God's Word for today

Monday, 25 February 2008


If you saw my earlier post about my busy week, you will understand that I haven't been spending too much time with my family over the past week or two (six?).

And tonight, I sat down with the best intention of putting my Essay on Methodism to bed, ready to be handed in on or before its due date this Thursday. But as my wife walked past me on her way to bed, giving me a loving squeeze as she passed, my resolve evaporated...

So I guess that I'll need a six-pack of Red Bull tomorrow night after I have met with the Local Preachers, because Rev Faith Whitby, although married herself, is unlikely to accept 1 Corinthians 7: 3 as valid grounds for an extension of time to submit my essay!

On my honour, I promise to do my best...

Yesterday I had the privilege of being asked by the Southern Districts Scout Association to conduct a service in commemoration of the birthday of Robert Baden-Powell, who founded the Scout Movement some 100 years ago.

Having been both a Cub and a Scout myself for 11 glorious years of my boyhood, preparing my message brought back some poignant memories. It was my promise to "... do my duty to God ..." way back in 1978 that probably sowed the seed for me to accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour some nine years later.

So I'd like to share the text of yesterday's message, which is based on James 2: 17 - 18, with you:

When I first joined this wonderful movement as a Cub some 30 years ago, I wanted to learn how to tie knots, build towers, and go camping.

Over the years I fulfilled these and other dreams. I tied knots so complicated that if my Akela was still alive, she’d still be trying to untie them. I discovered a way to make frapping turns so tight by wetting the ropes under strain that we needed to take a panga to them to get the poles loose.

My backside still bears the scars of the roof nail on CGR’s scout hall that broke my fall when I stepped back to admire the tower we had built – while standing on the top of the tower.

When camping, if there was a single thorn in the entire campsite, I’d stand on it. If there was a cow pat, I’d end up being dragged through it. My mother became an expert in washing every kind of dirt known to humankind out of my uniform, because it had to look pristine for the following week’s meeting.

Our cooking competitions taught us the value of adding spice to our food – green pepper, red pepper, yellow pepper, and when our parents had completed the judging, they were often in need of toilet pepper as well.

Eleven years – nearly 50 badges, so many camps that I’ve lost count, bumps, bruises, scrapes, Leaping Wolf, Springbok Scout, and Chief Scout’s Award. It was the most wonderful way in which to grow up.

But as I look back on those eleven wonderful years, I think of what the Scout Movement gave me. When I go caravanning, the finer points of tent-pitching still come in handy. A clove hitch is still one of the most useful knots around, especially when putting up a volleyball net made out of nylon rope. Knowledge of how to discern the prevailing winds is vital when it comes to positioning your camp in relation to the latrines.

And I still live up to my nickname of “Lightning” when putting in tent pegs. This has nothing to do with speed, mind you, but more to do with the fact that I can never hit the peg twice in the same place.

But Scouting gave me something far more valuable than that. It gave me a sense of honour. Of integrity. Of knowing that your “yes” is your “yes”, and your “no” is your “no”.

As you grow older and get married, forge a career, and make your way in life, you find that the most important thing is not how good you look, how much money you have, and how many degrees you earn. When it comes down to brass tacks, your honour, integrity, and relationship with God are the only things of real value.

And the foundation of this was the promise that I made in front of my fellow Scouts, before I put on a uniform and long before I learnt that “left over right, and right over left” formed a reef knot.

On my honour I promise that I will do my best
To do my duty to God and my Country
To help other people at all times
To obey the Scout Law.

Since the publication of
Scouting for Boys in 1908, all Scouts around the world have taken a Scout promise or oath to live up to ideals of the movement, and subscribed to a Scout Law. Typically, Scouts will make the three-fingered Scout Salute when reciting the promise.

The original 1908 text of the Scout Promise as written by Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of Scouting, in his book “Scouting for Boys”, read as follows:

“Before he becomes a scout, a boy must take the scout's oath, thus:
On my honour I promise that –
· I will do my duty to God and the Queen.
· I will do my best to help others, whatever it costs me.
· I know the scout law, and will obey it.

Saying the Promise is one thing. Living it is another.

In James 2: 17-18, we read how faith without action is useless, or dead. The writer of this passage of Scripture goes on to say that you can’t have one without the other. For the Scout Promise to be real, it’s not enough to be able to recite the promise – we need to live it as well.

And that means obeying the Scout Law. Now many people may think that the Scout Law, just like the Ten Commandments that we read earlier, are ancient relics of a bygone age. Who honours their parents nowadays?

What about stealing? If the opportunity presents itself, why not take what you believe is rightfully yours?

And adultery? Let’s not even go there…

What about the Scout Law? “A Scout is a friend to animals”. A Scout smiles and whistles under all difficulties”. Oh, please! You are modern Scouts! This is 2008. Do these laws still have relevance?

As we celebrate 100 years of Scouting in South Africa, I believe that these laws are as relevant today as they were way back in 1908 when they first appeared in “Scouting for Boys”.

So let’s look at the original 10 Scout Laws, which except for some minor changes in wording, are still our Scout Law today. Let’s focus on what each of these laws mean.

1. A SCOUT'S HONOUR IS TO BE TRUSTED. If a scout says "On my honour it is so," that means it is so, just as if he had taken a most solemn oath. Similarly, if a scout officer says to a scout, "I trust you on your honour to do this," the scout is bound to carry out the order to the very best of his ability, and to let nothing interfere with his doing so. If a scout were to break his honour by telling a lie, or by not carrying out an order exactly when trusted on his honour to do so, he would cease to be a scout, and must hand over his scout badge and never be allowed to wear it again.

2. A SCOUT IS LOYAL to the King, and to his officers, and to his country, and to his employers. He must stick to them through thick and thin against anyone who is their enemy, or who even talks badly of them.

3. A SCOUT'S DUTY IS TO BE USEFUL AND TO HELP OTHERS. And he is to do his duty before anything else, even though he gives up his own pleasure, or comfort, or safety to do it. When in difficulty to know which of two things to do, he must ask himself, "Which is my duty?" that is, "Which is best for other people?" – and do that one. He must Be Prepared at any time to save life, or to help injured persons. And he must do a good turn to somebody every day.

4. A SCOUT IS A FRIEND TO ALL, AND A BROTHER TO EVERY OTHER SCOUT, NO MATTER TO WHAT SOCIAL CLASS THE OTHER BELONGS. If a scout meets another scout, even though a stranger to him, he must speak to him, and help him in any way that he can, either to carry out the duty he is then doing, or by giving him food, or, as far as possible, anything that he may be in want of. A scout must never be a SNOB. A snob is one who looks down upon another because he is poorer, or who is poor and resents another because he is rich. A scout accepts the other man as he finds him, and makes the best of him - "Kim," the boy scout, was called by the Indians "Little friend of all the world," and that is the name which every scout should earn for himself.

5. A SCOUT IS COURTEOUS: That is, he is polite to all – but especially to women and children and old people and invalids, cripples, etc. And he must not take any reward for being helpful or courteous.

6. A SCOUT IS A FRIEND TO ANIMALS. He should save them as far as possible from pain, and should not kill any animal unnecessarily, even if it is only a fly – for it is one of God's creatures.

7. A SCOUT OBEYS ORDERS of his patrol-leader, or scout master without question. Even if he gets an order he does not like, he must do as soldiers and sailors do, he must carry it out all the same because it is his duty; and after he has done it he can come and state any reasons against it: but he must carry out the order at once. That is discipline.

8. A SCOUT SMILES AND WHISTLES under all circumstances. When he gets an order he should obey it cheerily and readily, not in a slow, hang-dog sort of way. Scouts never grouse at hardships, nor whine at each other, nor swear when put out. When you just miss a train, or some one treads on your favourite corn – not that a scout ought to have such things as corns – or under any annoying circumstances, you should force yourself to smile at once, and then whistle a tune, and you will be all right. A scout goes about with a smile on and whistling. It cheers him and cheers other people, especially in time of danger, for he keeps it up then all the same. The punishment for swearing or bad language is for each offence a mug of cold water to be poured down the offender's sleeve by the other scouts.

9. A SCOUT IS THRIFTY, that is, he saves every penny he can, and puts it in the bank, so that he may have money to keep himself when out of work, and thus not make himself a burden to others; or that he may have money to give away to others when they need it.

These were written for the Scouts in the whole world, yet of course firstly focused on Scouting in the United Kingdom. As other groups started up Scouting organizations (often in other countries), each modified the laws, for instance 'loyal to the King' would be replaced by the equivalent text appropriate for each country.

I’m glad that apart from this minor change, South Africa has largely stuck to the original Scout laws that have stood the test of time.

