The young boy grew into a fine young man,
Quick and strong.
And God smiled.
He stayed in the temple,
And led the elders round in circles
With his questions and comments.
And God had a good chuckle.
He made a name for himself,
As teacher and healer,
In consultation with his Father,
And God looked on in pride.
They flogged him
And hung him on a cross to die.
Mocking and jeering,
While his friends all fled.
And God wept.
Written on Good Friday, 14 April, 2017
Good Friday, 14 April, 2017
Readings: Phil 2:5-8
What do you fear most? Snakes? Spiders? The dark? Being attacked and beaten up? Being in constant pain? Death? We all have fears of one sort or another that we have to deal with. We may try to push them out of sight and get on with life, or we may be overwhelmed by them and find they interfere with our lives. But fear is also there in order to help us, to keep us safe.
Too little and we get hurt;
too much and we are paralysed –
so we fear the dark,
fire, water, malevolence,
We fear our inner darkness too;
our own ability to harm and
the consequences of our actions.
Too little and we could go very wrong,
too much and we are paralysed.
The fear of God?
The great unknown,
all powerful Judge and Lord of Hosts?
Too little and we disregard
his righteousness and justice,
to our own harm:
too much and we disregard
his love and goodness
and are paralysed by despair.
And the fear of death?
We all face it,
The unknown, inevitable,
and final experience of life,
from which there is no coming back.
It is sometimes so sudden that there are no good-byes,
sometimes so prolonged and painful, could we endure it?
We are afraid.
What can we do about our fears? During Holy Week we try and enter again into the experiences of Jesus and the disciples during that first Holy Week two thousand years ago. We know the disciples were suddenly thrown into great fear and they all fled as Jesus was arrested. But was Jesus himself afraid? Was it fear that made him pray so intensely in the Garden? “My Father, if it is possible let this cup pass from me.” Then when he woke the disciples and complained that they had fallen asleep instead of keeping vigil with him, he said, “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Was he talking from his own experience? He was fully human we believe, so surely he would have felt afraid to carry through what God was asking him to do. Yet he went through with it.
We tend to think that Jesus could do it because he was God incarnate. It was the God side of him, as it were, that enabled him to face death on the cross. Maybe Paul saw how he was able to do it when he wrote to the Philippians that Jesus “emptied himself, ….and being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on the cross.”(Phil 2:7,8) Jesus didn’t cling to any of his own desires and status, but put his Father and others first, so he didn’t desperately try to save himself above all else.
Paul followed in his footsteps and gave up everything to spread the good news about Jesus. He endured persecution, imprisonment, being beaten up and left for dead. None of has been called upon to endure so much. He seems to be impervious to it all, yet he also became discouraged and afraid. We know this, because we read that God sent him a vision in Corinth, after he thought only rejection and suffering was awaiting him, and told him “do not be afraid… for I am with you.” (Acts 18: 9)
We will always have fear because it is a basic human instinct, but remembering two things may help us deal with it: firstly, we are new creatures in Christ who have emptied ourselves of the old self and secondly, we now have the Holy Spirit in us, to give us all the courage we need.
Readings: John 17:14-19
We have the privilege of living in a beautiful valley called The Heaven and Earth Valley in the Western Cape of South Africa, but we think it is firmly on the earth – we don’t these days think too much about the heaven bit. Heaven seems remote and vague. Could we sing this hymn of Charles Wesley today, “Strangers and pilgrims here below, this earth, we know, is not our place”? It ends “With joy upon our heads arise, we meet our Captain in the skies.”, which seems a bit ludicrous to us now. We feel right at home on earth, not strangers or pilgrims. Have we become so much part of the world that we forget, as Jesus said, that we are “in the world but not of it”? How can we live as good Christians in the world without being part of it? Without setting it at naught?
Many before us have wrestled with this, Julian of Norwich being one of them. She saw that the world was created by God yet it needs to be “despised as nothing” by us in order to love and have the uncreated God, and to be united to him. This is because we look for our rest in the created world in which there is no rest. We can only find our true rest in God. (Julian of Norwich: Showings, Chapter 5) This led me to write the following as I wrestled with this contradiction.
How to live in this world,
And to love this world because God made it,
And yet to set it at naught,
To long only for God and his goodness –
That is the big question.
For I only have this world to live in,
I need to use and enjoy the things of this world,
The natural things of the earth,
And those made by human mind and hand.
I’m not a hermit or a recluse,
But part of today’s society,
Fully immersed, fully participating.
How could I set it at naught?
Where does one draw the line?
