God's Word for today

Thursday, 31 January 2008

Police raid on Central Methodist Mission

It was with utter shock that I heard on Talk Radio 702 this morning of the police raid on the Central Methodist Church in downtown Johannesburg last night, resulting in the arrest of a number of so-called "illegal aliens".

It is well known that for quite some time there have been a number of Zimbabwean refugees who have been granted shelter in the church. Let me state at this point that I'm not interested in any so-called "official" definition of refugees. Opponents to the influx of Zimbabweans like to argue that they are not "true" refugees as they are not fleeing war in their country. I would challenge those detractors to try and eke out any sort of existence in a country where there are shortages of every kind of commodity (including food), unemployment is over 80%, and the inflation figure has so many zeros on it that it is no longer published.

Bishop Paul Verryn is to be commended for his bravery in throwing open the doors of Central Methodist to people who have nothing but the clothes on their back, and have come to South Africa in the hope of being able to make some sort of living to be able to support those back home.

The crazy thing is that the xenophobia on the part of many South Africans, coupled with an inability on the part of the South African Government to address this issue with any degree of competence or humaneness, is inadvertently depriving South Africa of some of the skills that the country desperately needs, which many of the folks staying at Central have.

I was involved for a short period in assessing skills, mainly in accounting and finance, and was astounded at the number of people there who are in possession of degrees - some even with Honours. The skills assessment entailed preparing submissions to the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) for South African recognition of these qualifications, followed by an application to Home Affairs for work permits based on a quota list of skills required.

Bishop Verryn, writing on the Central Methodist Mission website Ray of Hope, outlines the ministry to refugees thus:

There is abundant precedent in the history of two millennia of the Christian Church's existence of the Church being used as a shelter for the destitute and vulnerable in society. For instance, during the second world war, about 450 000 people stayed for a night or five years at Central Hall in downtown London. Throughout Africa the Church has stood as a symbol of hope to those devastated by war, disease, poverty and any number of natural disasters. Ultimately the Church expresses a preferential option for the poor and marginalized of society.

For the past twenty years, Central Methodist Mission has quite specifically been engaged in a ministry to the homeless on the streets. This ministry has included a feeding scheme, primary health attention, a support group, counseling, advocacy and searching for appropriate job opportunities. The prevailing value is that we show compassion, but do not create dependency; we engage the fundamental humanity in all people and refuse to stigmatise people because they are poor. These are not heroic principles, they are fundamental to an understanding of our faith. In fact, it would be ludicrous to imagine that you call yourself Christian and sustain an immovable prejudice against another human being for whatever reason, whether it be that they come from another country or are of a different age or gender. This was the foundation of the Church's critique of apartheid. This does not mean that as Christians we have succeeded in winning the struggle against these evils. They can domicile themselves subtly in all of us.

When the tragedy of displacement for people from all Africa became more evident in South Africa it was a natural and obvious imperative for the members of Central Methodist Mission to engage the challenge as part of its ongoing ministry to the inner city. To say 'no' to those asking for shelter when there is no alternative available would be to deny our reason for being. It would present a Christian community with a contradiction which would belie the essence of the gospel. This does not mean that all who call themselves members of Central Methodist Mission applaud the approach and enjoy the “invasion” of their posh church premises. Despite the fact that they may never have lifted a finger to dust a pew, their unhappiness has been vitriolic and intolerant.

A recent anonymous letter to our Presiding Bishop captures well the fact that xenophobia and racism belong to the same stable.

The letter was a shameful exposure of violence, prejudice and deceit and all in the wonderful name of Jesus Christ. Let us not pretend that some of the instruments for massacre and unrelenting hatred are not evident in our rainbow South Africa .

What should the Christian response be to the marginalized?

I would be the first to recognize that the building is overcrowded. I am also concerned about the cleanliness and hygiene of the building. I am deeply worried about whether a building that was never designed for this present condition will survive. Health, nutrition, warmth and safety are constantly on the agenda of committees that have been meeting every week to ten days. The murder that took place earlier [last] year has deeply traumatized us all. We have always tried to ensure careful conflict resolution strategies, insisting that to talk will lead to better resolution of differences. Every person that stays in the building is registered on a database which captures next of kin, educational qualifications and skills. Each person is told the following is not permitted in the building:

  • No drinking of alcohol
  • No smoking of anything
  • No fighting
  • No stealing
  • No illegitimate sex ( married persons are accommodated in a separate area).

All persons staying in the building, are required to keep the place clean and worship every day.

If a resident chooses not to observe these valued principles they are evicted. These rules have emerged from our experience of what creates problems in community. In some respects they are not unlike the commandments. We have more than 25 people who constantly monitor the sustaining of these disciplines. They themselves are subject to the rules even though they may not always succeed in keeping them. Furthermore, it would be an absurdity to imagine there is no conflict. It would be even more bizarre to think that more than 500 people can co-exist without stealing taking place. But considering the strain of the circumstances the results are remarkable.

Not to put too finer a point on the fact, it is important to note that as soon as one crosses the threshold of a church, nationality ceases to matter. Any reader of the New Testament will quickly discover that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, male nor female, bond nor free. Therefore, what politically is called an asylum seeker, in the church is a member of the family. We are reminded that the first refugees in Central were in fact South Africans. They may not be running from an exploitative dictator, but they are refugees from poverty and hopelessness in the country of their birth.

Is there a building out there?