During the years, Baden-Powell himself edited the text numerous times, notably in 1911 adding:

10. A SCOUT IS CLEAN IN THOUGHT, WORD AND DEED. Decent Scouts look down upon silly youths who talk dirt, and they do not let themselves give way to temptation, either to talk it or to do anything dirty. A Scout is pure, and clean-minded, and manly.

In our modern Movement which is open to both boys and girls, we get uncomfortable with this idea of “Scouts builds men”. You must however remember that when Scouts started back in 1908, it was a movement for boys.

But it’s important to know what “being a man” or “being a woman” means. It’s not a matter of age or stature – it’s about your character.

I’d like to summarise what Scouting can do for you by reading that famous poem, “If”, by Rudyard Kipling. It unfortunately also ends with the reference to “being a man”, but if one dwells on the character of the person, it can be applied equally to the ladies as well.

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowance for their doubting too,

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream--and not make dreams your master,
If you can think--and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings--nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much,

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And--which is more--you'll be a Man, my son!

In his final letter to the Scouts, Baden-Powell wrote:

“...I have had a most happy life and I want each one of you to have a happy life too. I believe that God put us in this jolly world to be happy and enjoy life.

Happiness does not come from being rich, nor merely being successful in your career, nor by self-indulgence. One step towards happiness is to make yourself healthy and strong while you are a boy, so that you can be useful and so you can enjoy life when you are a man.

Nature study will show you how full of beautiful and wonderful things God has made the world for you to enjoy. Be contented with what you have got and make the best of it. Look on the bright side of things instead of the gloomy one.

But the real way to get happiness is by giving out happiness to other people. Try and leave this world a little better than you found it and when your turn comes to die, you can die happy in feeling that at any rate you have not wasted your time but have done your best.

'Be Prepared' in this way, to live happy and to die happy - stick to your Scout Promise always - even after you have ceased to be a boy - and God help you to do it”

It's a jungle out there!

I have written previously on this blog about Dion Forster meeting a 4 x 4 by accident while riding home on his beloved Vespa a couple of weeks ago. However, I'm happy to report that judging by the recent entries on his blog, he is on the mend - although given his energy, being stuck in a cast must be SO frustrating!

This past Saturday I was very close to meeting the same fate that Dion has as I was riding home from a Pastoral Commission meeting on my trusty little Vuka. Suddenly, shortly after I turned into Barry Hertzog road in Linden, my very small mirrors were suddenly filled with a very large Pajero flashing its very bright lights at me.

Since I was barrelling along at 80 (the fastest speed I can wring out of the poor thing) in an attempt to get away from this beast, the road is in a 60 zone, and there was another car next to me in the inside lane, I don't know where this cretin was expecting me to go.

Once he had passed me (in the face of oncoming traffic), his mate in the passenger seat then started waving his sjambok out the window, so I decided that discretion would be the better part of valour and hung back as far as possible.

Still - whip lashes across my face would have made for an interesting sermon illustration on Sunday...

Directions to church?

The story is told of a lady who was rather old-fashioned, always quite delicate and elegant, especially in her language.

She and her husband were planning a week's camping holiday on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast, so she wrote to a particular caravan park asking for a reservation. She wanted to make sure the caravan park was fully equipped, but didn't quite know how to ask about the toilet facilities. She just couldn't bring herself to write the word "toilet" in her letter.

After much deliberation, she finally came up with the old-fashioned term BATHROOM COMMODE. But when she wrote that down, she still thought she was being too forward. So she started all over again, rewrote the entire letter referring to the bathroom commode merely as the BC: "Does the caravan park have it's own private BC?" is what she actually wrote.

Well, the caravan park owner wasn't old-fashioned at all and when he got the letter, he just couldn't figure out what the woman was talking about. That BC business really stumped him. After worrying about it for awhile, he showed the letter to several campers, but they couldn't imagine what the lady meant either.

So the caravan park owner, finally coming to the conclusion that the lady must be asking about the local Baptist Church, sat down and wrote the following reply:

Dear Madam.

I regret very much the delay in answering your letter, but I now take pleasure in informing you that a BC is located nine kilometers north of the caravan park and is capable of seating 250 people at one time. I admit it is quite a distance away, if you are in the habit of going regularly, but no doubt you will be pleased to know that a great number of people take their lunches along and make a day of it.

They usually arrive early and stay late.

It is such a beautiful facility and the acoustics are marvelous...even the normal delivery sounds can be heard.

The last time my wife and I went was six years ago, and it was so crowded we had to stand up the whole time we were there. It may interest you to know that right now a supper is planned to raise money to buy more seats. They are going to hold it in the basement of the BC.

I would like to say it pains me very much not to be able to go more regularly, but it surely is no lack of desire on my part. As we grow old, it seems to be more of an effort, particularly in cold weather.

If you do decide to come down to our caravan park, perhaps I could go with you the first time you go, sit with you, and introduce you to all the other folks. Remember, this is a friendly community.

Sincerely, (Caravan Park Owner)

Saturday, 23 February 2008

Busy, busy, busy...

This past week has been quite crazy, hence my silence in the "blogosphere" for a few days.

Monday was my normal day at St Andrews, which was fairly hectic as I had about three meetings during the day in which I needed to put out some "fires".

Tuesday morning I completed my monthly newsletter that I edit for Moneyweb's Personal Finance, while the afternoon was spent at the District Finance Committee meeting at Central - another one of those committees which (for my sins) I am a member of. Then in the evening, I was with one of our ministers and another candidate, busy preparing for the Essay on Methodism that is due next week (yes, Faith, the 28th - I know that the month has 29 days, but you made it clear that D-Day is the 28th!).

Wednesday was the 2008 Budget - Trevor Manuel's 12th - and I was working frantically at Moneyweb to get out a newsletter summarising the main aspects of this year's speech. 12 hours in front of a computer is quite strenuous. And despite all this frenetic activity, I still haven't as yet worked out how it affects my tax.

Thursday was "catch-up" day, and I had the satisfying feeling of finally getting not only my SARS e-filing issues resolved, but also my e-mails under control. From nearly 400 at one stage, I have whittled them down to a far more manageable 33.

I also managed to complete two sets of interim accounts for one of my clients, as well as the company tax returns. What's more, I had the privilege of attending a meeting at my Toastmasters club. (The previous two meetings were missed because of memorial services taking place at St Andrews). Even preachers - in fact, ESPECIALLY preachers - need to hone their communication and leadership skills.

Friday was back at St Andrews, and because things were a lot quieter than on Monday, I managed to snatch a couple of hours to prepare for Sunday's service. In the afternoon I was busy setting up for a function that evening at my son's school - purchasing and collecting the beverages, and stocking the bar - which I was in charge of during the function.

"The bar", you may ask? You have to appreciate the delicious irony in this. As a strict teetotaller, and a candidate for the Methodist ministry to boot, one may wonder why I am acting as part-time barman? Well firstly, being an Anglican school, they do not frown on the partaking of alcoholic beverages in the same way as we Methodists have historically been known to do. Secondly, my finance background means that I can be suckered into doing those mundane tasks no-one else wants, like checking the stock before and after, and cashing up afterwards. Thirdly, they figure that as a non-drinker, I am unlikely to be tempted to sample the stock!

So if there's a church out there that needs tighter control over the communion requisites, I'm your man...

However, by the time Saturday came around, I was feeling rather fragile from my three late nights (Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday), and a l-o-o-o-o-n-g lie-in would have really hit the spot. No chance! The day started with a leadership training session at St Andrews in the morning, then a mad dash across town to get to a Pastoral Commission meeting in the afternoon (another of my many sins, no doubt).

Tomorrow (Sunday) I am conducting the Harvest Festival service at St Andrews in the morning, while in the afternoon I will be preaching at the Scouts' "BP" commemoration service.

So if it's okay with everyone, tomorrow evening I'll probably be found curled up on the couch, filling the air with the sweet sounds of a chainsaw at idle...

Monday, 18 February 2008

Churches not immune from fraud

I found this recently on the website of the South African Council of Churches. Congregations are warned to be alert to scams of this nature, lest they fall victim.


An unscrupulous individual has apparently been attempting to defraud churches by posing as an employee of the South African Council of Churches (SACC).

A few congregations have called the SACC to inquire about the payment of donations promised during the Christmas holidays by someone claiming to be a Council staffer.

The fraudster, who uses the names James Khoza and James Adamson, called the churches to request their banking details. He said that he was from the SACC and that the Council was planning to make sizeable donations to the congregations. Shortly thereafter, a somewhat smaller amount appeared to have been deposited in the churches’ accounts.

When church officials telephoned the cell number given by the fake Council “employee” to query the discrepancies, they were told that an error had been made on the cheque and that a new cheque would be issued. However, as the cheque ostensibly needed to be issued for the full amount, the churches were asked to return immediately the funds already deposited.

