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IS HE RISEN INDEED?

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A preliminary note:  in this meditation I do not attempt to “prove” the resurrection of Jesus.  I have discussed that question at length  in my book Led into Mystery (London: SCM 2013).  Instead, I reflect on two Easter stories in the gospel of Luke (24:33-38) that speak to those who say they believe.  Do we, indeed?

 Why are we so frightened, and why do doubts keep arising in our hearts?  That is the question the risen Christ keeps asking us as he asked the disciples in Jerusalem  that first Easter evening.  In reflecting on the question I am conflating two stories that Luke connects.  The story of the two travelers on the road to Emmaus who encountered Jesus over their evening meal and hastened back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples: “the Lord has risen indeed” they exclaim!  Is he indeed? those other disciples might have responded with skepticism in their voices, as do many of us  to this day.  Then Jesus appears again to them all.  They are understandably startled and terrified, which prompts Jesus to ask them “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?”  They had great difficulty in accepting the testimony of the two from Emmaus; they wanted more proof.   Like them, we  who have heard and believed the good news, and even exclaimed with great enthusiasm “Christ is risen! Alleluia!”, are not always so sure.  Risen? Indeed?  Is that why we too are often frightened as doubts arise in our hearts?  Is it because for us he remains in the tomb rather than journeying with us on the road?

There is much to be fearful about, not least the terror that strikes without warning, and there are so many reasons to doubt the loving power of God.   We might have been spared terrorist attacks in South Africa thus far, but we have our share of fears about the future and our own personal fate.  This has always been the case.  It is built into the rhythm of life. We know that life is a risk, for we are acutely aware of our own mortality and the mortality of those we love.  Even as we celebrate Easter and heartily sing that death has lost its sting, or acclaim “Christ is risen!”, even as we celebrate the joys of life, even as we taste the sweetness of love, we know that being human requires that we accept our mortality.  Even great saints go through dark nights of doubt.

So the one who travels with us along our journey, the one who has suffered greatly, been betrayed, denied and forsaken, is the one who asks us why we are frightened and why we doubt. He is not judging us for our fear and doubt, in fact he knows why we are frightened and why we doubt because he has himself been to hell and back.  And just as some cholesterol is good and necessary for us and some bad and potentially deadly, so like a good physician Jesus knows that not all fear or doubt is bad.  Good fear helps us avoid danger, genuine doubt helps us discover new knowledge and may even strengthen our faith.  But whether our fear and doubt is good or bad, you cannot live life to the full if you are fearful of venturing along the road, unable to trust the testimony of others or God.  So Jesus understands and respects our fears, he does not manipulate them like some politicians, preachers and other fear-mongers who use our fears to their advantage, making us doubt what is right and good and true.   That is why Jesus keeps asking us at every turn, up every cul-de-sac, and at every fork that we face: “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?”

I have been reading the life story of Brother Roger the founder and abbot of the Taizé Community in France whose songs we now often sing.  The autobiography, called Choose to Love, is a beautiful account of a remarkable lifeIn it Brother Roger tells us about the founding of the Community during the terrible days of the Second World War ,and how he feared for his life as he provided a place of refuge for Jews on the run from the Gestapo.  In later chapters he recounts his visits to many parts of the world where there is great suffering and hardship, and where, for weeks on end he lived among the poorest of the poor.  He also tells about visits to countries in Eastern Europe during the Cold War and how difficult it was for Christians there even to openly meet with him for fear of arrest of punishment.  On one occasion in Budapest there was a youth service to welcome him, but it was under strict security surveillance.  After the distribution of communion, Brother Roger writes, “I go from one person to another to say in Hungarian “Christ is risen!”  That is all he can say.   That is all he needs to say. That evening he goes to another church, it is full to capacity with young people, many of them dealing with doubt and fearing the surveillance of the police, and once more he says: “Christ is risen”: “these are the only words that I say, hundreds of times,” and each time they evoke an expression of hope on the faces of people, for Brother Roger has spoken directly to their fears and doubts far more than any sermon or lecture could ever have done.

The Easter message “Christ is risen! Alleluia!” resounds through history to help us overcome fear and doubt.  But it is not a carefully reasoned statement that will magically turn the fearful into the faithful or doubters into believers.  Such reasoned arguments are necessary.  After all Jesus reasoned with the two travellers as they discussed Scripture during the meal they shared together.  But the acclamation “Christ is risen! Alleluia!” is the shout of those who have already met the stranger on the road and discovered as they have travelled with the risen Christ who enables them to overcome fear and doubt despite those that continue to beset them and niggle their minds.

