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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

LANGUAGE & COMMUNITY

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All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability?… How is it that we hear, each of us in our own native language?”  Acts 2:1-8

The story of the Tower of Babel Genesis 11:1-9)was often misused during our apartheid years to justify the separation of people from each other.  The argument was that God punished our primordial ancestors for trying to build a united nation to which all people belonged.  And God did so by confusing their language.  This, it was said, was why there are different cultures each with their own language.  This was God’s doing, and God, they declared,  intends people of different tongues to develop separately.  It was all bad theology and distorted logic based on a misreading of the Babel saga.  It was also a very bad understanding of the amazing history of how languages actually originated and developed over the millennia of human history.  That story as any philologist will tell you, is truly remarkable.  Today there is not a corner of the world without a language, grammar and vast vocabulary shaped by context and experience.

Language is the basis of human well-being and social life, of knowledge and science, and the way we share information and wisdom.  Language links us to our ancestors and introduces us to our descendants.  And the birth of language in all its splendid variety is repeated with the birth of every human being in every culture.  Our lives may begin with grunts, but unless there is a speech impediment we soon begin to speak the language in which we are nurtured  We find our voice.  And in doing so we discover something fundamental about being human. We are created in the image of God by whose Word the world came into being.  Being human is not being a parrot.  In order to become truly ourselves, more truly who God wants us to be, we have to discover our own voice and learn to listen to the voice of others. So with our own words we establish relationships, name animals, flowers and mountains, we share the  peace, bring healing, express love speak truth to power and spread the good news.

Some languages have become international through conquest and trade.  As a result English-speakers have an enormous advantage and often forget how difficult it is for non-English speakers to be educated in English.  But millions have successfully done so leaving us who are English-speakers also at a disadvantage.  While others have learnt English we have not felt the need or to learn theirs.  We can speak in our own tongue, but we cannot understand those who speak differently.  Worse still, we sometimes think we are somehow superior and have the right to speak on behalf of those who can’t speak English properly.  Like children struggling to express themselves, the voiceless, we say, need our voice.   We forget that they actually want and need to speak for themselves.  They also fear that we will put words into their mouths to ensure that they say the right thing, the words we want to hear.  Parents often do this on behalf of their children; husbands and wives on behalf of their spouses.  We forget that unless children find their own voices they do not grow up, and unless spouses listen to each other and allow each other to speak for him or herself, their relationships will remain superficial.  Learning the art of mutual listening to each other’s voice and speaking in one’s own, is fundamental to any worthwhile relationship.

Part of what is happening today in our universities is that students are finding their own voice. as they do in every generation, but they don’t think they are being heard.  As always, the issues are complex but I think the students are right in their demand for free education; I also think that this demand might be met if the government dealt with corruption and the misuse of tax-payers money.   What if the 6 billion Rand bail-out for SAA could have been used to meet the fees crisis?  Students are rightly tired of an older generation that does that kind of thing telling them that they know what is best for them.  They want to speak their own mind in their own voice.  And when they do, they want others to listen to what they are saying even if others may disagree.  There is no solution to the conflict that has erupted without all sides learning to listen to the voice of the other, and learning to speak to the other in ways that foster understanding and trust.

If the Tower of Babel is a mythical attempt to explain the origin of diverse languages, the story of Pentecost marks the beginning of a new movement in history to promote understanding across language difference and so build community.  That we should each understand one another even though we speak in different tongues is part of the reason why the church exists.  The church is not meant to be culturally uniform but pluriform; the church is not meant to sing in one language but with one voice; the church is not meant to be the church of one nation or tribe, but the church for all nations.  The church is meant to be the new humanity in which everyone can speak and be heard in his or her own tongue in ways that build relationships and community.  This is the work of the Holy Spirit.  And when the church listens to the Spirit it becomes part of the solution to human conflict instead of being, as it too often is, part of the problem.

