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MEDITATION : RACISM AND RAINBOWS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John de Gruchy

Volmoed  21 January 2016

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

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THE GIFT OF PEACE

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“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”  John 14:25-27

Early last Sunday morning I sat down to write my meditation aware that there would  be little  time to do so after arriving back at Volmoed.  I was sitting in our hotel room in Basel, Switzerland, where Isobel and I attended the 12th International Bonhoeffer Congress,  an event held every four  years.  The next one, I can now report, will be held in Stellenbosch in January 2020 in case you want to make a note in your diary!  But that was not in my mind as I sat thinking about this meditation after almost three weeks of travel shared with Anton and Esther. But now, as the Congress came to an end, I reflected on our trip and some global events that had happened since we were last together here in the chapel sharing the peace of Christ with each other.  Christ’s gift of shalom or wholeness, in a world torn apart by racism and violence, greed and war.  Even in beautiful Collioure in the south of France where peace seemed to envelope us as each new day dawned,  we could not escape the grim news of more gun violence on the streets of  the United States,, terrorist bombings in Bangladesh, Iraq, Turkey and elsewhere, and political strife back in South Africa.

So there I was sitting in our hotel  room starting to work on this meditation.  The window was wide open, the sun was shining brightly, and the birds in the garden were singing.  It was Sunday, it was quiet, it was peaceful.  It was like it so often  is here on Volmoed and how it was later that morning as we listened to the splendid music and sermon in St. Peter’s  church where our mutual Volmoed friend Benedict Shubert is pastor. No wonder my thoughts turned to Jesus words: “My peace I give to you!”  I did not have to make this peace, it was a gift to receive, appreciate and share.

But when Jesus spoke these word, unlike me, he was not sitting comfortably in a Swiss hotel listening to the coo of pigeons nor was he in the temple listening to glorious music.   He was on the harsh road to the cross.  His words of peace, of shalom and wholeness, were uttered in the face of violence, at a time when the mood against him in Jerusalem had turned ugly, a time  when hatred of the Roman occupation was at a height and the authorities were struggling to keep control.  It was in such a context, so like our own, that Jesus said: “My peace I give to you.”  It was not the uneasy peace which the authorities struggled to provide, imprisoning and crucifying rebels who threatened the established order, Jesus among them.  Jesus’ gift of peace to his disciples was not the peace that the world either then or now tries to give its citizens.  It was something far more, God’s shalom, a peace which passed human understanding in the worst of times. Therefore Jesus tells them that they should neither let their hearts be troubled, nor be afraid.

It is difficult to grasp hold of this gift of peace and not be troubled or afraid in a world of terror and violence.  It has always been so.  No sooner has one war ended, than another breaks out.  No sooner has one agent of terror been eliminated than another arises.  No sooner has one dreaded disease been conquered than another erupts.  No sooner have our lives recovered from despair and grief, than we have to cope with further trouble and loss.  The peaceful calm of a hotel room in Switzerland or of Volmoed on a Thursday morning is more often than not the exception rather than the rule.  We give thanks for such times of peace, but it is in the midst of trouble and fear that Jesus’ utters his word of peace.  For God’s shalom is not the same as security in a safe haven; it is not discovered by withdrawing from the world into some kind of religious sanctuary or ghetto, or avoiding the harsh reality of cancer or the loss of those we love.  Jesus gives us peace on the road to the cross, in the midst of our struggle for justice or suffering.  We receive Christ’s gift of peace, of shalom wholeness, anew each day as we seek to follow him faithfully amid of the troubles and problems we face, and especially when life seems to fall apart.  That is why it passes all understanding.  It is a gift beyond words, a gift without logical explanation.  But those who accept it know that it is real.