Those who shared in our Easter service here last Monday when we celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of the Volmoed Community will know that we did not have to prove that Christ is risen, we acclaimed him, and we did so because those who came to celebrate, many of them having struggled and suffered over the years, knew that the risen Christ had joined them on the road along the journey of their lives.

When you are in the midst of poverty or grief, when you face tragedy, or are  living in fear of arrest, you do not take time out to engage in academic debate about the resurrection or to discuss and analyse the crises facing our world.  What you hunger for is a word of assurance that gives hope and awakens faith, a word that liberates you from your captivity in the cold tombs of death and leads us through an open door  out of its darkness into the light. As Pope Francis declared in his Easter Vigil homily: “Let us not allow darkness and fear to distract us and control our hearts.  Today is the celebration of our hope.”  The Easter message, he went on to say, “awakens and resurrects hope in our hearts burdened by sadness.”  In another Easter meditation posted on Facebook this week I came across this appeal:

May you leave behind you a string of empty tombs! That is the challenge of Easter. To resurrect daily, to leave behind us a string of empty tombs, to let our crucified hopes and dreams be resurrected so that like Christ, our lives will radiate the truth that in the end, everything is good, reality can be trusted.’

So as we celebrate this meal like the two travelers who invited Jesus to share at their table on the road to  Emmaus, we too discover Jesus “in the breaking of the bread” and can shout with them and multitudes across the world even in the midst of our fears and doubts: “Christ is risen! Alleluia!”.

John de Gruchy

Volmoed 31 March 2016

 

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BETRAYAL

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“The one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table.”

“For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves?”

 Luke 22:14-27

Isobel and I have been fortunate to obtain tickets to see Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of The Last Supper in the church of St. Maria delle Grazie in Milan in two weeks time.  We have only been given 15 minutes to contemplate the masterpiece, so in preparation we have read the account of another visitor, H.V. Morton, a travel writer from our parents’ generation, which he describes in his book In Search of Italy. One of his comments especially struck me:

No notebook or technical achievement can explain that moment when Leonardo rejected as the theme of his painting the institution of the Eucharist but selected instead the terrible moment when Jesus said: “But, behold, the hand of him that betrays me is with me on the table.”

The painting takes up the whole of one wall in what used to be the dining room of a Franciscan monastery.  Every day the friars would enter the room to sit at table and have their meals.  In doing so they would they undoubtedly at times felt they were part of the Last Supper.  They were at table with Jesus and his disciples.  And they would not have been able to escape the dramatic moment Leonardo wanted them see:  the one who shall betray me is right here with us at table.

The message is unnerving, for while the focus of attention is on Judas, everyone at the table asks “is it me, Lord?”  It could be any of them; it could be any of the friars, and given the state of the church at that time, it could have been the church as a whole that had betrayed Jesus.  The friars might well have thought that because their movement, started by St. Francis of Assisi, was an attempt to revive a moribund and corrupt church.  And over the years even they had sometimes betrayed St. Francis’ vision.  They had lost sight of the fact that before the Last Supper began Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, including those of Judas, and said to them that the greatest are not those who sit at table with him but those who serve.

While many people go to Milan to see Leonardo’s Last Supper not many will know about the Edict of  Milan which changed the course of history and especially of Christianity.  It was a decree issued by emperor Constantine in 313 which prepared the way for Christianity to become the established imperial religion, binding church and state together.  As a result, by the end of the fourth century Christianity had become the only legitimate religion of the Empire. The full might of the state was now used to protect and further the church’s interests, and the church gave its support to the state.  Not all Christians thought this a good idea, and some went into the desert to establish small communities of disciples which, later became the first monasteries.  But for the main,  the way was prepared for crusades and inquisitions and much else that has brought Christianity into disrepute over the centuries, and well into our own time.  Still today  Christianity is identified by many with the interests of Western nations who claim to embody Christian civilization, but continually betray that inheritance by their actions and attitudes.   Instead of Christianity being a religion of peace and justice. of compassion, service and love, it has too often been used to justify war and injustice, slavery, imperialism, racism and apartheid, patriarchy and homophobia. Too often the church has betrayed Jesus. Yes, we have to ask ourselves as the rest of the disciples did that sombre night: “Is it us Lord?”  Surely not us?

So on this Maundy Thursday as we commemorate the institution of the Eucharist we gather at table to share this meal mindful of what took place that fateful evening in an upper room in Jerusalem.  But we might well be too familiar with what we are hearing or seeing that we miss what Leonardo wants us to see — for him this was not just religious ceremony, the beginning of a ritual that would be repeated through the centuries.  No, this was a tragic moment when Jesus was betrayed  by one whose hand was on the table , and when those who had been closest to him missed the whole point of his life and ministry.  For even while they were still at table, even after Judas had left, Luke tells us: “a dispute arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest.”  Can you believe it?  On that holy night after Jesus had washed their feet and had shared his last supper with them, the disciples argued about who was the greatest!  So Jesus had to rebuke them all: “who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves?”  They had still not got the message.  Peter was about to deny Jesus and the next day they would all run away.

