Monday, 22 June 2015

Meditation: CONTEMPLATION by John de Gruchy


Psalm 46:8-10
Luke 11:1-4
Be still and know that I am God
Lord, teach us to pray

Last year I spoke at a conference for pastors of the Apostolic Faith Mission, the oldest Pentecostal Church in South Africa.  The conference was held in Modimole in Limpopo, and was attended by about 200 pastors.  Surprisingly some of their leaders had read my book on Icons and had become interested in exploring the insights of Christian tradition as I discussed in my book, something quite alien to their own experience.  But they had discovered Icons and with that also the contemplative tradition within Christian spirituality.  I found the whole experience of being with them thought-provoking.  After all, they were discovering something important in Christian tradition that most of the mainline churches had also forgotten about. This was reinforced last weekend when a group from the same Pentecostal background called "In Via," or "On the Way," came to Volmoed for a workshop on learning to pray in silence.   They, too, had in the past been more familiar with praying in tongues and singing with gusto accompanied by bands and loud music.  But now In Via is exploring the place of silence in the life of faith, and so last weekend their focus was also on contemplation.

On one occasion the disciples of Jesus asked him to teach them to pray.  They had observed how he himself on regular occasions drew aside from them and the crowds and went to pray on his own.  They would have been familiar with praying together in synagogues, but not with praying alone and in silence, though on occasion Jesus' prayers burst into cries of agony and tears.  So it was understandable that on the occasion we read about in Luke's gospel, the disciples asked Jesus to teach them also how to pray.  In response, he introduced them to what we now call the Lord's Prayer, but he also told them not to babble away like the pagans (at least according to Matthew's account) and that when they pray they should go into their rooms and shut the door.  In other words, there were times when they could pray together using the prayer he taught them as a model, but other times when they needed to be alone in the silence of their own hearts or what St. Augustine called our innermost sanctuary.

There are no prayer experts.  Most of the great saints of the past, including some of more recent times like Mother Theresa and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, spoke or wrote of the difficulties they had in praying.  And that, I think, is true for all of us..  So we continually need to ask, "Lord, teach us to pray," and we need to pause every so often to reflect on what it is we are doing when we pray.  Are we just uttering words, wondering whether they are simply hitting the ceiling and bouncing back?  Is God really listening? Are we praying in order to break the silence as we sit together, or impress others with our piety, or knowledge?  What are we trying to do?  Are we bluffing ourselves and others?  Are our prayers for real?  Have we simply given up in despair and decided praying is not for me?   "Lord teach us to pray."

The Lord's Prayer itself can easily become a meaningless routine, something we simply say because it is our custom to do so.  It is in the liturgy and regularly comes at a certain point.  But it is actually a model that helps us focus together before God on all the basic needs of life, what is fundamentally important: daily bread, forgiveness of sins, courage and freedom from fear in times of testing, deliverance from evil.  Each of these can and should make us pause to reflect on our lives in relation to God and others, and so pray more meaningfully.  Jesus' words help us to focus, and make us more aware of our own real needs and those of others in need.  So too does our listening to the gospel as we read Scripture together. For prayer is a response to God's love and human need.  Listening for that Word is essential if we are to pray meaningfully.  Unless we listen we cannot pray, for all we will do is utter words, maybe eloquent ones, but not prayerful ones.  Meditation and reflection is the basis for prayer.  But this also requires entering the silence, moving beyond meditation to where listening leads us, to contemplation in which we are simply at home in the presence of God.  Where words become unnecessary.

So Jesus not only taught his disciples to pray, but also by example, taught them to take time, and go somewhere to be alone, to "be still and know God."  Contemplation takes us beyond meditation and prayerful words into the silence of God.  This is not a replacement for prayer but a way of encountering and experiencing God's gift of love and grace beyond words, in the very depths of our being, it is at the heart of our a journey into the mystery of God. 

I am by no means an expert on contemplation, nor a great practitioner, but like those who came to Volmoed last weekend I recognise its importance in our world of busyness, electronic devices, and noise.  To live and work in the world, to be busy people engaged daily in actions of one kind or another, eventually wears us down and undermines whatever spirituality may be left in our parched souls.  As Thomas Merton so eloquently taught, action needs contemplation, just as contemplation should lead to action.  The two belong together.

