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“See, I am coming soon…I am the Alpha and the Omega…the beginning and the end.”
“As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world…may they be one that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
Living through this pandemic is like walking on a tight-rope. Having left the security of what was “normal” we traverse a dangerously narrow path towards an uncertain future. At any time, we could lose our balance between saving lives and saving the economy, and so fall into the abyss. We are only part of the way, but some are already starting to run in the hope of reaching the other side more quickly, while others take more care, trying to keep balance and not fall. But we all act in the hope that we will survive and arrive safely in the end.
But is it not true that we always live between past certainties and future uncertainties? When we are born, we leave the security of the womb, pass through a narrow gate into life, and begin a journey into the unknown. Along the way we also experience death – the death of grandparents, parents, family, and friends, and become aware that we also and always live under its shadow. We try not to be morbid and even joke about death, but we cannot escape its reality. Death stares us in the face even when we turn our faces away. That is part of being human, and even if in Christ we have “eternal life,” life in its fullness.
In the ninth century the Emperor Charlemagne divided history into two parts: BC (“before Christ) and AD (anno Domini, the “year of the Lord,” that is, the birth of Christ). As Western Christendom expanded across the globe, BC and AD became universal even if countries, like China, still observe their own calendar. For that reason, some scholars today speak of BCE (before the Christian era). Now some people are even saying that in future BC will stand for “before Covid-19” and, I guess, AP will mean after the pandemic. Certainly, living in lockdown has not only felt like walking on a tightrope from certainty to uncertainty, but living “between the times”; between the start of the pandemic and its anticipated end.
The first Christians also believed they were living “between the times,” but for them it was between the time of Christ’s resurrection, and his promised return which, as the book of Revelation (written during a time of great persecution) indicates, they believed would be soon. But whether soon or not, as it transpired, the question for them was not only about when the end would occur, but how they were to live in the mean-time in anticipation of the coming of God’s kingdom on earth. That is, living in the hope that God’s justice and peace would “cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.” (Habakkuk 2:14) Living and acting in such hope became, in fact, the motivation for Christian witness. As Christians broke bread in anticipation of Christ’s coming again, so they went into the world to proclaim the good news of God’s redemptive love for the world. The time “between the times” became the time of mission (“missio” Latin for “being sent.). And that remains true for us during this time of the Corona pandemic.
During this week between the Ascensions and Pentecost, the gospel readings from John 17 recount the “high priestly prayer” Jesus prayed before his death. His prayer was that his followers would remain one as “he and the Father were one”, and he declared that just as he had been sent into the world to proclaim the coming of God’s kingdom, so he was sending his followers to do the same. This is the significance of Pentecost – the beginning of the church as a community of people from every nation united in witness to the good news of God’s reconciliation of the world in Christ. This is how Christians are meant to live “between the times” – embodying reconciliation and so witnessing in the power of the Spirit to the good news of God’s coming justice and peace. That is how we Christians are meant to live “between the times”, whether during these times of the pandemic or once it is over.
The book of Revelation not only concludes by telling the first Christians, faced with severe persecution, that “Jesus will come soon,” but also that he is the “Alpha and Omega…the beginning and the end.” In other words, whether the end comes tomorrow or much later, the revelation of God’s love for the world in Christ remains constant because it is the creative origin of life as well as the redemptive goal of life. From beginning to end, then, the Christian life of faith is lived “between the times” – remembering Christ’s death and resurrection, and witnessing to the love of God for the world in anticipation of the coming of God’s justice and peace. That was never needed more than during this time of pandemic.
Thee pandemic has undoubtedly had serious consequences on the life of the church. Not only has it affected church finances and prevented people from coming together in fellowship, but it has also brought many church programmes of education and service to a halt even though much has still been achieved. But hopefully the pandemic is reminding us about what the church really is, and how it is called to live and witness “between the times.” The fact that most Christians throughout the world have been prevented from going to church buildings has not meant that the church has stopped being the church. The first Christians did not have church buildings; they gathered in homes for prayer and fellowship, and they did so in order to go into the world to proclaim the good news about Jesus. That is why at the end of the Eucharist we are sent into the world to love and serve. It is misleading, then, to say that once the pandemic is over, we can go back to church when we never stopped being the church.