No, not all, for Mary and her women companions who were not at the table that night stayed with Jesus to the end.  They stood beneath the cross and wept as they watched, and in doing so entered into the mystery of Jesus’ suffering. Is that not a sobering fact?  They had not sat with the disciples at the table the night before because women were excluded from such meals, just as gay people or strangers or people of other cultures are excluded even in our own day.  But they were always there in the background, watching, serving, and caring for Jesus.  We also recall, as  Mark’s gospel tells us, that a day or two before, an unknown woman had washed Jesus’ feet and anointed him with costly ointment as he and the disciples sat at table in Bethany, only to be scolded for doing so by Judas and the other disciples. But Jesus rebuked them:  “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of  her.”  Yes, indeed, as we break bread today in remembrance of Christ, we also remember this unknown woman as Jesus said we should.  For she is a sign of the true church, the servant church..

The true church through the ages has served Jesus, has stood with the women  beneath the cross, and  remained faithful to him.  This is the church we are called to be and become.  It is the church that has understood that before Jesus shared his last supper with them  he washed their feet, even the feet of Judas knowing full well that he was the one who would betray him! (John 13)  The moment the church stops serving Jesus through serving the needs of of those in need, or excludes from the table those it deems unworthy, it starts to betray him.  That is why each time we share this meal in remembrance of Jesus death, we should remember that he washed his betrayer’s feet, and also remember the woman who washed his feet in love and gratitude but whom Judas and the others rebuked.  For the greatest  in God’s kingdom are not those who sit at table with Jesus but those who serve him by serving those in need.

John de Gruchy

Volmoed 25 March 2016

SAY NO TO FATE

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“See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the son of man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death.”Mark 10:32-34

We watched a movie a week ago at Volmoed entitled The Two Faces of January.  The story begins in Athens, shifts to the Island of Crete and ends up in Istanbul. This is an enchanting location for what begins as a romantic holiday but soon becomes a dark thriller of sudden death, ending in a graveyard with no semblance sign of redemption.  The Volmoed reception of the movie as entertainment was generally a thumbs down.    But the more I reflected on it, the more movie reminded me of some classic Greek tragedies.  Like most lives and the birth of nations, they start with great promise, but as the myth unfolds the  mood changes as fateful choices lead to frightful consequences. Soon everyone is dragged downwards in a spiralling journey of gloomy foreboding and death.  The inevitable, happens, and there seems to be nothing humanly possible to prevent it.  We are sucked into the mire of fatalism, a sense of unrelenting hopelessness irrespective of what we can or should do about it.  Such is the philosophy of fatalism, which prevails today as much as it ever did in ancient Greece. Whatever will be will be,

At times it seems that the Lenten journey of Jesus to the cross is exactly like a Greek tragedy. “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the son of man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death.”  There are no maybes, no ifs and buts, but simply a prediction of fateful happenings.  Jesus will be arrested and condemned to death, and there is apparently nothing that either he or his followers can do to prevent it.  The die is cast.  A story of good news of peace which started one starlit night in Bethlehem and then on the hills of Galilee starts plummeting towards disaster the nearer Jesus and his disciples get to Jerusalem. Then everything falls apart.  The story is becoming bad news, very bad news. Judas betrays Jesus and commits suicide; Peter denies Jesus and weeps his heart out; the crowd bay for Jesus’ blood and get it; at a rigged trial Pilate condemns Jesus to death then washes his hands of the whole affair; all the disciples except for some women, flee the scene in panic; and then comes the punch line, “my God why have you forsaken me?”  It has all gone horribly wrong.   The fate of Jesus seems so inexorable, so inevitable, so meaningless, without any semblance of hope.  The passion story is like a dark Hitchcock movie or one of the millions of human tragedies that daily unfold across the globe leaving us all gasping in helplessness.  If there is a God, then where in this hell is God, the God we Christians have the audacity to say is compassionate and loves us?  Is not life really determined by fate as the ancient Greeks and many of our contemporaries believe?

Fatalism is a powerful philosophy. If the bullet has your number on it, soldiers say, there is nothing you can do about it. It’s the luck of the draw, we say,  or the way the penny drops.  It is your karma or kismet; it is all predetermined, programmed beyond our control.  And there is much to support this conviction.  Ask people born into poverty, or those who have incurable cancer; ask those whose lives have fallen apart through no fault of their own.  Not everyone, in fact, not most people get a good hand of cards to play. It is the luck of the draw, we say.  Life is a struggle and there is nothing we or they can do to change the circumstances in which we live.  Don’t we all feel like that at times?  And it becomes more so the older we get.   There seems to be something written in the stars that determines the course of our lives.

