God's Word for today

Friday, 26 December 2008

Reflecting on Christmas

I have been trying for the last three hours to reflect on what Christmas 2008 has meant to me, and it has proved to be a most difficult task.

The major change this year has been being in a different place to previous years, having already relocated to my Phase One station in Uitenhage. In previous years Christmas has always been an "at home" affair for my family, and it's not since our honeymoon some 17 years ago that my wife and I have spent Christmas anywhere but at "home".

I need to however place the word "home" in perspective. For my wife, son, and mother, "home" is still going to be Joburg for the near-foreseeable future until such point my moves become less frequent than they are in the early phases of probation. Yet I am somewhat torn in my sense of "home", for if home is meant to be where the heart is, then in family terms "home" will be in Joburg, yet in ministry terms "home" is here in Uitenhage - for the next year, at least.

The other thing that seemed a bit strange this year is that for so many years my local church has been like the pub in "Cheers" - a place "where everybody knows your name". While I have already met quite a few people since arriving here about 2 weeks ago, for the most part my presence at the two services we attended yesterday were punctuated by "who's that" and "is that the new Phase One" being heard around the sanctuary. While the minister who conducted the services did introduce me, I am just a guy with a piece of Tupperware around his neck to most people at this stage.

I've also been extremely slack with presents this year. While my Mom was easy to buy for (Il Divo has just released a CD), and I took the easy way out with my son by giving him some cash (towards a book, a Nintendo Wii game, or whatever), I haven't as yet got anything for my better half!

Last night I had a weird dream involving mostly friends from school. It's as though subconsciously I have re-wound my life 23 years, as I try to put my life into some form of perspective. While many of those school friends would have known that I wanted to become an accountant (one of whom was responsible for the pineapple brew that I refer to in my blog profile), very few know that I have entered the ministry. I would wager that most would probably be shocked!

Now I'm sure that most of you who have stayed with me thus far in ploughing through this post must be asking: "Well, okay, he's a minister, therefore presumably he's a Christian, so where's the 'spiritual bit'? No quotes from Scripture, or lengthy discourses on the Christmas Day sermon?" Well, to be honest, this year it hasn't really "felt" like Christmas to me, probably because of all the changes that are taking place in my life right now.

But one of the things that was mentioned in yesterday's message is that, unlike the words to "Silent Night" may seem to indicate, all was NOT calm when Jesus came to the earth. A young woman becomes pregnant, and despite her child having beeen conceived by the Holy Spirit, she would still have had to deal with the taunts and stigma of one who became pregnant before her wedding day. Then the government decided to conduct a census, forcing the young family to travel just as Mary's pregnancy reached an advanced stage. Then, as she was about to give birth, Bethlehem resembled Durban Beach on New Year's Day and there was no room to be found for love or money. The barn in which the baby Jesus was born was probably not the serene image presented in most nativity scenes - cows, sheep, and goats are NOT the quietest creatures around! Then to add insult to injury, Herod reacts to the perceived threat to his earthly throne in the most dramatic way possible by issuing an order to have all infant boys killed, resulting in another relocation (this time to Egypt)!

So for me, the message of Christmas 2008 is not "silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright" (although I normally love singing this carol). Rather, this year Jesus has once again made Himself real to me by showing that in the midst of chaos and turmoil, that's the moment that He chooses to reveal His presence. Just over 2000 years ago, this presence was in the form of a humble child, born into chaos, to become not only the greatest teacher the world has ever known, but also "the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sins of the world".

Thank You, Lord Jesus, for being there in the midst of chaos.

Sunday, 21 December 2008


No visit to Uitenhage is complete without taking a trip to the Volkswagen factory, and particularly their stunning museum. Admission is however ridiculously expensive - R5 for adults, and R2 for kids and pensioners (great value for those of us on a Phase One stipend!).

Here are some pics from Veedubland...

Check out this cool 50s-style roadhouse, where you could get an "Elvis Burger" for R1.50 if the place was open...

This 1972 Beetle was kept in storage by its original owner, before being purchased for the museum by VW South Africa. It has a geniune 931 km on the clock. My offer of R10 000 was turned down...