This is a unique moment in the Church's history in the inner city, this is a unique moment for South Africa in its relation to its mother, Africa. We cannot underestimate the honour of needing to care for those seeking refuge at our hands. Amongst the people that we host are school principals and teachers, accountants, mechanics, plumbers, carpenters, financiers, people with careers in marketing, journalists, politicians, people from the medical professions to name a few. This is a chance for us to provide hope for families who have been completely dispossessed in their homelands. If recent figures released are accurate then one in four of the Zimbabwean population is now in South Africa and the impact of our caring responsibly could produce no less than a small miracle for our context. It is not a matter of skilled labour stealing the jobs of South Africans. It is an opportunity for South Africans to be skilled by people who have an experience of building a nation free of colonialism and oppression. In fact, the skills that have been driven into this country miraculously match exactly what is needed in our present economy.

Some of the most amazing giftedness has emerged in the building. We have a ballroom and Latin American dancing class. We have supported a group of journalists in establishing a website and office in Braamfontein. We have a fly fishing project in the building. We would like to establish a firm of accountants; sewing and cooking projects are underway and several of the group are engaged in a farming project near Randfontein for the District Women's Manyano Organisation. We have established a registered clinic in the building and hope to launch a computer ABET centre.

Many dreams are in the pipeline. Obviously the intention is for individuals to gain independence and economic sustainability as soon as possible so that measurable contributions can be realized in an inner city that is exploding with potential and vitality.

Although people who enter our building think that they are simply seeking a shelter or needing a blanket or wanting a plate of food or requesting start up finance, in fact they are engaged in a profound confrontation of the status quo which says that the poor are irrelevant and the dispossessed have nothing of value to offer. In fact the Mission stands in sharp contrast to capitalist mindset and seeks to overthrow a precarious economic paradigm.

Ultimately a nation can be judged on what realistic hope it offers to its poorest people. How can we be more effective? What is the Christian response to the marginalized? Is there a building out there? How can we be more effective?

However, rather than help, Government has chosen to send in the police, jackboot-style, to make mass arrests from a place of sanctuary. According to news reports, they arrived unannounced, with no warrants of arrest, and in the process caused damage to the church building.

And all the while President Thabo Mbeki is adamant that "quiet diplomacy" will ultimately sort out the Zimbabwean crisis. Try telling that to one of the destitute people who was arrested last night, wrenched from the only shelter and kindness they have known since arriving in South Africa, and sent back to a country where there is no immediate hope of living any sort of decent existence.

But enough ranting and raving. What can we as the Church do?
  1. We can start off with fervent prayer. Bishop Verryn and his staff need all the prayer support they can get right now.
  2. Secondly, we need to lift our backsides off our cozy, well-padded pews and look at ways in which the wider church can be of assistance. This is not merely a Central Methodist Mission issue. This is an issue that affects the whole Church. We need to find out what Central's most pressing needs, are, and have a look at where we can assist in tangible ways. Food, clothing, skills development, financial assistance with utility bills, sponsors for applications to bodies such as SAQA and Home affairs - the list is probably longer, but this would be a good place to start. Central Methodist can be contacted directly via e-mail at pverryn@methodist.org.za.
  3. Thirdly, we need to mobilise the Church in protest against Government's shameful handling of this whole issue - not only last night's arrests, but also the way in which bureacracy and red tape at Home Affairs prevents the timeous processing of applications, the ongoing harrasment by police even of those whose paperwork is in order, and the generally shameful way in which people are simply tossed out of the country like unwanted garbage. I'm not sure at this stage how we channel this as I am still in "soapbox mode", but our leaders within the Church need to start engaging with its structures to establish how best this can be done. Perhaps some letters channeled via Circuit Quarterly Meetings or individual Societies to the Presiding Bishop's office may be a good starting point?

The one thing that we CANNOT do - is "nothing".

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Some thoughts on the Church and money

As I prepare to become a minister, I've been giving a lot of thought to developing some views on certain "financial issues" concerning people's relationship with the Church.

I'm not talking about tithes and offerings, nor am I referring to the massive stipends that Phase 1 probationers earn (yeah, right!). Rather, I am trying to develop some "policies" that I would like to apply in my future ministry.

The views expressed are my own opinions - which are quite strongly held, I must say! But I am open to teaching if someone can point me in the direction of MCSA policy or (far better still) Scripture that indicates that these views are unfounded in any way.

Please insert comments sharing your thoughts as well.

I am completely opposed to the concept of a minister charging a fee to conduct a wedding. My view is that performing a wedding is a service that the Church offers (the Catholic Church considers it to be a sacrament). Since the minister officiating at the ceremony is receiving a stipend, he or she is in a sense already being "paid" to do the wedding, and therefore to demand an additional fee would be wrong.

However, should the couple or their families wish to make a donation to the local church, I believe that this can be accepted with thanks, provided that the money is paid directly across to the local Society's account.

I also have no problem with the church levying a fee if the couple wants to hire the hall, have flowers, an organist, etc. arranged by the church. Very few (if any) couples would not want these. However, it should be theoretically possible for the couple to get married in church free of charge. Also, any charges levied should be on a "cost-recovery" basis only.

My view on funerals is similar to that of weddings. There is enough of a financial burden on families when a loved one dies, without the minister adding to their woes by sticking out his or her grubby paw.

One also hears these stories of ministers refusing to bury someone because the deceased did not pay their monthly pledge to "their" church, or the pledge book is in arrears. This practice is apparently quite prevalent amongst historically black societies, where (for example) the person is a member of a local society in one of the inland cities, and supports the inland church financially, but when they die, they are taken to their "homeland" church to be buried.

Please understand that this is NOT an attack by me on anyone's culture! What I have a problem with is when a minister places finances above providing a means of grace to the deceased and their loved ones.

Once again, if the family wants the church to provide all the "trimmings", I have no problem with the cost of these being recovered. My position concerning a voluntary donation to the church is the same as for weddings.

I was aghast when a couple of months ago, a member of the congregation whose child had just been baptised in the service approached me to enquire of the amount that they must pay for their baptism certificate. Upon seeing the confused expression on my face, this mother told me that when her younger children were baptised, she had to pay the minister an amount for the baptism certificate, otherwise she would not receive it.

