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MEDITATION : RACISM AND RAINBOWS

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“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”

I had a dream. Once long ago in a land far away, there lived a beautiful people.  Some of the people were purple others blue, some of them were orange others crimson, and some pink and vermillion.  There were also green people and yellow people, in fact people of every colour of the rainbow.  They were beautiful as individuals, but when they were all together on special occasions they made a spectacular sight.  Their colours blended in rich harmony as they acknowledged each other as part of a tapestry in which each was necessary, none superior, each an important part of the whole, but none insignificant on their own.  They were known far and wide as the rainbow people.  Unlike other nations, there were no white people or black people, for those colours are absent from the rainbow, only people of all colours, shapes, shades and sizes, like pieces in a magnificent jigsaw puzzle.  Each piece was necessary to complete the picture, none more special than any other, but when each piece linked arms the picture was stunning even though while still incomplete.

Then I woke up.  It had been a wonderful dream, but it was not reality on the ground, certainly not if you scratched beneath the surface.  How could it be when for centuries all people saw was black and white, and when laws insisted that they should never mingle, never form a rainbow, and laws, guns and dogs were used to keep them apart.  Water-canons were also used to suppress their protests and wash all the colours down the gutter.  So only black and white remained to make sure that everyone knew who they were, that all that mattered was that you were white or black.  From childhood we learnt  we all learnt that we were not part of a rainbow. but as different as daylight and midnight, some superior others inferior, some privileged others oppressed.  Most whites imbibed  this belief with their mother’s milk and their father’s talk who, in turn, learnt this from their ancestors who lived over the seas and thought blacks were alien creatures inhabiting a dark continent alongside strange beasts.

Many thought that this was just how God intended it to be, that it had been like this since the foundation of the world.  Some were predestined to rule and others to serve, some were intelligent and could play cricket because they were white, and others dumb and could only play soccer because they were black.  Yes, everything was in black and white, like the laws written down to ensure that they remained separate and knew their place.  Scholars and politicians  thought long and hard how to describe this and eventually they found a word that seemed to fit. They called it  “race” and insisted there was a white race and a black race,  even though we know that there is only the human race made up of many cultures of all colours.  So racism was born and racism ruled.  In protest black became beautiful and white the colour of oppression.

But things don’t work well in black and white.  It is like watching old movies where people are not only black and white, cowboys and Indians,  good guys and bad, who shoot each other but never talk to each other.  Just like living in a colourless world makes you ill, so racism was a disease which made society sick.  People lost their humanity, and committed crimes against humanity.  And even though not everyone had the disease, it affected everyone, for when some are in bondage to racism all are in bondage and end up doing hurtful things to each other.  So people began to dream of and struggle  for a non-racial nation, a nation made whole.

After many years, too many deaths and much suffering, enough people came to their senses and helped construct a rainbow.  Their dream became reality.  And they all settled down to live happily ever after.  Except for one thing.  They did not take into account that the racism virus, like the plague, had not been eradicated, it was only dormant waiting its chance to reappear and infect the fragile rainbow.  Too little had been done to get rid of the virus;  it had only been brushed under the carpet.  Too few acknowledged that establishing a non-racial society could not be achieved by the stroke of pen.  Human nature had to change, and that is a tough call.

So twenty years after the rainbow nation was born, and much achieved,  the reality of racism cannot be ignored or denied.  Its symptoms keep showing themselves, both crude and subtle, for not everyone is afflicted to the same degree.  Some forms are mild like the common cold, others as violent, abusive and deadly as Ebola.  Everyone knows a crude racist when they see one or hears them speak.  But subtle racism is more difficult to detect, and even those who are afflicted do not always acknowledge that they have the disease, and sometimes vehemently deny it.  So they are taken by surprise when someone calls them racists.  “Who, me?” they ask in shock.

