Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Meditation: PREPARE THE WAY by John de Gruchy


Matthew 3:1-12
"Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight."

John the Baptist was not the kind of person we would normally invite to dinner.  He would have made us, and all our guests, rather uncomfortable. Imagine him arriving straight out of the desert, not dressed for polite company, and wanting in small talk.  Imagine his opening words to us and our guests "Repent!"  I am not sure how our dinner party would survive let alone proceed.  He is called a saint, but I doubt many people pray to St. John the Baptist as they might to St. Mary or St. Christopher.   He was more like one of those African prophets we often see preaching to their flocks gathered under trees, or on unoccupied plots of land, as we drive past on the way to our well-maintained and comfortable churches on a Sunday.  Not quite our scene.  But at least once a year John the Baptist breaks into our lives on the first Sunday in Advent with his message of repentance sounding, I would imagine, a little gruff like Leonard Cohen whose song "The Future" has the refrain "Repent, Repent."  Rather terrifying we might say.  "Prepare for the wrath to come!"

Yet people flocked to hear John preach.  Why?  The atmosphere was tense in those days.  There was talk of insurrection in the air.  A revolt against both the Roman authorities and the Temple establishment seemed imminent.  There were rumours of messiahs waiting for their opportunity to lead the common people and triumphantly enter Jerusalem to establish God's kingdom of justice, by force if necessary.  Then suddenly, almost out of nowhere it seemed, John appears on the scene.  No prophet had been heard in Israel for generations.  But there was a longstanding conviction that someone like Elijah would one day appear to prepare the way for the promised Messiah who would set the people free.  Was this strange man dressed in camel's hair, eating locusts and wild honey, Elijah?  So the people hurried to the river Jordan to hear him preach, to repent of their sins, and be baptised, so that they were ready for the Messiah.

Even many of the religious establishment arrived to check him out, coming, as Matthew recounts, to be baptised as well.  But that did not fool John the Baptist.  He could read their minds, he could see into their hearts.  They were playing games.  They were hedging their bets.  "What if this strange prophet is Elijah?  We had better go along with the crowd just in case!"   But they were not prepared for what John the Baptist said: "You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Repent!"  If you want to be ready for the Messiah you, of all people, will have to undergo a fundamental change of heart and mind. Simply obeying the rules of religion as you design and interpret them is not good enough.

Repentance means conversion, it requires a fundamental re-orientation of our lives which "bears fruit worthy of repentance", as John himself puts it.  It is a rebirth which gives us a new heart, and a new pair of eyes with which to see God's kingdom and become part of the Jesus movement. 

John the Baptist confronts us at the beginning of Advent with his stern message of repentance in order to prepare us again for the coming of Jesus; preparing us as he  sought to prepare the people back then to recognise Jesus and follow him.  That remains as true today as it was then. Not just to prepare us to celebrate Christmas, but to enable us to respond to Christ at this moment in history when the world is in crisis, looking for messiahs who can save us from disaster.  But the world will never understand who Christ is, neither will we,  unless we change direction.   To recognise the Christ as the messiah come to set us free from false hopes based on fear, prejudice, hatred and violence, requires repentance, a reorientation of life, an ongoing conversion.  That is why John's message remains pertinent.  We cannot follow Christ in the world today without conversion to his way in the world. 

It is important to remember that in calling the people to repentance and baptising them, John does not call them to follow him, but to follow the One who is the way.  His role was to prepare the way of the Lord, not stand in the way, but standing back in the shadows when the time came.  Jesus would become the way, not John.  And as such John also becomes for us the model of what it means to be a witness to Jesus as the way.  The task of the church is to prepare the way for others to see who Jesus truly is, and therefore what it means to "enter God's kingdom."  Sadly, too often, we do not prepare the way, we stand in the way!  How many people you and I know don't go to church any longer because somehow the church has become a stumbling block to real faith,  getting in the way of those who are genuinely seeking to find Jesus, genuinely wanting to be part of his kingdom. 

This not only apply to the church, but to our lives more generally.  This week we said our sad yet joyful farewells to John Robertson at the venerable age of 98.  I don't have the power to officially declare anyone a saint, but if I had, I would here and now declare John the patron saint of Volmoed.  St. John of Volmoed!  John was a great teacher because he knew that his role was to prepare the way for others to become the best possible learners they could and then stand back and let them get on with it.  That is why he was also a great witness to Christ.  He prepared the way for others to follow Jesus; he did not get in their way.  That is why he was also a good parent,  He prepared the way for his children, but then stood back and let them get on with living their own lives.  They know when it is time to stand aside and let others take their place.  Not stand in the way.  And all great politicians should know this.  The time comes when they have done their job, they have made it possible for others to go forward, not stand in the way.  John the Baptist was the greatest witness to Christ, as Jesus himself acknowledged,  because he did not point to himself but away from himself.  "He must increase, I must decrease."  That is what Christian witness is about. 