In all my years of being a Society and Circuit Treasurer, I have not once seen any line item on a 4S or 4C Schedule (the annual financial report of Societies and Circuits respectively) that was designated "Income - Baptism Certificates", I can only presume that such amounts paid for baptism certificates were pocketed by someone.

However, even if such amounts are paid into the church's account and disclosed in its accounts, I cannot believe that we can consider charging people to receive the sacrament of baptism?

And as for cost recovery - how expensive can a baptism certificate be? Ten rand at the most? If a local Society at which I am ever called to serve is so hard up that it cannot afford even this token gesture of a baptism certificate, I will pay the ten bucks in myself!

Travelling and accommodation allowances
Many Societies pay their ministers - often on demand - a travelling and accommodation allowance for attending District events, such as Synod. I have a problem with this, and let me explain why:
  • Circuits that host Synod normally provide accommodation for delegates who are from out of town. Granted, we're not talking the Sandton Hilton here - congregation members usually host visiting delegates in their own homes, and (particularly in rural Circuits) such accommodation can be rudimentary at best. However, the hosts often open their homes at great inconvenience and sacrifice to themselves, and if Rev. High-and-Mighty believes that such accommodation does not meet their exacting requirements, they are quite entitled to fork out the cost of more "suitable" accommodation from their own pockets. I don't see why demands for the cost of such accommodation should be placed on Societies or Circuits.

  • Secondly, if a Circuit is adhering to the stipulations laid down by the Methodist Connexional Office, each minister should be receiving a monthly travelling allowance, which is deemed to cover a certain amount of travelling each month. If you are travelling in excess of this stipulated distance, then by all means submit a claim for the excess travel at the rate laid down in the Yearbook. But don't demand extra money up front for travelling - especially if you intent to share cars to travel to Synod. (On this note - at the last Synod, five of us travelled in my car, and it was interesting to note that the lay delegates who received nothing from their home Circuit gladly chipped in for petrol, while the ministerial delegates who receive travel allowances - I know this, because as Circuit Treasurer, I pay them - did not offer one cent towards the cost. It's not about the money - it's the principle. I wouldn't dream of travelling in someone else's car on a 700km round trip without offering something towards fuel!)
Oh, and while I am on this soapbox, what are your thoughts about a minister receiving an allowance from his home Circuit for accommodation, then deciding to make use of the hosted accommodation anyway? And then not paying the (unused) accommodation allowance back to the Circuit upon his return?

When I worked for a corporate, we were given advances whenever travelling outside of South Africa (within SA we were expected to use our credit cards and submit an expense claim upon our return). Whenever we returned from an overseas trip, we had to account for every penny. The difference between the initial allowance and our expenses (supported by vouchers) had to be refunded to the company.

So what does one call it when the "change" is not paid back? I call it theft, but apparently there are those that call it "their due".

Should Christians care about global warming?

In response to a District initiative for the Church to start tackling the whole climate change and "global warming" issue, I decided to kick off the awareness thereof in our Circuit with a sermon on this issue this past Sunday.

Using as my text Psalm 24: 1 - "The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it" - I outlined the phenomena of climate change and global warming, and then went onto how the Church should respond.

However, it seems that many in the Church have had negative views about this topic. These views range from the whole issue being a complete myth, to being something "New-Age" to being a Satanic deception aimed at taking our eyes of Christ!

This extract from Sunday's message expands on this "anti" view:

But unfortunately Christians have had a rather lukewarm reception to the problem of climate change and global warming. When I was doing research in preparation for this morning’s message, I did a search on the Internet for topics such as “Christians and Global Warming”, “Christian Stewardship”, “Green Churches”, and similar topics. Most of the Christian sites that came up in the search had a somewhat negative reaction to environmental issues.

Firstly, there is what I call the “apathetic group” – those Christians who simply do not care and do not see any real connection between their faith and the idea of saving the planet. Their attitude is that faith in Jesus Christ is about saving humanity, spiritually speaking – not the planet.
Others take a fundamental view that Jesus’ second coming is imminent – that it will happen very soon. Therefore, their view is that global warning is a sign of His coming, and there is therefore a view that we really can’t do anything in this matter to make things better. This thinking leads to the belief that there is no point in “saving the planet”, and that doing so is somehow working against Jesus’ return! The late Jerry Falwell, a right-wing evangelical leader in the US went so far as to state that “the myth” of global warming is “Satan's attempt to redirect the church's primary focus”.
In fact, if popular media is anything to go by, there are more New Age believers and atheists defending the green attitude than there are Christians. This is because most New Age belief systems include the belief in (equal) sanctity of all life, a belief in Gaia Mother Earth, and similar beliefs that inspire them to action. Atheists, on the other hand, believe that this world, however bad and imperfect, is the only world we have. So whatever we feel, we better do something about it or we will simply cease to exist as a human race!

If you don’t believe John 3: 16’s statement that “whosoever believes in Him [being Jesus] will not perish but have eternal life”, you would naturally have a very strong motivation to preserve this life and this world!

I would however think that even if the scientists are completely wrong concerning this issue, even a cursory understanding of Genesis 1 will surely conclude the following:
  • God's glory and power is expressed through His act of creation.

  • At each stage of creation, God looked at what He had created, and saw "that it was good".

  • Humankind was created to exercise stewardship over the earth and its resources.

  • While humankind was given permission to make use of the earth's resources for their own benefit, one can clearly deduce from God's charge to humankind that this was not a licence to exploit such resources to extinction or to the detriment of the planet.

In light of the above, even if one concludes that the whole global warning threat is just a whole lot of hot air, there surely cannot be any harm in taking better care of this wonderful world in which we live.