Check out this cool beach buggy. I gotta get me one of these!

Camping in a Volksiebus

Q is NOT going to like this...

Out of the blocks...

Life has become nicely settled in Uitenhage now. After nearly two weeks, I have been to a few services, met some of the stewards, found the local Spar, Pick n Pay, KFC, and "wishy-washy" (laundromat to those who don't speak Joburg South), and started to make some headway in my germ warfare against the Uitenhage Mosquito Choir.

And although I am not "officially" on duty until 31 December 2008, when I will be conducting the Watchnight service at John Street (a stunning old church building in the centre of town), I have not only assisted my Superintendent in two Communion services, but this weekend I had the privilege of conducting a funeral service (yesterday), and a morning worship (today), both at St George's (no, not the cricket ground, but I'll be there on Boxing day - watching cricket, that is, not preaching).

While I hate using racial labels, it's sometimes necessary to place a church community in its geographical context. St George's is one of the preaching places in a section of the Winterhoek Circuit referred to as the "Northern Societies", and is located in a predominantly Coloured community. The style of worship is fairly similar to what I have experienced at my former church, St Andrews in Eldorado Park, except that this community is a lot more Afrikaans-speaking than my previous one.

There is a Women's Association whose members wear what appear to be Manyano uniforms (although on closer examination there seems to be a slight difference in the white collar that goes over the red tunic, and of course the WA wears a different badge to the Manyano). Many of the men are members of the Young Mens' Guild (YMG), while in addition, the Local Preachers are members of the Local Preachers' Association. What's refreshing for me is that these members are predominantly coloured, which breaks the stereotype of these organisations within the MCSA being regarded as part of the "black MCSA". All we need now is some whiteys joining up - how about rising to the challenge, pale-faces?

Anyway, here are some pics of St George's. Others will follow shortly (when I remember to take my cellphone, that is!)

This is an old bell tower. I'm not sure when last the bell was rung, but my son needed to be physically restrained from testing it out (preachers' kids!). Perhaps I could start a tradition (similar to that in the Catholic Church in Maranello) by ringing the bell every time Lewis Hamilton wins a race in 2009?

This is the outside of the church, looking at it from the street. I didn't manage to get any pics of the inside, as I got caught up in the proceedings of the service, but the sanctuary inside is lovely. But man, is it HOT?! Especially when you are wearing a clerical shirt, black suit, AND a preaching gown, and it's over 30 degrees outside...

Friday, 19 December 2008

Why Methodism?

There has been some rather interesting (if somewhat despairing) posts appearing by various members of the British Methodist blogosphere concerning the future of the Methodist Church. But one by Richard Hall, a Methodist minister based in Wales (on his blog, connexions), was quite encouraging.

The full text of his post of the same title as this one can be found here, but there are a couple of passages that I'd like to reproduce here.

Concerning a dying Methodist Church:

People have been predicting the demise of the Methodist Church for a long time. Sooner or later, those predictions are going to come true — I can say with confidence that the Methodist Church is dying because I know for certain that the Methodist Church is not eternal. One day, just like every reader of this blog and every organisation that they might belong to, the Methodist Church will be no more.

It doesn’t matter that we’re dying. There isn’t anything anyone can do about that. Death isn’t failure. It’s an inevitable part of life. What matters is what we do with the knowledge of our mortality. That’s as true for an institutional church as it is for an individual. In any case, death and resurrection are central to the Christian gospel. To quote Will Willimon, “We serve a God who lives to raise the dead–even us. Therefore, we work with hope–not hope in ourselves and our efforts, but with hope in Christ.”

Concerning how a movement like Methodism comes into being:

If we were starting from scratch, you wouldn’t "invent" the Methodist Church. It arose, humanly speaking, by accident. John Wesley had no intention of starting a new denomination. But it was John Wesley’s own actions that made seperation from the Church of England inevitable. He put pastoral considerations ahead of Church order: by consecrating Thomas Coke as a Superintendent for the work in North America, Wesley opened a can of worms which led to the creation of the Methodist Church. It might not have been Wesley’s intention, but ‘blame’ for the Methodist Church most definitely belongs to him.