No longer exult in the beauty of the world,
The mountains, the ocean, the flora?
Reject all new technology?
Or embrace it and use it,
But run the risk of being seduced by it?
Where is the boundary of “the world”?
Is it even possible?
To live in the world,
And yet set at naught the things of the world?
That is my question
And I have no sure answer.
Maybe there is an answer that lies partly in our awareness and partly in our commitment. Do we ever think through this issue? Or do we just happily live as a citizen of this world with all its values and standards. Are we aware of how much Jesus turned them upside down? “You have heard it said…….but I say to you…..” Awareness leads to being open to rethink our way of being.
What are we committed to? What have we given our hearts to? To Julian it was to “the uncreated God” in whom she could find true rest and to whom she wanted to be united. She commits herself in a prayer of dedication which is as tough to say with meaning as it is lovely.
God, in your goodness, give me yourself,
For you are all I long for and need.
Anything less would not be enough –
I would always be conscious of want.
Only in you do I find everything.
Maybe if God was all we long for and need, the rest would take care of itself.
Readings: Matthew 26: 69-75.
Most of us are probably on Facebook and have umpteen “friends” all over the world. We can see day by day what each one is doing, that is, if you and your friends post your activities on Facebook. Some post anything and everything with great openness, others are more reticent. This could go back to the personality differences we mentioned earlier, extroverts and introverts, or the generation gap. Young people today seem to be much more open with their feelings and ideas than the previous generation.
Is it any easier therefore in our day to be frank and open about our allegiance to Christ? Maybe in a tangential way we can slip it in on Facebook through posting what we think about certain issues – our “friends” will understand. But the crunch comes when we find ourselves in a hostile environment, among people who think differently from us – those who pooh-pooh the very idea of God, those who are hedonists and have no conscience to bother them, those who are on the opposite end of the political spectrum, and those who vehemently defend their own interpretation of the Bible as the only acceptable one. Can one, and if so, how can one speak out in those circumstances?
Both the readings from Scripture refer to Jesus-followers finding themselves among opponents. After Jesus was arrested and brought into the headquarters of the religious authorities and Peter was confronted as being one of his followers, he panicked, and did the intuitive thing – saved his own skin. He was thrown into a situation for which he was totally unprepared. Would we have done differently? In the second reading from Luke’s Gospel, Jesus foresees a time when the disciples will themselves will face hard times because of him, and they should be prepared. In Luke chapter 12 he says that when they are hauled before the rulers or the authorities, the Holy Spirit will come to their aid and teach them what they ought to say. (vs 11, 12)
This doesn’t mean that we are not to do anything to prepare ourselves. Our whole life is now different as we live day by day as Christians and we are day by day, as Paul says, renewing our mind. So we can and should prepare ourselves. First of all it helps if we have worked through in our own minds what we actually believe: about our faith, about current affairs, about the way we interpret the Scriptures. We may be questioned about our faith by someone who genuinely wants to know or by someone opposed to it. Could you say, if asked, or interject into a conversation, why it is that you believe in God, and in the God who cares enough about us to do something about our guilt and pain? It doesn’t require some highbrow intellectual argument. People respond more to genuine commitment and compassion than to a triumphant winning of an argument.
Or we might be called upon to stand out in a group by standing up for what we believe is right, against the others. They are dismissing certain moral standards as being old-fashioned and we believe they still apply. They are buying pirated music discs and we know it is wrong. They are mocking someone because of their colour or background and we think that it is cruel. What do we do? Keep quiet and sneak away? Or say something to make them think again? We need the help and strength of the Spirit and the commitment to stand up for our faith, no matter what, and if we want to speak out, the Spirit will give us the words to say.
Reading: Romans 12:3-8; 14:10-12
Henry Ford is quoted as saying that when choosing one of his motor cars, you could have any colour you wanted as long as it was black. Now we have such a choice as boggles the mind. Different makes, to begin with; Toyotas, BMWs, Hyundais, Fords, and many more. Then there are different models and having decided on a model there is a choice of colours. – maybe. Often we are back to Ford’s choice, which in SA is usually white. But a car is still a car.
The same is true of people. We vary tremendously. We come from different races, different cultures, different religious backgrounds. On top of that we have different personality types, extroverts, introverts, with different talents, some musical, some good at organisation. And so we could go on. But a person is still a person. We can sometimes meet Christians who differ from us in all sorts of ways, yet we still feel a bond with them. We have had such who come and stay on Volmoed and we feel as though we have been friends forever. Or we can meet Christians who seem alien, who we don’t want to be with. We have had such here as well. Why do we react negatively to them? We sense something in them at odds with what we can also call, along with Paul, “the mind of Christ Jesus”. It is their spirit. They are judgmental, uncaring, full of themselves. We sense it in the long run even if we are at first more accepting.
