God's Word for today

Monday, 2 June 2008

The Church has AIDS

While I was celebrating my 39th birthday last Wednesday (May 28), it was estimated that worldwide there were 2 492 091 new HIV/AIDS infections that same day, according to the "HIV/Aids Barometer" published on the Mail and Guardian website.

According to the June 2006 "Methodist Response to HIV/AIDS - Revised Strategy and Implementation Plan" booklet, this disease is regarded as the "single, common and most violent enemy confronting the whole world today", and goes on to state that "it [HIV/AIDS] has robbed families of their loved ones, leaving orphans vulnerable and totally helpless".

I have to confess that until I started the TEEC course "Facilitating a Christian Response to HIV/AIDS", this was not something that I gave too much thought to. This is despite the fact that I went through a fairly comprehensive HIV/AIDS awareness programme run by Nampak, my then employer, some four years ago.

And despite participlating in the Voluntary Counselling and Testing programme, and testing negative (as I arrogantly expected to do), I didn't change my behaviour.

"What behaviour is that?" you may ask. Well, the fact of the matter is that up to that time I had been engaging in unprotected sex, and am still doing so in 2008.

"Shock! Horror!", you may be thinking as you read these words. "What kind of person are we allowing into the Methodist ministry? Get hold of EMMU quickly! This cannot be allowed!"

I can only hope that I'm not sending cold shivers down my loving wife's spine as she reads these words. For while it is true that I engage in unprotected sex, what is also true is that my wife is the only person on God's great earth with whom I have a sexual relationship of any kind. In fact, the trust within our relationship is such that we literally place our very lives at each other's mercy everytime we come together physically.

If by now you have calmed down enough to realise that the Methodist Church of Southern Africa has not just accepted a promiscuous philanderer as a candidate for its ministry, allow me to raise your blood pressure once again. For it is one's very own sexual purity that is often the biggest cause of prejudice when it comes to HIV/AIDS.

And I need to make my second confession of this post, in that I have been guilty of prejudice towards those who have been infected by this deadly virus. How so: Because since by far the most common way in which the virus is spread is through sexual contact, one automatically assumes that people living with HIV/AIDS must, by definition, have been engaging in inappropriate sexual behaviour.

As a result, many of us as Christians have added to the stigma that has already been attached to this disease. Some have referred to it as "God's judgement on the sexual promiscuity of this generation".

But in case you're wondering where I'm going with this, I'm not about to distinguish between the various ways in which one may have been infected, or the circumstances under which such infection took place. Whether one has been infected through consensual sexual intercourse, rape, mother-to-child transmission, intravenous drug use, or the receipt of contaminated blood from a transfusion (thankfully extremely rare nowadays), is irrelevant in terms of our Christian response to people living with this disease.

I say "irrelevant", because if we attach relevance to the cause of the person who has contracted the virus, we immediately become judgemental. After all, when a member of the congregation becomes afflicted with cancer, we don't get into a whole discussion of how this happened - we provide pastoral and other care to the person. We even show a measure of sympathy for the person who sustains a self-inflicted injury - my severely-sprained toe about a month ago, which was the result of me playing backyard cricket with a bunch of 10 year-olds comes to mind. Yet when it comes to HIV/AIDS, we immediately get all defensive and start judging people according to how the disease was contracted.

Quite frankly, it's none of anyone's business.

Now I'm not saying that the Church should stop teaching on God's standards for appropriate sexual behaviour. Far from it - in fact, one of my gripes is that we don't do enough of this kind of teaching. But this teaching needs to be done in a caring, Christian manner, rather than a judgemental, condemning one.

HIV/AIDS is real. Many in our Churches are living with it. And being judgemental of people isn't going to get us anywhere in trying to prevent it.

