Friday, 28 November 2014

Meditation: JADON by John de Gruchy


“Give thanks in all circumstances.”
I Thessalonians 5:12-18
Luke 7:36-50

Our niece Laura and her husband Gideon have had a baby.  They knew that the child would be a boy, but they were not forthcoming about what he would be called.  So there was much speculation about his name in the weeks before he was born.  Then we were given a clue.  His name would be from the Old Testament just like his father's.  Then another clue, it would have five letters, so Isobel and I immediately thought of David.  Then came the day of his birth, and his name was Jadon.  Not even his grandfather Ron, whose eyebrows were raised when he was told, and  who had been a minister trained in the Bible, had ever heard the name before -- "where on earth is Jadon in the Bible?" --  he asked?  So as the expert on such matters, I was brought into solve the mystery.  I, too, was confounded for once.  But after a search I found Jadon lurking in an obscure text in one of the lesser read known in the Old Testament, Nehemiah chapter 3 verse 7.  The story is about the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem after the exile:

"Joiada son of Paseah and Meshullam son of Besodelah repaired the Old Gate, they laid its beams and set up its doors, its bolts and its bars.  Next to them repairs were made by Melatiah the Gibeonite and Jadon the Meronothite -- the men of Gibeon and Mizpah -- who were under the jurisdiction pof the governor of the province beyond the River."

Well, they could have called him Joiada or Meshullam or Melatiah, Ron, so be grateful they decided on Jadon the Meronothite!  But therein lies the clue.  For Jadon in Hebrew means "gratitude" or "thanksgiving."  Suddenly baby Jadon's name had rich meaning.  He is not only a potential builder -- useful to know that these days when plumbers, electricians and builders are in such demand -- but above all, he is a sign of gratitude. And, in addition, these days when baby names have become an industry, it is different and in another league to Sugar-Pie. Jadon has class We can not only live with that; we can rejoice with Laura and Gideon in their giving thanks to God for the gift of a son, their first-born.  Welcome Jadon into the family and the world.  One day we might need your building skills on Volmoed!

Today, being the third Thursday in November, is Thanksgiving Day in the United States.  More so than any religious festival whether it be Christmas or some other, this is the celebration nobody wants to miss. I know from experience that to catch a flight in America during Thanksgiving week, especially in weather like they are having at the moment, is to experience absolute chaos and bedlam at the airports as millions of people travel home for the celebration.  Everybody wants to be home for Thanksgiving.  It is a splendid family occasion.  We have been to several over the years as we were last November in Atlanta, and will be going this evening to Thanksgiving in  Pinelands!  In Hebrew we will be celebrating the feast of Jadon!

St. Paul encourages us to “give thanks in all circumstances.”   When all is going well and Spring is in the air; when we wake to a fresh dawn anticipating all that the new day will bring, it is difficult not to be grateful. Or when you have given birth to a newborn baby and are looking for a name,, Jadon immediately comes to mind, at least if you have been reading Nehemiah in Hebrew!  But there are times in our lives when being thankful is the last thing that spring to mind.  When we are gripped by anxiety or fear, shaken by sorrow or struck down by illness and pain, plunged into bouts of depression and melancholy, or just downright angry, we don’t normally erupt into prayers or songs of thanksgiving.   We would be a little peculiar if we oozed with gratitude when we crashed our car, or were the victim of fraud or robbery, or fell seriously ill.  And we would be surprised if the victims of famine, fire, earthquake and drought gave thanks for what has happened to them. 

Yet is it not true that people who have the most things in life are often the least grateful and the most greedy because they think they are all-sufficient.  And, by contrast, people who have very little in terms of this world’s goods are often the most grateful because they know they are dependent on the love of God and the generosity of others.   And that, of course, is what our gospel reading is about today.  Unlike those religious legalists who sat at table with Jesus, it was the woman who knew she was so dearly loved and forgiven who showed gratitude in wiping Jesus feet with her tears and costly oil.  Gratitude is a way in which we express our love.

The Christian way of life, we might say, is meant to be an expression of gratitude to God. 
That is one reason why we gather here each Thursday to celebrate this meal of thanksgiving or Eucharist, for that is what the word means. “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God” we say, “… it is indeed our joy to give you thanks always and everywhere.”  Celebrating the Eucharist each week together is a way of shaping our lives into a pattern of gratitude that should be expressed in love and compassion day by day.  And saying grace or a prayer of thanksgiving at meal time is a daily reminder that this is so as we remember God's goodness but also pray for those who have far less than we have.

