I John 4:7-12
“No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”
Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’
Jesus reminds his hearers that all the law and the prophets are summed up in the commandment to love God with heart, and soul and mind, and to love others as ourselves. The first letter of St. John also speaks about the commandment to love God and others. But, we might ask, can love be commanded, is love a law we must obey? Do children love their parents because they have been commanded to do so? Would a wise king issue a decree telling his subjects to love him and therefore expect to be loved in return? So why does the Bible command us to love God and our neighbour? Is true love ever a response to a command which, if obeyed, brings rewards, otherwise results in punishment? Is God’s love for us dependent on our obedience; or parents’ love dependent on their children’s obedience?
Earlier this year I gave some Lenten meditations on the Christian mystics. One was Meister Eckhart who tells us that we should love God “without whys and wherefores.” That is, we should love God and neighbour without calculating beforehand what is in it for us if we do or don’t. This understanding of what it means to love God and neighbour runs counter to much religion which is about satisfying our needs, earning rewards, solving problems, finding a parking place, or becoming prosperous. In the same way, some give to charity only to reduce their income tax returns! Such love is a calculating stratagem in which we first determine whether it will be to our advantage to love or not.
But true love is spontaneous like the blossoming of a rose, the beating of the heart, the embracing of a weeping child, the binding up of a victim’s wounds, the caring for a spouse with dementia, giving a ride to a mother and child standing in the rain on the roadside. That is why we speak about “falling in love”, for there is no other explanation. An orchid does not blossom to win the prize for the best orchid, but because it can not to otherwise. So, love is a miracle which can only be described in poetry, something beyond our reckoning, capacity and understanding. We love God and neighbour not because by doing so we gain brownie points, but simply because the wonder of creation and the beauty of redemption evokes love. In his well-known hymn St. Francis Xavier put it well: we do not love God to gain heaven or escape hell, or in the hope of some reward, but because God loves us.
We know that all our images of God, however helpful, are inevitably inadequate and sometimes idolatrous. God cannot be manipulated by our prayers or declarations of love. God is not a patriarchal father who needs to be loved to love. No, “God is love,” writes St. John. And because God is love, it is always God’s nature to love even if sometimes God’s love is “tough love”. It is not a love that is blind to our sins, but a love that expresses itself in acts of mercy and restorative justice. When the NT speaks of God as love it refers to love as self-giving, creative and redemptive, embracing, healing and renewing. These words lead us into the mystery of the love revealed in the life and death of Jesus Christ, a love that is unfathomable, unconditional and life-giving. “God’s love,” write St. John. ” was revealed among us in this way; God sent his only Son into the world that we might live through him.”
Love cannot be commanded, it is a gift we receive by sharing. Yet, at the same time, in sharing God’s love by loving our neighbour we do what is right and good, we fulfil the commandments, and God’s love is perfected in us. As St. John writes: “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” What a remarkable saying. one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”
God’s love is made perfect in our love for one another, the neighbour, the downtrodden. Such is the down-to-earth practice of love which St. Paul describes in his majestic love poem,
“love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. Love bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” (I Cor.13).
Yes, there are no whys and wherefores in true love, it is beyond reason, beyond dogma, beyond calculation, beyond religion, beyond commandments, even beyond words — it is something that takes root deep within us so that it eventually becomes who we are, blossoming like a rose, God’s love perfected in us. In a poem entitled “At the end of the day”, based on the writings of Julian of Norwich, Isobel wrote these words;
At the end of the end
,All I can do is trust and believe…
That the meaning of all is love.
That God loved us before he made us.
And his love has never diminished.
We began when we were made,
but the love in us and in God for us
has been since time began.
Love makes up our shortfall,
Love is what it all means,
Love is all that matters,
Love will triumph in the end.
John de Gruchy
30 November 2017
“Who is the Lord, that I should hear him and let Israel go?”
“If you…had only recognized the things that make for peace.”
My meditation for today was already prepared when. on Tuesday, the news broke that Robert Mugabe had resigned as president of Zimbabwe. This momentous event demanded that I start again, for how could we today ignore what has happened north of our border this past week? An event that is not only of great significance for our neighbours, but also one that has the potential to influence developments in our own country in the coming days. The message is clear: corrupt rulers, powerful as they are, can be brought down. But equally clear is the message that liberation does not necessarily bring justice and peace, for freedom is always an ongoing, and never-ending struggle to establish a just society. This is not only the testimony of history; it is also the testimony of the Bible.