Yet we do not receive Christ’s gift of peace in isolation from others, as though it is our gift to keep to ourselves rather than a gift to share with others.  Christ’s peace is not a warm feeling that we treasure in isolation for fear of losing it; Christ’s peace is only received in sharing it with others.  In order to know the peace of Christ we have to live in that peace with others, forgiving and loving them, enabling them to journey with us into wholeness.  After all, it is not our peace, but Christ’s gift to us.  So it is that we receive the peace of Christ as we commit to working together to oppose violence in the struggle for justice and reconciliation.  We receive the peace of Christ when we in turn become peacemakers, opposing the forces of evil that lead to hatred, violence and war.  We receive Christ’s peace when we sit beside those who suffer pain and loss, helping them to know Christ’s peace.  And we receive this peace when, week by week, we share the peace of Christ with each other at the Eucharist.  To embrace and to be embraced in giving the peace is an affirmation of the gift which Christ offers us each day, a gift beyond understanding which the world cannot give.  So let not your hearts be troubled or afraid.

John de Gruchy

Volmoed 14 July 2016

 

FREEDOM FROM FEAR OF THE ‘OTHER’

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Galatians 5:1, 12-15

John 8:31-36

For freedom Christ has set us free.  Stand firm, therefore and do not submit

again to the yoke of slavery.”

If you continue in my word…you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

Paul’s letter to the Galatians is often called his “epistle of Christian freedom.”  There were undoubtedly some freed slaves in the Galatian churches, but Paul had chiefly in mind those Jewish converts to Christ who had been liberated from slavery to religious legalism and intolerance.  Paul himself knew all about this slavery because as a strict Pharisee he had persecuted Jewish Christians and even put some to death because they no longer kept all the ritual and dietary requirements of the law.  But now, as a follower of Jesus, he had learnt to embrace those who were different from himself and regard them as brothers and sisters,  For had not Jesus embraced publicans and sinners, prostitutes and Samaritans, and even had meals with them?  So, too, as followers of Jesus, the Galatian Christians had been liberated from slavery to those laws that kept them separate from Gentile believers, laws of social exclusion and ritual purity which also made women inferior.  But now, having been set free in Christ,  some were squandering their freedom in an attempt to keep themselves pure and righteous in the sight of God.  Women, Gentiles and slaves were all being shunned as inferior, unclean and at best, second class citizens in God’s kingdom.  So Paul writes to remind them that as followers of Jesus they been set free from slavery to such legalism in order to love others and should not “submit again to the yoke of slavery.”

As a former Pharisee of the strictest kind, Paul knew how precious this freedom was.  But he also knew that such freedom did not mean doing what he liked irrespective of others,  as though the law did not matter.  Legalism as well as the irresponsible use of freedom had the same outcome.  The freedom Jesus gave him was the freedom to embrace others as brothers and sisters, rather than exclude them as unclean sinners and enemies. Like Jesus and the prophets before him, Paul knew that whole law was summed up in love for others as well as God..  In Christ, he told the Galatians,  “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, male or female, slave nor free person, for we are all one.”  It was therefore the responsibility of every Christian to protect and nourish their freedom responsibly in love and not abuse it for selfish interests and gain.  Freedom from legalism was not licence to do as you please but freedom to love and allow by fear or hatred of the other to determine our relationships.

The attack on the gay night club in Orlando, Florida, and the murder of Jo Cox, the British Labour MP were two awful consequences of hate speech and homophobia in countries where civil liberties are traditionally cherished, but in which uncivil vices are becoming far too prevalent.  When the self-proclaimed “land of the free,” becomes the land of the greedy, religious intolerance and hate speech,  it is no longer free,  no longer the “leader of the free world,” but a land in the grip of fear.  When people like Jo Cox’s who live to serve others, speak up for those who are despised and oppressed,  oppose unjust policies, are murdered for doing so, something seriously wrong in the state of England.  But, of course, such deeds of fear and hatred are happening across the globe with frightening regularity, and  we in South Africa are by no means immune to the hate speech and greed that fosters violence as current events painfully demonstrate.

