God's Word for today

Thursday, 24 December 2009

"Guess what we get to do today?"

In one of my favourite movies, "The Rookie", starring Dennis Quaid as a science teacher in his late 30s who gets a second shot at playing professional baseball, there is a memorable scene whereby amidst all the hardship, minimal recognition, and low wages while he "pays his dues" in the minor leagues, he is reminded of the greatness of the game and why he loves it so much - so much so that he says to one of his fellow players: "Guess what we get to do today? We get to play baseball!"

As ministers (especially Phase Ones) we often feel the same way, facing similar struggles to those of Quaid's character. But let us be reminded - especially at Christmas - what it's all about: Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour!

So to all those ministers out there in churches across the world: "Guess what we get to do today? We get to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ!"

Halleluyah! Praise be to God!

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Christmas? Bah ... humbug!

I don't know whether it's just a sign of me getting older, or the result of an extremely taxing year, but I'm sitting at my computer three days away from Christmas and I'm really NOT feeling "Christmassy" at all.

Part of the problem is that I'm still feeling fairly shattered after the rigours of Phase One. And I must say, while it was a great learning and growing experience for me, and I encountered some amazing people along the way, I'm glad that the system as it currently stands has been done away with. While the concept of hands-on experience is a good one, mixing it with cross-cultural ministry has been somewhat daunting - especially when you actually know nothing at all about ministry! Add to that being sent 1000 km away from home, without your family, and its as though your entire support system has been whipped out from under you.

Then there's the question of "re-entry". Like it or not, I'm not the same person I was a year ago, and the same goes for the rest of my family - which is making reintegration quite challenging. When you live on your own, you are master of all you survey. Now I have to get used to sharing my attention, my time, and my living space with others again, and it's not easy. Even sharing a bed with my wife has been difficult, although this was only for four days until the truck uplifted our queen-size bed, together with a whole lot of other furniture, to take to the seminary in Pietermaritzburg where I will be spending the next two years of my ministry journey.

So right now I'm feeling a bit disjointed - especially since I no longer have a set of keys to my own house (I was away for a year, will be here for four weeks, and then off again for two years, so it doesn't make sense to cut me a set - but still!), my car and scooter are at SMMS (which means I have to borrow Belinda's - not a problem, except when she needs to go out), our bedroom is empty except for a blow-up mattress, and I'm a "visitor" at every church I go to.

My main concern, though, for not feeling as though I'm in the Christmas spirit right now, is that I have been afforded the privilege of preaching at the Christmas Day service - my first ever - at St Andrews this year. My "ex ex" Superintendent thankfully still feels that he can relax while on leave in Klerksdorp some 200km away while entrusting his congregation to my grubby little paws. Yet, given the way I'm feeling right now, I have absolutely no clue as to what to share with them. Do I preach a shmaltzy, sweet, "feel-good" Christmas message, or do I do something a bit more hard-hitting and challenging? There is likely to be a number of visitors, and usually church is quite full with children on Christmas Day as well, so one needs to be sensitive without being sickly.

Whatever I do, I KNOW that I need to share the love of Jesus with them - for their sakes, as well as for mine!

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

What does it mean to be "home"?

It's hard to believe that it's already been two weeks since I arrived back at "home" to be with my family.

Now I'm really, really glad for us to be back together again. From time to time in my life, I seem to be "living" certain Scriptures - in my corporate life Mark 8:36, "what good is it to gain the whole world yet lose your soul" became a distinct reality for me, and surely during 2009, Genesis 2:18 - "it is not good for man to be alone" really rang true!

But in case you're wondering why I put "home" in inverted commas, it's because I'm beginning to change my understanding of "home" from being a particular place or a plot of land with my name on the title deeds, to being more of a state of mind. And in my case, given that I have entered an itinerant ministry where one is moved from place to place every few years (or after one year as I go from Uitenhage to the seminary in Pietermaritzburg), "home" becomes whichever place my family is. So next year, "home" will be somewhat divided as part of my family (Belinda and James) joins me in Pietermaritzburg, while another part (my mother) remains in Johannesburg.

But it's an interesting concept, this one of "home". A couple of months ago I had a discussion on this subject with Rev Dr Gqubule, who asked the seemingly innocuous question, "where do you call 'home'?" And I had to think about that quite carefully. Is it England, the land of my birth? Not really - we came to South Africa about a month before I turned five, and seeing as I am now 40, the overwhelming majority of my life has been spent living in South Africa, and so, having married a South African girl and having a son who was born here, I see myself as South African. Is "home" Johannesburg then? At the time Dr Gqubuke asked me the question, I has to answer "yes", not because of ancestry or ownership of bricks and mortar, but because my family was all there at the time.

And spiritually, where is "home"? When I was in the Welsh Male Voice Choir we sang a Negro spiritual song called "Going Home", which spoke of when we leave this earth and return to the arms of our Maker. Consequently, it was a popular song to sing at funerals. In the Scouts, we used a tracking sign comprising a circle with a dot in the middle, which meant "gone home" or "returned to base camp" but was mostly associated with Scouts who had died, or "gone home". And as Christians, we speak of departed saints as having "gone home to be with the Lord".

So where is "home"? Is it a place, a presence, or a state of mind? And if we truly acknowledge that we are "in this world, and not of it", with our stay here being a mere 70-90 years on average, perhaps we need to expand our consciousness of "home" beyond our earthly four walls.

I don't have the answer at this stage, but as with many things, the journey is often more important than the destination...

Sunday, 29 November 2009

The Bible in a few words

Jenny tagged me on this one. The idea is to convey the Bible message in five lines, with the first line consisting of one word; the second, two words, and so on. Let me try to meet the challenge with this take on salvation:

- God
- Made good
- Humankind blew it
- We needed a saviour
- Jesus took away our sins

I don't know how this whole "tagging" thing works, but seeing as this post gets replicated on Facebook, I'm sure that Hanno, Raymond, Dion, Wessel and others will rise to the occasion.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Another academic year is over

Thank you, Lord, for carrying me through what has (at times) been a difficult year on the academic front. This morning I received the happy news that I'd passed all my subjects for 2009!

Final marks were:
- A Christian Response to HIV/AIDS - 90%
- Wrestling with Faith - 60%
- Journeying in Faith - 70%
- Proclaiming the Faith - 85%

Granted, not as good as my son's 6 As and 1 B, but I'm pleased nonetheless!

Thursday, 26 November 2009

What is true empowerment? Some random thoughts...

"Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." - Chinese proverb

I'm probably risking incurring the wrath of some of my black colleagues and friends, but I've long had my doubts about Black Economic Empowerment (known as BEE). Not in the sense of the need for black people to be empowered economically - certainly, after decades of apartheid supression, it is vital that those left behind during those dark years be given every opportunity to participate in the economy on an equal footing.

And certainly there would be a problem with me being a Methodist minister and not being in support of the MCSA's "Four Mission Imperatives", one of which is "Economic Empowerment and Development". So I'm not against economic empowerment per se - on the contrary, it is something that I strongly support.

So why the misgivings about BEE? Perhaps it's because my years in the corporate world have exposed me to two of the worst examples of BEE: that of people being given positions based on skin colour rather than competence, and that of a handful of "elites" becoming obscenely "empowered" through lucrative deals, while the rank-and-file see little (if any) of this empowerment.

Having served in coloured congregations for the past two years - last year as a part-time pastoral assistant, and this year as a Phase One probationer minister - my other gripe with the way BEE is applied is that in the old SA, coloured people weren't "white" enough, while in the new SA they are not "black" enough - but that's a topic for another day...

But what prompted this particular post was an article that I read on the website of the South African Institute of Race Relations, which is the transcript of a speech delivered by the SAIRR's John Kane-Berman to the Solidarity trade union in Pretoria on 24 November 2009. The full transcript can be read here, and it raises a number of interesting points.

The one that really caught my eye is the assertion that BEE has inadvertently benefitted whites, rather than blacks (whom it was intended to benefit). Quite ironic, isn't it? One possible reason suggested is that as increasing numbers of black people were brought into government service, many of those former white employees who were displaced became entrepreneurs in order to survive.

While my own journey into the ranks of the self-employed was entirely of my own accord, certainly the three years that I spent running my own business between the time I left the corporate world and the time I entered the ministry probably did more for my personal development than the previous seventeen years did: it forced me to stand on my own two feet. In order to survive, not only did I need to work hard, but given the limit of my resources (human, financial, equipment, etc.) I had to learn how to work smart as well. "No work, no eat" became a daily reality!

And no-one gave a hoot or a holler what the colour of my skin was - all my clients wanted to know was whether I could offer the service they required. This came, interestingly enough, from two of my black clients - successful entrepreneurs who built their businesses from the ground up by sheer hard work and determination and WITHOUT any "leg-up" from Government or anyone else.

I'm not for one minute saying that one doesn't work hard when employed by a corporate or government department - certainly, the corporate world got their pound of flesh out of me - but I've also had far too many encounters with people who couldn't give two hoots about the person they are supposed to be serving, whether this in the bank, a restaurant, a supermarket, a government department, or even in a church - for them, it seems, it's "just a job".