It was in a world shaped by this powerful philosophy and the myths that provide its narrative that the gospel of Christ was first proclaimed and fundamentally challenged this worldview and way of being in the world.  “For freedom Christ has set us free,” writes Paul to the Galatians. freedom not just from dehumanizing legalism but also from what the apostle called the “elemental spirits of the world.” (Gal 4) or the “principalities and powers” of death. The gospel of Christ is good news not because it tells us that we can pick ourselves up by our own bootstraps, but because it speaks to us of the mystery and power of a divine love and grace that can set us free from the power of fatalism, and therefore set us free to live without the fear of fate and so act responsibly.  Of course, we are not set free from the inevitability of death, or suffering, or even from poverty, but we are liberated from bondage to a fatalism that decrees that life has no purpose or meaning, no hope of redemption. and no possibility of transformation.

The truth is that only those who can discern some purpose in living are able to survive tragedy, only those who refuse to be trapped by the conditions in which they have been born or seem destined to live, are open to the redemptive power of God’s grace who can change their destiny.  That is why I do not believe that the future of our country or any other is dependent upon fate but on the choices we make and the actions we take by God’s as we discern God’s will, not a cast-iron will of preordained inevitability, but a will of justice and freedom, of mercy and peace.  So I take great comfort from the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer written shortly before his imprisonment that ended in his death that in the end became inevitable but not fatalistic:

I believe that God can and will let good come out of everything, even the greatest evil. For thatto happen, God needs human beings who let everything work out for the best. I believe that in every moment of distress God will give us as much strength to resist as we need…. In such faith all fear of  the future should be overcome…I believe that God is no timeless fate but waits for and responds to sincere prayer and responsible actions.

We reaffirm these convictions of faith as we journey with Jesus to the cross on that dark Friday of divine absence that, for us, has become the Good Friday of liberation from fate as we commit our future into God’s gracious hands.  So, too, we reaffirm our commitment to authentic and hopeful acts of love, justice and mercy, and pray for grace and wisdom in doing so.  God does not expect more from us; but God also does not ask for less for we  “believe that God is no timeless fate but waits for and responds to sincere prayer and responsible actions.”

 

John de Gruchy

Volmoed 17 March 2016

 

 

IS TRUMP A CAUSE FOR LAUGHTER OR LAMENT?

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“Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?”  Lamentations 1:6-12-15;

“You will know them by their fruits.”  Matthew 7:15-20

I hesitated longer than usual before deciding to go public on the unbelievably crass Republican race for presidential nomination in the United States, but the time has come to do so   And I do so not only because of the way in which the campaign is bringing out the worst in politics and bringing Christianity into even more disrepute than it already is in, but also because of the attacks being made on the dignity of those deemed outsiders or who happen to be poor. And, of course, what is happening over there has  implications for us in South Africa in this electioneering year as well.  .

If it is true that Christians are known by their fruit, as Jesus put it, then the Pope is right, Trump is not a Christian whether evangelical or otherwise.  He is an imposter who claims to be a Christian in order to attract votes.  His life-style, values, and brash arrogance in saying he has never had to ask God for forgiveness, puts him beyond the pale even of being a proud Presbyterian as he claims!  Of course, Trump does not care in the slightest what we think any more than about what he says.  He has hoodwinked  the so-called evangelical vote, appealing to their ill-informed prejudices and baseless fears, and exposed the truth that they are not really evangelical at all if they can’t distinguish between a wolf in sheep’s clothing and the good shepherd.

Now let us be clear, it does not really matter whether or not Trump is a Christian in running for President of the United States.  There is nothing in the American Constitution, or our own for that matter, which says that the President must be a Christian let alone a “born again” one.  And rightly so.  You do not have to be a good Christian or even a religious person, to be a good political leader.   John Calvin, the Protestant Reformer dear to evangelicals knew that and said as much.   What makes a good political leader  is not religion but honesty, intelligence, wisdom, strength of character, and a commitment to the public good.  If he or she is also a good Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu or Buddhist,, that might be a bonus, but it does not mean anything if the other virtues of political leadership are absent.  When politicians seek the endorsement of churches and other faith communities in the way in which Trump and his fellow Republicans are doing,  red lights begin to flash, warning us of a potential unholy alliance that bodes ill for both politics and religion.  And that is as true in South Africa as it is anywhere else.

