Thursday, 22 September 2016

Meditation: LANGUAGE & COMMUNITY by John de Gruchy


Genesis 11:1-9
Acts 2:1-8
"All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability?... How is it that we hear, each of us in our own native language?"

The story of the Tower of Babel was often misused during our apartheid years to justify the separation of people from each other.  The argument was that God punished our primordial ancestors for trying to build a united nation to which all people belonged.  And God did so by confusing their language.  This, it was said, was why there are different cultures each with their own language.  This was God's doing, and God, they declared,  intends people of different tongues to develop separately.  It was all bad theology and distorted logic based on a misreading of the Babel saga.  It was also a very bad understanding of the amazing history of how languages actually originated and developed over the millennia of human history.  That story as any philologist will tell you, is truly remarkable.  Today there is not a corner of the world without a language, grammar and vast vocabulary shaped by context and experience. 

Language is the basis of human well-being and social life, of knowledge and science, and the way we share information and wisdom.  Language links us to our ancestors and introduces us to our descendents.  And the birth of language in all its splendid variety is repeated with the birth of every human being in every culture.  Our lives may begin with grunts, but unless there is a speech impediment we soon begin to speak the language in which we are nurtured  We find our voice.  And in doing so we discover something fundamental about being human. We are created in the image of God by whose Word the world came into being.  Being human is not being a parrot.  In order to become truly ourselves, more truly who God wants us to be, we have to discover our own voice and learn to listen to the voice of others. So with our own words we establish relationships, name animals, flowers and mountains, we share the  peace, bring healing, express love speak truth to power and spread the good news. 

Some languages have become international through conquest and trade.  As a result English-speakers have an enormous advantage and often forget how difficult it is for non-English speakers to be educated in English.  But millions have successfully done so leaving us who are English-speakers also at a disadvantage.  While others have learnt English we have not felt the need or to learn theirs.  We can speak in our own tongue, but we cannot understand those who speak differently.  Worse still, we sometimes think we are somehow superior and have the right to speak on behalf of those who can't speak English properly.  Like children struggling to express themselves, the voiceless, we say, need our voice.   We forget that they actually want and need to speak for themselves.  They also fear that we will put words into their mouths to ensure that they say the right thing, the words we want to hear.  Parents often do this on behalf of their children; husbands and wives on behalf of their spouses.  We forget that unless children find their own voices they do not grow up, and unless spouses listen to each other and allow each other to speak for him or herself, their relationships will remain superficial.  Learning the art of mutual listening to each other's voice and speaking in one's own, is fundamental to any worthwhile relationship.

Part of what is happening today in our universities is that students are finding their own voice. as they do in every generation, but they don't think they are being heard.  As always, the issues are complex but I think the students are right in their demand for free education; I also think that this demand might be met if the government dealt with corruption and the misuse of tax-payers money.   What if the 6 billion Rand bail-out for SAA could have been used to meet the fees crisis?  Students are rightly tired of an older generation that does that kind of thing telling them that they know what is best for them.  They want to speak their own mind in their own voice.  And when they do, they want others to listen to what they are saying even if others may disagree.  There is no solution to the conflict that has erupted without all sides learning to listen to the voice of the other, and learning to speak to the other in ways that foster understanding and trust.  

If the Tower of Babel is a mythical attempt to explain the origin of diverse languages, the story of Pentecost marks the beginning of a new movement in history to promote understanding across language difference and so build community.  That we should each understand one another even though we speak in different tongues is part of the reason why the church exists.  The church is not meant to be culturally uniform but pluriform; the church is not meant to sing in one language but with one voice; the church is not meant to be the church of one nation or tribe, but the church for all nations.  The church is meant to be the new humanity in which everyone can speak and be heard in his or her own tongue in ways that build relationships and community.  This is the work of the Holy Spirit.  And when the church listens to the Spirit it becomes part of the solution to human conflict instead of being, as it too often is, part of the problem.

John de Gruchy

Volmoed 22 September

Monday, 19 September 2016

Meditation: LIVING WATER by John de Gruchy


Jeremiah 2:10-13
John 4:1- 15
"My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns, that can hold no water."
"Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty again.  The water that I will give them will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life."

As the rain pelted down early last Friday morning, waking me up from sleep, I suddenly thought about some of the new names given to churches in Hermanus, among them Living Waters and, simply, Rain.  In the past local churches have usually been named after saints, like St. Peter's, or according to the denomination to which they are affiliated., such as Mowbray Presbyterian, Rosebank Methodist, or the Dutch Reformed Church in Hermanus.  Nonconformist churches sometimes have chosen names from the Old Testament like Bethel, which means the House of God, or Bethesda, the House of Mercy.  But there has been an explosion of new trendy names in recent times. One is In Via, "on the way," in Stellenbosch, another is Renaissance in Pretoria, and next month I will be preaching at Mosaic in Randburg.  Then there are those on our own doorstep like Rain, Living Waters and Live the Life. 