So for the next five minutes we are going to journey into silence.  It won't necessarily be easy because when we enter into silence our mind begins to take over and all kinds of thoughts buzz around in our heads.  That is quite natural, so there is no need to fight it.  Just allow them to buzz off into the distance as you focus on the words "Be still and know that I am God."  Its like trying to fall asleep.  Your mind with its racing confusions of thoughs has to be emptied bit by bit.  "Be still and simply know who are in the presence of the One in whom you have your being.  "Be still and know that I am God" is the mantra that leads us into the silence of contemplation. Don't try and formulate a prayer, don't plan anything, don't try and resolve all the problems of the world, just be still and know you are embraced by God.  The truth is, in God's presence you don't have to impress anyone,  you can simply be your "self."

John de Gruchy
Volmoed 18 June 2015

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Meditation: FEARLESS EXPRESSION by John de Gruchy


Genesis 1:1-12
Matthew 18:1-5
And God saw that it was good.
Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

If you have not yet walked along the path from Ficks Pool to Gearing's Point since it was renewed and seen the wonderful sculptures that have been erected along the way, then you have a great treat waiting for you.  It has all been done to coincide with the Fynarts Festival which is, as we all know, taking place at the moment in Hermanus.  What an exciting celebration of the arts it is, and hopefully you able to share in it in some way.  But if you do nothing else you simply must visit "Fearless Expression," the art exhibition at Bellini Gallery in the Village Square.  Those of us who already have can testify that it is truly amazing or, as the grandchildren say, awesome. 

"Fearless Expression"  is the exhibition of paintings done by three-year old Hermanus artist Talula.  Yes, you heard me correctly, three-year old.   And it has all the art critics buzzing with excitement.  The story behind the art is remarkable.  Talula's mother is an artist who was tired of being interrupted while she was working, so in desperation she laid out a large tarpaulin on a floor in her house, provided pots and tubes of paint, an assortment of brushes and scrapers, and some large canvasses, and  let Talula get on and do her thing,  Well she certainly did that as you can see both from the results hanging in Bellini Gallery and from the DVD her father, a Hermanus film maker, made of her at work.  The exhibition is called "Fearless Expression" because that is precisely what it is.  Talula has painted without fear, the fear of being scolded for making a mess or being rubbished by art critics.  She has just enjoyed herself, following her intuition and  freely applying paint to canvass.  And in the process she has created beauty, an explosion of colour and design.  And it is hoped that through the auction of her work, a new project will be initiated in Zwelihle to help nurture a new generation of pre-school Sparklekids.

When you walk along the coastal path in Hermanus you can look at what you see through at least two different spectacles.  The one belongs to the scientist.  What you see is the result of the formation of the world over millions of years as continents were formed then drifted apart, and as plants and other forms of life evolved into such a myriad of types and forms that it boggles the mind to even think about it.  The other spectacles are those of the poet and artist.  These eyes see the same reality but describe it differently.  It is majestic and beautiful; the colours and textures in all their variation blend together in rich harmony.  What you see is beautiful.  The artist and the poet are seeing the same reality as the scientist, but seeing and describing it differently. Of course, the scientist can also be a poet and say it is all beautiful, and the poet also knows how the world came into being through countless millennia according to the laws of physics.  And both can speak of it all as a mystery, even a divine mystery, for why should it exist at all, and why should it exist so beautifully despite flaws and ugliness?

The Fynarts Festival is a celebration of the human imagination and creativity;  as such, to the eyes of faith, it is also a celebration of God's imagination and creativity.   For when we look at it all through the eyes of faith we say that the cosmic power that brought everything into being and gave it life, is also a consummate artist, and that the whole earth is full of his glory.  So  as we celebrate the Fynarts Festival we celebrate God the source of life and beauty, the God who is both the creative artist who brings everything into being out of nothing, and discloses who he is in an ongoing act of fearless expression.  And, like any artist, when he stands back and looks at the result of his creativity, this God declares "it is good."  Creation is the fearless expression of God's being and love, a bringing into being something beautiful out of nothing.    The Catholic theologian von Balthasar speaks of creation as "the masterpiece of the divine fantasy." (The Glory of the Lord, 1/172)  Isn't that an amazing insight?   Creation as "the masterpiece of the divine fantasy," a revelation of "the inner depth of God," a fearless expression of love.   