In fact, being the church may not be about rushing to go back to those buildings we love in order to worship with others, as much as that may be what we desire, but it certainly is about acting responsibly at this time when the pandemic is far from over. For by acting responsibly we express our love for God, for each other, and for our neighbour. And that, after all, is what Christian witness is all about, an answer to Jesus’ prayer: “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 28 May 2020
Acts 1:6-11; John 16:12-15
“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”
“In God we trust” are words printed on every American dollar since1956. They may not be the official US motto, which since the 18th century has been “Out of many, one” (e pluribus unum), but the cynical among us say might say the god in whom the US trusts is the dollar. That aside, the question we need to answer is: who is the God we trust, not least during this Covi-19 pandemic? And, therefore, who is God working through and in what ways? Put differently, who do we trust to help us deal with the pandemic: politicians, economists, scientists, pastors or even a theologian or two? Who is telling the truth, whose word do we trust, whose guidance do we follow? Who do we believe are God’s agents?
We are moving into Stage 3 in our lockdown strategy to get the economy up and running as much as possible under the circumstances. But we know that the virus is still rampant and infecting increasing numbers of people. We also know that it is going to be with us for a long time, so testing and tracing, social distancing, hygiene, and medical preparedness remain vitally necessary. And while scientists are hard at work developing and testing vaccines, these will not be available for months. So, who do we trust to see us safely through the coming months? Can we trust the scientists? Are they God’s agents?
There are many Christians, especially in the US, who are skeptical about science and blatantly disregard scientific advice believing that God will protect them. But that is NOT what St. Paul meant when he said that we must be “fools for Christ’s sake.” It is just being and acting dumb. To claim that when we go to church God will protect us from infection because we believe in God, is misguided. If that were so, why does our faith not protect us in the super-market, taxi, or office where many infections take place? If faith alone can save us from the virus, why are we practicing hygiene, wearing masks, and praying for a cure? Why, have people of faith been infected and died? Faith in God does not make us immune any more than prayer prevents people from dying in a plane crash. Surely, we all prefer travelling on an airplane designed by scientists, rather than one built by priests and pastors, and prefer medicine tested by scientists rather than recommended by presidents?
The word science means knowledge, and natural science (what we commonly call science) is knowledge based on empirical evidence tested according to strict procedures. That is how science works. But scientists are not God, and like theologians, they don’t know everything, so we trust neither absolutely! Because people are good scientists does not mean they are also an authority on philosophy, art, sport, gardening, politics or religion, or a great partner, parent, or friend. Scientists are human like the rest of us. But what makes science trustworthy is the scientific method which enables scientists to get at the truth, solve problems, improve the quality of life, and respond to a pandemic. They may sometimes get it wrong, but I put my trust in them rather than in some politicians or pastors who reject their findings for their own ends.
So, what about our trust in God? Christian faith and science are not opponents or enemies, they are both gifts of God. But faith is, of course, a different way of knowing and arriving at the truth of “the mystery in which we live, move and have our being.” Faith in God, like hope and love, cannot be proved true or false by science. Hope is not based on scientifically derived economic data which reflects a rise in business confidence; hope is a way of being in the world despite the Corona virus, despite suffering, despite failures – it is a way of living that enables us to resist despair and overcome fear as we struggle for a better world. Likewise, love is beyond scientific proof. When you fall in love you do not explain what has happened to you as a neuroscientist might, you write a love poem or letter, sing a song, and prove your love by caring for the other. In the same way, faith is not wishful thinking, a clutching at straws, or what neuroscientists call confabulation. It is a way of seeing the world differently, a way of knowing based on the experience of the mystery we name God. Such faith is not irrational even if it cannot be empirically verified. It is affirming that there is a meaning and purpose to life beyond that which can be proved or disproved by science.
But if you want empirical proof, you may find it in self-giving love that is daily expressed and demonstrated by nurses, carers, doctors and many others at this present time. They may not be Christians or believe in God, but their self-less compassion and commitment to those in need demonstrates a profound truth that cannot be proven in a laboratory any more than it makes sense to many in our self-centered, greedy and individualistic world which puts its trust in the dollar. This is the truth we grasp by faith, the truth into which, as John’s Gospel tells us, the Spirit leads us. The truth that has been disclosed in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
On Ascension Day we celebrate the Lordship of Christ in and through whom, we believe, the whole creation and all of humanity find fulfilment and restoration. Central to the message of the Ascension is that the Jesus of Nazareth who embodied God’s redemptive, suffering love for the world and brought healing and wholeness to people, is the cosmic Christ who is present with us today. And we believe that through the Spirit God not only leads scientists deeper into the truth through their research, but also leads us deeper into the truth of faith, keeping hope alive and empowering us to love one another, especially those crying out for compassion. This is not a scientific claim, but an acclamation that the world is saved by the suffering love of God in Christ expressed in human solidarity and compassion. This is the God in whom we trust and these are God’s agents.