John de Gruchy

Volmoed 22 September

 

 

LIVING WATER

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“My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns, that can hold no water.”Jeremiah 2:10-13

“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty again.  The water that I will give them will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” John 4:1- 15

As the rain pelted down early last Friday morning, waking me up from sleep, I suddenly thought about some of the new names given to churches in Hermanus, among them Living Waters and, simply, Rain.  In the past local churches have usually been named after saints, like St. Peter’s, or according to the denomination to which they are affiliated., such as Mowbray Presbyterian, Rosebank Methodist, or the Dutch Reformed Church in Hermanus.  Nonconformist churches sometimes have chosen names from the Old Testament like Bethel, which means the House of God, or Bethesda, the House of Mercy.  But there has been an explosion of new trendy names in recent times. One is In Via, “on the way,” in Stellenbosch, another is Renaissance in Pretoria, and next month I will be preaching at Mosaic in Randburg.  Then there are those on our own doorstep like Rain, Living Waters and Live the Life.

There is something attractive about these new church names.  They tell us something about what the church is meant to be rather than its institutional connections and form of government, however important that might be.  I guess we are all glad that this place is called Volmoed, “full of courage and hope” rather than after our friend Fr. Roger Hickley’s favourite saint, St. Agapanthus. In a time when denominational affiliations and loyalties are no longer as strong as they once were or are non-existent, I can understand why some people searching for a life-giving faith after a period of spiritual drought might find Rain more appealing than going to Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, and Living Water more attractive than Ebenezer Tabernacle.  Certainly as the rain woke me up last Friday, it was living water that came to mind and set me thinking about such things.  We all thirst for living water, but I guess that in the end it does not matter much what label is on the bottle as long as it contains the water of life..

The metaphor “living water” comes from the Old Testament  prophet Jeremiah.  The people of Israel, he says, have  “committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns, that can hold no water.”  Broken cisterns were a serious matter in the Middle East as it is today, especially in times of drought. We at Volmoed know all about the dire consequences that follow the drying up of the spring of clean water that has gushed out of the rocks up the mountainside for as long as anyone can recall.  Virtually every day we have to check our water supply, make sure that it is clean and sufficient for ourselves and our guests.  You can live a  few days without food, but you cannot live without fresh water.  You can get away with second class meat, but not water from stagnant pools or polluted rivers.   Only pure, living water sustains life.

 

So living water is a powerful biblical metaphor.  The prophet Isaiah describes people joyfully drawing “water from the wells of salvation.” (Isaiah 12:3)  Wells that go deep into holy ground, and never run dry.  Ezekiel speaks about the living water that will flow out of Jerusalem when the Messiah comes. John has all this in mind when he tells us about Jesus and the woman at the well, or when he describes Jesus standing outside the Temple and inviting  all who are thirsty to come to him and drink.( John 7:37-9)  The water that Jesus offers is the gift of the Spirit, the water of eternal life.

 

Eternal life is not simply life that goes on forever, it is a spirituality that quenches our deepest thirst.  The contrast is that between death-producing polluted water, and the crystal clear spring water that is life-giving and sustaining.  Between the law which kills and the Spirit which gives life.  It is the difference between the religiosity of hate and exclusion, and the Spirit who sets us free to be responsible, committed to justice and love for others; a religion that is self-centred and a religion of the Spirit who evokes compassion; religion that dehumanizes and the Spirit who makes us truly human;  religion that tries to take possession of God’s name for dubious purposes, and God the Holy Spirit who takes possession of us in order to give us life.  Like stagnant water that kills the body, bad religion kills the soul; like fresh water bubbling forth from the spring of eternal life, the Spirit renews and energizes the soul.

 

As global warming increases and droughts become more frequent, we can anticipate that clean water will become even more a cause of strife than oil.  We will all have to learn not only how to save water but also how to share water. Clean, pure, life-giving water is becoming a precious commodity that has to be treasured, but also shared with others especially those who are thirsty.   And this is true of the living water of life that Jesus gives us; it is not provided for us to bathe our souls in; it is meant to be shared with others.  Just as Volmoed depends on being able to provide clean drinkable water for our guests, so Volmoed like the church more generally exists to share the living water of the Spirit with all who are thirsty for abundant life. Water is not ours to possess simply to quench our own thirst, dammed up in the church, kept clean and pure for private use. The water of life is poured out for all.  So in the end it does not matter whether your church is named after St. Agapanthus or simply called Rain, Bethesda or Mosaic. What matters is whether a church gives us access to the well-spring of the Spirit of Jesus. “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, let the one who believes in me drink…Out of the believers heart shall flow rivers of living water.” (John 7:37-39)

 

O God, the well-spring of our lives, pour into our hearts the living water of your grace, that refreshed by you we may live this day in steadfast reliance on your strength, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

John de Gruchy

Volmoed 15 September 2016

 

 

THE GIFT OF SIMPLICITY

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“How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.”Luke 18:18-27

In a world of great poverty, in a country dramatically divided between those who have so much and those who have very little, Jesus’ words come as a sobering reminder to those of us who are comparatively well-off, that our money and possessions can prevent us from being part of God’s kingdom.  “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God,” says Jesus, and he not only had the “filthy rich” in mind. No wonder that those who heard these words said “Then who can be saved?”  Is it only those who turn their backs on the world, take a vow of poverty and join a monastery?  Can we continue to live in a complex world with all its inevitable compromises, and still be saved?