The scam only became apparent a few days later when the original “deposit” did not clear, and the church was unable to recover the funds that they had dutifully “returned” to the imposter.

Council staff only learned of the swindle after the holidays when an anxious church leader contacted the SACC’s office to find out where the funds were. The Council has since drawn the scheme to the attention of the bank concerned and has reported the matter to SAPS.

The General Secretary of the SACC, Mr. Eddie Makue, expressed outrage and regret over the exploitation of local congregations, most of which operate on a shoestring. “It is especially shocking that someone would use the Christmas season, a time associated with goodwill and giving, as an excuse to take advantage of unsuspecting churches.”

Makue noted that the SACC is an association of Christian denominations. It works primarily with and at the direction of the national offices of denominations and does not make grants to local churches. He urged congregations and the public at large to be wary of any offer or scheme that seemed unreasonably advantageous.

Although the fraudster's name changes, he has consistently supplied the telephone numbers (011) 725 1669 and (073) 450 9848.

Any congregation that receives such an offer from someone claiming to be a Council employee is advised to call the South African Council of Churches on (011) 241-7800 to confirm its legitimacy.

A prayer received via e-mail

I’m not a fan of chain letters, especially those of the manipulative “Send this on and God will bless you” variety. This particular type seems to imply that God will punish those who choose not to send on YOUR particular e-mail, or who (like me) have taken a decision in principle not to forward any such mail.

Today I received one such chain letter, which has a number in its heading line. The idea is that you increment the number by one, and then forward it to your entire mailbox, thereby perpetuating the scourge of spam around the world and all in the name of God. Not entirely the best marketing that Christians can engage in!

But then again, one doesn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and this particular prayer (minus the “guilt” bits for not sending it on, which I have deleted) contains some deep, meaningful elements that we would do well to incorporate into our prayer life.

So I am not going to send it on, but have posted it here in the hope that the sentiments contained there in (without the aforementioned “send it on to everyone you know” parts) can guide us as we pray. We would do well to apply these to our daily lives as we grow ever stronger in our relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ.

Dear Lord, I thank You for this day. I thank You for my being able to see and to hear this morning. I'm blessed because You are a forgiving God and an understanding God. You have done so much for me and You keep on blessing me.

Forgive me this day for everything I have done, said or thought that was not pleasing to You. I ask now for Your forgiveness. Please keep me safe from all danger and harm. Help me to start this day with a new attitude and plenty of gratitude. Let me make the best of each and every day to clear my mind so that I can hear from You. Please broaden my mind that I can accept all things. Let me not whine and whimper over things I have no control over.

Prayer is the best response when I'm pushed beyond my limits. I know that when I can't pray, You listen to my heart. Continue to use me to do Your will. Continue to bless me that I may be a blessing to others. Keep me strong that I may help the weak. Keep me uplifted that I may have words of encouragement for others

I pray for those who are lost and can't find their way. I pray for those who are misjudged and misunderstood. I pray for those who don't know You intimately. I pray for those who don't believe. But I thank you that I believe. I believe that You change people and You changes things.

I pray for all my sisters and brothers. For each and every family member in their households. I pray for peace, love and joy in their homes that they are out of debt and all their needs are met. I pray that every eye that reads this knows there is no problem, circumstance, or situation greater than You. Every battle is in Your hands for You to fight. I pray that these words be received into the hearts of every eye that sees them.

God, I love You and I need You. Please come into my heart.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

RIP Myrtle Vespa (??? - 15 Feb 2008)

I was greeted on Friday with the news of Dion Forster's unfortunate coming together with a 4x4 while riding home on his beloved Vespa. Yet another justification for those gas-guzzler's to be banned...

Dion is in hospital, and according to the latest entry on his blog, he is recovering in hospital from a broken leg and a few other scrapes and bruises. He'll be fine, but sadly "Myrtle" (as his scooter is affectionately known) is no more.

Now I only know Dion through his blog, having finally had the pleasure of meeting him at our candidate screening last Monday, but the one thing that I have managed to learn about him is that he LOVES gadgets.

So since you can't keep a good man down, and Dion will no doubt be looking for another Vespa at some stage (after an appropriate period of mourning, of course), I thought that this particular model would be quite a fitting replacement, especially since his Apple Mac does not seem to bounce too well either!

Modded Vespa rocks touchscreen, XP, and WiFi

Are you ever cruising on your Vespa, listening to The Kinks, pondering the plot of Absolute Beginners, and fantasizing about Twiggy when you think, "Hey, I need to check my email"? Well, you're in luck, because Quang Nguyen, a forward thinking Vespa-modder (no pun intended) has managed to cram a touchscreen rockin', WiFi sportin', XP-equipped PC into his red GTS250.

Sure, he's also got a Louis Vuitton seat, but that isn't nearly as exciting as the prospect of being able to watch Quadrophenia and update your MySpace profile from any spot you happen to motor towards. Just make sure to watch out for the Rockers.

Get well soon, Dion - our thoughts and prayers are with you.

When does life begin?

As a fairly new ministry candidate, I need to formulate a position on various issues should I ever be questioned on such by a congregant.

One such issue that often raises controversy is the question of "when does life begin". So I asked a few ministers around our Circuit for their views in this regard, and these are some of the answers that I received:

Young male minister
Well, the answer to that question is quite obvious. When the baby emerges from its mother's womb, and cries its first cry - that's when life begins.

Young female minister
Oh, these men! They know nothing about babies! But then again, what can one expect when we are the one's who have to endure nine months of pregnancy. The correct answer is of course at conception - at the point when the sperm fertilises the egg, that's when life begins.

Supernumerary (retired) minister
Ah, the innocence of youth... pity they have it all wrong. Listen to the voice of experience, my son. When the kids have left home, the dog has died, the endowment policy has paid out, and you have dispensation from attending Circuit Quarterly Meetings and Synod, that's when life begins!

Friday, 15 February 2008

What wearing a clerical collar means

Living and working in the South of Johannesburg means that I generally try to avoid the North - especially with that traffic! But last week I had an appointment in Fourways, so I took the opportunity of popping into the Methodist Bookshop (or Christian Connexion Resource Centre as they are known nowadays) at the Bryanston Methodist Church.

But it was not only books that were on my shopping list this particular day. Although at that stage I was still to go through candidate screening, and there is still the essay and Synod to come, I decided to start stocking up on clerical wear so that I had sufficient quantities for when I enter Phase 1.

"Why so soon", you may ask. It's a simple matter of availability and economics. Unlike ordinary work shirts, clerical wear is not available at your nearest Woolies or Edgars. Also, a clerical shirt does not go for R69.99 like the ones I wear as a Local Preacher - these things cost over 200 bucks apiece! So the thinking is that if I buy one each month between now and the end of the year, I should have a reasonable stock of shirts to see me through the initial years of probation.

Being a "virgin" clergy shirt shopper, I had to try one on for size, since this particular make of shirt does not go by collar size but comes in small, medium, large, etc. When I tried the shirt on for size, the collar was a little tight. It's not that the collar was too small, but that there was a HUGE lump in my throat as I saw myself in "minister's garb" for the first time.

This got me thinking about what it means to wear clericals. One of the questions that was posed to me during candidature screening was whether I truly felt called to minister, or whether I just fancied the idea of putting a plastic insert into my shirt and being called "Reverend".

Thankfully I had given this matter some thought beforehand, largely as a result of a piece that I had read on Rev Ken Collins' website. One of his articles entitled "Why clergy should wear clericals" makes a case in favour of clergy wearing such clothing, and provides insight into what wearing clericals should symbolise to the world at large.

Why Clergy Should Wear Clericals
(Copyright ©1995-2008 by the Rev. Kenneth W. Collins. Reprinted with permission.)

There are situations in which clothing is very important. I found this out by accident once, when I walked into a furniture store, coincidentally wearing the same sort of shirt as the employees. I had to leave because the other customers expected me to wait on them.

Clothing conveys a message. A business suit says, “Money!” A police uniform says, “Law!” A tuxedo says, “Wedding!” Casual clothing says, “Me!” Clericals say, “Church!” Any of those messages might be valid in different contexts, so you have to make sure you are wearing the right clothes for the occasion. If you wear a business suit in a department store, people will mistake you for the manager. If you wear a tuxedo to a ball game, they won’t ask you to play. If you wear a jogging outfit to a fancy restaurant, your clothing says, “I wandered in here by mistake,” and the staff will treat you accordingly.

The word clericals refers to the special clothing that clergy wear outside of worship services, usually consisting of a white collar on a black shirt (for male clergy) or on a black blouse (for female clergy), combined with other clothing that is either black or grey.

