Thursday, 20 October 2016


Luke 18:1-8
"Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart."

Not giving up is one of the hardest lessons of life. There have been many times over the years when I have been tempted to give up on certain projects or tasks. I know it sounds frivolous, but playing the bagpipes was one of them. Yes, I gave up and everyone in the neighbourhood rejoiced! And still today, I am tempted every Tuesday and Friday not to go to gym! Simply the thought of going is more than enough to raise some serious questions: do I really want to do this? Maybe at my age it is not a good thing to do? But, of course, going to gym is really a minor matter when I come to think about it. There are much more serious challenges that face us in life when the temptation to throw in the towel is strong, sometimes overwhelming.

The issue Jesus was talking about to his disciples, and therefore to us, in his parable of the widow and the unjust judge, was certainly not gym, but prayer and s it happens, justice as well. The opening words of the story make it clear that prayer was the subject that Jesus first wants to talk about. Don't lose heart in trying to pray, he tells his disciples. I am quite sure that fisherman like Peter, James and John would have had no difficulty in going to the gym and pumping iron. But prayer? None of those first male disciples were pious, people to whom prayer might have come naturally. Maybe they joined in the synagogue prayers in Capernaum, but nobody would have asked Peter to lead in prayer at the weekly prayer meeting, and everybody would have been surprised if Andrew had a daily Quiet Time! So Jesus had his time cut out in helping his inner circle to learn how to pray and not lose heart. Persevere in prayer was his counsel. And that is also his counsel to us as disciples. Prayer might come naturally and easily to some, but not to all of us. But, says Jesus, don't lose heart! And those of us who meet here on Volmoed every day for morning prayers sometimes need to be reminded of this when our prayers seem to hit the ceiling and bounce back. Don't lose heart! The only way to learn how to pray is by persevering in prayer. As Isobel paraphrases Julian of Norwich

If you have come to God with your request asked him again and again;
implored him over and over,
but still not received
what you asked for, don't be discouraged; don't give up.
Keep on waiting
for a better time,
or for more grace,
or for a better gift.
For God has heard you...

But Jesus' story develops beyond prayer. The widow in the story wants justice. Maybe a corrupt official has stolen her welfare allowance. Who knows. What we do know is that the judge did not care. The widow could not afford to bribe him, so she was a nobody as far as he was concerned. As Jesus says, the judge had no respect for God or for anyone else. He was a nasty man whose judgments favoured the powerful not the poor. But the judge had not counted on the persistence of this feisty widow! She was not going to be pushed around even by a powerful judge. She wasn't asking for favours, she just wanted justice. So she kept on banging on the judge's door, making a real nuisance of herself.

Sometimes we have to do this as disciples of Jesus. Whether we want justice for ourselves, or we are fighting for justice on behalf of other people who have been badly treated, we have to keep on banging of the door of those in authority. This is what I like about Thuli Madonsela our former Public Protector. She refused to give up doing what had to be done for the cause of justice even though many in powerful positions tried to prevent her from doing her duty. What an example to all of us of someone who did not lose heart. And as a good Seventh Day Adventist, I bet that Madonsela didn't give up on prayer either. She persisted in both prayer and the struggle for justice.

Well, in the end the judge gave up! That's the truth of the matter. Prayer and having justice on your side is a potent force, and often an unbeatable combination when it comes to dealing with corrupt judges or a corrupt political system. In the end the powerful crumble before the persistent onslaught of truth telling in the interests of justice, and especially in the interests of people like Jesus' widow who are poor and regarded as insignificant. In the end the judge, says Jesus, was worn out by her persistence and caved in. So, says Jesus:
Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you he will quickly grant justice to them!