Thanksgiving also empowers us as we face life day by day, especially in difficult times when thanksgiving brings to mind good and helpful memories.  Writing from prison as his own future grew increasingly dark, Dietrich Bonhoeffer told his friend Eberhard Bethge: “the power of memories returns again and again through the power of gratitude.”   The power of gratitude! I find that a remarkable insight that takes us to the heart of the Christian gospel. Gratitude does not take away our pain or sorrow, but it helps us regain perspective and embark on the journey of healing and renewal.  For how do we cope with the death of a loved one except by being grateful for precious memories and thankful for the support of friends?   The awakening of a sense of gratitude likewise enables us to recognize that everything of real value is a gift from God whether life itself or the love and care we receive from others.  So today as we give thanks in remembrance of Christ, we renew our commitment to live gratefully.  Thanks Jadon for reminding us!

John de Gruchy
Volmoed  27 November 2014

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Meditation: STAR GAZING by John de Gruchy


Psalm 8
Matthew 6:25-26
When I look at your heavens...what are human beings that you are mindful of them?

If you want to get your life into perspective, think of someone who is worse off than you are, or watch Theo's Sparklekids DVD, then look at the stars in the night sky.  As an alternative, drive down Swartdam Road past all the shanties and poverty, before you admire the awesome beauty of Walker Bay from the windows of Harbour Rock restaurant.  To visit a shanty or to look into the heavens may be at opposite ends of the "getting your life into perspective" spectrum, but they complement each other and have a similar effect.  They bring us down to earth with a bump.  Today we are not forgetting the poor or suffering, or driving down Swartdam Road past shanties, but we are going star gazing in Sutherland where Isobel and I, along with her sister Elsie and brother-in-law Ron Steel, went last Thursday. 

Several of you have already been to Sutherland, so you will know the way and what awaits you at the end of the road.  From Hermanus you travel to Worcester, join the N1 and head to Matjiesfontein, that quaint colonial throw-back in the middle of nowhere famous for its hotel and Olive Schreiner's home.  We stopped for a brief visit and discovered the remarkable museum in the old railway station.  There you can see a mass of Victorian artefacts made and used by our grand and great grand-parents' generations.  We marvelled at their ingenuity and craftsmanship with limited technology by today's standards, but were thankful that technology has improved since then.  That, too, gave us some perspective on life, especially looking at the dentist's chair and the tools of his trade.  After Matjiesfontein we drove north, deeper into the Karoo, on an excellent road with little traffic, a few isolated farms, and lots of sheep.  After several hours we began the steep climb to the plateaux on which Sutherland is located, making it the coldest town in the country in winter and one of the hottest in summer.  Then we caught a glimpse of SALT (South African Large Telescope) in the distance and knew that we were reaching our destination.   

SALT along with its adjacent observatories is located 15 kms outside Sutherland on the highest section of the plateaux.  After a good introduction at the information centre and a visit to another telescopes , we went to SALT.  But we never saw any stars, it was, after all, day time, but even if it was night we could not have seen the stars through these gigantic instruments that explore the universe.  Long gone are the days when professional astronomers gazed through telescopes; now everything is reflected onto giant mirrors that track the night sky and send a stream of data to computers.  So instead of seeing stars, we marvelled at the amazing advances in technology since our ancestors made the  crude artefacts we had seen in Matjiesfontein. 

Night time came.  It was now much colder, about 5 degrees, as we arrived at Sterland, a private observatory run by a passionate amateur astronomer, Jurg Wagener.  Now we could see Mars and the constellations in the southern sky through the lens of his powerful telescope as we stood outside in the pitch-darkness beneath a magnificent display of stars.  Human technology, impressive as it was both at SALT and Sterland, paled into insignificance before such grandeur -- and so did we!  "When I look at your heavens...what are human beings?"  asked the Psalmist. Well, yes, but did we not make SALT and this fine telescope through which we were observing the night sky?  And did we not this same week land a camera on a comet in distant space after tracking it for ten years at speeds and with an accuracy that boggles the mind?  There is no need to downplay human achievements. But there is every reason to get things into perspective.  Our planet earth is just a minute speck in this vast cosmic ocean that stretches far beyond our sight, far beyond even the capacity of even SALT, and certainly beyond what the Psalmist or even our grandparents imagined.  Where in the world is this universe, with its galaxies, and the universes beyond our own?  And who are we, fragile specks alive on this equally fragile planet earth for such a brief moment in time?

