God's Word for today

Friday, 27 February 2009


It's quite interesting how specific subjects come up for discussion all at once.

In a previous post, I related how I am battling to get to grips with the legislation contained in Leviticus, and I need to do some research concerning its applicability. For instance, we no longer punish a couple caught in adultery by stoning them to death (although this IS an attractive option if you are one of the spouses involved!). Yet it's in the Bible!

Yesterday in my devotions, I was reading the verse in Leviticus 19:28 (NIV), which reads: "Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord". I never really gave this another thought until this morning, when out of the blue our Youth Pastor asked me, "What's your take on tattoos?"

I must confess that this is not a subject that I have particularly strong feelings about. I personally would never have one done myself, but only because I'm a total weenie with an extremely low pain threshold. While I wouldn't exactly advocate covering your body with the sort of "art" as pictured above, I think that the discreet cross that one of my Phase One colleagues has tattooed just above her ankle is in quite good taste. No doubt this opens up an avenue of witness for her, particularly among the youth.

So what, then, about this particular verse from Leviticus? Since I haven't gone into it any deeper, I can't give my views just yet. But as ministers we will be asked these kinds of questions, just as our Youth Pastor did. Are we ready for them? In my case, more often than not the answer is "no".

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Throwing the babies out with the bathwater

One of the things I'm beginning to discover this year, is that there is SO much that we can learn from other traditions.

It seems that as Protestant Christians, for example, we have gone so far to try and reject anything Roman Catholic that we've somewhat lost so much of their rich expressions of spirituality. Practices such as meditation, centering prayer, periods of silence, etc. which come from the Catholic tradition (and, in fact, reflect the example of our Lord Jesus Christ's prayer life) can greatly enrich our own spiritual walk with God.

The danger, of course, is that in our quest to rediscover the original "baby" that was thrown out originally, we end up throwing out the "new baby" of our own traditions and spirituality in the process. That would be a tragedy, since there is so much in our own tradition (e.g. Wesley's "Four All's", our call to service, and let's not forget the rich vault of hymns from the likes of Charles Wesley, Isaac Watts, and many others) that can still build up our faith today.

Lord God, I thank You that a perfect and holy God chooses to reveal Yourself to imperfect and unholy human beings such as me. As You reveal Yourself to me in so many different ways, help me to keep a balance, remembering that the yardstick must be "is it of You, will it help me draw closer to You, will it help me become a better witness for You", and not the tradition from which a particular practice may hail.

Tax and the Church

I found this article among my tax archives, and although the specific example does not apply to the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, where the Good Friday collection generally goes to the Ministerial Student's Fund (to our non-MCSA readers, this is an actual fund run by the MCSA, not a euphemism for Phase One probationers' slush funds!), it nevertheless sheds some light on SARS' thinking concerning gifts to ministers.

Any form of payment disguised as "gifts" to ministers is therefore likely to end up with SARS dishing out some large slaps!

For Whom the Bell Tolls

There can be few more mournful sounds than that of a church bell tolling to summon congregants to church for a funeral.

In some very old parishes, the bell is tolled for each year of the deceased's life. Tolling involves pulling the rope so that the bell swings through a short arc, in contrast to ringing it in full swing, joyously. But what, I hear you ask, has this got to do with tax?

At first glance, it might appear difficult to combine churches and taxation and thus justify the title of this column. In practice, many churches have found themselves in an adversarial position with SARS, and the UK Inland Revenue Authorities, usually in connection with alleged non-compliance with PAYE regulations and VAT law. This is understandable, as many bookkeepers work only part-time for the church and are not always equipped to handle complex matters of law interpretation.

Here in South Africa, it is believed that SARS are investigating a specific aspect of some church ministers' income, namely the Easter Offering. For some years, following an ancient custom in England, it has been the practice in the Anglican church to donate the offertory on Easter Sunday to the church minister. Usually, the amount of the collections that day is recorded in the church records and paid to the minister after deducting income tax as it is clearly remuneration in those circumstances.

However, if a donation is given directly to the clergyman by a member of the congregation the nature of the transaction is different. It can be argued strongly that it becomes a non-taxable donation and it is surprising that SARS appears to question this. As often happens, there is a litany of persuasive tax cases in England to support the view that in certain circumstances donations to a clergyman at Easter are gifts and not subject to income tax, much the same as gifts at other times of the year, subject of course to the current aggregate South African annual limit of R100 000 per donor.

Clergymen in England appear to be litigious, and in Turton v Cooper The Reverend Zouch Turton took his local Inspector of Taxes all the way to the High Court and won. His victory was all the more remarkable because he could not afford legal counsel to represent him and he argued his case in person, very persuasively it seems. He had graduated in law from Oxford University before reading Theology and being ordained. He was assisted by two previous decisions in which the Courts had held that Easter offerings are not taxable in certain circumstances, namely Herbert v McQuade and Slaney v Starkey. In Mr Turton's case the judge said: "… I quite agree that, if it somehow becomes additional remuneration for his services it is taxable as accruing to him by virtue of his office, notwithstanding that it is so given voluntarily. Here, it seems to me, they, that is the congregation, did not give him anything as additional remuneration for his services but they said: You are a person whose services are in our view inadequately remunerated, true; but we should not care a bit about that if you happened to be a rich man apart from your incumbency. You are not. The incumbency is so poorly paid that it leaves you a poor person. That is the Master of the Rolls' first case in Poynting v Faulkner where in order to be tax free there had to be an eleemosynary character to the gift…".

Of course, when it comes to VAT indiscretions, churches usually lose because the VAT authorities in the UK, Europe and New Zealand have sophisticated computer programmes, which ensure that all vendors' records are monitored and inspected regularly on site. The importance of the church, or the fact that it may be an historic building, holds little sway with the VAT man. Thus, the Dean of Hereford Cathedral found himself in Court. The Cathedral was registered for VAT as helpers operated a restaurant and shop at the Cathedral. They incurred considerable expense in renovating two cottages in the Cathedral cloisters, which were the residences of clergy. The cottages had been built in 1472. The input tax on the renovation costs was disallowed but, on appeal, the Court held that the cost of maintaining a Cathedral that has existed for hundreds of years cannot be met without the finance guaranteed by secular or business activities. In a judgment worthy of King Solomon, the court held that, on the evidence, the relative importance of the business activities and the religious activities was equal, so that 50% of the input tax was deductible.