Concerning why people like Richard Hall, and I, and many others, are attracted to the Methodist Church as their "spiritual home"

It’s that pragmatism that continues to attract me to the Methodist Church. The truth is, the people called Methodist are apt to act first and do the theological thinking afterward. The way I read it, every significant development in the life of the church has been driven by practicalities rather than the outcome of a theology. One example will have to suffice. The Methodist Church in Britain has a body of lay preachers who are the envy of other denominations. On any given Sunday of the year, most Methodist pulpits in Britain will be occupied by the Local Preachers, trained, tested and authorized by the church for the conduct of worship and the preaching of the gospel. But the office of the Local Preacher was not dreamt up as a response to thinking through the implications of the ‘priesthood of all believers’. It came about because there simply weren’t enough ordained preachers to serve the growing number of Methodist societies. Pragmatism, not theology, called the shots. Since that time we have developed a robust theology of lay preaching and I would argue that our Local Preachers are a model to which the wider church should pay particular attention.

Richard closes by stating the following: The Methodist Church remains for many a place where God’s love is found and shared. That’s what excites me about the church, what keeps me within it despite its many shortcomings. Of course, God’s love is to be found in many other places too. But the people called Methodist are my spiritual family. That’s not a bond I’d give up lightly.

I often feel that I have a "love / hate" relationship with the Methodist Church here in South Africa, for indeed, like its British counterpart, the MCSA has its own piccadilloes. Having said that, there is no such thing as a "perfect church", and anyone who were to find one would defile it by joining it! But despite the trying times that one experiences in an organisation as large and diverse as the MCSA, it is for the above reasons (and many others) that I am proud to be a Methodist, and humbled to be training as a minister within her ranks.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Life's a beach!

This is what ministers living at the coast do on their days off...

Bureaucrats ... gotta love 'em!

I have spent most of my life dealing with some or other form of bureaucracy, ranging from parental (Mom: "Ask Dad" - Dad: "Ask Mom"), to school and university, to places like the South African Revenue Service (painful at times), the Johannesburg Metro Call Centre (impossible most of the time).

Naturally, being the size and complexity that it is, the Methodist Church of Southern Africa is no different. Anyone who has tried to get a building project approved will have experienced what it is like to move from proposal stage among the society stewards, then to the church council, then the Circuit Quarterly Meeting, and if everyone hasn't bolted through the doors like gibbering idiots by then, onward to the District Trust Property Committee. Finally, if it manages to squeak through there, the proposal then heads off to the Presiding Bishop's office for final approval. Any flaws picked up anywhere in the process results in the whole thing being sent back, and with the various meetings being held on a quarterly basis, if one doesn't get all the "I"s dotted and the "T"s crossed, such a process can take a very, VERY long time!

But when I received this through the e-mail, I was heartened to learn that ours is by no means the worst bureaucracy around!


The US standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. That's an exceedingly odd number.

Why was that gauge used? Because that's the way they built them in England and English expatriates built the US railroads.

Why did the English build them like that? Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways, and that's the gauge they used.

Why did 'they' use that gauge then? Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they used for building wagons, which used that wheel spacing.

Why did the wagons have that particular odd wheel spacing? Well, if they tried to use any other spacing, the wagon wheels would break on some of the old, long distance roads in England, because that's the spacing of the wheel ruts.

So who built those old rutted roads? Imperial Rome built the first long distance roads in Europe (and England) for their legions. The roads have been used ever since.

And the ruts in the roads? Roman war chariots formed the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match for fear of destroying their wagon wheels. Since the chariots were made for Imperial Rome, they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing. Therefore the United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches is derived from the original specifications for an Imperial Roman war chariot. Bureaucracies live forever.

So the next time you are handed a Specification / Procedure / Process and wonder 'What horse's ass came up with it?' you may be exactly right. Imperial Roman army chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the rear ends of two war horses. (Two horses' asses). Now, the twist to the story:

When you see a Space Shuttle sitting on its launch pad, there are two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These are solid rocket boosters, or SRB's. The SRB's are made by Thiokol at their factory in Utah. The engineers who designed the SRB's would have preferred to make them a bit fatter, but the SRB's had to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site. The railroad line from the factory happens to run through a tunnel in the mountains, and the SRB's had to fit through that tunnel. The tunnel is slightly wider than the railroad track, and the railroad track, as you now know, is about as wide as two horses' behinds.

