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PSALMS NOW: A Paraphrase of the Psalms

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by Isobel de Gruchy

Just published by Wipf&Stock and highly recommended by her husband! Access information by using the following link and order through Amazon if in the US or UK. A South African edition will be published later this year.

https://acrobat.adobe.com/link/review?uri=urn:aaid:scds:US:9fc42921-085d-4810-84ca-96df2a297854

IN MEMORIAM

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IN MEMORIAM

ARCHBISHOP EMERITUS DESMOND MPILO TUTU

PATRON OF VOLMOED (1990-2021)

The Volmoed Community joins with people everywhere, the high and lowly, the mighty and the meek, the learned and the unschooled, people of all colours and faiths,  to celebrate the life of Desmond Mpilo Tutu, an icon of justice and peace, the scourge of the oppressor and supporter of the oppressed, a man of prayer and humble servant of God, who served as our patron, participated in our life together, who broke bread with us in celebrating the mystery of faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.  

The Volmoed Community mourns with all who grieve the passing of this son of Africa, this servant of the ecumenical Church, this pastor of pastors whose love and compassion has embraced us and people everywhere in his witness to the love of God for the world revealed in Jesus Christ.  Mama Leah Tutu, none of us can know the grief that you and your family have experienced during the past weeks.  But we do grieve with you as we each remember the way in which you and your beloved husband touched our lives in so many ways and on so many occasions.  May you be blessed in your mourning and may the prayers and condolences of multitudes support you as you journey into the future.  Thank you for sharing your life together with us.  You have enriched our lives beyond measure.

We give special thanks to God that during the last few years of the Arch’s life we were blessed by your presence when you came to live among us in Hermanus and shared in our weekly celebration of the Eucharist radiating joy and embracing friends and strangers in our midst.  We remember especially your presence when we celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of our founding as a community in 2016, and the inspiration you gave to both old and young, especially to those participating in the Volmoed Youth Leadership Training Programme. We also give thanks that Tata invited the Benedictine monks of the Order of the Holy Cross to establish a presence in South Africa, and that this presence is now located at Volmoed. We give thanks that he established the Centre for Christian Spirituality in Cape Town that has so richly blessed so many people, and that the Centre Library is now housed at Volmoed.  In these ways, too, we have been blessed beyond measure. 

Our prayer is that we may share the blessing you gave us with all who come to Volmoed, remembering his legacy with deep gratitude, and rejoicing with him in the love of God we have come to know in Jesus Christ.  May Volmoed be a place that helps fulfil his dream of justice, reconciliation and peace, a community of forgiveness and love, and a witness to the joy and hope that he embodied among us.

A statement adopted by the Board of Trustees and signed by members and friends of Volmoed.

Feast of the Epiphany, 6th January, 2022

THE CHALLENGE AND PROMISE OF INDEPENDENCY: A few reflections on the recent local government elections in South Africa

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Much has been said and much more will be said about the recent local government elections, not least about the apparent voter apathy, the loss of support for the ruling ANC, and so forth. But perhaps the most significant fact was the rise, proliferation, and relative success of new local and independent parties.

Anyone familiar with church history should immediately have recognized the significance of this evolution in our political life that mirrors the rise of localized parish or congregational protests against centralized ecclesiastical power that fails to deliver the services it should. This is, as it was in church history. one of the most promising developments in our development as a democratic society. For despite voter apathy at one level, it represents political concern and commitment at another. For what matters to most people is what is happening on their own doorstep, in their own community, and they are willing to get involved if need be. Of course, the local cannot actually be separated from the national as they are mutually interdependent, but it signals the awakening of a political consciousness that refuses to leave matters in the hands of remote leaders or to reduce concerns to ideological considerations, as if lack of water, sanitation, and the presence of pot-holes are ideological — what is ideological is whether people should suffer from them, and those who suffer know this better than those who don’t. For too many people, “local is not lekker”, and the time has come to change it. National transformation cannot mean much if it does not transform the social conditions on the ground.

My Congregational (my church tradition) forebears were called Independents at first because they were protesting against the state and episcopal control of the church in England that rode roughshod over the the welfare of local congregations and parishes. A glaring example, that helps explain the rise of Methodism in Cornwall, was the refusal of the Anglican (church and state) authorities to translate the Prayer Book into Cornish! That is just one example. Another is the remarkable rise and expansion of African Independent Churches in South Africa. Interestingly when the Plague struck in the seventeenth century in England, there are stories of Anglican clergy and Nonconformist ministers setting aside their ideological differences that kept their denominations separate, and joining together to save their communities from the devastation of the pandemic. Such ecumenical action at a local level., as during apartheid, was a forerunner of ecumenical engagement at a larger, denominational one.

I have a suspicion that many, if not all, the leaders of the new small independent parties in the recent elections had their political education in the parish and congregational councils of the myriad of churches that are embedded in local communities across our country. They would have learnt there that if their tithes sent to the church authorities elsewhere did not in some way support their mission in the local communities they represented then something was wrong. So why worry about distant hierarchies, whether ecclesial or political, why fund their positions and programmes, if that made no different on a local level? Apathy at a national level was therefore transformed into action at a local level. And as now demonstrated, there is no apathy when that happens, only protest, and that is either expressed in street action or through taking political initiatives such as we have now witnessed.

