God's Word for today

Friday, 26 December 2008

Reflecting on Christmas

I have been trying for the last three hours to reflect on what Christmas 2008 has meant to me, and it has proved to be a most difficult task.

The major change this year has been being in a different place to previous years, having already relocated to my Phase One station in Uitenhage. In previous years Christmas has always been an "at home" affair for my family, and it's not since our honeymoon some 17 years ago that my wife and I have spent Christmas anywhere but at "home".

I need to however place the word "home" in perspective. For my wife, son, and mother, "home" is still going to be Joburg for the near-foreseeable future until such point my moves become less frequent than they are in the early phases of probation. Yet I am somewhat torn in my sense of "home", for if home is meant to be where the heart is, then in family terms "home" will be in Joburg, yet in ministry terms "home" is here in Uitenhage - for the next year, at least.

The other thing that seemed a bit strange this year is that for so many years my local church has been like the pub in "Cheers" - a place "where everybody knows your name". While I have already met quite a few people since arriving here about 2 weeks ago, for the most part my presence at the two services we attended yesterday were punctuated by "who's that" and "is that the new Phase One" being heard around the sanctuary. While the minister who conducted the services did introduce me, I am just a guy with a piece of Tupperware around his neck to most people at this stage.

I've also been extremely slack with presents this year. While my Mom was easy to buy for (Il Divo has just released a CD), and I took the easy way out with my son by giving him some cash (towards a book, a Nintendo Wii game, or whatever), I haven't as yet got anything for my better half!

Last night I had a weird dream involving mostly friends from school. It's as though subconsciously I have re-wound my life 23 years, as I try to put my life into some form of perspective. While many of those school friends would have known that I wanted to become an accountant (one of whom was responsible for the pineapple brew that I refer to in my blog profile), very few know that I have entered the ministry. I would wager that most would probably be shocked!

Now I'm sure that most of you who have stayed with me thus far in ploughing through this post must be asking: "Well, okay, he's a minister, therefore presumably he's a Christian, so where's the 'spiritual bit'? No quotes from Scripture, or lengthy discourses on the Christmas Day sermon?" Well, to be honest, this year it hasn't really "felt" like Christmas to me, probably because of all the changes that are taking place in my life right now.

But one of the things that was mentioned in yesterday's message is that, unlike the words to "Silent Night" may seem to indicate, all was NOT calm when Jesus came to the earth. A young woman becomes pregnant, and despite her child having beeen conceived by the Holy Spirit, she would still have had to deal with the taunts and stigma of one who became pregnant before her wedding day. Then the government decided to conduct a census, forcing the young family to travel just as Mary's pregnancy reached an advanced stage. Then, as she was about to give birth, Bethlehem resembled Durban Beach on New Year's Day and there was no room to be found for love or money. The barn in which the baby Jesus was born was probably not the serene image presented in most nativity scenes - cows, sheep, and goats are NOT the quietest creatures around! Then to add insult to injury, Herod reacts to the perceived threat to his earthly throne in the most dramatic way possible by issuing an order to have all infant boys killed, resulting in another relocation (this time to Egypt)!

So for me, the message of Christmas 2008 is not "silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright" (although I normally love singing this carol). Rather, this year Jesus has once again made Himself real to me by showing that in the midst of chaos and turmoil, that's the moment that He chooses to reveal His presence. Just over 2000 years ago, this presence was in the form of a humble child, born into chaos, to become not only the greatest teacher the world has ever known, but also "the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sins of the world".

Thank You, Lord Jesus, for being there in the midst of chaos.

Sunday, 21 December 2008


No visit to Uitenhage is complete without taking a trip to the Volkswagen factory, and particularly their stunning museum. Admission is however ridiculously expensive - R5 for adults, and R2 for kids and pensioners (great value for those of us on a Phase One stipend!).

Here are some pics from Veedubland...

Check out this cool 50s-style roadhouse, where you could get an "Elvis Burger" for R1.50 if the place was open...

This 1972 Beetle was kept in storage by its original owner, before being purchased for the museum by VW South Africa. It has a geniune 931 km on the clock. My offer of R10 000 was turned down...

Check out this cool beach buggy. I gotta get me one of these!

Camping in a Volksiebus

Q is NOT going to like this...

Out of the blocks...

Life has become nicely settled in Uitenhage now. After nearly two weeks, I have been to a few services, met some of the stewards, found the local Spar, Pick n Pay, KFC, and "wishy-washy" (laundromat to those who don't speak Joburg South), and started to make some headway in my germ warfare against the Uitenhage Mosquito Choir.

And although I am not "officially" on duty until 31 December 2008, when I will be conducting the Watchnight service at John Street (a stunning old church building in the centre of town), I have not only assisted my Superintendent in two Communion services, but this weekend I had the privilege of conducting a funeral service (yesterday), and a morning worship (today), both at St George's (no, not the cricket ground, but I'll be there on Boxing day - watching cricket, that is, not preaching).

While I hate using racial labels, it's sometimes necessary to place a church community in its geographical context. St George's is one of the preaching places in a section of the Winterhoek Circuit referred to as the "Northern Societies", and is located in a predominantly Coloured community. The style of worship is fairly similar to what I have experienced at my former church, St Andrews in Eldorado Park, except that this community is a lot more Afrikaans-speaking than my previous one.

There is a Women's Association whose members wear what appear to be Manyano uniforms (although on closer examination there seems to be a slight difference in the white collar that goes over the red tunic, and of course the WA wears a different badge to the Manyano). Many of the men are members of the Young Mens' Guild (YMG), while in addition, the Local Preachers are members of the Local Preachers' Association. What's refreshing for me is that these members are predominantly coloured, which breaks the stereotype of these organisations within the MCSA being regarded as part of the "black MCSA". All we need now is some whiteys joining up - how about rising to the challenge, pale-faces?

Anyway, here are some pics of St George's. Others will follow shortly (when I remember to take my cellphone, that is!)

This is an old bell tower. I'm not sure when last the bell was rung, but my son needed to be physically restrained from testing it out (preachers' kids!). Perhaps I could start a tradition (similar to that in the Catholic Church in Maranello) by ringing the bell every time Lewis Hamilton wins a race in 2009?

This is the outside of the church, looking at it from the street. I didn't manage to get any pics of the inside, as I got caught up in the proceedings of the service, but the sanctuary inside is lovely. But man, is it HOT?! Especially when you are wearing a clerical shirt, black suit, AND a preaching gown, and it's over 30 degrees outside...

Friday, 19 December 2008

Why Methodism?

There has been some rather interesting (if somewhat despairing) posts appearing by various members of the British Methodist blogosphere concerning the future of the Methodist Church. But one by Richard Hall, a Methodist minister based in Wales (on his blog, connexions), was quite encouraging.

The full text of his post of the same title as this one can be found here, but there are a couple of passages that I'd like to reproduce here.

Concerning a dying Methodist Church:

People have been predicting the demise of the Methodist Church for a long time. Sooner or later, those predictions are going to come true — I can say with confidence that the Methodist Church is dying because I know for certain that the Methodist Church is not eternal. One day, just like every reader of this blog and every organisation that they might belong to, the Methodist Church will be no more.

It doesn’t matter that we’re dying. There isn’t anything anyone can do about that. Death isn’t failure. It’s an inevitable part of life. What matters is what we do with the knowledge of our mortality. That’s as true for an institutional church as it is for an individual. In any case, death and resurrection are central to the Christian gospel. To quote Will Willimon, “We serve a God who lives to raise the dead–even us. Therefore, we work with hope–not hope in ourselves and our efforts, but with hope in Christ.”

Concerning how a movement like Methodism comes into being:

If we were starting from scratch, you wouldn’t "invent" the Methodist Church. It arose, humanly speaking, by accident. John Wesley had no intention of starting a new denomination. But it was John Wesley’s own actions that made seperation from the Church of England inevitable. He put pastoral considerations ahead of Church order: by consecrating Thomas Coke as a Superintendent for the work in North America, Wesley opened a can of worms which led to the creation of the Methodist Church. It might not have been Wesley’s intention, but ‘blame’ for the Methodist Church most definitely belongs to him.

Concerning why people like Richard Hall, and I, and many others, are attracted to the Methodist Church as their "spiritual home"

It’s that pragmatism that continues to attract me to the Methodist Church. The truth is, the people called Methodist are apt to act first and do the theological thinking afterward. The way I read it, every significant development in the life of the church has been driven by practicalities rather than the outcome of a theology. One example will have to suffice. The Methodist Church in Britain has a body of lay preachers who are the envy of other denominations. On any given Sunday of the year, most Methodist pulpits in Britain will be occupied by the Local Preachers, trained, tested and authorized by the church for the conduct of worship and the preaching of the gospel. But the office of the Local Preacher was not dreamt up as a response to thinking through the implications of the ‘priesthood of all believers’. It came about because there simply weren’t enough ordained preachers to serve the growing number of Methodist societies. Pragmatism, not theology, called the shots. Since that time we have developed a robust theology of lay preaching and I would argue that our Local Preachers are a model to which the wider church should pay particular attention.