There is no easy cure for racism, no antibiotic.   But we do know that unlike Ebola and the plague, it can’t be dealt with by isolation.  Isolation only strengthens the virus.  The way to overcome the disease is through contact, through discovering that people who are different are just like oneself; that we are all human beings, all of the same human race.  We belong together because God has made us so and history has brought us together.   It is only as we learn to respect each other so that our differences actually enrich each of us, that the virus can be contained and eventually overcome.   It is a long, hard battle, because racism has perverted justice and robbed people of their land.  But we have to start somewhere, and we can and must begin with ourselves.  We can acknowledge that the virus is real and not deny its reality.    So we have to be careful about what we say about others, about the attitudes we have, the way we act, the off-the-cuff comments we post on Facebook.  This is not all that is required to build a rainbow nation, but without this we haven’t begun.

Oh, and by the way, Jesus gave us a golden rule to deal with the racism virus.  Do to others what you would want them to do to you and therefore MMspeak about them in ways that you would like them to speak about you.  Imagine such a world!  Is it only be a dream?  Or can we make it a reality?

John de Gruchy

Volmoed  21 January 2016

TAKE COURAGE

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I Corinthians 16:13-14

John 16:32-33

Be courageous, be strong

But take courage, I have conquered the world

 In many respects, last year, 2016, was a very good year for Volmoed.   It was the year in which we celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of the beginning of our community in 1986 when Bernhard and Jane Turkstra came to live here, and the present day history of Volmoed began.  It was the year in which we began looking towards the future with new vigour, the year in which the first Volmoed Youth Leadership Training Programme course was held, and we had an injection of youthful enthusiasm and commitment into our daily life.  It was also a year in which an increasing number of people came to visit or stay on Volmoed, and in which Alyson Guy’s art programme gathered fresh momentum.

 

Last week I gave a talk at the Hermanus History Society on the ” Volmoed Journey.”  In preparing to give it, I was struck again by the fact that the story did not simply begin thirty years ago in 1986, it goes far back to the earliest beginnings of human habitation.   After all, the story of humanity, so we are told, probably began in the caves at Blombos further along the coast, and in all likelihood we can surmise that people migrated from there to here in those prehistoric times.  But even if that is something of a flight of my imagination,  we do know for sure that in the fourteenth century there were Khoi hunter gatherers living here alongside the Onrus river that runs through Volmoed.  We know this because this place was known as Volmoed, it was called Atta’s Kloof, and Atta was the well-known name of a Khoi chief of that period.  But what attracted Atta’s clan to this place?

 

Probably the same thing that attracts most people to Volmoed still today.  Its beauty and tranquillity, and the sense of well-being that people find here.  Even the rocks geologists tell us have a special magnetism that has healing properties. Maybe that was the reason why lepers also came to live here during the eighteenth century.  They came not just  because they were forced to live far away and apart from others, but presumably because they had found a place where their spirits and bodies could be sustained at a time when there was no cure for their horrible disease.

 

But then, in 1817, the story of Volmoed took a new turn.  That year, the governor of the Cape, Lord Charles Somerset, sent his medical superintendent, Dr. James Barrie, from Cape Town to find out how the lepers could be helped by the colonial government.  Those who know her story, yes she was a woman who had to masquerade as a man in order to practice as a doctor, will know what a remarkable person she was.  After all, she rode all the way here on horseback!  And she is key figure in the story of Volmoed for it was at her request that a Moravian missionary from Genadendal, Peter Leitner, was appointed the resident missionary to the lepers in 1825.  Leitner had been here before then.  In fact, in 1817 on his first visit  he evidently gave the name Hemel en Aarde to the Valley, and called this part of the Valley, Volmoed.  If that is so, then Volmoed — the place  full of courage and hope  known by this name is two-hundred years old this year!  So, what began here in 1986 when Bernhard and Jane arrived, was the continuation of a story that goes back over many centuries.  Volmoed, a place where God has renewed and healed people, restoring hope and giving them courage for the journey, is at least two hundred years old,  if not much, much older.  It is not we who have made Volmoed what it is, but rather, as we often say, Volmoed is a place God has set apart from the beginning for his ministry of healing and wholeness.

 

Volmoed is, in fact, a sacred space that over time has meant a great deal to many people, and continues to do so.  And that is why part the fundamental mission of the Volmoed Community is to ensure that this place called Volmoed remains a place set aside by God for God’s ministry of healing and wholeness.  We are caretakers not owners of God’s place of hospitality for all in need of God’s grace and renewal.  That is what Volmoed is all about, its core business.  It is not in the first instance, a conference centre, a place of retreat, a youth centre, a place for sabbatical reflection and writing, a wedding venue that we have built– it is all of these — but it is only these because it is foremost a place God has set aside for God’s ministry of healing and wholeness.