 

In the midst of this bad news we have been celebrating  snippets of good news which gives us hope.  When our national cricket team, the Proteas, beat the West Indies decisively last week, the stars of the game were two South African Muslims, Hashim Amla and Imram Tahir.  This was something unthinkable not so long ago in apartheid and so-called Christian South Africa.  In a world where the fear of Islam has become a political tool in the hands of trumpeting politicians, and where religious intolerance and jingoistic nationalism are on the upturn, this  is significant even if only on a small scale.  On a larger scale has been the outpouring of support for the LGBT community across the world for those affected by the Orlando massacre and Jo Cox’s murder.  People  have come to see that homophobia breeds hatred, hatred breeds fear, and fear breeds violence, though too many politicians, preachers and their followers have yet to get the message,

 

And here on Volmoed last Thursday, June 16, we celebrated the fortieth anniversary of the Soweto Uprising of 1976, an event which, back then, stoked white fears even as it awoke black hopes.  Respect and embrace not hatred and exclusion were the order of the day as we celebrated in the chapel and formally launched the VYLTP programme.  It was a wonderful time of song, conversation and challenge, of making friends and having fun, of rejecting fear and expressing hope.  It was also an expression of confidence in the next generation, the “born frees,” who are learning the true meaning of following Jesus and the importance of the ongoing struggle to ensure that the freedom we have to embrace the other is never surrendered.  We still have a very long way to go as a nation as the Tswane riots demonstrated, but we have also come a long way.

As Christians and citizens  we have been set free from the bondage that kept us separate on the basis of race and religion, and  we should not allow ourselves to be dragged back into the slavery of that fear that feeds hatred. That is why we have to resist and reject racism and xenophobia at every turn whether in the church or the state.   So let us take to heart what Jesus said. “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”  Fear is nurtured by lies; freedom thrives on truth, and for us that truth is embodied in Jesus.  That is why we have to continually listen to Jesus’ words.  And that is precisely what Paul was telling the Galatians. For only when we truly follow Jesus will we know what is true, and only then will we be free — free from fear, free to seek justice, free to be compassionate,  free to love one another.

John de Gruchy

Volmoed   23 June 2016

THE NONCONFORMISTS

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“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”
“You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world.”