Richard closes by stating the following: The Methodist Church remains for many a place where God’s love is found and shared. That’s what excites me about the church, what keeps me within it despite its many shortcomings. Of course, God’s love is to be found in many other places too. But the people called Methodist are my spiritual family. That’s not a bond I’d give up lightly.

I often feel that I have a "love / hate" relationship with the Methodist Church here in South Africa, for indeed, like its British counterpart, the MCSA has its own piccadilloes. Having said that, there is no such thing as a "perfect church", and anyone who were to find one would defile it by joining it! But despite the trying times that one experiences in an organisation as large and diverse as the MCSA, it is for the above reasons (and many others) that I am proud to be a Methodist, and humbled to be training as a minister within her ranks.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Life's a beach!

This is what ministers living at the coast do on their days off...

Bureaucrats ... gotta love 'em!

I have spent most of my life dealing with some or other form of bureaucracy, ranging from parental (Mom: "Ask Dad" - Dad: "Ask Mom"), to school and university, to places like the South African Revenue Service (painful at times), the Johannesburg Metro Call Centre (impossible most of the time).

Naturally, being the size and complexity that it is, the Methodist Church of Southern Africa is no different. Anyone who has tried to get a building project approved will have experienced what it is like to move from proposal stage among the society stewards, then to the church council, then the Circuit Quarterly Meeting, and if everyone hasn't bolted through the doors like gibbering idiots by then, onward to the District Trust Property Committee. Finally, if it manages to squeak through there, the proposal then heads off to the Presiding Bishop's office for final approval. Any flaws picked up anywhere in the process results in the whole thing being sent back, and with the various meetings being held on a quarterly basis, if one doesn't get all the "I"s dotted and the "T"s crossed, such a process can take a very, VERY long time!

But when I received this through the e-mail, I was heartened to learn that ours is by no means the worst bureaucracy around!


The US standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. That's an exceedingly odd number.

Why was that gauge used? Because that's the way they built them in England and English expatriates built the US railroads.

Why did the English build them like that? Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways, and that's the gauge they used.

Why did 'they' use that gauge then? Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they used for building wagons, which used that wheel spacing.

Why did the wagons have that particular odd wheel spacing? Well, if they tried to use any other spacing, the wagon wheels would break on some of the old, long distance roads in England, because that's the spacing of the wheel ruts.

So who built those old rutted roads? Imperial Rome built the first long distance roads in Europe (and England) for their legions. The roads have been used ever since.

And the ruts in the roads? Roman war chariots formed the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match for fear of destroying their wagon wheels. Since the chariots were made for Imperial Rome, they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing. Therefore the United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches is derived from the original specifications for an Imperial Roman war chariot. Bureaucracies live forever.

So the next time you are handed a Specification / Procedure / Process and wonder 'What horse's ass came up with it?' you may be exactly right. Imperial Roman army chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the rear ends of two war horses. (Two horses' asses). Now, the twist to the story:

When you see a Space Shuttle sitting on its launch pad, there are two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These are solid rocket boosters, or SRB's. The SRB's are made by Thiokol at their factory in Utah. The engineers who designed the SRB's would have preferred to make them a bit fatter, but the SRB's had to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site. The railroad line from the factory happens to run through a tunnel in the mountains, and the SRB's had to fit through that tunnel. The tunnel is slightly wider than the railroad track, and the railroad track, as you now know, is about as wide as two horses' behinds.

So, a major Space Shuttle design feature of what is arguably the world's most advanced transportation system was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of a horse's ass. And you thought being a horse's ass wasn't important? Ancient horse's asses control almost everything... and CURRENT Horses Asses are controlling everything else.

Aren't we glad that in Christ there is no bureaucracy involved - we have direct access to God! Thank You, Lord, for always being there for us.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

About Uitenhage

To kick off this first phase of my ministry in the town of Uitenhage, where I have been posted as a Phase One probationer for 2009, I thought I'd share some information about the town itself.

My acknowledgements to Wikipedia and The Uitenhage Blog for the following information:

Jacob Abraham Uitenhage de Mist, after whom the town of Uitenhage was named, was a Dutch statesman who lived from 20 April 1749 – 3 August 1823. He was Head of State of the National Assembly of the Batavian Republic from 17 April - 1 May 1797 and Commissioner-General of the Cape Colony during the interregnum from 21 February 1803 - 25 September 1804 in accordance with the short-lived Treaty of Amiens. The Cape Colony had been under Dutch control from 1652. In 1795 it was occupied by the British following the Battle of Muizenberg, but under the final terms of peace between Great Britain, France and the Netherlands – then the Batavian Republic – in 1802, the colony was restored to the Batavian Republic

The Batavian States-General resolved that the executive and legislative authority of the Cape Colony should be committed to a governor and a council of four members, of whom one at least should be by birth or long residence a colonist. The governor was to be also commander of the troops. The high court of justice was to be independent of the other branches of the government, and was to consist of a president and six members, all of them versed in the law. Trade with the possessions of the Batavian Rebublic everywhere was to be subject only to a very small duty. With these principles as a basis, the task of drawing up a plan of administration was entrusted to de Mist, an advocate of high standing and a member of the council for the Asiatic possessions and establishments.

The document prepared by de Mist gave such satisfaction that he was sent out to receive the colony from the English, install the Dutch officials, and make such regulations as he might find necessary. A very able military officer and man of high moral worth – Lieutenant-General Jan Willem Janssens – was appointed governor and was also commander-in-chief of the garrison for which three thousand one hundred and fifty soldiers were provided, and councillors and judges were selected.

de Mist reached Cape Town on the 23rd of December 1802, and next morning went to reside in the Castle of Good Hope. On the 30th, General Dundas issued a proclamation absolving the inhabitants of the colony from the oath of allegiance to His Britannic Majesty (George III) on and after the 1st of January 1803. After a temporary withdrawal of the order to hand over control, at sunset on the evening of Sunday the 20th of February 1803 the English guards were relieved by Dutch soldiers, and next morning the Batavian flag was hoisted on the castle.

After making himself acquainted with the condition of the county, de Mist announced that it would be his duty to prepare a charter which, however, would require ratification by the States-General.

In February 1804, de Mist issued a proclamation which formed several wards of the colony into a new district, and Uitenhage was founded on 25 April 1804 by landdrost (district magistrate) Jacob Glen Cuyler, and named in honour of the Cape's Commissioner-General Jacob Abraham Uitenhage de Mist by the Dutch Cape Colony governor, Jan Willem Janssens.

In July 1804 a proclamation was published by de Mist declaring that all religious societies that worshipped an Almighty Being were to enjoy equal protection under the law, and that no civil privileges were to be attached to any creed. This ordinance also provided for the establishment of schools under control of the government and not belonging to any religious body. Another ordinance of De Mist had reference to marriage and ended the need to travel to Cape Town to obtain a marriage licence and be married by a clergyman. The ordinance permitted couples to be married by a landdrost and two heemraden. However, when the Cape Colony was reoccupied by the British in 1806 at the end of the interregnum, the provisions of the proclamation were annulled and not re-established until 1820. These freedoms today form an integral part of the South African Constitution.

The pronunciation of the town's name depends on whether your home language is English or Afrikaans. The Afrikaans pronunciation, “ay-tin-haach-uh” (the “ch” as in “loch”), favours the original Dutch, while English speakers mostly pronounce it “yoo-tin-haig”.

Uitenhage formed from part of the district of Graaff-Reinet (shortly after its short-lived secession), and in 1877 it became a municipality and remained so until 1994 when it was incorporated with Port Elizabeth and Despatch into the Nelson Mandela Bay Metropolitan Municipality.

Located only 35 km from Port Elizabeth, today Uitenhage is a thriving industrial and commercial town, and is home to Volkswagen of South Africa (Pty) Ltd, one of three motor manufacturers in the Eastern Cape. Tyre manufacturer Goodyear also has a large factory in Uitenhage, and the two form the nucleus of an automotive supplier park in which various suppliers manufacture automotive components as well as offering various automotive-related services.

The surrounding area also encompasses the pristine Groendal Wilderness Area, that provides a host of eco-outdoor activities. The Addo Elephant National Park is also nearby.