Not far from Stockbridge in western Massachusetts, where Isobel and I have spent some time, is the old Shaker village of Hancock. The Shakers were a small Christian sect founded in England in the 18th century that believed Jesus was going to return within their own life time.  So they sold up everything, got rid of worldly possessions, formed communities of mutual support, and waited for Jesus.  Persecution forced many of them to seek refuge in the United States where they became well-known for their handcraft,  the way in which they danced during worship, and the songs they sang as they did so   It was one of these that prompted this meditation. I woke up last Friday with the words “it’s a gift to be simple” running through my brain!  They come from what is probably the best known Shaker song:

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free ‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
There is something attractive about the idea of living simply unless, of course, you happen to be poor and have no option but to live simply.  But living simply is an enormous challenge for all of us who live in our modern day complex world shaped by market forces and new technologies. The moment you get a bank account, smart-phone or computer, whatever innocence you might have previously imagined you had, flies out of the widow along with your e-mails, Facebook entries, and much of your cash.

I asked Isobel what she thought “living simply” meant.  In response she wrote a long poem, far too long to repeat here (but see below).  Each stanza begins with a question seeking further clarification: does living simply mean living uncomplicated lives, or uncluttered, or living in a less complex world. or being simple or single-minded?  And, she ends: “Can we really live simply without a drastic life-style change…without giving away everything” and joining a monastery?  And we might add, can it be done without the restructuring of the South African and global economies that are built on inequality and kept going by us acquiring more and more stuff that we don’t really need?  And yet, can we now live without upgrading our cell phones and computers, and the money and bank accounts we need to service them? The examples are endless.  We seemed to be trapped in complexity. Who then can be saved?

In his book The Freedom of Simplicity Richard Foster provides an important perspective.  “Christian simplicity,” he says “lives in harmony with the ordered complexity of life.  It repudiates easy, dogmatic answers to tough, intricate problems.  In fact, it is this grace that frees us sufficiently to appreciate and respond to the complex issues of contemporary society.”  In other words, living more simply does not mean escaping the complexities of life but learning to cast off what is not important in responding to them.  This is the work of grace enabling us to seek first God’s kingdom as we struggle to live responsibly amid the complexities of modern life and respond, for example, to the environmental crisis facing us.

The gift of simplicity is not cheap grace, but the grace of discipleship.  Brother Roger, the founder of Taizé, provides a clue to what this means in the Rule he wrote for his community:  “Your availability implies continual simplification of your existence, not by constraint, but by faith.”   Continual simplification, not because we are commanded to simplify, but to make us more available for others.  To live more simply then means following Jesus in becoming and being more available for others irrespective of how complex our lives may be.  It is not just a matter of shedding stuff we don’t need, it is about what we do with what we have, and how we relate to others, especially those in need.

Yet it never fails to amaze me how it is often those who are poor who are the most generous.  Jesus reminds us of this in his story of the widow’s mite. Most of those who put money in the Temple treasury box, Jesus says, “contributed out of their abundance,” but the widow, “out of her poverty has put in everything she had.” (Mark 12:41-44) Which brings to mind what Jesus also said: “To whom much is given, much will be required.” (Lk. 12:48) This does not only refer to money, but to all other gifts, skills and talents, time and resources, education and friendship, solidarity in the struggle for justice, caring and compassionate living.  And the paradox is not only that the more we share the more we receive, but the more we become free.  That old Shaker songwriter knew this to be true.  For the gift to be simple was at the same time the gift to be free,.  But not just free in ourselves, or free from the cares of the world, but free to be responsible, free to be for others, in a complex world..