If cynics and skeptics think this is foolish, so be it. Maybe we are “fools for Christ’s sake”, but it is our witness to the “foolishness of the cross” which is God’s wisdom at work in the world. And it is this faith expressed in hope and love that we so desperately need, not only during this pandemic, but also as we rebuild our society once it has been overcome. So, let us trust the Spirit to lead us all deeper into the truth. At the same time give three cheers for those scientists medics and others on the front-lines who are working so hard and honestly to help us through the pandemic — our prayers are with you, as they are for all people whose compassion brings hope to those in need and who are suffering so much. In them we see the Spirit of the ascended Christ at work in the world.
John de Gruchy
Ascension Day 21 May 2020
“You have heard that it was said in those ancient times…but I say unto you…”
I vaguely remember the Second World War. We lived in Pretoria for the first few years, and some nights we had to shut the blinds just in case Japanese bombers came looking for new targets after their army had swept through south-east Asia. There was hushed news of South Africans killed on military service; my father was often away doing essential work for the government, and there was rationing. We moved to Cape Town in 1943 where much the same applied except that the “yellow peril” was replaced by German submarines off the coast. The enemy was always close at hand. Then came VE Day. Rationing eased and, my parents probably said we could now “get back to normal.” But what was normal? They were born during the Anglo-Boer Wars, they lived through the First World War in which family and friends were killed, the Spanish Flu which ravished Cape Town, the Great Depression, and the rise of Nazism. What was normal for them? As I grew up even after the war we never went on holiday, or ate at restaurants, there were few cars on the streets, I had a bicycle without gears but as we lived on the mountainside I had to walk long distances to school. That was my normal. Then came apartheid, the “new normal”, however abnormal it was.
The end of apartheid and the Cold War promised a new and better normal. But then the HIV pandemic struck without a cure, 9/11 and the “war of terror” shattered global peace, the financial crash of 2007 dashed hopes of prosperity, and corruption became normal as did global warming. President Trump’s election promise was to get America back to its normal greatness, but his election made fake news and white supremacy seem normal. Now we ponder getting back to normal after the pandemic, but whose normal? Are the hopes of the tobacco industry and the oil barons to normalize the economy the same as that of the trade unions and environmentalists? Is living in poverty in a shack, violence against women and children, unequal education and health care, to remain the normal for the majority?
So, let us be a bit more thoughtful in talking about getting back to normal after the pandemic. In any case if, as expected, the virus hangs around the new normal might be very different from what we might wish or want. It probably will mean no hugging, kissing or even shaking hands. Normal might be a hundred people watching rugby in a stadium designed to house 50,000? Hopefully normal will make it possible to meet friends in a coffee shop, and allow students to get back to campus, but it might require us to wear a mask like my father wore a hat to work. Normal body temperature will remain the same as will mathematical norms, but not weather patterns will probably never be normal. Even the hallowed laws of cricket might change! Whatever happened to tradition, the custodian of what is normal?
Someone recently noted a book on my coffee table entitled “Theological Ethics.” “What is that?” he asked, “I thought that there was only one kind of ethics, that ethics was ethics.” In a sense, he was right, because, as some philosophers have argued, “the good” is an absolute. But what is “the good”? The Ten Commandments tell us not to lie, kill, or steal. But what does it mean to tell the truth in exceptional situations? Does the prohibition on killing apply to war or the abattoir? Should someone whose children are dying of hunger be condemned for stealing a loaf of bread? Yes, we might say that ethics is ethics but what is normative for some societies or religions may not be so for others, or what might apply in ordinary times might not be appropriate in extraordinary situations. When we talk about justice, whose justice do we have in mind? Justice is not always blind as most African-Americans tell us. Ethics, you see, is about the norms that people believe are necessary to make life normal, but these norms often differ from one context to the next. So where does that leave us? Back to theological ethics, that is the attempt to provide a basis for ethics that derives from faith in God who, for us Christians, is revealed in Jesus Christ.
