Saturday, 22 April 2017

Meditation: AN UNLIKELY APOSTLE by John de Gruchy


I Corinthians 15:3-8
John 20:11-18
Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord."
"Last of all, he appeared to me."

About twenty years ago I was a guest professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasedena, California, where I taught a course on doing theology in context.  The term assignment I gave the students was to take an issue that concerned them, reflect theologically upon it, and decide on what action they should take in response.  One woman student was perplexed.  "I want to research the place of women in the ministry" she said, but in my denomination women are not ordained, they must remain silent in church.  She belonged, she told me, to "The Four Square Gospel Church," one of the first Pentecostal Churches to be established in America.  So I suggested that she researched the origins of her church, how it started, and who were its leaders.  A week later she came to see me.  She was excited.  "I discovered," she said "that my church was founded by a woman! Aimee Semple McPherson!"  She then went on to complain, "Why was I never told this?" 

The reason was obvious; it was because the voice of women had been silenced, not just in her denomination after its foundation, but from early on in the history of the church as a whole.  This is very strange, because women were prominent among Jesus' disciples from the beginning to the end of his ministry.  Moreover, they stood by him at the cross when all the male disciples fled, and they were the first witnesses to the resurrection.  In fact, St. Paul made it very clear that in Christ and therefore in the church, there was no distinction between men and women, and there is plenty of evidence in the New Testament that there were women preachers and prophets in the early church, some of whom took a leading role in nurturing house churches.  Indeed, so much was this the case, that some early critics of Christianity argued that by making men and women equal in the church the stability of society was undermined, and they also claimed that the story of the resurrection was false because it was based on the testimony of hysterical women, Eventually the church capitulated to the criticism of culture.  And then,during the second century  Pope Clement decreed that women and men should be segregated in church as they were in the synagogue, and that the priesthood was for men only on the pretext that Jesus was a man, as were all the apostles, or so it was assumed.    

But who were the apostles and were they all men?  Were they only the twelve we normally think of when we hear the word?  According to early Christina tradition, an apostle was someone who had witnessed the resurrection and been sent by Christ to proclaim the good news, the word apostle meaning "one who is sent.".  If that is so then the first apostle was Mary Magdalene, the person to whom the risen Christ first appeared and whom he sent to tell the good news.  But Mary Magdalene was, we might say, an unlikely apostle.  We don't know for certain, but some have said she was a prostitute.  She certainly came from Magdala, a port town of ill-repute, she does not seem to have had a husband or any family, but she did have some wealth which she used to support Jesus and the other disciples.  She travelled freely around Galilee with a bunch of men, and was clearly the leader of the group of women who followed and served Jesus throughout his ministry.  And she was as close to him as any of the other disciples.  Jesus had, in fact, radically turned her life around.  She was someone who loved Jesus much because she had been forgiven so much.   

So it is not surprising that, on the first Easter morning, she was the first disciples to run to the Tomb and the first to whom the risen Christ appeared.  He then told Mary to go and tell his "brothers", as the gospels put it, that he is risen.  So Mary goes and tells him "I have seen the Lord!"  They did not believe her at first, but it is precisely her testimony of faith and her being sent by Jesus that marks out Mary Magdalene as the first apostle, "the apostle to the apostles." This being so, we can say that the Christian Church was founded as much on the testimony of a woman as on the confession of Peter. A fact that was pushed under the carpet and virtually forgotten for most of the subsequent history of the Church, just as for centuries women were prevented from being ordained.   

I am reminding you of this sorry saga not just to exalt the status of Mary Magdalene or stress the point that the leadership of women in the church goes back to the origins of Christianity, but to remind us that Christianity stands or falls on the witness of people whose lives have been changed by Jesus the risen Christ.  Yes, there are good reasons to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, but in the end faith in the risen Christ is based on the testimony of those who witnessed his resurrection, something St. Paul stresses in his first letter to the Corinthians (I Cor. 15).  Paul does not mention Mary Magdalene, or only the twelve we normally think of as "the apostles", he also mentions the "more than five hundred brothers and sisters" to whom Christ appeared, and then, significantly he says that Christ also appeared to him "as one untimely born."  Something that happened to him on the Damascus Road.  What is significant in all this, as it was in the case of Paul, is that seeing the risen Christ fundamentally changed the lives of people, and they in turn laid the foundation of the apostolic church. 