But, yes, there is a "but" that sneaks into the story because it does not always work out as it did for the widow. Not everyone who prays for justice has his or her prayers answered even if they persevere as did the widow. Sometimes, as Julian of Norwich counsels, we simply have to go on praying and struggling for justice against all odds, even when it all seems so helpless. That is why Jesus ends the parable with a question put to all of us who would be his disciples: "when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" When all is said and done, will we remain faithful in prayer and the struggle for justice till the end simply because that is what the disciples of Jesus are called to do? That is a question we all have to face. That is a question the church has to face, and never so much as right at this time in the history of our country.

John de Gruchy
Volmoed 13 October 2016 

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Meditation: BORN AGAIN IS NOT WHAT YOU THINK by John de Gruchy


John 3:1-10
"How can anyone be born after having grown old?"

Many people were surprised recently when N.T. Wright, an Anglican Bishop and distinguished New Testament scholar, publicly stated that "heaven" is not a place you go to after death.  When Jesus speaks about "heaven," Wright said,  he is not talking about a heavenly realm beyond the clouds populated by angels playing harps.  The word "heaven" is used by Jesus as an alternative for the word "God" because that word was not meant to be uttered. Heaven is the presence of God.  Where God is present there is heaven whether in this life or the next.  Heaven is a reality beyond death but also a possibility on earth. As the Psalmist says God is not present everywhere. (139:7)   

So what does the  "kingdom of heaven" or the "kingdom of God" mean?   It refers not just to God's presence, but also to God's authority.  When we obey God, the kingdom of heaven is within us or among us, in the life of the Church and the world.  How we participate in God's kingdom, how we obey God's authority, was precisely the subject of the conversation between Jesus and the Pharisee Nicodemus which we read about this morning.  
 Nicodemus was not asking how he could get to heaven when he died, but how he could live now as a citizen of heaven on earth; that is, how could  he enter God's kingdom.

Jesus tells him straight out that he had to be "born again," (Authorised Version) or in other translations, "born from above." Nicodemus was perplexed. What do you mean?   He thought he knew all there was to know about God's kingdom for he kept the Law of Moses diligently.  He was also perplexed because he was old, and old people cannot change their ways, they cannot as it were enter into their mother's womb and start life again.  Jesus, who we must remember, was about 30 years old,  is adamant.  Nicodemus, you just don't get it!  You can't see that God's kingdom has come in what I am doing and saying because your mindset prevents you.  I am showing you the door through which you can  enter God's kingdom but you are resisting because it requires a fundamental change of mind.  You are trapped in traditions that prevent you from seeing and entering.  Instead of the Law enabling you to understand God's rule, it has become a stumbling block because you have turned the law into burdensome rules.

This was the bone of contention in all Jesus' dealings with the Pharisees.  It was not that they did not keep the commandments or were insincere in their beliefs, but  they had turned keeping the Law into a burdensome legalism which prevented them from seeing the whole point of the Law, love of God and neighbour, justice, mercy and compassion even on the sabbath. That is why Nicodemus had to start again.  "Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it."  (Mark 10:15)  Think of it this way.  When children play together in a nursery school they don't worry about the fact that some are white, others black, some from rich backgrounds and others poor, some foreigners and others local, some clever and others not.  They simply accept one another as play mates.  It is only when they grow up that they begin to be conditioned by social norms, cultural conventions and prejudices.  They lose their childlike capacity to be inclusive of others just as they lose their creative imagination.

Nicodemus acknowledged that God was at work in what Jesus was doing.  He was a thoughtful, wise and righteous man.   But he had yet to grasp the secret of the kingdom revealed in Jesus.  Namely that God's grace fulfilled the Law, that entry into God's kingdom was not determined by race, ethnicity, gender, class, or religion.  In Jesus, God had opened up his kingdom to all who would enter.  Jesus even said, "the last shall be first in the kingdom of God."  He also said that rules like those for the Sabbath could be broken if human need required it. This was the good news of the kingdom of heaven which Nicodemus had failed to grasp.  So he had to go back to nursery school and start again.  And the same applies to everyone, not least those of us who think they know what it means to be born again!  For many "born agains" live by laws that exclude others rather than by God's grace and love that embraces them. (See Galatians 5)  So they  not only fail to enter the kingdom, but also prevent others from doing so. (See Matthew 23:13-15)