There is a danger in this, of course, because this could mean that wealthy parishes and communities “do their own thing” without a concern for those who are poor. So independency is not necessarily a good thing — interdependency is essential — but independency is often a necessary form of protest, a wake up call. The rise of sects has always been a challenge to the church because they have discerned its failures and offered an alternative to disaffected members. And never has this been more true than during times of social anxiety such as we currently are experiencing. In fact the rise of independent political movements is a very healthy alternative to uncontrolled service delivery protests and the outbreak of violent riots such as we have experienced. So three Christian cheers for the new independents. But in the end, they too, will recognize that independency in itself is inadequate. Coalitions become necessary. And that simply means the there is no alternative to ecumenical co-operation whether you are a church or a new political “kid on the block.” For political parties to say that they have no need to engage other parties in serving their communities is not just political arrogance, it is suicidal and cannot serve the interests of local communities. Working together for the common good does not mean that you love one another; it means that you put the interests of others above those of party and ideology. In fact, the ideology becomes the common good. This is as true in the church as it is in society, which is why I may be a Congregationalists but I am an ecumenical one. We need each other just as we need good leaders at every level of church and political life.

John de Gruchy

7.11.2021

WHAT ON EARTH IS SAVING FAITH? 

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Galatians 5:1-6

Luke 18:1-8

“When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

“The only thing that counts is faith active in love.”

What a strange question!  “Will the Son of Man find faith on earth?”  Of course, he will! If faith means religious beliefs, then the Son of Man would find a great deal of faith if he came tomorrow.  For there are many faith communities and people who belong to them across the world.  In fact, religious faith is a major global commodity, with is buildings, insttutions, bureaucracies, TV programmes, and a host of publications from daily devotionals to volumes of theology.  And then, there is much faith that is not especially religious in character.  Faith, for example, in the Proteas, our national cricket team, that they will win the forthcoming Cricket World Cup however unlikely that may seem to the pundits and bookmakers.  Yes, indeed, if the Son of Man came tomorrow, he would find a great deal of faith on earth! 

But is this what Jesus had in mind when he told the parable of the unjust judge which ended with this question?  I don’t think so.  Jesus was thinking of people who truly trusted in God enough to persist against all odds, as did the person in his parable.  Knocking on God’s door relentlessly until finally there was an answer.  True faith in God according to Jesus’ parable, is tenacious, it never gives up no matter how pointless it seems to carry on.  That is the faith that Jesus was talking about.  Not the faith that thrives only when our prayers are answered, but the faith that persists when our prayers are not answered, our hopes not fulfilled, when the innocent suffer and their persecutors get away with their crimes. Such faith in God is not the same as believing that God exists, even though there are good reasons for doing so, nor is it accepting a set of beliefs however important they may be.  Such faith in God is about a relationship of trust even when it seems against the odds. This is what Jesus had in mind when he asked whether he would find faith on earth – people truly trusting God with their lives when the going gets tough.

Trust is fundamental to our well-being as humans. Learning to trust is a part of our growth to maturity, and as such it normally comes naturally.   We are born to trust, and we flourish through trusting. Our experience of loving parents and families enables us to learn what it means to trust others as we grow.  Good teachers, mentors and friends help us grow in trust. But what if our childhood is marred by parental neglect or divorce, as it is for so many people? What if there are no role models that teach us how to trust each other, or trust in doing what is right and just, or if they themselves let us down and betray our trust in them?  What if a close friend dies of cancer, when a daughter or son is killed in an accident, when the church lets us down, when a role model is found guilty of a crime?  That is when doubt sets in, something that always accompanies us on our journey of faith.  And doubt raises the question: who can we trust, who is worthy to be trusted?  Is there a person to trust on earth?

The traditional answer of religion is that in the end, only God is worthy of our trust.  But what if that is also challenged by experiences we have?  The Psalms are full of the complaint: where is God when we need God most?  How can we go on trusting God when God seems to have forgotten us, turned a deaf ear to our pleas when we have banged on the door of heaven a thousand times only to be met with silence?  Can we, do we, still trust in God when everything in our lives begins to fall apart?  This is what Jesus had in mind when he asked: “when the Son of man comes, will he find such faith on earth?”  The faith that keeps on keeping on, the faith that perseveres, the faith which Jesus says, saves us.  But it is not all that must be said about such faith: it is more than perseverance.  It is faith, as St. Paul says, that is “active in love.”

Jesus talks about such faith at the end of the story he tells about the woman deemed by society as a sinner, probably a prostitute. (Luke 8:36-50) She comes to Jesus while he is having dinner with a group of Pharisees, those who upheld the morals of society.  Women were not invited or welcome at such meals, so it was outrageous that this woman had the audacity not only to enter the room but to kiss Jesus’ feet and anoint them expensive perfume.  Surely, the Pharisees must have thought, Jesus would tell her to go away?  Surely Jesus knew the rules of righteous living and could tell that this woman should be shunned?  But such was the woman trust in Jesus that she took little notice of the angry stares and words of the Pharisees.  She knew that he embraced those who were shunned and rejected by society and its self-righteous moral police. She might even have heard Jesus say, as Luke recounts, that he had come to “save sinners, not the righteous?” 

Luke’s gospel puts great emphasis on the fact that Jesus came to save sinners.  That is, all those who, like this woman, were excluded from society because they did not practice all the rules and laws that religion demanded of them.  They were outsiders.  Lepers, prostitutes, tax-gatherers, Samaritans, indeed all who not only felt excluded but were excluded.  Jesus broke through that barrier.  But in doing so, Luke tells us, he did not shun the Pharisees. He accepted them as well, even accepting their invitation to share a meal with them on occasion.  And some of them, like Nicodemus also came to trust him and, like that woman, were born again in the process.  For that was Jesus’ mission. To make the outsider welcome and to change the hearts and minds of those who kept them at arm’s length, thereby awakening true faith in God.