I'll be sharing more of my thoughts on this subject as I progress through the TEEC course. But rather than it simply being an exercise to get another credit for a degree, I pray that God will use the course to open my eyes and change my attitude towards those who are living with HIV/AIDS - and most importantly, how to provide appropriate pastoral care. After all, "when one part of the body is affected, the whole body suffers" (1 Corinthians 12: 26). Jesus showed love and compassion to all in His day who were afflicted with disease - we should be no different.

Synod - the lighter side

Talk about flogging a willing horse?! My Circuit decided that seeing as I was required to attend our recent District Synod anyway (because I was appearing before the screening committee as a candidate), I may as well represent the Circuit as a delegate as well. I guess that this means that I will need to present a report from Synod at our next Circuit Quarterly Meeting in July, so I may as well update my blog at the same time.

However, since I am still trying to gather my thoughts together concerning the proceedings at this year's Synod (not to mention still pinching myself to make sure that being accepted as a probationer minister wasn't a dream), the "heavy stuff" will have to come later. In the meantime, allow me to share some of the lighter moments in these humorous quotes from Synod 2007:
  1. In response to my question concerning a Youth Synod resolution proposing the establishment of a Sports Desk aimed at "ensuring that all Methodists participate in sport", which I considered to be a noble sentiment that was however worded rather prescriptively, Bishop Paul Verryn (in reference to my "full Gospel preacher" waistline) remarked that I "needed more participation in sports".

  2. "Never trust a preacher who says 'finally'..." - Bishop Verryn, interrupting during a rather long-winded report from a group who shall remain unnamed... (This cartoon first appeared on the website "The Ongoing Adventures of ASBO Jesus" - my kind of humour!)

  3. "We are the Grade Noughts of 2008" - a reference to the newly-accepted candidates for the ministry, who will commence Phase One of their probation in 2009.

  4. Someone got a bit tongue-tied in an attempt at protocol. Instead of the customary "Bishop and the Synod-at-large", this person addressed us as "Synod and the Bishop-at-large" (sweet revenge for Point 1 above, perhaps?).

  5. "Now we are going to enjoy some organised chaos" - Bishop Verryn again, as he invited the whole of Synod to celebrate with the newly-accepted candidates by coming up to greet us. Many hugs, handshakes, and tears followed!

  6. At the first mealtime, one of the delegates questioned why there were two queues, one much shorter than the other. Rev Brenda Timmer, superintendent minister of the host Circuit, indicated that the shorter queue was for diabetics and vegetarians. "Goody - that's for me, then", he responded, making for the shorter queue. (To my knowledge he was neither diabetic nor vegetarian!)

  7. "You think that now you have been accepted as a candidate, you can come dressed casually?" This was a comment by a disgruntled Phase One probationer wearing a clerical shirt that looked two sizes too small around the neck, which was in response to the fact that while I wore a tie on the Thursday for the candidates' screening, this was dumped smartly in favour of an open-necked shirt on the Friday.

  8. "The males in my family have a congenital defect - our bladders are located between our shoulder-blades and connected to our eyes!" (Bishop-elect Peter Witbooi, explaining why the tears flowed so freely when the results were announced confirming his election as Bishop commencing in 2010, and again that evening when he paid tribute to his family in the service that evening.)

  9. "Some people will do anything to get out of having to attend Synod!" (a reference to Rev Kym Bishop, who is currently on maternity leave.)

  10. "I'm sleeping like a baby at the moment - out like a light for an hour, followed by an hour of crying..." This came from a tired dad, Rev Michael Bishop who, unlike his wife Kym, was not granted dispensation from attending Synod.

  11. "I think I'll try that next year!" (the response from a jealous male Phase One probationer to the female Rev Bishop being granted dispensation. A bit of confusion around gender roles, perhaps?)

  12. "I have bad news...South Rand Circuit still needs a new Circuit Treasurer next year." This was my response to one of our Circuit Steward, Jane Valla, when I was informed that the screening committee sanctioned my acceptance as a candidate, meaning that I would be leaving the Circuit at the end of the year.