VAT was introduced in the UK in 1973 and in that relatively short period of time there have been more than 6 000 appeals to the Courts and Tribunals by vendors who felt that decisions by the VAT Authorities were unfair. It has to be said that the Authorities were successful in the majority of cases and we hope that SARS is able to emulate its UK colleagues by investigating doubtful claims and eliminating VAT fraud by the unscrupulous.

Consider three English cases taken at random from Tolleys VAT Cases 2006, published by Lexis Nexis Butterworths, and decide for yourself whether the vendors were entitled to claim a VAT input credit for the expenditure.
• A chartered accountant in public practice was a heavy smoker and each month he bought large quantities of cigarettes for which he claimed a VAT input credit. In court he said that he had purchased the cigarettes in order to give them to his employees and clients for the purpose of maintaining the goodwill of his practice.
• Two brothers carried on a business in partnership as plumbers. They bought two Rolex gold watches at a cost of £3 000 and reclaimed the input tax. In court, they testified that the watches had been bought for their reliability, durability and ability to withstand heat, vibration and humidity.
• A farmer bought two Purdey shotguns at a cost of £34 000 and reclaimed the VAT. Purdey shotguns are the crème de la crème and arguably the best in the world.

And the results? In the first and third cases the taxpayers lost outright. In the second case, perhaps surprisingly, the Court allowed a deduction of 25% of the input tax.

Remember. Ask not for whom the bell tolls. The fiscal bell may toll for you. Are you prepared?

Penelope Webb, who for some years worked in industry, is a former tax partner of a large international accounting firm.

Printed from www.accountancysa.org.za

"Biiiiiicycle, Biiiiiicycle, Biiiiiicycle, I want to ride my Biiiiiicycle, ..."

Still smarting from the outburst of raucous laughter from the Janssensdal congregation a couple of weeks ago, in response to my sermon illustration where I proudly declared that "I am a cyclist" (maybe my rather rotund frame had something to do with the reaction?), I decided to put this "faith statement" into action this morning.

Joining two similarly-shaped congregants at the un-Godly hour of 5:00, we set out on a not too unpleasant route around the suburbs of Uitenhage. I know that 15km is not much of a cycle - Ian, one of our members who participates in Iron Man events, uses that as a warm-up - but it was nonetheless quite enjoyable. After a 5-year layoff from reasonably serious cycling, it felt good to get the lungs working and the legs spinning again. Even though the fitness is not there, the body somehow still remembers what to do.

My ego was somewhat bruised by a couple of lithe young ladies, who greeted us sweetly and then proceeded to drop us like a bad habit. Then again, they probably weigh less than half of what I do - wait 'till I catch you girls on a downhill...

But spare a thought for poor Hanno, whose ride this morning was the first time he'd been on a bicycle in 13 years. By the time we got from Neville's house to the stop street (about 200 metres), Hanno just kept saying, "Lord, I'm gonna die!" However, he ended up doing a fairly creditable 8km, managing to finish in the upright position.

I assured him that the lump on his backside that will appear about 6 hours after the ride (thanks to those obscenely skinny saddles) will only FEEL like he's messed his pants, except that it will probably hurt a whole lot more than "filling one's nappy".

And to think that we do this for FUN?

Reflections on this morning's devotions

For my daily devotions, I make use of a "One Year Bible". These come in various shapes and forms, and the one I have splits the entire Bible into daily readings from the Old and New Testaments as well as Psalms and Proverbs. They appear in the order found in conventional Bibles, and are divided up in such a way as to read through the entire Bible in a year.

This morning I was challenged by the passage from Mark 8: 14-21, where the disciples were grumbling over the fact that they had not brought along any bread. In this particular account, Jesus rebukes the disciples, citing two examples where He had supernaturally supplied food to eat.

His statement in verse 21, "Do you still not understand", was rebuking not only the disciples but me as well. For there have been many steps along the ministry journy where our Lord has shown me His hand in a real and tangible way. Yet there are still many areas in my life where I don't trust Him.

Lord Jesus, forgive me for my lack of faith. Help me, by the power of Your Holy Spirit, to fret less and to trust more. Even though it seems that no-one is in control, I thank You, Lord, that You are always in control. Let whatever path the ministry takes me in be in Your perfect will, and allow me to rest in You along that path.

Now if only I could get to grips with all that legislation in Leviticus...

Saturday, 21 February 2009

The Preacher's Call for the 21st Century

I was invited to present the opening address to the Grahamstown District Local Preachers Association 2009 Convention. Here is my address.

(PS: Hawk-eye'd readers will notice that this emblem is from the 2007 Central District LPA Convention in Pimville. I'm looking for an image of the LPA emblem - can anyone help?)

21 FEBRUARY 2009

New Testament: Romans 10: 1 – 17

When I was about six years old, I came home from school one day and asked my mother that question that puts the fear of God into any parent: “Mom, where do I come from?”

Those of you who are parents know what I am talking about!

So my Mom sat me down, and tried to explain the whole “birds and the bees” bit, illustrating the whole story about sperms and eggs without going into too much detail about just how the little sperms were introduced to the little eggs! Come on, folks – I was six! There had to be some age restriction on this movie! Anyway, once my mother had finished, I was more confused than ever. When she asked me why I was confused, this was my response: “Because Maria who sits next to me in class comes from Portugal!”

This morning, as we open our Convention with its theme, “The Preacher’s Calling For The 21st Century”, there are two questions that we need to consider: Where do preachers come from? And – more importantly – where are we going?

So firstly, where did we come from? It all started with the early revival movement in eighteenth-century England, which later became the Methodist Church. Our founder, John Wesley, was an Anglican priest, and it was as an Anglican priest that he died. He never wanted to start a breakaway church, and because of this Wesley encouraged those who attended his revivalist meetings to continue to attend their parish churches. However, because they also attended Methodist preaching services, which were held elsewhere, and met in classes, or cells, or wards – call them what you will – it soon became necessary to build "preaching houses" where the Methodist meetings could be held.