If you are a pastor and you think you are aggrandizing yourself when you wear clericals, you’ll be disappointed. The congregation quickly gets used to the clericals and they see them as badges of service, not honour. Clericals put you in the same functional category as bellhops, waiters, police officers, airline pilots, and so on. We do not dress to please ourselves, or anyone else for that matter; our manner of dress facilitates our service. It makes our function obvious to strangers. It makes our duties inescapable, and it constrains our personal conduct, because we can’t disappear into the crowd when we are wearing clericals.

Clericals mean that visitors don’t have to ask, “Where is the pastor?” They know just by looking.

Clericals also have other advantages. They communicate to the congregation that you are not a proxy child, a potential date, a worldly expert, or a bosom buddy. It allows you to focus on the job of pastoring, without slipping and sliding into those role conflicts and boundary issues your denomination keeps warning you about.

A friend of mine, who was ordained in the United Church of Christ, was required by his ministerial association to wear a clergy shirt with a tab collar while he was travelling. He thought it was a huge imposition on his personal liberty, until he obeyed. On the aeroplane, he heard a confession, reassured a frightened traveller, and calmed a terrified child. He was delighted that a routine air flight had turned into pastoral ministry.

If you are clergy and you’ve never worn a clergy shirt to visit people in the hospital, you should try it. The clergy shirt means you don’t have to explain what you are or why you are there. The staff extends you all necessary courtesies, and even delirious patients know right off what you are. You can get in after visiting hours and quite often you don’t have to pay for parking, even if you’ve never been to that particular hospital before. Of course the catch is, you have to be on your best ministerial behaviour the entire time you are there, so this is not something you should try if your self-discipline is weak.

If I called the police because of a burglary in my house, I would not be reassured if the police showed up driving a sports car with his kids in the back, and wearing jeans and loafers. If I am in distress because of a crime, I want the police to arrive in a police car and I want them to be wearing freshly pressed uniforms. If I have just been through a burglary, I don’t need a buddy, I don’t need a narcissist expressing himself in his clothing, I need a policeman. I need a policeman who will carry out the law, not his self-expression. I could care less about who he is personally; I called him as a representative of a greater force.

Similarly, if I am on my deathbed, facing the greatest spiritual crisis in my life, I don’t want a buddy to come express himself. I want a properly uniformed and equipped minister of God who subordinates himself to his ministry, and who confidently and authoritatively represents God.

Our parishioners deserve nothing less.

When you visit people in the hospital or in jail, for example, what sort of message do you convey with your clothing? If you show up in casual clothes, you are trying to say, “I’m just one of the gang,” but they hear the message, “I’m not taking this seriously.” If you show up in a business suit, you are trying to say, “I’m a well-dressed capable person,” but they hear the message, “I’m a man of the world.”

When you are watching television, you can tell right off what sort of character has just appeared on the screen, because script writers take advantage of our cultural stereotypes to dress the characters to give us the right first impression. For example, if the character is supposed to be an inhibited secretary, they pull her hair back in a bun, put glasses on her face, and give her plain make up. When she loses her inhibitions, they signal the change by removing the glasses, letting her hair down, and improving her make up. Very few actresses play romantic scenes with their hair up in a bun.

So have you been paying attention to the way they dress the characters who are supposed to be clergy? Because women are relatively new to ministry, they almost invariably appear in clericals or tab-collar blouses. However, the men tell us what sort of ministers they are by the way they are dressed:
- If the minister is a shyster who is fleecing his flock for their money, he is most often wearing a sports coat and tie.
- If the minister is the manipulative type who is gradually transforming his congregation into a mind-control cult, he is most often wearing a well-tailored business suit.
- If the minister is an activist who is crusading against the establishment, he is most often wearing casual clothing, with a tab-collar shirt under his sweater or leather jacket.
- If the minister is competent and respectable, and if he is performing a valuable spiritual service (such as a wedding, funeral, or exorcism) in a dignified setting, he is most often wearing clericals on the street and vestments in church.

Objection: But Jesus Didn’t Wear Clericals!
Now of course there is the objection that Jesus allegedly wore the clothing of the working man, not special clothes of the clergy. The assertion doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny in Scripture. In many places, people walked up to Jesus out of the blue, addressed Him as “teacher,” which the New Testament informs us is the translation of the word “rabbi.”

Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?” They said, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?”—John 1:38, NIV

Without knowing who He was (that is, Jesus), they knew what He was (that is, a rabbi), because they asked him to do rabbinical things: to heal the sick, cast out demons, settle disputes, probate wills, and decide religious issues:

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”—Mark 10:17, NIV

If they thought He was a rabbi, these were reasonable expectations, because those were the duties of rabbis. However, in John 7, Jesus attends a festival at the Temple and even though everyone is talking about Him, they are unaware that He is among them in the crowd. Since there was no photography in those days, we can understand that strangers would not recognize Him by His face. There was no television newscaster to say, “Galilean rabbi draws large crowds with His controversial miracles—film at eleven.”

However, after his brothers had left for the Feast, he went also, not publicly, but in secret. Among the crowds there was widespread whispering about him. Some said, “He is a good man.” Others replied, “No, he deceives the people.” But no one would say anything publicly about him for fear of the Jews. Not until halfway through the Feast did Jesus go up to the Temple courts and begin to teach. The Jews were amazed and asked, “How did this man get such learning without having studied?”—John 7:10-15, NIV

So we have to ask: how could they know He was a rabbi in one circumstance, but not in another? Why were people surprised by His expertise at the Feast in John 7:10-15, when they took it for granted in situations such as Mark 10:17? The only explanation is that they knew by the way He was dressed. When they addressed Him as a rabbi, He must have been dressed like a rabbi; the surprise was not that He was a rabbi, but how He handled their requests. In John 7, they did not recognize Him as a rabbi, so they were surprised that He knew rabbinical things. He must not have been dressed as a rabbi. The only way He could attend the Feast “in secret” was to go without wearing rabbinical clothes.

While Jesus definitely did not wear a black shirt with a white collar, He obviously wore the first-century equivalent. So clergy who wear clericals are imitating Christ. I think the clergy who do not wear clericals have the more difficult position to defend.

Objection: Some People Have an Adverse Reaction to Clericals!
Conflict-avoidant people raise this objection, but there are two problems with letting other people’s phobias dictate your wardrobe. The first is that you are not solving their problem by changing your clothes, you are only letting it fester unresolved. The second is that if you are driven by your own fears of what other people will think of you, you’re on a slippery slope to second-guessing yourself into total ineffectiveness as the Rev. Milquetoast. If someone has a problem with clerical dress, at least this exposes it so you can help them overcome it. I observe, however, that this problem is more apprehension than substance.

Recently, a colleague of mine visited my church. I knew he had a chasuble and that he liked it, so I invited him to bring it and wear it—which he did. One of my parishioners admired the chasuble. When I told her that he doesn’t wear it in his own church because he’s afraid his congregation won’t like it, she looked very frustrated and said, “Sometimes you just have to assert yourself!”

A person who is assertive without being authoritarian or bossy is said to have a strong character.

Objection: But a Collar Would Make Me Look Catholic (or whatever)!
Don’t bet on this one, either. One Sunday I went to lunch with some of my parishioners. The restaurant was so crowded that you couldn’t inhale without saying “excuse me” to someone. As we got up to leave, we walked past a booth with a well-dressed family. Their son was sitting on a chair at the end of the table. The young man grabbed me by the hand and said, “Pastor!” Then he saw my face and was confused that I wasn’t who he thought I was. He said, “You are a pastor, aren’t you?” and I said, “Yes, I’m pastor of Garfield Memorial Christian Church,” and gave his father my card. The father explained that they were members of a Lutheran megachurch that is nearby. The young man asked me, “Is Garfield a Lutheran church?” and I said, “No,” and turning to his mother who was looking at me, I said, “However, if you sat in our church blindfolded, I bet you couldn’t tell the difference.” And the father nodded, saying we are all alike.

The reason this happened is that for the young man, the collar made me look Lutheran. To an Episcopalian, it would make me look Episcopalian. In some areas, it would make me look Methodist. Orthodox clergy have taken to wearing black shirts with white collars. Recently someone wrote to me to say that in his country, rabbis wear black shirts with white collars.

My parishioners who witnessed this exchange were very proud of their church. In their minds, it made our little church just as important as the Lutheran megachurch, because I received the same treatment as the Lutheran pastor for whom I had been initially mistaken. This is not a bad thing.

And by the way, the inventor of the clergy shirt, the Rev. Dr. Donald McLeod, was not Catholic.

Objection: None of This Applies to my Congregation!
You may be surprised on this one, too.