But then the Psalmist makes an astounding statement of faith.  Star gazing not only cuts us down to size, but at the same time gives us a significance that defies all analysis, a value that even our technology cannot give. "What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?"  Of course, we might take a different tack and say that given the immensity of the universe, we are simply insignificant, here today and gone tomorrow.  That's the atheist option.  But the Psalmist thinks otherwise.  Insignificant as we may seem and cold and indifferent as the universe appears, there is a compassion, a caring at the heart of the universe that gives us significance and value as human beings.  This caring mystery we name God, inadequate as that word may be, is the good news proclaimed by Jesus.  "Look at the birds of the air...are you not of more value than they?” "You have given us glory and honour," exclaims the Psalmist in amazement, we are just a little lower than the angels!

Of course, we are also dust, star dust as it happens.  And, of course, Jesus not only gives value to us humans, he also brings down the mighty who think too much of themselves and oppress the poor.  But Jesus was not in the business of reducing us to worms as some preachers have done down the centuries.  He was in the business of enabling us to appreciate our worth as human beings and so also appreciate the worth of others as well. 
There are in fact, two alternatives, two perspectives on life and it makes a huge difference to us which one we choose.  The universe is either ultimately meaningless, or it is meaningful.  It is either simply dark matter, or it is a mystery that cares.  We are either of no significance, or we have significance as human beings.  Christian faith makes the latter choice.  Human beings matter.  At the heart of the universe there is a compassion, a caring love that is life-giving and sustaining.  And because that is so, to be in tune with the universe means being compassionate and caring ourselves -- for others and for the earth we inhabit.  This universe may be a mystery far beyond our grasp, yet we know that without compassion and caring for others everything falls apart.  The starry sky above and the moral law within us belong inseparably together as the philosopher Immanuel Kant put it.  Star gazing and compassionate concern for our fellow humans, especially those who suffer or are in need, belong together.  And both change our perspective on life, on the worth of being human, our own worth and that of others, including especially those who think they are worthless because that is how they are treated.  "What are human beings...that you care for us?"  A question we need to ask each day and each night as we look at the plight of those worse off than we are, or turn our eyes to gaze at the heavens.

John de Gruchy

Volmoed  20 November 2014

Monday, 10 November 2014

Meditation: FAITH and/or BELIEF? by John de Gruchy


Hebrews 11:1-8
"By faith  Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out...not knowing where he was going."
The fundamental fact of our existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living.  It's our handle on what we can't see.  The act of faith is what distinguished our ancestors, set them above the crowd.
(Eugene Peterson, The Message, Hebrews 11:1)

Harvey Cox,  an American who has been in the vanguard of Christian thinking over the past half-century, recently published a book entitled The Future of Faith.  Like his other writings it is lively and thought-provoking.  One of his key themes is that there is an important difference between "faith" and "belief,"  though we often confuse the two.  Faith, he reminds us, means putting our trust in something or someone and  no one can live a truly human life without it.  Faith as trust is fundamental to human existence and relationships, to scientific enquiry and living hopefully.  And. for Christians faith as trust in God is fundamental to our existence, "the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living."   

Belief, by contrast with faith as trust, has to do with what we believe to be true.  Such beliefs are expressed in theories and ideologies, creeds and doctrines.  Christian belief in certain doctrines such as "God is love" is the basis for our faith in God, it is the basis for our trust in God.  But belief in the doctrine is not the same as putting our trust in God.  Believing the doctrine does not mean you live its truth.  Not everyone who talks the talk actually walks the walk, as the saying goes.  I warmly agree with Harvey Cox in distinguishing between faith and belief, but I think he separates them too much.  Faith is fundamental, but doctrine is necessary for faith.  I know the word doctrine puts some people off.  Just give me simple faith, they say, and you can get rid of all the dogmas associated with it!  But that is being rather silly and short-sighted.  Doctrine simply means "teaching,"  or the truth by which we try to live.  Just as everybody has faith n something, so everybody lives according to some doctrine or other, vague or precise, simple or complex in expression or lack of it, as it may be.   Yes, everybody,  from fundamentalists to secularists, Marxists to Nationalists,  newspaper editors to rugby coaches -- all live and act according to some doctrine, whether they call it that or simply speak about a conviction, a truth,  or a game plan.  Even to declare that God does not exist is as much a doctrine as to believe in God.