These began to function as alternative churches, often depending on the attitude of the local Anglican clergy, even before the formal break with the Anglican Church as a result of Wesley's ordination of ministers to serve in the United States in 1784 following the American War of Independence. Before the split, Wesley only had a handful of fellow Anglican priests who shared his view of the need to take the gospel to the people where they were, as accredited preachers. Because they were only a few, they travelled around Britain like Wesley himself – quite similar to the way Court judges did in those days. Because these judges who travelled around the country to different courts were known as “Circuit Justices”, the name stuck with the travelling preachers as well. This is where we get the concept of a Circuit, which was used to describe a group of churches that was overseen by a single minister. Many Circuits still operate like this today.

As the Methodist movement grew, and because of the limited number of ordained ministers he could call on, Wesley appointed Local Preachers who were not ordained but whom he examined, and whom he felt he could trust to lead worship and preach, although they did not administer sacraments. This led to a pattern developing whereby ordained ministers would spend a short period of around five to seven years in a Circuit. The Circuit minister had pastoral oversight and administered sacraments, but the majority of services were led, and sermons preached, by Local Preachers.

In those days Local Preachers would regularly spend a whole day with a local Society, leading one or more services and doing pastoral visits. The distances were vast, and many travelled on foot. Talk about commitment!

There are of course other denominations that make use of lay people in the leading of worship, but none have developed the office of Local Preachers to the extent that we as Methodists have. The Anglican Church, for example, as well as the Roman Catholic Church, makes use of what they call “lay readers”, but their participation in worship is normally limited to reading the Scriptures and perhaps one or two of the set prayers. Many churches, including our own, also have worship leaders and even worship teams, but this is largely limited to music ministry. In Charismatic and Pentecostal churches, it is usually only the senior pastor who preaches the message. On rare occasions one of the other pastors might preach, but seldom if ever a lay person.

This puts you in a very privileged position as a Methodist Local Preacher! But no privilege comes without responsibility.

Why did John Wesley create the office of Local Preacher? It might have been for very practical reasons, but I believe that he was inspired by the Holy Spirit when he did so. The Wesleyan belief in the “priesthood of all believers” finds its expression through you. And we should not be surprised at this if we believe that God raises up people from amongst us to lead worship and preach. God acts for the benefit of the Church and for the fulfilment of God’s mission. The Church needs Local Preachers in order to hear the Gospel spoken from the context of the world. It needs to hear the expression of Christian faith tested and deepened in the home, on the farm, and in the workplace – in good times and bad. This is the way that Local Preachers complement the ministry of presbyters – that’s us with the Tupperware – in the worship and preaching life of the Church.

In the Methodist Church of Great Britain, they estimate that about 60 – 70% of all Methodist worship services on Sundays are conducted by Local Preachers. I wonder what the figure would be in South Africa. It might even be more.

One thing is for sure – we manage to reach far more people with the Gospel using our battalions of Local Preachers than many other churches that use ministers alone. Two years ago I went to a rural Circuit in the far North West province, called Atamelang. This particular Circuit covers an area about the size of the entire Nelson Mandela Metropole – that’s Port Elizabeth, Uitenhage, and Despatch put together! The settlements are about 40 – 50 kilometres apart. In this entire area there is one Anglican Church, two Zionist churches, and 32 Methodist Churches! Their ministerial staff consists of one ordained minister, who is the Superintendent, and two Phase One probationers. Who do you think does the bulk of the ministry? Local Preachers – that’s who!

Go into any rural Circuit around the country, and you’ll see the same thing. Pull out the Local Preachers, and you are pulling the Gospel out of hundreds if not thousands of communities around the Connexion.

This is an awesome calling – and an awesome responsibility.

So let me remind you what it means to preach. In Mark 16: 15 we read that Jesus instructed His disciples to go into all the world and preach the Good News to all creation. But there are three parts to preaching:

• Firstly, we preach by mouth, being witnesses to Jesus Christ according to Acts 1: 8 in Jerusalem, all Judaea, Samaria, Despatch, Uitenhage, Port Elizabeth, in our churches, in homes, in our workplaces, and to the uttermost parts of the earth. None of us have any problem in sharing the Gospel from our pulpits. But what about outside the Church? Have you told someone about Jesus in your workplace? Or in your home?

• Secondly, we preach by our lifestyles. “By this shall all people know that you are My disciples: if you have love, one for another”. St Francis of Assisi said that “we must preach the Gospel at all times – and if necessary, use words as well”. According to the National Lottery website, tonight’s Lotto jackpot is expected to be around R6 million. Will you be in the queue for your ticket? Are some of you hoping that today’s sessions finish before the bottle store closes? Did any of us give a taxi driver a “middle finger salute” this week? Are these things consistent with being preachers of the Gospel?

• Thirdly, we preach by our actions. James 1: 22 tells us to be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. An unknown author wrote this poem: “I'd rather see a sermon than hear one any day; I'd rather one should walk with me than merely tell the way. The eye is a better pupil, more willing than the ear; Fine counsel is confusing, but example is always clear, And the best of all the preachers are the men who live their creeds, For to see a good put in action is what everybody needs.”

We are here in this room today because we believe that we have a calling to preach. But do we truly understand that calling? Rev Dr Ross Olivier, president of the new Seth Mokitimi Methodist Seminary in Pietermaritzburg, reminds us that for John Wesley, “doctrine, spirit, and discipline were all located within a burning passion, deep, faithful, unbounded passion for the authentic Christ. Not the cheap emotional brand of hysteria or dislocated cheap versions of ‘pie in the sky when I die’ that masquerade as the Gospel. Wesley’s passion led him onto the road of hardship, deprivation, sacrifice, and suffering. His passion caused him, in his own words, to obey not an ordinary call, but also an extraordinary call.”

What is this call? To what are we called as Local Preachers in the 21st century? I want to read further from Ross Olivier’s chapter in this book, “Rediscovering Wesley for Africa”. You should get this book. In fact, all of us should be reading regularly. How can we grow – how can we enrich our preaching – if we don’t read? John Wesley went so far as to say that “a preacher who does not read, shall not preach”. If we applied that today, some of us would never get planned! Maybe we should make this one of the questions at our Local Preachers’ Quarterly Meetings: “Has every Preacher read at least one spiritual book, other than the Bible, in this past quarter?”