Jesus did not talk about what is normal, but he did say much about the norms of the kingdom or reign of God, and these often clashed with what was taken as normal by others in his society. Like other prophets, he was critical of religious and cultural traditions that were contrary to God’s kingdom. “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder,’” but, says, Jesus, we should not be “angry with our brother or sister!” For Jesus, what was normative and therefore what was meant to be normal, was God’s justice and peace, the love of neighbour and enemy, the fair distribution of wealth and the upliftment of the poor, the building of community rather than individual self-interest. So, the question we must ask is not: “when will things get back to normal”, but what kind of normal do we need to get work for, both during and beyond the pandemic? And, if we are Christians, we must surely seek answers which reflect the norms of God’s kingdom and therefore not miss this opportunity to bring about necessary changes in the way we live and the way the world works. Our task is to make the normal more just.
Yes, of course, getting back to normal is about getting back to work, getting back to school, getting back to having a meal with friends and family. But the Corona virus pandemic is forcing us to think again about what that normal should be, not the normal we have come to take for granted. What norms should guide our lives and determine the way in which we live together as societies, nations, and the global community? What should a normal church look like, that is, a church guided by the norms of God’s kingdom of justice and peace?
I, for one, do not want to go back to my parent’s normal, nor to the normal of apartheid, or for that matter to the pre-pandemic normal. The “good old days” were sometimes good but often bad. We are always in need of a new and better normal and maybe that will be at least one consequence of this beastly pandemic. But we cannot take that for granted. After all, the struggle for a better normal has been going on for a long time as the Old Testament prophets and Jesus remind us. It is not a struggle to go back to what was normal, but the ongoing struggle for a just world, a just country, a just society, a sustainable planet, and therefore a world at peace. So, the question facing us is not, when will we get back to normal, but what should become normal. What norms will determine the kind of world in which we will live?
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 14 May 2020
I Kings 19:11-13; Psalm 46
“Be still and know that I am God.”
As mid-winter approaches and the days grow shorter, so the splendid sunrise of summer has been replaced by early morning darkness. But suddenly, at precisely 6 a.m., the lights in the sanctuary chapel below our house shine through its lead latticed windows. The monks have started their vigil of psalms, prayers and meditation. There are still four more times of prayer, or “offices” during the day when the monks will practice their daily discipline of prayer, reflection on Scripture, and communion. Sometimes some of us living here will join them, invited by the ringing of the bell to do so. This sound is also a reassuring sign that whatever else might have changed, whatever other uncertainties face us, the essential service of prayer for the world continues. Monks do more than pray, but for them prayer is at the centre of their daily work: ora et labora as St. Benedict insisted.
At noon, the ringing of the bell invites us to join in silent prayer. No psalms are recited, no scripture is read, no bread is broken, there is only silence until the final brief blessing. This midday interruption in our daily lives is like hitting the pause button on your TV. The time has come to stop and become more aware of the mystery of the One “in whom we live, move and have our being.” “Be still and know that I am God,” the Psalmist wrote, not as a command but as an invitation to get life into perspective. We need that daily reminder. Stop and remember that this is God’s world, not one in which we can do as we please. Stop and remember that God loves this world and wants us to reciprocate. Stop and reflect on what this means for us in relation to the environment, the poor, one another, and living both during this pandemic and beyond it. Stop chattering and enter the silence filled with real presence. For contemplation is not navel-gazing. It is lifting up of heart and mind in order to listen to the Word beyond words that was “with God in the beginning” when the world was born in cosmic silence, the Word that becomes flesh to redeem and transform us.
It is my custom to read the newspaper headlines on-line each morning. Quite apart from being curious to know what is going on, I take seriously the dictum that we need to read the Bible and the newspaper side by side in order to make sure our faith in God is connected to reality. But I was taken by surprise last week as I paged through the Guardian to read the following headline: “After the restlessness finally there’s stillness: my last stage of coronavirus isolation.” Ah, yes, I said to myself that must surely be the theme of my meditation this week: “Finally there is silence!” After being bombarded by information about Covid-19, both true and false, after catching up on all the statistics, after all the “war talk” and stories of restlessness, anxiety, frustration, and suffering, along with some comic relief and creative innovation, “finally, there is silence!” Ironically, this headline rang bells as loudly and clearly as the noon-day bell.