There is something attractive about these new church names.  They tell us something about what the church is meant to be rather than its institutional connections and form of government, however important that might be.  I guess we are all glad that this place is called Volmoed, "full of courage and hope" rather than after our friend Fr. Roger Hickley's favourite saint, St. Agapanthus. In a time when denominational affiliations and loyalties are no longer as strong as they once were or are non-existent, I can understand why some people searching for a life-giving faith after a period of spiritual drought might find Rain more appealing than going to Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, and Living Water more attractive than Ebenezer Tabernacle.  Certainly as the rain woke me up last Friday, it was living water that came to mind and set me thinking about such things.  We all thirst for living water, but I guess that in the end it does not matter much what label is on the bottle as long as it contains the water of life.

The metaphor "living water" comes from the Old Testament  prophet Jeremiah.  The people of Israel, he says, have  "committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns, that can hold no water."  Broken cisterns were a serious matter in the Middle East as it is today, especially in times of drought.
We at Volmoed know all about the dire consequences that follow the drying up of the spring of clean water that has gushed out of the rocks up the mountainside for as long as anyone can recall.  Virtually every day we have to check our water supply, make sure that it is clean and sufficient for ourselves and our guests.  You can live a  few days without food, but you cannot live without fresh water.  You can get away with second class meat, but not water from stagnant pools or polluted rivers.   Only pure, living water sustains life.  

So living water is a powerful biblical metaphor.  The prophet Isaiah describes people joyfully drawing "water from the wells of salvation." (Isaiah 12:3)  Wells that go deep into holy ground, and never run dry.  Ezekiel speaks about the living water that will flow out of Jerusalem when the Messiah comes. John has all this in mind when he tells us about Jesus and the woman at the well, or when he describes Jesus standing outside the Temple and inviting  all who are thirsty to come to him and drink.( John 7:37-9)  The water that Jesus offers is the gift of the Spirit, the water of eternal life.
Eternal life is not simply life that goes on forever, it is a spirituality that quenches our deepest thirst.  The contrast is that between death-producing polluted water, and the crystal clear spring water that is life-giving and sustaining.  Between the law which kills and the Spirit which gives life.  It is the difference between the religiosity of hate and exclusion, and the Spirit who sets us free to be responsible, committed to justice and love for others; a religion that is self-centred and a religion of the Spirit who evokes compassion; religion that dehumanizes and the Spirit who makes us truly human;  religion that tries to take possession of God's name for dubious purposes, and God the Holy Spirit who takes possession of us in order to give us life.  Like stagnant water that kills the body, bad religion kills the soul; like fresh water bubbling forth from the spring of eternal life, the Spirit renews and energizes the soul. 
As global warming increases and droughts become more frequent, we can anticipate that clean water will become even more a cause of strife than oil.  We will all have to learn not only how to save water but also how to share water.         Clean, pure, life-giving water is becoming a precious commodity that has to be treasured, but also shared with others especially those who are thirsty.   And this is true of the living water of life that Jesus gives us; it is not provided for us to bathe our souls in; it is meant to be shared with others.  Just as Volmoed depends on being able to provide clean drinkable water for our guests, so Volmoed like the church more generally exists to share the living water of the Spirit with all who are thirsty for abundant life. Water is not ours to possess simply to quench our own thirst, dammed up in the church, kept clean and pure for private use. The water of life is poured out for all.  So in the end it does not matter whether your church is named after St. Agapanthus or simply called Rain, Bethesda or Mosaic. What matters is whether a church gives us access to the well-spring of the Spirit of Jesus. "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, let the one who believes in me drink...Out of the believers heart shall flow rivers of living water." (John 7:37-39)

O God, the well-spring of our lives, pour into our hearts the living water of your grace, that refreshed by you we may live this day in steadfast reliance on your strength, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

John de Gruchy

Volmoed 15 September 2016

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Meditation: THE GIFT OF SIMPLICITY by John de Gruchy


Luke 18:18-27
"How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God."

In a world of great poverty, in a country dramatically divided between those who have so much and those who have very little, Jesus' words come as a sobering reminder to those of us who are comparatively well-off, that our money and possessions can prevent us from being part of God's kingdom.  "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God," says Jesus, and he not only had the "filthy rich" in mind. No wonder that those who heard these words said "Then who can be saved?"  Is it only those who turn their backs on the world, take a vow of poverty and join a monastery?  Can we continue to live in a complex world with all its inevitable compromises, and still be saved?