Let’s have a look at this call, quoting from Ross Olivier.

• First, it was a call to proclaim Christ in all His offices: The Christ of Bethlehem, the Christ of Galilee, the Christ of Calvary, the Christ of Jerusalem. A call to declare the incarnation of Jesus, the ministry of Jesus, the atonement of Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus. Not a Jesus confined to the church, nor even a Christ for Christians, but the cosmic Christ; a Christ who declared that God so loved the world.

• Second, it was a call to declare the fullness of saving grace: Christ before us, Christ for us, Christ in us and Christ through us.

• Third, it was a call to proclaim and manifest holiness. We are reminded that for Wesley all holiness had to be measured in terms of social consequences. There is no such thing as private religion. In Wesley’s own words, ‘Christianity is a social religion, and to make it into a solitary one is to destroy it.’ It is no wonder that on the occasion of the first sermon that he preached, he selected this text: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because He has anointed Me to preach the Gospel to the poor; He has sent me to heal the broken hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised.’

• Fourth, it was a call to simple living and just lifestyles. This is why Methodists built chapels and not cathedrals. I wonder what Mr Wesley would make of the fact that the Methodist Church of Southern Africa has a property portfolio of three billion Rand, especially when we compare that to what we spend on mission. Mr Wesley would probably also have something to say about our lavish funerals and weddings, especially when our so-called “culture” imposes this burden on those who cannot afford the expense that goes with it. Not to mention the amounts of money that we spend on Conventions, while our Circuit assessments go unpaid and our ministers don’t receive their stipends! God measures our faithfulness, not the fittings we build or possess. What are we actually trying to prove?

• Fifth, it was a call to ministry alongside the poor. Wesley’s theology was formed among the poor and the marginalised. This call ultimately defined ministry for Wesley. It shaped his preaching and determined the priorities for the Methodist movement. It’s time we got back those priorities. For the church is no longer the Church of Christ when it fails to be the church of the poor, for the poor, with the poor. We neglect our calling if we stop going “not only to those who need us, but to those who need us the most.” John Wesley wrote in his journal in January 1875: At this season we usually distributed coals and bread among the poor of the society. But I now considered they wanted clothes as well as food. So on this and the four following days I walked through the town and begged two hundred pounds, in order to clothe them that needed it most. But it was hard work, as most of the streets were filled with melting snow, which often laid ankle-deep; so that my feet were steeped in snow-water nearly from morning till evening. I held it out pretty well till Saturday evening; but I was laid up with a violent fever, which increased every hour, till, at six in the morning, Dr. Whitehead called on me.” When Wesley made this entry in his journal, he was 81 years old!

Are we being true to this calling?

Are we proclaiming Christ? Do we declare the fullness of saving grace? Do we not only proclaim holiness, but also live holiness? Are our lifestyles a reflection of the Gospel, and do we seek justice? And are we following Jesus’ example by ministering to the poor and marginalised, and not just pandering to those who have money and influence?

If being a Local Preacher in the 21st century means that we are prepared to do these things, then we can say that we are called by God to be preachers. But if being a Local Preacher is only going to be about position within the Church, wearing a uniform, and attending conventions, then this is all a waste of time. Let’s rather pack up, go home, and watch the cricket, than waste God’s time pretending to be preachers of the Gospel.

It’s my call. And it’s your call. What would Jesus Christ want that call to be?


Friday, 20 February 2009

COPE may nominate past MCSA Presiding Bishop as their presidential candidate

I was somewhat taken aback to read this news on Dion Forster's website, and quickly flipped over to The Times to make sure that my eyes weren't deceiving me.

Now I must say that if this news is subsequently confirmed, I have mixed feelings about it.

On the one hand, it's important that Christians use their God-given talent in whatever sphere they are called to, and Lord knows we could do with a Godly person leading this country. I haven't personally met Rev Dandala, but from what I have heard from various quarters, he is a relatively young, dynamic man possessing the utmost integrity (SA's answer to Barack Obama, perhaps?). On the other hand, my understanding of our disciplines is that while Methodist ministers are free to exercise their democratic right to vote for the party of their choice, becoming a part of a particular party is another matter entirely. It is for this reason that I have resolved never to become a card-carrying member of any political party.

I am therefore concerned that these developments, as was the case when another past Presiding Bishop of the MCSA, Rev M Stanley Mogoba, left the church to become the leader of the PAC some years back, somehow go against our stance of being "neutral" as far as direct participation in party politics is concerned.

Having said that, one must be fair to Rev Dandala in that he has not held office in the MCSA for some years. One must also remember that Dr Martin Luther King Jr, one of the leading lights of the American Civil Rights movement, was a Baptist minister. Let us also not forget the prophetic voice that was (and still is) Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu (although, to my knowledge, he has never entered politics, with his fight against apartheid coming from the perspective of his role as the leader of the Anglican Church).

So if it is true that Rev Dandala is in fact going to be COPE's presidential candidate, my prayers are that he will bring integrity and Godliness to the South African political landscape in a way that is both meaningful and influential.

In fact, I was somewhat undecided as to who to vote for in the upcoming elections. This news has probably determined who will get my "X" this year.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Clean-up day

Monday is supposed to be my day off, but my involuntary single status means that I need to attend to certain domestic tasks, such as washing. I'm most grateful to my Circuit for providing me with a washing machine, as well as arranging for someone to come in once a week to do my ironing, but one still neads to LOAD the thing in order to get some clean clothes for ironing!

Having been spoiled by my Proverbs 31 wife for the past 17 years, my arrival in Uitenhage has meant that for the first time in many a year, I've had to fathom out things like how much detergent to put in, where to put the fabric softener, and which clothes should be separated. Last week I bunged my long-sleeved clergy shirt in with two towelette pillowcases, and ended up with a shirt that, if worn, would earn me the nickname "Rev. Fluffy". It's taken two further washes to get it "fit for purpose" again!