 

For two hundred years then, the name Volmoed has become linked to this sacred space and is now inseparable from it.  Volmoed is a place where people, where we ourselves, discover the truth of Jesus’ words to his disciples: “Take courage, I have conquered the world.” This courage is not the courage of Stoics who bravely face death without faith, nor is it the bravery of soldiers on the battle field who risk their lives without always knowing why, but the courage which comes through faith in the God of grace whose peace is present and at work in this place.  It is the courage to believe that God is at work in the world overcoming evil, bringing love where there is hatred, hope where there is despair, and reconciliation where there is division and brokenness.  It is the courage to believe that God is with us in Christ whether in life or death.  Such faith is itself an act of courage,  some would even say it is an act of folly.  It is certainly not an intellectual exercise, the clinging to a set of propositions come hell or high-water,  but the courage to live life as an adventure in trust, to live as those who accept that God’s has accepted and forgiven us.  Such faith gives us the courage to reach out to the stranger and the alien and invite them to share with us in God’s hospitality.  Such courage enables us to stand in solidarity with the oppressed and speak truth to power.  It is the courage to be truly human and become the people God wants us to be.

 

Yes, Volmoed is a place that God has set aside for God’s ministry of healing and wholeness, but it is, to add a necessary footnote, more than a place, it is a people that stretches back to Atta’s clan and the Lepers of old and their Moravian carers, to the Volmoed Community of today.  Without this community of people of courage and hope, without all of us who gather here week by week, without our many prayers partners around the world, without the wider Community of the Cross of Nails, there would be no Volmoed, only a farm, a beautiful flower farm no doubt, or a developer’s dream,  but not the place of courage in which God is at work.  And that defines our mission of hospitality and who we strive to be as the present day Volmoed community.  Helping each other to discover not only God’s healing and peace, but also God’s gift of hope and courage for our lives in a world that is broken, despairing and seeking a way to wholeness.  Courage for living even if we are often buffeted by disappointment, pain and grief.  “But take courage,” Jesus says, “I have conquered the world.” That is the word of the Lord for all who come and belong to Volmoed.

John de Gruchy

Volmoed  23 February 2017

ON LISTENING AND SPEAKING

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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

ON NOT BEING SUCKED INTO DESPAIR

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Jeremiah 17:7-9; II Corinthians 4:7-12

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

WE ARE KNOWN BY WHAT WE DO

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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 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

WE WON’T SURRENDER HOPE

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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 fear…it 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

Volmoed 19 January 2017

MARRIAGE AS A MEANS OF GRACE

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“There was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there.  Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding…” John 2:1-11

During the last few weeks there have been five weddings, but no funerals, at Volmoed.  It seems that marriage is still in fashion.  And, appropriately, the lectionary reading for last Sunday was about the wedding feast in Cana.  On reading the story again, I was struck by the fact that John does not tell us who got married!  Imagine a report in the Hermanus Times telling us about a wedding last Saturday on Volmoed, but forgetting to say whose wedding it was.  All the report said was: “Alyson and Mike Guy were there.”  I think the bride and bridegroom, as well as their families would be a little peeved if not downright angry that they did not get a mention.  And then, to add further insult to injury, the report went on and said that the wine had run out!  How embarrassing, though, come to think of it, seeing the family name was not mentioned in the newspaper report, they were protected from that scandal.  But those were the salient facts.  Mary, Jesus and his disciples were there and the wine ran out.  That is, except for the additional and most startling piece of information.  Mary gets involved and tells Jesus there is no wine; Jesus appears to get angry with her, but he goes ahead and turns the water in a the jars into good vintage wine.  Now that was worth reporting.  Not even Barry or Bernhard together would have been able to do that!