The article in the Guardian was written by Brigid Delaney, an Australian journalist who, so she tells us, had often been “to monasteries and religious retreats seeking calmness” but now, during the pandemic she had the “same experience at home.” In fact, she observes, “This might be the first and only chance we have the time and mental space to experience true and prolonged stillness” because we have all been forced to settled “into a slower-paced rhythm. There’s nowhere to go, nowhere to be.” Some might be horrified by this shutdown, for it is not easy to enter silence, but Delaney turned it into opportunity. “Panic, grief, then wonder: the virus has taken away my old life and replaced it with something new.” She had, she says, “dropped down into stillness.”
Mystics compare this stillness beneath the surface of our lives to our experience of a turbulent sea. On the surface we are pushed and pulled by currents and wind. But if we dive deep beneath the surface, we discover what the Bible calls “the sound of sheer silence.” The phrase comes in the story about the prophet Elijah hiding from the wrath of Queen Jezebel on Mt. Horeb after having destroyed the prophets of Baal. As he stands on the mountain side seeking guidance for his next move, he is buffeted by a wind so great that it could split mountains and break rocks, but “the Lord was not in the wind.” Then came an earthquake followed by a roaring fire, but the Lord was in neither. But finally, we are told, “after the fire” there was “a sound of sheer silence.”
Many people have experienced a distressing loneliness during the pandemic lockdown, especially those who live on their own, or lie in a hospital bed unable to be visited by family or friends, even anticipating dying in isolation. For them, the silence has become unbearable. Others, living in crowded shacks or in apartments with partners and children, have also found the noise unbearable. They have longed for silence; any silence would be better. But the “sheer silence” Elijah experienced is neither the silence of loneliness, nor is it the silence of escape from others or responsibility. It is a silence we can experience whether we live alone or in families and community. It is the silence of presence and discernment.
The core business of Volmoed is to provide space in which people can enter that silence. And because we can offer this space to those who want to come apart during this pandemic lockdown and beyond, we have decided to set aside several houses on Volmoed for people who want to spend isolation time here in a meaningful way. The terms and conditions of the lockdown apply, but Volmoed offers space for walking, an opportunity for being alone or as a couple in beautiful surroundings, as well as daily prayer in the chapel (where social distancing is practiced) and spiritual direction if requested. And nearby restaurants are providing and delivering uncooked meals! If this speaks to your need, or that of someone you know and may even wish to sponsor, please be in touch and come “drop into silence!” But whether you come to visit or not, may you also “finally have some silence” during this time of plague.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 7 May 2020
How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation…”
Vincent van Gogh once said, if we love nature, we will find beauty everywhere. Here at Volmoed and in the Overberg we are surrounded by natural beauty, but that does not mean we see beauty everywhere. For that we need our eyes opened, for there are many, Jesus said, “who look and look, but do not see.” Consider, then, something else van Gogh said after he had visited a city rubbish dump: “what beauty!” Van Gogh could see what the rest of us cannot or maybe will not see. Beauty, according to some ancient Greek philosophers, “is in the eye of the beholder”. Where some people see ugliness, others see beauty. Even if my auntie Doris thought I was an ugly child, my mother thought I was beautiful, and in the end that is what mattered.
I well remember the first time I entered a shack in a poor township. Outside everything was awful and not to be romanticized in the slightest. But inside everything was clean, there were pictures on the rough walls, and flowers on the table. The ugliness outside, the abject poverty and accumulated rubbish, was the result of gross injustice that nothing could excuse back then and or condoned today. But I was fortunate to be invited inside, and that was a different universe. Love had turned a shack into a home of simple beauty in stark contrast to the squalor and poverty all around. Beauty, you see, and I mean “see”, is not tawdry opulence but an expression of love. We have too much wealthy ugliness in the Overstrand in the face of so much poverty, and that needs to change when the pandemic ends.
More generally, we can see so much ugliness in the Corona virus pandemic itself. Corrupt officials steel food parcels meant for the poor, politicians use the opportunity to score points, powerful nations grab medical supplies for themselves rather than share them with others, and health workers die because they lack protective gear. There is nothing beautiful about Covid-19. But amid all the ugliness associated with the pandemic there is much beauty if we have eyes with which to see. The beauty of nurses, doctors, and essential service personnel working long hours in dangerous circumstances; the beauty of the many people across our country and in our own community who are taking food parcels to poor and those in isolated communities or caring for abandoned animals. The same is globally true. It is the beauty of unselfish courage and redemptive love.