  13. "Oh well, Steve ... I tried." These were the first words from Brian Hovelmeier, another of our Circuit Stewards, when he shook my hand during the period of "organised chaos" referred to in 5 above. For the past two years he has been questioning my sanity in giving up a well-paying career in corporate finance to become a full-time minister.

  14. "Well, I always said I was called. I never said anything about being sane!" (My response to Brian.)

  15. "Wow - talk about confidence! What if you didn't make it?" This was the response from a member of the screening committee who was chatting to me afterwards about the need to purchase clerical clothing once I had been accepted as a candidate, after I had informed her that due to the price of such clothing, I had already started buying one shirt a month from January! (The minister who gave me the advice to stock up early just happens to have the same shirt size as me ... should I read anything into this?)

Hell hath no fury like a minister who doesn't get paid!

One of the dangers that has always concerned me when becoming a minister is that I have often seen how the congregation tends to put their ministers on a pedestal. Needless to say, I can always thank Mom for bringing me back down to earth should I ever get above myself. Her views on "all being created equal" can be summed up in her statement: "It doesn't matter who you are - when you go to the toilet, the result stinks equally as much for everyone!"

With this earthy but accurate analogy bouncing around in my sub-conscious, another area where people don't differ too much is in their approach to money. Or more particularly, when there is an expectation of seeing a sum of money in one's bank account on a particular day, and said amount does not appear at the appointed time (unlike the vision in Habakkuk 2)...

Allow me to explain. For my many and varied sins, I have been the treasurer of our Circuit for the past five years, and one of my responsibilities is to pay our ministers' travel allowances each month. The standing practice in our Circuit has been to pay these allowances on the first day of each month. Unfortunately the calendar doesn't always co-operate with the 1st often falling over a weekend or on a public holiday, and for some weird reason known only to the banks, electronic transfers done over the weekend only take effect on the first business day thereafter. However, this apparent failing never seems to afflict bills that are due, and it's often a case of "pay now, or else".

Last month was particularly bad with all the public holidays, and so I made the rare concession of paying the allowances early so as to avoid debit orders and the like being shot down by the Russians over Siberia due to lack of funds. (Insufficient funds? Change banks! How can you deal with a bank that has no money?!) But this month I reverted to the normal pattern, with the allowances being paid this morning.

Now evidently there are a whole lot of bills to be paid between the 25th of the month (the day the Methodist Connexional Office pays in the stipend portion of a minister's package) and the 1st of the next month, because invariably I receive at least two frantic calls on the 1st (and sometimes before the 1st) from panicking ministers enquiring after their allowances.

This time of the month is even more stressful for those ministers who don't bank with Standard Bank (where the Circuit account is held), because while those who do have their accounts with this bank receive their allowances approximately five seconds after I click the "Pay Beneficiaries" icon, those who bank elsewhere have to wait until the next day.

Paying the allowances earlier brings its own set of problems, particularly since Circuit assessments are only due to be paid by Societies on the 7th of the month. Societies are in turn unable to pay assessments any earlier, since they are invariably reliant on the month-end offerings to bring in sufficient funds to pay the Circuit assessments.

This monthly payment ritual has often left me in a quandry. For instance, I have often wondered why we persist with the practice of paying certain amounts at Circuit level, and others from MCO. As Circuits we are required to inform MCO of any amounts paid to ministers - why not go the whole hog and let their payroll department make the payment as well? This, together with a blanket prohibition on payments to ministers other than via MCO, will go a long way towards bringing to an end the making of undeclared payments to ministers at local level.

In many instances such payments are made out of ignorance for the wider issues involved, such as tax compliance and the potential impact on a minister's eventual pension. Besides, this should also not create any additional administrative burden on MCO, since (a) they already record the travel allowance in the payroll system currently, and (b) the effort involved in making a payment does not vary by amount - particularly since this now happens electronically.

Such a process will also ensure that all payments due to ministers are received on time (provided that the Circuits concerned make their payments to MCO on time - but that's the subject of a different rant).