And so the woman took Jesus at his word.  Uninvited and unwelcome, she intruded the Pharisees’ dinner party. and Jesus made her welcome. He was trustworthy.  And so she expressed her love for him in the way she knew best. She anointed his feet with oil and wiped them with her hair. Trust turned to love, and in that act of love, she became whole.  She could live with new confidence and hope. Her faith had saved her.  At last she had peace. 

When Jesus asked hie question: “When the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?” he is not asking whether he would find religion, he was asking whether he would find people who persevered in their true of God, people whose faith was active in love, and people whose lives had been changed as a result.  For in the end, St Paul tells us, the only thing that really counts “is faith working through love.”  That is the faith that the Son of Man will be looking for, when he come, it is the only kind of  faith that can save us and the world, the only faith that really matters.

John de Gruchy

Volmoed, 21 October, 2021

CELEBRATING TUTU’S LEGACY

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Matthew 17:1-8

“Get up, and do not be afraid”

Today we celebrate the 90th birthday of our beloved Arch, Desmond Tutu, who also happens to be the Patron of Volmoed. What a remarkable human being and what a story!  The story of a small, chronically ill boy from a humble background of racial oppression becoming a global icon of prophetic courage, profound faith, expansive generosity, childlike joy, indefatigable hope and delightful humour that continues to challenge, enrich, and delight us all.  So, we rejoice with all who celebrate his legacy this week.  And we give thanks for the wonderful memories of his presence here on a Thursday at the Eucharist during his recent years in Hermanus. We are also thankful that he invited the monks of the Holy Cross to establish a monastery in Grahamstown thirty years ago, otherwise we would not have them with us today.  That he established the Centre for Christian Spirituality in Cape Town, otherwise we would not have received the Centre’s library which is now housed in our crypt.  And we give thanks that it was under his leadership that the Anglican Church in Southern Africa ordained women priests, and that Wilma our chaplain was among the first to be ordained twenty-nine years ago. Indeed, I was there that evening in St George’s Cathedral together with our late son Steve who was holding our first grandchild, Thea, in his arms.  Steve and I had been invited to be among the ordaining ministers, so we wereg close enough to the Archbishop to hear what he said under his breath after asking Wilma whether she would obey him as her bishop.  “Yes,” she replied with her characteristic enthusiasm.  To which Tutu, not following the Prayer Book, quietly responded: “That I don’t believe!”

The story of the transfiguration of Jesus, which we read this morning, has long been Tutu’s favourite. Early in the 1970’s, during a conference, we sat together during a tea break in the garden at St Benedict’s House in Rosettenville, Johannesburg. It was then that he first told me that he that he would like to write a book on “transfiguration.” For him, the transfiguration of Christ is fundamental to the Christian understanding of transformation.  Tutu was deeply concerned about social justice and political transformation, but he has always understood transformation as something deeper than simply structural change.  That is why Tutu’s critics often misunderstood what he was doing. 

In opening every conversation, even with political leaders, as well as each session of the TRC in prayer, he was tapping into a source of transformation beyond the political or psychological.  He was not a priest playing politics but a witness to the gospel of God’s love and justice, and therefore God’s the transfiguration of a fallen world. As he told the vast congregation gathered in St George’s Cathedral for his enthronement as Archbishop of Cape Town “the principle of transfiguration is at work when mundane everyday fare, bread and wine, apparently recalcitrant matter . . . becomes the channel for the divine life.”  No person or situation is “untransfigurable” because everyone is “made in the image of God” and no society is beyond redemption because God’s purpose is to create a new humanity. 

It is no secret that Tutu was a profoundly spiritual person, and that his spirituality was shaped and sustained by his remarkable discipline.  For him, saying the daily offices, celebrating the Eucharist every morning no matter where he was, and going on retreat, were sacrosanct.  This was not a matter of required ritual or piety; it was, for Tutu a necessity.  He well knew that it was not any self-developed gifts, his warm personality or astute insight, and certainly not his physical stature, that enabled him to provide wise counsel and take a courageous stand against state power and its instruments of control.  The source of his ministry was the Spirit just as the gospel was his guide. Indeed, the daily celebration of the Eucharist for him was always an act of transfiguration in which the glory of God was revealed in the transformation of ordinary things, bread, and wine, so that they became the instruments of God’s grace.  That was at the heart of his ministry: God’s transfiguration of the ordinary into the extraordinary; the natural into the supernatural.

In recording the gospel story of the transfiguration, in which the glory of God is revealed as Jesus begins his journey to the cross, the New Testament evangelists tell us that what happened on the mountain top was not understood, even by Jesus’ close disciples who witnessed the event.  They were so dazzled by what they observed that they did not want to go back down the mountain and continue their journey.  Peter even suggested building a sanctuary on the top where they could permanently reside.  But the moment of transfiguration was a prelude to going back down from the mountain top to journey to the cross, or from worship in the sanctuary, to lead a protest march in the struggle against injustice. 

No one was more elated than Archbishop Tutu when apartheid was defeated.  A rainbow nation was born, a resurrection had occurred.  So, no one was more saddened than Tutu when that glory began to fade.  Was the “rainbow nation” a figment of pious imagination? Was the revolution once again “devouring its own children”?  Can the world really change for the good, be transfigured, or must power inevitably corrupt?  These questions perennially perplex people of faith and hope, as they do Archbishop Tutu.  But he knew there is no short-cut in the struggle for justice, reconciliation, and peace, because human injustice, division, and violence are buried deeply in the human psyche.  That is why the struggle must continue in every generation.  To come down from the mountain top and get involved in God’s work of transfiguration is Tutu’s legacy.

