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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

IS THERE ANYTHING TO CHEER ABOUT? On letting the light break through the cracks.

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These things I have spoken to you that in me you may have peace.  In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (KJV)

“I’ve told you all this so that trusting me, you will be unshakeable and assured, deeply at peace.  In this godless world you will continue to experience difficulties, but take heart! I’ve conquered the world.” (Peterson “The Message”)

Two days after Donald Trump became President-elect of the United States, Leonard Cohen, the Canadian folk-singer and prophet for our times, died.  He was 82, was struggling with cancer and had a fall.  But I guess he also died of a broken heart, broken by what was happening in the world, especially south of the Canadian border.  I decided I needed to hear his voice again.  Fortunately we had the CDs of his famous Live in London Concert with some of his greatest songs: “Dance with me to the end of love,” “The Future,” “Ain’t no cure for love,” and most famous of all “Hallelujah,”  Yes, “Hallelujah” or Praise the Lord, the very words with which we will end this meditation and our service today.

Cohen was Jewish.  He may not have been Orthodox, and he was no saint,  but he was steeped in the Bible and Jewish tradition; he had also dug deeply into the Jesus story.  As you listen to his songs, time and again you hear strong echoes of the prophets and their cry for justice, and Jesus speaking to us out of his suffering.  Some say Cohen was a prophet of doom, and I guess to some extent he was, but no more so that the Old Testament prophets, and no more so than Jesus when he said, as in John gospel, “in the world you will have tribulation.”  But there was another note that sounded in Cohen’s songs, an almost whimsical note of joy in living, and note of grace in the dark places of life.  Who can forget his words,

Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.

As I listened to him sing last week one line in his conversation between songs struck me: “I have studied the world’s religions and cheerfulness kept breaking through!”  Yes, Cohen was not pious or religious in any conventional sense of those words, but neither were the prophets.  And like them he could be scathing in his comments about religious hypocrisy.  But as he explored religion in greater depth, he also discovered cheerfulness and light  breaking through.  We get a glimmer of true religion, religion without pretension, religion in which cheerfulness and light keeps breaking through.  “In the world you will have tribulation,” says Jesus, “but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”  Even as Jesus went towards Jerusalem and the cross, cheerfulness broke through, a profound joy that arises when you know you are on the right path even if it is into suffering.  “For the joy that was set before him, he endured the cross,” says the writer to the Hebrews.

Jesus’ words are translated differently in modern versions of the Bible.  It no longer sounds quite right, as it might have to the translators of the Authorised Version, that Jesus was cheering up his disciples as he journeyed to the cross.   So the NRSV has Jesus saying “In the world you face persecution.  But take courage.  I have conquered the world.”  Or according to Eugene Petersen: “Take heart! I’ve conquered the world.”  “Take courage” is probably the best literal translation of the original.  But sometimes “courage” for us means the bravery of a soldier, or the bravery of a sky-diver, or the bravery of someone who plunges into the sea to rescue a drowning swimmer.  “Take heart” speaks more directly to us, it is a word of encouragement.  So, yes, it is about courage, but in a way that speaks to us in times when we fear that faith is failing, hope is disappearing, and love has become a cheap commodity.  “Take heart!”  “Be of good courage!’  “Be of good cheer!” Take your pick, they all point in the same direction, they complement each other.

But in order to take heart we need to discern the light breaking through the gloom of bad politics, bad religion, and even some lousy sporting results.  In times of despair about what is happening in the world, we need to be reminded that Jesus’ suffering and death are a prelude to his resurrection and the gift of his empowering Spirit.  In the midst of the darkness we need to see the “light breaking through the cracks” like a ray of sunshine on days when darkness covers the earth.  When the world seems to be falling apart, when life’s tragedies strike, when bad guys win elections, when religion lets you down, when injustice seems to triumph, when things look dismal all around you, take courage and be of good cheer.  Jesus has overcome the world of tribulation.  This is not a cheap cheer, an escape from reality, it is a profound joy when God’s grace enables and encourages us to take heart.