John de Gruchy

Volmoed 8 September 2016

GOOD POWER & BAD

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“Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.”1 Samuel 8:1-9

“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.”Acts 1:1-8

The history of humanity can be described as the story of the struggle for power, a struggle waged by individuals and nations who sought to be powerful, became powerful, and what power did to them.  It is the story of kings, princes, presidents and empires; it is also the story of business magnates, prelates, and media moguls.  As we read that history we soon discover that there is good power and bad power, just as we have learnt that there is good cholesterol and bad coexisting in our bodies.  Good power changes the world for the better, it enables life, seeks justice, builds community.  Bad power is corrupt, self-serving and destructive.  The story of the conflict between good and bad power is central to the biblical narrative whether we read about kings and prophets, or about the  followers of Jesus who received the power of the Spirit at Pentecost and began to change the world by witnessing to God’s kingdom.  The story that threads through the Bible is all about the contest between the powers of this world and the power of the king who became the suffering servant in order to redeem the world and empower with his Spirit those who work for the common good.  

Let me remind you that Israel did not have a king before King Saul and King David,.  It had judges, like Samuel, who exercised authority on behalf of God and the people.  The judges did not have absolute power like the kings of the nations surrounding Israel, something perceived as a weakness by the Israelites and other nations.  When things went wrong, when war broke out, when foreigners and aliens got out of hand, when the economy slumped, the people wanted a strong leader who could make Israel great again, protect its borders, and stand up to its enemies.  Samuel exercised good and wise leadership but when he grew old, and when his sons failed to follow in his footsteps as good judges, the elders of Israel came to Samuel and demanded a king to govern them like those of other nations.  Samuel was bothered by this demand because he knew how easy it was for power to become corrupt, and how easy it would be for Israel to forsake God if they elected a king who ruled like other kings.  So Samuel asked God for his guidance.  Remarkably, God told Samuel to listen to the voice of the people.  Let them have a king if they want one, but warn them about the dangers involved, tell them that their king should reign according to God’s justice and mercy. 

The story of what happened is told in the books of the Kings in the OT.  Time and again a king would be enthroned, and while he might rule wisely and well to begin with, the time invariably came when power began to corrupt.  That is why prophets arose in Israel to warn the kings and the people that the path they were on would lead to disaster.  There were some good kings, but most thought they could do as they pleased using all the resources of the land for their own enrichment.  The story is universal, it is written into the history of the nations, and continues to play itself out in our own day and our own country.  The attempt by present-day presidents to grasp hold of power is not different from that of kings in previous times, and the rise of dictatorships is the same as the rise of absolute monarchies in the past.  And people want strong leadership in times of uncertainty and change.  Give us a king they shout to rule over us.  A nation is then fortunate if it still has wise judges and courageous  prophets who have not been captured by the state, judges and prophets who insist that no one can have all the power without becoming corrupt and without the nation suffering.  This is the story of the book of Judges and the two books of Kings in the OT.  But it is also a story that has been written again and again, and is being written even now as I speak.

But notice this: power is not the problem.  Power is necessary.  A country cannot function well if there is no power invested in its leaders.  The problem is not power, but power-hungry and greedy rulers. So what is true or good power?  The message of the prophets is that God does not exercise power like a dictator.  God is a God of justice and his power is exercised in mercy and compassion.  This is the power of the Holy Spirit who speaks through the prophets and is at work in Jesus who came to proclaim good news to the poor and liberty to captives.  This is the power  given to the disciples at Pentecost to continue Jesus’ ministry.  It is a power motivated by love and service, compassion and justice.

The power of God’s Spirit is not, as many people assume, some kind of religious power that has to do solely with the church and human piety, the Spirit whose gifts are confined to speaking in tongues and performing miracles. The power of God’s Spirit is at work in the world enabling rulers to rule wisely, enabling prophets to speak truth to power; enabling people to work for justice and serve their communities with compassion.  The power of the Spirit is given to the disciples of Jesus not just for their own spiritual benefit but for the common good, for the sake of God’s ministry of reconciliation and peace.  The power of the Spirit is the power that enables people to live according to the values of God’s kingdom in the life of the world.  This power, the power of the Spirit of Jesus, is the power without which we as Christians cannot fulfil our calling to seek first God’s kingdom in order that the world might be saved.

