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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

 

 

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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

 

 

 

CHEAP RECONCILIATION IS NO RECONCILIATION

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I Corinthians 5:16-19; Matthew 5:21-24

Twenty years ago this year, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established and mandated by Parliament to spearhead the process of reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa.   Soon the TRC attracted global interest, and was daily referred to in the media here and abroad.  It was meant to complete its work in two years, but only did so in six when, in 2002, it submitted its final report to President Mbeki.  While it continued to attract attention, especially among scholars, many of them beyond our borders, by then most South Africans seemed to have lost interest and tired of the subject, many victims who gave evidence at its hearings were disillusioned, perpetrators were desperately trying to get amnesty for themselves, and the government was not taking some of its main recommendations seriously.  The process of reconciliation seemed to stagnate.  We can’t blame the TRC for this.  Rather as South Africans we, especially those of us who are white along with the government, must blame ourselves for failing to grasp the opportunity the TRC gave us.  It would have saved much anguish today if we hadn’t.  But instead, the impetus towards reconciliation weakened and the word, like the Rand, was devalued.

So now, twenty years later,  reconciliation  has become a dirty word for many angry young blacks who regard all talk about reconciliation as cheap talk, and have concluded that whites who say they are for reconciliation are not really serious.  Reconciliation-talk, for them, simply benefits those who have made it in the new South Africa rather than contributing to significant changes on the ground for those who are poor or unemployed, young, black and uneducated. Nothing has really changed they chant. Some have even turned their backs on the national icons of reconciliation, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, saying that they sold them down the river.

These young people, for whom reconciliation has become a symbol of oppression rather than transformation, are almost all “born-frees.” They did not grow up under apartheid, nor did they participate in the struggle against it.  Many are college or university students who, like young people the world over are critical of their elders, and articulate in their criticism. At one level they have come of age like young people everywhere.  But they are not without cause. They may not have grown up under apartheid, but they experience its legacy in too many ways.  They are daily aware of the gap between rich and poor, between the growing middle-class and the unemployed, between the skilled and unskilled, the educated and less educated, the well-housed and shack dwellers — inequities that largely mirror the divide between black people and white, or those who have benefitted from Black Economic Empowerment and those who have not.  Reconciliation for them, has simply come to mean that whites and blacks can now be friends on Face Book, play in the same rugby teams to fill quotas, go to the same restaurants and churches if they wish, ride on the same trains, and even intermarry.  So reconciliation-talk has become suspect, and the word itself is becoming unusable along with the words “God” and “Christianity” with which it is usually associated.  It is much like Donald Trump telling us that he is a Presbyterian and proud of it!  I doubt that many Presbyterians welcome his affirmation, but in saying this Trump has debased the word.  This is what has happened to the term “reconciliation.”  It now conveys to many young and angry blacks what is wrong with South Africa, not what is right.

I am not pessimistic about the reconciliation process.  I think we have come a long way in the past twenty years, but it is not nearly far enough to meet the expectations of many people, not least young blacks.  So all of us who believe in and work for reconciliation have to sit up and take notice of their anger and the bored yawns of those who have lost interest or are indifferent.  This is a particularly urgent challenge for us Christians for whom reconciliation is the core message of the gospel which, as St. Paul tells us, has been entrusted to us.

When Paul wrote that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself,” he was not just speaking about Jesus’ death on the cross, but reminding us that throughout his ministry Jesus was the agent of God’s work of reconciliation.  He is saying that in Jesus, God took the initiative to reconcile and heal the world.  In Jesus’ every act of healing, every protest against injustice, every challenge to the hypocritical religious elite of his day, as well as to the rich and powerful, every parable about the coming of God’s reign of justice, every embrace of the outsider, the despised and the vulnerable, God was at work “reconciling the world to himself.”  And it was because of this costly ministry of reconciliation in which Jesus confronted the dehumanising and destructive powers of evil, that he was crucified.  This is what the gospel of reconciliation is about, and why it is costly, not cheap.  For cheap reconciliation is no reconciliation.   Reconciliation is not just being nice to one another, though that always helps!  It is about the deep healing of broken relationships and enmities through grace and forgiveness; it is about the deep healing of society through working for justice and therefore social and economic transformation.

Jesus tells us that we cannot worship God if we are estranged from other people because of what we have done to them.  Like the prophets of old, he tells us that faith in God is meaningless unless we love our neighbours and seek God’s justice in the world.  So when we say that the church exists in order to witness to God’s reconciliation of the world in Christ, this is what we are committed to doing. It is the only promising way into the future, not just for us in South Africa, but for the world, as becomes ever more obvious each day as we watch the news on TV.  And that is why we here at Volmoed continue to be inspired in our ministry by the story that gave birth to the Community of the Cross of Nails to which we belong.

During the Second World War, Coventry Cathedral in England was totally destroyed by German bombs.  In retaliation, in an act of vengeance that had no strategic importance, the Royal Air Force destroyed the German city of Dresden. After the war, as an expression of penitence and reconciliation, the Dean of Coventry invited young Germans from Dresden to come to Coventry where they worked alongside local young people to clear the ruins of the Cathedral.  In doing so, they discovered some Medieval roof nails lying in the rubble.  They made a cross from two of them and placed it on the damaged altar as a sign of the process of reconciliation to which they were committing themselves.  So the Community of the Cross of Nails was born, which now has over two hundred affiliates across the world including Volmoed, each working for justice and peace in places of conflict, enmity and violence.   Today we reaffirm our core conviction: that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” and renew our commitment to “the message of reconciliation” he has entrusted to us. And as a sign of that commitment we say the Litany which every community associated with the Community of the Cross of Nails says every week.

All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God

 Father forgive

the hatred that divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class.

Father forgive

the covetous desires of people and nations to possess what is not their own.

Father forgive

the greed which exploits the work of human hands and lays waste the earth.

 Father forgive

our envy of the welfare and happiness of others.

 Father forgive

our indifference to the plight of the imprisoned, the homeless, the refugee.

 Father forgive

the lust which dishonours the bodies of men, women and children.

 Father forgive

the pride that leads us to trust in ourselves and not in God.

 

John de Gruchy

Volmoed 28th January 2016

STEVE DE GRUCHY 5TH MEMORIAL LECTURE

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Here are the details of the 5th Steve de Gruchy Memorial Lecture:.  .  The invitation is open to all.

Professor Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, the presiding bishop of the Evangelical (Lutheran) Church in Germany, and a close friend of Steve’s, will give the Steve de Gruchy Memorial Lecture, on Tuesday 1st March 2016 at 7 pm at the Rondebosch United Church, Belmont Road. He will speak on the refugee crisis in Europe and the situation in the Middle East.