I also can't see that cutting down on use of energy (whether this is electricity, fuel in our vehicles, or any other form), making a more conscious effort to recycle, embarking on clean-up projects, planting trees, and growing your own vegetables would be incompatible with our Christian witness.

If we are wrong, at least our environment will be a little bit cleaner. But if we are right, our efforts will have helped preserve something for future generations.

Sunday, 27 January 2008

Formula One Rules!

I really dig Formula One! And when the races clash with preaching appointments, it becomes quite a sacrifice! At least I can rely on "old technology" (aka my trusty video recorder) to capture the action for me, ready to watch on my return.

Last year was one of the most exciting seasons in many years, with newcomer Lewis Hamilton looking like he would actually take the title and become the first rookie World Champion. (Yes - I know that all of the drivers would have been rookies in 1950 when the Formula One World Champion first started, but that's NOT the same thing).

However, I was most disappointed in his illustrious former team-mate, double World Champion Fernando Alonso. Having supported him avidly during his two years at Renault, I couldn't believe his behaviour when his junior team-mate turned out to be such a force to be reckoned with. And as for wanting Number One status - how could he expect this when even the casual F1 observer knows that there is no such thing in the McLaren team - or at Williams, for that matter? Senna and Prost never had preferential treatment, so why should Alonso think that he would be entitled to anything different?

Anyway, that's all in the past as Lewis becomes team leader at McLaren, while Fernando goes slinking back to the welcoming arms of Uncle Flavio. I hear that the 2008 McLaren goes like stink, so we should be in for a very exciting season.

In "happier" times, Mercedes-Benz made this advertisement featuring the two McLaren drivers. In hindsight, the irony is delicious, while the ad itself makes for amusing viewing. Enjoy.

Go Lewis!!!

How do you know you are called?

This morning when I arrived back home from the service, which I had the privilege of conducting for the first time at my "new" Society of St Andrews Methodist Church in Eldorado Park, I fired up my trusty Dell and logged onto my two favourite blogs - those of Dion Forster and Wessel Bentley. I have never met either of these gentlemen, but through reading their blogs, sharing comments, and having received the most encouraging e-mails from both of them, I feel as though already we are friends (despite me stubbornly clinging to my Windows computers, and riding a Vuka scooter rather than a Vespa - more about that some other time).

Having been called to enter full-time ordained ministry, it was with a keen interest that I read the piece on Dion's blog entitled "At the end of the day - discerning a developing call". For it was at the same Synod in 2006, where I asked a ministry candidate the question "why ordained ministry", rather than continuing in what already sounded like an amazing work for God in a lay capacity, where two days later God placed "that" stirring upon my heart.

There has been many an occasion where I questioned God concerning this call. I had just started a tax consultancy, and was in fact halfway through the first year of a Higher Diploma in Tax Law (which I couldn't complete - the call to ministry was so strong that I just lost all motivation for tax, knowing in my heart that I needed to start with theological studies as soon as I possibly could). I was already 37 years old, and I've already been through the pain of going through articles for my training as an accountant. The difference then was that earning a salary that was less than the minimum wage for beer-truck packers at SA Breweries is fine when you are 21 years old with relatively few responsibilities. 16 years later, things are a bit different, what with being married with a 9 year-old son, and having three retired parents to look after as well.

But God is faithful to those whom He calls, and He has shown His faithfulness by giving me the most incredible wife any man could ask for. When I came home from that 2006 Synod, and shared what had happened with her, there was none of the expected questioning such as "how will we survive on a Phase 1 stipend", or "what about James's schooling", or "what if the Church sends you to Tweebuffelsmeteenskootdoodgeskietfontein" (for my non-Afrikaans readers, I'll explain this at the end of this post). Rather, her view was: "God has called you. God will provide".

In fact, one of the most incredible aspects of all is the total lack of surprise expressed by my wife, my mother, and my son. The general feeling was one of "it's about time you finally started listening to God for a change!"

But I still wasn't convinced at first. As I shared on Dion's blog, I was just like those Pharisees in Jesus' day, constantly asking God for a sign. And another. And then another. Finally, when driving home from my visit to Rev Kedibone Mosweu, who candidated from my previous Society and was at this point doing her Phase 1 in Khunwana (which is part of the Onalerona Circuit), I asked God for yet another sign.

As though being witness to a miracle that morning was not enough! We had loaded my car to the gills with clothing to take to Khunwana, since Kedibone had shared with me the dire poverty that is prevalent in this rural community, and to be quite honest, we were feeling quite chuffed with ourselves. That feeling faded rapidly on the Sunday morning during the service, when the stewards started distributing the clothing among the members of the congregation. You did not need a Masters degree in financial management to establish that there was no way on God's great earth that there was enough stuff in those boxes to meet the needs.

I then realised how that boy with the five loaves and two fish must have felt when he gave them to the disciples, who needed to feed multitudes of people. Yet God showed me how powerful He is that day, for the stewards kept bringing clothing out of those boxes right until the last person in the congregation had received something. Surely THIS had to be the sign that I needed?

Oh, how little faith I had. Not two hours later, on the way home, there I was again, asking God for another sign! And I praise God, for He met me where I was at. About halfway home, we saw the most amazing rainbow - the type that you will never see in Johannesburg - and we were so amazed that I stopped the car so that we could admire this symbol of God's promise to Noah all those thousands of years ago.

And while we were looking at the clarity of the colours, I heard God's voice as clear as though He was standing right next to me: "Steven - how many more signs do you want?" That was it! No more questions. No more doubts. God had truly called me to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the Methodist Church of Southern Africa.