But there is something more to keep in mind as we reflect on the remarkable outcome of Talula's "Fearless Expression" and that is  her parent's willingness to take the risk of allowing her to express herself without fear.  Her parents could have said. let us first teach Talula how to paint, how to mix colours, how to keep to the rules of proportion and the rest.  To allow her simply to express herself will be disastrous!  Yes, that would be too big a risk that most parents would be unwilling to take.  Obeying the rules and discipline is our watchword, and for good reason.  Even the artist has to be disciplined.   But keep in mind that God took an enormous risk when he brought us into being and set us in the garden to freely express ourselves,  as he soon discovered.  That's because we find it very difficult to handle the freedom God gives us in ways that are creative not destructive. We either abuse our freedom to the hurt of ourselves and others, or we timidly fear it and so fall back on laws and rules because it is safer that way.  And, indeed, we need rules to keep us on track, guide books to show us the way, boundaries and discipline to help us live and act in responsible freedom.  But we also need imagination and curiosity, otherwise we become boxed into structures and conventions that prevent us from expressing our true selves, our deepest thoughts, and above all our love for others with spontaneity rather than calculation.  Christ has set us free,  says St. Paul, not to act irresponsibly, but with joy and compassion, generosity and, yes, sometimes even with bold, fearless expression.

Bonhoeffer wrote some wonderful words from his prison cell about this.  The person, he said, "who is ignorant of this area of freedom may be a good father, citizen, and worker, indeed even a Christian; but I doubt whether he is a complete human being and therefore a Christian in the widest sense of the term."  That is why, he goes on to say,  we need "to regain the idea of the church as providing an understanding of the area of freedom," a space in which art, personal growth, friendship and play are all possible.  In short if we are to live in the freedom that God gives us as our parent, and to do so without fear, we need to see things with the eyes of a child even when we have grown up.  Because, says Jesus, "unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" or see its beauty.

John de Gruchy

Volmoed  18th June 2015

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Meditation: SACRED COWS AND HOLY KISSES by John de Gruchy


Isaiah 6:1-5
Romans 16:12-16
Luke 7:36-38
                        "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory."
"Greet one another with a holy kiss."

What on earth is a "holy kiss?"  Is it a kiss on the cheek, a kiss on the lips, a sensual kiss, or a hesitant shy peck?  Is it the "kiss of peace" which we share in worship each week, a hug of greeting or a handshake?  Whatever its form,  what makes it "holy"?  In fact, what makes anything "holy" or "sacred"?  Such words seem to have dropped out of our vocabulary.  Except, that is, when we debunk "sacred cows," pour scorn of "holy Joes," or, as some do, use it as a preface for some or other swear word.  But there was a time when it was usual to speak about the Holy Bible, holy matrimony, holy people, holy baptism, the holy eucharist and one holy church. And Catholics still refer to the pope as the holy father,  But most of us don't normally speak like this anymore, and when we do it sometimes sounds rather pretentious.  We prefer "wholeness"  to "holiness"  even though they are not the same.

David, my grandson. asked me the other day "What is a secular state?"  Secular is the opposite of the sacred; it is the worldly as distinct from the religious.  Whereas once upon a time, much of Europe was part of the Roman Empire ruled over by Caesar, with the rise of Christianity it became the Holy Roman Empire ruled over by the pope, and emperors and kings divinely appointed.  But at least since the French Revolution, Europe has gradually become a conglomerate of secular states with democratically elected leaders even if in some places there is still an established church.  Whatever the role of religion, neither the church or other religious institutions have controlling power.

The underlying struggle in the Middle East today is between those who want their countries to be secular and those who want them to be holy, that is, Muslim states governed by SharĂ­'ah law.  Turkey has become a secular state even though Islam is very strong there; Iran, by contrast, is a Shiite Muslim country whose Ayatollah is the supreme ruler.  But the tension and often open warfare throughout the region is basically between secularists and Islamists, most notably in Egypt, and Libya.  And the same tension exists in Israel where religious and secular Jews compete for power, even though they may make unholy alliances when they need to. 