“Get up” says Jesus to the disciples on the mountain-top, “do not be afraid.”  You have seen the glory of God revealed in Jesus Christ crucified, and you have had a foretaste of his resurrection.  Tutu’s life is a witness to that conviction, and it should be true of all of us. The world is never a lost cause because it is God’s world.  This means that South Africa can fulfil its promise, that forgiveness of enemies is possible, that love can conquer hatred, and that while weeping may last during the night joy comes in the morning.  The Tutu legacy above all is the conviction that not even our scepticism and doubt, our fear and lack of political will is “untransfigurable.”  That is why Christ tells his disciples, and Tutu tells us likewise, “Get up, do not be afraid.”  We cannot stay on the mountain top even in celebrating the his birthday.  And we do so in the conviction that gives us hope: for God, nothing is “untransfigurable.”

 John de Gruchy

Volmoed 7 September 2021

 

GOSSIPS & FAKE NEWS

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James 3:1-10

Luke 6:43-45

“How great a forest fire is set ablaze by a small fire!  And the tongue is a fire…”

“It is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.”

This year more than 7,000 wildfires in California have damaged or destroyed more than 3,000 homes and other buildings and burnt over 3,000 square miles.  Now we hear that a devastating fire is threatening the Sequoia National Park and the tallest tree in the forest, the General Sherman Tree, which stands 84 metres high and is 31 metres in circumference at its based.  I once visited that famous old tree and marvelled that such an enormous tree grew out of a tiny seed that once fell to the ground where it now stands.  How incredible!  But everything starts life as a tiny seed or sperm, an idea in the mind or the glint of an eye.  Even creation with a word or two: “God said: “Let there be light, and there was light.”  We are also told that we began as a speck of dust and to dust, we are ominously reminded, we shall return as will that giant sequoia tree,

St. James, the brother of Jesus obviously knew about such wildfires.  “How great a forest fire is set ablaze by a small fire” he writes before going on to attack in the strongest language the abuse of the tongue.  “The tongue is a fire” he says, that “sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell!”  Eugene Petersen translates the passage: “It only takes a spark … to set off a forest fire.  A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that.  By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke with it…  This is scary,” he continues: “You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue…it runs wild, a wanton killer!”  How many catastrophes have resulted from angry words, insults hurled, or rumours that spread like wildfire. The danger today is greater because social media spreads fake news at the speed of lightening and sets passions ablaze as quickly as a spark ignites a forest.  And those who continue to deny the realities of global warming with their Facebook messages and tweets are stoking the fires.

I seldom use Twitter, but now and again I check out what is being said by twitters, some of them great twits who spend much of time making comments about what is going on in the world.  Twits, short and often puerile and ill-informed as they are, have enormous influence in shaping opinions, winning elections, and spreading rumours. And rumours have power. The early Christians, it was rumoured, were cannibals, anarchists, and atheists, and persecution followed.  And Jews, so Christians said, were “Christ killers” so pogroms and the Holocaust was the result.  But rumour mongering was also a pastime among some in the early church as we can see from James’ letter and those of St Paul.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul lists it alongside “every kind of wickedness” including “envy, murder, strife and deceit.”  The Greek word he uses means “falsehood”, often translated colloquially as “gossip.”  Gossips, says Paul, are “slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful. Inventors of evil!” (Romans 1:29-30).  Gossiping is not just a harmless pastime we indulge in over coffee or at tea-parties; gossip is on a par with killing someone.  Or as James says, the tongue, despite its small size, can ignite a huge blaze of deceit, lies and, fake news, that can leave a trail of destruction in its wake.  If we are concerned about wildfires, and angry with people who carelessly or wilfully start them, we should be equally concerned about gossips who spread rumours and fake news.  Gossips, let me hasten to add, are gender inclusive.  Men might think that it is only women who gossip.  But anyone who knows about locker-room talk, boardroom, or pub chatter, knows better.  Gossiping is a human pastime that often turns racist, sexist and destructive.  Racist and sexist slurs, innuendos, and jokes are not harmless, they are hurtful and potentially dangerous.

In his classic book On the Imitation of Christ, the fifteenth century monk Thomas a ‘Kempis counsels his readers to avoid “unnecessary talk.”  That is virtually impossible for me and probably most of us who love to talk, engage in conversation, and indulge in chit-chat at every opportunity.  After all, as Ogden Nash said, gossiping is something anyone can do “and it is much more interesting than any other form of speech!”  Few of us are called to be Trappists who are pledged to a life of silence. But Thomas knew the danger of idle talk in a monastery and, by extension in any community.  So, his counsel like that of St James’, “watch your tongue,” is advice we should heed, especially those of us who wag our tongues a great deal!  If we are not careful, we could be starting a forest fire!  Gossiping is not harmless fun anymore than it is harmless to throw a cigarette butt out of a car window or have a braai in a forest on a windy day, even if it is tomorrow when we celebrate “Heritage Day”.  So how do we learn to control our tongues and avoid the dangers of gossip that can so easily destroy relationships and undermine community? Where do we draw the line? 