When Isobel and I got married 56 years ago last Friday, if we may boast a little, we also ran out of wine at the reception.  In fact, there was none to begin with as we were married in a Methodist Church and no alcohol was allowed in the church hall where the reception was held.  So we were served tea, much to the displeasure of some of the guests.  And in those days tea meant Ceylon tea, none of the fancy teas available today.  Even Jesus would have had difficulty in turning that tea into wine!  But that did not matter to Isobel and me.  We were married and duly set off in our Fiat 600 to travel the country and begin to work out what the vows we had made actually meant: “for better, for worse…”  It did not take us too long to find out as our roller-coaster of a marriage began to go up and down!  “for richer for poorer,” yes in those days we were “the poorer;”  “in sickness and in health,” yes, we have had our fair share of sickness and sadness.  And while our marriage has been much better than worse, it has not been perfect,  and we know that there will come a time when “death will us part.”

Marriage is a blend of romance and learning to tough it out.  It can be full of roses, but never without some thorns.  That’s just how it is.  But we celebrate marriage like Mary, Jesus and his disciples did with that anonymous family in Cana because it is so fundamental to our lives and to the well-being of society.  In these days when many people simply  live together, and when divorce is common,  it is important that we reaffirm that marriage is, for Christians, a sacrament.  Not all our church traditions call it a sacrament, but that does not alter the fact that marriage is a God-given “means of grace.”  That is, through marriage God promises to turn the water necessary for daily life into the wine of romance and joy!  We bring to the marriage our fallible selves with all our personality peculiarities, which would also apply to gay marriages. Somehow by the grace of God there is a fusion in which we become one without losing our personalities.  In fact, our personalities are meant to be enriched not diminished as we are led into the mystery of our growing unity.  At least that is the theology of marriage even if it does not always work out that way in practice.  But it does help to put the romance back into marriage if we understand it as a sacrament or means of grace, for that lifts it beyond a legal agreement and places it within the embrace of God’s grace.

Which leads me to the thought — why is it that dancing is such a universal feature of wedding celebrations?  And why is it that traditionally the bride and bridegroom lead the dance at the reception?  Is it not symbolic of  taking the first step together into the future and then being joined by everyone else in the dance as supporting cast.  And could it be that at Cana, Jesus, Mary and all the disciples joined in that dance?  Yes, I think so.  After all, as the song has it, he is the Lord of the dance, and we are meant to dance with him wherever we may be!.

But dancing can be a challenge, as it was for me. There is much to learn and that takes commitment.  That is why we make vows about  remaining united even when we are poor, sick, or things get bad.  Marriage can be rough, we can stand on each other’s toes, and there are many marriages that stumble and the dance comes to an end with bruises on our bodies and souls.  Then we may have to the truth and accept closure.  But let’s not think about those times of failure right now.  Let us rather focus on our own marriages or those of our families and friends, or those living together to discover if they want to dance, for whom we care and pray, those with whom we dance along in the divine dance.   Yes, it is God’s grace that makes marriage a sacrament and embraces us in the dance of life together, but with that gift of grace comes an awesome task.  We have to dance till the sun goes down, keeping each other on our toes and picking each other up when we fall. 

So marriage as a sacrament is not just what happens on the day of the wedding when we take our first steps in the dance, marriage is meant to be a means of grace throughout our lives as we work at being in relationship, bring up children, welcome friend and stranger, and find our way.  And the primary way in which we receive that sacramental grace that turns the water of the everyday into the wine of celebration and joy is through learning to forgive and accepting forgiveness.  If there is one place where we should not let the sun set on our anger, it is in the marriage bed!  For it is then that we renew our vows and find the grace we need.

None of this is passing a judgment on those whose marriage might fail; on those who might live together and decide not to get married, or on those who opt to remain single.  I am simply reaffirming what Christian marriage is meant to be from the moment we make those vows and take the first dancing steps, and for the rest of our lives — a means of grace in which the water of daily life becomes the wine of eternal life, and in which even every-day Ceylon Tea can sparkle and refresh.

 

John de Gruchy

Volmoed 12 January 2017

 

 

WHAT HAS BETHLEHEM TO DO WITH JERUSALEM?

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Matthew 2:1-12

“Having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another route.”