There were two formative events in the history of ancient Israel. The first was when Abraham left home in response to the call of God and by faith went into an unknown future trusting in God’s promised covenant. The second was when Moses rose up to lead the enslaved Israelites against the tyranny of Pharaoh which, after many failed attempts to convince Pharaoh, eventually led to their liberation and journey into the wilderness in search of the land where they could live in freedom, justice and peace. At the same time a journey full of dangers and digressions, of dashed hopes and failures as well as moments in which their faith was restored and their resolve to continue was strengthened.
No one understood these OT stories better than John Calvin, whom we remember alongside Martin Luther in this 500th anniversary year of the Reformation. In the final chapter of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, written during the years when the Huguenots in his native France were being persecuted by the French regime, Calvin reflected on these stories about the downfall of tyrants and the liberation of oppressed people, and wrote these words:
“Here are revealed God’s goodness, God’s power and God’s providence. For sometimes he raises up avengers from among his servants, and arms them with his command to punish the wicked government and delivers his people, oppressed in unjust ways, from miserable calamity…However these deeds of men are judged in themselves, still the Lord accomplished his work through them alike when he broke the bloody sceptres of arrogant kings and when he overturned intolerable governments. Let the princes hear and be afraid.”
Calvin was an early advocate of constitutional democracy, so his preferred way of political change was through the peaceful processes of constitutional law. But he acknowledged that sometimes in history cruel dictators arise who refuse to listen to those who cry for justice. “Let my people go!” Moses thundered on behalf of God. But Pharaoh cynically and disparagingly replied: “Who is the Lord, that I should hear him and let Israel go?” As Jesus centuries later told the rulers of Jerusalem, they refused to recognize “the things that make for peace.” At such times extraordinary measures are required. But like Jesus and the prophets, Calvin cautioned against the use of violence to overthrow tyranny, advocating prayer and patience, and action by constituted authority. But he also spoke about God raising up “avengers among his servants” to “punish wicked government and deliver his people, oppressed in unjust ways, from miserable calamity.” When we Christians pray for the end to unjust rule we should not be surprised if God answers such prayers through people who rise up in struggles for their liberation.
But certainly, a striking feature about what happened in Zimbabwe is that the downfall of Mugabe after decades of misrule and tyranny, did not result in any fatalities! That is remarkable when you think about it. It is almost as though the army and political leadership had read Calvin, acting decisively yet with restraint. This does not necessarily mean that the army has suddenly become a champion of democracy, or that there is any guarantee that democratic rule will now flourish, but we can give thanks that a corrupt dictator has been toppled without the shedding of blood, and a fresh start has been made possible.
The fact is, corrupt governments can be forced to face reality by the protests and pressure of people and prophets. So in Calvin’s words: “Let the princes (and presidents) hear and be afraid.” This is a moral universe. It might not always seem so, but then come these moments in history when “the mighty are brought down from their seats” and our faith in God’s covenant of justice is restored. Of course, not everybody believes that God has a hand in such events, but if we do believe this we must also recognise that God’s hands are ours. To pray for an end to unjust rule does not mean that we can sit around doing nothing, for God brings down tyrants in response to prayer that leads to action.
We know only too well that liberation does not invariably bring justice and peace; but it sets people free to begin or restart their journey towards the promised land. And that journey requires that those who long for justice should work for justice, those who loves peace should be peacemakers, and those who pray for reconciliation should be its agents. So let us pray for the people of Zimbabwe as they go forward that they will be blessed with wise rulers and find the necessary strength and wisdom to achieve the land of promise they desire and deserve. And may our prayers for an end to corruption and for the rebirth of a just democracy in South Africa also lead to actions that claim God’s promise of a land of justice, prosperity and peace.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 3 November 2017
“Christ created in himself one new humanity.”
“All who believed were together and had all things in common… Day by day…they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers,”
Isobel keeps on reminding me that many years ago one of the older ministers in our denomination declared that “John de Gruchy would destroy our church!” I can report that I failed. But it is true, I was an ecclesiastical “opstoker”. After writing three newspaper articles for the Natal Mercury on the need for renewal in the church, a senior Methodist Church leader called me to his office and gave me a stern lecture and demanded that I desist from criticising the church. Yes, I was something of a upstart back then, raising awkward questions, speaking out on political issues, and generally causing grief. In doing so I had little support from my fellow ministers, though my bewildered and long-suffering congregation was always loyal. For that reason, when disillusioned priests, pastors and ministers, or disillusioned lay folk, arrive on my doorstep these days to talk about their problems with the church, I have some empathy.