Little did I know that all hell was about to break loose in the life of our church. Being called to serve on two pastoral commissions, and the things that I encountered there, as well as becoming involved, by virtue of my position as Circuit Treasurer, with a number of crises in our own Circuit, would be enough to convince anyone that this organisation we call the Methodist Church is rotten to its core.

So it was on more than one occasion that I asked God: "Are You sure about this?"

God was silent on those occasions - at least in terms of a direct answer to my questioning. However, I believe that it was His divine Will that led me to Matthew 4, where Jesus was alone in the desert, having to face the devil, with nothing to hold onto but "It is written...". That's when I knew that the calling was true.

Just like the disciples going through the storm, I did come out on the other side. I guess that having seen aspects of our Church at its worst, I can never have the excuse that I went into ministry with my eyes closed!

Nearly two years on, I believe that the call of God to ministry is as strongly on my life as it was in that cold Bedfordview Town Hall during May 2006. God has proven time and time again that He is worthy of our trust in Him. He has brought me through the first four quarters as a Local Preacher on trial, the first batch of exams, and that frightening pack of forms that had to go through to EMMU.

My prayer now is that when I appear before the screening committee in a couple of weeks time (where I hope to meet Dion in person), God will give me the strength and the words to convey this call to the committee members.

Please pray for me as I enter into this crucial phase of candidature.

The meaning of "Tweebuffelsmeteenskootdoodgeskietfontein"

This is an Afrikaans word which, when translated directly, means "Two buffalos were shot dead with one shot fountain". The "fountain" part is a common suffix of many South African Towns (e.g. Bloemfontein), and the "two buffalos" part is a colloquialism that refers to tiny, out of the way towns stuck out in the middle of nowhere. The longer the name, the more remote the town. When candidates for the Methodist ministry enter their first year of probation, known as Phase 1, it often happens that you are stationed in the most remote locations, as far away from home as possible. At least, that's how it works in the Central District - Bishop Paul Verryn's "toughening-up" programme for softy probationers, perhaps?

Saturday, 26 January 2008

Preparing to preach

If you have read my full profile, you will have discovered that I am a HUGE fan of the Rocky movies. In fact, I have taken many of my "rules of life" straight from the mouth of the Italian Stallion.

I particularly enjoyed that part at the beginning of Rocky III when Rocky goes to the prison to bail his brother-in-law Paulie out of prison after he had trashed a "Rocky" pinball machine in a fit of drunken, jealous rage. Tiring of Paulie's "the world owes me a living" attitude, Rocky utters these words to him: "You ain't down, and you ain't a loser - you're just a jealous, lazy ... bum!"

But as I sit in my office putting the finishing touches to my sermon for tomorrow, I am reminded of some more "inspirational" words from a Rocky film - this time from Mickey, his trainer. Concerned that Rocky wasn't putting in the training required to get him ready for his re-match against Apollo Creed for the Heavyweight Championship of the World, Mickey admonishes Rocky with these words: "To survive a 45-minute fight, you need to train for 45 000 minutes! Forty-five thousand!"

Our congregations deserve a similar commitment from us when preparing God's message for His people. How many times have you sat and heard a "sermon" that you just KNOW the preacher probably scribbled on the back of a cigarette box (I kid you not) about half an hour before the service started? Is it no wonder that you then leave church feeling as though there is nothing different for having been there? That you've somehow wasted your time?

Now I'm not for one minute suggesting that congregations are to become passive audiences looking for a "worship experience" based on the "performance" of the preacher. But to adequately discharge our responsibility (not to mention high calling) as preachers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, there is an expectation, as stated in our exegesis notes, that we "wrestle" with the Scriptures. What is God revealing to us? Have we spent time delving into them? Have we prayerfully considered what He wants us to share with His people?

Unless we have at least done these things, we don't deserve to stand behind a pulpit. "Cigarette-box" preaching just doesn't cut it. Luciano Pavarotti once said of his need to rehearse: "If I skip one week, I will notice. If I skip two weeks, the audience will notice". When we don't prepare adequately for our services, the congregation notices. And more importantly - God notices, too.

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Preacher's kids!

It's still fairly early days in my process of candidating as a Methodist minister, as although the mountain of forms has been signed of and submitted to the church's Education for Ministry and Mission Unit, there is still my Essay on Methodism to submit, not to mention the battery of screening that lies ahead.

But my son is already starting to show early signs of becoming a Preacher's Kid!

The other day he was telling me a joke - you know, one of those groaners that 9 year-old's love, which also seem to be obligatory as sermon illustrations - and once he had finished and the rest of us had managed to force some laughter, he said to me: "Dad! I too can become a minister - I've already got a repertoire of bad jokes for my sermons!"

You gotta love them...

How to, er, win the world for Christ

I was extremely saddened when I read the posts on Dion Forster and Wessel Bentley's blogs about the intention of Westboro Baptist Church's intention to picket the funeral of Australian actor Heath Ledger, who died recently.

The focus of this group's wrath is Ledger's portrayal as a homosexual cowboy in the film Brokeback Mountain, for which he won the Oscar for Best Actor.

Now I'm not about to enter the fray concerning the whole debate around same-sex relationships (at least not in this post), but reading the press release as well as Dion's and Wessel's comments got me thinking about the strange ways in which we attempt to win the world for Jesus Christ.