I was never keen to be a Wiseman in the Sunday School Christmas pageant.  How embarrassing it was!  Dressing up in an old dressing gown, with an apology of a turban on my head and a broomstick in my hand, I processed into the church singing “We three kings of Orient are,” without having a clue what the Orient was, or why there were three kings and a star that kept moving, and what this had to do with anything at all.  But now that I am wiser I marvel at the story and keep on finding new clues in the text as to its meaning.  So I am delighted each year when Epiphany comes round, the festival of the light of God breaking through the cracks into the darkness of the world in Christ, and the traditional time to recall the visit of the sages from the East to the Christ-child in Bethlehem.

They had come a long way, from somewhere in modern day Iran then known as Persia. They were astrologers, maybe Zoroastrians by religion, so following  bright stars in search of the truth and meaning of life was familiar to them.  They were already men of spiritual wisdom, mystics if you like.  But their journey was about to begin in a new way.  Their lives would not be the same after they had seen the child, for it was only then that the light transformed all that they had previously known, lifting it into a new dimension.  What they saw in Bethlehem changed the course of their lives forever.    

On their way to Bethlehem these Wisemen stopped in Jerusalem to visit king Herod.  It was more than a courtesy call to Trump Towers.  They wanted information about the birth of a king and Herod they presumed would be able to give it to them.  Herod was frightened by their request.  He knew he was not popular, he knew that there were Zealots out to get him and usurp his throne in a coup.  But he was also cunning.  He got his aides to Google “birth of a king,” and they informed him and the Wisemen to take the camel highway to Bethlehem.  But Herod also told the Wisemen to report back when they found the new born king.  So the Wisemen continued their journey.  The star did not stay in Jerusalem the seat place of worldly power and authority; it only paused for a nodding moment.  There is no light where the Herods of this world rule, only fear and cunning when they know that their time is up.  Darkness cannot tolerate the light.

Fortunately the Wisemen trusted their dreams more than they trusted Herod. They knew that once Herod knew where the light was he would send his minions to extinguish it.  It is always so.  The powers of darkness want to destroy the light before it enlightens too many people.  So once these wise sages found the child born to be king and presented their gifts, once they had seen the Christ-child, the light of the world, they continued their journey, returning home, but by another route.  They were not going to play Herod’s game.  They had paid their respects to the king, but they saw through his deceit,  Herod was not to be trusted. 

As Christians we respect the office of kings, presidents and prime ministers, but respect for their office is not the same as trusting their word.    We may respect the office of Zuma, Trump, Putin, Mugabe and Netanyahu, but that does not mean we have to approve what they say and do, meekly bow the knee and obey their instructions. We know they survive through political cunning not godly wisdom.  And in any case, they will lose their power, and like all of us they are dust and to dust they will return, even if they have state funerals and are embalmed and buried in Pyramids.  They are not the Wisemen in God’s world, powerful for the moment undoubtedly, shrewd and cunning quite obviously, men who know their way around and how to influence people, of course..  But they are not wise.  They could be, but it would mean leaving their palaces for a time and  journeying with the Wisemen to seek the light, acknowledging the truth that was born in Bethlehem — God’s power and wisdom lying in a manger.  This is what all the truly wise go in search of — a king who is humble, vulnerable, the very embodiment of the wisdom of God,  The contrast between Jerusalem and Bethlehem could not have been greater then, it is still so today.  Truth resides in Bethlehem’s manger, falsehood in Jerusalem’s palace; love and integrity in Bethlehem; integrity not duplicitous cunning, and false power in Jerusalem.  Wisemen are always let to Bethlehem even if they visit Jerusalem on the way.

We have journeyed with the Wisemen to Bethlehem.  We have celebrated Christmas, the birth of the child, the coming of the light into the darkness of the world of power and corruption.  Now we are back on our journey.  We don’t know where this journey will take us as a new year begins.  We hope it may be better that the last year, and we eagerly grasp hold of the predictions of those who say it will be.  But we don’t know yet.  All we know is that there is a journey ahead of us, a journey to our ultimate home and destination.  Yet we do know something else.  To get home we have to bypass Herod and his headquarters in Jerusalem.  We can’t depend on the Herods of this world to get us home, anymore than Americans can depend Trump or South Africans on Zuma.  We may no longer have the star to guide us, but we have the light to inform our path.  That light always shines in the darkness, for the darkness did not then, and cannot now, comprehend or overcome the light.

 

John de Gruchy

5 January 2017.  Volmoed