John de Gruchy

Volmoed 1 December 2016

Monday, 21 November 2016

Meditation: IS THERE ANYTHING TO CHEER ABOUT? by John de Gruchy


On letting the light break through the cracks.
John 16:28-33
"These things I have spoken to you that in me you may have peace.  In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world." (KJV)
"I've told you all this so that trusting me, you will be unshakeable and assured, deeply at peace.  In this godless world you will continue to experience difficulties, but take heart! I've conquered the world." (Peterson "The Message")

Two days after Donald Trump became President-elect of the United States, Leonard Cohen, the Canadian folk-singer and prophet for our times, died.  He was 82, was struggling with cancer and had a fall.  But I guess he also died of a broken heart, broken by what was happening in the world, especially south of the Canadian border.  I decided I needed to hear his voice again.  Fortunately we had the CDs of his famous Live in London Concert with some of his greatest songs: "Dance with me to the end of love," "The Future," "Ain't no cure for love," and most famous of all "Hallelujah,"  Yes, "Hallelujah" or Praise the Lord, the very words with which we will end this meditation and our service today. 
Cohen was Jewish.  He may not have been Orthodox, and he was no saint,  but he was steeped in the Bible and Jewish tradition; he had also dug deeply into the Jesus story.  As you listen to his songs, time and again you hear strong echoes of the prophets and their cry for justice, and Jesus speaking to us out of his suffering.  Some say Cohen was a prophet of doom, and I guess to some extent he was, but no more so that the Old Testament prophets, and no more so than Jesus when he said, as in John gospel, "in the world you will have tribulation."  But there was another note that sounded in Cohen's songs, an almost whimsical note of joy in living, and note of grace in the dark places of life.  Who can forget his words, 
Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.
As I listened to him sing last week one line in his conversation between songs struck me: "I have studied the world's religions and cheerfulness kept breaking through!"  Yes, Cohen was not pious or religious in any conventional sense of those words, but neither were the prophets.  And like them he could be scathing in his comments about religious hypocrisy.
But as he explored religion in greater depth, he also discovered cheerfulness and light  breaking through.  We get a glimmer of true religion, religion without pretension, religion in which cheerfulness and light keeps breaking through.  "In the world you will have tribulation," says Jesus, "but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world."  Even as Jesus went towards Jerusalem and the cross, cheerfulness broke through, a profound joy that arises when you know you are on the right path even if it is into suffering.  "For the joy that was set before him, he endured the cross," says the writer to the Hebrews.
Jesus' words are translated differently in modern versions of the Bible.  It no longer sounds quite right, as it might have to the translators of the Authorised Version, that Jesus was cheering up his disciples as he journeyed to the cross.   So the NRSV has Jesus saying "In the world you face persecution.  But take courage.  I have conquered the world."  Or according to Eugene Petersen: "Take heart! I've conquered the world."  "Take courage" is probably the best literal translation of the original.  But sometimes "courage" for us means the bravery of a soldier, or the bravery of a sky-diver, or the bravery of someone who plunges into the sea to rescue a drowning swimmer.  "Take heart" speaks more directly to us, it is a word of encouragement.  So, yes, it is about courage, but in a way that speaks to us in times when we fear that faith is failing, hope is disappearing, and love has become a cheap commodity.  "Take heart!"  "Be of good courage!'  "Be of good cheer!" Take your pick, they all point in the same direction, they complement each other. 
But in order to take heart we need to discern the light breaking through the gloom of bad politics, bad religion, and even some lousy sporting results.  In times of despair about what is happening in the world, we need to be reminded that Jesus' suffering and death are a prelude to his resurrection and the gift of his empowering Spirit.  In the midst of the darkness we need to see the "light breaking through the cracks" like a ray of sunshine on days when darkness covers the earth.  When the world seems to be falling apart, when life's tragedies strike, when bad guys win elections, when religion lets you down, when injustice seems to triumph, when things look dismal all around you, take courage and be of good cheer.  Jesus has overcome the world of tribulation.  This is not a cheap cheer, an escape from reality, it is a profound joy when God's grace enables and encourages us to take heart.  
Everyone of us has his or her own story of pain and suffering, of loss and despair.  These may or may not have anything to do with the bigger picture, just as Cohen's death may not have had anything to do with Trump's victory.  No, these are our own personal struggles that weave through our own stories and those of our families.  As some of you know, yesterday we as a family celebrated Steve's death almost seven years ago now.  He would have been 55 years old if he had lived.  It has often been a difficult road for us to travel and we will feel the pain of our loss. "But cheerfulness keeps breaking through!"  "There is a crack in everything, for that's how the light gets in!" So take heart and sing along with Cohen and all the angels of heaven:  "Hallelujah!"