Some time ago, I attended the installation of a pastor. Her church was a startup, so the installation service took place in another church’s building. She had worked out all the arrangements with the host pastor over the phone, so she had never seen him before. The startup church was Disciples of Christ and the host church was one of those independent community megachurches. Neither congregation had ever experienced clergy wearing clericals before; I was the only one there in a collar, so this was definitely the acid test.

I severely overestimated my travel time, so I arrived at the church much too early. As I was standing in the narthex in my clergy shirt, the guest of honour walked in the door. She walked right up to me and began thanking me profusely for everything I had done. She had mistaken me for the pastor of the host church—whom she had never seen before—even though she had no reason to expect the pastor of an independent community church to wear a collar.

About a half hour later, someone else mistook me for the host pastor, which was very embarrassing for him, because he was standing right next to me at the time. Later, I was mistaken for the host pastor a third time! Now all the other clergy were beginning to feel a little out of uniform, because I was the only one whom lay people perceived as clergy.

After the service was over, someone complimented me on my lovely wife, which was strange, because I’m not married. Then I realized that the person had met the pastor’s wife and presumed I was her husband—after all, I was the one wearing the collar.

All this happened in an environment where it was not customary for clergy to wear collars.

The lesson is that if you dress like a minister, everyone will think you are one.

One day, Lord willing, I will have the privilege of being a Methodist minister, and in fulfilment of this office I will wear a collar. But if my motivation for doing so is to make myself out to be something more than I am, and not as a "badge of service" to our Lord Jesus Christ, then pull the plug now, for I am not fit to enter the ministry.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

ooh la la...

This is the message that is enscribed on the delectable little box of choccies that my gorgeous, loving, supportive, Proverbs 31 wife bought me for Valentines' Day. She said that she knows that today is still the 13th, but she couldn't wait until tomorrow to give them to me.

After having known each other for 20 years, enjoying 16 of those in happy, holy matrimony, Belinda still knows how to keep things fresh...


I can't believe that already two days have passed since twelve nervous ministry candidates assembled at the Methodist Community Centre in Jabavu, Soweto, to undergo what is (so far) our biggest and most daunting test on the road to becoming Methodist ministers. But it has taken me that long to gather my thoughts around what happened on one of the most important days of my entire life.

Upon arrival, we were informed that we were to undergo two rounds of screening - one to test our theological knowledge, and the other to ascertain (and hopefully confirm) our calling to ministry.

The day started peacefully enough, but the silence was soon shattered by the roar of a fairly large-looking BMW motorcycle. Thinking at first that it was a Hell's Angel who had got lost and was about to take his anger out on us, I was greatly relieved to learn that the owner of this fearsome machine was none other than Rev Dr Dion Forster, who would be representing the church's Education for Ministry and Mission Unit on one of the theology panels. No wonder you call that machine "The Beast", Dion - compared to my little Vuka, that bike is HUGE!

The bell rang (in my mind, at least), and it was Round One for me - theology!

The first "punch" came in the form of the question: "Who is God?" Now I must confess that I was a bit flummoxed at first - not with the question of who God is, but rather how to answer it appropriately. So I figured that I would approach it as though I had been asked "who is Belinda" and having to describe her as what she means to me - wife, friend, companion, mother to my son. But describing God in this manner - wow! He is of course God - creater of the world, almighty, being above all others, beginning and the end. But He is also my Father, friend, comforter, giver of wisdom.

And oh, Lord, did I need wisdom in that screening session! For the next question concerned my references to God in the masculine, using terms such as "He", "King", and "Father". What if God is female? Hey - who am I to limit God to a particular gender? God is God, after all. But the question is designed to make us think about our theology, rather than to just regurgitate what we have been taught.

And having Dion in that committee was quite nerve-wracking! Looking a little like Bill Gates with those glasses, laptop perched on his knees (an Apple Mac, so that kind of blows the analogy of the world's richest nerd out the water), he was tapping away furiously on his keyboard every time I uttered a word! However, despite what he said on an earlier post about being nicer in writing than in person, he really did put me at ease.

So having survived the remaining questions - the MCSA's mission statement and imperatives (with me forgetting the most important one, Spirituality - eish!), its stance on same-sex relationships, my understanding of Jesus' addressing of God as "Father", and finally, having to share on the "one thing" that bothers me most about the MCSA - I came out feeling quite good about the whole process. This was going to be easy!

Er - no, it wasn't. For the most gruelling and stressful experience of my entire life was about to follow - the panel that was to determine whether my candidature was based on a genuine calling from God or my misguded concept of what a dashing figure I would cut, wearing a clerical collar and being addressed as "Reverend".

I don't want to go into too many details here, but let me say that by lunchtime I felt like the South African cricket team after Australia had posted 434 runs in the first innings of "that" One-day International match at The Wanderers.

It's as though the panel's brief was to presume that none of us were in the remotest way called of God, and that they would hold onto this view until the candidate could prove otherwise. And I was having an extremely hard time convincing them that God had indeed called me to the full-time, itinerant ministry. By the time the session was over, my wife was in tears and I felt as though my integrity had been totally violated.

After we had been blessed with what would have been an amazing lunch if it was not for the fact that my emotional state made the whole thing taste like cardboard, I was called back to appear again before the panel. "Here we go again," I thought. "Another hiding in store for me".

But this time, it was though I was appearing before a different panel. The faces were the same, and the accents still sounded like they had done earlier, but the whole tone was far less belligerent. They asked me a couple of questions to clarify some things that had not been discussed earlier, and suddenly I was not being sent home! It was as though I had been given a chance to come out for the second innings, and the bat was starting to connect with the ball.

However, it was far from over - now we had to wait until all candidates had been screened by both panels, and then the committee members had to meet to discuss each candidate in detail. Only an expectant father who has paced up and down the maternity ward while his wife is giving birth to their child can begin to understand what it's like to wait for the announcement that will change your whole life forever!

As the time stretched into the late afternoon, so the "gallows humour" became darker. Until finally, at about 5:30 pm, we were called in one by one to hear the outcome of the committee's deliberations.

Would we be given the Church's blessing to proceed to the next stage, or would we be sent back to our Circuits with our tails between our legs?

By the time the first two candidates had gone in, only to return with the dreadful news that they hadn't made it, I was already contemplating a career with the South African Revenue Service. But it was when the first successful candidate emerged, crying his eyes out and mumbling "God is great... God is great..." that a peace came over me. At that point I decided that no matter what the outcome was, God would still be great. Jesus Christ would be Lord of my life, no matter what any human committee could decide about my future. I was convinced that God had called me to serve in ministry, regardless of whether the panel felt otherwise. And there are many worse things that could happen to me than to have to come back next year and try again.

Finally, my name was called. As I walked up the steps once again, I could hear drums beating in my mind - a little like the final execution scene in Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves! At that point, I was convinced that the Church was about to flush me.

Then I heard those words of grace. No, it wasn't "Your sins have been forgiven" this time, but our District Supervisor of Studies saying, "Theology screening 72%, general screening 50%. Congratulations, Steven - you may proceed to the next stage of your candidature."

I nearly fell down the steps on the way out, rushing headlong into my wife's arms. We were all crying - myself, and the others who had made it through. These were the people that I am likely to journey with though the next five years. Now I can begin to understand the bond that develops between those who candidate together, go through probation together, and are ordained together.

If ever I am called upon to be part of a candidates' screening panel, I ask of You, Lord - please allow me to remember what this day was like, and help me to understand how I felt, so that I can show compassion to those who may be appearing before me.

A special word of thanks has to go to Rev Nick Prinsloo, who spent the entire day at Jabavu supporting the two candidates from our Circuit, Christine Laubscher and myself. Nick, God placed you there for a reason. Your prayers and support during my darkest hour, just as I had come out of the general screening session for the first time, mean more to me than you will ever know. The memory of your boldness in standing up on my behalf will never leave me for as long as I live. It is thanks to the grace of God working through you that I am proceeding to the next stage rather than going back to my Circuit, wondering what went wrong. You know what you did, and for this I can never thank you enough.

And finally, to the one holy and almighty God, Who was, and is, and is to come - I praise and thank You for calling me to Your service, and for being there and confirming Your call even when I was beginning to doubt. You have proved time and time again that You will never leave me nor forsake me.

Glory to God the Father, in the name of my Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, through the almighty power of the Holy Spirit - three persons, one God, now and forever more.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

An upbeat view amid the gloom...

One can quickly become drawn into the doom and gloom, joining in all the braai-side commentary about Eskom and it's blackouts (sorry, "previously illuminated areas"), the JSE taking a dive, the Rand starting to look like a Mickey Mouse currency again, and the administrators of South African cricket threatening to take the Mickey out of the team.

