…she immediately stepped in… 

Then Lucy went in further, and further again, until she discovered herself in a new world, a different space with surprises around every corner.  Maybe there is a door we all need to close and a door waiting to be opened, a door that will open quite easily, allowing us to enter into a new space in which God will surprise us.  This is how the Christian journey of faith begins, and how it continues to the end.  For in the end we also have to let go in order to enter the door that leads us through death to life in a new dimension, into the mystery of God.

John de Gruchy

Volmoed  8th October 2015

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Meditation: SALT AND CAVIAR by John de Gruchy


Matthew 5:13-16
"You are the salt of the earth."

Last weekend we had several visitors at Wellspring, our house on Volmoed.  Some of them were unexpected, like the twenty-five men who drove up our driveway at speed, and swiftly strode towards our front gate led by a handsome young prophet suitably clad in a long black flowing robe.  They were African Pentecostals from the Congo who had come to Volmoed for a weekend of prayer and fasting, but came to our house by mistake.  Then on Saturday morning Anton and Serghay arrived to work with me in the workshop on a large teak table for an art gallery in Hermanus.  Soon after a young German theologian from Mainz came to discuss his doctoral dissertation.  We had just finished talking when Edwin Arrison, Vernon Welz of the Centre for Christian Spirituality, and the Anglican Bishop of Mauritius and his wife arrived.  The bishop, who comes from the Church of South India,  was particularly interested to see Volmoed, so I gave him the grand tour.  Just after they all left another car arrived.  It was Shirley, my travel agent from Cape Town, who had come to get my signature for some travel documents.  And then, to crown it all, 8 month old Jadon, our actively crawling and handsome grand nephew, arrived with his parents Laura and Gideon, who were married two years ago in our chapel, came for the weekend.  And we retired to Volmoed to enjoy its restful peace!  I tell you all this, with tongue in cheek of course, not to impress on you how popular we are, but because it provides an introduction to my meditation on the "salt of the earth."  

Week by week and year by year people come in their numbers to churches scattered around the globe.  They come from different backgrounds, they come with different personalities, and while they may all come for the common purpose of worship, they also come for different reasons.  Some because their faith is strong and may have leadership positions.  Some come with problems, questions and doubts in mind, seeking some guidance for their lives.  Some come to meet friends and have fellowship.  And many come out of habit.  Overall, they are ordinary folk, and yet, often as a result of coming, they do extraordinary things in making the world a better place.  When that happens they become "the salt of the earth."

In his book Why not abandon the church?, Bernard Lord Manning, a lay theologian from an earlier generation, described the church in these rather unflattering words:

It is easy, you get sentimental and rhetorical and rhapsodical about the Church when you think of it in general... You say you love Christ's Church.  Well, here it is: Tom, Dick and Harry, and the rest; a funny lot of lame ducks, but they carry out the conditions we have laid down.  They are not very good.  They are not very nice.  But they have, in their own odd ways, heard Christ's call.

Now I am not suggesting that our visitors to Volmoed, or those who go to church, or those of us gathered here this morning, are a "funny lot of lame ducks" who are neither good or nice.  I think Bernard Lord Manning is exaggerating a bit to make his point that the church is made up of ordinary folk who are by no means perfect.  When you belong to it and have survived the journey as a member over many years, as some of us have, you come to appreciate something of God’s humour in choosing this "funny lot of lame ducks." The truth is, the Church is God’s experiment in creating a new humanity out of a mixed bag of people from all cultures and backgrounds whose only commonality is their humanity in its brokenness, their sometimes faltering faith and shaky hope, and their connection to Christ   As St. Paul once wrote, God did not choose the wise and the powerful to bear witness to Christ.  And yet this apparently "funny bunch of lame ducks" when true to their calling, serve the needs of the world in many and  remarkable ways. The Church has often frustrated and annoyed me, and like many others I have been tempted to abandon it.  But I would not do so anymore than I would abandon my family.  And, in any case, I would never leave it because some within might be petty, or abusive in their piety, or quarrelsome, or hypocrites -- aren't we all at times --  for that is by no means true of most.  In fact among the dross I have often discovered diamonds, formed and fashioned by the Spirit of Christ, who add immense value to the life of the world.  These are the salt of the earth.