One of these former black clients I referred to started out as a shift boss at a KFC outlet, and he too could have had this attitude that it was "just a job". But if that was the case, he would probably have remained a shift boss until today, if he had in fact remained employed. Instead, he used his relatively low-level position to learn everything he could about the KFC business - including the sovereignty of the customer. This is what took him from being a shift boss in a KFC outlet to becoming the ooutright owner of 16 outlets of his own now employs nearly 400 people. And who knows - maybe one or two of those 400 people will go on to opening their own KFC outlets one day?

Sadly, many of the new employees that got their positions thanks to BEE did not see their new-found position as a privilege, but rather as a right - and that the need to actually do some work seems secondary. Funny how history tends to repeat itself? Anyone who has experienced the so-called "civil service" first hand from some dour white drone in the old South Africa will understand what I'm talking about.

So what does this mean for the Church? A number of random thoughts come to mind (many seemingly unconnected to the concept of BEE, but please bear with me - I'm not quite sure where I'm going with this myself):

- For ministries (1): Often we as a Church are called upon to respond to crisis situations where it is necessary to "give someone a fish" so that they can eat today. However, our focus needs to be more upon "teaching people to fish" so that they can eat forever. One of the hard questions we need to ask, especially when one experiences people who knock on the door day after day looking for handouts (usually with the most incredibly long stories) yet never seem to make any effort to help themselves, is how long the person should be helped for. My own view is that there needs to be a definite limit on how long a person should be helped for - such time can be extended if there is clear evidence of effort on the person's part to attempt to help themselves, or the person is objectively unable to help themselves (e.g. if they are severely disabled). It surely cannot be our Christian duty to carry those who are in fact able to help themselves but find it easier instead to sponge off others?

- For ministers: The buck stops with us. We may be in the ministry because of a calling by God, but this does not mean that this is shelterd employment. On the contrary, serving God and being true to God's call is hard work - and so it should be. This means that when one candidates for the ministry, they should immediately be exposed to the work of ministry and the (sometimes) anti-social hours that ministry involves. While a balance needs to be maintained, one sure way to antagonise your congregation is to be shy to do the work.

- For ministers (2): the minister is often the only full-time, paid "employee" of the local Church, which means that the bulk of its ministry work is carried out by volunteers. And we must appreciate our lay folk and the work that they do! But that doesn't mean that mediocrity is acceptable, either. Ephesians 4: 11-12 speaks of ministers being given to the Church to equip people for the work of ministry. There are two key words here: "equip" means that we must train people and provide opportunities for them to serve. "Work" means that the actual work needs to be done. A hard, unpleasant, but necessary task that a minister may need to carry out from time to time is to ask a person to step down from a position where they are unable / unwilling to do the work required by the particular office.

- For the church at large (1): When we look for people to serve in the Church, we tend to look for people who have skills that can be used to serve God in the local context. While that is good and well and a wise thing to do, what we're not so good at is pairing such people up with those who DON'T have such skills but are eager to learn and serve. Why shouldn't the Church be a place where people can be skilled for life, rather than being wholly reliant on skills obtained outside the Church? And surely one way we can empower our congregations for the world outside is to provide them with skills and opportunities for learning within the Church first?

- For the Church at large (2): We also need to be serious about empowering people who have been historically marginalised, both in society and in the church, and take active steps to equip them to fulfil their rightful role. In the MCSA, women and youth come to mind here. But let us not fall into the trap of "tokenism". By this I mean pushing people into positions simply to make up quotas. While I support the stance taken by Conference this year that decision-making structures in the Church need to include at least 40% women and 20% youth, we need to be careful not to just "make up the numbers" - on the contrary, we need to actively identify persons from such groups, train them, and give them a real voice once equipped. This means (for example) that 20% of a local church's Society Stewards need to be between the age of 18 and 30. These younger stewards will need to be mentored, certainly, but they should not be dominated - this means that they need to understand their roles and responsibilities as outlined in Laws and Disciplines, and be given support to carry these out. Same goes for women. It is only when we get this right at grass-roots level that we will have any change of getting it right in the higher structures such as Synod and Conference.

I've said a little bit about a lot of things, and will most probably expand on a number of these in due course. But one lesson we can learn from the SAIRR's perspective on BEE is this: If we want to understand true empowerment, we need look no further than the example Jesus gave us in His earthly ministry: He called, He equipped, and then He sent out to do the work. All three are needed (in this order) if people are to be truly empowered. And if the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords can entrust the carrying-out of the Gospel message to what (to our eyes) is a fairly rag-tag, unsophisticated, motley group of men such as His disciples - and we can understand the true empowerment that our Lord gave them - perhaps then we can begin to understand what empowerment really means.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Summer has arrived ... with a vengeance!

After weeks of wondering whether we were going to actually HAVE a summer in Uitenhage this year, it has arrived with a vengeance!

This picture is of the temperature guage in my car, taken at 23h03 last night. The top figure is the outside temperature, and the bottom figure is the temperature inside the car. With these kinds of night-time temperatures, sleep is becoming problematic, so please forgive me if I seem a bit irritable of late - for someone who normally needs 7-8 hours of sleep a night, a week of 2-4 hours is starting to catch up on me.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Should blasphemy and the like be banned?

"You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name." (Exodus 20: 7, NIV)

I read this article on IOL about Muslim countries seeking an international treaty aimed at "protect[ing] religious symbols and beliefs from mockery - essentially, a ban on blasphemy".

Interestingly, there was also an article in Joy Magazine dealing with the same issue - blasphemy - this time commenting on an article that had appeared in the University of Cape Town's "Rag" magazine, containing a number of refences that most Christians would consider to be offensive. As a consequence, the Joy article argues that freedom of speech should be limited constitutionally as far as blasphemy is concerned, just as the use of hate speech is restricted.

This raises some interesting questions concerning such limitations - in a sense, a form of censorship. On the one hand, it can be argued that one person or group of persons should not have the right to dictate to others what they should be watching, hearing, or reading. On the other hand, it can be equally validly argued that there are vulnerable members of society - for instance, children - who need to be protected.

This evening when I went onto IOL to catch up on the day's news, I found a poll in which readers were invited to vote "Yes" or "No" to the question "Is there too much sex on TV?" Judging by many of the comments of those who voted "Yes", clearly the main issue is not so much that programmes containing sex are shown - offensive as this may be to some - but that these programmes are shown on free-to-air channels. Unlike satellite channels, where access can be controlled using the decoder's parental restriction facility, restricting access to free-to-air channels is a lot more difficult. My view is that such programming can be too readily accessed, and therefore voted "Yes" - and I forwarded the poll to the members of the MCSA ministers' Yahoo group as well.

Now voting in a poll is one thing - calling for an outright ban is another. Certainly, as a parent of an 11-year-old son, there is stuff on TV that I don't particularly want my child to watch. For that matter, there's a lot of stuff on TV that I don't particularly want to watch. As a family we therefore exercise our freedom of choice through judicious use of the "off" button. Hopefully our son will take his cue from our example as parents.

We also find blasphemy and swearing offensive - certainly my wife has been quite vocal when she has heard someone use such language in the presence of children, and we do not tolerate such language in our home. The question, though, is whether we have the rights to extend this intolerance to others outside of our own private space?

My stance up to now has been that I am generally not in favour of censorship. That's not to say that I approve of blasphemy, swearing, or pornography. And certainly anything that exploits those who are unable to make decisions for themselves - child pornography, for instance - needs to remain criminalised. But there's a thin line here - if I want to have the right to prohibit others from having access to things I may consider to be offensive, I need to accept that others may restrict my right to see or hear things that they find offensive.

And what if that person were to regard that which I hold most dear - the Gospel of Jesus Christ - to be "offensive", and is successful in having it banned?

Like other controversial subjects, there is no simple answer. But given that Muslim countries are calling for what effectively amounts to a ban on blasphemy, and with many of the core beliefs of Christianity being considered "blasphemous" to followers of Islam - the doctrine of the Trinity, for instance - well, one could see the possible implications if the calls for such a ban were to be heeded.

As a Christian and a minister, it is my calling to "lead the horse to water" by presenting the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I cannot however force the horse to drink. God didn't. Responding to the love of Christ is a free choice that each and every human being needs to make for themselves.

When the preacher is preached to by the preacher...

I'm not sure if the title of this post makes much sense, but as I'm sitting in my office preparing for this coming Sunday's service, it's as though the words are grabbing me by the heart, turning me inside-out, and speaking to me as though I'm the one hearing the message, rather than delivering it - and just about crying my eyes out in the process.

Of course, ideally EVERY message that we preach should touch us in the same way we hope that God will use it to touch others. Yet some messages somehow wrench a preacher to the core, reminding us once again of the power, majesty, and lordship of God.

I pray that heatring the message will touch the congregation in the same way that preparing it has touched me - and that I'll be able to deliver it without breaking down...

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Adding two and two, and getting five...

Sometimes I really open my mouth to change feet!

In a previous post entitled "Sometimes I wonder if I've had ANY impact this year", I blew off some serious steam about the frustrations and feelings of inadequacy I get from time to time as a minister - forgetting at times that (a) I'm a first-year probationer, (b) I've only been with my present congregations for 11 months, and (c) I am a human being trying to minister to other human beings.