John de Gruchy

Volmoed 17 November 2016

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Meditation: What makes a nation great? by John de Gruchy


Proverbs 14:31-35
Matthew 6:33-34
"Righteousness exalts a nation."
"Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness."

So Donald Trump has been elected the next President of the United States against all the odds according to the pollsters. Commentators have had a field day analyzing the results and what Trump's presidency will mean for the US and the rest of the world.  And while we have always known that the US is a divided country; we now know for sure.  It is split right down the middle.  The United States is no more United than Great Britain is Great.  

If these elections have done nothing else they have brought the demons that plague American culture, and not only American, to the surface.  In order to get votes, Trump had to capitalize on the  dark side of American social life: racism, bigotry, xenophobia,  hatred and fear,  and he did so with an arrogance that had his supporters roaring with equally arrogant approval.  He claimed he wanted to make America great again, but what America, and at what cost? He might now promise to unite Americans, but having conducted his campaign in the way he did, how is America going to deal with the consequences?  He has encouraged  the worst in America, and laid bare his own prejudices, his unsavoury values, and some dubious preferences, none of them pretty.  Can  leopards change their spots, asks Jeremiah,, if so then those who do evil can do good.(13:23)  Let's hope and pray so.  But this is a big "IF." 

It is true and praiseworthy that Obama and Clinton have promised to work together with Trump for the good of America,  and we must support them in that.  But nothing can brush under the carpet the divisive forces that have surfaced or the harm done to the nation's soul by the bile and venom let loose in feeding the gun-toting craziness of some and the fears of most.  But instead of looking on smugly,  this should awaken all of us in South Africa to some soul-searching.  We, too have to exorcise the demons of racism and bigotry, hatred and fear, that lurk beneath the surface of our society before they get out of hand again.  If we are serious about reconciliation, we cannot brush them under the carpet.  I need not remind you, that we, too, have to counter racist rhetoric, hate speech, and violent sloganeering. 

There is, however, another perspective that we need to take into account in reflecting on the US election.  While Trump's campaign was deplorable, Hilary Clinton's record in terms of global power-politics and support for war, and her cozy relationship with the banking elite on Wall Street, is also suspect.  Some argue that her policies are more dangerous on the global stage than Trumps access to the dangerous red button.  Clinton may have been a more sophisticated and experienced president, but both candidates put America's interests first at the expense of others when it comes to global politics.  This may be natural for all nations, but it often leads an imperial America answerable only to its own electorate to make decisions that are detrimental to global interests, for example on the environment, fair-trade, and in the Middle East.   American foreign policy sometimes employs bullying tactics that mirror those of Trump.  The truth is, the US is not simply divided down the middle between Republicans and Democrats, supporters of Trump or those of Clinton, it is also divided by values that cross these lines, the values of some deeply concerned Christians and others who found it difficult to support either candidate. 

It all has to do with what makes a nation great.  Is it its size, the power of its military, its victories in battle,  the religiosity of its citizens,  its sporting prowess and success at the Olympic Games, the glitz and glamour of political rallies, its ability to dominate global trade to its own advantage, its gold reserves and the dollar in which it trusts?  This question bothered the wise sages of ancient Israel because the Israel continually tried to emulate her neighbours instead of obeying God's Law.  Their answer was categorical .  "Righteousness exalts a nation," they declared.  Or as Jesus put it:  "seek first God's kingdom and his righteousness. To become great you have to do the right thing.   A great nation is one in which justice flourishes, and does justice in relation to other nations.  And the justice that those ancient sages spoke of, was that which served the interests of the poor and vulenrable. (See Proverbs 14:31)  The prophet Micah made it plain: "The Lord requires of you to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

If we are serious about reconciliation, we too have to become a nation that pursues justice.  We also have to nurture leaders who can set us an example and take us forward. We can no longer bask in the glory of a past generation of great leaders, we have to produce the next generation so that when it comes to choosing presidents we have worthy candidates from which to choose.  This is the challenge facing all of us at this moment in our history, and we can only respond to it if we are all committed to doing what is right, good and just.

Let me end with some words of our American Volmoed friend, Mark Braverman, written to Isobel this morning after, words of encouragement to us as we try to play our part in responding to this challenge:

It is a hard morning to awaken today. I am comforted by the fact that I am in a community of hundreds of millions here in the U.S. who feel as I do.  And am receiving emails this morning from around the world from friends who are horrified, for me, and for themselves as well because of course this is a global event.  We continue.  The world is a beautiful place,   Life is strong. We are strong.  Life shines through with its persistent, stubborn beauty, its generosity of love and joy and healing.... South Africa continues to be a source of learning and inspiration for me.  I had just written to John last night, as our results were coming in, about a possible visit soon to your valley.  Where else to go, but to the valley of heaven on earth, when it feels like we have just stepped into hell?