I don’t know whether to laugh at Trump with Trevor Noah, which I certainly do most evenings, or to weep with those genuine evangelicals and many other Americans who are dismayed, saddened, and angry at the way in which Trump and his trumpets are behaving while he drags Christianity through the mud under the banner of protecting it.  I guess my lamenting is greater than my laughter because the consequences of this campaign are already frightful and we are still months away from the end.  So I am lamenting now with my American friends as Jeremiah and Jesus lamented over Jerusalem because it did not listen to the prophets of justice and compassion, but pursued policies of self-interested national idolatry.

Lamentation is part of the Lenten journey.  Jesus wept over Jerusalem as he entered Jerusalem because the people were unrepentant for their sins, insensitive to the suffering of the poor,  and oblivious to the disaster awaiting them.  “Is it nothing to you all you who pass by to see such suffering?”  That is the prophet’s call to lament.  It may seem a trifle to lament what is happening in American politics given all the pain and suffering in the world, but we all know that what happens in American politics affects the whole world.  Just as the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in the Orient may cause a storm in the Amazon, so a decision in the White House can mean the raining down of bombs on towns and villages in the Middle East.

So we lament with American friends over  Washington because the Republican race is bringing out the worst side of America and bringing Christianity into disrepute at the same time.  While each presidential contender claims  to be more Christian than the others, they all seem equally brash and self-centred, engaging in fear-mongering, and appealing to ill-informed people with promises of greatness and security that cannot be kept.  Just recently, Mr. Trump declared, “We are going to get greedy for the United States, and grab and grab and grab.”  Is that what makes a nation great?  It certainly does not give it any right to be regarded as Christian. After all, what makes a country great is not its fire power that enables it to dominate others, or its material wealth, but its striving for justice and its care for the poor.

I also I lament because unlike Trump and his more cynical speech-writers and campaign managers,  I do care for evangelical Christianity.  Evangelical simply means the good news about Jesus, his life, death and resurrection and what this means to us as Christian.  I was nurtured in the womb of evangelical Christianity.  It was not without its right-wing fundamentalist faults even back then, and I am very glad I grew beyond all of that.  But I did learn much that I treasure.  I learnt that we are made whole by God’s amazing grace, I came to know the forgiveness of sins, and step by step as I grew beyond the narrowness of fundamentalism I discovered that the love of God for the world is so immense that it embraces everyone, not least outsiders, the stranger and disinherited.  And because evangelical Christianity taught me to take the Bible seriously, I discovered in its pages that God loves justice, mercy, and compassion, and wants us to do the same.  I also came to know the church as a community of caring people committed to serve the needs of the world.

This is the evangelical Christianity I espouse, the good news about Jesus who declares that he had been anointed by the  Spirit to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, let the oppressed go free, and announce the year of the Lord’s favour in which wealth and land will be redistributed fairly and justly.  This good news is the very opposite of what Trump and his so-called evangelical trumpeters stand for.  That’s just bad news.  And that is why I lament. But I also laugh.  I laugh because I know that God has a record of bringing down the proud and the mighty from their seats, and exalting the poor and humble.  And that is as true in South Africa as it is in America.  So as this year of electioneering hots up let us take a stand for justice in our own backyard and trust God to do the rest.  Let God take care of Donald Trump, but let us make sure that we are known by our good fruit not bad.

John de Gruchy

3 March 2016

 

MEDITATION: LET’S FACE IT

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2 Corinthians 3:17-18
Mark 9:2-8

“All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”