Unfortunately, in the same post I linked to a post on Jenny's blog, which may have created the impression that she was somehow expressing the same feelings in her own congregations that I am experiencing in mine. While that may be true of all ministers from time to time, my response may have inadvetently cast aspersions on her congregations as well as on her work as a minister - something I did not intend. The graciousness with which she accepted my apology speaks volumes for her Christian character - something she no doubt carries into her ministry as well.

I know I tend to be a bit impulsive at times, engaging the mouth before the brain is in gear. A bit like Peter, in fact (although I've thankfully stopped short of cutting off anyone's ear!) - and look what our Lord managed to do with him! I pray therefore that you won't judge any of us too harshly - we are after all trying to learn how to be good ministers, worthy of the call that God has placed on our lives. One that I know I often fall way, way short of...

But apart from me jumping to conclusions, in a sense putting two and two together and getting five, something I need to explore is this feeling of inadequacy that I experience from time to time. Is this something common to ministers? Or is it a Phase One "thing"? Does it ever go away, or is it what keeps us humble? Do I need to accept that, just as I reap where others have sown, so too I may be sowing for others to reap?

Perhaps this is why I am being sent to the seminary next year, so that I can receive the necessary "spiritual panelbeating" to enable me to deal with these feelings - or at the very least, learn to accept them as part and parcel of life as a minister. Despite my earlier misgivings about seminary, I'm starting to see the wisdom more and more...

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Why it's never MY fault...

You've got to love how we tend to display our Bart Simpson mentality when things go wrong: "I didn't do it". When one looks at many of our so-called "leaders" - whether in politics, business, and (sadly) even in the Church - one could be forgiven for thinking that we as South Africans are the most blameless, innocent human beings on God's great earth.

And we're not even talking about little mistakes - even the most monumental cock-ups are "addressed" by trying to shift the blame onto (pick the excuse of your choice) apartheid / whites / blacks / the previous government / our parents / our teachers / society / the microphone / the weather / the devil ... you get the picture.

So I had to have a wry chuckle at this article that appeared on the Independent On-line (IOL) website today, as the unnamed writer gives our national psyche a well-needed kick up the rear end.

Oh, and yes - to add insult to injury, the South African flag was flown upside-down at the stadium. When a national flag is flown upside-down, this is normally recognised as a sign of distress. Could this be an apt reflection of the blame malaise that pervades South African society at the moment?

Article: The Ras card played in rugby again
November 17 2009 at 10:58AM
Source: www.iol.co.za

You can tell Ras Dumisani is a true South African by the way he shifted the blame immediately after he got the word from back home that people weren't best pleased with him. Dumisani admitted his performance was disgusting, but, hey, he couldn't help it, it wasn't his fault.

It was the French, you see. They gave him an old wireless microphone to sing into and an old monitor for his ear, you see. Then they gave the French guy all the good stuff to sing his national anthem with, so, you see, it couldn't possibly be his fault.

The South African embassy in Paris said it wasn't their fault, they just provided the French with a list of South Africans living in Paris and they chose from there. Doesn't Breyten Breytenbach live in Paris?

And, as Spitting Image once told us, he's "quite a nice South African". Why wasn't he on the list? So he can't sing, but, heck, that doesn't seem to be a necessity when smashing out an anthem in France these days.

Dumisani has received an inordinate amount of publicity for failing to hit the high notes and, as he told Talk Radio 702 "people not understanding that I don't do an Afrikaans accent" (which does not explain how he mangled the English, Xhosa and Sotho bits as well, all of this in a Jamaican accent).

He is a man with skin as thick as the dreads on his head. He sang the anthem on CapeTalk on Monday morning, again on Tuesday morning - around the country a nation giggled, then put their hands over their mouths lest the patriotic police catch them.

Patriotism is a funny thing - the last refuge of a scoundrel, as Samuel Johnson said - and, although it's not clear exactly who or what he was talking about, we're sure he was miffed with those who practice false patriotism.

Three years ago Jacques Kallis was the subject of a front-page story, instigated by an outraged busybody of a reader on a Sunday newspaper, questioning his patriotism because he kept quiet during the national anthem when it was sung before games.

The reader was in a tizz because Kallis did not move his lips during the anthem. Apparently there are set structures and rules when it comes to showing how much one loves one's country: moving of lips (although, as Claire Johnston of Mango Groove confessed, sometimes one moves one's lips while singing the anthem before Test matches and does not sing at all. The truth came out at an Ellis Park Test when the beginning of the anthem kicked in a little sooner than she thought and the mike was still at her side. She recovered quickly, but not quickly enough), placing of hands over hearts, or national badge.

Kallis' explanation was that it was in honour of his late parents. "He was particularly close to his father who was his cricket mentor," said CSA CEO Majola at the time. "They would often sing the anthem together and his father was very proud of his son playing for South Africa. Jacques told me that he sings the anthem in his heart in a quiet moment in remembrance of his parents and in gratitude for what they did to allow him to be good enough to represent his country."

South Africans are obsessed with the look rather than the meaning, and there's nothing like superficiality mixed with a skewed sense of patriotism to get the mob going. "Showing leadership" as seen in the ASA and the Eskom sagas is about making grand statements in public rather than actually doing the graft to put things on the right path.

Sascoc have shown leadership in their handling of ASA, Barbara Hogan did so with Eskom. Butana Komphela shouts, but does nothing constructive, so does Julius Malema, who will one day flap his lips too loudly even for the ANC, and the less said about the leadership qualities of the sports ministry the better.

Dumisani's singing of the anthem was not the reason the Springboks were done by France; there are much better excuses: this is a tour too far for the Boks, one they should not have gone on.

There was more to lose than to gain after a season in which they beat the Lions, won the Vodacom Tri-Nations and regained their status as No.1 in the world. Victor Matfield has been playing rugby since February, and when he gets home has but a few weeks off until pre-season training for the Bulls in George begins. Madness.

Thankfully, Dumisani gave South Africa the excuse they needed to deflect from a horrid match in which the Springboks were smashed by the French. Perhaps we could repay whichever European team tours here next June by getting Vernon Koekemoer to sing their anthem.

Damn, that would be funny.

(The original article can be found here.)

Sometimes I wonder if I've had ANY impact this year...

Jenny has been sharing some of her reflections on how a particular church community operates, and with only six days to go before she returns to Joburg she must have been wondering whether she has actually made any impact on her local church community during this past year.

I guess this must be a common Phase One "thing", since I've also been wondering about some of these issues this past week.

For instance, the YMG secretary arrived unannounced at my office this morning (Appointment? What appointment? What is an "appointment"?) - anyway, he wanted a letter for some rally this weekend, but almost as an aside he informed me that there is a problem with the sewerage at the church, and virtually demanded that I contact the municipality to do something about it. When I enquired as to how long this has been a problem, the response was "Oh, about two years". Two years! And all of a sudden, it MUST be fixed NOW!

The weekend's AGM was also marred by the fact that a society steward of one of the Societies informed me that they had met during the week (without me being present or even informed), and decided that voting would not happen at the AGM, but needs to be postopned for two weeks. Is this okay? I was told this literally as I was about to open the service on Sunday morning! I put my foot down and insisted that the AGM would go ahead as scheduled, but the result is that while one of my Societies had a irtual "full house" and was able to continue with proceedings in a normal (and, I must commend them, in a very good spirit), the other was represented by only four people and therefore voting for leaders could not take place.

Just when I think I've somehow made a difference (however small), something like this happens that causes me to think that I've completely wasted my time this year.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Reflections on being called to the ministry

I've been reflecting on my first year in full-time ministry, and there's so much one can say - but the Apostle Paul puts it SO much better (with a bit of illumination provided by Matthew Henry)

“And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hath enabled me, for that he counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry” (I Timothy 1: 12, KJV)

1. It is Christ's work to put [people] into the ministry (Acts 26: 16-17). God condemned the false prophets among the Jews in these words: “I have not sent these prophets, yet they ran: I have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied” (Jeremiah 23: 21). Ministers, properly speaking, cannot make themselves ministers; for it is Christ's work, as king and head, prophet and teacher, of his church.

2. Those whom he puts into the ministry he fits for it; whom he calls he qualifies. Those ministers who are no way fit for their work, nor have ability for it, are not of Christ's putting into the ministry, though there are different qualifications as to gifts and graces.

3. Christ gives not only ability, but fidelity, to those whom he puts into the ministry: He counted me faithful; and none are counted faithful but those whom he makes so. Christ's ministers are trusty servants, and they ought to be so, having so great a trust committed to them.

4. A call to the ministry is a great favour, for which those who are so called ought to give thanks to Jesus Christ: I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hath put me into the ministry.

(Source: Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible)

Our God is an awesome God!

Cry, the beloved country!

I don't know what hurts more - the butchering of our national anthem in front of the whole world, or the Boks losing 13-20 to France in protest?!

WARNING: Not for sensitive ears!

Saturday, 14 November 2009

The business of church

Preacher: "I have good news and bad news for you this morning. The good news is that we have all the money we need to fix the roof. The bad news is that it's still in your pockets".