So it was quite refreshing to read this letter written by Alan Knott-Craig Jr, MD of wireless Internet service provider iBurst, to his employees earlier this year. As you read it, remember this passage from God's Word: "As a man thinks in his heart, so is he" (Proverbs 23: 7)

MD's message - What a start to 2008...

2008 has certainly started with a bang! The future was rosy on 31 December 2007, but suddenly everyone is buying candles and researching property in Perth!
A combination of recession in the USA, global equity market negativity, high interest rates, the National Credit Act and power outages have combined to create the perfect storm.

But don’t panic!

This is not the first time there’s been doom and gloom. Every few years the same thing happens. We experience massive economic growth, everyone is optimistic and buying Nescafe Gold, and holiday homes, and Merc’s. The positivity gets ahead of itself and the economy overheats, and then panic sets in because the economy seems to be collapsing when in actual fact it’s simply making an adjustment back to a reasonable level.

It happened in 1989, when SA defaulted on its international loans and the stock market and Rand crashed, it happened in 1994 when the ANC took power and everyone thought war would break out, it happened in 1998 when interest rates hit 25% and you couldn’t give away your house, and it happened in 2001 when a fairly unstable guy by the name of Osama arranged for 2 Boeings to fly into the tallest buildings in New York!

On each of those occasions everyone thought it was the end of the world and that there was no light in sight. And on each occasion, believe it or not, the world did not actually end, it recovered and in fact things continued to get better.

I think 2008 will be a tough year, but I also see it as a great opportunity to seize the day whilst everyone else is whinging and get a front-seat on the inevitable boom that we’ll experience in 2009, 2010 and beyond.

Make sure you make a mental note of everything that is happening now, because it will happen again and again, and if you don’t recognize the symptoms you’ll be suckered into the same negativity, and forget to look for the opportunities. It’s easy to be negative. Subconsciously, you WANT to be negative! Whenever you open the papers they tell you about the goriest hi-jacking and the most corrupt politicians. Why don’t they dedicate more pages to the fact that Joburg is the world’s biggest man-made forest, or to the corruption-free achievements of the vast majority of public officials? Because bad news sells. Good news is boring.

SA still has the best weather in world! We’re lucky enough to possess a huge chunk of the world’s resources, i.e.: gold, platinum, coal, iron. The growth in India and China will continue to accelerate (India and China sign 10mil new mobile customers every month), and so will their demand for our resources. The government has already embarked on massive infrastructure projects (some of them a tad late, i.e.: electricity), and this will pump money into the economy.

We are all lucky enough to be a part of the birth of a massive and all-encompassing industry. The Internet has and will continue to change the world. The enormity of its impact is up there with the wheel, electricity, TV, telephones, and possibly man’s greatest ever invention, coffee. Not only does it open up an entirely untapped world of commerce, but it is also the ultimate disseminator of information and news. Apartheid would not have lasted 40 years if the Internet had existed! And you’re part of it!

I’m looking forward to another year of ASA complaints, IR issues, Plug & Wireless parties, BTS roll-outs, billing runs, irate customers, happy customers, orange bubbles, faulty elevators, etc, etc. The nice stuff makes me feel good, and the challenges remind me why we can beat the competition. Most importantly I’m looking forward to having fun and making memories. So ignore the doomsayers, install a timer on your geyser, and buy Ricoffy for a couple of months.


Alan Knott-Craig
MD iBurst

Communications overload!

I arrived in my office this morning, having not checked my e-mail since Saturday night. Now I can hear the cries from those who harbour a stronger addiction to technology than me: Shock, horror - how can you be such a Philistine barbarian and not read e-mail for two whole days? You horrid sinner, you!

But I had good reason for neglecting to minister to my trusty Dell for all this time.

Sunday included me taking a service at St Andrews, followed by my attendance at an induction service of four ministers and one deacon into our Circuit. Then a quick bite to eat with my family, and thereafter an afternoon spent at a Pastoral Commission (forgive me, Lord, for I must have sinned greatly to be called to serve on these commissions...).

Yesterday was the Screening Committee interviews to test my theological knowledge and call to the ministry, as part of the process towards becoming a Methodist minister. I must say that it was quite tough, and I am still trying to gather my thoughts around what was an extremely stressful day!

So the result this morning was that when I clicked on the icon for Microsoft Outlook, all the lights in our area dimmed as 117 e-mails came thudding into my inbox. As soon as I have managed to wade through them all, I'll write something more detailed about yesterday's events at Jabavu.

Saturday, 9 February 2008

Ahh... isn't she beautiful?

For all those Vespa fans out there - this is what cheapskates like me use to get from A to B. It's a Vuka XL110, and I get around 140-150km on a tank of fuel (3.5 litres). It costs me around R27 to fill, even after the latest fuel price increases.
Unfortunately it's not very fast - I can get about 80km/h if I really wind it, and its engine size prevents me from going on freeways (although can you imagine doing 80 on a Gauteng freeway? Yikes!), but given that I will be on a Phase One stipend next year, it's the one way that I can get around to doing my ministry work without breaking the bank.
And the best thing of all about this bike - it's paid for!
I'd obviously like something a little more powerful at some stage - Suzuki make a stunning 400cc scooter (and a 650 as well, but that's a bit too big for my liking). Or perhaps Dion and Wessel will try to get me to "see the light" and look at a Vespa. But that'll have to wait for a couple of years...

"Free Saturday"? What's that?

Looking (as I usually do) at Dion Forster's blog when firing up my trusty Dell laptop, I noticed that he was asking the question, "What do you do on a 'free' Saturday"?

Free Saturday? What is that? Is it one of those obscure Greek customs that we are going to be quizzed about at candidates' screening on Monday?

I'm beginning to discover that just like the Seventh Day Adventists, Methodists also go to church on Saturdays. The only difference is, it's not for worship, but for Meetings. Council meetings, strategy meetings, disciplinary meetings (yes, sadly, we have those too), training meetings, and meetings to schedule other meetings. So far, EVERY Saturday in 2008 has had some or other meeting.

Just last week I received a 'phone call from Faith Whitby, who has kindly given up her only free Saturday to meet with the ministerial candidates to give us an idea what we can expect from those ogres and trolls we have heard about who make up the screening committees, and to put our minds and hearts at ease.

But convening a meeting with 30 people is no easy task, and so she gave us two possible dates - last Saturday, or today. Talk about being caught between a rock and a hard place - last Saturday was leadership training, while this Saturday was meant to be a Church Council meeting (which was cancelled due to a funeral, so we need to reschedule that one). Either way, I was going to annoy someone, so I went for last week so that I could get the rebuke for my absence over and done with.

I think it's time I started taking the advice of Nick Prinsloo, a new minister in our Circuit, who told me that one of the most important words to learn in ministry is "no".

Now looking at my diary, I see that 1 March 2008 has no entries in it, so if anyone wants to have a meeting on that day, be my guest. If they want me at it, the answer is NO! I can always blame Nick...

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Bishop Paul Verryn - a tribute to a great man of God

Then the King will say to the people on his right, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father! Come and possess the kingdom which has been prepared for you ever since the creation of the world. I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink; I was a stranger and you received me in your homes, naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me.'

The righteous will then answer him, 'When, Lord, did we ever see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we ever see you a stranger and welcome you in our homes, or naked and clothe you? When did we ever see you sick or in prison, and visit you?'

The King will reply, 'I tell you, whenever you did this for one of the least important of these followers of mine, you did it for me!'

Matthew 25: 34 - 40, Good News Bible

Much has been written about the events of the past week concerning the police raid on Central Methodist Mission and the arrest of many of the refugees to whom this particular church provides shelter. The resulting media frenzy meant that if one did not know who Bishop Paul Verryn was before, they surely do now!

But I don't want to focus on the refugee issue in this particular post, but would rather share some of my own thoughts on the man himself.

I must confess that I cannot claim to know our Bishop all that well. We are not what one would refer to as "house friends". My relatively recent involvement in District affairs (2 years), lowly status at the bottom of the ministerial food chain, and the Bishop's punishing schedule probably has much to do with that. So our relationship can be regarded as "professional".

But that's not to say that I don't like Paul, although that was not the case at first. My first exposure to him was a few years ago, and was my first taste of his "legendary timekeeping" for which he is known throughout our District.

Our Circuit was hosting Synod, and as Circuit Treasurer I was controlling the purse strings. Naturally, as District Bishop and having overall responsibility for Synod, Paul wanted to meet with the organising committee to ensure that everything was on track. We had all worked hard, were tired, tempers were becoming a little frayed, and we just wanted to get the meeting over and done with.

