God's Word for today

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.


digitaldion (Dion Forster) said...


Paul is a great man indeed.

Keep your eyes and ears open for a TV documentary that should be airing on him called 'In the name of God'.

A crew came to film a couple of minutes worth of footage with me in November last year.

It is sure to be an interesting program to catch!

The one thing I can say, and it is sure to count for Paul and every other great person, is that he is human and has some weaknesses too.

However, there is no person I would rather have on my side in a crisis!



Wessel Bentley said...


I candidated as a 18 year old. The whole synod was against my candidature. Paul argued for close to an hour and eventually they relented. Paul is incredible. Yes, he may raise one's blood pressure at times, but heck he is right more often than not.

Jenny Hillebrand said...

Hi Steven
Just to say 'hi' from a fellow candidate - saw your contribution to Dion's blog.
Will no doubt see you on Monday, unless they've given you Tuesday?

Sample question: What is your feeling on the atonement? Is it propitiationary or substitutionary? Or do you have another view!

No, just trying to be silly. It is a bit scary though! Blessings

Steven Jones said...

Hi Jenny

I drew Monday as well, so will probably see you at Jabavu.

Re your "sample" question - thankfully Faith told us that if we have problems with language, we can request to speak in our mother tongue. Mine's English, by the way...

Blessings for Monday,