It is Lent and I have a confession to make. I have become a Facebook friend! I had long resisted the temptation and felt proud of the fact. Facebook, I said, was for the vain, those who splashed selfies across the internet, and boast about how many friends they had. Yes, I fell into temptation just at the time when Lent dawned and I should have doubled my resistance. Some people I know even gave up on Facebook for Lent, and here was I taking up Facebook during Lent. But I am not really sorry. I have reconnected with lots of old friends, and made new ones. I can even see their faces and they can see mine, and I can, if I want to, enter into virtual conversation with them if not actually face to face. Well, like all converts, I can go on about this, but I will refrain. I have said enough to get into my meditation stride that will lead to the words of St. Paul that “all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”
Faces are fundamental to our identity, to who we are. When we think about people, we immediately see their faces. Faces may change through accidents or illness, and inevitably as we grow older, but our faces are unique even if we are look-alike twins. They are the way in which we relate to others from the moment we are born, the moment our parents see us and we begin to recognise their faces and learn to relate to them and others. All our emotions are expressed in our faces: love and fear, anger and hatred, joy and pain, compassion and indifference. When we look at another’s face we can usually tell what they are feeling and maybe even thinking.
One of C.S. Lewis’ lesser known books and yet one that some regard as his best, is entitled Till we have Faces. Lewis retells the ancient Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche from the perspective of Psyche’s elder sister Orual. Orual doesn’t love anyone more than she loves beautiful Psyche. But her love was selfishly protective, not by serving Psyche’s happiness in serving and healing others, but her own. On Psyche’s death as a sacrifice to appease the gods, Orual is forced to examine her motives and is forced to acknowledge that unlike beautiful Psyche who unselfishly serves others, she is self-centred and unattractive. In fact, her father tells her that her she will never find a husband because her looks could knock down a horse. She eventually becomes too embarrassed to show her face to anyone. She puts on a veil, and decides never to take it off. Then, as queen after her father’s death, she becomes famous for her generosity, courage, and wisdom. As her fame spreads, so do tales that she wears the veil to cover a beautiful face, because certainly no one whose acts are so lovely can be ugly. And when, finally she does take off the veil, no one notices that her face is ugly. Through her actions, her authentic, hopeful actions we might say, Orual’s face is transformed into one of beauty which fits her personality and unselfish love for others.
Lent is a time when, like Orual, we are brought face to face with ourselves again. We have to take off the veils that hide our true selves. But we unmask ourselves not to denigrate ourselves, but in order that we can be set free to become more truly the person we can and should be. The reason is that Lent brings us face to face again with the crucified One whose suffering love unmasks us. We stand unveiled before the cross and discover that God loves us irrespective of our looks. We discover a look that does not condemn us, or reject us as ugly, not the look that shuns us but one that accepts us just as we are in order to become what we are truly meant to be. This love sets us free to embark on the journey of life without the need to hide our faces from the One who loves us. A journey from birth to death which, St. Paul tells us in his ode to love, begins when we see ourselves as we really are as in a mirror, but then come face to face with ourselves and know ourselves as God already knows us in Christ. (1 Corinthians 13:11-13)
In the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus celebrated this week on the way to the cross, the inner circle of disciples see Jesus’ face in a totally new light. They had already come to recognise him as a great healer and teacher, a man of compassion and wisdom, and possibly the promised Messiah. But on the Mount of Transfiguration they see the beauty and glory of God in the face of Jesus and the truth dawns on them that Jesus is the human face of God, the One who reveals who God truly is. “This is my beloved Son,” are the words that confirm what their eyes now see for the first time even though they do not grasp its full significance. That comes later when, after the resurrection Christ is acknowledged as the icon of God. As St. Paul puts it: “Christ is the image (icon) of the invisible God.” (Colossians 1:15) And again, God “has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:6)
After that experience on the mountain top the disciples still had a long way to go before they came to that conclusion. And along that way they would betray, deny and desert Jesus. They had yet to come face to face with the suffering face of the crucified One, a face from which people turned away in horror as the prophet Isaiah had said: “A man of suffering… from whom others hide their faces.” (53:3) But it was in that face, marred and scarred by suffering and pain, that they would come to see the very heart of the God who love and redeems us, and who suffers in solidarity with the suffering and struggling peoples of the world.
In journeying deeper into the mystery of God revealed in the face of Jesus, in seeking to follow him in love and compassion, in seeking justice and embracing the outcast, without our knowing it, our faces are transformed says Paul into the image of Christ “from one degree of glory to another.” Yes, it is still us, still the same face with which we were born, however beautiful or ugly it seems to us or others, but by God’s grace we somehow begin to reflect something, if only a smidgen, of God’s glory in our own faces. Let’s face it, our faces will probably never be beautiful enough to win a beauty pageant, but neither was the face of Mother Theresa of Calcutta. Yet in her love for the outcasts of India she became something beautiful for God. “May the beauty of Jesus be seen in us” we sang as Sunday School children. That sums up the journey into the mystery of God. For “all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”

John de Gruchy
Volmoed 25 February 2016

SPIRITUAL INTELLIGENCE

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“Rend your hearts and not your clothing.” Joel 2:12-13

Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Matthew 6:19-21

In our planning meeting for the Volmoed Youth Leadership Development Programme (VYLDP) last week, we spent time discussing the skills we thought such leaders need. Among them we identified “emotional intelligence,” a term coined by psychologist Daniel Goldman back in 1995. Most  people, he said,  think that leaders need “intelligence, toughness, determination, and vision,” but these, Goldman said, are insufficient. As essential “are softer, more personal qualities.” That is, leaders not only need intelligence, they need emotional intelligence. In fact, “emotional intelligence” Goldman said, “may be the key attribute that distinguishes outstanding performers from those who are merely adequate.”  Without emotional intelligence, “a person can have first-class training, an incisive mind, and an endless supply of good ideas, but he still won’t be a great leader.” According to Goldman, “emotional intelligence”  is all about “self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skill.”