Being a beancounter-turned-minister means that I probably pay a bit more attention to the finances of the church than the average minister does, and I've long been of the conviction that our current "business model" is simply not sustainable.

And it seems that the British Methodist Church is finding itself in the same boat, if this recent post by a local preacher based in my home town of Birmingham, who blogs under the name "Methodist Preacher", is anything to go by.

I'm not going to repeat any of the details that he raises in his post, but suffice to say that the 80/20 principle certainly applies in South Africa as well. Given that the 20% of the congregation that provides 80% of the finances in most churches has decidedly grey hair, we are in SERIOUS trouble if we cannot get our people to understand the need to give.

And while stewardship campaigns and the like are useful for generating awareness, the real question is: "Why should we give?" And if the answer is: "To carry out the work of God in our local church", then we need to ask ourselves whether we are REALLY carrying out the "work of GOD", or whether we are merely perpetuating some sort of club.

We need to be honest and ask ourselves what the REAL reason is for all those empty pews.

I've always maintained that one can often measure what is happening in a church spiritually by looking at the monthly financial statements. As ministers we would do well to take note, for there's only two reasons why a person doesn't give: They can't, or they won't. If they can't, the Church needs to understand why so that we can journey with that person. And if they won't, the Church needs to understands why so that we can journey with that person...

As for the misuse of funds that sadly too often happens in some of our churches - we have much to answer to God for.

(Some more thoughts on how our finances are a barometer of our spirituality, to follow...)

Friday, 13 November 2009

And then this...

Just as I've been on a high in terms of where I am in my ministry journey at the moment, I arrive at the offices this morning to the news that about eight of the roofing sheets that belonged to a carport that we are busy moving, were stolen. The result was that we had to put the remaining sheets into storage - the first time I've ever put a roof "in" a garage, rather than "on" it.

Sadly, it seems that as the soup kitchen has gained momentum, we've been hit by a massive upsurge in criminal activity. First Dr Gqubule's offices were broken into (twice), with books and computer equipment stolen. Then there was the theft of my laptop, wallet, and Bible from the offices two months back. This was followed by an impromptu swim one morning as we arrived to fountains of water gushing out of the pipes left behind because some cretin swiped the tap, and now this story with the roof.

And the temptation is that as we identify with the farmer in the parable of the sower, so we consider the possiblity of ceasing to sow. Wondering if the soup kitchen is worthwhile, given the attendant rise in crime. And that we must never do. For the one thing that we learn from this parable is that despite some seed falling into thorns; some falling on rocky ground; and some being stolen from the pathway (apt analogy), the farmer did not stop sowing.

Imagine if Jesus decided that we had let Him down one too many times, and decided to stop sowing into our lives? That He will NEVER do - and nor should we stop sowing into the lives of others, even though it may seem that our seed is going astray.

Reminder of why I'm REALLY in ministry

Further to my previous post in whic I outlined my identity crisis, I'm thankful to God for reminding me what this is actually all about!

Last Sunday I preached at the evening youth service. My message was entitled "Are We There Yet", which was about being "close" to the Kingdom of God but not quite "there" yet, and how we can only get "there" through the saving grace of Jesus. After the sermon I extended an invitiation to those who wished to commit their lives to Christ, and two youngsters responded to the call.

Then on Tuesday I visited a young lady who had submitted an application to have her baby baptised. She had not been worshipping regularly, but this was mostly due to the fact that our church is not particularly "baby-friendly" at the moment with no facilities for infants. (The proposed new building that has just been started incorporates a cry-room, which is a huge step in the right direction, but more needs to be done to help parents with small babies feel welcome in our churches). I suggested that she join one of the home groups in the interim, so that she can be part of a fellowship and have some outlet to worship and hear God's Word. This she gratefully accepted; she came to the cell on Wednesday, enjoyed it immensely, and has stated her intention to come each week from now on.

Thank you, Lord, for reminding me that ministry has nothing to do with me, but is all about drawing people into a closer relationship with You.

Jack of all trades?

What exactly is my role as a minister? In the past couple of weeks I have changed a tyre on a car, rewired light fittings, moved a screen (twice), replaced a lock in a door, completed some colleagues' tax returns for them (and submmitted same to SARS), and "de-virused" a fellow Phase One's memory stick. Tomorrow morning I will be painting walls at John Street, and then braiing chicken for the fund raiser at St George's.

I'm SO glad I also get to preach, visit people, and serve Communion from time to time, otherwise I would be suffering a real identity crisis!

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Another "last" ...

This afternoon was another of my "lasts" in Uitenhage - this time, my final service at Rosa Munch House, one of the old age homes we conduct services. So I decided to make it a bit special, blowing a sizeable portion of my stipend on eats so that we could have a bit of a party during tea - after we had shared a meal of a more memorable kind, being that of Holy Communion

Often seen as a "tame" congregation for Phase Ones to cut their teeth on, this instution and others like this is home to people who have been members of various congregations for many years. Such folk formed the backbone of their respective churches for many years, and my attitude towards these services has been that these folk were there for the Church in their prime years; now the Church needs to be there for them.

That's not to say, however, that these people are "down and out" by any means. One resident - Mr Chapman, whom we all know as "Chappie" - is 92 years young and this past weekend became senior club champion of the Uitenhage Bowls Club! With his bright eyes and erect stance, I fully expect him to be well into his stride as the magic "ton" comes up!

I've always had an affinity for older people (and for babies, strangely enough - it's those in between that are more of a challenge!), and it didn't take long this year before I started getting teased about my "harem of octogenarians". Certainly I will have fond memories of them, and they will be sorely missed!

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Ashamed to be male

Today I'm having one of those days where I feel like I want to line up against a wall every male (these AREN'T men!) who has ever made a girl pregnant and then disappeared, and systematically drive my knee into each one's crotch at high velocity!

Now I know that this sort of behaviour would not be considered very "minister-like" or Christian, but when the overwhelming majority of the 63 children I will have baptised by the time this year is over don't have dads, one can get quite angry!

Yes, I've heard all the debates and arguments about the whole sex-before-marriage "thing", and have been involved in a few myself. My own views on this have been documented elsewhere on this blog. But irrespective of whether you consider pre-marital sex to be acceptable or not, one of the things that must surely get up any right-thinking Christian's nose is that some male cretin whose (limited) brains are located in his genitals can get his rocks off with a girl, profeess to "love" her, even, and as soon as he strips his reverse gear, *poof* - he's outta here! And these are so-called "Christian" guys I'm talking about, here! For crying out loud - where's any sense of responsibility, man?

Certainly I've seen enough situations during this year of ministry that make me feel deeply ashamed to be male!

Okay, okay, I know I'm generalising. That it takes two to tango, that is true. That some girls sadly do behave like sluts and open their legs to anything with a penis - that is also true. But at risk of making another generalised statement, it's probably also true that many young ladies believe that the man of their life truly DOES love them, and will stick with them through thick and thin. There's a word for that - it's called marriage vows!

Either way, when are we as a Church going to wake up? While we spend endless hours debating the ins and outs of same-sex relationships (and I'm not suggesting that this issue is unimportant), we are giving absolutely NO spiritual guidance to the 95% of us that are heterosexual. Are we saying (by our silence) that our youngsters can have sex together, the girl falls pregnant, the guy disappears leaving her with the baby, never contributing a brass farthing to the child's upkeep, and we're okay with this? God help us all!

So here are a couple of my own suggestions:

1. The promotion of the Biblical ideal of abstinence outside marriage and fidelity within marriage should be made mandatory in our Sunday School and Confirmation curricula.

2. Sound teaching on our responsibilities in life needs to be emphasised throughout the Church. I'm getting fed up of hearing only about "rights"!

3. We need to be up to speed with the legal duty of support that BOTH parents have towards their children. I would LOVE to get a group of lawyers together who will sue the pants off those swines that couldn't give a damn about their kids!

In memory of Francis Eugene Widdas

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

11 November is known in many countries as "Remembrance Day", where people pause for a minute's silence (usually at 11:11, the time of the signing of the Armistice that brought World War I to an end) to remember those who have fallen in conflict.

Today I remember my late grandfather, Francis Eugene Widdas, who was killed in action during World War II on the beaches of Anzio, Italy, where he remains buried with countless others who lost their lives during this terrible conflict.

Although he died some 25 years before I was born, his memory remains part of my family's history. Spare a thought today for the many who lost their lives in all varieties of human conflict, whether war, freedom struggle, or domestic. And let us continue to strive for peace with our fellow human beings.

Sunday, 8 November 2009


When I returned from my retreat I found an e-mail from a church in our Connexion looking to invite a minister as from 2012 and enquiring whether I would be interested in discussing this matter further. Now as it so happens, 2012 is the year I am likely to be returned to a circuit appointment after my stint at the seminary, so an e-mail such as this is bound to grab my attention.

On the one hand, I'm grateful to the person who thinks highly enough of me to put my name forward as a possible candidate to the congregation concerned, particularly since finding the right "fit" between a minister and a congregation is a critical and often sensitive matter. On the other hand, this raises a number of issues, since as probationers we are not allowed to even entertain approaches of this nature, being as we are at the disposal of EMMU and Conference.