Except that Paul was late. And I don't mean 10 or 15 minutes, either. After about 45 minutes, I was ready to blow. "Who does he think he is? Does he think that we have nothing better to do? Just because he's the Bishop, doesn't mean he can disrespect our time like this!"

Oh Lord - how I had to repent for that outburst when I realised just what responsibilities this precious servant of our Lord Jesus Christ actually carries as the Bishop of our District.

This came home to me quite forcibly about 18 months ago, shortly after God had called me to full-time ministry, as I became embroiled in one of the worst crises that I could remember ever taking place in our Circuit. I got dragged in because one of the first symptoms of a major problem in a Society is when Circuit assessments don't get paid.

The amount of time that Paul spent with the Society concerned was astounding - especially considering that the Central District is spread across an area extending from Central Methodist Mission in a southerly direction as far as Ennerdale (40km south of Johannesburg, and in a westerly direction as far as Vryburg, nearly 350km away. 14 000 square kilometres - that's a lot of Methodists!

I subsequently discovered that Paul gets similarly involved with each one of the approximately 21 Circuits in the District. And that's when I decided to try to understand a little bit more about what he has on his plate.

The "District Diary" - the annual schedule of meetings that is published at the beginning of each year - runs to about four pages. Then there are all the mediation meetings, consultations, and responsibilities in his own Circuit and Society. That's a lot of meetings!

So is Paul just an administrator, rushing from meeting to meeting? Not at all - he is, first and foremost, a pastor. I have been involved on occasions where he has had to deal with major breaches of discipline, threats of a congregation being rendered in two, and serious financial mismanagement. While he is harsh with those who display arrogance - his recent comments concerning the actions of the police during the Central raid bear testimony to that - his compassion and tenderness to the repentant is an example of how grace can bring about restoration in situations where law would result in a complete breakdown of relationships.

Then there is the Paul Verryn who opens his heart and his doors to the poor. I've read the stories about how he provided sanctuary to people during apartheid's darkest days, and cannot even begin to imagine the trauma that he must have gone through when four youths (including political activist Stompie Seipei) were abducted from his Orlando East manse, and then to subsequently be accused of indecent acts towards these youths by none other than Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who was implicated in Seipei's murder.

Anyone in a similar situation would be forgiven for saying, "That's it. No more. I'm just going to mind my own business in future."

Not Paul. His bravest and most courageous manifestation of his "open door policy" was yet to come - opening the doors of the Central Methodist Mission to provide sanctuary to about 1 000 refugees, mainly from Zimbabwe, who would otherwise have had to sleep on the cold and dangerous pavements of central Johannesburg.

I have also had the privilege of hearing Paul preach on occasion - mainly when inducting new ministers into our Circuit. All I can say is that when he gets into a pulpit, he sets it on fire. His demeanour when preaching clearly shows that even having been ordained for 30 years, his response to the call of God on his life is stronger than ever, and I will not forget his charge to the new ministers during the 2007 induction service as long as I live.

But the biggest impact that Paul had on me was when our minister had invited my family to supper one Saturday evening, and had invited Paul as well. We were requested to be there by 5 pm, started eating at 7, and were still chatting around the dining-room table when Paul arrived at around 10. Despite being absolutely shattered from a typical day in the life of our Bishop putting out various fires around the District, and ready to eat a horse, he put aside all of that to engage us in conversation.

Before I even realised what was happening, I was sharing with Paul how God had called me to full-time ministry during the 2006 Synod, and my family was also chipping in with their feelings about my call, how they responded, and their excitement for what was to come.

Even in his tired state, Paul showed sufficient concern to ensure that I was registered for the correct subjects at TEE College to enable me to candidate this year. If it wasn't for him I would have had to wait an extra year as I had not, at that time, been registered for sufficient credits.

But what struck me was how Paul responded to each one of us. When you talk to him, he is totally focused on you and what you are saying. It's as though no-one else exists. Then it struck me - this incredibly busy man, who had not eaten anything that whole day, and whose bed must have been calling him so loudly that he could hear it all the way from Jabavu to Turffontein - this man, who was having his ear bent by this pipsqueak telling him all about a calling to ministry, was for those brief moments regarding me as the most important person in the entire world.

I would imagine that this is how Jesus must have treated all people with whom He came into contact with - regardless of who they were, what they may had done, and how insignificant they may have been in the eyes of society, He saw each and everyone as valuable, precious, and worthy of His attention.

So Paul, if you should ever happen to read this, I want to tell you that I love you with the love of Christ. You have influenced my life in ways that I would never have considered possible. Your bravery and strength in the face of many trials and tribulations are an inspiration. I can only hope and pray that once I have been in the ministry for 30 years, I will have the energy, zeal and passion for God's work that you do.

My prayers and those of my family are with you as you continue to fulfil the call that God has so clearly placed on your life. May you continue in His strength.

Don't touch that offering!

The offering had just been received, and while the congregation was settling down for the sermon, a little boy was playing with some of the coins he had taken as "change" from the offering plate.

Suddenly, the mother started screaming. The congregation turned to see what the commotion was, to find that the boy had swallowed one of the coins that he had been playing with, and was busy choking.

In the midst of all the panic, a quiet unassuming chap walked over to the boy and grabbed him by the testicles. He squeezed gently at first, but gradually increased the pressure until eventually the boy coughed up the coin, which the man caught in mid-air and returned to the offering plate.

The congregation erupted in spontaneous applause as the colour of the boy's face began to return to normal. The mother went over to the man, gave him a huge hug, and said, "You're amazing! I've never seen anyone help a choking person like that. Are you a doctor or a paramedic?"

"No, ma'am," the man replied. "I'm the church treasurer."

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Christian one-liners

My friend Reinhold sent me these today - they are classic! Feel free to stick one at the bottom of your church bulletin each week...

  • Don't let your worries get the best of you; remember, Moses started out as a basket case.
  • Some people are kind, polite, and sweet-spirited until you try to sit in their pews.
  • Many folks want to serve God, but only as advisers.
  • It is easier to preach ten sermons than it is to live one.
  • The good Lord didn't create any thing without purpose, but mosquitoes come close!
  • When you get to your wit's end, you'll find God lives there.
  • People are funny; they want the front of the bus, middle of the road, and back of the church.
  • Opportunity may knock once, but temptation bangs on the front door forever.
  • Quit griping about your church; if it was perfect, you couldn't belong.
  • If a church wants a better pastor, it only needs to pray for the one it has.
  • God Himself doesn't propose to judge a man until he is dead. So why should you?
  • Some minds are like concrete, thoroughly mixed up and permanently set.
  • Peace starts with a smile.
  • I don't know why some people change churches; what difference does it make which one you stay home from?
  • A lot of church members singing 'Standing on the Promises' are just sitting on the premises.
  • We're called to be witnesses, not lawyers or judges.
  • Be ye fishers of men. You catch 'em - He'll clean 'em!
  • Coincidence is when God chooses to remain anonymous.
  • Don't put a question mark where God put a full stop.
  • Don't wait for 6 strong men to take you to church.
  • Forbidden fruits create many jams.
  • God doesn't call the qualified, He qualifies the called.
  • God loves everyone, but probably prefers ‘fruits of the spirit’ over ‘religious nuts’.
  • God promises a safe landing, not a calm passage.
  • He who angers you, controls you.
  • If God is your Co-pilot, swap seats.
  • Don't give God instructions - just report for duty.
  • The task ahead of us is never as great as the Power behind us.
  • The Will of God never takes you to where the Grace of God will not protect you.
  • We don't change the message, the message changes us.
  • You can tell how big a person is by what it takes to discourage them.
  • The best mathematical equation I have ever seen: 1 cross + 3 nails = 4 given.

Monday, 4 February 2008

What's your theological worldview?

I found the link to this test some time back, and thought I would take it and find out (at least according to the website on which the questionnaire can be completed) what my primary theological worldview is.

Well, it seems that I am a dyed-in-the-wool Methodist, according to the results of the test, which appear below:

To be honest, the results are quite a relief, and I can now answer the question "Do you believe and teach our doctrine" with confidence! Of course, whether the Candidates' Screening Committee will accept this in place of interviewing me on Methodist theology, is another matter altogether. Somehow, I have my doubts...

Using a lectionary for your sermons (including a download of the 2008 MCSA lectionary in 2-page format)

I must confess that I was in danger of becoming a "theme preacher" - until I discovered Dion Forster's 4-page outline of Biblical exegesis.

For us ordinary folks, "exegesis" is a technique of interpreting Scripture by getting "behind the text" (understanding the historical background and context in which the passage is written), "in the text" (examining the literary form of the passage itself), and "in front of the text" (applying the passage to our context today).