Many notable people hail from Uitenhage, including anti-apartheid campaigner Rev Allan Hendrickse, Olympic pole-vaulter Okkert Brits, former Proteas cricketer Mornantau Hayward, and the first black female in the world to climb Mount Everest, Deshun Deysel.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

City Power's VAT rip-off

"Do not use dishonest standards when measuring length, weight or quantity. Use honest scales and honest weights, an honest ephah [dry measure] and an honest hin [liquid measure]. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt." (Leviticus 19: 35-36, NIV)

"... and he [Jesus] asked them, 'Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?' 'Caesar's', they replied. Then he said to them, 'Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's'." (Matthew 22: 20-21, NIV)

I was busy paying some bills, and when I had a look at my utility bill from the City of Johannesburg, I noticed that the VAT calculation appeared to be incorrect. So incorrect, in fact, that instead of being charged the statutory rate of 14%, the amount charged worked out to something closer to 59%!

With the image of Jesus chasing the moneychangers out of the Temple in mind, I wrote an article on MoneywebTax outlining my findings. You can read the full article by clicking here.

Judging by the comments listed underneath the article, this problem seems to be widespread. The accounts that I've personally investigated (apart from my own) include a pensioner and one of our churches, and in each case the VAT overcharge ranges between 28% and 60%. Now I don't have a problem paying the VAT (see Matthew scripture above), but I DO have a problem when it is incorrectly calculated. Not only is this in contravention of the VAT Act, but by disclosing the VAT charge as 14% but charging a different amount, this is tantamount to fraud as well.

Since this issue is likely to affect members of our congregations, our churches themselves, and - most importantly - the poorest of the poor, please bring this to the attention of your congregations and leaders (particularly those involved with finance).

So far I'm only aware of this happening in the area serviced by the Johannesburg City Council, but other areas may be similarly affected.

At the moment I'm working with Moneyweb on this one, and am hoping to bring Talk Radio 702 on board as well. I've also informed the South African Revenue Service, who will hopefully investigate the matter as well. Trying to get through to City Power's call centre is proving to be impossible, so I'm hoping that through media exposure they will come to the party and pass correcting entries across the board.

If anyone in the blogosphere has "connections in high places" at City Power, please bring this matter to their attention. It would also be great if the MCSA could exert its considerable influence as well, particularly given the mission imperatives of "Justice and Service" as well as "Development and Economic Empowerment".

Lost in paradise?

I subscribe to a weekly small business e-mail written by Peter Carruthers called Petesweekly.com. Peter runs a training business for entrepreneurs, and is best known for his "Crashproof Your Business" seminars aimed at helping small business owners to structure their businesses correctly, market their services, and manage their business finances.

However, this week's mail prompted me to post it on my blog, since no doubt countless others have found themselves in a similar situation. I have added a few bits in brackets to place the mail in its context.

I was sitting at a restaurant in the V&A Waterfront [in Cape Town] on Sunday. It was good to be home. My daughter found a wonderful man to marry, and that was a great excuse to be back in paradise.

Until, that is, I had to pay the bill. Some entrepreneurial person had skillfully abducted my PC backpack.

I will miss the bag. It was the best I have found in 25 years of travel. I will miss the Apple laptop inside it. As well as my wallet with my insulin, blood test kit, credit cards, and cash in three languages, which is also gone. As is my 3G card, new mouse, in-earphones, and Cross sterling silver pencil (which even survived a few abduction efforts by Sheriffs back in the early nineties). Even the key to the AVIS rental car went walkabout.

All of which is not a problem. Almost everything I do is online, so the data loss is almost insignificant. Getting copies of the seminar and arranging another Mac for the presentation on Monday was easy, courtesy of a few wonderful friends and clients. (Thanks Donald and Liezl of C&S Audio.) Finding a tiny PC to access the Web - fairly simple.

The problem: The loss of my SA (and only) passport. Suddenly, going home as planned is impossible
[Peter currently lives in the UK] . The UK does not accept temporary SA passports any longer. It will take another few days before my ID Book arrives via DHL and I can start the process of applying for a new passport.

This means I am stuck in town for a while. Anything from three days to ten weeks, depending who is speaking.

Of course, if there is a good place to be stranded for almost three months, Cape Town would be close to the top of my list. I have children, siblings and a parent stretched across the peninsula.

But I want to be at home for Christmas, with my wife, some mulled wine, maybe a little snow, and my kids wrecking the inside of my home and using the trifle as finger paint. Sleigh bells ringing, and a few malamutes towing Santa. (No reindeer since the last blue tongue scare, while the camels they used in his pageant last year apparently made an unseasonal mess.)

One reads that crime is commonplace in SA at this time, but on the wane. However, I appear to be the only person in the known universe who has had this kind of challenge. I say this because Mall Security were quite relaxed about my challenges. It seems that the cameras where I was seated were non-functional - something to do with renovations that were completed a while back.

My requests to secure the AVIS vehicle to prevent its theft were greeted with the kind of tsk tsk I give my Mom when she gets a little anxious about the sprinkler still being on at 10 at night. I contrast this approach with the effortless way that AVIS arranged a locksmith to get my luggage out and replace the vehicle within 90 minutes.

The Police arrived to take my statement. They promptly issued a case reference number, and gave me all the documentation without actually keeping any details for their own records. They seemed less interested in my plight than in my lack of Xhosa or Zulu linguistic skill.

While I was there a fellow was dragged in. He had eaten a R40 meal and could not pay. They did a heck of a lot more documentation as they charged him. I was a little embarrassed by my mere R75,000 loss.

When I queried the process, I was asked to rewrite my statement on a blank piece of paper. This would, I was assured, be entered into the official ledger at a later stage. My case number reflects a mere 26 incidents at the centre for the month. At least three of which were within this same Sunday morning.

I am not hopeful that they will find any of my stuff. And if they do, I doubt they will be able to find me.

So, there I was, wandering through South Africa's premier shopping mall and tourist destination, having just lost everything I need to be functional in SA (with the exception of a mobile phone). No offer of any resources to gather the bits of my life together again. Somewhere to sit and get transport, arrange card cancellation, etc would have really helped, for example.

Maybe it was that I sounded like a South African and should know that Africa is not for sissies. Not that I expected much, but it sure seems to me that if this does happen as often as we read about, then Mall Management should have a process to help out us folk who develop a sudden case of poverty while relaxing over a cappuccino. Of course, as we all know, the reported crime rates are steadily dropping, so I guess that such a process won't be needed much longer.

It takes a few days to hit home. Last night I tried to change my ticket with Iberia. Without a credit card (in the name of the passenger) to pay for the change, no change is possible and the ticket is forfeited. Despite what I said last week about travel agents, maybe there is a case for them after all?

Now I just need to find a nice beach to work on while I catch a tan. I too can multitask.

I end with a simple question: How prepared are you for something like this, because I feel like the world's biggest wally?

My question is this: Are we prepared for occurences such as this? Secondly, if this should happen to one of the members of our congregations, do we have the capacity, the know-how, and the compassion to help that person in a meaningful way?

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Kids in church

Gotta love these ones...

3-year-old Reese: "Our Father, Who does art in heaven, Harold is His name. Amen."

A little boy was overheard praying: "Lord, if you can't make me a better boy, don't worry about it. I'm having a real good time like I am".

After the christening of his baby brother in church, Jason sobbed all the way home in the back seat of the car. His father asked him three times what was wrong. Finally, the boy replied, "That preacher said he wanted us brought up in a Christian home, and I wanted to stay with you guys".

One particular four-year-old prayed, "And forgive us our trash baskets, as we forgive those who put trash in our baskets".

A Sunday school teacher asked her children as they were on the way to church service, "And why is it necessary to be quiet in church?" One bright little girl replied, "Because people are sleeping."

A mother was preparing pancakes for her sons, Kevin 5, and Ryan 3. The boys began to argue over who would get the first pancake.
Their mother saw the opportunity for a moral lesson. "If Jesus were sitting here, He would say, 'Let my brother have the first pancake, I can wait'."
Kevin turned to his younger brother and said, "Ryan, you be Jesus!"

A father was at the beach with his children when the four-year-old son ran up to him, grabbed his hand, and led him to the shore where a seagull lay dead in the sand. "Daddy, what happened to him?" the son asked. "He died and went to Heaven", the dad replied. The boy thought a moment and then said, "Did God throw him back down?"

A wife invited some people to dinner. At the table, she turned to their six-year-old daughter and said, "Would you like to say the blessing?" "I wouldn't know what to say", the girl replied. "Just say what you hear Mommy say", the wife answered. The daughter bowed her head and said, "Lord, why on earth did I invite all these people to dinner?"

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Lord, grant me patience...now!

I don't know about some of you, but I've never been one to back down from speaking my mind. I tend to have strong views on certain things, particularly when it comes to what I perceive to be unethical behaviour, and I've been the cause of more than one rather heated debate at Circuit Quarterly Meetings.

So much so that one of the ministers in my current Circuit advised me, during probation, to "keep my head down, my nose clean, and my mouth shut". Yeah, right - like THAT's going to happen! While I believe that I do have a healthy respect for authority, I'm also no-body's "yes-man".