Much of this disillusionment with the church derives from the fact that the church too often seems trapped in its own self-interests, petty squabbles. and raising enough money to exist, rather than serving the world. It seems to be part of the problem rather than an agent of transformation. But apart from this, it has become the victim of of secularization and modernity, which has radically changed the way in which many people understand themselves and the world. So why spend a life-time serving and trying to change the church, why not simply abandon it? This is not a new question, and it begs a more fundamental one, for what is the church we wish to abandon? Our denomination, local congregation, and if not, then what? After all, Christianity began as a community of believers, what the New Testament writers called the ekklesia, the word we translate church
This was understood by them in two ways. The first was the audacious claim that the church is a “new humanity” that Christ has brought into being through his death and resurrection, an inclusive “new humanity” born of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. As such the church transcends all natural boundaries, for “in Christ” all races and classes of people are reconciled in the “one body of Christ.” The second understanding was that this “new humanity” is embodied the communities of people in many localities who share a common life and faith, who gather to worship and pray, to learn from the teaching of the apostles, to share in a thanksgiving meal, to care for one another and serve the wider community. These communities are “the body of Christ” in each place witnessing to God’s healing, justice, reconciliation and peace in the world.
So what do I say to those who are disillusioned with the church and want to abandon it? First I say that they are right to be critical if their criticisms are fair and just, because this is necessary if the church is to be true to its character as the “new humanity.” something that will never happen without people challenging the church when it fails to be the church. Then, I say, that the Christian ministry will always be a tough calling because not everyone in the church really wants to be part of the “body of Christ” serving the world in terms of God’s love and justice. This was already the case in NT times when Paul wrote his letters to the churches. I also remind them that the church is not a community of saints, but a community of forgiven sinners who, at the best of times, are struggling to become saints. The church is a work in progress not a perfect product, a laboratory-experiment that often fails but every now and again surprises us all, and restores our confidence in God’s grace. And then, for good measure, I remind that St. Augustine referred to the church as our mother without whom we would never have heard the gospel and come to faith, in short, we would not be here today, and neither would the Volmoed community.
Given the failures of the church and the cultural changes in society, it is not surprising that many people, who might in the past have “gone to church,” no longer do so. What is surprising is that the church has not only survived for so long, and that there are millions of people who still “go to church” across the world. Some might go out of habit or for reasons of social convention, but many go because they experience the church as a healing community, a community that cares for the vulnerable in society, a reconciling agent that brings hope in times of despair, a prophetic voice speaking truth to power. There are many local churches across the globe that a vibrant with life, and signs of hope in a despairing world. All of this is a sign of the “new humanity” that God is seeking to construct, a long and difficult task because the building material is not perfect.
But in any case to we really want to abandon the church? It’s like abandoning one’s family. Imagine if tomorrow all the churches in Hermanus decided to shut up shop! Imagine if tomorrow all priests and ministers across the country resigned. Imagine if tomorrow Pope Francis abandoned ship. Imagine if tomorrow we sold Volmoed and it became a golfing estate, I think even the golfers among us, especially Barry would be reluctant. Imagine if we all abandoned the church. Imagine the world without the church. The truth is, the church is not an institution, not a building, not a bench of bishops, the church is people we know and love, the church is us. We may despair of it at times as we do of our families. but then so does God, perhaps even more so. Yet God does not abandon us, he works with the material he has and seeks to make us whole. God does not abandon the world for all its faults, he works to redeem it and make it more loving and just, truly a “new humanity.” And the remarkable fact is that he uses a very fallible community we call “the church” to help bring that about. God help us!
John de Gruchy
Volmoed, 16 November 2017
“Why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”
The passage from Luke’s gospel is the lectionary reading for today. In anticipation of this meditation I read it just before I visited South Korea last week, mindful of Trump’s threat to destroy North Korea, and the danger of an imminent nuclear holocaust. What does it mean to interpret the present time, I asked myself? And how are Christians in Korea understanding the times in which they are living? The passage from Luke is not only challenging, it is also disturbing, for Jesus tells his disciples that he has not come to bring peace to the earth, but division. Because of him, he says, families will be divided against each other, and, not surprisingly, mothers-in-law against daughters-in-law! What did he mean? He surely did not mean only that people would understand the times in which they live differently, but that because of following him some would act in ways different to others. as was the case during the struggle against apartheid when families, friends and churches split not just over understanding what is going on, but how to respond?