Dion also makes a strong case for using a lectionary, and since I started doing so, I found out the following three things:

  1. I was no longer faced with the problem of "what can I preach on this week?"
  2. I had to wrestle with the texts to find out what God was saying to me through these selected texts.
  3. I no longer needed to find particular texts suited to being bludgeoned into my chosen theme. Rather, it became more important to identify the theme from the texts.

Naturally, Dion outlines his case for using a lectionary far more eloquently in his exegesis notes than I do -

Allow me to make a case for the lectionary as the first port of call in the search for texts from which to preach Sunday by Sunday. There is no substitute for systematic, ordered preaching which has a long term purpose and structure to it, ensuring that the congregation becomes well informed, is exposed to the main themes of Christian belief and Christian life and, over a period of time, is guided through all the main sections of the Scriptures.

Moreover, preaching the lectionary will ensure that you are willing to wrestle with the Biblical text, rather than just choosing a few well-known passages to support your own theme. Remember that the task of the preacher or teacher is to discover and communicate God’s will and desire to God’s people, not simply to present his or her own ideas or ‘hobby horse’.

A well-coordinated preaching and teaching team can only accomplish this high calling through the use of a well-constructed Lectionary! Working to a lectionary relieves the preacher of the anxiety of deciding what to preach on. It also ensures that what is preached is indeed an exposition of the Scriptures rather than an exposition of the preacher’s favourite opinions, vaguely supported by some craftily selected Biblical texts!

Be careful of trying to find ‘proof texts’ to make a point. Rather, study the scriptures to learn everything you can about God’s character and will, and our relationship as God’s creation to this wonderful God.

The full text of Dion's exegesis notes can be downloaded here. They are well worth reading, and outline the basic principles more succinctly than most textbooks do.

The Methodist Church of Southern Africa publishes each year's lectionary on its website, as well as in the Yearbook. However, their version runs to nine pages, and since I have developed an aversion to killing trees as a result of the message delivered during my trial service, I decided to put my rudimentary Microsoft Word skills to the test and see if I could reduce it to fewer pages.

I managed to get it down to two pages, which is about the limit to which one can take it down without having to resort to using a magnifying glass. If you have one of those fancy photocopiers that does everything short of making you coffee in the morning, you may be able to even print it double-sided on a single page - handy for the jacket pocket or to slot into the back of your Bible.

You can download the 2-page version of the 2008 lectionary here.

Newsflash: Candidate minister faces trial

Well - okay - I'm not referring to THAT kind of trial, but rather a "trial" that all candidates for the Methodist ministry need to face at various points, which is a trial service. As a candidate you need to do two of these - one in your home circuit, and one elsewhere in the district.

My circuit trial service was yesterday, and it seemed that if anything COULD go wrong, it did!

For starters, one of my pet hates is lateness - whether it's me or someone else - and I always try to ensure that I get to a service that I am conducting at least 15 - 20 minutes before the starting time.

I wasn't anticipating any problems yesterday, with us having our annual Covenant Service at 8 o'clock at our own church, St Andrews, and them moving onto Eldorado Park for my trial service at 10. Surely, even with Communion, 2 hours should be more than enough time to complete the first service?

Well, let's say that we cut it rather fine, with the result that our minister suggested that I leave our service early so as to get to the next one on time. However, while a full parking lot would normally be a sight for sore eyes for any minister, it has its drawbacks when you are the first one in. With about 10 cars parked behind me, there was no way that I was going to be able to leave until the service had ended.

Thankfully the Eldorado Park congregation has a strong worship team, so they got the service going while I did a bit of "low flying" through the streets of Eldorado Park in an attempt to not to be too late.

Now I had never preached at a 10h00 service in this particular church before, and while the resident minister had briefed me on the "norm" when it comes to their order of service, nothing could have prepared me for the way in which the Holy Spirit swept through that service. The congregation was singing as though their very lives depended upon it, while the spontaneous outbursts of prayer were both refreshing and uplifting.

In fact, it was such an untypical Methodist atmosphere that I was wondering if I was in the right place! However, the presence of the examining panel sitting at the back of the church (why, Lord, do they always sit at the back?) confirmed that I was indeed in the right place.

And this particular panel was quite intimidating, comprising the Superintendent Minister, two highly experienced Local Preachers, and the local minister who, being a Phase 2 probationer, was the relatively "junior" member of the panel. All in all, these four men have a combined preaching experience of over 100 years, where I have been on trial as a Local Preacher for just over a year! Now I know how the Israelites must have felt when facing Goliath!

Anyway, the service went well, and I felt that I didn't make too many mistakes (except for a tongue-twisting moment during the sermon which was soon sorted out with a liberal swig of water, trying to cope with a pulpit that had a surface for my notes that is angled at about 60 degrees and drops almost to my knees, and committing the unpardonable sin of forgetting that the closing song was to be rendered by the choir, not the worship team). The congregation seemed happy, and I received a number of favourable comments as the members were leaving (after the service, not during - phew!).

Then it was the Moment of Truth - the evaluation of the service.

After some time spent in deliberation, the panel called me into the meeting, and proceeded to go through their report. At my request, they focused on things that I perhaps didn't do so well, and came up with a number of suggestions for improvement. I was beginning to feel relieved that I had survived without threat of excommunication, then one of the panel members dropped the bomb: "Steve, how would you feel if we gave you an "E"?

My heart dropped. "I didn't think that I had done that badly", I stammered.

The Superintendent then climbed in. "Well, Steve, I have to confess that I didn't find too much of Jesus in your sermon." (My message was on global warming and our response as Christians thereto). "You left me with the distinct impression that if I am to have any environmental consciousness, I should rather become an atheist (reffering to a point that I made that athiests and those into New Age tend to have a greater consciousness for the environment than your average Christian)".

Not sure whether I should burst into tears at that point, one of the Local Preachers cracked a huge grin, and said, "Oh stop it guys - you shouldn't tease him like that," at which the entire panel burst out laughing!

I recovered sufficiently from my near-stroke to hear that they had in fact awarded me an "A".

Finding a balance between grace and law...

This past Saturday was our Circuit Local Preachers' Quarterly Meeting, and this particular meeting became quite a marathon affair, with temperatures becoming quite elevated at one point.

The reason for all the heated debate is an underlying problem of discipline we have with a number of our local preachers with regard to their non-attendance at meetings. In an attempt to combat this problem, we agreed as a body that any local preacher who is absent from a Local Preachers' QM, and does not submit a wriiten apology in advance (excepting for emergencies), will not be planned for services during the forthcoming quarter.

"Fair enough", you might reply - except when some Societies enforce the discipline, and others don't.

However, in the midst of all the debate, a proposal was put forward whereby preachers with genuine reasons could apply for dispensation from attending Local Preachers' QM's, provided that they answer the four questions relating to their spirituality and moral conduct, upholding of Methodist doctrine, competence to do the work, and adherence to the Church's discipline, at the local Society.

However, our Laws and Discipline provide that "all preachers shall be examined, and are required to answer the questions, at the Circuit Local Preachers' Meeting every quarter". And the problem is that there does not appear to be any provision for dispensation.

But then again, as one of our ministers pointed out, nor is provision made to grant dispensation to ministers from attending the annual Synod. However, it has become accepted practice for the District Bishop to exercise grace in granting dispensation (e.g. where a supernumerary / retired minister has reached advanced age, or where a minister has health or other problems preventing attendance).

The proviso to this dispensation being granted is that the minister concerned answers the prescribed questions contained in Laws and Discipline, in the affirmative. In this manner, to use Church terminology, "all righteousness is then fulfilled".

I must confess that I am one who tends to harp on discipline. After all, how can we as Local Preachers be people to whom congregations look up to as an example, if we cannot even keep our own rules and disciplines. But there surely must be room for grace as well?

For instance, there is one particular Local Preacher in our Circuit who is a shining example of what a Local Preacher should be. His life and conduct is an exemplary display of what it means to be "in Christ". He keeps his preaching appointments diligently and faithfully. When not conducting services, he is faithful in attending worship. He is active in the local Church, and supports it financially.

His problem? He works on Saturdays, and therefore is not in a position to attend meetings. Should he be penalised because his employment results in him not being able to adhere to Laws and Discipline to the letter?

I believe that we should follow the example of our Bishop, and attempt to find a balance that will both maintain discipline yet also show grace towards otherwise diligent and competent preachers who cannot comply 100% with Laws and Discipline because they are unable to attend meetings. As long as the prescribed questions are answered each quarter in an appropriate forum (such as a Local Preachers' or Leaders' Meeting at Society level), surely the spirit (if not the absolute letter) of Laws and Discipline shall have been complied with?

Perhaps we need to submit a resolution through our district Synods to get Laws and Discipline changed to officially allow us to exercise grace in this manner?