Not far from Stockbridge in western Massachusetts, where Isobel and I have spent some time, is the old Shaker village of Hancock. The Shakers were a small Christian sect founded in England in the 18th century that believed Jesus was going to return within their own life time.  So they sold up everything, got rid of worldly possessions, formed communities of mutual support, and waited for Jesus.  Persecution forced many of them to seek refuge in the United States where they became well-known for their handcraft,  the way in which they danced during worship, and the songs they sang as they did so   It was one of these that prompted this meditation. I woke up last Friday with the words "it's a gift to be simple" running through my brain!  They come from what is probably the best known Shaker song: 

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,

There is something attractive about the idea of living simply unless, of course, you happen to be poor and have no option but to live simply.  But living simply is an enormous challenge for all of us who live in our modern day complex world shaped by market forces and new technologies. The moment you get a bank account, smart-phone or computer, whatever innocence you might have previously imagined you had, flies out of the widow along with your e-mails, Facebook entries, and much of your cash.

I asked Isobel what she thought "living simply" meant.  In response she wrote a long poem, far too long to repeat here (but see below).  Each stanza begins with a question seeking further clarification: does living simply mean living uncomplicated lives, or uncluttered, or living in a less complex world. or being simple or single-minded?  And, she ends: "Can we really live simply without a drastic life-style change...without giving away everything" and joining a monastery?  And we might add, can it be done without the restructuring of the South African and global economies that are built on inequality and kept going by us acquiring more and more stuff that we don't really need?  And yet, can we now live without upgrading our cell phones and computers, and the money and bank accounts we need to service them? The examples are endless.  We seemed to be trapped in complexity. Who then can be saved?

In his book The Freedom of Simplicity Richard Foster provides an important perspective.  "Christian simplicity," he says "lives in harmony with the ordered complexity of life.  It repudiates easy, dogmatic answers to tough, intricate problems.  In fact, it is this grace that frees us sufficiently to appreciate and respond to the complex issues of contemporary society."  In other words, living more simply does not mean escaping the complexities of life but learning to cast off what is not important in responding to them.  This is the work of grace enabling us to seek first God's kingdom as we struggle to live responsibly amid the complexities of modern life and respond, for example, to the environmental crisis facing us.

The gift of simplicity is not cheap grace, but the grace of discipleship.  Brother Roger, the founder of TaizĂ©, provides a clue to what this means in the Rule he wrote for his community:  "Your availability implies continual simplification of your existence, not by constraint, but by faith."   Continual simplification, not because we are commanded to simplify, but to make us more available for others.  To live more simply then means following Jesus in becoming and being more available for others irrespective of how complex our lives may be.  It is not just a matter of shedding stuff we don't need, it is about what we do with what we have, and how we relate to others, especially those in need.

Yet it never fails to amaze me how it is often those who are poor who are the most generous.  Jesus reminds us of this in his story of the widow's mite. Most of those who put money in the Temple treasury box, Jesus says, "contributed out of their abundance," but the widow, "out of her poverty has put in everything she had." (Mark 12:41-44) Which brings to mind what Jesus also said: "To whom much is given, much will be required." (Lk. 12:48) This does not only refer to money, but to all other gifts, skills and talents, time and resources, education and friendship, solidarity in the struggle for justice, caring and compassionate living.  And the paradox is not only that the more we share the more we receive, but the more we become free.  That old Shaker songwriter knew this to be true.  For the gift to be simple was at the same time the gift to be free,.  But not just free in ourselves, or free from the cares of the world, but free to be responsible, free to be for others, in a complex world..

John de Gruchy
Volmoed 8 September 2016

Live Simply.

Live Simply – as in uncomplicated?
Disengage from all that makes life complicated,
See things only in black and white,
Disregard greys, nuances, ifs and buts,
These complicate matters,
Simply head straight for the solution.

Live Simply – as in uncluttered?
Get rid of all peripheral things,
Which are? – don’t make it complicated –
get rid of all extras, things not useful,
decorations, art, music,
but we need those – really, need?
And get rid of all that belongs to the past,
all things being kept for a rainy day,
that extra car or house,
those extra books, paintings, photos,
letters from loved ones, other sentimental things,
simply unclutter your life.

Live simply – go back to a former, much simpler world.
Do away with all modern accoutrements,
They complicate life so,
Television, computers, cell phones,
Twitter, Facebook, E-mail,
Life was simpler then,
Go back.

Live simply – as in simple-minded?
Once open to endless vistas,
To a whole world of ideas, to complexity,
There is no going back,
shutting down,
the mind cannot return to being simple
once it knows a whole spectrum of possibilities.

Live Simply – as in single-minded?
As in one-track, or as in set on a single goal?
Not being drawn aside by anyone or anything,
Or heading in one direction
but having time for others along the way?
But is that being single-minded?