Everyone of us has his or her own story of pain and suffering, of loss and despair.  These may or may not have anything to do with the bigger picture, just as Cohen’s death may not have had anything to do with Trump’s victory.  No, these are our own personal struggles that weave through our own stories and those of our families.  As some of you know, yesterday we as a family celebrated Steve’s death almost seven years ago now.  He would have been 55 years old if he had lived.  It has often been a difficult road for us to travel and we will feel the pain of our loss. “But cheerfulness keeps breaking through!”  “There is a crack in everything, for that’s how the light gets in!” So take heart and sing along with Cohen and all the angels of heaven:  “Hallelujah!”

 

John de Gruchy

Volmoed 17 November 2016

WHAT MAKES A NATION GREAT?

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“Righteousness exalts a nation.” Proverbs 14:31-35

“Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” Matthew 6:33-34

So Donald Trump has been elected the next President of the United States against all the odds according to the pollsters. Commentators have had a field day analyzing the results and what Trump’s presidency will mean for the US and the rest of the world.  And while we have always known that the US is a divided country; we now know for sure.  It is split right down the middle.  The United States is no more United than Great Britain is Great.

If these elections have done nothing else they have brought the demons that plague American culture, and not only American, to the surface.  In order to get votes, Trump had to capitalize on the  dark side of American social life: racism, bigotry, xenophobia,  hatred and fear,  and he did so with an arrogance that had his supporters roaring with equally arrogant approval.  He claimed he wanted to make America great again, but what America, and at what cost? He might now promise to unite Americans, but having conducted his campaign in the way he did, how is America going to deal with the consequences?  He has encouraged  the worst in America, and laid bare his own prejudices, his unsavoury values, and some dubious preferences, none of them pretty.  Can  leopards change their spots, asks Jeremiah,, if so then those who do evil can do good.(13:23)  Let’s hope and pray so.  But this is a big “IF.”

It is true and praiseworthy that Obama and Clinton have promised to work together with Trump for the good of America,  and we must support them in that.  But nothing can brush under the carpet the divisive forces that have surfaced or the harm done to the nation’s soul by the bile and venom let loose in feeding the gun-toting craziness of some and the fears of most.  But instead of looking on smugly,  this should awaken all of us in South Africa to some soul-searching.  We, too have to exorcise the demons of racism and bigotry, hatred and fear, that lurk beneath the surface of our society before they get out of hand again.  If we are serious about reconciliation, we cannot brush them under the carpet.  I need not remind you, that we, too, have to counter racist rhetoric, hate speech, and violent sloganeering.

There is, however, another perspective that we need to take into account in reflecting on the US election.  While Trump’s campaign was deplorable, Hilary Clinton’s record in terms of global power-politics and support for war, and her cozy relationship with the banking elite on Wall Street, is also suspect.  Some argue that her policies are more dangerous on the global stage than Trumps access to the dangerous red button.  Clinton may have been a more sophisticated and experienced president, but both candidates put America’s interests first at the expense of others when it comes to global politics.  This may be natural for all nations, but it often leads an imperial America answerable only to its own electorate to make decisions that are detrimental to global interests, for example on the environment, fair-trade, and in the Middle East.   American foreign policy sometimes employs bullying tactics that mirror those of Trump.  The truth is, the US is not simply divided down the middle between Republicans and Democrats, supporters of Trump or those of Clinton, it is also divided by values that cross these lines, the values of some deeply concerned Christians and others who found it difficult to support either candidate.

It all has to do with what makes a nation great.  Is it its size, the power of its military, its victories in battle,  the religiosity of its citizens,  its sporting prowess and success at the Olympic Games, the glitz and glamour of political rallies, its ability to dominate global trade to its own advantage, its gold reserves and the dollar in which it trusts?  This question bothered the wise sages of ancient Israel because the Israel continually tried to emulate her neighbours instead of obeying God’s Law.  Their answer was categorical .  “Righteousness exalts a nation,” they declared.  Or as Jesus put it:  “seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness. To become great you have to do the right thing.   A great nation is one in which justice flourishes, and does justice in relation to other nations.  And the justice that those ancient sages spoke of, was that which served the interests of the poor and vulenrable. (See Proverbs 14:31)  The prophet Micah made it plain: “The Lord requires of you to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

If we are serious about reconciliation, we too have to become a nation that pursues justice.  We also have to nurture leaders who can set us an example and take us forward. We can no longer bask in the glory of a past generation of great leaders, we have to produce the next generation so that when it comes to choosing presidents we have worthy candidates from which to choose.  This is the challenge facing all of us at this moment in our history, and we can only respond to it if we are all committed to doing what is right, good and just.