Our faith is founded on such testimony to the risen Christ.  Originally on the testimony of those who, like Mary, were first encountered by Christ.  But also by many others who have influenced our lives, people for whom Jesus is not a dead man in a Tomb but present to us as the risen Christ who, through the Spirit. gives us life, joy, hope, peace, and the strength to love and serve him in loving and serving others.  The story began that first Easter morning when Mary Magdalene ran to the disciples and said "I have seen the Lord!"  continues anew every day through the testimony of people who, like us, have experienced the transforming presence of the risen Christ.  The witness of Scripture is obviously the basis for such testimony and such faith, but if it were not for people who, over the centuries, have experienced its truth in their lives, faith in the risen Christ would have lost its power long ago. 

Wherever there is new life in Christ; wherever there is evidence of the fruit of his Spirit -- love, joy, peace and hope; wherever there are people who love and serve Christ in the world through acts of compassion and justice, there is the risen Christ.   That, too, is our testimony of faith, a testimony that began when Mary of Magdala ran and told the other disciples who, fearfully, were in hiding, "I have seen the Lord!"

John de Gruchy

20 April 2017

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Meditation: WASHING HANDS or WASHING FEET? by John de Gruchy


John 13:1-5
"He poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples feet."

The big news last week was, of course, the controversy in Britain about Easter Eggs.  Cadburys, the chocolate maker together with the National Trust had decided to drop the word Easter from their Easter Egg hunts. The decision incensed Theresa May the Prime Minister who attacked the decision as ridiculous.  It was as though the foundations of the Christian faith were threatened.  But the last time I searched the Scriptures I did not find any reference to Easter Eggs.  So I yawned, turned off my light, and went to sleep.  Lent, Holy Week and the mystery of the Passion of Jesus had been trivialised in the search for chocolate eggs and Easter, sorry, chocolate bunnies. 

But today, on this Maundy Thursday, which begins the final countdown to the Passion and the Darkness that precedes Easter, our thoughts turn to more serious things happening in the world.  There are no Easter Eggs in Aleppo, and no children able to search for them in the rubble if there were. There is only devastation as darkness covers the land, while the leaders of the nations whose, bombers and chemical weapons have wreaked the havoc, seek a solution that serves their interests best, and some are tempted to wash their hands of the whole sordid affair.

Holy Week began with a massive protest march against such ineptitude and evil, an event far more newsworthy than any debate about Easter Eggs.  After all, when a large crowd marches on the capital waving banners, the media gets excited, and those in power take notice and tremble in their boots.  On such occasions the police ensure that violence is prevented, for who knows what might happen on protest marches.  But on this occasion the crowd was peaceful, lining the streets with their banners.  Some of these read "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord," and others "Hosanna to the Son of David."  There were also some that said "Long live Jesus of Nazareth, long live!"  Or "Pilate and the Pharisees must go!

But it was a non-violent protest march because its central figure was riding on a donkey.  Even so, this was a direct challenge to those in power: the Sanhedrin, Herod and his lackeys, and the Roman procurator Pilate.  Insurrection had long been in the air.  At that very moment, languishing in Jerusalem's gaol was a revolutionary Zealot named Jesus Barabbas, who had made inflammatory speeches and tried to overthrow the authorities by violence.  Jerusalem was uneasy, under lock-down we would say today.  The problem was that people were calling this Jesus the Messiah, the one anointed by God to liberate them from oppression.  But where was his army?  All he had was a motley crew of disciples, and popular support from the lower classes.  What threat could this Jesus and his followers present to power?  But the people were enthusiastic.  Their hour had come: "Love live the Son of David! Long live." 

We know the story well.  The crowd turned against the Man on a donkey, and even his disciples betrayed and denied him.  So he stood before Pilate and the baying mob silently and alone.  Pilate could find no fault in Jesus, but thought he had found a way out of his dilemma.  Let them have Jesus the Messiah and he would crucify the revolutionary Jesus Barabbas.  "Whom do you want me to release to you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?" But Pilate had not counted on the fickleness of the people who had decided that this Jesus neither would nor could liberate them.  That required an army led by a man wielding a sword and riding on a horse.  Give us Barabbas, they cried.  So Pilate washed his hands of the whole affair. This was not his responsibility.  He turned his back and went to lunch with his wife.