Romans 12:1-2
Matthew 5:13-16

I am not sure what you think of when you hear the word “nonconformist” but usually people think of someone who breaks with social convention, someone who refuses to adopt the dominant norms and values in society. But in England “the nonconformists” historically referred to Baptists, Congregationalists, Quakers and later the Methodists? Well, let me explain why.
In 1662 the English Parliament passed a law called the Act of Uniformity. This meant that everyone in England, except Jews, had to accept the doctrines and conform to the practices of the Church of England set out in the then new Book of Common Prayer. In protest, about certain liturgical practices, two thousand priests resigned and many became ministers of Congregational and Baptist congregations. These separatist churches already existed, but the influx of a large number of clergy helped them grow significantly. In the process they were labelled the Nonconformists. As such they were sometimes imprisoned, but always, along with Roman Catholics, they were discriminated against. Nonconformists, for example, were not allowed to attend University or hold positions in government, To be a Nonconformist was like being black in an apartheid society.
Many of the differences that led to the rise of Nonconformity have now fallen away, and the Nonconformist denominations in England have lost of much of the influence that they once had. But the name has stuck, at least in England, and because it has been used to describe some churches and not others, it is often forgotten that all Christians are called to be nonconformists in the sense that St. Paul writes about in his letter to the Romans. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of their minds.” This has got nothing to do with denominations; it has everything to do with being Christian and being the church in the world.
Not conforming to the world does not mean that we should leave the world to its own devices, running away from public responsibility and seeking safety in some religious ghetto. After all, the defining character of God is that God so loves the world, not just the church, that he sends his son to be its saviour (John 3:16). God does not turn his back on the world; God enters into the life of the world in order to redeem it. That is the meaning of the Incarnation and as such provides the clue. Christians, like Jesus, are meant to be fully in the world, but not conforming to those values, perspectives and attitudes that characterise what is dehumanizing and destructive in the world. Like salt, we are in the world, but in order to give the world a much better flavour. And like light, we are not meant to be candles hidden in a corner, but lamps that fill the whole house with light.
Eugene Petersen translates Paul’s words in this way: “Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking.” This does not mean that there is nothing good in our respective cultures, or in secular society. As Christians we can learn much from others that is good, and we should participate with them in making the world a better place. After all, not everything in the church is good, which is why the Church always needs renewal and reformation. As Christians we need to exercise critical discernment in order to affirm what is good and to resist what is bad. That is why Paul says that our minds have to be renewed so that we can see the world differently, from the perspective of Christ. Incidentally, this is quite literally what the word “repentance” (metanoia) means in the New Testament. To repent is have a fundamental change of mind so that we begin to see the world differently.
When we do that we begin to see that we as Christians are called to love our neighbours and enemies, not hate them, and therefore resist pressures, fears and political policies that make others enemies, instead of relating to them as fellow human beings. When our minds are renewed in Christ we discern that we should forgive not harbour resentment and seek vengeance, or resorting to violence and war to solve problems. For us, security does not come through the barrel of a gun. When we think as Christians, we know that we should take a stand with the weak and the poor rather than support the powerful and rich at their expense, or economic policies that are unjust, unfair and destructive of community. When we see things from Christ’s point of view we reject racism and xenophobia, homophobia and gender discrimination. We take a stand against alcohol abuse, drug abuse, and everything else that is destructive of the life of people, families and nations. This is being nonconformist Christians. After all, if we are to be “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world” we cannot conform to the world, we dare not “allow the world to squeeze us into its mould” as J.B. Phillips translated our text.
Yes, as Christians we are called to be in the world but not of it. It is only in this way that we can serve Christ fully in the world, being the “salt of the earth” and “the light of the world.” So let us not allow the world to squeeze us into its own mould, but rather “be transformed by the renewal of our minds” in Christ.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed June 9, 2016

THE CREATIVE BEING

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“Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.'”Genesis 1:26-31

Someone asked me the other day why I took up woodworking as a hobby.  My answer, a little facetious I admit, was that I did so because I try to follow Jesus, and he was, as far as we know, a carpenter.  But, then, we might ask, why don’t all Christians become woodworkers? Or do you have to be a woodworker to be a follower of Jesus?  So there must be a better answer to the question why did I take up woodworking..  I suggest it has to do with the biblical claim that human beings are made in the “image of God.” A statement that comes as the climax to the first story about creation in Genesis. “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.'”  The meaning of these words has been discussed and debated many times over the centuries, and there are several plausible understandings of what they mean.  One is that human beings have a self-conscious relationship with their Creator.  But another has to do with the creativity of God, to God as artist,.  For if the creation story says anything about the mystery we name God, it says that the creation is an inspired work of a creative and even playful mind.  Therefore being in the “image of God” we are created to be stewards of creation and co-creators in the unfolding drama of the earth. 

In the beginning before the universe was born, there was nothing, emptiness, a void, a blank canvas if you like.  All was dark, there was no light, no beauty, no colour, no movement.  But gradually the canvas was filled in as the Spirit of creativity got to work inspiring each step towards the emerging, evolving masterpiece full of wonderful forms and shapes, full of life, colour and movement.  All of this revealed the splendour of God, for “the world was alive with the glory of God” as Gerald Manley Hopkins so aptly said.  And yet, as God stepped back from the canvas to take a look, there was something missing, a final but significant addition was needed to make the painting complete.  It was, of course, God’s personal signature. “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.'”  Like many a great painting, the artist includes a resemblance of himself or herself.  There in the corner, we say, is surely a self-portrait or selfie if you like, of Rembrandt or Michelangelo.  That signature is us!  As the Psalmist puts it: “You have made human beings just a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honour.”                                      

Today we have welcomed the first cohort of the Volmoed Youth Leadership Training Programme to our weekly Eucharist.  And because VLYTP is such a mouthful, we have baptised the group as  the “voeltjies” or “little birds.”  So if you hear many fresh and vibrant sounds breaking the Volmoed silence over the next nine weeks, it is the song of the “voeltjies” adding sound and colour to creation.  What led to this naming was that someone misspelt Volmoed recently, writing instead “Voelmoed!”  So “voeltjies”  it is.   And, what is more, the “voeltjies” will sing each Thursday here at the Eucharist!  This is not singing for their last supper. but singing with joy and thanksgiving for the gift of life and the wonder of creation.