I've also found out that the hard way that "10-kilogram load" is a LIMIT, not a target! In order to get clean clothing, one needs to leave space for the water to swish around in between the clothes. Otherwise they get wet but remain dirty!

I'm also having a struggle with how to treat dirty collars on my lighter clergy shirts. While this fancy machine weighs, punches, swirls, and spins my clothing according to some fancy device called "Fuzzy Logic", it doesn't seem to have a programme to scrub collars. (To my fellow bloggers out there tempted to offer "washing my neck more often" as a solution, just DON'T get cute!). The warnings on the various detergents not to apply them directly to fabrics don't exactly inspire me with confidence!

The other bit of "cleaning up" that I did today - which was more within my limited capabilities - was to empty my wallet of till stubs, credit card slips, and petrol vouchers for the last 5 months. It's taken me this long because first I needed to reconcile my credit card statements, then I had to update my fuel consumption spreadsheets (don't ask - it's an accountant "thing"). Anyway, I managed to plough through it all, and my wallet is now looking a lot more deflated since it now only has (very little) money in it!

Next week, seeing as it has been raining in Uitenhage for about five days (and we give thanks to God for answered prayer), my lawn will be reaching out its arms in gratitude. Since the manse that the youth pastor and I are staying in is on about 1000 square metres of land, that's a lot of lawn to mow!

Maybe in two weeks' time I'll be able to enjoy a "real" day off and head for the beach.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Who will be the greatest?

"An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest. Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and had him stand beside Him. Then He said to them, 'Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes Me, and whoever welcomes Me welcomes the One Who sent Me. For he who is least among you all - he is the greatest'" (Luke 9: 46-48, NIV)

This morning I conducted the funeral of a one year-old baby, the second of twins of whom the first died late last year. And, as always, one feels so inadequate as a minister, for nothing that one can say will bring their dead child back.

Often at times like this one ponders the justice in a child dying so young. As on the two previous occasions where I was called upon to preside at the funeral of a young child, I felt that it is far easier to do funerals for people whom the Lord has called home at an advanced age - phrases like "a good innings", "long and faithful service", and "a life of witness to God's grace" come to mind. On the other hand, what can one say about a child who lives on this earth a mere 19 months?

But then I realise that, as the above Scripture passage indicates, there IS something that one can celebrate, for young children truly ARE the greatest when it comes to being in Christ. Although we are all born with the same inherent sinful nature, somehow children seem "less defiled", possessing a purer faith than we as adults could ever understand. At the service this morning I related the experience of my own son who, at age 5, climbed up onto the kitchen counter and then yelled, "Daddy, catch me", and as I turned to respond to his call I saw that he had already laubched himself at me, having not a shadow of a doubt that Daddy would catch him. Do WE have that kind of faith, prepared to launch ourselves out into the great unknown, confident that our heavenly Daddy will be there to catch us?

Another aspect that I touched on was the time we were sharing testimonies during a church service, where people were standing up and saying thinks like "I received Jesus as Lord and Saviour on xxx date". In my own case, that glorious day came on 1 February 1987. But my son (who was 7 at the time) was really concerned that he did not have such a date, and thinking I was about to experience the joy of leading my own son to Christ, he responded with this earth-shattering statement: "Dad, I don't have a date like this, because for as long as I can remember, Jesus has ALWAYS been my Lord!"

On the way to the gravesite, I mentioned to a couple of the Local Preachers that I have learned more about faith in God from one child than from 100 preachers. Yet it saddens me that often we still adopt a "children must be seen and not heard" as we quickly hush our children whenever they so much as blink in church! Then we wonder why our young people leave the church as soon as they have been confirmed. Be honest, if all you ever heard for 16 years was "Quiet! Stop! Shush! Don't", wouldn't YOU want to bail out at the earliest opportunity?

Somehow we in the Church have become so "arse-about-face" about who is most important (excuse the terminology, but I can't think of a better description for our confused state at this time). The minister gets put up on this massive pedestal, followed by the local preachers, society stewards, and so forth. What happened to servant leadership? The Gospel passage that I read this morning seems to indicate that the greatest in Jesus' eyes are those whom we regard the least. If our Lord and Saviour has shown His willingness to get down in the dirt to wash the disciples' stinking feet, how much more should we be willing to serve? And it struck me that my attitude should be that each time I move "up the ranks" (for want of a better way of putting it), my desire to serve should increase. That piece of Tupperware that is wrapped around my neck should have the word "Servant" stamped on it, for that is indeed what I am called to be.

The fact that we had the service at the grandparents' house rather than at the church drove this point home even more strongly. Logistically it was not possible for the family to arrange bus transport from the house to the church, then to the cemetary, and then back to the house, so it was easier to have the service at the house. For this reason the stewards were initially reluctant for me to participate in the service as minister, because it was not held at the church. But what is "the church"? Is it bricks and mortar? If so, then what makes a house different? Is is not also built out of bricks and mortar? But if we who are gathered in God's name constitute the Church, then wherever God's people are gathered together becomes a church.

Lots of lessons, from a relatively short service. Little Jolene Maarman, who lived for such a short time and was probably barely walking, was therefore a greater witness to us present this morning than many a person who has walked this earth for 70 years or more. May she rest in peace, together with her twin sister who died last year, and may God bring comfort to her family at this time.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Sometimes I say the STUPIDEST things!

One of the ongoing issues that I need to deal with as a probationer is the fact that much of what happens to us is out of our hands. It is a very uneasy position for me to be in, particularly given my current family situation, and it would be really nice if the Church could give us some sort of indication as to what is expected of us - in particular, whether we are definitely going to be sent to the new Seth Mokitimi seminary in Pietermaritzburg in 2010, and if so, whether it will be for one, two, or three years.

Now many may be wondering why I am stressing about this when we have barely scratched the surface of 2009, but it matters a great deal since the length of time will determine whether I will be able to be reunited with my family or not. Since relocating my family will involve the sale of my house in Johannesburg, one can appreciate that this is not a decision that can be taken at the drop of a hat.

So I'm feeling very scratchy about decisions that affect me at the moment, especially when they are of the "no discussion will be entered into - just live with it" variety.