The dramatic week of Jesus' passion, from Palm Sunday to Holy Saturday, keeps on playing out in world history.  False Messiahs arise to woo the crowds, only to disappoint them with failed promises and creating havoc in the process.  But the story of the man on a donkey presents us with an alternative, a Messiah whose way to the cross and promise of life through death, offers hope to the world.  Yet too often as we follow him on along that path, and as the cost becomes apparent and darkness covers the land in protest every crime against humanity, we are tempted to betray or deny him, wash our hands and search for Easter Eggs. But we know that our task is to stay the journey, to continue protesting against injustice and corruption, and as followers of Jesus to stand with him in solidarity with the suffering people of the world and in our own country. 

The choice Pilate presented to the crowd that day is thus a perennial choice.  What kind of leaders do we want, or better, do we need?  Or best of all, what kind of leaders does God anoint in order to establish peace and justice?  Those who come riding on a donkey or those in command of a fleet of tanks?  Those whose power is that of sacrificial service on behalf of the people, or those whose power is corrupt and maintained by force?  When the chips are down, do we choose the power of the sword or the power of humility, justice and peace?

But this choice is not just about the leaders we choose, it is also about us, we who make the choice.  For it is easy to blame leaders for what is wrong with the world, and wash our hands of their corruption and folly; it is relatively easy to go on protest marches waving banners.  It is much more difficult to follow Jesus to the cross and stand by him in his hour of need.  So it was that on the night in which he was betrayed and denied by his disciples, Jesus not only broke bread with them, he also washed their feet.  He then commanded them that they should do likewise as a commitment to service and love.  Jesus could have simply washed his hands of the world that was about to crucify him, but he chose instead to wash the feet of his followers.  After he had done so he returned to the table and said to them:

Do you know what I have done to you?  You call me teacher and Lord -- and you are right, for that is what I am.  So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet.  For I have set you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.  Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.  If you know these things you are blessed if you do them. (John 13:12-17) 

John de Gruchy

Maundy Thursday 2017

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Meditation: ON MYSTICISM AND THE POET by Graham Ward

On Mysticism and the Poet

I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright;
And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years,
Driv'n by the spheres
Like a vast shadow mov'd; in which the world
And all her train were hurl'd.

I leave tomorrow, though I return in July. But John asked if I would do this final meditation on the poet as mystic. I read the opening lines of a poem by Henry Vaughan, a Welsh poet of the seventeenth century writing in English. The poem is entitled ‘The Vision’ and there is something visionary about it in its startling depiction of the embrace of the cosmos in an “endless light”. It seem to depict those special states we often associate with mysticism – moments when the spiritually elite like St. Paul are caught up into the third heaven. But that’s not what the poem is about. After these opening lines Vaughan describes the very mundane aspects of our social lives. All things, large and small, he suggests, dwell within the embrace of the eternal. There’s no mention of St. Paul, but he’s communicating what Paul spoke of continuously as our being “in Christ” or “hidden with Christ in God”: the God who is “in all things, through all things and above all things.” It’s not a vision then of either God or Christ (they are not mentioned in the poem); it’s an attempt to communicate an experience in and through words and the way they are uttered, breathed, and full of nuance, of being enfolded in what is so much more than us. And the rhymes he uses are not ornamental, they search for an inner attraction between words -  ‘years’ to ‘spheres’ and ‘world’ to ‘hurl’d’ – an attraction that listens to the music within them that’s deeper than meaning and yet receive a more resonant and richer with meaning when they come together.

You don’t read poetry so much as listen to what the poet is probing as he or she uses words to lift the edges of the things they name, to disclose what is in and beneath them. The word ‘mysticism’ comes from the Greek ‘to disclose the hidden’; just as the word ‘truth’ in Greek literally means ‘to bring the hidden or forgotten into the open.’ Not all poetry is trying to do that but when poetry is trying to do that the poet engages the mystical. And ‘mystical’ then is that turning of the attention to what lies beneath the surfaces and edges of things; that which is evocative and sings of something of deeper significance; something that can be noticed in the very ordinary and little things: washing, dripping and hanging to dry in the sunshine; the many layers of taste in a good curry; the smell of wood shavings – each of these can evoke the intangible, the invisible. When this is evoked the ordinary is transfigured and the world in which in sits changes.