But I received this prayer from a fellow member of Toastmasters (which I'll speak about more in a future post), which puts a little perspective on things.

"Lord, keep me from becoming talkative and possessed with the idea that I must express myself on every subject.

Release me from the craving to straighten out everyone's affairs

Teach me the glorious lesson that occasionally I may be wrong.

Make me helpful but not bossy.

With my vast store of wisdom and experience it does seem a pity not to use it all -

But Thou knowest, Lord that I want a few friends in the end."

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Ancient computing device?

My son James found this rather interesting-looking stone the other day, and the fertile imaginations in the Jones family have been speculating on what it may be.

This morning I think that I have found the answer - a stone-age mouse!

(I am of course open to other suggestions!)

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

On the move!

Well, it's time - two weeks left, and then I'm off to Uitenhage. I don't know how Paul felt when embarking on his first missionary journey, but I can imagine that what he felt and what I am feeling right now must be fairly similar.

This past Sunday we had Rev Brian Smith leading the service at St Andrews. Brian has been journeying with our leadership for some months, providing valuable training that will empower them to take the congregation forward, as Brian puts it, "from where you are now to where God wants you to be".

However, Brian's next words were in the form of a question to the congregation: "Do you think that this leadership is capable of taking you from where you are now to where God wants you to be?" Before the congregation could answer, Brian replied to his own question thus: "Probably not".

Before an impromptu lynch mob couuld be assembled, Brian went on to explain himself: "In our own strength, we do not have the capacity to lead anyone around the block. And the realisation thereof is scary. But just as Moses was confronted by that which gives shepherds the most fear of all - fire, so God speaks to us through our deepest fears. God does not need to call those who are equipped, because God equippes those who are called".

As I embark on the start of my personal "missionary journey" towards becoming a Methodist minister, I pray that as God has called me, so God will equip me as well. Lord, I REALLY need equipping, as I am so incapable of taking Your people from where they are now to where You want them to be...

Thursday, 13 November 2008

You in your small corner, and I in mine...

I love the Church that has just accepted me as a probationer minister, despite the quirks and issues that one has to deal with from time to time within its ranks. And I also made certain promises from the floor of Synod, including the one where I promised to go to whichever Circuit I would be sent.

But a recent read through some of the documents on the MCSA 2008 Conference website have left me a little confused. In the report entitled "Human Resources, Management, and Development", Rev Brian Smith notes that the results of a recent survey questionnaire completed by clergy has indicated that "far too many Ministers are being placed in Stations which result in separation from their spouses".

As I enter Phase One in 2009, I will be adding to the ranks of "separated ministers", as I will be leaving my family behind in Johannesburg when I relocate to Uitenhage next year. And while I'm in the fortunate position of my wife not having to seek employment outside the home (NEVER say that a housewife "doesn't work", gents!), my problem stems from the fact that my son is currently at school in Grade 4.

"So what's the problem?" you may ask. "Surely there are schools in Uitenhage?" Undoubtedly there are, as is the case in any town or city within South Africa. I've no doubt that there are many good schools where I am going, as there will be in Pietermaritzburg or virtually any place where the MCSA chooses to send me.

That's not the problem. The problem is with the disruptive nature of the placement process during probation.

Let me explain for the benefit of those who are not familiar with the process around placement of ministers within the MCSA. Normally an ordained minister would be sent to a particular station for an initial period of two years (known generally as a "Conference Appointment"). If all goes well and there is mutual agreement between the minister and their Circuit, the minister can be re-invited for a further period of up to three years (making a total of five). The minister can then be re-invited for further periods of up to five years thereafter. In this manner, despite the itinerant nature of the Methodist ministry, the individual minister can remain in one place for a reasonable period of time if need be. (For purposes of this post, I'm not discussing the "ideal" period that a minister should remain in one place - that's a different topic for another day!)

Not so when it comes to probationers. I currently live in the south of Johannesburg, approximately 15 kilometres from a Phase One training centre. However, the "powers that be" have determined that I should be sent 1 000 kilometres away to start my training at the Port Elizabeth Phase One centre. No problem so far - after all, I DID say that I would "go to whichever Circuit I am sent", and there are worse places in the world to live than near the coast!

However, the MCSA has decided that as many probationers as possible are to spend time at a residential seminary, which means that it is likely that I will be spending some time at the new Seth Mokitimi Methodist Seminary from my second year. This seminary is in Pietermaritzburg, which will mean another move of some 1 100 kilometres.

Once again I have no problem with Pietermaritzburg. I have spent some time there during my auditing days, and it looks like a pleasant enough place to live. I've also been told that there are some excellent schools there. However, after a year (or two) at college, no doubt I'll be off again to wherever the MCSA chooses to place me to complete my probation. If the experience of my colleagues is anything to go by, that is unlikely to be a "Checkers" (i.e. "just up your street") move, either.

Now herein lies the rub. My son has been in the same school for 6 years, and although he has done reasonably well since he started school, this has been the year in which he has really started to come into his own academically. At this stage of the year he is well in the running to make the Top 10 in his grade. In addition, he is an avid participant in sporting and cultural activities, and is well liked by both his teachers and his peers.

Naturally, as a parent, I would like not to disrupt this setting if at all possible. Changing schools three times in the next four years (Uitenhage in 2009, possibly Pietermaitzburg in 2010-11, and anywhere in the Connexion thereafter) is virtually guaranteed to do so.

For this reason my family and I have taken the painful (not to mention expensive) decision for them to remain behind in Johannesburg until I come towards the end of probation.

Now I KNOW that the MCSA cannot create a tailor-made situation for each and every one of its candidates. And I KNOW that I can only be sent where there is an available station. And I accept this. But given the Church's concern regarding the separation of families, this is perhaps one area that warrants further consideration?

In my case, if I could have known with reasonable certainty that I would be able to spend even three years in one area, I would not be leaving my family behind next year. As it is, we just simply cannot plan, and therefore need to make the best of a less-than-ideal situation.

However, with God's help, we'll get through this phase of the ministry journey.


Last night before going to bed, my wife and I prayed (as we generally do) that God would give us a good night's rest, ready and refreshed to tackle the next day. Well, I rested really well last night - so much so that I slept right through the mother of all storms.

This morning the devastation was plainly evident. Although the house got away with little more than a seriously good wash (which finally got all the bird poop off the roof), my office did not fare so well. Being at the bottom of a sloped stand, all the stormwater that would ordinarily have been taken by the storm drains in the street (which are currently all in various states of disrepair) rushed down the driveway and ended up 6 inches deep in my office.

Thankfully we had the foresight to put all of the files up on shelves, although the contents of one file needs some serious drying-out. But as I was baling out the office, thoughts of "The Wise Man Built His House Upon The Rock" came to mind - especially the part where we sing "The Rains Came Down And The Floods Went Up".

Isn't it strange what one remembers from Sunday School? Needless to say, while singing silly songs does not keep the water at bay, nor does shouting or crying, either.

And this got me thinking about our attitude to life - especially when things aren't going so well. In Mark 4: 35-41 we read how the storm came up when Jesus and His disciples were crossing the lake. In the midst of the storm, Jesus was asleep. Storms will come into our lives, and unlike Jesus, we may not be able to rebuke the waves. But we CAN choose how we will respond to such storms. Jesus rebuked the wind and the waves, but I'm not convinced that when He asked the disciples why they were afraid, questioning their lack of faith, it was because the disciples were unable to deal with the storm. Rather, I believe that Jesus' questions to His disciples had more to do with how they reacted to the storm.

Storms will pass, as this one surely would have as well (our Lord simply accelerated the process!). However, just as Jesus was resting in the midst of the storm, so I believe that we need to rest in Him when storms enter our lives. And if a bit of water in my office this morning served as a reminder of the One Whom I need to put my trust in, then the clean-up operation was not the waste of time it may have seemed at first.

I give thanks that God has brought me through many storms in my life - including this one - and that whatever storms I may face in future, God will be there for me and with me.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Congratulations, President-elect Obama!

... and thank you for one of the most inspiring speeches I've heard for many a year.

To hear the speech, click here.

"Yes, we can!"

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Catching up

I've had a "blog drought" for a few weeks, followed by tonights "blog flood". So please scroll down a fair bit to see all the latest posts - there are about four or five, I think. Who knows - there's three types of accountants - those who can count, and those who can't...

As an aside, I noticed that the "Verse of the Day" for today reads: “This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, who give their full time to governing.” (Romans 13:6). Nice one, BibleGateway.com - I know that these are generated randomly, but given my background in accounting and tax (not to mention that these two have just about buried me in work for the past two months as I wind down towards entering ministry full-time), it was most appropriate for me.

Being collared

This past Sunday I attended worship at St Andrews in "civvies", not expecting to be called upon to actually take any part in leading the service, so I was resplendent in my old Welsh Choir T-shirt and short pants. So imagine my embarrassment when I realised that it was the Confirmation service, with virtually the entire congregation decked out in their Sunday best.

