“All who believed were together and had all things in common.”
Right at the beginning of the Bible we are told that it is not good for human beings to be alone. That is why God created a companion for Adam. To be truly human is to be in a meaningful relationship with others. We are created to be in community and we are nurtured in community. We are who we are through others and with others. That is why individualism and narcissism is so destructive, especially when it characterizes those who believe they are entitled to dominate others, those who hold guns in their hands, or who can plunge nations into war at the press of a button. Whatever else Stephen Paddock, the Las Vegas mass-murderer, was, he had no respect for others or self-respect. Such individualism, as the Rule of Taizé puts it:”disintegrates the community and brings it to a halt.” By contrast, those who risked their lives to save others during that horrendous shooting spree, demonstrated what it means to be a human being, a person who cares for others despite the cost. This is what builds and nurtures community.
From beginning, the story of the Bible is about the formation and healing of relationships, and the building of communities in which life can flourish, For Christians that story reaches its climax when, as St. Paul puts it: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” and giving us “the ministry of reconciliation.” (II Corinthians 5) So Jesus began his ministry by calling disciples and forming them into a community to serve others, and the first act of the Holy Spirit after Pentecost was to create a community in which “all who believed were together and had all things in common” in order to spread the good news about Jesus. That, in a nutshell is what the church is all about. It is not primarily an institution, but a community of people in whom Christ through the Spirit takes form and serves the world. It is not a conglomerate of individuals who meet on occasion for spiritual upliftment, but a community of people who share a common life because they share a common commitment to Christ and his ministry of reconciliation.
The early church depicted in Acts was, therefore, what we now call an intentional community. This means that it had a specific reason for its existence and therefore a common vision and commitment. It was a community of people who were reconciled to God in and to each other in order to become God’s agents of reconciliation, peace, healing and justice in the world. That is, to restore community. Every church, every congregation is likewise meant to be an intentional community. Many are, but sadly many forget why they exist, That is why throughout the history of the church. people have felt called to establish intentional communities to assist the church in its mission and remind it of its calling — intentional communities like Taizé and Iona, or the Community of the Cross of Nails to which Volmoed belongs, and many others,
Recently the Volmoed Trustees met together for two days to talk about what it means to be the Volmoed Community, an intentional community with a common ethos and vision. Here are some of the key thoughts that emerged in that meeting and which have now been included in a document entitled Volmoed’s vision and ethos, also available in Afrikaans and isiXhosa. I quote some extracts:
The founding vision of the Volmoed Community was to provide a place of hospitality God can use in the ministry of healing and wholeness, justice and reconciliation in South Africa. That vision remains its core mandate and commitment. It is an ecumenical Community that meets daily for morning prayer and weekly celebrates the Eucharist together…We welcome strangers as well as friends. We seek to maintain the beauty of the environment in order to help those who come to Volmoed to sense the presence of God, and to discern God’s purpose for their lives. We encourage a caring life-style and strive to make Volmoed a place for silent contemplation, for forming deep relationships, a place where creativity can flourish, and the gifts of leadership can be discovered and developed… As stewards of Volmoed we seek to ensure that it is well managed and maintained, and we plan accordingly. Our ministry of hospitality requires nothing less of us. But we are open to the leading of the Spirit, and are regularly surprised by the way in which we are being taken into the future. We invite all who share our vision to also share with us in discerning God’s will for Volmoed going forward.
In saying this, we also said that the Volmoed Community not only includes those who live and work at Volmoed, but all who come here to share with us in its life and worship, all who are committed to its vision and want to be associated with us. And, I must add, part of the purpose of the Volmoed Youth Leadership Training Programme is to help those who participate learn what it means to live in community by being here.