Apart from us recognizing the problem, which is always the first step in such matters, let me suggest seven rules for conversation that prevent it becoming destructive gossip. Firstly, resist rumours.  When we hear someone say: “people are saying…” we need to challenge them, check the facts, and certainly not pass on the rumour as though it is the truth.  Secondly: we should not be silent when lies and falsehoods are spread.  If we do, we become complicit.  A fire cannot spread if we douse the flames when they are still small, but if we do nothing we are as guilty as those who started it.  Thirdly: we should not break confidences.  If someone shares their lives with us, especially their failures, faults and struggles, we should respect their trust as much as a priest when hearing confessions. If something is confidential it should stay confidential.  Fourthly, we should not turn a good conversation into a bad gossip session.  Good conversations are wonderful, enriching, informative, and often fun.  It is when they degenerate into gossip that they become destructive.  Fifthly, we should listen before we speak, and think about our words before we utter them.  I personally find this very difficult t times, but I keep on learning to my cost when I don’t do what I am counselling others to do.  Finally, and above all else,as counselled in the New Testament, we should try and speak the truth in love, that is, in ways that heal and build relationships and community.  Of course, true love is tough and honest. and sometimes love may dictate that we do not tell the truth or all of it.  As Bonhoeffer once said, it is better sometimes when a good person tells a lie than when a bad person tells the truth!  Think about that one… It has to do with what Jesus said when he told his disciples that good people speak out of the abundance of the heart.  And while you ponder on that conundrum keep in mind what James translated by Petersen wrote: “A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it!”

John de Gruchy

Volmoed, 23 September 2021

THE DESIRE FOR GOD IS A DESIRE FOR LOVE

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Song of Songs 3:1-7

Matthew 13:44-45

“I will seek the one whom my soul loves.”

“The kingdom of God is like a merchant in search of fine pearls.”

Anglicans of an older generation will remember the words of the prayer of confession in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer: “we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.” Or the prayer we often say as a prelude to confessing our sins: “O God to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid…” — words that automatically make us think of sinful desires and the devices we use to avoid detection.  But understanding desire as something sinful did not begin in the Anglican Church!  You find it in ancient Greek literature, as well as in the Bible.  The Ten Commandments tells us not to covet, especially our neighbour’s wife and ass.  So, desire became an enemy of righteous living, for who does not desire forbidden fruit even if it is beyond reach.  As Adam and Eve discovered, the tree in the garden was not only good for food, but a delight to the eyes, and its fruit was to be “desired to make one wise.”  So they ate, their eyes were opened, and they saw that they were naked! (Gen. 3:6-7) There was nowhere to hide, no device to escape detection.  They no longer experienced God’s daily embrace though that love for them remained.

A recent British government report on sexual abuse in religious communities of all faiths is disturbing but not unexpected.  We know that sexual misdemeanours have plagued the church over the centuries from the time Paul wrote his letters to the Corinthians.  Churches may be called to be communities of saints, but they are also communities of sinners.  We also know that when the church has regarded sexuality as inherently sinful it has resulted in unhealthy reactions.  Too often we have disconnected eros, or sensual love, from agape¸ that is self-giving love, as though the body is sinful and in perpetual conflict with the spirit.  By the same token, too often we have failed to recognise that false piety and religious hypocrisy were condemned by Jesus more than sexual misdemeanours.  

None of us would be here if sexual desire, like our desire for food and drink, was not part of our humanity. Desire is natural and necessary. When we lose desire, we die.  But desire not only drives actions and attitudes that are necessary and praiseworthy, but also those that are wrong and sinful. The desire to get home safely after a long journey is not sinful, nor is the desire to get a good education, help someone in need, or save the planet.  But the desire that motivates greed, lust, and the compulsion for power certainly is.  Sins of the soul are as bad if not worse than sins of the body; evil arises out of the heart and mind before it becomes embodied in action.

The Bible tells us that we have an innate desire for God even if we do not acknowledge God, or consider such desires as reserved for other-worldly mystics or those more religiously inclined than we are.  Yet the desire for God lies at the heart of Christian spirituality for all of us. It is the desire for meaning, for wholeness and a love that is everlasting.   It was this desire that led the first Christian monks into the desert, and many others across the centuries to seek God. And it is to this desire in which body and soul, the sensual and the spiritual are united that Psalmist appeals: “O taste and see that the Lord is good.” (Psalm 34:8) It is the desire described in the Song of Songs: “I will seek the one whom my soul loves.” 

Many have wondered why the Song of Songs is in the Bible.  After all, it does not mention God, but is an erotic love poem describing the desires of a bride and bridegroom in anticipation of sexual intimacy.  Indeed, says Bonhoeffer, “You really can’t imagine a hotter, more sensual, and glowing love than the one spoken of here!”  Yet the great mystic and Benedictine monk, St Bernard of Clairvaux, preached more sermons on the Song of Songs than on any other book in the Bible, and Bonhoeffer said that nothing better reveals the meaning of the uniting of the human and divine in Christ, the “Word become flesh”. For Bernard as for Bonhoeffer the Song of Songs is a celebration of our desire for love, our desire to be embraced by God as we are by others we love.  Put bluntly, it favourably compares the pleasure of sexual union in which soul and body are united with the joy of  being embraced by God.  Eros, or sensual bodily love is not the opposite of agape or God’s self-giving love, but inseparable from it.  “With my body”, says the marriage liturgy, “I thee wed.”  Two people “become one flesh” not just “one spirit”; the union of souls, is a union of body, mind and spirit.