Live Simply – as in going for a simple life-style,
Not luxurious, but simply middle-of-the-road,
No luxuries, not the most expensive,
but the cheapest that will do,
not the top of the range, but the middle.
Do away with excellence?
Or with unnecessary ostentation and show.
No bettering the neighbours,
Only in being more simple.

Live Simply – can we?
Can we really, without a drastic life-style change,
Without giving away everything,
And becoming a monk or nun - or a hermit,
And do even these live simply today?


Isobel de Gruchy

Friday, 2 September 2016

Meditation: GOOD POWER & BAD by John de Gruchy


1 Samuel 8:1-9
Acts 1:1-8

"Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them."
"You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you."

The history of humanity can be described as the story of the struggle for power, a struggle waged by individuals and nations who sought to be powerful, became powerful, and what power did to them.  It is the story of kings, princes, presidents and empires; it is also the story of business magnates, prelates, and media moguls.  As we read that history we soon discover that there is good power and bad power, just as we have learnt that there is good cholesterol and bad coexisting in our bodies.  Good power changes the world for the better, it enables life, seeks justice, builds community.  Bad power is corrupt, self-serving and destructive.  The story of the conflict between good and bad power is central to the biblical narrative whether we read about kings and prophets, or about the  followers of Jesus who received the power of the Spirit at Pentecost and began to change the world by witnessing to God's kingdom.  The story that threads through the Bible is all about the contest between the powers of this world and the power of the king who became the suffering servant in order to redeem the world and empower with his Spirit those who work for the common good.  

Let me remind you that Israel did not have a king before King Saul and King David,.  It had judges, like Samuel, who exercised authority on behalf of God and the people.  The judges did not have absolute power like the kings of the nations surrounding Israel, something perceived as a weakness by the Israelites and other nations.  When things went wrong, when war broke out, when foreigners and aliens got out of hand, when the economy slumped, the people wanted a strong leader who could make Israel great again, protect its borders, and stand up to its enemies.  Samuel exercised good and wise leadership but when he grew old, and when his sons failed to follow in his footsteps as good judges, the elders of Israel came to Samuel and demanded a king to govern them like those of other nations.  Samuel was bothered by this demand because he knew how easy it was for power to become corrupt, and how easy it would be for Israel to forsake God if they elected a king who ruled like other kings.  So Samuel asked God for his guidance.  Remarkably, God told Samuel to listen to the voice of the people.  Let them have a king if they want one, but warn them about the dangers involved, tell them that their king should reign according to God's justice and mercy. 

The story of what happened is told in the books of the Kings in the OT.  Time and again a king would be enthroned, and while he might rule wisely and well to begin with, the time invariably came when power began to corrupt.  That is why prophets arose in Israel to warn the kings and the people that the path they were on would lead to disaster.  There were some good kings, but most thought they could do as they pleased using all the resources of the land for their own enrichment.  The story is universal, it is written into the history of the nations, and continues to play itself out in our own day and our own country.  The attempt by present-day presidents to grasp hold of power is not different from that of kings in previous times, and the rise of dictatorships is the same as the rise of absolute monarchies in the past.  And people want strong leadership in times of uncertainty and change.  Give us a king they shout to rule over us.  A nation is then fortunate if it still has wise judges and courageous  prophets who have not been captured by the state, judges and prophets who insist that no one can have all the power without becoming corrupt and without the nation suffering.  This is the story of the book of Judges and the two books of Kings in the OT.  But it is also a story that has been written again and again, and is being written even now as I speak.

But notice this: power is not the problem.  Power is necessary.  A country cannot function well if there is no power invested in its leaders.  The problem is not power, but power-hungry and greedy rulers. So what is true or good power?  The message of the prophets is that God does not exercise power like a dictator.  God is a God of justice and his power is exercised in mercy and compassion.  This is the power of the Holy Spirit who speaks through the prophets and is at work in Jesus who came to proclaim good news to the poor and liberty to captives.  This is the power  given to the disciples at Pentecost to continue Jesus' ministry.  It is a power motivated by love and service, compassion and justice.

The power of God's Spirit is not, as many people assume, some kind of religious power that has to do solely with the church and human piety, the Spirit whose gifts are confined to speaking in tongues and performing miracles. The power of God's Spirit is at work in the world enabling rulers to rule wisely, enabling prophets to speak truth to power; enabling people to work for justice and serve their communities with compassion.  The power of the Spirit is given to the disciples of Jesus not just for their own spiritual benefit but for the common good, for the sake of God's ministry of reconciliation and peace.  The power of the Spirit is the power that enables people to live according to the values of God's kingdom in the life of the world.  This power, the power of the Spirit of Jesus, is the power without which we as Christians cannot fulfil our calling to seek first God's kingdom in order that the world might be saved.

John de Gruchy

Volmoed  1 September 2016