The rise of the secular state can, in large measure, be blamed on the abuse of religion.  The revolutionary overthrow of the monarchy in France and with it the power of the Catholic Church, and of the Tsar in Russia, and with him the Orthodox Church, was regarded by many as a victory for human emancipation, justice and equality. And secularisation continues to be regarded by many as liberation from the dark ages of priest-craft, superstition, and oppression.   In the process, religion is sometimes persecuted but invariably pushed to the periphery of political and social life unless governments find it useful for their own purposes.  But this rejection of "sacred cows" eventually led also to the debunking of the "holy" itself, so that it is difficult for us today to understand what on earth is a "holy kiss" because we only know kissing as a sexy worldly act and are surprised to hear that it can also be a holy one. The truth is, in a secular world, there is little sense of the sacred, and certainly neither the body or sensuality is understood in such a way, though it once was as the Song of Songs in the Bible so wonderfully describes.

But if a sense of the holy disappears, it is not long before life itself is no longer regarded as sacred.  Relationships are no longer sacred, values are not sacred, cherished beliefs are not sacred, honour is not sacred --  that is, they have no transcendent significance.  Human rights and liberties may be enshrined in constitutions, but they are no longer holy.  We can, and do, make up our own rules and these are often reasonable and good -- better sometimes than religious laws that are irrational and dehumanizing.  But too often we disregard even these or abuse them to serve our own selfish interests, whether as individuals or nations, rather than the common good.  We are, in short, no longer accountable to God.  We can become corrupt as long as no one finds us out.  In sum, the loss of the sacred reduces the value of human life, people become functional cogs in a wheel, life becomes cheap, and the earth can be destroyed for commercial purposes -- it is no longer sacred as it was in days gone by.   A kiss is a kiss not a holy kiss!

The prophet Isaiah lived at a time when Israel was falling apart at the seams.  There was injustice, oppression of the poor, and corruption and the abuse of power was rife.  At a time of transition from one king to another, in the "year that Uzziah died," so Isaiah tells us, he went into the Temple in Jerusalem to see if he could hear some Word from God that would speak to the people.  And while he lay prostrate he had a vision of the Lord high and lifted up, and heard the angels song:  "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory."  This experience of transcendence or the holy, shook him so profoundly that he became aware, not only of the full extent of Israel's sins and his own, but he also became a prophet of God's justice in a society in which the sacredness of life had been compromised through national arrogance and oppression of the poor.

When the Bible says that "God's ways are not our ways, and God's thoughts are not our thoughts," it is speaking about God's holiness.  God is different, different to the idols we make, manipulate and worship, like nation, greed, or whatever gains our devotion or seduces us.  God is holy, he is the God who is justice and love, the God of mercy and compassion.  That is why God judges sin for sin destroys life, sin is oppression and hatred, sin is lacking mercy and compassion.  If nothing is sacred, sin does not matter.  But it does matter when we are converted to the sacred, and sing the song of the angels as we do every time we come to the Eucharist in the prayer of thanksgiving. "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory." 

This is a regular reminder that the "whole earth is full of God's glory."  That we do not own the world, we cannot simply do what we want to do with other people or the earth's resources. The earth is sacred.  So, too, is every meal we share, every person we meet, every relationship.  They are holy.  And even every kiss, even the most sensual. becomes sacred even as it may remain sensual, not the kiss of Judas who betrayed Jesus but the kiss of a woman of ill-repute who wiped Jesus' feet with her tears and kissed them.  Recovering a sense of the holiness of God and therefore  of  the sacredness of life  transforms the way we live.  It is the way of holiness.  If God is holy, we cannot manipulate God for our own purposes; if God is holy then all God has created is holy -- life is sacred, justice is sacred, human beings are sacred, the body is sacred not just a machine, food and drink are sacred, and kissing is an act of love and forgiveness, it can be a kiss of peace and wholeness. a holy kiss. 

John de Gruchy
Volmoed  4 June 2015

Meditation: EMPOWERING PEOPLE by John de Gruchy


I Corinthians 12:4-11
Acts 2:1-4
"To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good."

Last Friday I attended an indaba at the University of the Western Cape arranged by AHA, the movement that was recently founded to respond to the challenges of poverty, unemployment and inequality.  AHA stands for Authentic, Hopeful Action, and you will recall that during Lent instead of saying Alleluia we said AHA at the end of our weekly Eucharist.  This reminded us of our responsibility as Christians to serve the needs of others.  To get on and do something practical!  At the AHA Indaba a whole range of projects were reported on and discussed by the sixty people who attended.  These ranged from Sparklekids here in Hermanus, to others that promote social cohesion in society, or help people to access their social grants without being taken for a ride.  I ended up in a cluster group that talked about projects related to education which enable school learners and university students to achieve their potential.  We came to the conclusion that what we were engaged in empowering people -- enabling them stand on their own feet, discover and use their gifts to fulfil their dreams and serve the wider community.