One of the priests who played an important role in the early days of Volmoed was Clement Sergel whose picture is on the wall of the passage leading to our Gallery Tea Room. It was Clement who, I believe, introduced Volmoed to Taizé songs and who, was instrumental in building the Prayer Hut on the mountainside above Volmoed. Among the books he gave to the Volmoed library was one by Jean Vanier entitled Community & Growth. I end with some words from its pages which Clement heavily underlined:
A community isn’t just a place where people live under the same roof, that is a lodging house or a hotel. Nor is a community a work-team… It is a place where everyone…is emerging from the shadows of egocentricity to the light of a real love…It is listening to others, being concerned about them and feeling empathy with them… It means feeling and suffering with them — weeping when they weep, rejoicing when they rejoice… above all (it) means moving in the same direction. (6)
And that direction is the journey into God’s gift of wholeness, healing and reconciliation.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 5 October 2017
“It was not you who sent me here, but God”
“How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!”
When good things happen to people is that good fortune, and when bad things happen is that simply bad luck? Or does everything happen according to a divine plan? Was it pure chance that Joseph ended up in Egypt, or was it, as the writer of Genesis says, something brought about by God? St. Paul thought deeply about such matters and concluded that God’s ways are mysterious. “How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” he declared. Or as the old hymn put it:
God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform.
In the hymnbook on which I was nurtured, this hymn from the 18th century was one of many in a section entitled “God’s Providence,” all of which encouraged us to believe that “behind a frowning providence, God hides a smiling face.”
But like St. Paul and Cowper we know only too well that faith n God’s providence or “smiling face” does not come easy. When we see the devastation caused by hurricanes and earthquakes, witness the horrors of war, read about horrific rapes and senseless violence, about corruption in high places, and are told that yet another friend has cancer, it is difficult to discern God’s “smiling face.” It is easier to believe in the luck of the draw, in mindless fate, than it is to believe in God’s loving care for what goes on in the world and in our own lives. After all, why do some people survive a bomb blast or earthquake and others not? Why are some friends cured of cancer and others not? Does everything happen according to God’s will, or does evil and fate have the upper hand?
This sense that the power of evil and the tragic dimensions of life contradict our faith in God as Almighty Father is nothing new. It is present on virtually every page of the Bible from the story of Adam and Eve to the final struggle between God and Satan in the book of Revelation. Some texts even suggest that because God is Almighty, God can do anything. But we also learn that there are things God cannot do, things which go against God’s nature or the nature of God’s creation. God cannot prevent natural disasters, God cannot act contrary to love, and God is powerless to prevent us from abusing our freedom. If we want to listen to the snake in the grass, if we want to leave home and squander our inheritance, if we want to make war, if we want to stone the prophets and crucify the Son of God, we can. In fact if we want to blow up the whole world, or destroy the planet bit by bit, we can. But one thing we cannot do. We cannot prevent God from loving the world. That is the good news revealed in Christ, the paradox of the cross which reveals the extent of God’s suffering love on our behalf, and the redemptive power of that love in bringing good out of evil.
That God brings good out of evil is the message behind the story of Joseph. His brothers had acted cruelly toward him and sold him into slavery, but in the end, God turned the table on evil and saved the family. But we must not think that God acts alone in bringing good out of evil whether in that story or any other. God depends on human agency. In thinking about this I often turn to words written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer shortly before he was imprisoned by the Gestapo:
I believe that God can and will let good come out of everything, even the greatest evil. For that to happen, God needs human beings who let everything work out for the best… I believe that God is no timeless fate but waits for and responds to sincere prayer and responsible actions.
Looking in from the outside, people might say that the story of Volmoed is one of good fortune and happy coincidences. But looking from the inside, from the perspective of faith, it is a story of surprises in which we discern a divine and loving purpose hidden deeply in what happens. But this is inseparable from prayerful and responsible action. Volmoed is a story of God at work through many people and in response to much prayer. That’s how God acts. When earthquakes strike we do not sit back and wait for miracles to happen, rescuers make miracles happen as they risk their lives to find those trapped beneath the rubble. We pray for those suffering from cancer, but we also depend on those medical scientists working hard to find cures and on the hospice carers who give so much of themselves to their task. God’s love for the world is revealed through such human action, in the smiling face of the nurse who cares, the teacher who encourages the poor student, the aid worker who brings relief to refugees, those who sit beside us in the dark hours and are with us when we mourn the death of those we love. If we believe that God loves and cares for the world in this way, we will discern meaning and purpose behind what happens and, moreover join God in loving and caring for the world in the same way.