I remember visiting an old Catholic church near Bellagio in Italy with a friend. She was not a Christian and had seldom been inside a church building. As we walked into the sanctuary, I remarked on its beauty, but she shuddered with repulsion. I asked her why, and her answer took me by surprise. She could not look at “that man suffering on the cross up in the front” and so she turned her back and left the building. For her, the cross was grotesque. And, of course, it was and is grotesque, graphically depicting one of the ugliest and most brutal forms of execution. In foretelling the good news of the coming Messiah, Isaiah knew that there would be “nothing in his appearance that we should desire him”, but he would rather be someone “from whom others hide their faces.” (Is. 53:2-3) Yet time and again painters have discerned and depicted that horrendous event in a way that expresses the beauty of God’s love for the world. With the eyes of faith they see the beauty of redemptive love just as the see the beauty of creative love in the nature that surrounds us. Artists help us all to see better, as do the artists who pursue their craft on Volmoed. They might even help us see the beauty of feet as did the prophet Isaiah: “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation…” Such feet may be hardened and calloused from walking on rough paths, they may be unwashed, but they are beautiful because they go the extra mile to bring help, hope and consolation to those in need.
In a sermon preached on-line last Sunday, Robert Steiner, the minister of the Rondebosch United Church in Cape Town, reflected on a painting by the 17th century French artist Nicolas Poussin depicting Peter and John healing a blind beggar at the “Beautiful Gate” outside the Temple in Jerusalem. What makes that gate beautiful, says Robert, is not its architecture, size, or history, but the way it becomes a gateway to new life and possibility. In Jesus’s day not everyone was allowed to pass through that gate into the Temple, and there were many that did but did not see the begging people sitting near the gate as lovable let alone beautiful.. But the painting depicts one moment when the gate lives up to its name. It is when Peter and John bend down towards the beggar lying before them and enable him to start life again. They have no silver or gold to give him; all they can give the man is the good news that God loves him and wants to make him whole. How beautiful their feet must have appeared to the beggar! They were not well-shod feet hastening past; they were dirty and dusty, hardened by much walking on the hills of Galilee. But they were beautiful feet because they brought the good news of Jesus that that the beggar was lovable and beautiful as a human being created in God’s image. So he grasped Peter’s outstretched hand and “jumping up” as Acts tells us. “he began to walk,” entered the Temple “leaping and praising God.” His dignity as a human being had been restored, he had been raised to new life. In that instance the gate became truly beautiful.
The remarkable generosity of many people during the Corona virus pandemic is truly beautiful, but the beauty does not lie in the money that is given much as that is desperately needed whether in large or small amounts. What is beautiful is the concern, solidarity and humanity that lies behind the generosity; what is beautiful is the fact that people reach out to others in need; what is beautiful is the love that is expressed through self-giving often at considerable risk. How beautiful are the feet of those who bring the good news of God’s healing and saving love to those in need, especially during this pandemic. That is something to celebrate, to jump up with the risen beggar and praise God.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 30 April 2020
“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called…and set out for a place not knowing where he was going.”
When will the lockdown end? We know it won’t be any time soon. But even when it does, it will not be business as usual. We are be travelling into largely unchartered territory without google road maps if not up a creek without a paddle. The truth is, we really do not know how the world or South Africa will shape up going forward, though the consensus is that it will be different. But, then, we never do know what the future holds. When we were born our parents did not know what would become of us, neither did we when we left school. Even if we trained for a career there was no certainty that we would end up pursuing it, and that is even more true today. Futurists and fortunetellers seldom get it right. We know that certain consequences will follow today’s actions, and we may be able to make accurate predictions about the weather, but we do cannot anticipate all the variables that will shape the future, like a virus erupting in Wuhan.
When Bernhard and Barry established Volmoed thirty-four years ago they had a vision but did not know exactly know how things would develop. Over the years the Volmoed community has learnt to trust that God is involved in the process. Just when we are not sure of the next step, or when things look particularly bleak, something surprising has happened to show us the way forward. Right now, the corona virus pandemic and lockdown has raised serious questions about how we can survive and fulfil our purpose if no guests and visitors can come to Volmoed. But we believe God is leading us step by step. We have to learn to live with uncertainty, as all of us have to, and how to journey into the unknown. This is, in fact, central to the biblical story and to Christian faith.