Let me end with some words of our American Volmoed friend, Mark Braverman, written to Isobel this morning after, words of encouragement to us as we try to play our part in responding to this challenge:

It is a hard morning to awaken today. I am comforted by the fact that I am in a community of hundreds of millions here in the U.S. who feel as I do.  And am receiving emails this morning from around the world from friends who are horrified, for me, and for themselves as well because of course this is a global event.  We continue.  The world is a beautiful place,   Life is strong. We are strong.  Life shines through with its persistent, stubborn beauty, its generosity of love and joy and healing…. South Africa continues to be a source of learning and inspiration for me.  I had just written to John last night, as our results were coming in, about a possible visit soon to your valley.  Where else to go, but to the valley of heaven on earth, when it feels like we have just stepped into hell?

 

John de Gruchy

Volmoed  10 November 2016

INTERPRETING THE BIBLE TODAY

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@ VOLMOED 2017  Monday 6th to Friday 10th March

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 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 (Arendse)

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 that 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 December 15th, 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 10th.  Vacate rooms by 9.30.  Luggage may be stored at the office.  Tea at 10.30 a.m.  Last session 11-12 noon.

 

SELF-RIGHTEOUSNESS AND SELF-RESPECT

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“Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” Luke 18:9-14

One of the many things that appalls me about the current presidential race for the White House is the total lack of respect for people in debate, the media and on the street.  This happens everywhere and all the time, but Donald Trump’s campaign has made contempt for everyone who is different from himself and his followers a trade mark.  This has long been the norm in the political arena world-wide; it is also a source of violent conflict.  The sad truth is that through the centuries and still today many nations  have decided that they have to have enemies in order to be themselves.  Their identity is shaped by those they don’t like, those they hate, those they must defeat, those they must if need be, kill.  Enemies it seems too often are necessary in order to assert one’s own identity.  Umberto Eco, the Italian author who died recently, had this to say:  “In Italy today, Romanians are being portrayed as the enemy by extending to a whole culture the characteristics of a few of its marginalized members, thus providing an ideal scapegoat for a society that, caught up in change…is no longer able to recognise itself.”  

But is this not true of all of us to some extent?  We assert who we are by disrespecting or  even making enemies out of others.  We learn to do this when we are young; it happens all the time on school playgrounds!  But it is a sign of immaturity whether there or later in life, a  display our own lack of self-worth.  Throughout life we project onto others precisely those things we don’t like about ourselves, as parents do when they get angry with their children. Our inability to relate to others who are different and disagree with us, can even be a symptom of self-hatred.  For if we truly respect ourselves as human beings, we will respect the dignity of others as well.  That is what we have to learn as we grow up, but often don’t.

Treating others with contempt, Jesus says, is also a sign of self-righteousness.  Self-righteousness is the opposite of self-respect.  When we are self-righteous we exalt ourselves and our status because we actually feel inadequate and put on an arrogant front.  I know some people in leadership positions in churches who are just like that. The same is true of others who are in positions of authority in other walks of life most notoriously in the police force and military across the world.  Officers too often demand respect, but they have little respect for others.  So it is not surprising that those in authority are sometimes not respected; they have lost respect.  People in authority have to earn respect and not just be respected because of their office.  But this does not mean that  we treat them with contempt.  The fact that your cause is just, does not give you a licence to be self-righteous and arrogant.  Self-righteous politicians, self-righteous priests and pastors, self-righteous academics or students, self-righteous police, self-righteous racists are part of the problem, not part of the solution to our social ills. 