You don’t have to be consciously committed to any faith to experience this and you don’t have to be in a particular location. The Russian dissident poet Irina Ratushinskaya was imprisoned in the Gulag. She was given no writing materials so she wrote poetry on blocks of soap, committed it to memory and gave other women the poems to remember that they or she on release might write them down. But she, and the women who heard and carried those poems were transformed by them, for the Gulag became a place of plenitude as its starscapes, camp fires, frosts, dawns and sunsets filled them with wonder and hope through Ratushinskaya’s words. Her poems brought an irrepressible creative freedom into their imprisoned lives; it unlocked resources in them and the world. She was a Christian, but she saw something more than and beyond the visible violences around her. Her volume of poetry written in the Gulag has been acclaimed world-wide. It’s called Grey is the Colour of Hope. This is the beginning of one of her pieces:

I will live and survive and be asked:
How they slammed my head against a trestle, 
How I had to freeze at nights, 
How my hair started to turn grey... 
But I'll smile. And will crack some joke.
And brush away the encroaching shadow. 
And I will render homage to the dry September 
That became my second birth. 

She writes in the poem of “rainbow ice” on a “tiny pane of glass” and ends the poem with “Such a gift can only be received once/ And perhaps it is only needed once.” Again, it is the small and ordinary in which and through which the extraordinary is sensed, smelt, tasted as sustaining something more significant. And this becomes the fuel for hope.

Poets know, to prise beneath the edges of things, cannot be forced. It has to be given. There may be expectancy but there is always a waiting, dreaming, drifting, attending, listening. What are you listening for? You are listening for the unlocking of cadences that transfigure the way you hear and see; like a jazz pianist or a bass guitarist feeling the way ahead musically. You are attuning yourself to the textures of sound and circumstance – the undisclosed textures in you as much as those outside and around you. You are listening to a breathing deeper than your own that comes from being “hidden with Christ in God”, the God in whom all being is sustained, Paul tells to Greeks on Mars Hill, quoting the Greek poet Lucan. That breathing is available to everyone; disclosed for everyone. That’s why we can recognize it. The poet, the pianist, the guitarist only tries to communicate it. In fact, I believe salvation as healing (salus) comes from learning that deep listening. Listen then to my attempt in this final poem:

Still is the night
and so hushed the crush
of stars illuminates
though the moon is thinly pared.
Trees and mountain-tops are
pencilled quills and charcoal smudges.
A breeze abates, and about me
the valley closes in while
the heavens and earth hold fast
to a secret, betoken a secret
I am held in its weight,
impressed by an infinitesimal
We are known.


We thank you Lord for all those able to communicate life to us, deep life, life hidden in you the giver life. We thank you that we are created to respond to that life and to you, able to present ourselves that you might breath and speak within us, within your creation. And we pray for all those who through circumstance and emotional complexity cannot hear and cannot respond. May you bring them all to a place of healing, a place of right judgement, and a place of forgiveness. 

Graham Ward
Regius Professor of Divinity : Christ Church Oxford

6 April 2017

Monday, 27 March 2017

Meditation: PRACTICING THE PRESENCE by John de Gruchy


Luke 10:38-42
"Martha, Martha you are worried and distracted by many things, there is need of only one thing."

"We should establish ourselves in a sense of God's Presence, by continually conversing with him."
(Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God)

St. Augustine was a theologian and bishop, Julian of Norwich was a visionary locked in her cell, and St. John of the Cross was a monastic reformer and poet but, you may be pleased to know, the fourth Christian mystic we will meet on this Lenten journey, was a cook.  He would have fitted well into Volmoed, so today without further ado or even waiting to check it out with the Trustees, I declare Brother Lawrence (1611-1691) our patron saint. 

Born Nicholas Herman, Brother Lawrence was a soldier for eighteen years before he became a treasurer to the King of France.  But since the age of eighteen he had a great sense of God's loving guidance in his life in all its aspects.  This, in turn, awoke in him a great love for God, which led him to make the love of God the end of all his actions.  That was the reason why he eventually decided to become  a monk because he thought he could then spend his days in prayer and contemplation.  So he joined a Carmelite monastery in Paris.  He did not want to be like Martha, distracted by the busyness of everyday life; he desired, rather,  to be like Mary and spend quality time with Jesus in quiet contemplation. 