Genesis chapter twelve represents a decisive turning point in the biblical narrative. Up until then we are in the realm of primordial saga sketched with bold strokes on a cosmic canvas: the story of Creation, the Fall, the Flood and the destruction of the Tower of Babel, all events in the prehistorical mists of time when, Genesis tells us, there were super-human giants (Nephilim) in the land, and divine beings cohabitated with human women. (ch. 6). Then, without warning, the story enters familiar territory even though it is still ancient history. We hear about countries and cities that can be located on the map, and we hear about people and nations that are part of the known history of the Middle Eastern. A man called Abraham enters the story; a man who believes he is called by God to go into the unknown.
We know very little about Abraham until the day God called him. We know that he was the son of Terah who came from Ur of the Chaldeans, that he had a brother named Nahor, was married to Sarah who was childless, and that they lived in Haran, an ancient Canaanite city near the river Euphrates in Mesopotamia. That’s it! So how and why did God call this man to become the founding patriarch of the people of God, and eventually of the three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam? And why did Matthew begin his gospel by telling us that Jesus was the son of David who was the son of Abraham! (1:1)
We can only surmise that Abraham, like Moses later in the biblical story, must have had a “burning bush” experience, an encounter with Yahweh, the God who was totally different from all other gods, including those of Chaldea and Mesopotamia. In all likelihood, he had arrived at the point in his life, a mid-life crisis if you like, when he was beginning to question the meaning and purpose of his life, and was increasingly disillusioned with the available answers and the life-style of affluent Haran. There must be more to life than raising a family and making money! Abraham was ready for a change of direction, a new way of life informed by his growing belief in a God who was greater than the gods of the nations, a God who could not be conceived let alone reduced to a statue in the market square. This God was the only living God, the creator of the cosmos, the One who determined human destiny, not blind fate or subject to changing moods like the weather, but trustworthy, and committed to the well-being of the world. Abraham was ready to obey the call of this God to leave the known behind and travel into the unknown, to turn his back on the city and his former life, and set off into the wilderness to discover God’s purpose for him and his family.
As the letter to the Hebrews (11:8) puts it, “Abraham went out not knowing where he was going.” But one thing is certain. As St. Paul would write centuries later (Romans 4:3), Abraham’s obedient faith brought him into a personal relationship with God, and God’s purpose for him. In Eugene Peterson’s translation: “Abraham entered into what God was doing for him, and that was the turning point.” And that is the experience of countless people ever since who are the spiritual descendants of Abraham
Even though the journey into the future is always unknown, people of faith, the descendants of Abraham, continue to believe that God is involved in the unfolding drama of history. A drama, as both the Bible and Shakespeare tell us, is full of tragedy but also of hope. For Christians, this drama finds its epicentre in Jesus, the son of Abraham who was tested in the Wilderness, died on a Cross, and was raised to new life in order to give birth to a new hope for humanity. This is the hope that saves and directs us as we journey into the unknown, travel through our own wildernesses, suffering and tragedies, but striving like Abraham to trust in the promises of God.
As we struggle through these days of the pandemic, which are for so many people, days of disaster, devastation and death, people of faith continue to discern signs of hope in the face of tragedy, and trust in the God who leads us through the uncertainties of the unknown. In doing so, we take heart from Bonhoeffer’s words written shortly before his arrest and imprisonment
I believe that God can and will let good come out of everything, even the greatest evil. For that to happen, God needs human beings who let everything work out for the best. I believe that in every moment of distress God will give us as much strength to resist as we need. But it is not given to us in advance, lest we rely on ourselves and not on God alone. In such faith all fear of the future should be overcome.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 23 April 2020
“See, I am making all things new.”
The emerging big question facing world governments is not just how we end the Corona pandemic, but how do we restart the world once the lockdown ends. We do not know when this will become possible, or how it will be managed, but sooner or later we will have to push the reset button. But how do we remake the world? The answer depends on what kind of world we want or, better, what kind of world we need. There is widespread agreement among concerned people that we cannot and should not return to what was considered normal. We have to redouble our efforts to make the world more just, treble our efforts to overcome poverty, and at the very least, save the environment and develop better and more inclusive health policies. In short, if we want to survive as the human race and live in a healthier world, we must work against the conditions which spell disaster.