Yes, God’s ways are mysterious, but that is because love is mysterious, always beyond our understanding. Yes, God’s ways are unsearchable, too profound for us to grasp fully, but not remote from our experience because they are always embodied, always incarnate in the lives that touch ours for good. For that is how God works. God surprises us in the midst of the everyday when ordinary people do extraordinary things motivated, often unconsciously, by God’s love for the world. So I leave you with some words from Frank Buechner which Carolyn Butler — who lost a son in a terrorist attack and a husband to cancer — shared with me this past week:
if we look with our hearts, if we listen with all our being and imaginations …what we may hear is the first faint sound of a voice somewhere deep within us saying that there is a purpose in this life, in our lives, whether we can understand it completely or not, and that this purpose follows behind us through all the doubting and being afraid, through all our indifference and boredom, to a moment when we suddenly know for sure that everything does make sense because everything is in the hands of God.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 21 September 2017
“If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
Volmoed exists to help people discover God’s love which makes us whole. Many people come here in search of comfort and healing. Yet some of us also need to hear the words of prophets that make us uncomfortable. “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” Finley Peter Dunne told newspaper editors. He could also have been speaking to preachers. Warn people of disasters that will happen if they don’t change their ways, but also encourage them with good news stories that give them hope. The problem is, not everyone who needs to hear the message of the prophets wants to listen to or heed their words.
Every year about 50 theological students and professors come to Volmoed for our annual Colloquium. A colloquium is an extended conversation between a group of people on important issues. Last year our focus was on Islam and Christianity, this year it was on theology and economics, church and poverty. For those who think this is not a very theological topic, we should remember that more is said about economics in the Bible and the teaching of Jesus than about prayer. Consider the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. If anything should make those of us who are reasonably well off feel uncomfortable, especially when we see the poverty around us, this parable hits the mark.
On the final morning of the Colloquium, Nkosi Gola, a theological student who lives and works among the shack dwellers in Khayelitsha, did not sugar-coat the bitter pill which those of us who are white and privileged need to swallow in facing black poverty. Then this week on Facebook two of our VYLTP “Voeltjies” spoke about their own experiences of poverty. Thabo said that living in shacks was like living in hell, and Amanda wrote that it was unbearable. This was the situation which Jesus addressed in his parable. Lazarus lived in squalor right on the doorstep of rich Dives, a situation with which we are all too familiar.
In the end Dives and Lazarus died and the tables were turned. Dives found himself in hell and cried out in anguish to Abraham to send someone to tell his relatives to share their wealth with the poor before it was too late, But Abraham replied: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” Yes, those of us who are comfortable are seldom willing to share with those who are poor. That is why Jesus said it is difficult for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom. But who then can be saved, the disciples asked (Matthew 19:26)? We may well echo those words. Its difficult, Jesus agrees, but with God’s grace not impossible! But how is this possible?
Jesus’ parable forces us to see the reality of inequality and economic injustice from the perspective of the poor, a necessary first step in prodding us to action. The fact is, for more than twenty years, while many of us have celebrated the “new South Africa” in freedom and even affluence, the majority of black South Africans have discovered that political freedom does not mean economic freedom. Julius Malema makes whites uncomfortable because he has told us this in no uncertain terms. Many young blacks are angry and unwilling to put up with the situation any longer. They are not asking for charity, but for justice. Unless we understand this we will never understand the protests that erupt around us, or the crime we bemoan. Reconciliation requires restitution, the equitable sharing of land and resources.