Here is my "Top 10" list:
  1. Always point out people's sin - not only to them, but to the rest of the world. After all, if it wasn't for us, no-one would know. The person who has just downed about 14 beers would never know that they are drunk, nor would those around who are smelling that person's boozy breath. Never miss an opportunity to tell sinners that they are going to hell.
  2. When you are carrying out Task 1, make sure that you cause maximum embarrassment to the person concerned. After all, until they feel terrible about themselves, they'll never conform to a Godly way of life, will they?
  3. Use inflammatory language such as "God hates fags" to add maximum impact. While you're about it, why not make a comprehensive list of every sin you can think of, ranging from women who (gasp!) candidate for the ordained ministry to (shock, horror) people of different races who actually want to worship together. Add the words "God hates..." as a prefix to each one, and get your Sunday School to make posters for the righteous to brandish.
  4. When someone walks into the church wearing shorts, a T-shirt, and slops, point out that the only acceptable manner in which one should be dressed when appearing before God is a two-piece (preferably three-piece) suit, complete with tie (conservative - no Garfield or Looney Tunes allowed), WHITE shirt, and lace-up shoes shined to military standards.
  5. While on dress - let us not forget the appropriate attire for women - ankle-length dresses, no jewellery apart from a watch and wedding ring, and stockings. Hats are obligatory. After all, only whores would dare dress in anything else.
  6. Never, ever, ever greet any newcomers to the church. You took YEARS to get into the right clique - why should they have an easy passage?
  7. Ministers must be addressed as "Reverend" or "Pastor" at all times. If you have known them for at least 5 years, you may address them as "Reverend John". Anyone who addresses the Man of God as "John" should be admonished for their disrespect.
  8. After church is out, it's absolutely fine to go home and kick the dog, beat your wife, and cheat on your tax return, as long as you do this in the privacy of your own home. If you can get away with sleeping with the organist or embezzling church funds, all the better. You get bonus points if you are the minister who is doing these things - after all, everyone else gets away with it.
  9. Always give the "one-fingered salute" to the taxi driver who cuts you off in traffic. Bonus points if you can unleash a barrage of swear words to all the occupants in the taxi as well. If you happen to see one of them at the next Local Preachers' meeting, just ignore them - they probably won't recognise you anyway.
  10. Oh, and by the way, if you so happen to be at Heath Ledger's funeral, make sure you diss his parents and loved ones when you are there. After all, Ledger got the punishment from God that he deserved, and it's his parents' fault for bringing such a filthy scum into the world in the first place. His "loved ones" are probably all fags as well, so save a bit for them as well. Refer to points 1, 2 and 3 of you aren't quite sure what to do.

If you do all these things diligently and conscientiously, everyone you meet will surely repent of their wicked ways and rush into your church on Sunday. It might however be a bit lonely for the first five years, unless they manage to form a clique of their own with other newcomers whom you have managed to convert using these ten easy steps.

Eskom convenes the shortest Circuit Quarterly Meeting in history...

Those of you who are familiar with the workings of the Methodist Church will be aware of the three-monthly meetings that a Circuit (which is a geographical grouping of a number of local Societies) holds. In our own Circuit, these meetings are normally 2 - 3 hours long, and depending on the issues at hand, can range from being deathly boring to extremely heated!

But last night's Circuit Quarterly Meeting lasted exactly five minutes - the time it took to open in prayer, set a date for the next meeting, and pronounce the benediction.

Now does this mean that there was no business to discuss? Just imagine - no in-fighting, everyone's needs are being met, the congregations are all happy, and the entire community has been saved and are serving God. Unfortunately, that was not the case - it was just dear old Eskom deciding to flip the switch just as the person leading us in prayer said "Amen".

And for many of the delegates who saw an early night amidst the darkness, the response was "Amen, indeed".

Monday, 21 January 2008

How to be understood

When I first started preaching, I once tried to do the "intellectual bit" in a sermon. Putting in hours of research, I ended up with what I thought was a masterpiece, quoting reams of statistics and so-called expert opinion in an attempt to put across my point. The result? A sea of blank stares, followed by more than one request afterwards to explain where I was coming from.

On the other hand, most of the congregations at which I conduct services comprise mature adults, and preaching at a level that would make me sound like that wretched purple dinosaur would not win me any friends either.

So where does one find the balance?

Something that I have found out through trial and error is that you don't need to sound like an academic in order to convey complex thoughts to a mature audience. The benchmark to aim for is to ensure that someone who doesn't have a clue about your particular subject can understand what you are on about once they have read your article (or heard your sermon). The fine line is to do so without insulting their intelligence.

In a multi-cultural society such as South Africa, with 11 official languages, simpler is often better.

I found a site where you can test the readability level of your blog. This test enables you to guage the level of education required by a person to be able to understand what you are saying.

Mine's only been going for a couple of days, but here is the result:

blog readability test

According to these results, you only need an elementary (primary) school education to be able to read what I have to say.

My two benchmarks -
Dion's Random Ramblings and Wessel's Place - have readibility ratings of Elementary School and Junior High School levels respectively. And the esteemed gentlemen who write these blogs both have Ph.D's!

While I can be accused (at times) of writing a whole load of rubbish, much of what my fellow bloggers write is quite profound and gives one substantial food for thought (except for the Apple Mac stuff, although with me having been a slave to Microsoft products all of my computing life, I may need to ask Dion for forgiveness here ... I must confess to being a tad jealous when viewing all that cool stuff!)

These results can only mean one of two things: Either our blogs will be used as future scripts for Cartoon Network, or we are somehow managing to get the message across.

Early rising, exercising...

One of the many requirements when entering the ministry is that you need to go for a medical examination in order to join the Methodist Church's medical aid scheme. Presumably they want to make sure that you are fit and strong before your future congregations put you through the wringer?!

Be that as it may, in my case my doctor told me in no uncertain terms that I am overweight and need to do something about it. So with the zeal of a new convert, I joined a gym. Now previous experience has told me that the "work out - get fit" progression is not true! It's more like "work out - sweat a lot - half die - slow recovery - EVENTUALLY get fit".

So it is with a measure of empathy that I read this story about some other hapless gym victim...


If you read this without laughing out loud, there is something wrong with you. This is dedicated to everyone who ever attempted to get into a regular work-out routine.