This coming Sunday is Pentecost.  We recall how the first Christians experienced the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and received power to witness to Christ in the world.  Pentecost is the festival of God empowering people to minister to others.  In receiving the Holy Spirit the first Christians discovered they had both the gifts and the power to do this.  "You will receive power," Jesus had told them, "when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses."  St. Paul later reflected on these gifts of empowerment.  Some, he said, are ecstatic gifts for prayer and worship, others very practical, in fact, there are varieties of gifts because there are varieties of activities but, says Paul,  they are all "manifestations of the same Spirit of the common good." 

In the context of Paul's letter, the "common good"  refers to the good of the church or, as he says elsewhere, the gifts which the Spirit gives are for the "building up of the body of Christ."  Paul's focus was primarily on the church as it struggled to establish itself and maintain its unity in a very hostile environment.  But the common good does not refer only to the church, because the church exists for the sake of the world. The common good also means the good of the society in which the church exists.  The Holy Spirit does not come to give the church a spiritual massage, or to make us "happy and clappy" in our own enclave; the Spirit empowers the church to serve the world.  Pentecost is about God's empowerment of us to participate in his mission of healing and justicein a broken world.

Just as the Holy Spirit was active in the creation of the world breathing the gift of life into every creature, so at Pentecost the Spirit is "poured out on all flesh" in order to bring life anew to the world. The primary gift of the Spirit is the giving of new life which produces the fruit of the Spirit, of faith, hope and love are paramount.  Wherever there is love, joy, peace and hope the Spirit is at work; wherever people struggle for justice and God's kingdom of righteousness, the Spirit is at work; wherever people reach out to embrace others their suffering with acts of compassion, the Spirit is at work.  The fruit of the Spirit cannot be evident if the Spirit is not at work making it possible. In this way the Spirit, as Jesus said, bears witness to him.  

If we think of Pentecost as the festival of God empowering God's people and gifting us to serve the world, then we will also discern that the Holy Spirit is at work in a variety of ways, and in all who serve the common good: those who look care for Volmoed, those who visit the sick elderly, those who create works of art that delight us, those who manage our town, teach in our schools, nurse in our hospitals.  The list is endless.  But "To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good."

The AHA Indaba last Friday was opened in prayer by a young black woman, Siki Dlanga, who is also a poet and doctoral student.  She entitled it "Surprise us, O Lord."  I think it is quite beautiful, and also reminds us that God the Holy Spirit is continually at work in the world surprising us at every turn, empowering us to do what would otherwise be beyond us, and calling us to participate in empowering others to fulfill the dreams and hopes that God gives them:

Surprise us, O Lord
when we have forgotten that You are the God of Hope,
when we have forgotten that we are the light of the world or the salt of the earth,
because we failed to put our trust in You alone.
Surprise us, O Lord
by lifting the veil of poverty and bad education from our poor,
by blessing the rich with an unquenchable mission for your justice for the poor,
by blessing our nation with good leadership.
 Surprise us, O Lord
with hearts that groan with gratitude, 
with expectation of good to come out of our disappointments. 
Allow our vision of your kingdom to be the glow that never dims from our eyes.
 Stir us, O Lord
to dare more boldly into the depths of the darkness we most fear,
where we have been broken by hatred and division,
we will be forgiven and mended by your love.
Let reconciliation be true so that our human dignity is restored.

Awake us, O Lord
Breathe new brightness into the fading colours of our rainbow. 

Surprise us, O Lord
so that Your joy will crown men and women in their fruitful work,
so that women are sought out for their great wisdom,
so that men are known for their love,
so that the children will be safe and sing your praises in the streets,
so that the widow will rejoice and call your justice glorious,
so that you will be called our Beautiful Hope.
 Surprise us, O Lord
So that those who look upon us will say AHA!
Their hope is not in vain!
Their hope is not in vain!
[1]Camagu! Amen! 

John de Gruchy
Volmoed 21 May 2015

[1] Camagu:  Xhosa for "so let it be."