Naturally, Itumeleng wasn't about to let me get off scot-free as he called me up firstly to pray over the offering, then (together with himself and the stewards) to lay hands upon the confirmands.

As a result, I promised the congregation faithfully that they would never again see me in church dressed in such deplorable attire, as I am to be "collared" this coming Sunday. There is quite a bit of excitement around this service, as it symbolises our Circuit "sending me out to preach the Good News" as a Phase One probationer.

I have indicated previously that I deliberately bought oversize clerical shirts to ensure that I have ample room in the neck (for some reason known only to our Lord, I have a particularly large head and neck for my particular body frame). Of course, whether I will be able to get the collar over the lump that will surely be in my throat on Sunday, remains to be seen.

The St Andrews people have been absolutely fantastic to me since I joined them this year, and have welcomed me into their midst with open and loving arms. They also have a fine sense of humour, which has resulted in quite a bit of leg-pulling (excuse the pun) about my "Kortbroek" image on Sunday, and like one or two of my reprobate friends, consider the use of "Reverend" and "Steven Jones" in the same sentence as an oxymoron of note.

So I thought that in this particular post I'd be serious for once. Now with my posts I usually like to include pictures, but seeing as I only have one image of a clerical collar (which I have already used twice), I thought I'd try to find a better picture of what I would possibly look like decked out in clerical garb...

Note the serious gleam in my eyes?

My name is Jones ... James Jones

Since Revs Bishop / Rev & Rev Bishop / oh, rhubarb - Michael and Kym have already published 124,687 photos of their son James on their blog, and I have not got ONE up yet, here are a couple of my son and heir, buddy extroadinaire, and the apple of my eye.

This is James (on the left), with his best friend Cameron. (Photographs can be SO deceiving, as Cameron is actually nearly six inches TALLER than James!)

This is James on his "father's yacht", otherwise known as the bath. Normally you can't see his face, because it is usually buried behind a book - one of his dad's bad habits he's picked up (train the child in the way he should go...). However, I could probably get locked up for many years for being in possession of THIS picture! Sies, man! And they let YOU into the ministry?!

Moreri / Umshumayeli / Local Preacher

On the 19th of October I was privileged to be part of a Service of Recognition for Local Preachers coming onto Full Plan.

To those not familiar with the Methodist procedures, a Local Preacher's journey starts (of course) with an expression of a "call to preach", followed by the granting by the Circuit Superintendent of a "Note to Preach", which is valid for a quarter. During this time, the candidate takes part in one or more services together with a minister or experienced Local Preacher, who will report on the candidate and recommend whether they should proceed to the next stage, which is "On Trial". The "On Trial" phase lasts for a minimum of two years, during which time a number of trial services are to be conducted. At the same time, the candidate must comply with the Church's academic requirements.

In my particular case I took a bit of a "short-cut" route in that my call to full-time ministry came (in a sense) before any awareness on my part of any call to preach. However, the route for potential ministry candidates is via the Local Preacher route, except that once the candidate has completed one year "On Trial", complied with the academic requirements for candidature as a minister, and is recommended as a candidate minister by the District Synod, remission from the second year "On Trial" may be granted at the discretion of the Circuit Local Preacher's Quarterly Meeting.

So this is how I have come to being received "on Full Plan" (i.e. as a fully-accredited Local Preacher), despite having already received the EMMU letter accepting me as a Phase One probationer.

The service itself was a marathon affair, lasting just on four hours. Us whiteys still need to develop the stamina for such services! (Our style is more like: in - hymn sandwich with prayers and the "other bits" - sermon - closing hymn - out. 50 minutes, done!) That's not to say that the service was not a moving experience - on the contrary, it was extremely moving, with much singing and praising (in true African style), prayer, and various addresses.

When it came to the commissioning itself, it was quite incredible.

Those with long memories (or the patience to trawl back through the archives of this blog) will recall that during my trial service at Zola, I was asked what my status as a Local Preacher was. Since I was still on trial, I was asked to use the lectern, as it is the custom only for Local Preachers on full plan and ministers to preach from the pulpit. If you are a non-traditionalist, then pulpit, lectern, microphone stand, no mike at all - makes no difference at the end of the day, but hey, when in rome, do as the Romans do. But on the day of the commissioning service, each preacher is led by the hand into the pulpit, prayed for - and then asked to give a brief address to the congregation.

Now talk about the need to be ready "in season and out", for I had absolutely no idea that I would be asked to do this! Thankfully I was the last of the preachers to be led up, so I had time to ask God to give me the appropriate words for the occasion. The last thing that I wanted was to sound like I was giving an Oscar acceptance speech!

But all I could think about was the time I was about to leave primary school to go up to high school. Forest High in the south of Johannesburg does not have the best of reputations of late, particularly since that tragic stabbing a while back, but even back in 1981 it was a rough place. And since that's where I was going, my primary school principal felt there was no future for me, and told me so in no uncertain terms: "Jones - I don't expect you to amount to much!"

Lord! What relevance does THAT have to addressing a congregation at a Local Preachers' Commissioning service? As these thoughts were tumbling through my head, I was nervously flipping through my Xhosa hymnbook - and then it hit me right between the eyes: Indumiso C - Psalm 100. For it was the same primary school principal who asked me to stand up in fromt of the whole school assembly, at the tender age of 9, and read out Psalm 100. It was the first time I had ever read Scripture aloud in public.

When Rev Kgomotso Mtimkulu, our Circuit Local Preachers Association President, led me into the pulpit, I felt a shaft of light bore straight through my soul. I related how my primary school principal told me how I would amount to nothing, and he was right. For without Jesus in my life, I AM nothing. But that reading of Psalm 100 sowed a seed into my heart: "Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands. Serve the Lord with gladness. Come before His presence with singing. Know ye that the Lord is God. It is He that hast made us, not we ourselves. We are His people and the sheep of His pasture. Enter into His gates with thanksgiving, and into His courts with praise. Be thankful unto Him, and bless His Name, for the Lord is good!" (I've probably left out some verses and jumbled others, but I've deliberately written it down as I remembered it from 30 years ago, rather than to copy it from one of my Bibles.)

Once I had shared this story, I asked the congregation to indulge me while I read the Psalm to them. But this time, it was not Psalm 100, but Indumiso C, to honour the predominantly Xhosa-speaking congregation that had come to support us new Local Preachers.

Here are a few pics from this truly amazing and moving service...

Local Preachers from all around the South Rand Circuit. This is not a fist fight about to break out, but rather the preamble to a "group hug" of note!

Freedom Park congregants enters the sanctuary. Freedom Park is a preaching place in an informal settlement next to Eldorado Park, and falls under the pastoral oversight of St Andrews. I've conducted a number of services there, and have become very fond of these dear souls.

The "line-up". (Does my head REALLY shine THAT much?)

Three of the "Freedom Park 5" in action. The way they put everything into their worship is truly inspiring. (As an aside, can you imagine inviting a group of whiteys to a service: "We're going to worship God today. Bring towels." Erm...)

Me in the pulpit, reading "Indumiso C". I have absolutely no idea what was going through Pumla's mind (back, in white), but Cloupas (right) seemed to be impressed with my Xhosa...

It's official!

The long-awaited letter has finally arrived, and I'm about to be unleashed on an unsuspecting Methodist Church of Southern Africa as a Phase One Probationer!

But once the family tears, shouts of joy, and numerous telephone calls had passed, my mind drifted back to this year's Synod, when Bishop Paul Verryn was outlining the covenental relationship between the MCSA and its clergy.

His words are as clear in my mind as though he was sitting there, speaking there as I type: "As those who wish to enter ministry, we believe that we are called by God to this great task. The role of the Church is to create a space for us to explore this call, develop it, and ultimately fulfil it."

I am so thankful to God for placing this call on my life to minister to God's people. I still question at times - why me, Lord? I'm just a dumb accountant. I have a short fuse. I'm not the world's best when it comes to pastoral work. But then again, look what You were able to do with the disciples! All I ask is that You keep me hungry for Your Word, eager to do Your will, and to have a heart for Your people.

I am also thankful to the Methodist Church which, as Bishop Verryn has put it, "created the space" in response to God's call. No doubt I will make mistakes, and believe me I'll speak my mind if I feel it is warranted, but I'll try my level best not to let the Church down.

I'm thankful to the congregations in Uitenhage that are currently preparing to receive me. God calls, the MCSA "creates the space", but it is the generosity of a local congregation that provides ministers with the physical means with which to fulfil God's call. And while I journey along this road, I'll be sheltered, fed, and clothed thanks to this generosity. Heaven help me if I should ever abuse this privilege!