A lot of people in leadership don’t have these skills. Business leaders too often are simply tough, cold and calculating, making sure that their enterprises run well and make money even if this means riding rough-shod over people. Politicians are not normally characterized by emotional intelligence, especially when they debate in parliament, sometimes not even intelligence, as might become apparent once again later today. University professors, normally regarded as intelligent people with high IQs, do not necessarily have much emotional intelligence either in relating to students or colleagues, something I can verify. Sometimes, and sadly, this is also true of pastors and priests, teachers and doctors,, as it is of leaders in other walks of life who may have much talent, skills and brain power. Yet is it not true, as Goldman’s research indicates, that many of the problems in business, politics and education, to say nothing of the family and the church, derive from the fact that those in positions of leadership and authority, intelligent as they may be, are lacking in the emotional department.   They lack empathy in their relationships with others, and those skills that build trust and community, and therefore also undermine efficiency.

So it was important that we recognised the need to help youth leaders develop their “emotional intelligence.”  But it is also important for each of us to nurture our own “emotional intelligence”, not only if we happen to be leaders but because we happen to be human beings.  To be truly human implies not just seeking to be intelligent but also emotionally intelligent.  For some of us this is going to be more difficult than for others, especially those of us who are males because too often we were not brought up in ways that nurtured our emotional abilities.  “Boys don’t cry!”  We were told.  Or our creative capacities were stifled.  In my day, only girls and nerds learnt to play the piano.  How short-sighted and dumb that was.  No wonder so many of us suppressed our feelings and creative instinct, and did not learn  how to handle either our own or the emotions of others.

Emotional intelligence, neuro-science tells us, is located in the right-hand side of the brain which drives our creative capacities, while rational intelligence is located in the left-hand side of the brain.  But neuro-science also tells us that they need each other if we are to be balanced human beings, let alone leaders.  The left-hand and the right-hand sides of the brain need to operate in tandem not in opposition, and it is only when they do, that we can become whole, integrated human beings.

When we speak, as we do at Volmoed, about making people whole, we are talking, in the first instance, about the integration of both sides of the personality.  People, and that includes us of course, need to find a faith that makes reasonable sense, a faith that is intelligent if you like, but we also need the healing of the “heart,” that is of our emotions or affections, whether they are those of grief or despair, loneliness or fear.

But there is more to human wholeness than the renewal of the mind or the healing of the heart, more than becoming both emotionally intelligent and  intelligent.  For the journey into wholeness is about the recovery of our souls, and that begins when we come to accept that we are loved by the One in “whom we live, move and have our being,” embraced by the mystery we call God.  This takes us beyond simply being aware of and sensitive to others, important as that is, beyond the skills that come with emotional intelligence, to those that come with “spiritual intelligence,” an intelligence that develops through faith and which expresses itself in love for others, compassion for those in need, a commitment to struggle for justice, and in becoming good-earth-keepers.  All of this is connected to being both intelligent and emotionally intelligent, but it integrates them by taking them to a new level around a new centre.  It is truly what we mean by saving our souls, that is, our journey into the mystery of God and love for the other.

“Spiritual intelligence” was at the heart of Jesus’ ministry and teaching.  You can see this in the way in which he related to people, especially those in need, and helped them discover the reality of God’s love.  How often we read that he was “moved with compassion,” or he wept with those who wept.  In the Beatitudes he does not say “blessed are the intelligent, the clever, the educated,” or even the self-aware and sensitive, but he does say “blessed are those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who are merciful.”  He also knew that it is only those who “are pure in heart,” those who genuinely seek to love who truly discover the reality of God’s presence and grace and, in doing so become fully integrated human beings.  The key words of “spiritual intelligence”  are what Paul calls the “fruit of the Spirit”:  “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.” (Galatians 5:22)

So what if our commitment this Lent is to become more spiritually intelligent, learning, as Paul says, “to live by the Spirit…guided by the Spirit.”   Lent is, after all, the season in which we rediscover what really matters, we recover our souls.  Lent is a time set aside for the conversion of our hearts, to “rend our hearts,” as the prophet says. It is a time for turning again towards God as the source of our lives and the healer of our souls. It is a time in which we learn to love again, a time in which we  deepen our commitment, and become sensitive to the needs of others.  A time to rediscover what really matters in life. in our relationships, in our homes and families, in our churches and here at Volmoed.  A time in which we discover that our real treasure is where our hearts are.   A time in which we open up our lives afresh to being surprised by grace and shout out “AHA!”