So you can imagine how annoyed he was at first when the Abbot decided that he was not to spend his days in quiet contemplation, but  to work amid the noise and clutter of the monastery kitchen.  Unlike Mary  whose example he craved, he had to become Martha and busy himself with ensuring that there was wine in the cellar and food on the table.  But it was precisely in that busy schedule of daily life, , that Brother Lawrence learnt to practice the presence of God irrespective of where he was or what he was doing.  And that is the heart of what mysticism is about: a deep awareness of the love of God in the midst of our daily lives despite its distractions and busyness.  You can be Martha and still choose the better part that Mary had.  In Brother Lawrence contemplation and daily work are brought together.  Contemplation is not an escape from reality and the daily round of necessary activity; it is a way of engagement with God in the midst of our inescapable responsibilities.

Brother Lawrence did not have the time to  write books or poetry like some of the other great mystics, but he did keep a notebook of his sayings and thoughts, and he also wrote many letters, all of which were found in his cell after his death.  These were collected by the Abbot of the monastery.  He  also collected notes of conversations that various people had had with Brother Lawrence, and published all of these in a very small book which he called The Practice of the Presence of God.  This slender volume has had a remarkable influence over the centuries, and continues to be published in a variety of languages.  You might call it "every person's" guide to mysticism, for you don't have to be a saint, priest or recluse to do what Brother Lawrence did.  The Christian life, Brother Lawrence is telling us, is an ongoing loving conversation with God.  What we simply have to do is daily practice the presence of God in our lives like a pianist who daily practices the piano.   Loving God requires daily practice.

Of course, this is not easy, and in some situations it might be difficult.  After all, as Bonhoeffer once said, you don't normally think about God when you are cuddling up to your wife or husband in bed!  But even if you do, it is unlikely that a rugby player will be practising the presence of  God in the middle of a scrum even if a soldier might do so in the heat of battle facing possible death.  But in the normal round of life, in our relationships, in our daily work, and especially in times when life gets tough, or anger takes hold of us, or envy and greed, being mindful that God is present and loves us will make all the difference to what we say and do.  Difficult, of course, but that's why we have to practice the presence,  or get into the habit as it were. 

Like most of us, Brother Lawrence had periods of spiritual dryness when he found prayer difficult. But that did not mean that he stopped practising the presence of God, whether at daily prayer in the monastery chapel or at daily work in the monastery kitchen.  So he learnt, as he tell us, "doing little things for the love of God," because God "regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed."  It did not matter that he had to peel potatoes while other monks were busy in the library or deep in contemplation.  What mattered was doing his work out of love for God. "The time of business," he wrote, "does not ... differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clutter of my kitchen... I possess God in as great tranquillity as if I were upon my knees at the Blessed Sacrament."

Brother Lawrence did not follow any set method of prayer and contemplation, his method, he said,  was "simple attention...and a general passionate regard to God; to whom I find myself attached with greater sweetness and delight than that of an infant at a mother's breast."  Like an infant who cuddles up in the embrace of his mother, he sensed that he was continually being embraced in the warmth of an infinite love that nourished and gave him life.  In a letter to one of his friends who was a soldier, Brother Lawrence writes:

We have a God who is infinitely gracious, and knows all our wants...He will come in his own time and when you least expect it.  Hope in him more than ever; thank him for the favours he does you, particularly for the fortitude and patience which he gives you in our afflictions; it is a plain mark of the care he takes of you; comfort yourself then with him, and give thanks for all.

That is practicing the presence of God.  If God is the love that embraces then practicing the presence of God means daily giving thanks, daily placing our trust and hope in God, daily seeking to love others, not just those who are close to us, but all those we encounter.  Practicing the presence of God means learning to forgive, learning to serve the needs of others, learning to do what is right, learning to be compassionate and just.  Like a pianist who daily practices in order to master his music, so the Christian who follows Brother Lawrence's example, daily practices love for God through practicing love even in the kitchen.

John de Gruchy

Lent 4  
23 March 2017