John de Gruchy

Volmoed  10 November 2016

Tuesday, 1 November 2016



Luke 18:9-14
"Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt."
One of the many things that appals me about the current presidential race for the White House is the total lack of respect for people in debate, the media and on the street.  This happens everywhere and all the time, but Donald Trump's campaign has made contempt for everyone who is different from himself and his followers a trade mark.  This has long been the norm in the political arena world-wide; it is also a source of violent conflict.  So Pravin Gordhan's budget speech yesterday was a refreshing breath of fresh air.  Not everyone will agree with everything he said, but his meeting with the protesting students before he gave his speech, and his tone and approach in giving it, was a model of political savvy and sanity.  This does not mean that strong or angry disagreement is not often necessary. But there is no need for that self-righteousness and contempt for opponents which undermines the common good.  
The sad truth is that through the centuries and still today many nations  have decided that they have to have enemies in order to be themselves.  Their identity is shaped by those they don't like, those they hate, those they must defeat, those they must if need be, kill.  Enemies it seems too often are necessary in order to assert one's own identity.  Umberto Eco, the Italian author who died recently, had this to say:  "In Italy today, Romanians are being portrayed as the enemy by extending to a whole culture the characteristics of a few of its marginalized members, thus providing an ideal scapegoat for a society that, caught up in change...is no longer able to recognise itself."  
But is this not true of all of us to some extent?  We assert who we are by disrespecting or  even making enemies out of others.  We learn to do this when we are young; it happens all the time on school playgrounds!  But it is a sign of immaturity whether there or later in life, a  display our own lack of self-worth.  Throughout life we project onto others precisely those things we don't like about ourselves, as parents do when they get angry with their children. Our inability to relate to others who are different and disagree with us, can even be a symptom of self-hatred.  For if we truly respect ourselves as human beings, we will respect the dignity of others as well.  That is what we have to learn as we grow up, but often don't.
Treating others with contempt, Jesus says, is also a sign of self-righteousness.  Self-righteousness is the opposite of self-respect.  When we are self-righteous we exalt ourselves and our status because we actually feel inadequate and put on an arrogant front.  I know some people in leadership positions in churches who are just like that. The same is true of others who are in positions of authority in other walks of life most notoriously in the police force and military across the world.  Officers too often demand respect, but they have little respect for others.  So it is not surprising that those in authority are sometimes not respected; they have lost respect.  People in authority have to earn respect and not just be respected because of their office.  It is difficult to respect Trump, to say nothing about some of our own political leaders or some in the police force.  But this does not mean that  we treat them with contempt.  The fact that your cause is just, does not give you a licence to be self-righteous and arrogant.  Self-righteous politicians, self-righteous priests and pastors, self-righteous academics or students, self-righteous police, self-righteous racists are part of the problem, not part of the solution to our social ills. 
Self-respect is different.  When people who are downtrodden fight for justice; when the poor protest, when those who have been unjustly treated stand up for their rights, they are not normally being self-righteous, they are asserting their self-respect.  Being humble, which is the opposite of being arrogant, does not mean crumbling before unjust authority, it does not mean stopping fighting for human rights,  and it does not mean losing respect for who you are, surrendering your dignity as a human being.   Our model of humility is Jesus who took a stand for the poor and oppressed, and challenged the pharisees, even calling them hypocrites. But this was never for self-gain, this was never in order to exalt himself.  It was for the sake of challenging them to change their ways, to become more truly human, to regain their self-respect  and recover  their dignity so that they would respect others. It was, in short, for the sake of their salvation not damnation.
But even if the cause we defend is just, it is not a licence for arrogance or contempt of the other.  I happen to support the cause of the protesting students, but I abhor the violence which disrespects the rights of others, and the disrespect some students have shown towards some university Vice-Chancellors.  Such disrespect not only undermines their cause, it also hinders the building of a just society because it polarises people, it creates enemies. This is true in every walk of life.  If husband and wife lose respect for each other, their marriage is heading for the rocks.  If children and parents lose respect for each other, the family is becoming dysfunctional; if sportsmen and women lose respect for their opponents, sport has lost its soul; if academics lose respect for students, and students for lecturers and professors, a university cannot function; if priests and pastors lose respect for their congregations and parishioners, and vice-versa, churches fail; and if politicians lose respect for their opponents,  or police for citizens, countries start to fall apart. 
Surely respect for the other and avoiding arrogance are values all human beings can strive for as human beings even if politics cannot always be conducted on the basis of the Sermon on the Mount.  But for the church and Christians to really be the salt of the earth we have no alternative than to go the second mile and also learn to love our enemies.

You have heard that it was said "You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy."  But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. (Matthew 5:44)

John de GruchyVolmoed  27 October 2016