 

John de Gruchy

Volmoed 11 February 2016

DISCERNMENT AS A WAY OF BEING

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Acts 16:6-10; Romans 12:1-2

“Be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

How do you decide which path to take when you come to a fork in the road?  I decided to check this out on the web.  When I did, I came across a chain of restaurants in America called “Fork in the Road”.  I was also presented with their menus so that I could choose what I wanted to eat long before I got to the restaurant.  That, I thought, was an excellent idea.   If you are like me, you will know how much time we spend trying to make up our minds about what to order.  We listen to what others are ordering, we look around at other tables to see what other people have chosen, and when we finally decide, we are still not sure, and then change our minds at the last minute and end up choosing what we always choose.  Most people in the world never have to deal with this problem because they can’t afford to eat at restaurants.  They have to subsist on the same food day after day if they have any in the first place.  So we should consider ourselves lucky when we have a choice, not just about food but about much else besides.  In fact we often have too many choices on offer and some people I know spend much time weighing up the pros and cons of each before making their decision.

But how much time do we give to discerning the will of God for our lives?  What choices we should make when we are faced with decisions about what to do?  How do we discern what is right, good, acceptable. and even perfect, as Paul counsels?  Do we act on impulse without too much reflection, as I sometimes do, and perhaps some of you as well, then live to regret what we did?  Or do we do the opposite, procrastinate, unable to make up our minds, unable to make a decision whether it is in ordering from a menu, buying a dress, or making life determining choices?  If we procrastinate too much we miss opportunities we should have grasped, and sometimes end up making bad choices in any case.  It is not a sin to act impulsively or procrastinate; some of us are just like that.  It is who we are.  But when it comes to life determining choices, or choices that affect others, we need are impulsive or procrastinate by nature, and we need to be more discerning.  Discernment is wisdom in action,  whether we make up our minds slowly or swiftly.

I have benefitted greatly from people of wisdom who have helped me in making life-determining choices.  We  all need such friends whose discernment we can trust, friends who are going to help us make choices that are right and good, not just pleasing, expedient or convenient.  Friends who can walk with us through good and bad times, friends who are with us when we come to that dreaded fork in the road where the alternatives are not always clear, and the right way not obvious. But in the end, we ourselves have to make the decisions necessary for living our lives.  And we have to do so in a world that is increasingly complex, a world that is in danger of imploding because there is much knowledge but not a great deal of wisdom or even common sense!  That is why we need to exercise discernment, and practice doing so ir order that it becomes a habit, a way of being Christian in the world.

St. Paul tells us that discernment is a gift of the Spirit.  It is, we might say, sanctified common sense.  For us as Christians,  such Spirit-led discernment is fundamental to living because we are not just asking what is the right thing to do, or the right path to choose, but what is God’s will for us, for you and me.  But if  we are to exercise discernment, Paul tells us, we “have to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.”  In other words, we have undergo a daily conversion, a turning around, in order to see things differently, from God’s perspective.  And this can only happen if  we daily reflect on the gospel so that our minds can be renewed by the Spirit, open to the Spirit’s guidance, and do what was discern is God’s will for us.

I remember the time when I was thinking about going into the ministry.  I was still very young so I discussed it with various people whose insight I trusted.  But my father, who was not a very spiritual person at all, took me aside and said “I hope you know what you are doing.  Ministers are badly paid so you won’t make any money!”  In other words, if I knew what was good for me I would not choose to become a minister or a priest.  He wanted me to do a reality check and not be carried away by impulsive enthusiasm!   How necessary that was.  I was being forced to ask whether this was really what God wanted me to do.  And that  was not a question that common sense could answer.  It required discernment, not just my own, but also that of others who had to test my sense of vocation.

The same is true for Volmoed.  If we really want to make money we could sell Volmoed to some big property developer who could turn the farm it into an upmarket housing estate.  That would be good business sense.  But those who started the Volmoed Community thirty years ago, who had no money to speak of, were not buying Volmoed as a business venture.  They had a vision of something God wanted them to do.  To create a place that God could use for healing and reconciliation.  This was not a common sense decision; this was the result of Christian discernment.  It was discovering where the Spirit was leading them.  In the same way, those of us who have met here at Volmoed this week to think and pray about the Volmoed Youth Leadership Training Project have not just been planning what to do, but seeking discern what God wants us to do.  Communal discernment lies at the heart of being a Christian community.  This is what we continually read about in the Acts of the Apostles, as we did today in the story about Paul and Timothy who, being prevented by the Spirit to turn east, crossed over into Macedonia and so planted the church in Greece.  And what a momentous decision that turned out to be!

Wherever you are in your journey of faith, and whatever decisions you may still have to make, whether large or small, use your common sense, think clearly for that is why we have brains!  But as a Christian let your common sense be sanctified by the Spirit, and allow your mind to be renewed so that you may learn to discern God’s will for you in the decisions you make.  This requires prayer and contemplation as it does reflection on the gospel.  But it is only in this the way as individuals and communities of faith that we discern what is good, acceptable and perfect for us, because it is the will of God for us.

John de Gruchy

Volmoed Meditation  8 February 2016