Now we are put to the test. In judging them or anyone else we meet, are we being judgmental? And is there a difference between judging someone else and being judgmental? The answer begins in verse 3 of Romans chapter 12: “not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment.” I know we do mostly belittle ourselves, laughing off any praise we receive. Sometimes some of us do under-rate ourselves, and others on the other hand, pretend to under-rate themselves but secretly still think too much of their abilities and status. Do we listen to the Spirit and the community of faith so that we come to what Paul calls a sober judgment of ourselves?
And forming a sober judgment about others? Again we need the discernment of the Spirit and the help of the community of faith, as long as the community is led by the true spirit. And how do we tell this? By the hall-mark of Christians – their love for one another. If it is love that rules, then the rest, truth and good judgment, will follow.
In this Julian of Norwich agrees. “Here we may see that Christ himself is that love, and does to us as he teaches us to do; for he wishes us to be in undiminished, everlasting love towards ourselves and our fellow Christians; but we must unreservedly hate sin and endlessly love the soul as God loves it.” (Julian of Norwich, Showings, chapter 40)
Just as we “tell the truth in love” we judge others in love. Just as we “do to others as we would want them to do to us”, so we judge others as we ourselves would want to be judged. And always we listen to the leading of the Spirit.
Reading: Romans 12: 1,2
Some of us are lucky to have babies in the family and to see them often as they grow up. Watching them learn to talk is fascinating. First they attempt to copy the sounds they hear in a stream of meaningless noises. Then the moment they say ta-ta or mama and realize it means something – that ta-ta goes with a wave of the hand and mama with the person who feeds them – is joyful for them and us. But that is not enough, and they want to learn more and more through constant babble with confirmation and encouragement from others. And as we know there is no end to learning.
Does this apply to our Christian life as well? Not that the two are separate, and should be kept apart, but we have seen how we are new creatures in Christ and constantly need to be aware that we should be such in every aspect of our lives. It is not business as usual, except we go to church on Sundays. We are now always open to learn new ways of being Christ’s disciples. Learning with our minds so we change the way we understand ourselves and our world and learning new ways of emotional and spiritual being.
Paul gives four points in his letter to the Romans in the passage above:
- Present your bodies to God as a spiritual worship. Body and spirit go together. What is spiritual is also physical. It is what we do in our every-day lives. For instance, when I get irritated with someone, is it the old me that responds or have I learnt new ways of dealing with my irritation? How do I treat my body in relation to indulging it or keeping it in good shape? These are both also Christian decisions.
- Do not be conformed to this world. Your life must not be a copy of the rest of human-kind, even though our society is based on Christian values, it has often moved far from them. How so I see use of the army to keep us safe? What about the wages of unskilled workers? How do I make other ethical choices? These are not always straight-forward and so we need to learn from each other with careful thought. The popular view is seldom right.
- Be transformed by the renewing of your minds. Your mind is spiritual too. It leads the way in transformation. What do you fill your mind with? How do you use it? That matters. How do I learn how to read the Bible with integrity?
- The aim of this is to act in good and acceptable and perfect ways. That is according to what God wants. That seems an unattainable aim. But are we able we keep it in mind and strive to attain it?
The rest of the chapter is a list of ways in which Christians should act. Read through it – it’s a good check list. It starts with how we live with other Christians and goes on to living with those who do not believe, even those who set out to harm us. It is something that does not come easily. It takes a lifetime of purposeful growth.
Reading: Jeremiah 7:8-15
My sister and brother-in-law had just left after we had spent the weekend with them and their family. It was such a fun-filled time together. That evening we had a phone call to tell us that a good friend, who we regard as close enough to be our daughter, was in hospital and had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. We were knocked sideways and sat dazed, staring at each other. It took us back, of course, to the day we received news of our son’s tragic death. How do we deal with tragedies like this? – And at one time or another we all face them.
Did God do it? Is it God’s will? Should we accept it as such? Julian of Norwich, who I find a great help, was led to see that “God does everything that is done”. She found it difficult to think that way and so do I. God surely isn’t behind the tragedies that happen.
The Israelites to whom Jeremiah addressed his word, believed rather that the bad things that happened were a punishment for sin. Because the nation had forsaken God he would bring down disaster on them. I don’t see things panning out like that either.