I think all of us here today know this. We feel ashamed and guilty that many of our fellow citizens live in poverty. There are also those among us who are attempting to do something to change the situation. But we also feel impotent, “who can be saved?’ we cry out. The problem is too big for us, so we seek refuge in our comfort zones. And, of course, it is true, things will not change for the better without a dramatic change in the macro-economic structures of our country. As long as there is corruption, greed and inequality, the poor will be with us, and we will always sleep uneasily if we have any conscience. But it need not be so among us.
The problem is that too many of us do not want to give up our privileges for the sake of the common good. We don’t listen to the prophets as Jesus said. “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” This is something Steve Biko, the founder of Black Consciousness whose murder we remembered this past week, also knew. Black people had to liberate themselves; they could not depend on white people, and certainly could not wait for us to change. This is also the message of Dikgang Moseneke, the former Constitutional Court judge, in his recent autobiography My Own Liberator, which I commend. But to say that blacks have to liberate themselves does not mean that those of us who are white followers of Jesus can sit back indifferently, or think that giving our old clothes to the poor is all that is required of us.
The good news Jesus proclaimed is that what might seem impossible to us is not impossible to God. Even the privileged can be liberated and change, and if we change we can contribute to a groundswell of change. But this requires a change in consciousness, what the prophets call repentance, which makes us willing to act in the interests of justice. There are many proposals on the table to help us do what is needed as the Colloquium reminded us if we are willing to heed them. From supporting and promoting economic policies that will help bring about real change in our society to paying a fair wage and putting our money where our mouths are. From changing our attitudes and opposing racism, to giving of our time and talents. If we use our collective imagination we will find ways to make a real difference, and join those already doing so. That is our Christian responsibility. Not to heed Jesus’ parable is to end up with Dives, which is not a cool place to be!
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 14 September 2017
“No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
“Forgetting what lies behind…I press toward the goal.”
Old men keep forgetting things we should remember, and keep boring people with stories of the past which we should forget! Our short term memory gets weaker but our long term memory functions with a vengeance. “I remember the time….” “When I was young…” “Have I told you before?” (Yes, a hundred times, Grandpa!) But today our texts tell us all, old or young alike, “don’t look back if you want to follow Jesus!” In Jesus’ own words: “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Or those of St. Paul: “Forgetting what lies behind…I press toward the goal.” What is important is not whether once upon a time you were converted to Christ but whether you are converted to Christ today. It is important that once you were baptised, but what is more important is whether you are living now as one who is baptised. It is not important that once long ago you won first prize for bible knowledge, but whether today you are listening afresh to the Word of God. In writing the Rule for the Taizé Community, Brother Roger exhorted his fellow brothers: “rejoice; for as you renounce all thought of looking back and are borne forward together with all by the same Word, each day anew you can hasten towards Christ.”
But surely looking back is important? After all, why has God given us memory? To rob us of our memories would take away much of what we cherish. Memory is vital to being human. Without memory it is difficult to communicate and act wisely. The chronic loss of memory is tragic. Remembering past crimes against humanity is essential if there is to be healing and reconciliation. Institutional memory enables stability and continuity. Tradition informs what we do today. The accumulated wisdom of an older generation helps the next generation face the future. We read the Bible to recall God’s dealings with people of faith in old times in order that we to can become part of that story today. We could not live the Christian life today if we had no memory of Jesus. But is that not that is just the point? We remember, but we do so for the sake of living today. We celebrate the Eucharist in remembrance of Christ to be strengthened by his presence through the Spirit here and now.
So what, then, is Jesus is telling us, his disciples, when he says: “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Or when St. Paul writes: “Forgetting what lies behind…I press toward the goal.” They are not saying forget the past, but they are saying that once you start following Christ don’t keep on wishing you had never started, don’t hanker after your old way of life like Lot’s wife. Paul makes that clear in the passage we read from his letter the Philippians — his old life was behind him, everything he cherished and thought important, his race, class and religious status, had been left behind as he pressed toward the goal, which is knowing Christ more fully. In Brother Roger’s words, each day we “renounce all thought of looking back as we hasten towards Christ.”
