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.