I'm thankful to my family, who have supported me through the journey thus far. There will be some difficult years ahead, particularly as they won't be joining me initially. While the probation journey is exciting, it's also disruptive with the MCSA taking "here I am, send me" quite seriously. With my son being in Grade 4 at the moment, frequent changes of school at this stage would wreak havoc with his education, and for this reason I'll only consider relocating my family once my "happy wanderings" become less frequent.

There are many other people who have influenced my life and supported me along the way, but this post is already beginning to look like an Oscar acceptance speech. I've thanked most of you in person, and be assured that I thank God for you.

Typical accountant...

I've finally got the opportunity to catch up on weeks of blogging, and as I logged in, I noticed that I have reached the milestone of 100 posts.

Now I would have liked to have something special to mark this occasion with, and as my upcoming posts will show, there is much to give God thanks for. But what does this lame-brained, unobservant beancounter end up posting as No. 100? A picture of a rainbow shining on the offices of the South African Revenue Service!

What a dork...

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Render unto Caesar

Just as I had always suspected - there IS a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow!

Monday, 20 October 2008

I'm rich!

I've finally cracked the big time!

In my previous post, I indicated that the two-month contract that I am currently busy with would help me to pay some bills and put a bit of cash aside for 2009, but I didn't realise how lucrative it would be. I have recently become a billionaire - 100 times over.

Now I know that the South African currency has taken a hammering over the past week or two, so can someone out there have a look at the note above and tell me just how rich I am at the moment?

Keeping my head down...

I've been a bit quiet on the blogging front for a couple of weeks, but this doesn't mean that I have had nothing to say.

However, I was approached by a former employer to assist them with their financial year-end during September / October 2008, and since the contract fee would provide a much-needed boost to my finances as I enter Phase One, I accepted the contract.

Unfortunately this has resulted in a few rather late nights, and coupled with ministry responsibilities, TEEC assignments and exams, and somehow trying to finalise work for my few remaining clients before I disappear off into the wild blue yonder, I have not had too much time for blogging.

But as Arnold Schwarzenegger said in one of his films ("The Terminator", I think it was?)... I'l be baack!

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

What's the difference between choruses and hymns?

An old farmer went to the city one weekend and attended the big city church. He came home and his wife asked him how it was. "Well," said the farmer, "it was good. They did something different, however. They sang praise choruses instead of hymns."

"Praise choruses?" said his wife. "What are those?"

"Oh, they're OK. They are sort of like hymns, only different," said the farmer.

"Well, what's the difference?" asked his wife.

The farmer said, "Well, it's like this - If I were to say to you: "Martha, the cows are in the corn"' - well, that would be a hymn. If on the other hand, I were to say to you:

'Martha, Martha, Martha,
the cows, the big cows, the brown cows, the black cows
the white cows,
the black and white cows,
are in the corn,
are in the corn, are in the corn, are in the corn,

Then, if I were to repeat the whole thing two or three times, well, that would be a praise chorus."

The next weekend, his nephew, a young, new Christian from the city came to visit and attended the local church of the small town. He went home and his mother asked him how it was. "Well," said the young man, "it was good. They did something different however. They sang hymns instead of regular songs."

"Hymns?" asked his mother. "What are those?"

"Oh, they're OK. They are sort of like regular songs, only different," said the young man.

"Well, what's the difference?" asked his mother.

The young man said, "Well, it's like this - If I were to say to you: 'Martha, the cows are in the corn' - well, that would be a regular song. If on the other hand, I were to say to you:

'Oh Martha, dear Martha, hear thou my cry
Inclinest thine ear to the words of my mouth
Turn thou thy whole wondrous ear by and by
To the righteous, inimitable, glorious truth.

For the way of the animals who can explain
There in their heads is no shadow of sense
Hearkenest they in God's sun or His rain
Unless from the mild, tempting corn they are fenced.

Yea those cows in glad bovine, rebellious delight
Have broke free their shackles, their warm pens eschewed
Then goaded by minions of darkness and night
They all my mild Chilliwack sweet corn have chewed.

So look to the bright shining day by and by
Where all foul corruptions of earth are reborn
Where no vicious animals make my soul cry
And I no longer see those foul cows in the corn.'

Then if I were to do only verses one, three and four and do a key change on the last verse, well that would be a hymn.

Monday, 29 September 2008

Getting "that" jittery feeling...

Yesterday I had a meeting with our Superintendent Minister to plan the "collaring service" for myself and Christine Laubscher, a fellow "grade nought" from our Circuit who will be entering probation in 2009.

While we were going through the details of the service, choice of hymns, etc. I suddenly started getting a very uneasy feeling - the type where you ask yourself, "am I doing the right thing here?" It was a very strange and extremely disturbing sensation, this feling of doubt, as I sincerely believe that God has called me to full-time ministry, and I have journeyed for two years to get to this point.

But while I was driving to Heidelberg last night, wrestling with my thoughts, it suddenly dawned on me: I have had a similar feeling once before, and it happened about two months before I was to be married to Belinda. At that stage of my life, I was also wrestling with the question of whether I was doing the right thing. After all, one can change jobs, houses, and cars when they no longer meet your needs, but despite the relative ease of divorce nowadays, I didn't (and still don't) regard marriage as something you just walk away from when the "warm fuzzy feeling" is not as strong as before.

Entering the ministry is not the same as taking up a job. And while there are those who have resigned from the ministry (and it is by no means for me to judge why the persons concerned may have done so), my view of ministry is that it is meant to be like marriage - for life.

However, what brought me great comfort is the fact that despite this feeling of angst I had when preparing for marriage, the fact that Belinda and I are still happily married nearly 17 years later means that this carefully thought-out decision was ultimately the right one. Lord willing, the same will go for ministry as well.

No doubt Dion Forster and others who have studied the inner workings of the mind will have a rational explanation for this. For me, though, I cannot come up with a better explanation than "consider the cost before building the tower".

Did other ministers feel this way at the beginning?

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Some thoughts on politicians...

Given that this has been a crazy couple of days, what with SA President Thabo Mbeki resigning over the weekend, followed by a number of Cabinet ministers following suit today (and some of them back-pedalling shortly thereafter), these two thoughts about politicians come to mind (source unknown):
  • "Politicians and babies' nappies have a lot in common. They both need to be changed regularly, and for pretty much the same reason..."
  • "How can you tell that a politician is lying to you? His lips are moving!"

I cannot quote chapter and verse from L & D on this one, but I understand that ministers in the Methodist Church of Southern Africa are not permitted to be members of a political party (although they are free to exercise their democrtic right to vote as they see fit).

For me, this will be no sacrifice whatsoever. I once had half a mind to join a political party, but then I realised that that's all I'd need...

It's about the PEOPLE, stoopid...

You will see from previous posts that my wife was involved in a car accident the other day. I am most thankful to God that she is doing well, and is on the mend (notwithstanding a kaleidoscope of colours appearing on various parts of her body).

However, my experience at the hands of the so-called medical "profession" leaves a great deal to be desired.

Note that I refer to "my" experience, as Belinda couldn't complain too much about her side of things. She couldn't sing the praises of the paramedics highly enough. The doctors who treated her in ER were helpful and efficient. The hospital ward was reasonably comfortable (once she had been transferred from that zoo otherwhise known as High Care - anyone who has been there will understand). Even the hospital food was reasonably palatable.

However, my fun and games started first thing on Monday morning. I had arrived at my client, and had barely got my computer fired up when I received a 'phone call from the radiology department. A rather strident women exclaimed that, according to my medical aid, I had to pay a "co-payment" of R1500, and when can they expect the money?

Excuse me? Who are you? What X-rays and scans were done? How much is the total bill? Where is my invoice?

Now let me get one thing straight. God may be turning an accountant into a minister, but He hasn't erased the last 20 years from my brain. I don't care if you are the X-ray department, SARS, Thabo Mbeki, or the Pope - I don't just hand over money to people without seeing some sort of invoice first! In this case, once I have seen some sort of documentation confirming how much I owe, and once I have confirmed the matter of co-payment with my medical aid, only then will I be willing to pay over the money.

What really got my goat was the fact that this cretin 'phoned my home asking to speak to my wife (she was at that stage still in hospital, one floor above their offices), then asked to speak to me (I was at work), and then promptly blurted out to my mother the fact that they wanted this money, like, yesterday! Now I'm not one to have too many secrets, but I don't appreciate my confidentiality being breached in this manner.

Round 2 of the "fight of the century" took place that afternoon with the doctor who attended to my wife. My particular medical aid is contracted to use Lancet Laboratories as their preferred pathologists. These have been the rules for about 8 years. The hospital knows it, and their screens indicate this fact in big bold letters. In fact, this particular hospital has a Lancet office right on their premises.

95% of the doctors who treat patients at this hospital use Lancet. Guess who picked one of the 5% who uses other service providers?