One such decision was the rather terse e-mail that I received from EMMU in response to my request late last year to register for four subjects for 2009. I had discussed this matter with TEE College last year, and the idea was that if I could do four this year and three (plus the academic report) next year, I would be able to complete the BTh qualification at the end of the year. But EMMU said no, only three, and there was to be no discussion on the matter. While I can accept that many a Phase One buckled under the workload in previous years, necessitating the reduction in the number of courses, all I wanted was the opportunity to state my case, bearing in mind that I already have nearly 12 years of part-time university study under my belt. Even if the final decision remains unchanged, I would feel much better being part of the process rather than being shown "the hand". I am after all turning 40 this year, and do not take kindly to being treated like a child.

So why is this issue bugging me, when my fellow Phase Ones seem relatively unaffected by comparison? I must be honest - I don't really know. Maybe I'm too much of a "control freak" and not putting my trust in God. Or maybe part of it is that for most of my life I have always wanted to understand the reasoning behind a particular decision. I may not like the outcome, but at least I would understand where the decision-maker is coming from.

Now what does this have to do with the title of this post? It was something to do with the mild meltdown that I had today over something relatively insignificant - the question of whether our sacraments examination would be "open book" or of the conventional variety. The 2006 and 2007 papers were explicitly stated as open book examinations, whereas the 2008 paper was unstated. Now my experience of open book examinations from my accounting studies is that when an examination is of the conventional variety, they can only test you on the material given, whereas if it is "open book" you can be expected to study additional material and answer the questions in greater depth.

However, when I asked our College co-ordinator the question, and he indicated that he was not at liberty to say, something in me snapped. All my frustrations at not understanding the full process of probation, the heartwrenching loneliness of being apart from my family, and the reluctance of EMMU to enter into any discussions with me concerning my 2008 letter, all came welling up in a volcano of anger. As a result, I made the type of comment that one regrets immediately the words have left one's lips - while it was not foul language or anything like that, it was certainly not the sort of comment becoming of a future minister.

Rev Nyembezi, I know that I apologised to you earlier, but the need to make my apology more public is acute, hence this blog post. Please forgive me for the stupid, hurtful, and unneccessary comment that I made earlier today.

Now if only I could deal with some of the feelings I am having at the moment. Don't get me wrong - I love ministry, and I know that God has called me. The Circuit work is challenging yet exhilarating at the same time, while the college experience is one of growth and development. Preaching the Gospel is one of life's great delights. But I feel like a pawn on a chessboard at times, some days I feel as though my heart is tearing in two, and the Church seems unable to help me ease the pain at the moment...

"With this ring I thee wed ..."

This is my wedding ring, which the love of my life, Belinda, slipped onto my ring finger just over 17 years ago. It is a reminder of the covenant that the two of us made to each other in the presence of God and witnesses, that we would love each other in holy matrimony for the rest of our lives.

As we are currently 1000 km apart, with me in Uitenhage and Belinda in Johannesburg, whenever I'm feeling lonely, I look at this ring and remember that there is someone out there who loves me.

Whenever I see the image of the cross in church, I am similarly reminded of the covenant that I have with God, what my Lord Jesus Christ did for me when He was crucified, and the reassurance that there is someone out there who loves me.

While I carry both covenants in my heart, my wedding ring no longer resides on my ring finger, but is now on my pinkie finger due to the fact that I'm "more man" than I was when Belinda married me. My goal this year, however, is to lose sufficient weight for my ring to go back onto the "correct" finger.

Journeying in faith - a spiritual journal

I'm at the Phase One college again today, and we are starting to settle in nicely into our routine, with all of us (at last) being in possession of our material from TEE College.

One of the courses that we are doing this year is called "Journeying in Faith", which is around developing one's personal spirituality - something that is absolutely vital, considering that as ministers we are responsible for helping our congregants to do the same.

Part of the discipline is for us to keep a spiritual journal. I've already been recording some of my reflections for the past year, but this blog is likely to take on more of a reflective nature than before, in order for this discipline to become established.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Cowboys DO cry!

Yesterday I had the privilege of attending a Christian businessman's seminar together with my Superintendent and a few of the men from our church, and wow! What a blessing it was!

The morning sessions focused on our relationship with our wives, and it was refreshing yet at the same time sobering to hear the testimony from one man who related how he had become involved in an extra-marital affair. The scary thing is that this kind of thing doesn't just happen to Hugh Hefner wannabees - it can happen so easily to good Christian men as well. It was a stark reminder to me that, although I have never strayed from the nest (thank God), the first 17 years of my marriage took work and commitment, and it will require more of the same if it is to last the next 17 (and beyond).

Then we had a session on financial management in the home. As an accountant with a Masters in financial management, I thought I'd "heard it all", but there were some amazing insights that had never occured to me. The one I really enjoyed was how the speaker taught his children financial management skills: From age 12, he declared that as a parent he was responsible for the roof over their heads, washing, and three square meals a day. EVERYTHING else would come from their allowances. Each child also had to keep a journal showing their income and expenses, complete with vouchers, and only once Dad had signed off the journal for this month, would next month's allowance be paid out. Credit facilities were NOT available - they had to learn from the pain of running short. Watch out James - you turn 11 soon, which means you only have one year left with Mom as your benefactor!

The next session, however, was the highlight of the day. In order for us to be able to relate to God as our heavenly Father, we need to understand our relationship with our earthly father. For me this was difficult, since my parents separated when I was 9 and finally divorced (after an aborted reconciliation) when I was 11. We never really had much of a relationship, and I began to harbour feelings of resentment towards him as an adult once I began to understand some of the things he did, particularly to my mother.

Part of the session included a time of prayer, where our facilitator would "stand in the gap" for our earthly fathers, seeking forgiveness and praying for us. Now I thought that I had forgiven my father, but evidently there were still some things in the basement. When Bill started praying for me, his voice was somewhat broken as tears welled up in his eyes. Clearly the Spirit had revealed some of my pain to him, as once he had finished praying, I started sobbing uncontrollably. Now bear in mind that I'm an accountant, and am generally not an emotional type. But this wasn't just a few tears, this was loud, body-shaking, wrenching cries that could probably be heard around the hall.

