God's Word for today

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Why I'm glad I'm not going to kwaZulu-Natal

I am so, so thankful that the Church has not sent me to kwaZulu-Natal.

Not that I have anything against the place - good weather, warm sea, a decent radio station, and all that good stuff. However, I am rather a wimp when it comes to spicy food, and this report that a friend sent me prompted me to fall on my knees and thank God that I have been stationed in the Eastern Cape - after I'd finished crying with laughter, that is...


(If you can read this whole story without laughing then there's no hope for you. I was crying by the end. I have endeavoured to censor, shall we say, the more "colourful" language. Please take time to read this slowly. For those of you who have lived in KZN, you know how typical this is.)

They actually have a Curry Cook-off about June / July. It takes up a major portion of a parking lot at the Royal Show in Pietermaritzburg. Judge #3 was an inexperienced food critic named Frank, who was visiting from America.

Frank: "Recently, I was honoured to be selected as a judge at a Curry Cook-off. The original person called in sick at the last moment and I happened to be standing there at the judge's table asking for directions to the Beer Garden when the call came in. I was assured by the other two judges (Natal Indians) that the curry wouldn't be all that spicy and, besides, they told me I could have free beer during the tasting, so I accepted".

Here are the scorecard notes from the event:

Judge # 1 -- A little too heavy on the tomato. Amusing kick.
Judge # 2 -- Nice smooth tomato flavour. Very mild.
Judge # 3 (Frank) -- Holy crap, what the hell is this stuff? You could remove dried paint from your driveway. Took me two beers to put the flames out. I hope that's the worst one. These people are crazy.

Judge # 1 -- Smoky, with a hint of chicken. Slight chilli tang.
Judge # 2 -- Exciting BBQ flavour, needs more peppers to be taken seriously.
Judge # 3 -- Keep this out of the reach of children. I'm not sure what I'm supposed to taste besides pain. I had to wave off two people who wanted to give me the Heimlich manoeuvre! They had to rush in more beer when they saw the look on my face.

Judge # 1 -- Excellent firehouse curry. Great kick.
Judge # 2 -- A bit salty, good use of chilli peppers.
Judge # 3 -- Call 911. I've located a uranium’s pill. My nose feels like I have been snorting Drain Cleaner. Everyone knows the routine by now. Get me more beer before I ignite. Barmaid pounded me on the back, now my backbone is in the front part of my chest. I'm getting sloshed from all the beer.

Judge # 1 -- Black bean curry with almost no spice. Disappointing.
Judge # 2 -- Hint of lime in the black beans. Good side dish for fish or other mild foods, not much of a curry.
Judge # 3 -- I felt something scraping across my tongue, but was unable to taste it. Is it possible to burn out taste buds? Shareen, the beer maid, was standing behind me with fresh refills. That 200kg woman is starting to look HOT...just like this nuclear waste I'm eating! Is chilli an aphrodisiac?

Judge # 1 -- Meaty, strong curry. Cayenne peppers freshly ground, adding considerable kick. Very impressive.
Judge # 2 -- Average beef curry, could use more tomato. Must admit the chilli peppers make a strong statement.
Judge # 3 -- My ears are ringing, sweat is pouring off my forehead and I can no longer focus my eyes. I farted and four people behind me needed paramedics. The contestant seemed offended when I told her that her chilli had given me brain damage. Shareen saved my tongue from bleeding by pouring beer directly on it from the pitcher. I wonder if I'm burning my lips off. It really annoys me intensely that the other judges asked me to stop screaming. Screw them.

Judge # 1 -- Thin yet bold vegetarian variety curry. Good balance of spices and peppers.
Judge # 2 -- The best yet. Aggressive use of peppers, onions, and garlic. Superb.
Judge # 3 -- My intestines are now a straight pipe filled with gaseous, sulphuric flames. I am definitely going to crap myself if I fart, and I'm worried it will eat through the chair. No one seems inclined to stand behind me except that Shareen. Can't feel my lips anymore. I need to wipe what’s left of my backside with a snow cone ice-cream.