Self-respect is different.  When people who are downtrodden fight for justice; when the poor protest, when those who have been unjustly treated stand up for their rights, they are not normally being self-righteous, they are asserting their self-respect.  Being humble, which is the opposite of being arrogant, does not mean crumbling before unjust authority, it does not mean stopping fighting for human rights,  and it does not mean losing respect for who you are, surrendering your dignity as a human being.   Our model of humility is Jesus who took a stand for the poor and oppressed, and challenged the pharisees, even calling them hypocrites. But this was never for self-gain, this was never in order to exalt himself.  It was for the sake of challenging them to change their ways, to become more truly human, to regain their self-respect  and recover  their dignity so that they would respect others. It was, in short, for the sake of their salvation not damnation.

But even if the cause we defend is just, it is not a licence for arrogance or contempt of the other.  I happen to support the cause of the protesting students, but I abhor the violence which disrespects the rights of others, and the disrespect some students have shown towards some university Vice-Chancellors.  Such disrespect not only undermines their cause, it also hinders the building of a just society because it polarises people, it creates enemies. This is true in every walk of life.  If husband and wife lose respect for each other, their marriage is heading for the rocks.  If children and parents lose respect for each other, the family is becoming dysfunctional; if sportsmen and women lose respect for their opponents, sport has lost its soul; if academics lose respect for students, and students for lecturers and professors, a university cannot function; if priests and pastors lose respect for their congregations and parishioners, and vice-versa, churches fail; and if politicians lose respect for their opponents,  or police for citizens, countries start to fall apart. 

Surely respect for the other and avoiding arrogance are values all human beings can strive for as human beings even if politics cannot always be conducted on the basis of the Sermon on the Mount.  But for the church and Christians to really be the salt of the earth we have no alternative than to go the second mile and also learn to love our enemies. You have heard that it was said “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.”  But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. (Matthew 5:44)

John de Gruchy

An edited version of my Volmoed meditation  27 October 2016

 

ON NOT GIVING UP

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“Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”Luke 18:1-8

Not giving up is one of the hardest lessons of life.  There have been many times over the years when I have been tempted to give up on certain projects or tasks.  I know it sounds frivolous, but playing the bagpipes was one of them.  Yes, I gave up and everyone in the neighbourhood rejoiced!  And still today, I am tempted every Tuesday and Friday not to go to gym!  Simply the thought of going is more than enough to raise some serious questions: do I really want to do this?  Maybe at my age it is not a good thing to do?  But, of course, going to gym is really a minor matter when I come to think about it.  There are much more serious challenges that face us in life when the temptation to throw in the towel is strong, sometimes overwhelming.

The issue Jesus was talking about to his disciples, and therefore to us, in his parable of the widow and the unjust judge, was certainly not gym, but prayer and s it happens, justice as well.  The opening words of the story make it clear that prayer was the subject that Jesus first wants to talk about.  Don’t lose heart in trying to pray, he tells his disciples.  I am quite sure that fisherman like Peter, James and John would have had no difficulty in going to the gym and pumping iron.  But prayer?  None of those first male disciples were pious, people to whom prayer might have come naturally.  Maybe they joined in the synagogue prayers in Capernaum, but nobody would have asked Peter to lead in prayer at the weekly prayer meeting, and everybody would have been surprised if Andrew had a daily Quiet Time!  So Jesus had his time cut out in helping his inner circle to learn how to pray and not lose heart.  Persevere in prayer was his counsel.  And that is also his counsel to us as disciples.  Prayer might come naturally and easily to some, but not to all of us.  But, says Jesus, don’t lose heart!  And those of us who meet here on Volmoed every day for morning prayers sometimes need to be reminded of this when our prayers seem to hit the ceiling and bounce back.  Don’t lose heart!  The only way to learn how to pray is by persevering in prayer.  As Isobel paraphrases Julian of Norwich

If you have come to God with your request

asked him again and again;

implored him over and over,

but still not received

what you asked for,

don’t be discouraged;

don’t give up.

Keep on waiting

for a better time,

or for more grace,

or for a better gift.

For God has heard you…

 

But Jesus’ story develops beyond prayer.  The widow in the story wants justice.  Maybe a corrupt  official has stolen her welfare allowance.  Who knows.  What we do know is that the judge did not care.  The widow could not afford to bribe him, so she was a nobody as far as he was concerned.  As Jesus says, the judge had no respect for God or for anyone else.  He was a nasty man whose judgments favoured the powerful not the poor.  But the judge had not counted on the persistence of this feisty widow!  She was not going to be pushed around even by a powerful judge.  She wasn’t asking for favours, she just wanted justice.  So she kept on banging on the judge’s door, making a real nuisance of herself.