Dear Diary:

For my 44th birthday this year, my good friend Werner purchased a week of personal training at the Virgin health club for me. Although I am still in great shape since playing for my varsity Rugby team 18 yrs ago, I decided it would be a good idea to go ahead and give it a try.

I called the club and made my reservation with a personal trainer named Belinda, who identified herself as a 26 yr. old aerobics instructor and model for athletic clothing and swimwear.

Werner seemed pleased with my enthusiasm to get started! The club encouraged me to keep a diary to chart my progress.

Started my day at 6:00am. Tough to get out of bed, but it was well worth it when I arrived at the health club to find Belinda waiting for me. She was something of a Greek goddess with blonde hair, dancing eyes and a dazzling white smile.

Woo Hoo!!!!!

She took my pulse after 5 minutes on the treadmill. She was alarmed that my pulse was so fast, but I attributed it to standing next to her in her Lycra aerobics outfit. I enjoyed watching the skilful way in which she conducted her aerobics class after my workout today.

Very inspiring, Belinda was encouraging as I did my sit-ups, although my gut was already aching from holding it in the whole time she was around. This is going to be a FANTASTIC week!!

I drank a whole pot of coffee, but I finally made it out the door. Belinda made me lie on my back and push a heavy iron bar into the air, and then she put weights on it! My legs were a little wobbly on the treadmill, but I made the full mile.

Belinda's rewarding smile made it all worthwhile. I feel GREAT!! It's a whole new life for me.

The only way I can brush my teeth is by lying on the toothbrush on the counter and moving my mouth back and forth over it. I believe I have a hernia in both pectorals. Driving was OK as long as I didn't try to steer or stop. I parked on top of a moped in the club parking lot.

Belinda was impatient with me, insisting that my screams bothered the other club members. Her voice is a little too perky for early in the morning and when she scolds, she gets this nasally whine that is VERY annoying.

My chest hurt when I got on the treadmill, so Belinda put me on the stair monster. Why the hell would anyone invent a machine to simulate an activity rendered obsolete by elevators?
Belinda told me it would help me get in shape and enjoy life. She said some other rubbish, too.

Belinda was waiting for me with her vampire-like teeth exposed as her thin, cruel lips were pulled back in a full snarl. I couldn't help being a half an hour late; it took me that long to tie my shoes.

Belinda took me to work out with dumbbells. When she was not looking, I ran and hid in the men's room. She sent Lars to find me, then, as punishment, put me on the rowing machine – which I sank.

I hate that Belinda more than any human being has ever hated any other human being in the history of the world. Stupid, skinny, anaemic little cheerleading cow. If there were a part of my body I could move without unbearable pain, I would beat her with it. Belinda wanted me to work on my triceps. I don't have any triceps! And if she didn't want dents in the floor, she shouldn't have handed me the barbells or anything that weighs more than a sandwich.

The treadmill flung me off and I landed on a health and nutrition teacher. Why couldn't it have been someone softer, like the drama coach or the choir director?

Belinda left a message on my answering machine in her grating, shrilly voice wondering why I did not show up today. Just hearing her made me want to smash the machine with my planner. However, I lacked the strength to even use the TV remote and ended up catching eleven straight hours of the Weather Channel.

I'm having the Church van pick me up for services today so I can go and thank God that this week is over. I will also pray that next year, Werner (the rotten jerk), will choose a gift for me that is fun – like a root canal or a vasectomy!!

Sunday, 20 January 2008

Load shedding blues

Like many fellow bloggers, I too have had to suffer the inconvenience of load-shedding of late. Thankfully the battery on my trusty Dell laptop tends to just about last the 2 hours that we are without power, while my wife has virtually stripped our caravan in the quest for appliances that do not rely on Eskom so that my family and I can remain "full Gospel preachers" in a physical sense.

These ongoing power interruptions are a stark reminder of how our ever-increasing hunger for power-consuming toys has contributed to the current shortages. We all need to take responsibility in trying to save power wherever we can, while big business also needs to come to the party - those tall buildings with their lights ablaze 24 hours per day cannot POSSIBLY be full of people nose-down at their desks, hard at work, at 10 o'clock on a Saturday night!

But it also helps to keep our sense of humour, as shown by this letter sent to me recently that is (apparently) from Eskom management...

Just a little note to let you know we understand your anger in the recent price hike and power interruptions. But it should be noted that you have no choice. We are a big company and you will pay what we tell you. You have no choice. We HAVE the power, you NEED the power. So sad, too bad. Sucks to be you. We have enclosed a little picture to help outline our response. Have a nice day and keep those cheques coming, losers!!! Regards, ESKOM.

Bless his darling heart (and empty head)

Our minister, when announcing the birthdays and anniversaries in church this morning, leaned over the pulpit and asked his wife, "When is OUR anniversary, dear?"

She replied, "Later in the year", while I muttered under my breath, "if he lives to see it!"

Not a bright thing to admit ignorance to, Itumeleng - expecially in front of your congregation!

The things we do at church

I recently put up a post concerning some of the strange traditions that we have in our churches - particularly those that we do without even knowing why. But having just returned home from our morning service at St Andrews Methodist Church in Eldorado Park, I started thinking about some of the elements that we include in our worship.

Now stay with me for a few moments - I'm not about to criticise. In fact, many of the things that we do in our worship services reflect a deep spirituality, and I'm not about to chuck the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.

But having transferred my membership at the beginning of this year in order to take up my post as a part-time pastoral assistant, I have become aware that each local church "does things differently".

For example, after only three weeks at a new congregation, I am still trying to learn the words to "The Welcome Song", the piece that is sung after the offering, and various other bits of music that are interspersed throughout the worship service. Judging by the volume of song that is around me, I feel like I'm the only idiot in the place that cannot sing along.