 

John de Gruchy

Volmoed  1 September 2016

INVITATION TO A COURSE ON INTERPRETING THE BIBLE TODAY AT VOLMOED

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Monday 6th to Friday 10th March, 2017

This week-long residential course on Interpreting the Bible Today is open to anyone who is interested in understanding the Bible in our contemporary context.  The course will be led by Graham Ward (Professor of Divinity at Oxford University); Lisel Joubert (PhD in Old Testament, Stellenbosch); Roger Arendse (New Testament scholar) and John de Gruchy (professor at UCT and Stellenbosch.)

There will be four modules: (1) Listening for the Word in Scripture; (2) Understanding the Word in Context; (3) Learning from Wisdom; (4) Learning from Jesus.   Professor Ward will also teach a course in reading the Greek New Testament. This does not require any previous knowledge of Greek. It will be held each morning before breakfast!

Course Descriptions

(1)  Listening for the Word in Scripture  (Ward)

In this module we will be exploring fundamental questions relating to the role and place of the Bible in the church: what do we mean by the Word of God? What is revelation ? How do we discern God’s communication with us? What relationship does this discernment  have with interpretation, the tradition and the development of Christian doctrine?

(2)  Understanding the Word in Context: exegesis and hermeneutics  (de Gruchy)

There are two fundamental questions we ask in interpreting the Bible.  What did the    text mean in the context of in which it was written?  The art of finding out is called     exegesis.  What does the text mean for us today in our context?  The art of working    that out is called hermeneutics.  We will examine what it means to do both and using a selection of texts we will explore how exegesis and hermeneutics work and    how they relate to each other.

(3) Wisdom literature: The art of living in God’s presence (Joubert)

Biblical wisdom literature opens up a space where a plurality of voices finds a home. The clear cut answers of Proverbs to the stubborn questions of Job and the struggles of the teacher of Ecclesiastes. These voices are linked to Woman Wisdom, who is in her turn linked to the creation and God. In the New Testament Jesus is introduced as wisdom and James perpetuates this tradition.. In our day and age we long for wise leaders, less platitudes and less cosmetic answers. Maybe we need the sages and their art to help us in our daily discernment – to live life to the full amidst paradox.

(4)  Learning from Jesus

In our instant solution-oriented world, we want fast answers to the questions that confront us.  But how comfortable are we to open our minds and hearts to receive new learning possibilities from Jesus?  In the gospels Jesus asked many more questions than he answered,  Through them he modelled the struggle and thinking it through helps us understand ourselves and our relationships to each other and God.  We may describe Jesus as the Ultimate Life and Leadership Coach.  So In this module, we become curious about Jesus, about the questions he asked, about his earliest learners (“disciples”), and about ourselves. And we open ourselves  to the possibilities he ignites for more transformed and empowered living.

Lecturers

Graham Ward is Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford University and an Extraordinary Professor in the Theological Faculty at Stellenbosch University.  He is an Anglican priest and canon of Christ Church Cathedral.  The author of many books and essays, Graham is a regular visitor to South Africa and Volmoed.

John de Gruchy is emeritus Professor of Christian Studies at UCT and an Extraordinary Professor in the Theological Faculty at Stellenbosch University.  He is an ordained minister n the United Congregational Church and author of books who lives at Volmoed.

Lisel Joubert has a DTh in Old Testament, with a MA and Honours background in Ancient Near Eastern Studies. Presently she is a research associate in the Department of Systematic Theology and Ecclesiology at the University of Stellenbosch, where she teaches Early Church History.  She is a minister at the Dutch Reformed Church in Gansbaai.

Roger Arendse is a certified Integral Coach through the Centre for Coaching (Graduate School of Business, University of Cape Town) and New Ventures West (USA).  He is the Director of Eagle Coaching which serves executives, managers, leaders, educators, social entrepreneurs and spiritual seekers. He also remains a curious student of the Bible and Theology, with a special focus in the NT (Jesus and Pauline studies). He has an MTh from Western Theological Seminary, Michigan, USA, studied at UCT and was a lecturer in Biblical Studies at  UWC from 1992-1997.

Registration

The course will be limited to twenty participants.  Those wishing to participate should register before October 31st 2016 through the Volmoed Office: admin@volmoed.co.za, or phone 028 3121282.

