God's Word for today

Monday, 29 September 2008

Getting "that" jittery feeling...

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did other ministers feel this way at the beginning?

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Some thoughts on politicians...

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

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

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

It's about the PEOPLE, stoopid...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh happy day! The love of my life returns home

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

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

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

Monday, 22 September 2008

Unintended bundu-bashing - please pray for my wife

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

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

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Fixed (sort of!)

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

Help! I've broken something on my blog!

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

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

Some light reading...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections on the year ahead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 15 September 2008

Google Ads - not one of my better ideas

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

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

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

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

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

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