Now here's the problem that I have with the whole system. My wife has just been dragged from a wrecked car which, according to a witness, "took off" as the car hit the storm drain. She is bruised all over. Her shorts have been ripped in three places from the impact, her T-shirt is covered in blood, and she suspects that her nose and a number of ribs are broken.

Now imagine being in that state, and having the presence of mind to say to your doctor, "Er ... excuse me, do you charge 'scale of benefits'? Blood tests? Which provider do you use? My medical aid only pays for Lancet". Not likely!

Now fair enough - emergency situation, and all that. But imagine if I had been tasked to prepare your tax return, and then suddenly you receive bills from Deloitte or Denys Reitz? When you query these bills, I indicate that I needed to "refer" your case to "specialists" - without consulting you first. You would in all likelihood roll these bills up into a ball, shove them up my left nostril, and hold me liable for payment. And rightfully so! Yet such practices are the accepted norm in the medical profession!

So here's the legal position as I see it. If my medical aid refuses to pay for these blood tests, I am technically not liable, since I did not authorise the use of the other service provider. The hospital maintains that they did not authorise the tests, either - of course, with the clear instruction from the medical aid, they would have to say that - anything else would be an admission of liability. Which leaves my wife, and I'm willing to bet that any court in the land would find that any authorisation that Belinda may have signed would have been obtained under duress.

Thankfully the medical aid has agreed to pay, since the situation was considered "emergency" and my wife was brought in over a weekend. So Dr X can relax, knowing that this month's instalment on his Merc will not be diverted to paying for my wife's blood tests! Because as sure as the good Lord made little apples, there was no way that I was prepared to accept liability if the medical aid had refused to pay.

What the "system" seems to have conveniently forgotten is that in between all the procedures, rules, protocols, terms, and conditions, medicine is actually about PEOPLE!

But there is a lesson in all of this for me. For as ministers, it is easy to fall into the trap of seeing our congregants not as individuals, but as "the confirmation class" or "the baptism class". The "I've done X number of baptisms / funerals / weddings / pastoral visits in the last year", rather than focusing on the individuals whom we have baptised / buried / married / visited.

I have to confess that I have also fallen into this trap. I do not know the names of many of the people who greet me on Sunday at church. At one point I was getting to the stage of "oh no, not another funeral", instead of seeing it as an opportunity to bring God's love and comfort to a family in need. I have become so "busy" that when I see a church-related e-mail, or my cellphone rings and I recognise the number as being someone from the church, I groan inwardly before replying or answering.

Oh Lord, please forgive me of this attitude. And thank You for showing me, through this hospital experience, how easy it is to forget that ministry, just like medicine, is about caring for people. Help me to follow Jesus' example, where He had little time for the hypocricy of the religious leaders, but always had time for the people.

Oh happy day! The love of my life returns home

I'm happy to report that my dear wife Belinda was discharged from hospital yesterday. At the moment she unfortunately doesn't quite look as pretty as in this 'photo, as she is extensively bruised, especially around her one eye.

However, we once again give thanks to God that her injuries were not more severe, especially given the state of the car (which the insurance has written off).

Thanks also to all those who have supported us with prayers, 'phone calls, and e-mails.

Monday, 22 September 2008

Unintended bundu-bashing - please pray for my wife

My wife had an unfortunate accident this past Saturday - her car left the road, and she nearly ended up nose-first in a storm drain. The car is completely written-off, but by the grace of God Belinda escaped with relatively minor injuries.

Please pray for her speedy and complete recovery, as well as for my son James who just wants his mom back home.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Fixed (sort of!)

I've managed to sort out the problem, although I'm sure there's an easier way to do these things than to re-create the entire template...

Help! I've broken something on my blog!

It seems that when I removed the Google Ads from the blog, I deleted something else as well, resulting in the sidebar being pushed right down to the bottom of the page.

Can any "blog-savvy" folk out there tell me how to fix it?

Some light reading...

I've recently read quite a cool book by John Martin called "Curate's Egg", which is aptly titled given the origin of the term from which the book's title was taken.

According to Wikipedia, the expression "a curate's egg" originally meant something that is partly good and partly bad, but as a result is entirely spoilt. The phrase derives from a cartoon entitled "True Humility" originally published in Punch on 9 November 1895, depicting a timid-looking curate taking breakfast in his bishop's house. The bishop says, "I'm afraid you've got a bad egg, Mr Jones", to which the curate replies, "Oh, no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!"

The book, which is a collection of anecdotes from various probationer ministers concerning their early years in ministry, is aptly titled in that contrary to the idealistic view of ministry held by many candidates (myself included until fairly recently), many a "rude awakening" lies in store for the unwary probationer. The female probationers, in particular, seem to have a rough time of it, citing ongoing battles against prejudice towards female clergy - not only from members of the congregation, but (sadly) mainly from their male colleagues in ministry.

There are however some amusing anecdotes, particularly where probationers make a hash of things. I can particularly identify with the young curate who got the words of one of the liturgies mixed up, as one day (to my acute embarrassment) I got two of the lines of the Lord's Prayer switched around. Somehow I never seem to have this problem when singing it - maybe because we tend to sing it a lot slower, perhaps, thereby allowing my brain to keep up?

Going back to the title of the book, the original interpretation of the expression seemed to be that an egg cannot be "artly" bad, any more than a woman cannot be a "little bit" pregnant! However, the modern meaning is more along the lines that the "excellent" parts of the egg compensate enough for the "bad" parts to render complaints inappropriate. I would like to think that in ministry (as in all walks of life), the "excellent" parts more than compensate for the occasional "bad egg", and this view is reflected in the book.

Certainly none of the contributors thereto felt that ministry was so "bad" that they would rather do something else, although one or two needed a change of station in order to move forward.

The most gratifying part of the book for me was the realisation that ministers make as many mistakes as "ordinary" people do - a huge relief for me, given the number of mistakes that I have made in the course of what was actually quite a successful career in accounting and financial management. I will no doubt make many more during the course of my ministry, and I pray that, like in many of the anecdotes contained in the book, the "powers that be" to whom I will serve under in the Methodist Church will show understanding, care, and the occasional "flat hand to the side of my head" as I discover how to fulfil this awesome call that God has placed on my life to minister in His Name.

"Curate's Egg" is apparently out of print, although Amazon.co.uk does seem to be able to source some second-hand copies.

Reflections on the year ahead

In previous posts I have shared my excitement and gratitude to God for the fact that I have received a posting for Phase One, the first part of my training to become a minister of The Methodist Church of Southern Africa.

But make no mistake - next year will bring major change for me, and I'm not only talking about the fact that my initial posting to Zwide was changed to Uitenhage. As an aside, apparently this is a fairly common occurrence in the MCSA as stations are juggled between Synod and Conference each year, and according to colleagues, things can still change after Conference. One colleague even mentioned the possibility of the removal truck turning left instead of right, indicating that the "powers that be" have changed their minds once again (that one surely MUST be an exaggeration?!).

But more seriously, the biggest adjustment will be leaving my family behind in Johannesburg. This has been an extremely difficult decision that my family has had to make, but a necessary one given that my 10 year-old son is currently in Grade 4. Since probationers can be relocated as much as four times in five years, it doesn't take rocket science to understand what a disruptive impact this would have on James' schooling.

While my new Superintendent was somewhat taken aback when I informed him that my family wouldn't be joining me next year, understandably he is in no position to offer me any guarantee that I will remain in one place during my entire probation. Still, the upside for the Circuit is that they will be able to rent out their four-bedroomed manse for next year, since I will be occupying their one-bedroomed flat during my stay there. At least I will, in this way, be "paying my way" as the rent will hopefully cover my stipend and other costs as a Phase One rather than this having to come out of the Circuit budget.

I also understand the Church's concern regarding ministers who are separated from their families, and are looking at ways to reduce this phenomenon. In the case of probationers, there is no easy answer to this one since serving in different congregations and contexts is an important part of our training. It is also unknown whether one would be going to college in second year, since while it is the stated aim of the MCSA to make residential seminary training a core part of a minister's probation, finances do not (at this stage) allow for all probationers to attend college and many would complete their full probation in Circuit appointments.

For that matter, I'm not sure if all probationers would necessarily want to go to college, and it seems that the older you are when candidating, the more reluctant you would be to go. One of my fellow candidates has already expressed her reservations about the possibility of being sent to college, and if I had to be perfectly honest, I too would prefer to remain in a Circuit. This is probably because I'll be turning 40 next year, and given that I have a family, the idea of being a full-time student at this stage of my life has limited appeal.

However, this does not mean that I am anti-college per se, and I'm sure my attitude would be far different if I was 20 years younger. Still, if the MCSA decides that I am to attend college in 2010, then so be it - my promise before Synod that "I will go to whichever Circuit I am sent" must include ANY station if it is to be real - even including college!