So how can we explain suffering and pain to help us endure it? Is it that God allows it? Julian of Norwich says of those bad things,
“For those things which are in God’s foreseeing wisdom since before time, which duly and to his glory he always guides to their best conclusion, as things come about.”..
We put bad happenings down to chance because we are blind and ignorant, she says and goes on,
“For I know well that in our Lord’s sight there is no chance; and therefore I was compelled to admit that everything which is done is well done, for our Lord God does everything.”
The bottom line is that we can’t explain why tragedy happens, and we are never likely to. For we don’t have the foreseeing wisdom that God has, and we are caught in the blindness of sin.
We can cry out – and we do “Why, why, why??” but there are no answers. Why did God make Jesus die? Or why did he allow Jesus to die? We no longer see a line from sin to punishment in tragedy. We don’t know why it happens – and certainly can’t see that it is for the best.. We can only know that the end result is for or can be for our benefit, and that it is all done because God loves us.
Lord, I try to understand life and the things that happen
With my mind,
With the insights that have grown over the years:
I try to avoid an emotional response:
I try to avoid being sucked into the rumours and
Fears of the secular world,
I look for your presence,
For your hand at work:
But I am feeble and blind
And it is dark,
So very dark.
Lord, you are God,
The God who made us and everything there is.
Are you in everything you made?
Does your hand still hold it all in love?
Direct it to the end you have purposed for it?
With the same power and wisdom and love
With which you made it?
Julian felt greatly tested when this insight came to her,
And so do I.
Could she accept this?
When so much she saw showed the opposite;
A world God-forsaken, like ours.
In a leap of faith, she believed
And so do I, but….
Help me Lord,
It is dark,
So very dark,
And I am feeble and blind.
May some comfort and acceptance come to us when tragedy strikes and may we find the good that comes from it and not fall into despair.
The first story in the Bible is the story of Adam and Eve disobeying God, and the need for God to forgive them. The second story is of their two sons, and the jealousy between them which leads to Cain murdering his brother Abel, and the need for forgiveness between people. The whole Bible is the story of how these two needs played themselves out in the life of the human race, and in particular among the Hebrew people. The solution is there, but are we any nearer putting it into practice?
We read in our papers day by day of murders, and the victim’s family calling for the perpetrator to “rot on jail”, or for the death penalty to be re-instated. One group of people, at this time it is Isis, must be “wiped off the face of the earth”. The victim of some awful act declares, “I could never find it in my heart to forgive them.” These are so often Christians or so-called Christian nations talking.
Is that the Christian way? The way of the Spirit of Christ? Do any of you know the story of Amy Biehl? In 1993, at the height of the protests against the Apartheid Government of South Africa, she was in Gugulethu trying to help out, when she was attacked by a black mob and stabbed and stoned to death. Her parents did find it in their hearts to forgive her killers. They were Christians who believed and put into practice the words of Jesus to forgive. They went even further – they sought out their daughter’s killers and met them and told them that they forgave them. The result was not only the freeing of Amy’s parents from their anger and devastation. True, it never brought their daughter back, but it did turn around the lives of those young men, and subsequently many others. They went on to found the Amy Biehl Foundation to foster Human Rights. So they not only stopped the spiral of violence but they set things going in another direction, a direction better for all.
It is mostly, though, the everyday annoyances that endlessly repeat themselves that wear us down and build resentment which lies like a hard rock within us. We cannot express how we feel because we are subject to the person or organisation that daily annoys or even humiliates us. What then? Here is where a changed life makes a difference and the fruits of the Spirit show themselves. It doesn’t matter to our well-being what others may do. What matters is that we are children of God, our dignity and worth stem from that. Love, joy peace, and all the other fruits of the Spirit grow despite what others may say and do. We start a spiral of happiness. Forgiving frees us to love, find joy and peace, and finding love, joy and peace helps us to forgive further.
That sounds great in theory. It is remembering it day by day when those angers or irritations arise. Yes, it is a daily turning aside from them and calling on something, someone – the Spirit deep within – to carry us through – over and over and over.
Reading: Ephesians 4:14-16, 25-27
Most of us saw the film Florence Foster Jenkins at the March Movie Night here on Volmoed. Did you perhaps see it? It portrays the 1940s New York socialite of that name who dreams of becoming an opera star. Her voice is dreadful but she doesn’t know it and her wealthy husband does everything in his power to indulge her fantasies and keep the truth from her. I was left wondering at the end why she wasn’t gently told the truth much earlier and encouraged to develop her other talents.