Sometimes we have to do this as disciples of Jesus.  Whether we want justice for ourselves, or we are fighting for justice on behalf of other people who have been badly treated,  we have to keep on banging of the door of those in authority.  This is what I like about Thuli Madonsela our former Public Protector.  She refused to give up doing what had to be done for the cause of justice even though  many in powerful positions tried to prevent her from doing her duty.  What an example to all of us of someone who did not lose heart.  And as a good Seventh Day Adventist, I bet that Madonsela didn’t give up on prayer either.  She persisted in both prayer and the struggle for justice.

Well, in the end the judge gave up!  That’s the truth of the matter.  Prayer and having justice on your side is a potent force, and often an unbeatable combination when it comes to dealing with corrupt judges or a corrupt political system.  In the end the powerful crumble before the persistent onslaught of truth telling in the interests of justice, and especially in the interests of people like Jesus’ widow who are poor and regarded as insignificant.  In the end the judge, says Jesus, was worn out by her persistence and caved in.  So, says Jesus:

Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?  Will he delay long in helping them?  I tell you he will quickly grant justice to them!

But, yes, there is a “but” that sneaks into the story because it does not always work out as it did for the widow.  Not everyone who prays for justice has his or her prayers answered even if they persevere as did the widow.  Sometimes, as Julian of Norwich counsels, we simply have to go on praying and struggling for justice against all odds, even when it all seems so helpless.  That is why Jesus ends the parable with a question put to all of us who would be his disciples:  “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”  When all is said and done, will we remain faithful in prayer and the struggle for justice till the end simply because that is what the disciples of Jesus are called to do?  That is a question we all have to face.  That is a question the church has to face, and never so much as right at this time in the history of our country.

 John de Gruchy

Volmoed 13 October 2016

BORN AGAIN IS NOT WHAT YOU THINK

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“How can anyone be born after having grown old?”John 3:1-10

Many people were surprised recently when N.T. Wright, an Anglican Bishop and distinguished New Testament scholar, publicly stated that “heaven” is not a place you go to after death.  When Jesus speaks about “heaven,” Wright said,  he is not talking about a heavenly realm beyond the clouds populated by angels playing harps.  The word “heaven” is used by Jesus as an alternative for the word “God” because that word was not meant to be uttered. Heaven is the presence of God.  Where God is present there is heaven whether in this life or the next.  Heaven is a reality beyond death but also a possibility on earth. As the Psalmist says God is present everywhere. (139:7)

So what does the  “kingdom of heaven” or the “kingdom of God” mean?   It refers not just to God’s presence, but also to God’s authority.  When we obey God, the kingdom of heaven is within us or among us, in the life of the Church and the world.  How we participate in God’s kingdom, how we obey God’s authority, was precisely the subject of the conversation between Jesus and the Pharisee Nicodemus which we read about this morning.   Nicodemus was not asking how he could get to heaven when he died, but how he could live now as a citizen of heaven on earth; that is, how could  he enter God’s kingdom.

Jesus tells him straight out that he had to be “born again,” (Authorised Version) or in other translations, “born from above.” Nicodemus was perplexed. What do you mean?   He thought he knew all there was to know about God’s kingdom for he kept the Law of Moses diligently.  He was also perplexed because he was old, and old people cannot change their ways, they cannot as it were enter into their mother’s womb and start life again.  Jesus, who we must remember, was about 30 years old,  is adamant.  Nicodemus, you just don’t get it!  You can’t see that God’s kingdom has come in what I am doing and saying because your mindset prevents you.  I am showing you the door through which you can  enter God’s kingdom but you are resisting because it requires a fundamental change of mind.  You are trapped in traditions that prevent you from seeing and entering.  Instead of the Law enabling you to understand God’s rule, it has become a stumbling block because you have turned the law into burdensome rules.