Judge # 1 -- A mediocre curry with too much reliance on canned peppers.
Judge # 2 -- Ho hum, tastes as if the chef literally threw in a can of chilli peppers at the last moment. (I should take note at this stage that I am worried about Judge # 3. He appears to be in a bit of distress as he is cursing uncontrollably).
Judge # 3 -- You could put a grenade in my mouth, pull the pin, and I wouldn't feel a thing. I've lost sight in one eye, and the world sounds like it is made of rushing water. My shirt is covered with curry which slid unnoticed out of my mouth. My pants are full of lava to match my shirt. At least, during the autopsy, they'll know what killed me. I've decided to stop breathing - it's too painful. Screw it; I'm not getting any oxygen anyway. If I need air I'll just suck it in through the 4-inch hole in my stomach.

Judge # 1 -- The perfect ending. This is a nice blend curry. Not too bold but spicy enough to declare its existence.
Judge # 2 -- This final entry is a good, balanced curry. Neither mild nor hot. Sorry to see that most of it was lost when Judge #3 farted, passed out, fell over and pulled the curry pot down on top of himself. Not sure if he's going to make it. Poor man, wonder how he'd have reacted to really hot curry?
Judge # 3 - No Report.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

I've been stationed!

"And the voice of the Lord came to my ears, saying, 'Whom am I to send, and who will go for us?' Then I said, 'Here am I, send me'." (Isaiah 6: 8)

"I will go to whichever Circuit or Station I am appointed..." (Laws and Discipline of The Methodist Church of Southern Africa, paragraph 4.17.3)

While the stationing for 2009 still needs to be confirmed by the Conference of the MCSA in September, which means that there is a possibility that it may change, I have been informed "unofficially" that I am headed off to the Eastern Cape in 2009!

While I don't want to disclose the exact Circuit I have been pencilled in for until officially notified (although I admit that I have done more than my fair share of blabbing amongst friends and family in my own Circuit), let me say that the posting will provide me with the best opportunity that I am likely ever to have again in my life, to learn how to speak an African language. Being the Eastern Cape, this would naturally be Xhosa (with all it's complicated clicks - or should that be Xhlicks?).

One of my fellow candidates from Central District, Jenny Hillebrand, is also headed for the Eastern Cape, so at this stage I can look forward to seeing at least one familiar face! But like Jenny, I have received rather strange reactions from some people when telling them where the church is sending me next year. I shared some of my experiences as comments on her blog, but I thought I'd include them here as well:

- "So far away!" (Yup - when you live in Jo'burg, the sea IS some distance!)

- "Is your family going with you?" (Not at this stage - my son is in Grade 4, and my wife and I were not excited about the idea of potentially changing schools four times in the next three years)

- "When are you putting your house on the market?" (Probably closer to ordination, Lord willing)

- "How do you feel about being posted to a black township?" (Exhilarated - the best opportunity I'm likely to ever have again to learn how to speak Xhosa)

- "Can't you ask the MCSA to send you somewhere else?" (I COULD, but I don't want to. Why should I? I made a promise on the floor of Synod that I would go wherever I am sent. Jesus ministered to people where they were, not where the "larneys" thought He should have ministered, so what gives me the right to want to do otherwise? I rejoice that I AM in fact stationed - better than NOT being stationed. Besides, my thus far limited experience of ministry has shown me that many (if not most) of the people living in townships are salt of the earth, and I have been deeply enriched by them.)

- "How will you cope with meals, washing, etc.?" (Hey, I was a Boy Scout for 11 years - I can cook, iron, and sew on buttons. You don't need a degree to drive a broom or press the little knob on the top of a can of furniture polish. I'm thinking of buying a basic twintub washing machine (about R900 of you shop around) so that my shirts meet basic sanitation standards. If nothing else, I'll probably have a greater appreciation of what my wife does for me!)

- "What was your first reaction when you heard where you are going?" (In this order: Cry, silly grin on my face, thanked God for a station, 'phoned my wife to let her know, contacted iBurst to make sure I will have e-mail and Internet access [I'm serious about the last one - I've set my whole family up on Skype so that we can chat every day without breaking the budget. Besides, how else will I be able to update my blog, do my assignments, etc?])

I'm hoping to visit the Circuit for a "reconnaissance trip" shortly after exams, so that I can find my way around, locate the Phase One centre, establish what furniture I'll need to take next year, test the Internet connectivity, find the shops (little fat boy needs to eat!), and stuff like that. I'm also hoping to preach - I'll need to clear this with the Superintendent first, but hopefully I'll be able to share my ghastly pronunciation of the Xhosa liturgy with the folks down there (and give them an opportunity to ask the Church for someone else if my smatterings of Xhosa don't pass muster - just kidding!).