So, a major Space Shuttle design feature of what is arguably the world's most advanced transportation system was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of a horse's ass. And you thought being a horse's ass wasn't important? Ancient horse's asses control almost everything... and CURRENT Horses Asses are controlling everything else.

Aren't we glad that in Christ there is no bureaucracy involved - we have direct access to God! Thank You, Lord, for always being there for us.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

About Uitenhage

To kick off this first phase of my ministry in the town of Uitenhage, where I have been posted as a Phase One probationer for 2009, I thought I'd share some information about the town itself.

My acknowledgements to Wikipedia and The Uitenhage Blog for the following information:

Jacob Abraham Uitenhage de Mist, after whom the town of Uitenhage was named, was a Dutch statesman who lived from 20 April 1749 – 3 August 1823. He was Head of State of the National Assembly of the Batavian Republic from 17 April - 1 May 1797 and Commissioner-General of the Cape Colony during the interregnum from 21 February 1803 - 25 September 1804 in accordance with the short-lived Treaty of Amiens. The Cape Colony had been under Dutch control from 1652. In 1795 it was occupied by the British following the Battle of Muizenberg, but under the final terms of peace between Great Britain, France and the Netherlands – then the Batavian Republic – in 1802, the colony was restored to the Batavian Republic

The Batavian States-General resolved that the executive and legislative authority of the Cape Colony should be committed to a governor and a council of four members, of whom one at least should be by birth or long residence a colonist. The governor was to be also commander of the troops. The high court of justice was to be independent of the other branches of the government, and was to consist of a president and six members, all of them versed in the law. Trade with the possessions of the Batavian Rebublic everywhere was to be subject only to a very small duty. With these principles as a basis, the task of drawing up a plan of administration was entrusted to de Mist, an advocate of high standing and a member of the council for the Asiatic possessions and establishments.

The document prepared by de Mist gave such satisfaction that he was sent out to receive the colony from the English, install the Dutch officials, and make such regulations as he might find necessary. A very able military officer and man of high moral worth – Lieutenant-General Jan Willem Janssens – was appointed governor and was also commander-in-chief of the garrison for which three thousand one hundred and fifty soldiers were provided, and councillors and judges were selected.

de Mist reached Cape Town on the 23rd of December 1802, and next morning went to reside in the Castle of Good Hope. On the 30th, General Dundas issued a proclamation absolving the inhabitants of the colony from the oath of allegiance to His Britannic Majesty (George III) on and after the 1st of January 1803. After a temporary withdrawal of the order to hand over control, at sunset on the evening of Sunday the 20th of February 1803 the English guards were relieved by Dutch soldiers, and next morning the Batavian flag was hoisted on the castle.

After making himself acquainted with the condition of the county, de Mist announced that it would be his duty to prepare a charter which, however, would require ratification by the States-General.

In February 1804, de Mist issued a proclamation which formed several wards of the colony into a new district, and Uitenhage was founded on 25 April 1804 by landdrost (district magistrate) Jacob Glen Cuyler, and named in honour of the Cape's Commissioner-General Jacob Abraham Uitenhage de Mist by the Dutch Cape Colony governor, Jan Willem Janssens.

In July 1804 a proclamation was published by de Mist declaring that all religious societies that worshipped an Almighty Being were to enjoy equal protection under the law, and that no civil privileges were to be attached to any creed. This ordinance also provided for the establishment of schools under control of the government and not belonging to any religious body. Another ordinance of De Mist had reference to marriage and ended the need to travel to Cape Town to obtain a marriage licence and be married by a clergyman. The ordinance permitted couples to be married by a landdrost and two heemraden. However, when the Cape Colony was reoccupied by the British in 1806 at the end of the interregnum, the provisions of the proclamation were annulled and not re-established until 1820. These freedoms today form an integral part of the South African Constitution.