This was the bone of contention in all Jesus’ dealings with the Pharisees.  It was not that they did not keep the commandments or were insincere in their beliefs, but  they had turned keeping the Law into a burdensome legalism which prevented them from seeing the whole point of the Law, love of God and neighbour, justice, mercy and compassion even on the sabbath. That is why Nicodemus had to start again.  “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”  (Mark 10:15)  Think of it this way.  When children play together in a nursery school they don’t worry about the fact that some are white, others black, some from rich backgrounds and others poor, some foreigners and others local, some clever and others not.  They simply accept one another as play mates.  It is only when they grow up that they begin to be conditioned by social norms, cultural conventions and prejudices.  They lose their childlike capacity to be inclusive of others just as they lose their creative imagination.

Nicodemus acknowledged that God was at work in what Jesus was doing.  He was a thoughtful, wise and righteous man.   But he had yet to grasp the secret of the kingdom revealed in Jesus.  Namely that God’s grace fulfilled the Law, that entry into God’s kingdom was not determined by race, ethnicity, gender, class, or religion.  In Jesus, God had opened up his kingdom to all who would enter.  Jesus even said, “the last shall be first in the kingdom of God.”  He also said that rules like those for the Sabbath could be broken if human need required it. This was the good news of the kingdom of heaven which Nicodemus had failed to grasp.  So he had to go back to nursery school and start again.  And the same applies to everyone, not least those of us who think they know what it means to be born again!  For many “born agains” live by laws that exclude others rather than by God’s grace and love that embraces them. (See Galatians 5)  So they  not only fail to enter the kingdom, but also prevent others from doing so. (See Matthew 23:13-15)

During the Volmoed Youth Leadership Training Programme the “voeltjies” as we called them, kept on helping us to see things differently, not least Sam White, the African American whose booming voice so enriched our worship.  Well he, and some of the others have since become active in the “Black lives matter,” movement in the US and in South Africa.   Understandably some people have responded:  “yes, of course, black lives matter, but then  all lives matter!”  That is an understandable reaction but it misses the point just as Nicodemus did.  Yes, all people matter, that is fundamental.  But in many contexts  some matter more, and often far more than others. Blacks not whites were slaves, migratory labourers, , paid less, lynched and shot  by gun-toting cops.  In fact apartheid was based on the belief that white lives mattered more than black ones.  That mind-set is still prevalent among many white South Africas, even those who claim to be “born again” Christians!  It is called racism.

Jesus did not say that his fellow Jews did not matter; but he insisted that Samaritans matter as well, as do women, children, slaves, tax-collectors,  prodigal sons, prostitutes — in fact he specifically named and included everyone that the Pharisees excluded.  And that is why today we have to say that black lives matter, Palestinians matter,  gay people matter, poor people matter.   Like Nicodemus  we have to begin to think out of the boxes into which we have been imprisoned since nursery school by convention, culture and prejudice.  That is what repentance in the NT means, quite literally change your mind so that you can see things differently.  We all need a change of heart so that you can live and act differently. And by God’s grace we can do that even if we are old.  Otherwise we won’t get the message of the good news of God’s kingdom, God’s inclusive, saving grace which embraces us all and sets us free to love others.  We all really do need to be born of the Spirit, as Jesus said.

John de Gruchy

Volmoed 13 October 2016

THE BIGGER PICTURE

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“One who trusts will not panic.”Isaiah 28:14-16

“First sit down and estimate the cost.”Luke 14:28-30

Given all that is happening at the universities, to say nothing about the amazing cricket win against Australia last night, you might have missed another remarkable news item.  South Africa’s MeerKAT radio telescope has now released its first image showing 1,300 galaxies in the distant universe.  This is far more than was previously thought to be the case, and it is only the beginning.  Sometime within the next decade when the SKA or Square Kilometre Array telescope reaches completion, astronomers we will have a picture of the universe that is more immense than we could ever have imagined.  This is the bigger picture within which the earth exists as a tiny blob on a distant horizon.  But, of course, those of us who live on this tiny blob might well wonder what is so important about this cosmological discovery and why we should spend so much money on exploring outer space.  I don’t actually know the answer to that. I simply assume we need to know all we can about the universe in which we live for some good reason..