Jesus, Matthew recounts, tells us that “the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”  No effort or expense was too great to obtain the prize of love.  The “pearl of great price”, something of rare and of unique beauty which attracts us to itself, is something we desire more than silver or gold, indeed, we are restless until we find it, for it is the “kingdom of God”, that is, where God’s love, justice and peace reign. To find that pearl is to discover that love, the love of a lover who is always wanting to embrace us fully, body and soul.  No one has ever described this better than St Augustine who had certainly been around the block a few times before his conversion to Christ dabbling as much in sex as in philosophy.  This is what he writes in his Confessions:

Too late have I loved you, O Beauty so ancient and so new. Too late have I loved you!  You were within me, but I was outside myself, and there I sought you! I heedlessly ran after the beauty of the things you have made. You were with me, but I was not with you. These things kept me far from you – things that only exist because they exist in you! You called and cried and pierced my deafness. You radiated forth and shone brightly and chased away my blindness. You breathed out your fragrance, and I breathed it in, Now I yearn for you. I tasted, and now I hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I burn with desire for your peace.

John de Gruchy

Volmoed   9th September 2021

WHAT’S NEW?

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Ecclesiastes 1:1-11

Revelation 21:1-5

Matthew 2:13-23

“Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new?’”

“See I am making all things new.”

“Hou die blink kant bo!” was my father’s favourite Afrikaans idiom.  Keep the shiny side up.  Maybe that’s why I err on the side of optimism rather than pessimism, my cup half full rather than half empty.  Of course, we optimists are more likely to be disappointed than pessimists because we expect every story to end well and we know, from bitter experience, that this is not so.  So I was not sure I wanted to read Niall Ferguson’s new book Doom which I recently received as a gift.  After reading the first chapter I was ready to put it on my pile of half read books.  But I persisted even though it confirms every pessimist’s prediction. We live in a world of endless wars, plagues, horrible deaths, and inept, corrupt politicians.  The four horsemen of the Apocalypse: War, Plague, Famine and Death, have created chaos from the beginning of human history to the present time.

Many people complain that the Bible, despite superb parts, is also too much about bad kings and brutal wars, adultery, and betrayal, in short, sin and evil. But is not this the way things are, even if we are not cynics by nature?  And no one said it more clearly than the Old Testament preacher: “All is vanity, there is nothing new under the sun.”   And, to drive home his point, he asks us to provide evidence that it is not: “Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new?’”   Whatever will be, will be!  Don’t expect the world to improve, for if you do you are living in a fool’s paradise.  Yes, there is progress, changes for the better, new inventions and discoveries, new structures of compassion, but also, ominously, new weapons of destruction, new attacks on a fragile environment, and new variants of old diseases.  The new normal is the old normal in new dress, because human nature is the same as always. 

Nothing reminds me more of this than the TV series “Murder in Paradise” for, episode by episode, there is a gruesome murder on that little island paradise.  One would think that the series must surely end soon for they are running out of victims!   But we don’t need a TV murder to tell us that.  Just read the Bible.  For no sooner have we got past the creation of paradise than we encounter a snake in the garden, Cain murders his brother Abel, and we are plunged into the saga of one cursed event after the other until the mighty city of Babylon collapses like the Twin Towers in NYC on 9/11 twenty years ago next week.

Over the past months I have studied the book of Jeremiah, one of the greatest of the Old Testament prophets.  Jeremiah was often despondent about the state of the world and at least once cursed the day of his birth.  During his long life, he outlived several bad kings,  witnessed many wars, as well as the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of its leading citizens.  It is Jeremiah who castigates false prophets for proclaiming peace when there is none, and it is Jeremiah who cries out: “Can a leopard change its spots?” Will people and nations ever change their ways?  Will the cycle of revenge and violence ever be broken? 

            Yet history is also full of people and movements that have refused to accept this pessimistic worldview without protest.  Alongside the narrative of doom, despair, and death, there has always been a counter narrative of hope, courage, and compassion, and both narratives co-exist and challenge each other throughout the Bible.  So, writing from the ruins of the Temple in Jerusalem Jeremiah encourages the exiles in Babylon, to build houses, that is, not to lose hope in God’s promised future.  Despite all his fears and lamentations, Jeremiah speaks about a new covenant God will make with God’s people and, indeed, the New Testament or Covenant begins with the words: “This is the beginning of the good news story about Jesus the Christ.”   Of course, the gospel narrative is fully aware of harsh reality, beginning as it does in a shack in Bethlehem, and ending in betrayal and crucifixion.  It is Jeremiah who Matthew quotes when, after the birth of Jesus, Herod unleashes his brutal massacre of the innocents:

A voice was heard in Ramah,
   wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
   she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

But the story of Jesus is the beginning of good news because in and through him and the movement he starts, God is at work making things new.  “Tell him,” Jesus tells John the Baptist’s disciples, “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the dead are brought back to life.”  This counter-narrative of redemption helps us see light breaking through the cracks in the darkest places, miracles of new birth amid decay, love even where hatred breeds violence, and truth in a time of lies and fake news. Even as we hear the hooves of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse and responds to the terrifying realities around us with the necessary realism, we also rejoice in the transforming power of the good news of God’s enduring, creative love, justice, and peace.