I was vaguely aware that I was crying like a baby in front of my Superintendent and 100 other men, but I didn't care - the Lord was giving me release from the bitterness that I was harbouring. Sometimes big boys NEED to cry like that!

Turning to the final session, which was conducted by a sex therapist, it was a bit of a letdown as I felt rather uneasy. Firstly, I'm 1000 km away from my wife, so I really SHOULDN'T be hearing about 101 ways for my wife and I to arouse each other sexually at this particular juncture. Secondly, the "toys" that were on display just seemed a little too far out, probably because I can't exactly see myself going to an outlet where such items are sold, let alone actually purchasing such items - especially with my dog-collar on! Thirdly, what happens between my wife and I behind our bedroom door is, well, private, dammit! I aint gonna share that with nobody! Finally, I could not contextualise what the presenter was saying within the context of a Christian marriage - it all sounded a bit too "wham, bam, thank you, Ma'am" to me. Maybe that's just my conservative streak coming through, as I haven't had a chance to discuss it with the members of my church that attended.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Reflections on abortion

Earlier this week I wrote a post entitled "Should preaching be unbiased", in which I reflected on the services that were conducted this past Sunday, which was designated as a "celebration of the sanctity of life".

Pete Grassouw, one of my fellow MCSA bloggers, whose comments always offer insight and food for thought, posted a comment on this post. In it he questioned my position in light of MCSA doctrinal statements on this manner, stating (quite correctly) that as a Methodist minister I am duty-bound (and in fact made a promise before Synod) to uphold the doctrines of our Church.

However, I am sure that many a minister has experienced tension between their personal views, beliefs, and understanding of Scripture on a particular position on the one hand, and the official position of the church on the other hand. The current doctrinal position of the MCSA concerning marriage as being "between a man and a woman" must be causing great tension for those ministers who sincerely believe that this position is incompatible with showing the love of Christ towards those of same-sex orientation. If this were not the case, the MCSA would not have been debating this issue so extensively over the past few years.

While I hold strong anti-abortion views, I recognise that there may be those who sincerely believe that not only is abortion permissible under certain circumstances, but that they sincerely believe that such a position is not in conflict with the teachings of Scripture. It is not for me to stand in judgement of such persons, but rather to engage with them in order to get a better understanding of "the other side" of the debate (for want of a better word).

Similarly, I believe that it is my role as a minister to extend open arms, just as Jesus would, to any woman who has decided to have an abortion (or who has had one already) and provide sanctuary and an atmosphere where healing can take place.

However, I believe that each of us are also entitled to our personal convictions, and mine have been shaped largely by the experience of seeing my unborn son's heartbeat on the ultra-sound when my wife was only 3 weeks pregnant. The fact that this same son (who is now nearly 11) is living 1000 km away from me (as a result of me being in Phase One) makes the bond between us even stronger. I cannot begin to imagine the guilt I would have felt, had we decided to abort him for whatever reason.

I cannot begin to believe that I have the right to take the life of another human being. This is the reason why when I was called up to do National Service in 1988 (South Africa still had conscription then), I presented myself before the SADF Board for Religious Objection requesting that I be confined to a non-combatant role. It is for this same reason that I am opposed to the death penalty.

Readers of this post can be forgiven for thinking that it is inappropriate for me as a male to have any views whatsoever concerning abortion. And you would be right insofar as I would be highly unlikely to find myself pregnant! For this reason this is a subject that my wife and I have discussed at length at various points during the 17 years of our marriage. As a husband, I believe that one of the worst things that could possibly happen would be for my wife to be raped, and if (God forbid) something like this were to happen, there is the possibility that conception could result. However, my wife is firmly of the belief that she would not abort under such circumstances, believing strongly that in the same way that the rape would be no fault of hers, it would be no fault of the unborn baby, either.

Having said that, until one walks down that path, it's impossible to tell what one's decision would be. I accept that. I also accept that my views, as expressed in this post, are by no means the last word on this matter.

Since I would like to invite discussion on this issue, I have reproduced my reply to Pete's comment below.

Dear Pete

This reply may seem a bit rambling, but please indulge me as it is more reflective of my thoughts rather than the way I would write if, for instance, I were to prepare a research paper.

When I was preparing for this service, I went quite extensively through the booklet on abortion published by the MCSA, bearing in mind that the objective of this particular Sunday was to address the question of "Sanctity of Life" and in particular the issue around abortion.

The starting point was the 1995 Conference statement that it affirms “the sacredness and value of human life”, and it expresses the belief “that abortion at any stage of pregnancy is undesirable and not in harmony with the perfect will of God”. The DEWCOM document clarifying the MCSA's position on abortion also refers to two schools of thought concerning when human life is said to commence: "Those who believe human life begins at or soon after fertilisation are, naturally, concerned for the rights of the foetus and tend to be anti-abortion. Those who see personhood beginning only once the foetus can survive outside the womb are more inclined to favour the rights of the pregnant woman and to be open to the idea of abortion. The statement acknowledges that no direct guidance is forthcoming from Scripture to help decide which of these positions is 'Biblically correct', and grants that there are sincere Christians are to be found on both sides of the debate."

Given that "Experience" is one of the elements of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, my own experience is one of having been present with my wife when it was confirmed that she was pregnant with my son, and seeing the flashing light on the ultrasound at 3 weeks of pregnancy, which her gynaecologist confirmed to be our unborn son's heartbeat. While I cannot purport to speak on behalf of my Superintendent and the process that has shaped his view on abortion (which is quite similar to the one I hold), this experience has strongly influenced me against considering abortion as an option - a view that has strengthened over the past 11 years as I have watched my son grow and develop.

Having said that, I also recognise that a woman or young girl may find herself in a situation whereby she finds herself pregnant under trying circumstances (e.g. rape, poor socio-economic conditions, potential deformity, etc.) whereby a number of options may be considered, including possible abortion. Should she decide to go the abortion route, the role of the church (which I represent as a minister) is to offer counsel in a non-judgemental accepting, loving, and pastoral manner. Such acceptance, I believe, is in line with the MCSA's position.

However, I also believe that while a minister is expected to uphold the doctrinal position of their church, one should also not be "robotic" about it. I'm not sure if there are many ministers of any denomination that accept their particular church's doctrinal positions 100% to the letter. The ongoing debate concerning same-sex relationships within the MCSA is a case in point.