During the Volmoed Youth Leadership Training Programme the "voeltjies" as we called them, kept on helping us to see things differently, not least Sam White, the African American whose booming voice so enriched our worship.  Well he, and some of the others have since become active in the "Black lives matter," movement in the US and in South Africa.   Understandably some people have responded:  "yes, of course, black lives matter, but then  all lives matter!"  That is an understandable reaction but it misses the point just as Nicodemus did.  Yes, all people matter, that is fundamental.  But in many contexts  some matter more, and often far more than others. Blacks not whites were slaves, migratory labourers, , paid less, lynched and shot  by gun-toting cops.  In fact apartheid was based on the belief that white lives mattered more than black ones.  That mind-set is still prevalent among many white South Africas, even those who claim to be "born again" Christians!  It is called racism.

Jesus did not say that his fellow Jews did not matter; but he insisted that Samaritans matter as well, as do women, children, slaves, tax-collectors,  prodigal sons, prostitutes -- in fact he specifically named and included everyone that the Pharisees excluded.  And that is why today we have to say that black lives matter, Palestinians matter,  gay people matter, poor people matter.   Like Nicodemus  we have to begin to think out of the boxes into which we have been imprisoned since nursery school by convention, culture and prejudice.  That is what repentance in the NT means, quite literally change your mind so that you can see things differently.  We all need a change of heart so that you can live and act differently. And by God's grace we can do that even if we are old.  Otherwise we won't get the message of the good news of God's kingdom, God's inclusive, saving grace which embraces us all and sets us free to love others.  We all really do need to be born of the Spirit, as Jesus said.

John de Gruchy
13 October 2016

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Meditation: THE BIGGER PICTURE by John de Gruchy


Isaiah 28:14-16
Luke 14:28-30

"One who trusts will not panic."
"First sit down and estimate the cost."

Given all that is happening at the universities, to say nothing about the amazing cricket win against Australia last night, you might have missed another remarkable news item.  South Africa's MeerKAT radio telescope has now released its first image showing 1,300 galaxies in the distant universe.  This is far more than was previously thought to be the case, and it is only the beginning.  Sometime within the next decade when the SKA or Square Kilometre Array telescope reaches completion, astronomers we will have a picture of the universe that is more immense than we could ever have imagined.  This is the bigger picture within which the earth exists as a tiny blob on a distant horizon.  But, of course, those of us who live on this tiny blob might well wonder what is so important about this cosmological discovery and why we should spend so much money on exploring outer space.  I don't actually know the answer to that. I simply assume we need to know all we can about the universe in which we live for some good reason..

But there are other big pictures that are of more immediate concern.  I refer to education in South Africa brought into sharp focus by the #Feesmustfall protests.  If education is a priority matter for the well-being of society, if there are injustices in the system that need to be dealt with, and if lives and property are at risk, then we must as Christians, be concerned, become informed,  and respond.  But in responding nobody should lose sight of the bigger picture.  It is easy to make assumptions, form opinions on hearsay or media reports, or make unhelpful pronouncements.  It is also easy to get into panic mode, take rash decisions, and act in ways that are counter-productive.  The need for urgent action, and we do need urgency, is not helped by panic reaction in this matter as in life more generally.  The issues are complex, and there are no short-cut easy fix solutions.  So we need to get some perspective.  Let me offer some thoughts that might be helpful.