Bear in mind that both my old and new Societies conduct their services largely in English. They both sing pretty much the same hymns, and the order of service has much in common as well. So culturally there is not a huge difference between worship services in what would historically be referred to as "white" and "coloured" communities.

So why am I confessing my ignorance for all of cyberspace to see? Because someone walking into the service for the first time must feel, if you would excuse the analogy, like a lost fart in a perfume factory. When do I stand up? When do I sit down again? Why should we be standing up when reading from Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, but not when reading from other books in the Bible? And my hymnbook must have a few pages missing, because I can't find "We Bring Thee But Thine Own" or "Now Unto Him" anywhere. Why can't they announce the numbers?

And what is that box for that stands in the front of the church every morning? When the offering is received, some people go to the front and place envelopes into the box. Are these prayer requests, or a means of communicating with the church? Or is it like a golf club, where you have to submit your score cards?

If you have been a member of your local church for many years, you will of course know what all these things mean (I assume - perhaps, like the stewards who dutifully hand out the hymnbooks each week and collect them again at the end of the service without really knowing why, you are just "going with the flow" so as not to look stupid).

But spare a thought for the newcomers - these rituals that are such a form of unity for us can make a first-time visitor feel SO excluded when venturing into one of our churches for the very first time. Such a person may decide never to come back. Who knows - that could have been this person's day of salvation!

At the very least, let us explain to the congregation why we do the things we do, and what the purpose of each element of worship is. In some cases, we may need to find out ourselves first...

Friday, 18 January 2008

Working for God

I arrived early this morning at my office at the St Andrews Methodist Church in Eldorado Park, south of Johannesburg, where I currently serve as a part-time pastoral assistant during this year of candidature. God has blessed me with a mentor in the form of our Circuit Superintendent, Rev Itumeleng Tlhakanye, who is teaching me that ministry is not quite the way it is described in the books.

A little like accountancy, in fact. When I was doing articles, I found to my amazement that no textbook tells you about your client dropping two dustbin bags on your desk, full of assorted vouchers, and are expected to make some sense of them by drawing up a sense of financial statements.

Likewise, the people whom God entrusts to our care often also come to us with their "dustbin bags" full of emotional baggage, expecting us ministers to make some sense of it all. Thank God for His Word and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit!

But this analogy is a stark reminder that this is a calling not to be taken lightly. To all ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, may you remain humble and true to the calling that God has placed on your life.

Thursday, 17 January 2008

The things we do ... without thinking

When deciding to embark on this blogging "thing", I decided to do some surfing to find out what is "out there", and I stumbled on this site called "The wonderful adventures of ASBO Jesus", which contains some extremely funny (if somewhat irreverent) cartoons poking fun at some of the hypocricy that we sometimes display as Christians.

For those readers not accustomed to the British way of doing things, ASBO stands for "Anti-Social Behaviour Order", and it is (I think) a type of court order aimed at restraining you to behaviour that society considers to be "normal".

ASBO's are generally handed down on the scourge of British society. However, while Jesus did not go around terrorising the neighbourhood in the manner exhibited by your average (usually teenage) hooligan, I'm sure that the Pharisees would have wanted to slap an ASBO on Him when His teachings started cutting a little too close to the bone.

What Jesus came to do was to not to overturn the Law, but to challenge the legalistic and often arbitrary manner in which the Law was being applied. But how often do we make "laws" in our churches, which become dogma handed down from one generation to the next - often with succeeding generations having no clue as to why certain things are "done this way". Let me give you a couple of examples from some of the local churches in the area where I live:
  • In one church, there are Bibles permanently in the pews. However, the hymn books are kept under lock and key. Every Sunday the door stewards take the hymn books out and distribute them to the congregation as they walk into church. And after every service, the hymn books are dutifully collected again and locked safely in a cupboard. Now I ask the question: If there is a fear of theft, then why are only the hymn books locked away, and not the Bibles as well? Surely both should be locked away? Alternatively, why not just leave the Bibles and the hymn books in the pews? This will free up the door stewards hands, and enable them to greet the people without having to fiddle with books all the time.

  • For over 100 years, a particular congregation has received the offering in the same way: the stewards walk right to the front of the church, and start passing the collection bags down the pews. They gradually work their way to the back, then when they are done, they march down the centre aisle to the front where the preacher will then pray over the offering. Nowadays, with the risk of robberies on the increase, the church council decided one day to change the procedure. If the stewards started at the back of the church (where the main entrance is), and someone ran in from the street and grabbed a bag, chances are that it would be fairly empty. Doing it the existing way would mean that when the stewards get near to the entrance, the bags would be full, with the increased risk that the entire offering would be lost in the event of a "dash-and-grab". Makes sense? Apparently not to those who receive the offering each week. One stepped down as a steward, and two threatened to leave the church.

Does the church you attend have similar traditions that may not make any sense whatsoever, but are sacrosanct to those who adhere to them? Drop me a comment - we can all have a chuckle at some of our strange customs.

It's true - accountants CAN be saved!

It may have been the sampling of that pineapple beer in Standard 8 that resulted in me choosing accountancy as my first career (and not touching alcohol since), but a far stronger Spirit has called me into my second career as I prepare for the exciting journey towards becoming a full-time minister in the Methodist Church of Southern Africa.

I will however continue to write articles on tax and personal finance—at least until ordination. Probationer ministers’ stipends aren’t THAT great!

Being married to my wonderful wife Belinda, and having been blessed with an amazing son, James, is living proof that accountants DO have a personality. (Or maybe Belinda just felt sorry for me, perhaps?)

Judging by the blogs of Dion Forster, Wessel Bentley, and others, it looks like being able to blog is one of the requirements for candidature (!).

So here goes...