What then does it mean to “hasten towards Christ?” Or, to put it differently, what is the goal, purpose, direction, or end of our lives as Christians and human beings? The Greek word telos frequently occurs in the New Testament. It means the end to which we strive to attain, or the closing act in a drama. Teleios, the adverb derived from telos also used by Paul, means being brought to completion, becoming whole. This is what hastening towards Christ means, journeying into the fullness of life personally in company with others and the whole of creation, until finally everything is summed up in Christ and in the mystery we call God.
None of us has yet arrived at our destination in the journey of faith into God’s mystery. No matter how old we may be, there is a journey ahead with Christ into God. Our lives are in the process of being fulfilled, they are not yet complete. That is the nature of the Christian life. There is always more that God wants to give us, not always in quantity or materially, but certainly in quality and spiritually. God’s grace abounds more and more, not less and less as we hasten towards Christ. But not if we keep looking back, keep harking back to the past, for then we are unable to receive grace upon grace, we cannot find the pearl of grace price, the one thing necessary for us today.
The same is true in the life of the church and our own community of faith here at Volmoed. Last year when we celebrated our 30th anniversary as a Community we rejoiced in the many memories that flooded into our corporate consciousness. But we also opened ourselves to God’s future for us. We did not engage in a five year plan, but we did pray that God would lead us into the future in ways that would hasten our journey more fully into Christ, and therefore into God’s purpose for us and this place. And God does not disappoint us even though we may disappoint God. This is the amazing quality of the journey into the mystery of God’s kingdom — there are always surprising graceful twists and turns on the road ahead as we journey into the fullness of Christ. But do not hanker after the past, the ways things were, be open and available to be drawn gracefully into God’s purpose today in Christ in whom is the fullness of life.
John W. de Gruchy
Volmoed 17 August 2017
“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
“You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
Jesus and his disciples have just fed five thousand people who gathered to hear his teaching. The disciples must have felt that the Jesus’ movement was proving to be a great success and they were important players within it. But immediately after feeding the five thousand Jesus tells his disciples to get in their boat and head for the other side of the lake, but he leaves them and goes up into the hills to pray. The change is dramatic. From having been important figures in the crowd one moment, the next the disciples are alone in a small boat on the lake, and Jesus has left them to fend for themselves.
Imagine the early Christians reading the story around the year 80, ten years after the destruction of Jerusalem. Many of them were Jews but because they believed in Jesus as the Messiah they were no longer welcome in the synagogue. They were a handful of disciples alone in their boat, an early symbol for the church, on an angry sea. Facing persecution, they were fearful as the wind howled and the waves battered their fragile craft. Why had Jesus left them? Why had he ascended to the Father and not returned as he had promised? How could they keep faith in him as the crowds turned against them just as they had turned against Jesus and crucified him? Then, when everything seemed lost, the disciples suddenly become aware that Jesus was coming to them across the angry waves. At first they thought he was a ghost. But then they heard his words “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Words we all need to hear in times such as these in which we live as the nations rage and the people protest.
As we journey on an increasingly angry sea we do well to find some security in the community of faith, reassured by familiar words and songs, familiar faces and fellowship in a world which seems to be falling apart around us, threatening our families and friends, our country and global society. But even in the boat we no longer feel as safe and secure as before. There are leaks, and the boards creak ominously, increasing our fears. But at least, we say, we have Peter on board, the prince of the apostles, the rock, as we also had Mandela and Beyers Naudé, and after all we still have Archbishop Tutu. Yes, the boat may be fragile but thank God for leaders of integrity, faith and courage, and pastors we can trust. Yes, Peter will go and bring Jesus back on board, “So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.”
But just at that moment, as he went towards Jesus, Peter’s faith faltered and he began to sink in fear. “Lord, save me!” he cried. Yes, even those we look to and trust to help us in fearful times often despair and are tempted to doubt, they too often sink into the depths of despondency and despair, unable to keep walking on water. But then, when all seems lost, Jesus reaches out and firmly grasps Peter’s hand, as he does ours, saying: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Why did you doubt that love and forgiveness, not hate and vengeance, was the true path of life? Why did you doubt that sharing with those in need, and showing compassion on the needy, was what life is about? Why do you not trust my word that my way is truth and that in me you have life to the full?