The pronunciation of the town's name depends on whether your home language is English or Afrikaans. The Afrikaans pronunciation, “ay-tin-haach-uh” (the “ch” as in “loch”), favours the original Dutch, while English speakers mostly pronounce it “yoo-tin-haig”.

Uitenhage formed from part of the district of Graaff-Reinet (shortly after its short-lived secession), and in 1877 it became a municipality and remained so until 1994 when it was incorporated with Port Elizabeth and Despatch into the Nelson Mandela Bay Metropolitan Municipality.

Located only 35 km from Port Elizabeth, today Uitenhage is a thriving industrial and commercial town, and is home to Volkswagen of South Africa (Pty) Ltd, one of three motor manufacturers in the Eastern Cape. Tyre manufacturer Goodyear also has a large factory in Uitenhage, and the two form the nucleus of an automotive supplier park in which various suppliers manufacture automotive components as well as offering various automotive-related services.

The surrounding area also encompasses the pristine Groendal Wilderness Area, that provides a host of eco-outdoor activities. The Addo Elephant National Park is also nearby.

Many notable people hail from Uitenhage, including anti-apartheid campaigner Rev Allan Hendrickse, Olympic pole-vaulter Okkert Brits, former Proteas cricketer Mornantau Hayward, and the first black female in the world to climb Mount Everest, Deshun Deysel.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

City Power's VAT rip-off

"Do not use dishonest standards when measuring length, weight or quantity. Use honest scales and honest weights, an honest ephah [dry measure] and an honest hin [liquid measure]. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt." (Leviticus 19: 35-36, NIV)

"... and he [Jesus] asked them, 'Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?' 'Caesar's', they replied. Then he said to them, 'Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's'." (Matthew 22: 20-21, NIV)

I was busy paying some bills, and when I had a look at my utility bill from the City of Johannesburg, I noticed that the VAT calculation appeared to be incorrect. So incorrect, in fact, that instead of being charged the statutory rate of 14%, the amount charged worked out to something closer to 59%!

With the image of Jesus chasing the moneychangers out of the Temple in mind, I wrote an article on MoneywebTax outlining my findings. You can read the full article by clicking here.

Judging by the comments listed underneath the article, this problem seems to be widespread. The accounts that I've personally investigated (apart from my own) include a pensioner and one of our churches, and in each case the VAT overcharge ranges between 28% and 60%. Now I don't have a problem paying the VAT (see Matthew scripture above), but I DO have a problem when it is incorrectly calculated. Not only is this in contravention of the VAT Act, but by disclosing the VAT charge as 14% but charging a different amount, this is tantamount to fraud as well.

Since this issue is likely to affect members of our congregations, our churches themselves, and - most importantly - the poorest of the poor, please bring this to the attention of your congregations and leaders (particularly those involved with finance).

So far I'm only aware of this happening in the area serviced by the Johannesburg City Council, but other areas may be similarly affected.

At the moment I'm working with Moneyweb on this one, and am hoping to bring Talk Radio 702 on board as well. I've also informed the South African Revenue Service, who will hopefully investigate the matter as well. Trying to get through to City Power's call centre is proving to be impossible, so I'm hoping that through media exposure they will come to the party and pass correcting entries across the board.

If anyone in the blogosphere has "connections in high places" at City Power, please bring this matter to their attention. It would also be great if the MCSA could exert its considerable influence as well, particularly given the mission imperatives of "Justice and Service" as well as "Development and Economic Empowerment".

Lost in paradise?

I subscribe to a weekly small business e-mail written by Peter Carruthers called Petesweekly.com. Peter runs a training business for entrepreneurs, and is best known for his "Crashproof Your Business" seminars aimed at helping small business owners to structure their businesses correctly, market their services, and manage their business finances.

However, this week's mail prompted me to post it on my blog, since no doubt countless others have found themselves in a similar situation. I have added a few bits in brackets to place the mail in its context.

I was sitting at a restaurant in the V&A Waterfront [in Cape Town] on Sunday. It was good to be home. My daughter found a wonderful man to marry, and that was a great excuse to be back in paradise.