Firstly the basic demand of the students for a free education for the poor in South Africa is right.  This is the corner stone of their protest and we must not lose sight of it amid all the other stuff that is going on.  It is central to the bigger picture.  But this requires that the government re-think its spending priorities, not at the expense of health, housing and other basic needs, but by cutting back on projects that are sucking our economy dry and dealing more energetically with corruption.  Government funding of tertiary education is woefully inadequate.  But we also have to ensure that those who attend university have received a quality school education that equips them to succeed.  Those in authority certainly to sit down and count the cost involved in funding free education, but they also have to count the cost of not doing so.  So the battle on the campuses is part of a political struggle about what the government does with our taxes.   Of course, there are other political agendas at play in the protests.  The fight being waged in parliament, between the EFF and ANC, is the back story to much that is happening on the campuses.

Secondly,  non-violent protest is a constitutional right.  Students have a right to engage in protest on the campuses, and they can do so as energetically they see the need.  Students have done this through the ages, and have done so in South Africa many times  before now.  And often their causes have been just and proved right in the end.  But acts of violence are illegal and counter-productive.  None of us, and I think the vast majority of protesting students and their leaders, do not want to destroy buildings and the rest.  They know that these belong to them and future generations.  But in the bigger picture, violent action is indicative of the pent-up anger and frustration among many back students even if, and we have no way of knowing, there might be some criminal elements among them.  It is true that the law must take its course to prevent anarchy.  But excessive police force and even brutality is a sign of panic and bad training, and only makes things worse.  In the bigger picture negotiation is the key, however difficult that is.  You can be sure that every effort is being made to do this. I know personally know some of those involved.  They need our prayers and support. 

Thirdly, it is vital that the universities get back on track as soon as possible, but also in doing so that they put in place mechanisms that will deal adequately and as speedily as possible with the grievances of the protesting students.  University administrators know this and they are doing everything humanly possible to make it happen.  They know only too well that, we cannot afford preventing doctors, educators, scientists, and others that society so desperately needs, from graduating this year.  They are desperately needed.  But we also know that it is equally important that all who qualify to become university students and therefore future leaders in society, should have the opportunity to achieve their potential.  It is not just this year's students that matter; it is this and the coming generation that matter as well.  Solutions to the current situation must be long-term.  That is why we have to count the cost of funding education and not make rash decision, but we also have to count the cost of not doing so adequately.

I have not said everything that needs to be said, or everything that I would like to say, but I I ask you to take to heart the words of the prophet Isaiah: "One who trusts will not panic!"  If we really  believe that God is at work in the struggles for justice for the poor; if we really believe in the integrity of those who are giving everything of their time and energy and skill to deal with the problems in ways that will bring healing; if we really do believe that times of crisis are also times of God-given opportunity in which transformation and renewal can take place, then we will not panic.  But we will certainly pray and seek to do what is right where we can, and do so with urgency.  We will also do everything we can to ensure that the present and the coming generations of young people can achieve their potential.  That is why Volmoed is committed to the Volmoed Youth Leadership Training Programme and supportive of the Sparklekids initiative.  All this is part of the bigger picture of which we are a part.  It may only be but a small part of the bigger picture of our ever expanding universe, but it is our part.  "One who trusts will not panic."  That is the Word of God!

John de Gruchy
Volmoed 6 October 2016


Monday, 3 October 2016

Meditation: "WHAT ABOUT OUR INHERITANCE?" by John de Gruchy


II Corinthians 8:1-11
Ephesians 2:11-12
"You know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich."
"In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance,"

This week the International Court of Justice  found an Islamist militant leader guilty of war crimes for the destruction of historical sites in the ancient city of Timbuktu.  This, the first time that the Court had prosecuted someone for the destruction of a world renowned heritage site, highlights the significance of heritage, something we celebrated on our own Heritage Day last week.  So three cheers for Heritage Day, as long as it does not become a source of division instead of mutual enrichment.  But there is another aspect of heritage that is equally important: inheritance, for heritage is not just about culture but everything we inherit from the past.   Unlike cultural heritage, inheritance is more personal, a sensitive subject usually only discussed within the family circle or behind closed doors in lawyers offices.  Families can fall apart when, at the reading of a will, the inheritance is not what was expected by those who have been excluded or received less than they thought  their due.