It is easy to believe in God when everything is going well, when the sun is shining and the sea is calm. It is easy to say the creed with confidence when the citadel of faith is not under attack. But when things fall apart, when the menacing waves of violence and war, environmental crisis, political corruption and the abuse of power, shrinking resources and rapidly growing populations, rock the boat, we can easily lose faith. We are all tempted to do so. That is why we pray daily “Let us not into temptation!” But many falter, even the Peters of this world, those we look to for guidance and support. God seems absent and Jesus is far away up a distant mountain, and we are up the creek without a paddle.. Like Peter we find we cannot walk on water. Yet it is precisely in such times that faith in Jesus as the way, truth and life, becomes most critical not just for our own salvation, but also for the world itself.
The boat in which we sail the turbulent waters exists is, like Noah’s Ark, meant to save the world not just those on board. So Jesus does not desert the boat, fragile as it is, or those on board fallible as we are, because he needs us to help bring joy and peace, justice, salvation and hope to the world. Matthew describes an occasion when Jesus could not do many deeds of power in Nazareth, because his disciples lacked faith. (Matthew 13:54-58) Without their believing co-operation Jesus himself was impotent. Is that not a remarkable thought? Can it be that without us even God cannot do what God loves doing to make this world a better place? On another occasion after Jesus had healed an epileptic boy his disciples asked him why they lacked the power to do the same. “Because of your little faith,” Jesus replied. “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:21) Yes, our faith releases God’s power to make lives whole, to transform situations, even to move mountains.
It may be true that nothing is impossible for God, as the angel told Mary in foretelling the birth of Jesus, even so the birth of Jesus was dependent on Mary being willing to be the mother of our Lord: “let it be with me according to your word.” The truth is, God has no alternative in working out his purposes on earth than our hands and feet, our love and compassion, our willingness and commitment. That was what Peter and the other disciples in the sinking boat had to learn, as do we. To say we believe in God is to put ourselves at God’s disposal to make the impossible possible, to walk on water and move mountains.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 10 August 2017
THE SIGN OF THE CROSS
I Corinthians 1:10-17
“For Christ …sent me to proclaim the gospel…not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.”
Last Friday afternoon Anthony Hamilton Russel, our neighbouring wine farmer, took Graham Ward, Isobel and myself up to a rocky outcrop high on his farm overlooking Hermanus and Walker Bay, to see a cross carved into a rock by Portuguese sailors probably around 1490. It is amazing to think that five hundred years ago sailors from Portugal, shipwrecked in Walker Bay or stopping to find provisions on their way up the eastern coast of Africa, climbed the mountain behind our then non-existent town to carve this beautiful Maltese cross. Presumably they were thanking God for their safe arrival in an alien land after the dangerous journey thousands of miles from home, as well as asking for God’s continued protection as they sailed further up our treacherous coast. When you stand where they carved their cross you can imagine them looking down on the Hemel en Aarde Valley and descending to drink from the Onrus river that runs through Volmoed. So from the rising of the sun in the east over that Portuguese cross to the sun’s setting over the cross on Kleinbergie to our west, and with the Southern Cross above us in the night sky, Volmoed is surrounded by the sign of the cross, the symbol of God’s redemptive and healing love.
During our Youth Leadership Training Programme one of the participants was concerned about the danger of idols in churches, referring specifically to icons and crosses. This reflects an ancient debate in the Church, for images can become a source of superstition and idolatry when misused, even or perhaps especially sacred images and icons. But there is a difference between false images, like the Golden Calf in the OT, that are destructive idols for they misrepresent God, and true images that witness to God’s liberating power and redemptive love in Christ. Icons and crosses are not idols we worship but reminders of the story of God’s love for the world.