Until, that is, I had to pay the bill. Some entrepreneurial person had skillfully abducted my PC backpack.

I will miss the bag. It was the best I have found in 25 years of travel. I will miss the Apple laptop inside it. As well as my wallet with my insulin, blood test kit, credit cards, and cash in three languages, which is also gone. As is my 3G card, new mouse, in-earphones, and Cross sterling silver pencil (which even survived a few abduction efforts by Sheriffs back in the early nineties). Even the key to the AVIS rental car went walkabout.

All of which is not a problem. Almost everything I do is online, so the data loss is almost insignificant. Getting copies of the seminar and arranging another Mac for the presentation on Monday was easy, courtesy of a few wonderful friends and clients. (Thanks Donald and Liezl of C&S Audio.) Finding a tiny PC to access the Web - fairly simple.

The problem: The loss of my SA (and only) passport. Suddenly, going home as planned is impossible
[Peter currently lives in the UK] . The UK does not accept temporary SA passports any longer. It will take another few days before my ID Book arrives via DHL and I can start the process of applying for a new passport.

This means I am stuck in town for a while. Anything from three days to ten weeks, depending who is speaking.

Of course, if there is a good place to be stranded for almost three months, Cape Town would be close to the top of my list. I have children, siblings and a parent stretched across the peninsula.

But I want to be at home for Christmas, with my wife, some mulled wine, maybe a little snow, and my kids wrecking the inside of my home and using the trifle as finger paint. Sleigh bells ringing, and a few malamutes towing Santa. (No reindeer since the last blue tongue scare, while the camels they used in his pageant last year apparently made an unseasonal mess.)

One reads that crime is commonplace in SA at this time, but on the wane. However, I appear to be the only person in the known universe who has had this kind of challenge. I say this because Mall Security were quite relaxed about my challenges. It seems that the cameras where I was seated were non-functional - something to do with renovations that were completed a while back.

My requests to secure the AVIS vehicle to prevent its theft were greeted with the kind of tsk tsk I give my Mom when she gets a little anxious about the sprinkler still being on at 10 at night. I contrast this approach with the effortless way that AVIS arranged a locksmith to get my luggage out and replace the vehicle within 90 minutes.

The Police arrived to take my statement. They promptly issued a case reference number, and gave me all the documentation without actually keeping any details for their own records. They seemed less interested in my plight than in my lack of Xhosa or Zulu linguistic skill.

While I was there a fellow was dragged in. He had eaten a R40 meal and could not pay. They did a heck of a lot more documentation as they charged him. I was a little embarrassed by my mere R75,000 loss.

When I queried the process, I was asked to rewrite my statement on a blank piece of paper. This would, I was assured, be entered into the official ledger at a later stage. My case number reflects a mere 26 incidents at the centre for the month. At least three of which were within this same Sunday morning.

I am not hopeful that they will find any of my stuff. And if they do, I doubt they will be able to find me.

So, there I was, wandering through South Africa's premier shopping mall and tourist destination, having just lost everything I need to be functional in SA (with the exception of a mobile phone). No offer of any resources to gather the bits of my life together again. Somewhere to sit and get transport, arrange card cancellation, etc would have really helped, for example.

Maybe it was that I sounded like a South African and should know that Africa is not for sissies. Not that I expected much, but it sure seems to me that if this does happen as often as we read about, then Mall Management should have a process to help out us folk who develop a sudden case of poverty while relaxing over a cappuccino. Of course, as we all know, the reported crime rates are steadily dropping, so I guess that such a process won't be needed much longer.

It takes a few days to hit home. Last night I tried to change my ticket with Iberia. Without a credit card (in the name of the passenger) to pay for the change, no change is possible and the ticket is forfeited. Despite what I said last week about travel agents, maybe there is a case for them after all?

Now I just need to find a nice beach to work on while I catch a tan. I too can multitask.

I end with a simple question: How prepared are you for something like this, because I feel like the world's biggest wally?

My question is this: Are we prepared for occurences such as this? Secondly, if this should happen to one of the members of our congregations, do we have the capacity, the know-how, and the compassion to help that person in a meaningful way?