The cost of the residential course will be R2800.00 and is fully inclusive of accommodation and all meals and teas.  Day visitors will pay R350 which will include 3 full meals and two teas per day.   There are a limited number of  bursaries covering half the costs available for those who need them.  Please indicate if you would like to apply for one of them.  The cost for those who live in the Overstrand/Hermanus area and who do not need accommodation on Volmoed will be R 350.00

Arrival between 10H00 and 10H30 am on the Monday.  Tea from 10H30 to 11H00.  Sessions One at 11.00 am.  Departure on Friday 9th.  Vacate rooms by 9.30.  Luggage may be stored at the office.  Tea at 10.30 a.m.  Last session 11-12 noon.

 

CREATING CHARACTER

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“Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Romans 5:1-5

My friend John Morris, owner of the Book Cottage recently introduced me to the novels of Arthur Joyce Cary.  Described by some as one of the finest English novelists of the twentieth century, Cary was a genius at developing characters, as he does in Except the Lord (1953) which John gave me to read.  This got me thinking about what it takes to write a good novel.  Obviously the plot has to be a good, but equally so the characters have to come alive and become plausible as the story develops.  Think of any great novelist such Charles Dickens or Chinua Achebe, Fyodor Dostoevsky, George Elliot or Marilynne Robinson, and you immediately think about the characters they create in telling their stories.  Great novelists create great characters whether we love or hate them, seek to emulate them as heroes, or despise them as villains.

The God of the Bible is a great novelist for the Bible is packed full of stories about memorable characters, as is the teaching of Jesus: Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, David and Goliath, Elijah and the prophets of Baal, Daniel and Noah, Peter, Thomas, Judas, Paul and Timothy, Mary Magdalene, Martha, the Samaritan woman, the Prodigal Son, and, the favourite of many,  Zacchaeus the tax collector who climbs a tree to see Jesus (Luke 19:1-10).  Of course, not every Bible character responds positively to God’s character building, some rebel, preferring to make their own way, just as not all characters in a novel are equally attractive or not at all.  Though it is also true that often characters change character as God gets to work and turns prodigal sons into grateful and renewed sons.  In fact, the good news stories in the Bible are all about the way in which God like a potter working clay on the wheel  recreates characters who have failed and decides to start again.  We identify can identify with biblical characters because they are so much like us, for we too are  all characters in the story God is writing.  Have you ever considered that ?  You are a character in a divine novel being written even as I speak, a character being constructed in the image of the author.

Of course, the word “character” has different meanings.  We use it to refer to a person’s handwriting, or to someone we call a character because he or she is a little odd, perhaps a clown or a crank. There are, in fact, characters of all kinds, all sorts and conditions of humanity which we read about in novels, watch on TV, or encounter on the street. But character also has another meaning.  When we refer to a person of character we think of someone who is known for moral courage, honesty and integrity, a person of good reputation, someone for whom we might vouch in writing a testimonial, a model for our children and grandchildren.  This is what character formation is about in the gospel story, and why St. Paul says that “if anyone is in Christ there is a new creation”  (2 Cor. 5:17)  He or she has become a renewed character.  For when God recreates our characters, as he did for Zacchaeus,  he sets us on a new path of becoming more truly human in the image of Christ, the true human, the icon of the characters God is seeking to write into his story.   And as in the Bible or a novel, every character is different, so God graciously develops our character in terms of who we are and the contribution we make in the story as a whole.

Yet while God creates each character lovingly and graciously,  our character formation takes place only as we follow Christ in discipleship.  Character formation does not come about without our co-operation nor does it come easily; it is the outcome of costly grace which hones and shapes us, often through suffering and struggle. As Paul puts it: Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character.”  The great novelists know this.  Adversity creates character.

Normally we think of bad characters as the products of poverty-stricken slums, the breeding ground gangsters.  And yet how many people  have learnt to rise above their circumstances and make a real success of life in response to adversity.  How many successful Olympic Games medallists have overcame hardship to achieve their goals?  By contrast privilege, wealth and luxury often produce people who lack moral fibre, selfish people who make no real contribution to the common good and too often succumb to corruption.  Poverty, bad schooling, poor social conditions might produce criminals, but often against the odds or because of them, they produce people of great character.  People who are also humble enough to acknowledge that their success is not only due to their own skill, but to the help of many others and the grace of God.  When St. Paul says that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, ” he is right on the money.