Now I suppose that those of you reading this will ask why I cannot simply just pay the allowances on the 25th as well. Trust me - I've been thinking along those lines already, but need to look at how to balance things out, largely because I inherited a system whereby travel allowances have been paid in advance, while stipends are paid in arrear. In the event of a change-over, paying two lots of travelling in the same month will place severe financial strain on the Circuit. However, the ministers concerned would face an equal degree of financial strain if one had to, say, pay the June allowances on the 1st of June, and the July allowances on the 25th of July!

Believe me - I have empathy with our ministers, for two reasons. Firstly, I have had my own business for the past three years, and so I have much experience of the strain of not having certain clients pay on time. Secondly, I will shortly be a minister myself, and will have first-hand experience of being on the opposite end of a Circuit treasurer who is trying to balance his or her books.

I suppose the answer is to come up with some sort of hybrid approach whereby one can gradually shift the payment of allowances towards the 25th of the month - perhaps the Circuit and ministers can meet each other half-way so that there is no financial hardship on either side. I haven't quite got my mind around how best to do this, so if there are any financial Solomons out there, I'm all ears.

Once I have managed to align the stipend and allowance payment dates, the next step would be to request MCO to pay the whole lot. Life as a Circuit treasurer will be so much simpler then. Just think - once the money has been collected from Societies, there will be just one debit order on the 18th!

Of course, by the time this system is in place, I'll no longer be Circuit treasurer. However, being a minister brings its own set of responsibilities...

Plea from "Teary Black African"

While doing my rounds between the various drop-off and pick-up points for clothing, food, etc. for refugee relief as a result of the recent attacks on foreigners (and, in many cases, locals as well), I came across this letter written by someone who signs themself "Teary Black African". Not what many people want to hear, but something we all need to hear...

I might not be a South African

But I'm black; my skin is the same as yours
My colour is the same as yours
My genes are African, nothing but African
When your leaders were beaten by whites
I was there to shelter them
I was patient with them
I offered them food, shelter
Most of all, I offered them protection

I might be a South African

I can't speak Zulu, 'cause I'm Venda
I can't speak Zulu, 'cause I'm Shangaan
I don't know what an elbow is in Zulu
As much as you don't know it in my language
Since when was Zulu the only South African language?
Yes...I'm not from Gauteng
I was not born here, but I'm South African
Where should I go if you beat me?
I'm not beating your father, mother, brother or sister who works at my area in the mines
I'm not calling them makwerekwere though they can't speak my language

I might be dark in complexion

I might have the foreigners' looks
I might have the foreigners' body structure
Now I am scared to go to the only place that I call home
I'm scared of walking down the street without my ID
Whites wanted me to do that centuries ago
Now you, my black brother, is acting white

Why should you black South Africans do this?

What makes you think that you are better than me?
Who told you that I'm responsible for your unemployment?
Who told you that I'm less human?

If I need to go back to Venda...let all the Zulus go back to KZN
Let all the Tswanas go back to Botswana
Let all the Sothos go back to Lesotho
Let all the Ndebeles go back to kwaNdebele
Let all the Xhosas go back to the Eastern Cape
Yes...let all the Swazis go back to Swaziland

Is this not ignorance?

Your unemployment is your responsibility
Use your intellect
Get up and work
Let education empower you
Seek humanity

Before 1994 you blamed whites
Now you are blaming me
Who are you going to blame after chasing me away?
Who are you going to blame after killing me?

For what it's worth...

I'm sorry I was not born here
I'm sorry I can't speak Zulu
I'm sorry for being too dark for your Jo'burg
I'm sorry for cleaning the toilets you don't want to clean
I'm sorry for doing your garden
I'm sorry for repairing your shoes
I'm sorry for protecting your leaders while they were in exile
Yes...what you call "exile"...is my country
And most of all...I'm sorry for building South African infrastructure

Please, my brothers, let there be peace and prosperity among black African people