I don't think Jesus knew that salt is sodium chloride, and that its melting point is 801C and its boiling point 1,413C!  But he did know that salt preserves and brings out the flavour in food.  If you don 't put salt into your Jungle Oats in the morning it tastes insipid!  In calling his disciples the "salt of the earth" Jesus was not asking them to become the flavour of the month, an expensive sexy delicacy like caviar.  But ordinary, down to earth, common and garden salt which, as long as it remains salty preserves and enhances the food we eat.  We can live without caviar; we cannot live without salt.  The world may exalt power and wealth, pomp and circumstance, but it cannot survive without salt.

But who are "the salt of the earth?"  Jesus' words, according to Matthew's gospel, come right after the Beatitudes in which he talks about the truly blessed: the humble, the merciful, the peacemakers, those who yearn for justice and are often persecuted as a result.  It is these, Jesus says, who are the "salt of the earth."  In other words, they are not those for whom church membership is a formality, but those who seek to follow Jesus in their daily lives.  And numbered among them are many who would not call themselves Christian, and some who, like Mahatma Ghandi, belong to another religious tradition.  Indeed, we all know people who are not Christians but who we regard as the salt of the earth because they work tirelessly for peace, hunger for justice, live compassionate lives and humbly serve those in need.  These are surely the salt of the earth.  And like salt, they are often unnoticed for they dissolve into the life of the world without making a caviar-like fuss.  They are just there doing what needs to be done.  But their absence would soon be noticed.  Yes, if we had to extract these ordinary folk who do extraordinary things from the life of the world they would soon be missed, and the world would eventually disintegrate beyond hope of redemption.

Imagine a world without ordinary folk who do extraordinary things.  Imagine a world in which there were no people of faith who loved their neighbours as well as their enemies.  Imagine a world in which there were no compassionate friends, no merciful judges, no wise counsellors, no dedicated nurses, doctors and teachers.  Imagine a world in which there were no people who week by week join together to worship God, to pray for the needs of the world, people who are strengthened and equipped by God's Spirit, people who break bread together in order to go into the world to love and serve Christ in friend and stranger.  Yes, we can imagine a world without caviar but not one without  salt.  It would surely be a world without much of a future.

John de Gruchy

Volmoed  17 September 2015

Monday, 14 September 2015

Meditation: GOD-FEARING WISDOM & LOVE by John de Gruchy


Proverbs 1:1-7
Matthew 12:38-42
"The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom."
"She came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here."

There is a scene in the TV series The Tudors where a young King Henry VIII is discussing his reign as monarch with  the devout humanist scholar, Thomas More.  They are talking about a book which had recently been published, Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince (1513), a book which, over the centuries, has become a classic.  Henry turns to More and asks him what he thinks about Machiavelli's question whether it is better for a king to be feared or loved.   More thought it better for a king to be loved, but Henry felt differently and the story of his reign reflects the outcome of his choice.  Henry desperately wanted to be loved, but he believed that in order to rule, his subjects, his friends, his wives and the nobility had to fear him.  This made it increasingly difficult for him to love them or them to truly love him, for fear breeds fear. If others fear you, you begin to fear them. 

So why do the prophets of Israel warn the nations that if they do not fear the Lord and obey his commands they will be severely punished?  And is this the reason why the sages of Israel tell us that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom?" Is God a despot like King Henry, who in turn may have modelled his reign on his own fear of God's punishment for his sins.  Is it only out of fear that we obey God's commandments?  And is it therefore not wise to do so?  Certainly King Henry's subjects thought it wise and prudent not to go against his will!  But such fear casts out love.  You can't love those you fear. 