For St. Paul suffering and endurance not only produces character, character also  produces hope.  The hope which enables us to live and work expectantly, not giving up when the odds are against us but enduring until we have crossed the finishing line.  Paul adds a further comment which takes this process of character formation to a new level.  This hope that emerges from suffering and empowers endurance, “does not disappoint us.”  Yes, a great deal does disappoint us.  Sometimes our heroes in novels or on the sports field, and even our friends,  let us down.  But the hope that develops out of struggle for what is right and good, or out of suffering and pain, does not disappoint because in the process, “God’s love is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”  In other words we discover that the whole process of character formation  is activated, guided and empowered by God’s love at work through the Spirit!  So as we think about our own stories in God’s novel, the character we are and the character we are becoming, let us give thanks that God is at work through his Spirit seeking to recreate us in his own image to make us truly who we are meant to be before the story ends.

John de Gruchy

Volmoed 25 August 2016

 

 

I Peter 3:13-16 Matthew 22:41-46 “Always be ready to make your defence (apologia) to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with reverence and gentleness”. “No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.” Isobel always asks me the most difficult questions at breakfast. I guess she knows that if she asks me at night time I would simply close my eyes and pretend to be asleep. But at breakfast I am supposed to be wide awake and know all the answers to all life’s most perplexing questions, especially theological, philosophical and political. The fact that most of these have been asked many times over the centuries and have never been fully answered by the best thinkers does not satisfy her enquiring mind. If I say “I simply don’t know,” she invariably replies, “well you are supposed to know!” The truth is, the really difficult questions about life and death, suffering and pain, the seeming inability of people and nations to pursue what is right, good and just, about why the poor suffer harshly and the rich get away with so much, and about God, perplex all of us. And they do so because they are complex questions that defy simple answers. In fact, every attempt at an answer raises more questions ad infinitum. One of the greatest teachers who ever lived, the Greek philosopher Socrates, refused to answer his students’ questions. He simply put further questions to them, forcing them to search for the answers themselves. In the process he opened up fresh perspectives which enabled them to see their questions in a new way that took them further in their journey of knowing, and deeper into the truth beyond words. No answers would have done that. When Jesus was asked questions he often replied by telling a story or parable which not only forced his enquirers to think more deeply, but more importantly challenged them to live and act differently. Jesus did not provide them with brilliant responses that satisfied their minds, but took them beyond their comfort zones with a challenge that unsettled them. No wonder they stopped asking him questions. As Eugene Petersen translates our text: “That stumped them, literalists that they were. Unwilling to risk losing face again in one of those verbal exchanges they quit asking questions for good!” In the second century after Christ there was a small group of Christian theologians who came to be known as the Apologists. They tried to convince unbelieving but well-educated pagans about the truth of the Christian faith taking seriously the admonition of the first letter of St. Peter: “Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.” The Greek word which is translated “make your defence” is apologia, from which we get our word “apology.” The apologists were not apologising for their faith; but defending it from intellectual attack. Reading their writings today I don’t think that their answers were always very convincing. But it was then as it still is today important to give a reasoned account of what we believe to be true. Yet it is also true that such arguments seldom make converts. In the final analysis it was the death of the martyrs rather the reasons of the apologists that was the seed of the church. Courageous and compassionate deeds carried more weight than words. That is why the witness of Pope Francis is so powerful. When he went to Auschwitz last week he did not make a speech apologising for the failures of the church to prevent the Holocaust, though he had previously done so. He simply prayed in silence. He knew that the best Christian witness is to do what is right and to pray without denying that there is a time and place for words, that is, for apologia. I am ashamed of much in Christian history, but I make no apology for speaking about faith in Christ in a time of doubt, of hope in God in a time of despair, or of love for one’s enemies in a time of violence. I do not claim to have all the answers to the questions that are being asked with good reason by many people, but with St. Paul, “I am not ashamed of the gospel.” (Romans 1:16) I do not claim that we Christians have all the truth, but I do claim that faith in God is fundamental to being human in a world that is marked by great inhumanity, a world that no longer believes in the God-given dignity of all people; I do claim that hope in God’s future for the world is fundamental to saving us from plunging headlong into global chaos; and I do claim that love is the only antidote to fear, greed and hatred that is tearing global society apart. For these fundamental truths I am without apology. These are not truths which only Christians cherish, but they are fundamental to being Christian. They have to do with the way we live and the way we act in the world. “Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet” says Peter, but when you do so, “do it with reverence and gentleness”. John de Gruchy Volmoed 4 August 2016

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