We are often confronted with the same dilemma, on a smaller scale. “How do I look?” says your friend. You think she looks awful in that outfit, but she obviously thinks it looks wonderful. What do you do? Is the truth important enough to say it and deflate her? Or should you let her loose on the public looking like that? There might be something that your friend makes, or does or says often that you do not like, yet find it difficult to say so.
Speak the truth in love, says our Bible reading, but is it always best to tell the truth straight out? Or should one dodge the issue, play along with the deception, as Florence’s husband did? And once we start, it becomes much harder later to tell. It is not easy to know what is best, especially if you care about the person.
I wrote a poem after I had been wrestling with this problem for some time.
Saying the Truth
I want to tell you how I feel:
I want to say I disagree;
to say, in fact, I think you’re wrong.
and yet, I always hesitate.
The thing I want to say to you,
now irritates me like the grit
that’s worked into the oyster’s shell,
but never will become a pearl.
It’s much more like the worm that’s
growing deep inside the fruit,
that in the end infects the whole.
I want to share this all with you.
The thoughts unspoken are one thing,
but once they’re clothed in words,
and then set free upon the air,
how will they come across to you?
I might be free but you are hurt,
and if you are, I can’t be free.
I might have just transferred the worm,
so now you feel all rotten too.
They say the truth will set you free,
and always speak the truth in love,
but would it really help to say
that I am right and you are wrong?
So when I see you next I think
I’m really going to tell you now.
the moment comes and then it’s gone:
I couldn’t let it out somehow.
And so I wonder, is it me?
My lack of courage, or of will?
Or is it that I hear God’s voice,
“Just bury this one, let it go.”?
Where are we coming from if we are battling with this kind of problem? I was sure that I saw the truth and my friend didn’t. Isn’t this arrogant? Doesn’t this lead to all sorts of problems? Yes and no.
We need to decide what is true and stand up for that. We need to beware of the falsehood that masquerades as truth – and there is masses of that. But above all we need to act for the good of the body, and promote its growth, for, says our passage, we are members of one another.
So let us always be led by the Spirit and put first, before all else, love.
Readings: Jeremiah 7: 23-28
John 8: 31 If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.
John 14:6: I am the way, and the truth and the life.
We are bombarded with information from all sides. Jacob Zuma has sacked Previn Gordhan as Finance Minister. Jacob Zuma wanted to sack Previn Gordhan but he was prevented from doing so. The Russians definitely interfered with the American elections. The Americans have killed hundreds of civilians in Mosul in Syria. Isis killed the civilians and are blaming it on the Americans. Smoking causes cancer. The Banting diet is very harmful to our health. It is a waste of money to take vitamin pills. There is no such thing as global warming. Religion has caused more harm to people than anything else. There is no God. Which of the above are true? How do we know? What we need is an internal truth-gauge.
How we respond to the news determines our outlook and attitude to events and others, and conversely, our attitude and opinions determine whether we accept what we are told as true or not. If we believe that, for instance, the DA leaders are involved in corruption in The Nelson Mandela Bay Metropole as the news tells us, then we won’t vote for them next time. And if we are staunch DA members, we will not accept that that news story is true. If we believe that, as we are told, there is a conspiracy to murder all farmers in our area, then we will be terrified and look with suspicion on all who look like the alleged perpetrators. Lies breed unrest, dissatisfaction, and in the end hatred and violence. And, as Obama said in one of his farewell speeches on talking of Fake News, “most people accept only the facts that fit with their opinions and disregard the rest”.
So how do we know what is true? We can sort out the false only up to a certain point. The clue is in the two verses above. Jeremiah says that in not obeying God, and not being under the discipline of God, the truth dies. Jesus is even clearer. Continue in his word and we will have the truth and it will set us free. Jesus also said he was the truth. He is lived truth. Truth is not just words but an orientation of our lives – authentic, of integrity, nothing sham or false. We also have the Holy Spirit. One of the gifts that he gives is discernment. If ever we needed that gift it is now.
So, in the face of the stream of news that confronts us, be sceptical. Don’t jump to conclusions. Check up, if you can, on what you have heard. Don’t panic. Don’t let your prejudices or your opinions cloud the facts.
And know that we can never find out the real truth about some things – many things, that go on behind closed doors and behind the backs of even the most prominent news-makers. And don’t base your decisions only on external information. Base them, rather, on being a disciple of Christ. Follow him and listen to the Holy Spirit within you. And do not be afraid because “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (Rom 8:37)