 

But there are other big pictures that are of more immediate concern.  I refer to education in South Africa brought into sharp focus by the #Feesmustfall protests.  If education is a priority matter for the well-being of society, if there are injustices in the system that need to be dealt with, and if lives and property are at risk, then we must as Christians, be concerned, become informed,  and respond.  But in responding nobody should lose sight of the bigger picture.  It is easy to make assumptions, form opinions on hearsay or media reports, or make unhelpful pronouncements.  It is also easy to get into panic mode, take rash decisions, and act in ways that are counter-productive.  The need for urgent action, and we do need urgency, is not helped by panic reaction in this matter as in life more generally.  The issues are complex, and there are no short-cut easy fix solutions.  So we need to get some perspective.  Let me offer some thoughts that might be helpful.

 

Firstly the basic demand of the students for a free education for the poor in South Africa is right.  This is the corner stone of their protest and we must not lose sight of it amid all the other stuff that is going on.  It is central to the bigger picture.  But this requires that the government re-think its spending priorities, not at the expense of health, housing and other basic needs, but by cutting back on projects that are sucking our economy dry and dealing more energetically with corruption.  Government funding of tertiary education is woefully inadequate.  But we also have to ensure that those who attend university have received a quality school education that equips them to succeed.  Those in authority certainly to sit down and count the cost involved in funding free education, but they also have to count the cost of not doing so.  So the battle on the campuses is part of a political struggle about what the government does with our taxes.   Of course, there are other political agendas at play in the protests.  The fight being waged in parliament, between the EFF and ANC, is the back story to much that is happening on the campuses.

 

Secondly,  non-violent protest is a constitutional right.  Students have a right to engage in protest on the campuses, and they can do so as energetically they see the need.  Students have done this through the ages, and have done so in South Africa many times  before now.  And often their causes have been just and proved right in the end.  But acts of violence are illegal and counter-productive.  None of us, and I think the vast majority of protesting students and their leaders, do not want to destroy buildings and the rest.  They know that these belong to them and future generations.  But in the bigger picture, violent action is indicative of the pent-up anger and frustration among many back students even if, and we have no way of knowing, there might be some criminal elements among them.  It is true that the law must take its course to prevent anarchy.  But excessive police force and even brutality is a sign of panic and bad training, and only makes things worse.  In the bigger picture negotiation is the key, however difficult that is.  You can be sure that every effort is being made to do this. I know personally know some of those involved.  They need our prayers and support.

 

Thirdly, it is vital that the universities get back on track as soon as possible, but also in doing so that they put in place mechanisms that will deal adequately and as speedily as possible with the grievances of the protesting students.  University administrators know this and they are doing everything humanly possible to make it happen.  They know only too well that, we cannot afford preventing doctors, educators, scientists, and others that society so desperately needs, from graduating this year.  They are desperately needed.  But we also know that it is equally important that all who qualify to become university students and therefore future leaders in society, should have the opportunity to achieve their potential.  It is not just this year’s students that matter; it is this and the coming generation that matter as well.  Solutions to the current situation must be long-term.  That is why we have to count the cost of funding education and not make rash decision, but we also have to count the cost of not doing so adequately.

 

I have not said everything that needs to be said, or everything that I would like to say, but I I ask you to take to heart the words of the prophet Isaiah: “One who trusts will not panic!”  If we really  believe that God is at work in the struggles for justice for the poor; if we really believe in the integrity of those who are giving everything of their time and energy and skill to deal with the problems in ways that will bring healing; if we really do believe that times of crisis are also times of God-given opportunity in which transformation and renewal can take place, then we will not panic.  But we will certainly pray and seek to do what is right where we can, and do so with urgency.  We will also do everything we can to ensure that the present and the coming generations of young people can achieve their potential.  That is why Volmoed is committed to the Volmoed Youth Leadership Training Programme and supportive of the Sparklekids initiative.  All this is part of the bigger picture of which we are a part.  It may only be but a small part of the bigger picture of our ever expanding universe, but it is our part.  “One who trusts will not panic.”  That is the Word of God!

John de Gruchy

Volmoed 6 October 2016