At times like these many fundamentalist Christians put their hope in the imminent second coming of Jesus to right all wrongs, and think it is pointless to work for political, economic and social change for only God can sort out the chaos. So they turn to the book of Revelation in search of clues that predict the “end times” when Christ will come again and establish God’s kingdom and all will be well. Also known as the Apocalypse of St. John, the book’s unfolding drama has not only captured the imagination of many seers and poets through the ages but also raised popular hopes and fears whenever wars, earthquakes, floods and plagues occur, the horsemen of the Apocalypse who warn us of what is to come. Speculation about who is the anti-Christ and when the battle of Armageddon will be fought reach fever pitch. But the book was not written to predict what might happen in the twenty-first century, it was written to encourage the early church at a time of great persecution. And while much of its symbolism and imagery resonates with our times, as it has in previous times, its enduring message is that God reigns and through the death and resurrection of Christ has conquered the powers of darkness that threaten to destroy us. As Christians we are always living in the “end times” for these began when God raised Christ from the dead. The resurrection of Christ was the beginning of a new creation in which God is “making all things new.” When we declare “Christ will come again” we anticipate the fulfillment of all things. But, to quote Jesus, “the end is not yet!” (I have written about this in my book The End is not Yet which, some readers tell me, is even more relevant today than when it was published in 2017.)
In my last meditation I referred to the Fall of the Tower of Babel and the global confusion and strife which resulted. The Book of Revelation (ch. 18) returns to that symbolic event in order to describe the end result of human arrogance and corruption, when kings and “the merchants of the earth” “weep and mourn…since no one buys their cargo anymore!” (v. 11) The warning of John the Seer is that if the world continues along the path of injustice, violence and disregard for the environment, it will eventually collapse. This is the framework in which he speaks of the “Lamb that was slain” and the “great multitude” singing “Hallelujah” because Christ has triumphed over evil. And this makes possible the birth of a “new heaven and a new earth” beyond suffering, tears and mourning. The good news is not only that we have “been raised to newness of life in the risen Christ” but also that the world has been given a new start for in Christ God is remaking of the world.
Resurrection Sunday, then, is the first day of the new creation, and every Sunday when we break bread together, we anticipate the coming of God’s kingdom “out of heaven to earth.” That is why we pray “Your kingdom come on earth as in heaven.” This is God’s work in progress, the vision that keeps hope alive, energizes us in working for justice and peace, and encourages us in our witness to the death and resurrection of Christ. If anyone is in Christ he or she is part of this new creation already, however its scope is not just the rebirth of us as individuals, but of humanity and the whole of creation. Thus the Christian church from the beginning has been a global movement, not a religious society separated from God’s world, but an instrument of God’s love for the world.
There are many ironies that have come to the fore during this time of the plague. One is surely that just when it seemed that globalism, which gathered momentum after the end of the Cold Wat, was coming to an end with the return of nationalism its opposition to global institutions, the Corona pandemic is demonstrating that humanity is far more than a conglomerate of individuals and nations, it is a global village in which “if one suffers we all suffer, and if one rejoices we all rejoice.” The food chain today, if nothing else, demonstrates that we are all dependent on what is grown and manufactured elsewhere in the world. There is an interconnectedness between all the peoples of the earth which we forget at our peril even if global institutions have faults. Presidents and nations can build walls to keep us separate, they can pass apartheid laws to segregate races, but no walls or laws can prevent hurricanes from blowing across borders or invisible viruses moving across the face of the earth. And when that happens “no one is an island”, whether it is Fiji, the UK, or South Africa. If someone sneezes in China, the whole world can be infected by a deadly virus because we humans and with us all of nature is bound together in the same global fabric.
Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings
in the forests of Brazil
set off a tornado in Texas?
Does the swish of a lion’s tail
in the African veld
set off an avalanche in the Alps?
Does the whisper of a rumor
over coffee in the office
set off a storm in the suburbs?
And does an outburst of anger
at the family meal
set off a cloudburst in the community,
which in turn affects
every other creature
on the earth? (Isobel de Gruchy)
Whether we like it or not we are all part of a global community in which we need each other if we are going to survive and flourish. And it is to this remaking of the world, a world of global justice and peace that we as Christians bear witness when we declare that “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” And we do so because we believe that in Christ God is “making all things new” and is calling us to participate in that task. That is the mission of the church and our motivation in participating in the remaking of the world beyond the plague.
John de Gruchy Volmoed 16 April, Easter 1 Lock