Each week the “voeltjies” focus on a different theme related to those in the Volmoed Prayer Book.  Last week it was on building community, next week on healing and wholeness, the fourth on justice and peace, and the fifth week on reconciliation.  Then the cycle repeats itself.  But this week it has been on creation.  We have not spent precious time on the silly debate about whether the creation narratives in the Bible are literally true, or whether believing in creation contradicts evolution.  That debate misses the point of the story.  The creation narrative not history or science, but “myth” which simply means a story that is profoundly true.   

To believe that God created the universe does not mean that evolution is wrong, but that there is meaning and purpose to the universe.  It is an affirmation that we “live, move and have our being” in the mystery we name God.  The Creation story probes what that meaning is all about and where we humans fit into the picture s painted in the opening chapters of the Bible.  What emerges is that we are part of the animal kingdom interconnected with all other forms of life, and yet we have a special place within this remarkably diverse creation that is still in process.  We are the gardeners, we are the workers, we are the sculptors and actors.  For creation does not end on the sixth day in reality.  God may take a break to step back and admire what he has created, but come the eighth day and God is back at work.  Creation is a work in progress.  And we human beings have  the awesome responsibility to  care for and nurture what has come into being.  In other words, we are called to be creative artisans, adding to the canvas of which we are a part.  Imagining fresh possibilities, inventing new artefacts, building bridges of reconciliation and making peace when conflicts arise. 

St. Paul tells us that the whole creation is groaning as it awaits to be set free from its own travail by those who have already come to know the redemption of God, those who have recovered their humanity as being “in the image of God” and therefore stewards and co-creators.  That is why we have to imagine fresh possibilities in anticipation of the birth of a renewed earth in which everyone will find a home, have sufficient for their needs, and make peace instead of war. As Archbishop Tutu said to the “voëltjies” when he met them in Cape Town last week, “make the world beautiful, especially for the poor.”

 John de Gruchy

Volmoed  2 June 2016

 

 

 

 

THE CHURCH AS WORK IN PROGRESS

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“…like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house.”I Peter 2:1-5

“I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me maybe in them, and I in them.”John 17:25-26

 How often I have heard people say, “I don’t have a problem with Jesus but I do have a problem with the church!”  Yes, for many people, the church is a stumbling block to faith, an obstacle on the path to believing in God and discovering human wholeness.  It is by no means the only stumbling-block, but it is one of them.  In fact, if we had to judge by church attendance in Europe and Britain today we might conclude that the church is dying, despite evidence of vibrant life in many places.  Yet, ironically, at the same time churches are full to capacity throughout Trump territory, not known for its Christian compassion, and on the African continent and in Latin America, well known for ongoing conflict and corruption.  All of which begs the question, well what is the church?

If we were asked  to define the church,  many of us would be hard pressed to do so.  Is it a building, an institution, a bunch of clergy, a denomination?  Deciding what the church is seems to be as problematic as answering the question “is there a God?’ or “who is Jesus Christ?”  And yet, every week, millions of Christians around the world declare that they not only believe in God, but also in “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” even though it is divided into many denominations, not particularly holy, and we are not quite sure what it means for it to be catholic and apostolic!  So what goes through your mind  if and when you say the Creed  or when you hear the word “church”?