It's so difficult under my current circumstances to do the "right thing". And I'll readily admit that securing an invitation that starts once I finish at seminary would certainly give me much peace of mind - especially since such invitations are normally for five-year periods, and starting such an invitation period in 2012 would dovetail nicely with my son's high school years.

This is also not the first time I've received such an approach - one of the smaller congregations in the Circuit from which I candidated seemed quite keen to have me as their minister, given that they were not yet at the stage where they could afford an ordained minister. And that too was an attractive option, since I would have been able to remain in my own home, with my family, instead of having to leave them behind when relocating to Uitenhage. However, the possibility of being stationed at that particular congregation was always going to be a non-starter, given that I had not even started my probationary period as a minister and, in any event, being stationed in the Circuit that I grew up in would probably have not been appropriate at that stage.

As the rules stand at the moment, only ordained ministers and probationers in their ordination preparation year can make themselves available for invitation. All other probationers are stationed by Conference based on recommendations made by EMMU. And while there is undoubted merit in this approach, it would be nice for those of us who have families (particularly those with school-going children) to be able to consider such invitations.

In the end I was left with little choice but to contact the church concerned and politely decline the opportunity to pursue this matter further. And I'm at peace with that, trusting that God will be faithful in having called me to ministry by providing a suitable station once my training period has been completed.

Celebrating our differences - even in death

Yesterday I was invited by Neville to accompany him and a couple of friends to the beach. Unfortunately I had to decline the invitation, since I was due to conduct a funeral starting at 2 pm.

But I had to laugh at Neville's suggestion that I catch up with them later - after all, in a typical white context a funeral normally takes about 20-30 minutes, and if you do absolutely everything from opening the church, to conducting the service, to tea afterwards, helping with cleaning up, and locking the church afterwards, you can still be done within about an hour. In a coloured context, on the other hand, things are done a little differently, and if I managed to return home from a 2 pm funeral before the sun went down, I would have been doing really well!

And so it turned out - by the time I completed the service in the church, gone through to the cemetery, completed the graveside prayers and formalities, and then returned to the church for a "little something" to eat (HUGE insult if one declines, unless one genuinely has another appointment), it was getting on for 5 pm by the time I left the church, with the meal still in full swing.

But having now been involved in ten coloured funerals and three white ones, I got to thinking about the differences between the two contexts. Here are some of my observations:

Firstly, us "whiteys" are scared of the whole concept of death. We don't want to even talk about it. The very word sends tremors through our bodies - so much so that we don't "die", we "pass on", or "go home to be with Jesus". The service reflects this, with a concerted effort to get the entire proceedings over and done with in the shortest possible amount of time (see above).

In the coloured context, they are much more honest about death. Sure, the same sense of loss is felt - indeed, I have conducted many a funeral where the family and loved ones have openly sobbed during the service. Yet there is a frank honesty about what has happened - the person died.

The way in which coloured folks say goodbye to their loved ones is also quite enlightening. Firstly, the funeral service is not the be-all-and-end-all - in fact, services start on the Monday evening preceding the funeral. Each night from Monday to Thursday, there is a house service, with representatives of the different organisations each taking their turn to participate. When every group and organisation stands up in a Circuit Quarterly Meeting and reports that a major part of their activity involves visiting the bereaved, they are not kidding.

Then on the day of the funeral itself (always a Saturday, with few exceptions), proceedings commence with a service in the house, followed by the procession to the church. There the funeral service is conducted (usually about an hour, so as to keep to the undertaker's timetable). Following the service, the procession moves to the gravesite, where a short service is conducted as the deceased's remains are lowered into the ground.

Thereafter, it's usually back to either someone's house or the church for a meal - such meals being a celebration of the person's life, especially if they were a Christian and active in the local Church. While such events aren't exactly dance parties, the atmosphere is none the less quite jovial.

So which approach is better? Personally, I would rather die myself than have hordes of people around me when I have just lost a loved one. Having said that, I have seen how bereaved families experience healing through all the services and related activities. The typical whitey approach involves relative isolation before the funeral, an intense desire to get the funeral over and done with ASAP, and (often) complete isolation thereafter. I'm not convinced that this is healthy.

On the other hand, the pressure on bereaved families to cater for upwards of 150 people (and we're talking a cooked meal - no soggy sandwiches and a cup of tea, here) can place families under inordinate financial strain. An offering of sorts is received (informally), but that doesn't even scratch the surface. In an area where many people are living at close to poverty levels, this is a practice that the Church needs to start addressing.

I'm also not convinced that those fancy coffins are the way to go, either. However, that's a difficult one since the prevailing cultural practice is strongly in favour of burial. My feeling is that the sense of remembrance has much to do with this - certainly, when one enters the main cemetery in Rosedale, the names on the gravestones read like a veritable "Who's Who" of our congregation. There's a deep sense of history, here. How one achieves the same sense of remembrance with a cremation, I still need to get my mind around.

And as for broaching the subject of becoming an organ donor (I am registered as one with the South African Organ Donor Foundation), I'm still trying to figure out how to approach this one from a theological perspective that is at the same time sensitive to cultural practices that go back many, many years.

Certainly I have no grounds for stating that burial is wrong, because it actually isn't. The whole "from dust you came, to dust you will return" bit in Genesis finds particular significance in a burial service. So the challenge for me as a minister is to find ways to bring similar meaning to services in which the deceased's remains are cremated, or where organs, tissue, and indeed entire bodies are donated for organ transplant and/or medical research.


I haven't blogged for a while as it has taken some time for me to get my new computer sorted out with the various bits of software one needs to us. My new MTN sim card also needed a bit of percussion therapy to persuade it to talk to my 'phone, so that I could load some airtime with which to purchase a data bundle so I could connect the new machine to the Internet ... starting to sound a bit like "The House That Jack Built", so let me stop there.

Anyway - what's with the title of this post, you may ask? Well, this past week our Phase One group had the privilege of spending a couple of days at a Benedictine monastery near Grahamstown. What struck me most about the monastic life is that firstly, the monks that live there are actually fairly "regular guys", and secondly that the monastic life is not much different to the ministry I have entered - the main difference being that I have a congregation that I am pastorally responsible for.

It was also intersting to follow the monastic routine for a bit, even though getting up at 5 am to be showered and ready in time for the 6 am vigil was quite a challenge! Then again, silence is from 8 pm to 8 am, so being in bed and asleep by 9 helped in this area.

I also particularly enjoyed the times of silence. This might have something to do with the scrambled state of mind I'm in at the moment, but the time to just be quiet, think, pray, and read was really beneficial. Just a pity it was only two days.

We were also ably led by Anthony sutton, who has journeyed with us throughout this year, and one of the sessions we did was to start journalling our dreams. I must confess that I had not really done much dream analysis before, although there was one particularly vivid dream about five years ago that I wrote down as soon as I woke up. But this was different, and the aim was to be open to the possibility that God can speak to us through our dreams as well, just as God did to the two Josephs (Old and New Testaments) and a number of others in Scripture.

I must say that the dreams that I recorded during the two days were, shall we say, "interesting" - definitely I would NOT want to share some of the details on a public forum for fear of being incriminated, but if one's dreams are a reflection of what is happening in one's life at a point in time, certainly I've had some experiences that have played themselves out in a scary yet revealing way in my dreams. Let's just say that Tuesday's dream involved me getting into a bitter racial argument with one of my fellow Phase ones, followed by a detailed explanation of light fittings to a stereotypical English football hooligan, with our District Bishop looking on, while in Wednesday's dream I was sitting in the offices of the MCO poring over the tax returns of the MCSA going back to 1980! (I wonder if certain officials in the MCSA have dreams involving me? Probably not...)

On my return from the retreat I decided to continue to record my dreams to see where this may be going. Thursday night I dreamt about a scene involving a church hall, a bank of computers, and Jenny's youngest son (whom I have met only once). Friday night was completely blank - I had no recollection of having dreamt anything at all. And this mornig I woke up with a vague recollection of having dreamt something, but for the life of me I cannot remember a thing.

Maybe my mind is either beginning to settle down, or I've gone completely over the edge and the men with the white coats will be meeting me at the church this evening!

Monday, 2 November 2009

My love/hate relationship with computers

I'm quite amazed just how involved it is to set up a new computer.

It's a bit like moving house in many ways - when you move in, you start off with this empty shell. But just like moving house, there's a lot more to it than just plonking down your furniture. Often you find that not everything fits the way it did in the old place.

So it is with my new PC. The main issue is that it came with Windows Vista, not XP. Now Vista has some nice features and gadgets - once you find them, that is! Everything is in a different place, and I'm finding that while some tasks are easier than under XP, others are a lot more complicated (like synchronising two drives for instance).

The other problem is that I have an old piece of software that just won't work on Vista. There are no patches to download, either. The only solution was to partition te drive and allocate a portion to run this program only. It's not a train-smash, except that none of the Acer drivers are on the partitioned drive (dum-dum Jones didn't create an XP recovery disk first), so I've had to download them from the Acer website. Some work, others need a bit more persuasion.