Kids sure say the darndest things, dont they?

I received this little anecdote from a friend of mine, and just HAD to share it with those of you who may be prone to mumbe a bit during baptism services...


After a hardy rainstorm filled all the potholes in the streets and alleys, a young mother watched her two little boys playing in the puddle through her kitchen window. The older of the two, a five year old lad, grabbed his sibling by the back of his head and shoved his face into the water hole.

As the boy recovered and stood laughing and dripping, the mother runs to the
yard in a panic. "Why on earth did you do that to your little brother?!" she asks as she shook the older boy in anger.

"We were just playing 'church', mommy", he said. "And I was just baptizing him ... in the name of the Father, the Son and in ... the hole-he-goes."

Saturday, 16 August 2008

In the poo again...

Have you ever had one of those moments when you THINK you are doing the right thing, only to find yourself so deeply in the proverbial brown stuff that you pray for someone to toss you a rope to get out?

Today was one such moment for me at our Circuit Local Preachers' Quarterly Meeting.

Anyone who is a Local Preacher will know that the Laws and Disciplines of the Methodist Church of southern Africa sets out a number of prescribed orders of business to be conducted at every such meeting, and one of those items is to enquire as to whether there are any Local Preachers on trial to be received onto full plan.

One thing I am fast finding out is that when you are a candidate for the ministry, things tend to work a little differently from the norm, and the requirements to be fulfilled to become a fully-accredited Local Preacher are no exception. For instance, the "normal" period for a Local Preacher to be on trial is two years. However, L & D provides that in the case of candidates for the ministry, they can apply for remission of the second year of probation. The proviso is that such application can only be made once the candidate has been recommended by their District Synod as a probationer minister. In addition, such remission is not automatic, and is granted at the discretion of the Circuit Local Preachers' Quarterly Meeting.

In my case, I have been on trial for 19 months, which is 5 months short of the required period to be on trial. However, Synod has accepted me as a candidate. Accordingly, I submitted a request to our Circuit Local Preachers' Quarterly Meeting asking that I be considered for acceptance as a Local Preacher on full plan. Now one might ask why I have bothered to make such a request since, after all, I will be a probationer minister in just over four months time.

The reason why this is important to me is that when I was first called by God to candidate for the ministry, I felt that I needed to be serious about the MCSA's declaration to be a "one and undivided Church" and took the decision (highly unusual for white Local Preachers) to join the uniformed Local Preachers' Association in our Circuit. As far as I have been led to believe, I am the first (and so far, still the only) white preacher in our Circuit to join the Association.

Membership of the Association has opened me up to a richness of other cultures that I would never have encountered had I done the historical "whitey thing" and remained outside the Association. It has opened doors for me to conduct services in black congregations, and - most importantly - being accepted by such congregations. I have even started doing the Sesotho and Xhosa liturgy in such services (despite some horrid pronunciation), and it is one of my aims to be able to speak a black language by the end of Phase One (even if only at a conversational level).

Having been provisionally stationed in an Eastern Cape township for 2009, the need to learn a black language has become even more important, and I will probably never have a better opportunity in my life again to learn to speak Xhosa.

So what does this have to do with being recognised as a Local Preacher on full plan? The issue is that while being a full member of the Local Preachers' Association probably means very little (if anything) to white congregations, it is of considerable importance to black congregations, and given my posting for 2009, I need to build as many bridges as possible in order to be accepted by the congregations there (and so be in a position to minister to them).

Also, it is probably unlikely that I will ever be stationed in my current Circuit as a minister, and therefore, silly as this may sound to some, being "robed" by South Rand Circuit will forever be a link between me and the Circuit from which I candidated. If I were to see out the full 24 months, this would take me into January which means that a Circuit who (initially) won't know me from a bar of soap will be asked to accept me as a member of the Association.

When I made the request to the Circuit Local Preachers' Quarterly Meeting, there was no issue about the meeting accepting me onto full plan. However, the fact that I "breached protocol" was a HUGE issue. Firstly, it was not my minister that made the request - it was me personally. However, my minister was not present at the meeting as he is currently on leave, and we had discussed the matter beforehand. When that objection was raised, one of our Society Stewards (who is a Local Preacher on full plan, but not a member of the Association) then stood up and, indicating that she was acting on behalf of the Society and instruction from our minister, moved for my acceptance onto full plan. This elicited further debate.