I know this all sounds Greek to you, but the word “church” or “kerk,” “Kirk” or “Kirche,” comes from the Greek word kuriakon which means “belonging to the Lord.” It was originally used to describe a church building so you won’t find the word in the NT.  In those days there were none.  Christians met together in each other’s houses.  Only much later were some buildings dedicated to the Lord and called churches.  But we all know that the church is more than a building and, clearly, it existed before there were any church buildings.  The NT uses a different word to describe this church without walls: not kuriakon but ekklesia.      Ekklesia means an assembly of people, in this case a community of believers. If kuriakon refers to the church made of bricks and mortar, ekklesia refers, as the first letter of Peter puts it, to  the church built of “living stones,” that is, a “spiritual house.”   This does not mean that it is invisible as some have said, or that it does not need buildings in which to gather,  or that it does not require institutional structures to sustain and guide its life and work; but it means that before and above all else it is a living community of those committed to Christ.

There are many metaphors and analogies used in the NT to describe this Christian community.  St. Paul’s favourite description is “the body of Christ” which is made up of many members each of whom needs the others.  A community united in the Eucharist because, as we say with Paul, we all partake of the same bread, the body of Christ broken for us. On this understanding of the church, it is not a bunch of likeminded individuals, like a photographic or bridge club but, as  Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, the church is “Christ existing as a community of persons,” or the church is “Christ taking form in a band of people.”  So where Christ is, we could say as some early theologians did,  there too is the church, recalling Jesus’ words: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20)

But the church is more than a gathering together of Christians, it is also God’s experiment in creating a new humanity that transcends race and nationality, religion and gender,  a new humanity in which, as Paul puts it, the divisions that normally separate people are transcended.  As such, the church is a work in progress.  It is not yet one or holy, fully catholic or faithfully apostolic.  It is a community of people on a journey.  Some people today even speak of the “emerging church,”  that is the church that is emerging within and beyond denominations and finding its identity as a community committed to God’s mission of reconciliation and justice, to God’s will for human flourishing and wholeness, to God’s will to care for the environment and to share the earth’s resources.  As such the church is both an end in itself, and also a means to an end. It is not just a bunch of individuals who like to sing hymns , pray and then go and have coffee,  but an assembly of people embarked on an audacious God-inspired experiment to build what Martin Luther King jnr. referred to as “the beloved community.”

King’s description of the church is based on Jesus’ “high priestly prayer” in John’s Gospel chapter 17 in which Jesus prays that his community of disciples may be one and that they may be filled with the same love of God for the world that was embodied in him. This is the “new humanity” that God is seeking to bring into being.  a “beloved community” of peace and compassion, reconciliation and justice.  A community striving to be one, holy, inclusive and engaged in serving the world.  This is Christ existing as church-community.

Yes, the church is a work in progress, an emerging church, building on all the resources that we have received from the past, but journeying into the future with fresh vision and commitment inspired by the Spirit of Pentecost.  “Our goal,” as Martin Luther King said, ” is to create a beloved community.”  But he went on to say: “this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.”  In other words, the church cannot be the church unless we who claim to belong are daily being transformed more fully into the likeness of Christ.  The church is only the church as we together are  being transformed and participating in God’s purpose of making all things new.  Yes, despite all its faults and failures, which is true of anym experiment, I believe in the church as God’s work in progress to make the world more just, more compassionate, and so reconcile all things in Christ.

hn de Gruchy

Volmoed  26 May 2016

LOVE IS THE BEGINNING AND END

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I dedicate this meditation to Ruth Robertson (neé Shoch) who died this week aged 87.  Ruth was working for the South African Council of Churches (1968-72) as personal assistant to Bishop Bill Burnett when I joined the staff in 1968.  She was the first woman to study theology at Rhodes University.  A committed ecumenist and worker for justice, in later years, after marrying John Robertson, Ruth with John were deeply involved in the life of Volmoed.  Ruth was one of the most loving and generous people I know which is part of the reason for the choice of my theme.