While computers have completely revolutionised the way that I live and work - I couldn't for instance, imagine doing assignments without one - they also come with their own stresses. The joys of modern living...

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

James Jones: cricket captain, academic, and lover of Jesus Christ

This proud dad has just heard the news that James has been made captain of the cricket team! Okay, it's a humble start - the team in question is the under-11 B team at his school, but if he wants to realise his dream of playing professional cricket for South Africa one day, he needs to start somewhere! (And yes, the Proteas badge may be my delusions of grandeur - but you never know ... one day, maybe?)

But he hasn't been spending all his time on the cricket field. On the contrary, he's had his nose in the books quite a bit this term as well, with six As and one B being the reward for his hard work.

Add to that a deep and sincere love for Jesus that he has had for as long as he can remember ... what more can this extremely blessed dad ask for? Thank you, dear God, for my wonderful son. When I read in Scripture of Your voice that came down from heaven, saying of Jesus, "this is My beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased", I can identify with that in an earthly sense as well.

God is SO good!

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Countdown - and coping with the "lasts"

The past couple of weeks have been a bit weird in that I've had a sense that every meeting I've attended has been my last one before moving off to the seminary next year.

And the emotions have been somewhat mixed. On one level I cannot wait to get back "home" with my family, but on another level I'm feeling almost guilty for wanting to leave - especially since many good relationships have been formed this year.

But I think I'm starting to go through a bit of a transition. At our recent district minister's retreat someone asked me how I feel about going to SMMS next year, and my response was that I'm going there to fulfil a promise I made to the church at Synod 2008, not becauuse I actually want to be there. A week ago at our Phase One exit meetings I was still in this frame of mind, but as the end of the year draws closer, I'm starting to warm to the idea of being a full-time student.

Maybe it's the idea of having Belinda and James with me next year that is shaping my thinking, but whatever the underlying cause, I intend to make the best of seminary. And right now, that's a good place for me to be in.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Jesus saves!

This humourous account was sent through to me by one of my colleagues. There are two messages in it for me - firstly, to ensure that I do backups more regularly in future, and of course, the far deeper meaning, and the reason I am in ministry.

Jesus and Satan were having an on-going argument about who was better on the computer. They had been going at it for days, and frankly God was tired of hearing all the bickering.

Finally fed up, God said, 'THAT'S IT! I have had enough. I am going to set up a test that will run for two hours, and from those results, I will judge who does the better job.'

So Satan and Jesus sat down at the keyboards and typed away.

They moused.
They faxed.
They e-mailed.
They e-mailed with attachments.
They downloaded.
They did spreadsheets!
They wrote reports.
They created labels and cards.
They created charts and graphs.
They did some genealogy reports .
They did every job known to man.

Jesus worked with heavenly efficiency and Satan was faster than hell.

Then, ten minutes before their time was up, lightning suddenly flashed across the sky, thunder rolled, rain poured, and, of course, the power went off.

Satan stared at his blank screen and screamed every curse word known in the underworld.

Jesus just sighed.

Finally the electricity came back on, and each of them restarted their computers. Satan started searching frantically, screaming:

'It's gone! It's all GONE! 'I lost everything when the power went out!'

Meanwhile, Jesus quietly started printing out all of his files from the past two hours of work.

Satan observed this and became irate.

'Wait!' he screamed... 'That's not fair! He cheated! How come he has all his work and I don't have any?'

God just shrugged and said,


40 Days!

Well, I'm back! After having recovered from the disaster of having my laptop swiped, resulting in being buried under assignments to be re-done, not to mention an exam to contend with, I've finally got through to the other side with everything submitted.

And I wanted to write something profound for my first post after this blogging hiatus, but when I opened my blog's home page, I saw that it is "40 Days" until I see my family again. Being one who has a wild musical imagination, I could immediately hear Cliff Richard (sorry, Belinda - SIR Cliff Richard) singing "40 Days" in the back of my mind.

Seeing as my wife would have probably wanted to marry Sir Cliff had he been available (he wasn't, so she settled for me instead), I thought this YouTube clip would be quite fitting. Enjoy it, Babe - I'll be home soon.

(Now I'm off to have a good cry...)

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Needing some wings!

"But those who wait on the LORD Shall renew their strength; They shall mount up with wings like eagles, They shall run and not be weary, They shall walk and not faint." (Isaiah 40: 31, NKJV)

It's amazing how something seemingly innocuous such as having a laptop swiped can turn one's life inside-out. In my case, losing two assignments has thrown me into a complete tailspin as I attempt to reconstruct a couple of month's work.

Not to mention that life itself goes on, as it has a habit of doing. Take this week just past, for instance. The previous Friday my machine went walkabout, forcing me to cancel the HIV / AIDS workshop to be held on the Saturday. Sunday was the normal round of services at which I was preaching at. Monday was spent on the 'phone grovelling to TEEC for an extension to submit the outstanding assignments. Tuesday and Wednesday was college as normal, while Thursday and Friday was the normal circuit routine, sermon preparation, and so on. Last week was the ministers' retreat, followed by a day in the office, the (now reconvened) HIV / AIDS workshop, baptism preparation classes, and the service this morning. In between all of this, every spare moment has been spent frantically trying to get the TEEC work done. On Wednesday I am writing an examination, and the two assignments are due on Saturday.

In short, I am STUFFED! "Tired" doesn't even BEGIN to describe my current state. But there IS light at the end of the tunnel - if I can get through to the end of next weekend in one piece, I might just survive...

Friday, 2 October 2009

Taking a (small) stand - update

I see in today's Business Report that Nestle has decided to discontinue its milk purchases from a farm "owned" by Grace Mugabe, the wife of Zimbabwean madman (sorry, President) Robert Mugabe. I'm not sure whether it was conscience or international pressure that gave rise to this decision, but either way, good move, Nestle.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Taking a (small) stand

Read this article about Nestle Zimbabwe purchasing milk from a dairy farm "owned" by Robert Mugabe's wife, and then decide whether you want to continue to purchase Nestle products while this situation continues. I, for one, will not be buying any more Nestle products once I have consumed what is currently in my cupboards.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Reconnected (well, sort of...)

After reporting last week that I have been liberated of my new laptop, I've managed to clean the wicks and get some paraffin into the old Dell. Unfortunately I'm running with it sort of hooked up to an iron lung - the onboard display is completely croaked, but I've managed to borrow a spare external monitor from the office and hook that up, so I have what you would probably call a "desk-lap".

Thankfully I managed to get my cards stopped before the thief managed to withdraw my vast stipend (one ATM withdrawal would have sorted THAT out!), and my bank has promised to get a new card to me during the course of next week (would have been same day, except that Investec is in Joburg and I'm in Uitenhage). In the meantime, generous offers of invites for lunches and suppers from members of my congregation have been keeping the tummy full. (This is where ministry truly happens, thank you SO much, folks. Your love and support is overwhelming!)

The downside is of course the amount of information I've lost. Yes, I KNOW one is supposed to keep backups. And the irony (I swear this IS the the truth, God being my witness) is that I had recently acquired an external DVD writer, and was going to spend my day off this Monday with a fresh new sleeve of blank DVDs, doing what every good computer user should! (The other reason for replacing the Dell was that it was not only the screen that died, but the on-board DVD writer as well, hence no backups from that source...)

My biggest concern is that I have three TEEC assignments due on 4 October. One of them has already been posted off, but the other two were each about 50-70% complete, but now that the machine is gone, I need to start from scratch. Please pray that the "powers that be" would be willing to grant me an extension to get them in. They normally don't allow for this, but I'm hoping that they'll cut me a little slack here, seeing as I have a perfect academic record over the past three years.

It's no good crying or throwing my toys out the cot - these things happen, I guess. The laptop is insured. The cards have been stopped, and are in the process of being replaced. It's just the information loss that is proving to be a MAJOR disruption at the moment.

Friday, 25 September 2009

"Bother", said Pooh...

I was just thinking this morning that I've been a bit quiet on my blog this past week or so, and that it's time for me to emerge from my shell and share some thoughts on some of the recent happenings. However, when I got to the office, things started getting a bit chaotic, what with people dropping in, telephone calls to return, and the usual goings-on of a normal church office.

At 11 this morning Bill (my superintendent) and I took part in a funeral. I felt quite nervous, and I'm not quite sure why - after all, I have done numerous funerals in my two coloured congregations. Perhaps this was because it was only the second time that I've taken part in a funeral in a white context, and although the English order of service is virtually identical to the Afrikaans one, the cultural practices are different and I didn't want to make a hash of things.

Anyway, the funeral went reasonably well, and after a cuppa and a couple of sausage rolls, I was raring to go again - what with this Sunday's service still to finalise, as well as an HIV / AIDS workshop I am due to conduct tomorrow.

But when I walked into my office, I noticed that my desk was looking a bit emptier. While the funeral was on, and with the two secretaries working in the front offices, someone had slipped in the back and helped themselves to my laptop, wallet, and carry-bag which had the power cables for the laptop in it.

What's stressing me a little is not the physical items stolen. Sure, R250 is a fair bit of cash to lose when you earn a Phase One stipend. And I'm a bit sore about losing the bag, which was a gift from my wife. I'm even more hurt that I've lost the One Year Bible that my previous congregation gave me as a farewell gift. Granted, these items can be replaced, but it's the sentimental value that's irreplaceable.