Recognising that I had breached protocol (despite no objection in this regard from the minister chairing the meeting), I apologised firstly to the meeting for having breached protocol, and secondly to my Society Steward for being unaware that our minister had instructed her to speak at the meeting on his behalf. Having explained that my motivation for making the request was firstly, in recognition that L & D confers a discretion on the meeting as to whether to accept me on full plan or not, and secondly, because the date for the recognition service falls before the next meeting, I assumed that the acceptance of my apology would put matters to rest.

Unfortunately, the debate raged ahead (in Xhosa and Sesotho this time), so I wasn't 100% up to speed with what the new issues were. However, the interpreter then indicated that actually, as an on-trial Local Preacher, I actually had no right even to address meetings at all, let alone make any requests.

I was dumbstruck, not to mention extremely hurt, and in that instant I had even considered leaving a meeting that had embraced me for 19 months yet suddenly left me feeling totally unwelcome. There were also a number of issues. Firstly, the "on-trials should be seen and not heard" position appears nowhere in L & D. Secondly, if on-trials are expected to keep their mouths shut in meetings, then surely they should turn up, answer the prescribed questions, and then leave, since there is surely no point in being part of a meeting to which one is not permitted to contribute. Finally, if such a practice or protocol did exist, surely it is the responsibility of the full members to inform the new on-trials of such protocol?

I understand now what it must have been like for Jesus when He was castigated by the Pharisees for healing on the Sabbath.

If you have stayed with me throughout this post, you are probably thinking that I am making a mountain out of a molehill, and having got this all off my chest now, I'm inclined to agree. At this stage, despite the meeting having accepted that I be received onto full plan, whereas I was looking forward to the robing service in October with eager anticipation, after today's meeting my feelings are somewhat mixed.

Somewhere during the process I undoubtedly screwed up, and I would dearly love to set things right. If there are any "wise heads" out there who understand the dynamics of uniformed organisations within the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, I'm all ears for some sound counsel.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Being called to do what no minister wants to do

I have never been a morbid person when it comes to death. It is, after all, an inevitable consequence of the passage of time, and something that all of us need to face at some point.

As Christians we believe that we will spend eternity in God's presence, and so because of the redemption that comes from Jesus' sacrifice on the cross, we need not fear dying. I have therefore taken the view that as long as the will and the life assurance policies are in place so that my family is taken care of, I'm not particularly worried about what happens to me.

Now don't get me wrong - I'm not being foolhardy about this. I do buckle up when I get into my car, and even though my trusty Vuka can only reach 80 (unless I lie flat behind the handlebars on a long downhill, in which case I can squeeze 90 out of it), I make sure that I am wearing my helmet and a sturdy pair of jeans. And given a choice in the matter, I'd like to go to bed one night at the ripe old age of around 90, and wake up in the arms of Jesus. However, as for my body, the Organ Donor Foundation must use whatever bits they can, and Wits Medical School can have the rest.

Life should be a celebration that extends beyond death, and many of the funerals that I have been involved in during my fledgeling ministry have been just that. Sure, people are hurting - after all, they are saying goodbye to someone whom they love dearly, and my take on this is that if you don't hurt, you didn't love. But for the most part, such services are a celebration of a long and fulfilling life.

However, this all changed for me this past Sunday, when one of our stewards called me to visit a family that had just lost their baby of 9 months old.

This is the one aspect of our calling that I believe no minister wants to do. When I drove to their house, it was all I could do to choke back the tears. It's just not fair - people aren't supposed to die until they are past pensionable age. What made this particular situation even worse for me is that the child's mother had been coming to baptism classes only two months ago, and it was only four weeks ago that we as a church had the privilege and pleasure of celebrating the baptism of both mother and child.

It also highlighted yet again just how inadequate I feel as a minister. After all, what does one say to parents who have lost a baby so young? Yes, I know that Jesus had a special place in His ministry for children. And yes, I know that children are blessed, and theirs is the kingdom of God. But yet the words just seemed so empty as I visited with the family on Sunday. Not having lost a child, how can I possibly begin to understand what these parents are going through?