During the week I came across a brief comment on the web written by a Palestinian Canadian, Samah Sabawi entitled "Red shirt, blue jeans and little sneakers," about the little refugee boy, Aylan Kurdi,  who was washed up dead on the shores of the Mediterranean last week:

"Red shirt. Blue jeans. Little sneakers. Not on a boat of asylum seekers. Not holding the hand of a hijab wearing mother. Not in the embrace of a brown skinned father. Not in the company of anyone that the world can demonize. Face down in the sand. With his eyes eternally shut he pries open our eyes. He looks familiar, like a son, a grandson, a nephew, a toddler in the playground. He looks like that kid at the grocery store who always manages to stare us down. Red shirt. Blue jeans. Little sneakers. No papers, no visa, no I.D. A victim of our policy. The wars we started over there have come to haunt us here. The voices we muted for so long have suddenly become loud and clear. A picture is worth a thousand words, but how many words do we need to erase our fear of the other? How many words does it take to affirm humanity?"

Can you really love God if you fear God?  Can you really love others, including your neighbour and enemy, if you fear them?  So what does the "fear of the Lord" really mean?

The text comes from the book of Proverbs, part of the Wisdom literature in the OT along with Ecclesiastes, Job, Ecclesiasticus (in the Apocrypha) and some of the Psalms.  Wisdom in the OT is traditionally associated with King Solomon, but whoever the Hebrew sages were, their writings embody the accumulated wisdom of generations who practiced obedience to God's law in the course of their daily life.  Their teaching is all about how to live wisely whether as kings or commoners, shopkeepers or money-lenders, children or old people, husbands or wives.  And, in handing on this practical wisdom, they distinguished between those who are wise and those foolish.  

Fools, they tell us, are, aggressive, scornful, dishonest but above all they are arrogant, like rulers who flaunt their riches and power.  Such fools think that they will get away with their disdain for others and for justice as long as they are not found out!  When kings and rulers, presidents and politicians arrogantly disregard their accountability before God and those they rule, they make bad decisions and begin to act foolishly.  It seems as if those the gods wish to destroy, they not only make them mad, they also make them act like fools.  And the same is true for the rest of us whoever we may be. But, still, is "fear of the Lord" really the basis for us doing what is right?  After all, why does the NT teach us that love casts out fear if we are to fear the Lord?   Or can fear take different forms?

Certainly, fear helps us to avoid danger, as when we fear heights or cobras, or work harder for fear of failing an examination, or taking precautions to prevent us falling ill. This helps us begin to grasp what the sages meant when they spoke of the fear of the Lord.  It is not so much the fear of God punishing us if we do wrong, but acting responsibly aware of the consequences of acting foolishly.  Such fear, to put it more positively, is reverence for the sacred, and respect for creation and other people. To "fear the Lord" implies, as the prophets remind us, caring for the poor, for widows and orphans, the stranger and the refugee.  Fear understood in this sense is not the opposite or contradiction of love, but the recognition that love is not cheap, it is not, as St. Paul puts it, "boastful or arrogant," nor does it "rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth."  In other words, "fear of the Lord" means that love has a moral core. It is not the fear which regards God as the enemy, an oppressive ruler or vindictive judge, the opposite of loving God, but recognising that love for God and others is more than a warm feeling, it is a commitment that can be costly.  Marriages do not last long if they are based only on warm feelings we confuse with love.  Without respect for the other, being there for each other in sickness and in health, there is no love.   

In a time where there is an explosion of knowledge, but too little wisdom; when we know how to make war, but cannot make peace; when we can land  people on the moon but struggle to find space for refugees; when we can build skyscrapers, but cannot build good houses for the poor;  when we can transplant hearts and kidneys, but cannot eradicate hunger; when we have much knowledge, but little wisdom, we need to acknowledge how, despite all our knowledge we are acting like fools, and putting the world at risk.  We need to learn again to  fear the Lord and affirm our humanity as we respect that of others.  For the "fear of the Lord" is an injunction to reverence and respect.

But mark this, it is only the beginning of wisdom, it is not its goal or end.  It prepares the way for love, it makes love possible, but it is not the whole of love.  It gives love a moral depth, but love is more than morality or obedience, it is joy and beauty, it is compassion and kindness, it is devotion and passion, it is worship of God and the embrace of the other.  Reverence for God and respect for the other is the beginning of wisdom," but love is its goal.  And this is the wisdom of Jesus which is greater than that of Solomon, the wisdom that knows that God is love, that such love casts our fear because it is unconditional, forgiving and redemptive.

John de Gruchy

Volmoed  10 September 2015

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