Yes, faith and belief are not the same but they are linked together.  As we read this morning in chapter eleven of the Letter to the Hebrews, that great passage on the heroes of faith, those who trust in God must first of all believe that God exists!  We would not put our trust in someone who is not real, even though by definition God is a mystery beyond our comprehension and not, as some think, a bearded elder sitting on a throne beyond the clouds.  Our trust in God is based on the belief that there is far more to life than we can touch or see, that we live, move and have our being in a power that is greater than we can imagine.  But we would not put our trust in this "almighty God," as the Creed puts it, if we did not also believe that God is trustworthy or, as Eugene Peterson puts it, God "cares enough to respond to those who seek him."   That God is real and that God cares for us like a "Father and Mother" are beliefs on which we base our trust.  So the fact that faith in God and believing certain doctrines about God are different, does not mean that they are disconnected, or that what we believe about God is unimportant.   It makes a huge difference whether we believe that God is love not hatred, forgiving not vengeful, the God of all humanity not of some people only, the creative source of all life in the universe who cares for the cosmos, not a remote deity aloof  from the processes and dynamics of life in all its dimensions.  Faith or trust in God is premised on the belief that God is worth believing in, which is, of course, what worship is about.  Acknowledging the worthiness of the God we trust.

But, to return to the distinction between faith and belief,  because we believe certain doctrines to be true, it does not mean that we automatically live according to them.  There are doctors who know that smoking causes cancer but still smoke.  There are politicians who believe that corruption is wrong, but who nevertheless commit fraud.  There are ardent Marxists, who drive top of the range BMWs.  And there are Christians who believe God is love but, when push comes to shove, are racists, vengeful, bigoted and just plain nasty people.  So Christian faith is more than a set of beliefs about God, it is an act in which those beliefs become a way of being human, a way of living.  "By faith  Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out... not knowing where he was going."  That is how the Bible describes what it means to trust in God, and why Abraham is traditionally regarded as the father of faith in God for Jews, Christians and Muslims.  What counted was not that he believed that God existed, but that he trusted this God with his life.  It was Abraham's faith in action, so the Bible tells us, that really counted in his relationship with God and others.  

St. Paul, building on this story centuries later, said that we are all justified by that kind of faith, and much later "justification by faith" became the basis for Martin Luther's reformation movement in the sixteenth century, the founding  doctrine of Protestant Christianity.  The problem was that in due course many Protestants assumed that if they believed in the doctrine of "justification by faith" they were "justified by faith."  Faith and belief were conflated.  Abraham believed in God, to be sure, but what justified him was not his belief but the fact that he lived his life on the basis of trusting in God. After all, as Jesus said, even the devil believes in God, as do the vast majority of people living in the United States so the polls tells, and I guess the same is true in South Africa.  But that does not mean they all live their lives trusting God, or trusting God more than they trust the "mighty dollar" as the words "In God we trust" printed on each note suggest.  So listen again to Peterson's translation of our text:

The fundamental fact of our existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living.  It's our handle on what we can't see.  The act of faith is what distinguished our ancestors, set them above the crowd.

Living by faith in the trustworthy God is not always easy, it does not come without a struggle against doubt and despair, not knowing precisely where we are going and how we are going to get there, but such faith is the faith of Abraham and the heroes of faith through the centuries, and it is this faith that sets them "above the crowd."

John de Gruchy
Volmoed   6th November 2014


Many people have difficulty in reading and understanding the Bible.  This is not surprising, because the Bible is a very complex book made up of many different parts.  After all, it was written in several languages and composed over more than a thousand years.  No wonder scholars spend a life-time trying to understand it!   Yes, it is true, the core message of God's grace and love for us can be understood by all of us.  But the story of the Bible, made up of many, many stories and types of literature is often beyond our immediate grasp.  So I will be offering some help to those who are interested in getting to know the Bible better.  In February 2015 for two consecutive Wednesday mornings we will explore the Bible together:
              Wednesday 11 February:  9.00-10           How we got the Old Testament
                                                              10.30-11.30  How we got the New Testament
              Wednesday 18 February:  9.00-10           Jesus and the Four Gospels
                                                              10.30-11.30   Reading the Bible today

Please join us!  But let the Volmoed Office know as soon as possible. ( To cover costs we are suggesting a R 100 donation.  In the meantime I commend a very good, at time hilarious, book which you can get on Kindle:    Peter Enns, "The Bible tells me so."

Friday, 31 October 2014

Meditation: TYPECASTING by John de Gruchy


Matthew 13:54-58
"Is not this the carpenter's son?"... And they took offence at him.

I was told recently that a devout Christian when asked if he knew about me declared that I was a "free-thinker!”  The word refers to intellectuals who reject the teaching of the Church and the Bible on the basis of critical thinking.  Freethinkers refuse to accept as truth what cannot be proved by reason, and are invariably agnostics and atheists!  I have been called many things in the course of my life but, as far as I know, never a "freethinker!"  So there you have it!  And I always thought I was a Christian who used my God-given rational faculties when thinking about my faith.