There's also the pain of stopping all my cards, having to apply for a new driver's license (please have mercy in the interim, Mr Traffic Officer), and the usual bits 'n bobs that one carts around in one's wallet. But the biggest inconvenience is the loss of all the data that was on the laptop, including two partially-completed assignments, every sermon I've ever preached, and all the notes, slides, videos, etc. for the HIV / AIDS workshop. Not to mention all the other data of various types that I had on there, including a fairly sizeable electronic library.

And, of course, while some of the most critical older stuff has been backed up, most of the newer stuff has not been. I suppose I should know better, but these things happen.

So I join Pooh in expressing my annoyance - "Bother..."

(PS: I've hijacked my secretary's PC to type and upload this post. I may be "missing in action" until I manage to replace my machine.)

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Official decision on 2010

It's official. I'm going to the Seth Mokitimi Methodist Seminary in Pietermartizburg next year.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Needing renewal

"Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit." (Psalm 51: 10-12, KJV)

Events of the past couple of days have left me feeling cynical and negative - a feeling I'm experiencing far too much lately, making me into the kind of person I don't want to become.

Sometimes I really don't understand why certain decisions are made the way that they are - particularly when so many people have been praying for a different outcome. I'm not at liberty to elaborate too much at this stage, since the decision I'm referring to will only be finalised by the end of this week. But unless something drastic happens, the news I heard yesterday is likely to be the final outcome.

Rod Burton, who is leading our anti-bias sessions at Phase One college, struck a nerve when he asked us whether we are feeling "violated" at the moment. His question ias in the context of our theological development, where one often feels like we are being "taken apart so that we can be put back together again", but to be honest I am feeling violated, abused, robbed, and cheated in so many different ways.

I'm probably also being unfair, selfish, and an all-round pain in the arse. And this needs to change. And the feeling of deep hurt I'm feeling inside - that needs to change too. Time, much prayer and reflection, and (hopefully) a cool head will (Lord willing) bring about the healing I need.

Lord, please give me the grace to accept Your will, as well as the decisions made by the Church concerning my stationing in 2010. Help me to honour the promises I made at my candidature, and to be true to the calling You placed on my heart.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Feeling flat

"Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up." - Galatians 6: 9, NIV

Last week I reported being "man down" with flu, but I thought that three days of enforced rest (thanks, Bill) would restore me back to health. And having missed the Local Preachers' Retreat this weekend (at which I was supposed to conduct two services), I was really looking forward to doing the evening service on Sunday.

As it turned out, the service ended up being a quest for survival, and by the time the service was over, I was finished in more ways than one! Last night's youth service (which launched Youth Week in the Northern Societies) went somewhat better, although I was still somewhat subdued by my normal standards. And it wasn't entirely due to my current state of health.

This week the Connexional Executive meets, followed by Conference which starts tomorrow. And at the risk of sounding selfish, these two events mean just one thing to me right now - an end to the limbo of not knowing whether I'll be in Uitenhage or Pietermaritzburg next year.

Right now there's just too much hingeing on this decision. My personal situation aside, the Circuit has many loose ends as well. Right now there is a blank preaching plan for the next quarter on my desk (covering November 2009 to January 2010), which cannot be drafted. We have a 2010 budget meeting next week, and my presence (or absence) will have an impact on the final numbers. Not to mention the fact that in three years the staffing will have gone from 2 ministers, 1 deacon, and a phase one, to 1 minister, 1 deacon, and 1 phase one, to 1 minister and 1 deacon.

But most of all, I'm not sure whether I should be preparing to say goodbye, or gearing up for next year.

In the meantime, life goes on. There is the daily work of ministry, which is what keeps me sane at the moment. In some small way I honestly believe that I'm having some impact on the communities I serve. Then there is the phase one college, of which we officially have only 9 weeks left. And on the 14th of October I have an exam (yuck - I don't do exams well. Give me a research project anyday!).

So right now my batteries are feeling rather flat as I wait for the "proper time" to "reap the harvest". I mustn't give up now - I just need to rely on God to give me strength and renewed energy.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

I'm a sick child!

I found out the hard way what happens when you try to boast!

I was mentioning to someone the other day that I have managed to get through my entire stay in Uitenhage without having anything happen to me health-wise. The words were hardly cold on the air when the first tickle started at the back of my throat.

Having survived a day at College, and then Barry's funeral (which just about knocked my emotions for six - especially when his wife picked up their little boy during the service), things went downhill fast by the time I got to home cell last night. When I woke up this morning, I still felt grotty, but because cowboys don't cry (especially in front of their congregations) and I had a service to conduct this afternoon, I got dressed and "Tupperwared" and dragged my sorry ass to the office.

My Superintendent took one look at me, and said, "Forget it - you aren't going ANYWHERE today other than the doctor's, and then bed. And that's an order!" He also agreed to take my service for me.

Having managed to get an appoimentment with the doctor at 12:00, I hung around the office for the rest of the morning, drinking tea, chatting, being fortified on chelsea buns, and listening to comments about my illness accompanied by porcine grunting sounds. Thankfully I don't have swine flu, but I've been booked off until Monday nevertheless. Now I'm sitting at home, having just taken my muti, and it's time for a good long sleeeeeeeeeeeep...

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Sometimes being a minister SUCKS!

Today we say goodbye to a colleague, Barry Marshall, who died tragically in a boating accident last week at the age of 37.

And the overwhelming question that I ask of God is ... why?

Why does a man who has dedicated his life to God's service have to be cut down in his prime? Why will two small children - ages 5 and 2 - have to grow up without their daddy? Why is a young wife now a widow? And why is a congregation now without their minister?

In this morning's daily readings, I read the following from Psalm 34:18 - "The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit". And I know that God's Word is truth, and the promised healing will come to pass. But right now, the questions remain - and they hurt.

There is still SO much about God that I don't understand. And it's moments like these when I hate being a minister. Because at a time when I'm supposed to have answers, all I have is questions.

Oh, God - please be with Barry's family this morning. And please restore our faith in You.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Sexuality - where do heterosexuals fit in?

For many Christians, discussions around sexuality is one of those "untouchable" topics - race, money, politics, and how to raise your kids make up the rest of the "Famous Five" of "no-go areas". I do of course have my own views on matters sexual, and they tend to be rather conservative. I still believe strongly that the gift of sexual expression is something that God has created exclusively for the marriage bed.

However, it seems that the majority of people in society - including a fair number of ministers - disagree with this view.

Given that I am currently stationed in a context where pregnancies outside of wedlock is a major issue, not to mention the ever-present threat of HIV / AIDS, I raised a question on our ministers' closed group on Yahoo concerning the issue of sexuality, so that I could understand the various views from a reasoned theological perspective.

I had also specifically requested that the discussion be confined to sexuality among heterosexuals. While I'm by no means trying to sweep the issue of same-sex relationships under the rug, I don't want to go that broadly into the discussion in this particular case. One or two of my colleagues have however disagreed with me on this, insisting that I do not exclude same-sex relationships from the topic of discussion.

Here is my dilemma, and the best way I can explain it is in the form of an analogy. Suppose I wanted to research the causes of car accidents. My immediate area of focus would naturally be those who drive cars. I accept that bikes and trucks are also a legitimate part of road transportation, and there ARE accidents that involve both cars and these other forms of transport, but my immediate focus would be on cars (i.e one car crashing into another car). My wanting to talk about cars surely would not imply that I'm ignoring or discriminating against bikes and trucks?

I had a similar dilemma at Phase One college some months ago. The topic of discussion was meant to be on sexuality in general (or so I thought), but after four sessions dealing exclusively with homosexuality, I raised the question: "I hear what has been said, and I understand the need to engage in debate around the whole same-sex issue. But where do those of us who are heterosexual fit in?"

As a minister, I will probably have to deal with issues requiring pastoral care of those of same-sex orientation. But I will ALSO have to provide pastoral care when people in heterosexual relationships (the majority of us) have problems. When marriages are breaking up because of sexual infidelity, when unmarried couples are living together in a sexual relationship, and when people are having babies out of wedlock, these are issues that demand a Christian response. And right now, with just about all the focus being devoted to same-sex relationships (5-10% of the population, depending on which statistics one reads), I'm finding myself without access to the appropriate tools to handle problems that the 90-95% need to deal with.

Culture, language, and race

This will probably sound like quite a rant for first thing on a Monday morning, but this post on Jenny's blog made my blood boil!

Let me perhaps backtrack a bit so as to put things in context.

Part of the richness that is South Africa is the way in which so many different cultures can call this beautiful land home. The fact that we have 11 (yes, eleven!) official languages is a reflection of this diversity. However, the architects of apartheid did their level best to keep the various cultures apart, and we are still reaping this 15 years after democracy.

Sadly, the Church has similarly been split on racial and cultural lines. For this reason, when we are stationed as Phase One probationers, we are placed in cross-cultural settings so that we can gain exposure to other cultures, and (hopefully) an appreciation thereof.