Isobel and I attended the Hermanus Supper Club on Monday evening at Duchies Restaurant.  The Club is a great an attempt to bridge the divide between the white and black communities in Hermanus.  I sat next to someone from Zwelihle who is one of a growing number of professionals in the township.  He was telling me about his difficulties in trying to get reasonable housing despite earning a good salary.  He simply did not have enough capital to raise a loan, and of course, he had no inheritance to help him out.  The truth id, the vast majority of people in South Africa and probably world-wide do not inherit much if any material wealth.  If you do, it gives you a kick start in life, but if not you are at a great disadvantage.  In fact it is one reason why the poor get poorer, the rich, richer, and the middle class get stuck somewhere in between -- not poor enough to get welfare grants and RDP housing, not wealthy enough to get loans to buy a house.   No wonder there is so much anger among students whose parents cannot afford to pay their university fees and who fear that if they take loans they will get into such debt that they will never be able to get out of it again.  This is a universal problem facing stidents, not least in Britain and the United States.

Of course, inheritance is not just about money or property, it is also about less tangible matters.  You can inherit a great deal of money but very little else by way of true values, love, and  happiness.  In this respect those who are poor are often richer than the rich.  Many people can testify that while their parents were not wealthy, they left them a legacy far more important than what money can buy.  Some financial inheritance would undoubtedly have helped,  but being loved was of more lasting value.  While love does not help you buy a house or pay your fees, when we think of what our children or grandchildren might inherit we would do well to think as much if not more about our moral and  spiritual legacies as we do about money. Those who inherit material wealth are by no means better people as a result.  Of course, none of implies that those who are wealthy have a right to keep the poor in their place by piously saying:  "seeing you are spiritually rich you really are better off than we who are materially, so stop demanding more  -- your reward in heaven will be greater than ours!" This was not Jesus' teaching.  "From those who have much," he insisted, "much will be required."  Sharing  wealth is not charity, it is justice.   A true commonwealth is a just society, not a political organisation for former British colonies.

The first Christians were generally poor, many of them peasants and much that Jesus taught highlighted this fact.  "Blessed are you, you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God." (Luke 6:20)   The church back then was a commonwealth.  But as it expanded it included people who were more wealthy than others. This wealth disparity soon became a problem, as in the church in Corinth.  That is why Paul challenged the more wealthy to give generously to support the poor, prefacing his challenge by saying "You know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich."  He went on to say: "if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has -- not according to what one does not have." Like the Corinthians we can tax ourselves, we don't to wait for the Receiver of Revenue to do it for us!  And while we are doing so we should also consider what we are leaving behind for those who have worked for us over the years, and for those causes and institutions that are committed to serving the common good. 

But what about our spiritual inheritance and wealth?   When Paul, or whoever wrote the letter to the church in Ephesus, told them that "in Christ we have also obtained an inheritance,"  (1:11) he was not preaching a "prosperity gospel."  Becoming a Christian did not mean becoming materially wealthy.  The inheritance Paul had in mind was and remains "the immeasurable riches of God's grace." (Ephesians 2:7): forgiveness, healing, salvation, abundant life. This is the imperishable inheritance that we received in Christ.  We have, says Paul, been made heirs of God's kingdom, "co-heirs with Christ" in knowing God (Rom. 8:17).  

So we should not only be asking ourselves about what material goods we might  leave to the next generation, to those who have served us well, and those organisations and institutions that are committed to serving others, but will be our moral and spiritual legacy.  What values are we handing on?  And what about the inheritance we have in Christ -- our knowledge of the love and grace of God, the importance of forgiveness and the need to embrace the stranger, of justice, mercy and compassion?   This must surely be part of the heritage we pass on for the next generation to celebrate.  Not to do so, would surely be a crime against humanity. 

John de Gruchy

Volmoed 29 September 2016