In 313 the Emperor Constantine had a vision of the cross before going into battle, and heard a voice saying: “In this sign conquer!” Constantine won the battle and ever then the cross has become a symbol for many crusades and conquests by so-called Christian emperors and nations. The words “In this sign conquer” were even written on the insignia of army chaplains in the old SADF, making the cross a symbol to justify military power rather than love, forgiveness and reconciliation. And ironically, during of the Reformation in England, the Puritans in the Church of England took down all crosses and crucifixes and replaced them with the Coat of Arms of the King! That, too, was idolatry, symbolizing the claim of the king to be head of the church in England in the struggle for power against Pope and Emperor.
Protestants sometimes forget that the great Reformer, Martin Luther, insisted that crucifixes remain in the churches of the Reformation and recommended that Christians make the sign of the cross before they pray, a practice that Dietrich Bonhoeffer also followed. In fact, making the sign of the cross goes back to the early days of Christianity, and was notably encouraged by St. Augustine whose theology so influenced the Protestant Reformers. Today, thanks to the ecumenical movement and the work of places like the Centre for Christian Spirituality whose 30th birthday we celebrate today, all of us have benefitted from the rich spiritual traditions of Churches different from our own. Gone are the days when only Catholics appreciated the significance of a crucifix, Eastern Orthodox Christians contemplated before an icon, Quakers sat in silence to listen to the Spirit, Pentecostals spoke in tongues, or monks chanted psalms or Taizé songs. We can all draw deeply from many wells on our journey in faith. And surely, if some footballers today make the sign of the cross when they score a goal, as they often do, then it can’t be wrong for us to the sign of the cross if we believe God loves us!
There is undoubtedly a difference between superstition and faith, between turning the cross into a golden fashion trinket, and believing in the cross as the power of God’s love in Christ crucified. St. Paul was aware of this danger when he wrote to the Corinthians and said that Christ had sent him to proclaim the gospel, but not in eloquent words of worldly wisdom for that emptied the cross of Christ of its power. He knew there was a danger of subverting the message of the cross by trying to be too clever. His aim was not to convince his hearers of the truth of the gospel by sophisticated argument, but to let the message of the cross speak for itself. Which reminds me of the Scottish Presbyterian theologian and eloquent preacher of an earlier generation, James Denny, who once said that he envied the Roman Catholic priest who could hold up a crucifix before his congregation and simply say “God loves you like that!” That is the message of the cross. It does not require eloquence or long sermons to convince us of its truth. That is the whole point of having a cross in the sanctuary or, for those who do, making the sign of the cross when they pray or receive communion. They are saying: God loves us like this! We don’t know whether the Portuguese sailors also had this in mind when they carved the sign of the cross on stone, but it is testimony to our belief that “God so loved the world that he gave us his only son.”
I am glad that some hymns that we used to sing with gusto in church have been confined to the closet or waste paper bin, but I am saddened that we seldom sing others like those of Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley, which so wondrously express the message of the cross in song. I can’t remember when last I sang Watt’s great hymn “When I survey the wondrous cross” but its words come to mind as I think about that cross carved by sailors long ago on the nearby mountain top and somewhat uncharacteristically, I too will make the sign of the cross to express my faith in God’s redemptive love for the world.
When I survey the wondrous cross,
on which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
and pour contempt on all my pride.
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life my all.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed July 27, 2017
The Lord spoke with a loud voice…out of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness.”Deuteronomy 5:22-24
“Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you.”John 12:35-36
In winter time when the sun dips over the mountain early in the afternoon and Volmoed is overtaken by darkness, we wish summer would come early. We long for warmth and light. But we know that darkness is necessary in the rhythm of life. For it in the darkness of the earth that plants take root, just as it is in the dark night of the soul, those times when we feel most depressed. when we grieve, when we feel overcome and fearful, that God often speaks most clearly to us. So it is that the author of the Cloud of Unknowing counsels us: “Reconcile yourself to wait in this darkness as long as is necessary, but still go on longing after him whom you love. For if you are to feel God or to see God in this life, it must always be in this cloud and in this darkness.”