Now I'm not sure if it's the legacy of apartheid, or the arrogance of being English, or both, but unfortunately while most black people are able to speak English, very few whiteys can speak Xhosa, Sesotho, or Zulu (the main indigenous languages, together with Afrikaans). And this can sometimes make communication difficult.

I have mentioned in previous posts how important it is for us to try and understand each other, and (if possible) learn another language. As it turned out, my own station is in a historically coloured area where the main language spoken is Afrikaans - a language that I understand and can speak as well although on a fairly rudimentary level. I struggle with the Afrikaans words for "sanctification", for instance. What am I talking about? I struggle with simpler concepts such as "steward" or "offering", so I usually announce that "die stewards gaan nou die offering opneem" :-).But others (such as Jenny) are placed in a Xhosa context, and although she tries valiantly to say a few sentences, her Xhosa education is very much a "work-in-progrress" and greeting someone in Xhosa is a far cry from being able to conduct a meeting and participate therein.

And herein lies the rub. That the minority of us are unable to communicate with the majority in their own language is a travesty. Having said that, we ARE trying - we really are! And yes - it IS arrogant to expect everyone to communicate with me in MY language if I am not prepared to attempt to communicate in theirs. I remember going to a Local Preachers' Convention about two years ago, and even though the proceedings were conducted largely in Xhosa, I was grateful to those sitting next to me for giving me a basic rundown of the proceedings in English.

I also firmly believe that one needs to respect another's language and culture, and make every effort to understand both. I have on many occasion said that, for the most part, the cultural practices of others are not wrong - they're just different. However, such respect needs to be mutual. It is therefore reasonable to expect others to try to understand my culture as well, and where I am coming from.

Sometimes I get the feeling that the whole thing of "respecting one another's culture" becomes a convenience thing. For instance, it's okay for me to get crapped out if I make a decision (in good faith) on behalf of others, because the predominant cultural norm is one of "consensus" decision-making. But if one of the others goes ahead and makes a similar decision without consulting the others, then it's okay. And if a group of white ministers want to form an exclusive grouping based on skin colour, that would be (quite correctly) be branded as racist, but for a group of black ministers to be part of such a grouping (i.e. the Black Methodist Consultation), that's okay. And if a minister is chairing a meeting in English, heaven help her if there is no-one on hand to interpret, but if she is excluded by the others, then that's okay.

Well, guess what - it's NOT okay! And I'm flipping annoyed that a dear friend and colleague of mine had to be embarrassed in the way that she was.

One of my Phase One colleagues is continually berating the rest of us for wanting to hide or "run away" from issues of race. And that may be true. But if we want to be honest and really tackle race in a sincere manner, then we need to tackle it in ALL directions. Because ALL groups - white, black, coloured, asian, you name it - are capable of being racist. And if racism is wrong, then it's WRONG - REGARDLESS of in which "direction" it's being perpetrated!

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Some of the Phase Ones of 2009

See if you can spot the coloured minister!

Friday, 4 September 2009

Barry Marshall - turning the other cheek

Yesterday morning we had a staff meeting in which we discussed Jesus' instruction to His followers to "turn the other cheek". This instruction is hotly debated, as people often see this as a sign of submission - almost as though christians are expected to roll over and play dead in the face of adversity.

But Baden offered a different take on this concept, indicating that in Jewish custom, if a person struck you across the face with the back of the hand, this was a sign of contempt. Turning the other cheek therefore meant that the person being hit was actually standing up to their attacker, in effect saying that if the person is to strike them, then do so as an equal.

I was immediately taken back to a discussion that we had in one of our Phase One sessions earlier this year, when Barry Marshall (our District Supervisor of Studies) was taking us through an exegetical exercise using this very same subject of turning the other cheek. And I remember Barry's strong statement that turning the other cheek is not an act of weakness, but one of strength - where the person being struck is standing tall with dignity.

Having spoken about Barry in the morning, I felt as though I had been slapped across the face when I heard the sad news that Barry's life had been tragically cut short in a boating accident.

I didn't know Barry that well, and most of my contact with him was through his blog and posts on various discussion groups. He enjoyed a good argument. Brash and arrogant to some, he stood up strongly for what he believed, "turning the other cheek" to his detractors. And, like Jenny, I would have liked to have got to know Barry better as a person. Because if our exegesis classes proved anything about Barry's character, it's that he can have a good ol' ding-dong argument with you and still be friends afterwards. One can learn SO much from a person like that!

So take some time to read through some of the posts on Barry's blog. You may not necessary agree with everything he has written, but one thing's for sure - he makes you think! And that legacy will live on.

"b", you will be sorely missed!

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

What Methodists believe

People sometimes ask me what the core beliefs of Methodists are. I found this on the World Methodist Council's website, which sums up our core beliefs quite nicely.

Wesleyan Essentials of Christian Faith

* The "people called Methodists" form a family of churches within the World Methodist Council.
* We claim and cherish our true place in the one holy, catholic and apostolic church.
* Our origins lie in the work of John and Charles Wesley in 18th century England which quickly spread to every comer of the world.
* The purpose of this work and ministry was, and is, to renew the Church and spread scriptural holiness whichincludes social righteousness throughout the whole earth, to the glory of the one God, Father, Son, and HolySpirit.
* We confess that often we have failed to live up to this high calling, and we repent of the times when our witness has distorted the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Trusting in the grace of God, we engage ourselves anew in God's service.

We affirm a vision of the Christian faith, truly evangelical, catholic and reformed, rooted in grace and active in the world.
* Methodists affirm the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the primary rule of faith and practice and the center of theological reflection.
* Methodists profess the ancient ecumenical creeds, the Apostles' and Nicene Creed.
* Methodists seek to confess, to interpret and to live the apostolic faith, the faith once delivered to the saints.
* Methodists acknowledge that scriptural reflection is influenced by the processes of reason, tradition and experience, while aware that Scripture is the primary source and criteria of Christian doctrine.
* Methodists rejoice in the loving purpose of God in creation, redemption and consummation offered through grace to the whole world.
* Methodists believe in the centrality of grace; prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying.
* Methodists believe in the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the sufficiency of His atoning work for all humankind.
* Methodists believe that we "are the friends of all and the enemies of none."

We worship and give allegiance to the Triune God.
* In worship, we respond in gratitude and praise for God's mighty acts in creation, in history, in our communities, and in our personal lives.
* In worship, we confess our sin against God and one another and receive God's gracious forgiveness.
* In prayer, we wait in God's presence, offer the searchings and longings of our own hearts, for ourselves and in intercession for others, and open ourselves to God's Spirit to comfort, lead, and guide.
* In the celebration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper, we participate in the mystery of God's presence, redemption and reconciliation.
* In reading, proclaiming and receiving the Gospel, we affirm God's creating and saving power.
* From worship we go into the world to love and serve others and to be instruments of justice and peace in the establishment of God's reign on earth.
* The language and form of worship emerge from the community through obedience to Jesus Christ and the creative power of the Holy Spirit.
* We inherit the treasury of the Wesley's hymns, with a hymnody now enriched from many other sources.

* We proclaim Jesus Christ to the world through word, deed and sign.
* We seek the realization of God's will for the salvation of humankind.
* We are empowered by the Holy Spirit to be signs of Christ's presence in our communities and in the world through our preaching, teaching, and in deeds of justice, peace, mercy, and healing as the outworking of faith.
* We witness to God's reign among us now, as proclaimed by Jesus, and look forward to the full realization of the coming Kingdom when every form of evil will be destroyed.
* We seek to understand and respond to the contexts and situations in which we live, so that our witness will have integrity.

* We serve the world in the name of God, believing that our commitment comes to life in our actions, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
* As followers of Jesus of Nazareth, who came to serve rather than be served, we go into the world as people of God in Christ Jesus, to serve people, regardless of their economic and social status, race, gender, age, physical and mental ability, sexuality, religion or cultural origin.
* Being "filled with the energy of love," we anchor our service and our life and work in love for our neighbors, including those we perceive as our enemies.
* Since all forms of Christian service are influenced by a given context of community and culture, we seek to express our love in appropriate ways.
* The life of holiness holds together conversion and justice, works of piety and works of mercy.
* Empowered by God, authentic Christian service is based on Scripture, tested in community, affirms life and seeks the shalom of God's reign.
* Recalling the story of the Samaritan (Luke 10:25), we express and claim compassion for all people and accept the call in Christ to "suffer with" the least of these in humility and love.

* We share a commitment to Jesus Christ that manifests itself in a common heart and life, binding believers together in a common fellowship and anticipating solidarity within the human family.
* Having experienced the Gospel of Jesus Christ as a liberating power from all oppression, we stand in solidarity with all people who seek freedom, peace and justice.
* Knowing that the love we share in Christ is stronger than our conflicts, broader than our opinions, and deeper than the wounds we inflict on one another, we commit ourselves to participation in our congregations, denominations and the whole Christian family for the purpose of nurture, outreach and witness.
* Remembering our Gospel commitment to "love our neighbors," we will, through dialogue and partnerships for service to the world, endeavor to establish relationships with believers of other religious traditions.

Adopted by the World Methodist Council
Rio de Janeiro, August 13, 1996.