“God is love.”I John 4:16b-21

“You loved me before the foundation of the world.”John 17:17-25

We were just three old friends sitting and having coffee while we gazed out over Walker Bay from the terrace of Burgundy restaurant.  We were hoping to see whales , but only saw a school of Dolphins in the distance.  Did I say “only” as if that was second best to whales?  Of course, not.  Dolphins are amazing, graceful creatures, every bit as wonderful to see as a Southern Right with its calf swimming beside her.  While we gazed into the distance, my friend, a trained theologian, asked whether I believed in a personal God, not just a mysterious force that might pervade the universe and give birth to the beauty we perceived.  It is not difficult when you see dolphins at play to believe that there is a mysterious force at work in the universe.  But is that force Someone with whom you can have a relationship? Someone to whom you can pray, Someone you can love and be loved in return?  Someone we call God, and relate to as to a Father or Mother?

I know that people living in poverty don’t contemplate the majesty of the universe while leisurely drinking coffee and discussing theology, and yet many of them ardently believe in God who enables them to cope with life.  I also know that many people don’t believe in God because the world as they experience it is ugly and full of suffering and violence.  How can you believe in God in a world plagued by disease and war, they ask us.   My friend who was probing the meaning of mystery with me over coffee was fully aware of all of the arguments against faith in God.  But  this did not detract from our shared awareness, as we sat and chatted together, that we were surrounded by a great mystery, a mystery we glimpsed as we looked out into the vast expanse of Walker Bay and watched the dolphins at play.  But the question persisted, was this mystery “in whom we live, move and have our being” personal?  Can we relate to this transcendent mystery as children relate to their parents, or lovers to each other?  And therein lies the clue.  I believe that the mystery we call God is personal because I believe God is love.  That God loves the world and loves us.  This is the good news of Jesus the Christ.

One of the doctrines of Christian faith about which you seldom hear these days is what is called the “pre-existence of Christ.”  That is, the notion that the Word who became flesh in Jesus was with God from the beginning.    “You loved me before the foundation of the world,” Jesus says in his high priestly prayer as told by St John in the gospel passage we read this morning.  In other words,  God’s love for the world that was revealed in Jesus did not only start when Jesus was born.  God’s love for the world was there from the beginning.  God’s love for the world was not an after-thought which God had when the world went skew and needed redemption.  It was God’s love that gave birth to the universe.  It is God’s love that sustains the world.  Love is the foundation of everything else.

When we say that “God is love” we are not describing an attribute of God, we are describing the essence of God, what makes God God.  If God is not love, God is not the God revealed in Jesus, the God Jesus called “Father.”  Of course, we are not thinking here of love as something sentimental, like the so-called love that oozes out of too many magazines, movies and the like.  The love  we name God is holy love, it is the love that expresses itself in mercy and compassion, and justice for the oppressed.  It is self-giving costly love, redemptive love, the love that heals and makes whole.  It is beautiful, creative  love, the love we see as we gaze out on the ocean or welcome a new born baby into the world. Love is the power that brings new life and beauty to birth; love is the power that heals and restores. This love is the beginning and the end of the story of Christ and of the universe.

Listen again to the majestic words in the first letter of John.  “God is love and those who love abide in God, and God abides in them… We love because he first loved us.”    The only way in which we relate to the God is through the love which God evokes in us, something so evident in the life of our friend Ruth.  “Those who do not love a brother or sister who they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” To believe in the God who is love is  to love God what God loves — justice and mercy, the creation given into our care, the families and friends who surround us, and the strangers who meet us along the way.  Julian of Norwich, Isobel’s favourite “saint,” understood this profoundly:

…love keeps us in faith and hope;

and faith and hope lead to love.

And at the end all shall be love.

I had three kinds of understandings on this light of love;

the first is love uncreated;

the second is love created;

the third is love given.

Love uncreated is God;

love created is our soul in God;

love given is virtue —

and that is the grace-filled-gift of action,

in which we love God for Himself,

and ourselves in God,

and all that God loves,

for God’s sake.  (From A Lesson of Love: The Revelations of Julian of                                                          Norwich, ed. John-Julian,  London 1988, 211)

John de Gruchy

Volmoed 12 May 2016