The good news story that informs our lives claims that evil need not triumph, that love not hatred endures, that God is making all things new.  So, in the middle of the terrible bad news that daily confronts us, we erect houses of hospitality for fleeing refugees, healing for broken bodies, and hope for those in despair, as we celebrate Christ’s resurrection and the gift of new life.  We insist that forgiveness can heal relationships, that faith can move mountains, and people can change for the better.  We do not deny the story of doom, nor should we, but as Christians we are called to live according to the truth of the good news story.  We march to a different drum beat, we live by a different creed and set of values, and we seek a different goal.  And we do so not just for our own sake, but for the sake of the world and the coming generation.  If faith in God means anything, it means believing that despite the deep gloom, God is making all things new. 

John de Gruchy

Volmoed,  August 2, 2021

LET’S GO FISHING

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Luke 5:1-11

“From now on you will be catching people.”

Some of my best memories of times spent with my late son Steve was when we were either sitting in a boat or on the riverbank at Vermaaklikheid trying to catch fish.  We would sit for hours, chatting and catching up, often in the blazing sun, while baiting hooks, and casting into the river — but we seldom caught any fish.  We had nibbles and bites but no luck, or the skill to make a catch.  It is not as though there were no fish to be caught.  Others fishing in the same river reeled in grunter, cob and steenbras, but not me.  So eventually I gave up.  I was no fisherman.  Certainly not in the class of Simon, his brother Andrew, and the others whom Jesus called to follow him.  Though, according to the story, we have just read, Peter also spent a whole night fishing and caught nothing. So that makes me feel a bit better.

We sometimes forget that Christianity began when Jesus called fisher-folk to leave their nets and go with him.  Jesus did not get his recruits from the Temple in Jerusalem; he went to a small fishing village in Galilee.  If Jesus had come to Hermanus he would not have gone to the United Church or the synagogue, but to the Old Harbour to find his first disciples.  Mark and Matthew tell the story as if Jesus was simply passing by when he called Simon, Andrew, John, and James.  But according to Luke it seems that Jesus had already spent time in Capernaum and got to know these weather-beaten fishermen before he called them.  Certainly, Luke gives us a fuller picture of what happened. How the men had spent all night without catching any fish, and then only in the morning when Jesus came by and suggested that Simon cast in his net in a different place, did they caught so many fish that their nets began to break!  Then that Simon fell at Jesus’ feet, acknowledged his lack of faith, and heard Jesus’ call: “Don’t be afraid.  From now on you will be catching people!”

Simon, or Peter “the rock”, as Jesus renamed him, was martyred in Rome in the year 64.  By the time Luke, wrote his gospel around the year 80, Peter had been dead for about fifteen years.  By that time, almost twenty years after Mark first told the story, the church had become inclusive of Gentiles largely through the ministry of Peter and spread across the Mediterranean.  So, the words of Jesus about Peter catching lots of people had come true and his readers would have recognised that this was so.  Indeed, for them the “boat” in the story was the church, and the other side of the boat was the Gentile world contrasted with the Jewish.  So Peter had cast his net more widely, and within two more centuries Christianity would become the established religion of the Empire and Peter the martyr would be venerated as the first bishop of Rome.

When I was a young, ardent Christian, this story was told to inspire us to do evangelism, to go fishing for Jesus.  We certainly put a lot of energy into doing so – running missions, preaching on street corners, holding rallies.  Learning how “to catch people” for Jesus was part of our training.  What bait should we use?  Should we preach the fear of God or use sugar-coated tactics. But I was not much better at hooking people for Jesus as I was for catching fish. And eventually I gave up on practising techniques that manipulated people into the kingdom of God.  After all, proclaiming the good news about Jesus is not about catching people in a net, or brainwashing them with religious propaganda.  People are not innocent fish waiting to be hooked by tasty-looking bait designed to make a big catch!  So, what, then, is genuine Christian evangelism?  How do we tell others about the good news concerning Jesus?  Do we go out into the highways and byways and “compel” them to come in, by force, if necessary, as some have interpreted Jesus’ parable of the wedding feast?  Maybe we should take note of what Jesus himself did when preaching the good news of the kingdom of God to gain disciples.

Jesus certainly preached to large crowds on occasion, but he generally ministered to individuals according to their personality, needs, circumstances, and station in life.  He respected everyone as created in God’s image and addressed each in their uniqueness. He spoke differently to the Samaritan woman at the well than he did to the blind, lame, and leper, or the rich young ruler and Roman soldier.  For some, the good news meant healing, for others forgiveness, or sharing their goods with the poor.  But for all it meant learning to live life all over again as people who trusted God and followed Jesus’ way.  What is more, he did not entice them with false promises of fame or prosperity but told them to “take up their cross”, love their neighbour and enemy, and warned them that the road ahead would be tough.  Even so, he did not place burdens on people greater than they could manage and assured them that God would give them the strength to carry on living with hope.

As Christianity spread across the Mediterranean world, the first apostles and evangelists also had to explain the good news of Jesus summed up in his death and resurrection.  Evangelism, or spreading hat story, required a new language if the fishing net was to be cast more widely.  And this has been the case ever since in every context where the gospel has been preached.  How we talk about Jesus and demonstrate his significance must be put in fresh words that speak to those willing to hear.   But evangelism is more than words, it is sharing God’s love and compassion.   Clarifying and defending the truth about Christian faith is important, but few people become followers of Jesus as a result of lectures or being convinced by a good argument.  Most enter the kingdom of God through the love and compassion shown by the followers of Jesus.  For, in the end, evangelism is not so much about what we do or say, but about what God does through us and others.  Like John the Baptist, our task is to prepare the way for God’s grace.   