But that's still some time off. My immediate concern is getting through 2009, becoming used to life as an "appie" minister, and - most challenging of all - living without my family. Thankfully I have been blessed with a two-month contract from my former employer, which came totally out of the blue. It pays well, and will allow me to put aside some money to supplement my income from next year. Probably a fair chunk of these funds will go towards bus fares for my family to come and spend some time with me. James already wants me to teach him how to surf (although with my double-left-footed sense of balance, that could be rather interesting!).

It'll be a bit like bachelorhood all over again, which is probably not the worst thing given that I'll be working in a Circuit, studying, and attending lectures. But make no mistake - when you've been a husband for 17 years and a father for 10, you get quite attached to those special people God has entrusted you with, and being apart is going to be tough!

And I'm not talking about the domestic tasks such as cooking, washing, and cleaning, either - these things I can do, and if all else fails, there are places where you can get your clothes washed and ironed, and your belly fed. Drive a broom or vacuum cleaner occasionally, spritz some furniture polish once in a while, and generally keep the place tidy, and that side will be reasonably sorted. But chatting to my wife on Skype is not the same as whispering "sweet nothings" in her ear, and "electronic hugs" sent to my son are no substitute for the real thing.

Ah well ... at least there are school holidays to look forward to!

Monday, 15 September 2008

Google Ads - not one of my better ideas

If you are reading this post, you will probably notice that the "Ads by Google" pane is no more.

I could no longer reconcile myself to the idea of advertising items in French, losing weight, possibly sending readers to spam sites, and the like. The only ad I ever saw that was remotely Christian was a somewhat persistent one for Rhema Church Cape Town.

I also "made" the grand sum of 11 US cents from the few ads that were clicked on (Google does not make payments of less than $10, apparently - fair enough, given the admin involved).

So that was an experiment that did not quite turn out as I had hoped. Live and learn, I guess...

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Crash! I'm not superstitious, but...

Apparently there are two types of people who ride motorcycles - those who have already fallen off, and those who are still going to fall off one day.

Last week, I found out the hard way that my trusty Vuka doesn't like loose gravel. Thankfully I wasn't going too fast, and my right knee and elbow managed to save the bike from any serious damage. There is also no permanent damage to me either, but dropping to one knee to receive Communion this past Sunday must have looked a little strange to some of the people (a strange initiation ritual for probationer ministers, perhaps?).

Anyway, I've finally bought myself my own piece of tar, so now that I've got that out of the way, I can get on with my life...

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Still going to the Eastern Cape, but a slight change of plan...

My first reaction when informed "unofficially" that I have been stationed for 2009 was one of absolute delight that I have in fact been stationed. "Where" doesn't matter, since after all it is only 3 months since I stood before Synod and promised that I would go wherever the Church sends me.

However, I was surprised but pleased to receive a telephone call from the Bishop of the Grahamstown District this morning, welcoming me in advance to his District and informing me that the Superintendent of the Circuit to which I am to be posted will be contacting me in due course.

However, it looks like there is a slight change of plan (I'd been warned to get used to this from the Methodist Church of Southern Africa!). Although I had previously indicated that I had been provisionally posted to the Eastern Cape, I did not specify where as it was not yet official. I had originally been earmarked for Zwide, according to my "unofficial source" here in Jo'burg, but when the Bishop contacted me, he informed me that I have actually been stationed in Uitenhage.
The map extract is of the Eastern Cape area, with Port Elizabeth being the coastal city. The large blue bit to the south is the sea which, to my 10 year-old son, is all that matters!

This, of course, is still not "official" as stations still need to be confirmed at Conference later this month, but with the Bishop and Circuit Superintendent contacting me for my details, confirmation is getting ever closer...

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Why I'm glad I'm not going to kwaZulu-Natal

I am so, so thankful that the Church has not sent me to kwaZulu-Natal.

Not that I have anything against the place - good weather, warm sea, a decent radio station, and all that good stuff. However, I am rather a wimp when it comes to spicy food, and this report that a friend sent me prompted me to fall on my knees and thank God that I have been stationed in the Eastern Cape - after I'd finished crying with laughter, that is...


(If you can read this whole story without laughing then there's no hope for you. I was crying by the end. I have endeavoured to censor, shall we say, the more "colourful" language. Please take time to read this slowly. For those of you who have lived in KZN, you know how typical this is.)

They actually have a Curry Cook-off about June / July. It takes up a major portion of a parking lot at the Royal Show in Pietermaritzburg. Judge #3 was an inexperienced food critic named Frank, who was visiting from America.

Frank: "Recently, I was honoured to be selected as a judge at a Curry Cook-off. The original person called in sick at the last moment and I happened to be standing there at the judge's table asking for directions to the Beer Garden when the call came in. I was assured by the other two judges (Natal Indians) that the curry wouldn't be all that spicy and, besides, they told me I could have free beer during the tasting, so I accepted".

Here are the scorecard notes from the event:

Judge # 1 -- A little too heavy on the tomato. Amusing kick.
Judge # 2 -- Nice smooth tomato flavour. Very mild.
Judge # 3 (Frank) -- Holy crap, what the hell is this stuff? You could remove dried paint from your driveway. Took me two beers to put the flames out. I hope that's the worst one. These people are crazy.

Judge # 1 -- Smoky, with a hint of chicken. Slight chilli tang.
Judge # 2 -- Exciting BBQ flavour, needs more peppers to be taken seriously.
Judge # 3 -- Keep this out of the reach of children. I'm not sure what I'm supposed to taste besides pain. I had to wave off two people who wanted to give me the Heimlich manoeuvre! They had to rush in more beer when they saw the look on my face.

Judge # 1 -- Excellent firehouse curry. Great kick.
Judge # 2 -- A bit salty, good use of chilli peppers.
Judge # 3 -- Call 911. I've located a uranium’s pill. My nose feels like I have been snorting Drain Cleaner. Everyone knows the routine by now. Get me more beer before I ignite. Barmaid pounded me on the back, now my backbone is in the front part of my chest. I'm getting sloshed from all the beer.

Judge # 1 -- Black bean curry with almost no spice. Disappointing.
Judge # 2 -- Hint of lime in the black beans. Good side dish for fish or other mild foods, not much of a curry.
Judge # 3 -- I felt something scraping across my tongue, but was unable to taste it. Is it possible to burn out taste buds? Shareen, the beer maid, was standing behind me with fresh refills. That 200kg woman is starting to look HOT...just like this nuclear waste I'm eating! Is chilli an aphrodisiac?

Judge # 1 -- Meaty, strong curry. Cayenne peppers freshly ground, adding considerable kick. Very impressive.
Judge # 2 -- Average beef curry, could use more tomato. Must admit the chilli peppers make a strong statement.
Judge # 3 -- My ears are ringing, sweat is pouring off my forehead and I can no longer focus my eyes. I farted and four people behind me needed paramedics. The contestant seemed offended when I told her that her chilli had given me brain damage. Shareen saved my tongue from bleeding by pouring beer directly on it from the pitcher. I wonder if I'm burning my lips off. It really annoys me intensely that the other judges asked me to stop screaming. Screw them.

Judge # 1 -- Thin yet bold vegetarian variety curry. Good balance of spices and peppers.
Judge # 2 -- The best yet. Aggressive use of peppers, onions, and garlic. Superb.
Judge # 3 -- My intestines are now a straight pipe filled with gaseous, sulphuric flames. I am definitely going to crap myself if I fart, and I'm worried it will eat through the chair. No one seems inclined to stand behind me except that Shareen. Can't feel my lips anymore. I need to wipe what’s left of my backside with a snow cone ice-cream.

Judge # 1 -- A mediocre curry with too much reliance on canned peppers.
Judge # 2 -- Ho hum, tastes as if the chef literally threw in a can of chilli peppers at the last moment. (I should take note at this stage that I am worried about Judge # 3. He appears to be in a bit of distress as he is cursing uncontrollably).
Judge # 3 -- You could put a grenade in my mouth, pull the pin, and I wouldn't feel a thing. I've lost sight in one eye, and the world sounds like it is made of rushing water. My shirt is covered with curry which slid unnoticed out of my mouth. My pants are full of lava to match my shirt. At least, during the autopsy, they'll know what killed me. I've decided to stop breathing - it's too painful. Screw it; I'm not getting any oxygen anyway. If I need air I'll just suck it in through the 4-inch hole in my stomach.

Judge # 1 -- The perfect ending. This is a nice blend curry. Not too bold but spicy enough to declare its existence.
Judge # 2 -- This final entry is a good, balanced curry. Neither mild nor hot. Sorry to see that most of it was lost when Judge #3 farted, passed out, fell over and pulled the curry pot down on top of himself. Not sure if he's going to make it. Poor man, wonder how he'd have reacted to really hot curry?
Judge # 3 - No Report.