The truth is, interpreting the present time is not an academic matter; it has to do not only with how we understand what is happening in the world, but how we act in response. And that can be very divisive. So Jesus berates the crowd listening to him for being unable to “interpret the present time,” not because they are incompetent political analysts, but because they were failing to respond to his proclamation of God’s kingdom of justice and peace. They failed to recognise that he presented them with a choice as to how they should live and act, a choice by which they would be judged, a choice that would determine both their own future and that of the coming generations. Is that not also true for us? Our response to the environmental, political, social and economic crises we face, cannot simply be a matter of understanding the situation, but of working for justice. And it is precisely for this reason that following Jesus sometimes becomes divisive even though our aim is the common good of all. So do we really trust the God revealed in Jesus as we seek to interpret these times and make decisions about how we should live and act? What did I learn about this from my new Christian friends in South Korea?
My first impressions, on arriving in Seoul, one of the largest and most high-tech cities in the world, was that I did no sense any fear or panic. There were no police or soldiers on the streets, only thousands of people going about their daily business. The same was true when I was taken south to speak at the Conference to which I had been invited. I was the only “outsider” among the 300 participants, most of them theological professors from the many theological seminaries and faculties in Korea where 25% of the population are Christian. But was anybody interpreting the present time as an hour of judgment, a time of crisis, I asked myself? And if so, how were they responding?
Gradually as friendships were made and conversations developed, people did speak to me about both their faith in God and their fears for the future. They were deeply worried about what was happening. They knew that the end could happen at any time. But as long as it was not yet the end, they believed they had to live their lives trusting that God not Trump or Kim Jong-un rules, and therefore they had to do what they could to face the future with confidence and hope.
There is a constant refrain in the teaching of Jesus summed up in his words “fear not!” These words would not be very comforting if we heard them from certain politicians and presidents who tell us that they have everything under control, and that they will soon sort out the problems of the world. When they talk like that we have every reason to “fear”! The problem is that fear undermines living and acting responsibly, and sometimes leads us to act in ways that are destructive. It is fear that drives nations to build nuclear weapons of mass destruction, and sometimes to use them, That is why Jesus says: “fear not!” For fear disempowers us, it undermines our ability to act faithfully and responsibly. it undermines justice and peace — the peace that Jesus did come to bring! The dividing line is between acting out of fear and acting out of faith — that is the division that Jesus creates.
Even though I was only very briefly in Korea I was deeply impressed by the quite Christian confidence of the people I met. They know the stakes are high, they know the dangers they face, and they are not without anxiety, but they have a remarkable trust in God. That, surely, is how we are called to respond to the present time when so much seems to be falling apart? We should neither live in fear nor resign ourselves tofate, but interpret this time of judgment as an opportunity to put our trust in God into effect by living and acting responsibly and hopefully. I sat next to the mayor of a major city during Sunday worship and at lunch afterwards. An impressive man full of hope whose vision is of a Korea reconciled and at peace, and someone who believes that the Church has a major role to play in the process. For him the end is not yet; there is much to do, and only in doing so can we overcome fear – the fear that feeds on rumour and hatemongering, the fear that feeds of a fatalism that sinks into impotent resignation, the fear that leads to war, the fear that prevents us from living and acting now in the knowledge that God’s kingdom of justice ad=nd peace has come to earth in Jesus.
We all know the end is coming, whether the end of our own lives, or of the world as we know it. Whether we are suddenly struck by lightning tomorrow, or fall terminally ill, is beyond our control. And as long as the end is not yet we have to seize this moment in time as a gift of grace, living and acting in ways that express our hope as followers of Jesus . That is what it means to believe in God. Not believing in a doctrine, but trusting that there is a meaning and purpose in life and history, that the present times are in God’s hands and acting in hope for a peaceable world, by working for justice and reconciliation.. That is how Jesus teaches us to interpret the present times. It may divide us from others who see things differently, but it is the only way to discover the peace which Jesus wants us and the world to have.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 26 October 2017
“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