People often say that God met them at Volmoed, that God healed them here, or spoke to their need.  That is what the gospel is about, the good news of what God does.  Our role and responsibility is to make Volmoed a place and be a community where that can happen.  We cannot make it happen, only God can do that, but we can prepare the way for it to happen.  So evangelism should be understood not as saving souls, but as preparing the way for God’s grace to work in the lives of people whether by word or deed.  So, to answer to my former fervent fundamentalist friends’ question “How many souls have I saved during the course of my life?” Or how many fish have I caught?  I must honestly say: “None!”  But we can all prepare the way for God’s grace, and trust that God will do what God alone can do.

John de Gruchy

Volmoed 25 August 2021

DO NOT WORRY?

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Ephesians 5:15-20

Matthew 6:34

“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

“Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people, but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.”

Here’s a little song I wrote
You might want to sing it note for note

Don’t worry, be happy
In every life we have some trouble
But when you worry you make it double

Don’t worry, be happy
Don’t worry, be happy now

So sang Bobby McFerrin in 1988.  And so, it seems, Jesus also told us.  “Do not worry about tomorrow.”  But we do worry!  I worry!  How can we not worry?  Come on Jesus, it was easy for you and your disciples: no rent to pay, no kids to clothe and feed, no leaking roofs to repair, or cell phone fees to pay… come on Jesus, get real, join the world we daily experience as friends succumb to Covid and the Taliban capture Afghanistan, as we run out of water and fire destroys our shacks, as the price of fuel rockets and loadshedding switches off the lights, as corruption reigns and politicians dither, as the baby cries all night and our parents lie in pain, and as we mourn the death of those we love and face our own mortality .  Yes, we worry about tomorrow with good reason simply because from one day to the next we do not know for sure what is going to happen, whether to us as individuals, the circles in which we live, or the world itself. We worry about our future and that of our children and grandchildren.  We worry about our country and continent, and the environment. Come on Jesus, get real.  That’s how I often feel when I read Jesus’ words, and maybe you do too! So don’t feel guilty if you worry about tomorrow, for that only adds to your worry.  Worrying is not a sin; it is part of being human and living in the real world.

So why does Jesus tell us not to worry?  Is Jesus a wishful thinker, a misguided idealist living in a different universe?  Not at all.  Jesus had plenty of reason to worry.  He worried about women and the poor were treated, he worried about the way in which the temple was abused, he worried about the hypocrisy of the scribes and pharisees, and in Gethsemane he was in anguish as he anticipated his death.  So what did Jesus mean when he said “Do not worry”?  Well, of course, he did not say “do not worry!”  He said: “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today!”  In other words, we have enough to worry about today.  There is more than enough to disturb our peace and make us feel uncomfortable right now – so let us deal with today’s worries because if we worried more about today’s trouble, we would worry less about what might happen in the future. 

If we worked now to achieve justice today, if we worked today to save the planet, if we worked now to eradicate poverty, we would have fewer fears about the future.  Today is the day we must struggle against evil if we do not want to worry about tomorrow.  Jesus’ words do not mean we must not worry, but that we dare not postpone our efforts to seek justice, do good, love our neighbour, care for those in need, supporting a friend who is unemployed, encouraging a child who is struggling with school, standing by someone who is grieving.  None of this can wait for tomorrow.  So Jesus is telling us to live responsibly today, to live now in anticipation of the future. Or, as the letter to the Ephesians puts it: “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people, but as wise, making the most of the time,” and to do so precisely “because the days are evil.”

Shortly before his imprisonment, as Germany was plunging Europe ever more deeply into destruction, Dietrich Bonhoeffer reflected on these words of Jesus.  Given Bonhoeffer’s perilous circumstances. it was impossible to plan for the future or worry about tomorrow.  The evil facing him today was too great.  What, then, should he do?  Should he do as many other people were doing as they lived in fear of tomorrow, people who were saying “let us eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die?”  People who, as Bonhoeffer says were living, “irresponsibly, frivolously, or resignedly”, dreaming “longingly of a more beautiful future” and trying to “forget the present”?  Not at all.  So what then?

What remains for us is only the very narrow path, sometimes barely discernible, of taking each day as if it were the last and yet living it faithfully and responsibly as if there were yet to be a great future. …To think and to act with an eye on the coming generation and to be ready to move on without fear and worry—that is the course that has …been forced upon us. To hold it courageously is not easy but necessary.

To deal with our worries about the future, worries that are real and legitimate, we need to live faithfully and responsibly today “as if there were yet a great future.”  To do so with courage may not be easy but it is a necessity.  To live for today means to live faithfully, courageously, with compassion for those in need and concern for the welfare of others especially the next generation. 

If you want to be inspired about living today for the sake of tomorrow, I urge you to read the stories told in Theo Krynauw’ s new little book entitled Just a Glimpse, a book about the past ten years of Sparklekids which Theo founded here in Hermanus.  It is one of the most remarkable books of stories I have ever read about courage in adversity, about living today for the sake of tomorrow.  If you are worried about tomorrow, read Just a Glimpse today and take heart. 

Of course, we cannot do this simply in our own strength.  We need the support of others, and they need the support we can give them.  This is what Christian community means.  Bearing each other’s burdens, encouraging one another, standing together in solidarity, praying for each other, grieving with those who grieve.  This is the way in which we discover that God’s grace is sufficient for today, that God’s strength enables us to live faithfully as we face today’s worries, that God’s love is greater than the fears and uncertainty of the times in which we live.  And that is why, even as we worry, grieve, and fear, we receive the gift of being blessed, and can even sing: “Do not worry, be happy.”

John de Gruchy, Volmoed, 19 August 2021