Tomorrow I'll be conducting the funeral. And even though "cowboys don't cry, especially in front of their congregations", if the tear stains that are already on my order of service are anything to go by, I'm afraid I'll be breaking this rule...

The relevance of our calling in South Africa today

No matter what stage of ministry we may be at, it does us good to be reminded just why we are called to be ministers. I was going through one of my previous TEEC assignments, and was once again challenged by one of the answers I had previously submitted.

I have reproduced it here as a reminder to myself (and perhaps others as well) as to what it is we should be doing in ministry. (The references and other "academic bits" have been removed to make for easier reading.)

Why are we called by God? Is it to strap a collar around our necks, and be addressed with a fancy title? Or is it to be a prophetic voice in our communities?

When we think of how God calls His prophets, there are three elements that are never isolated from each other. Firstly, we need to remember that it is God who calls. Secondly, we need to be conscious that God has called us. Thirdly, and possibly the most difficult part of all, God gives us specific instructions as we are commissioned to bring forth His voice.

We cannot claim to have had an encounter with God, yet not be spurred on to bring about change. This change must start with us – we need to be transformed ourselves before we can think of transforming others. Our calling depends on how we encounter God, and how we respond to that encounter.

The struggle for freedom in South Africa is far from over. Political freedom is meaningless to a person who lives in a shack, is unemployed, and has no idea where their next meal is coming from. Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu speaks of “visions of a land where we will discover that we were created for fellowship, togetherness, love, joy, peace, reconciliation, justice, goodness, and compassion”.

The prophet Amos told the Israelites that they were no different to the Cushites (Amos 9: 7), because of their rebellion against God. Far from being God’s chosen people, it’s as though the Exodus had been robbed of any special meaning – it’s as though it was just another migration, no different from that of anyone else.

Yet we continue to live in comparative luxury while people are starving. As we speak women and children are continually being abused. We respond to efforts by those such as the Central Methodist Church, which has opened its doors to hundreds of refugees who would otherwise have nowhere to go, by sending nasty letters to their offices, complaining about how that “beautiful building” has been “desecrated”.

Just like the Israelites, these responses show us as Christians as being no different to anyone else.

Bishop Paul Verryn said that “[u]ltimately 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? How can we be more effective?”

This is the challenge to us as a Church. The tasks may seem insurmountable. And while it is true that individually we cannot address every need, we can start within our own congregations. Those who have plenty sit in the same pew as those with nothing. Are we challenging those folks? And more importantly, are we setting the example ourselves? Can we call ourselves Christian, “called of God”, when we would stand by idly while others suffer?

Isaiah 11: 4 says that “with righteousness He [God] will judge the needy, with justice He will give decisions for the poor of the earth”. How will God judge us who stand and watch the world go by, without being true to our call to make a difference?

Monday, 4 August 2008

Excited, with ants in my pants

I'm like a kid the night before Christmas, so tense is the anticipation.

This is the stage of my ministry journey where all the paperwork for candidature has been completed and submitted, the TEEC credits have been obtained, my Methodism essay was written, screening has taken place, and the "organised chaos" of hugs, kisses, and handshakes heralded my acceptance as a candidate by the Central District Synod.

So at the risk of sounding totally selfish, I'm interested in the outcome of this year's Conference for one reason, and one reason only - WHERE IS THE METHODIST CHURCH GOING TO SEND ME?!?

Naturally, my family would like me to go somewhere local - at least I'll be able to sleep in my own bed at noght, kiss my wife goodbye in the morning, and all the other "good stuff" at home. Faith Whitby and others are fuelling this fire by chanting "Centraaaal..." in somewhat ghoulish tones.

On the other hand, being sent to Tweebuffelsmeteenskootdoodgeskietfontein would be quite an adventure as well, and a year or two on my own to acclimatise to the rigours of full-time ministry would probably do me good. (My family won't relocate until the latter part of my probation, so as to cause the least possible disruption to James' schooling - probationers tend to relocate three times in four years, according to many who have walked the road before me.)

So where would I like to go? At this stage, at the risk of sounding glib, I am very much in the place of "Here I am, Lord - send me" - so as long as the Church has SOMEWHERE to send me, that's all I can ask at this stage.

So now it's the wait for Conference - seven weeks, and counting...tick...tick...tick...