But that is not all.  I once preached at one of Cape Town's well-known boys' schools on their Memorial Day.  The chapel was full of Old Boys and supporters of the school who had come for this special occasion.  At the time, South Africa was still in the grips of apartheid.  My sermon was based on Jesus' words that we should seek God's justice above everything else, for without that there could be no future for our country.  After the service, as I stood at the door, I overheard one Old Boy say to another as they were waiting their turn to shake my hand:  "He must be a communist!"  Whether or not I was intended to hear the comment, I knew they were referring to me. It was not the first time I was called a communist, like others at that time who were taking seriously the teaching of the Bible that we should seek justice.  But by calling me a communist they thought they had discredited what I had said.  So there you have it.  I am not just a freethinker but also a communist! 

But I am in good company.  Jesus was treated in this way.  "Is not this the carpenter's son," declared the crowd one day when Jesus preached in his home town of Nazareth.  "Where does he get these crazy ideas from?  Who does he think he is?"  The people who heard Jesus preach that day in Nazareth had great difficulty in accepting what he said, in fact, like the prophets before him his words offended them.  What he said about God's kingdom did not fit their ideas about either religion or politics.  So they put him in a box to discredit what he was saying.  Jesus is just old Joseph's son!  Can anyone take seriously what a carpenter's son has to say about the kingdom of God?

We often use labels to discredit people.  We call them liberals or fundamentalists, religious fanatics, counter-revolutionaries, communists or nationalists, or whatever name helps us to discredit their views.  We usually do so without really getting to know them as people.  So we we end up relating to others in terms of labels rather than  as human beings. This is also the danger of psychologically type-casting people. "Oh, yes, you are an introvert!'  Or an extrovert.  Some of you may be familiar with Enneagrams, which is a way of helping people understand themselves according to their dominant characteristics.  According to the Enneagram theory, there are nine types of human beings.  Type 1 is the reformer, the self-controlled perfectionist; type 2 is the caring, generous people-person; type 3 is success driven, efficient, and image conscious; type 4 is the sensitive individualist, self-absorbed and temperamental; type 5 is the intense, brainy person, innovative but also isolated; type 6 is committed, responsible but also security conscious and suspicious; type 7 is the enthusiast, fun-loving, versatile but a bit scatter-brained; type 8 is the dominant, self-confident and confrontational person; and type 9 the easy-going peace maker, receptive, reassuring if also complacent and agreeable.  If you did not recognise yourself in any of these descriptions,  I can assure you that the rest of us recognized you immediately!  

Such typecasting can box people into categories or even be used to justify what we or they do.  "Oh yes, I have a dominating personality and therefore I have the right to dominate others!" On the other hand,  Enneagrams can help us understand ourselves better and why we may have difficulty in relating to someone who is different to us.  They help us identify aspects of our personality that need strengthening in order for us to become more balanced human beings.  We might also think about Jesus as the one who embodies the best in each of these psychological types, and  therefore as the model of what it means to be truly human.  To follow him then becomes a journey into wholeness whereby our dominant personality traits are truly integrated in our lives without being hurtful or harmful. We may still have a dominant type of personality, but in Christ we learn how to relate to them in a helpful way.  So we grow into maturity as human beings and Christians.

But let us also not forget that Jesus the "carpenter's son" sometimes offended his hearers!  So let us not typecast Jesus into our idea of what a fully balanced human being should be.  Prophets are seldom "balanced people" as we normally understand that word.  So, too, the Jesus we encounter in the gospels keeps on breaking out of the boxes in which we often place him in order to make his teaching more palatable, balanced and acceptable. Yes, of course, in times of difficulty and trouble Jesus can be the companion who gives us strength and comfort.  But he can also be an uncomfortable companion along the road, challenging our attitudes and actions as he did that day in Nazareth when people took offence at what he said.  "Has the carpenter's son become a communist," some might have even said if they had known the word!   Too often our understanding of Jesus is based on the little we remember from Sunday School, hearsay, clich├ęs, or even words like saviour, messiah and Lord that we think we know the meaning of very well.  That is why we need to keep revisiting the gospel story to discover who Jesus truly was and now is for us today.  Otherwise if we met him along the road today we might not actually recognise who he is.  He is just a carpenter's son!  

When Jesus really makes himself known he invariably takes us by surprise, breaking apart the moulds into which we have cast him.  It's as though we are meeting him for the first time.  But how exciting that can be for the journey of faith in following him.  Instead of taking offence at what he says to us, we commit ourselves afresh each day to follow him into the wholeness of life.

John de Gruchy

Volmoed  30 October 2014