Yet darkness remains a metaphor for all that is evil, chaotic, destructive. Do we not rightly fear the dark because of the unknown lurking there, as we fear dying because it is a journey into darkness? Yes, of course, that is so. That is why we understand the poet Dylan Thomas, when, as he sits beside his dying father, he cries out in protest:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage. rage against the dying of the light.
We do right to rage against the “dying of the light” for the light speaks to us of hope, joy and resurrection. We rightly protest against the darkness that envelopes friends dying of cancer, the darkness of the oceans depths that claimed the life of a young girl swept away by the waves in Betty’s Bay, and the darkness of death and destruction in the bombed out caverns of Mosul. And yet, do we not yearn for darkness when bright lights keep us from sleeping? Do we not shield our eyes from the overpowering rays of the mid-day sun, drawing down the blinds? Do we not welcome winter when it arrives, when the shadows lengthen and the fire glows in the hearth? Do we not dim the lights and light the candles when we seek intimacy with friends and lovers? Do we not even welcome death when it brings terrible pain to an end? And is not experiencing the “dark night of the soul” part of our journey into the light of God’s presence? For it is out of the darkness, the Bible tells us, that God speaks and the light breaks into our lives, it is when everything is shrouded in darkness that God says “let there be light” and is it not so that Easter light only dawns after the world is covered in darkness.
For the past months we have been praying for a number of people who have cancer. Among them is our friend Suellen Shay. It was Suellen who suggested that we light a candle of hope in the chapel every day to remember of all those suffering from cancer. This week Isobel and I received a letter from Suellen in which she wrote:
Over these past six months my journey of understanding and experiencing hope has become more layered. It started with a focus on light – hence the candle of hope. But more recently the focus has shifted to darkness. Darkness has so many negative associated emotions especially when linked to illness, depression, loss. These are real and I have experienced them as many of you have. But I have been encouraged to push through these negative associations (not around them) to find the gifts of the darkness. This requires a different perspective on darkness – not as the opposite of light but darkness that illuminates light.
Suellen goes on to explain the difference between darkness as something bad, evil, and fearful, and darkness as something helpful, something that illuminates the light.
Stars that are always there can only be seen in deep darkness…. Many mystics point to additional senses that are developed when you ‘learn to walk in the darkness’. So if we are to be people of hope … we cannot escape from the darkness – it is an inevitable part of our personal, social and political life. The challenge is to work with it, to mine its depths, to develop those senses that enable us to rise above cynicism and defeatism.
We cannot escape the darkness of depression, sickness, loss and death, but maybe we can discover light in our darkness, maybe instead of darkness being our enemy it can become our friend? As Suellen reminds us, it is only on the darkest night that we can see the stars in all their glory, and witness the comets streaking across the horizon. So with her and countless others across the centuries, perhaps we need to listen again to the author of The Cloud of Unknowing : “Reconcile yourself to wait in this darkness as long as is necessary…For if you are to feel God or to see God in this life, it must always be in this cloud and in this darkness.” Or listen to the words of the Bible when its reminds us: “The Lord spoke with a loud voice…out of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness.
But above all, listen to the words of Jesus to his disciples as they journeyed to Jerusalem, as they walked deeper with him into the darkness of his approaching suffering and death, until darkness covered the face of the earth. It is then that Jesus says to them: “Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you.” To know God in the darkness we have to learn to walk in the light of God’s presence when the sun is shining, when life is good, when our limbs are strong, when the future seems bright, when we still experience the presence of Christ as we journey along the road before the descent into the encroaching darkness of Calvary. To hear God speak to us in the dark times of our lives we have to learn to walk in the light before the darkness deepens, before hopes are dashed and illness strikes, before we despair and are angry with God, so that while, the darkness may threaten us it will not overcome us. So we take heart from the words of the Taizé song: “Within our darkest night, God kindles the fire that never dies away.”
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 6July 2017