With this in mind, when presenting the message, I put forward my view points in a manner that I believe is not in conflict with the current position of the MCSA. I also included a time for discussion during the service, where the young people (it was a youth service) broke into groups to discuss certain issues raised in the DVD and the message. I specifically said that they were not to come up with a dogmatic "yes" or "no", instead thinking about their answers.

My Superintendent and I both watched the DVD beforehand as part of the preparation process for our respective services, and he endorsed the showing thereof at the morning services (which he conducted), as well as the evening service (which I conducted). We both believed that the content thereof was not in stark conflict with the doctrinal position of the MCSA, or (I believe) we would not have shown it in our services.

Another thing that I may need to consider comes out of the counselling skills course that we are currently doing at the Phase One college. The facilitator of this course has indicated that there may be situations whereby the counselor may need to withdraw from the particular engagement, whether based on Biblical beliefs, prior experiences, personal prejudices, or a combination thereof. For example, she indicated that she would not be able to counsel paedophiles, since the thought of someone molesting a child brings about such feelings of anger in her that her judgement would be clouded. We were taught that we need to recognise our own "blind spots", and possibly the abortion issue is one of mine. I can comfortably see myself offering Christian counsel to a woman who has had an abortion, and I believe that I could do this in a non-judgemental manner. However, I cannot see myself looking at abortion as an option before the fact.

I guess that experiences such as these are part of the formation of one's ministry, and I trust those who have journeyed along this road for far longer than me would not be too harsh on someone who is at as early a stage of one's ministry journey as myself.

I would be interested to hear your views (as well as from others) as to exactly what the doctrinal position of the MCSA is, since to my mind the DEWCOM document leaves a great deal open to interpretation. I also trust that this discourse has not been so wayward as to warrant me a serious "slap" at Synod concerning my adherence to the doctrines of our Church.

Death by administration

I arrived at the Church office this morning to find my desk looking like a bomb had hit it. It seems that Bill (my Superintendent) has a ruthlessly efficient "clear desk policy", and in the execution of his personal war on paper, some of the shrapnel flew my way.

Then we had a Circuit staff meeting, which was very good in that Bill opened with devotions and prayer, followed by a personal "conversation on the work of God" which included an enquiry concerning our personal spiritual state, adherence to a discipline of personal devotion and prayer, etc. before we got to the business of the Circuit. I am so grateful that I have a Superintendent that has his priorities right, in that our spirituality needs to be right for us to be effective ministers in the Circuit.

But then we got into the business, and a morning in which I thought I could catch up on the tasks given to me last week turned into an orgy of new tasks to be completed!

I have managed to wade through most of it, including getting my diary up to date with all the new stuff (meetings, visits, etc.). My secretary is however NOT going to be happy with the wad of filing I've sent her way, though...

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Reflecting on the "call to preach"

At College today, and as is normal on a Tuesday, we had a Communion service.

Each week two people are designated to conduct the service: one to do the sermon, and the other as "duty steward" which involves setting everything out as well as to do the rest of the service (including prayers, readings, hymns, etc).

Today it was my turn as duty steward, and after the service I was once again in a heightened state of euphoria, as I tend to be every time I take any part in leading a service. It's a sense that there is nothing on God's great earth that I would rather be doing than having the privilege of preaching His Gospel.

To think that at the Candidates' Screening Committee last year, I couldn't articulate a clear call to preach. What was I thinking?!

And what about now? Did I do the right thing in turning down a job offer with a salary package of around the R700k per annum mark late last year, in favour of entering the ministry where the pay is ... a lot less? You betcha!

Day off (2)

Jenny had returned to Grahamstown to continue work on her Masters thesis, so I decided to drive a bit further up the coast to Port Alfred. I stopped at a marina, where I sat down and relaxed watching the boats go by and admiring the R6-million properties on the other side.

The one in the middle is the Methodist Manse (just kidding!)

Not fair!

I took a drive to Kenton-on-Sea during my day off yesterday, and in the little shopping centre where Jenny (a fellow Phase One) and I had lunch, there was this massive tree in the middle of the parking lot, giving oodles of shade.

Affixed to the tree is a sign that says "No parking under this tree".


Monday, 2 February 2009

Should preaching be "unbiased"?

This past Sunday was designated as "Sanctity of Life" Sunday in our Circuit, and in each of the three services of the Uitenhage society we played a 6-minute DVD by Focus on the Family, followed by the message.

Our Superintendent (Bill Thompson) preached at the two morning services, and I did the evening one with the youth, and it was quite evident on which side of the whole debate the two of us are - in Bill's services he had a minute's silence for all the unborn babies "murdered through abortion", while my own message was similarly hard-hitting, culminating in a group discussion among the youth.

The following morning I had a chat to our Youth Pastor to find out whether he had had any feedback, and he indicated that while my message was generally well-received and the group discussions were found to be stimulating, one or two of the girls were a bit disturbed by the topic, feeling that it was "not a subject suitable for church". It was also felt that as a male, I probably didn't fully understand the whole picture (something I readily admit), and that my message was rather "one-sided" (in favour of the so-called "Pro-Life" position).

Having been involved in freelance journalism for some time, I am well aware of the need to provide unbiased reporting in many cases. But when one is a preacher, should the "non-bias" theory also hold true? Personally, I don't believe so. In fact, my view is that a preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ needs to be biased. After all, isn't the Gospel message referred to as "Good News", rather than just "news"?

Insofar as abortion is concerned, I tried to be balanced in terms of the various alternatives available, while holding onto what I believe to be the "sanctity of life" position as contained in Scripture. And while as a male I would not be in a position where I would need to make a personal decision concerning abortion, as a father I feel strongly that the decision to give an unborn child a shot at life (or to deny them such a shot) is not mine to make.

One of the girls in the service asked whether abortion is justified in the case of conception as a result of rape. Once again, such a situation would not arise with me as a male, but there is the possibility (God forbid) that my wife could be raped and a pregnancy may result. Naturally, one cannot say for certain how one would respond until the situation actually arises, but my wife and I have in fact discussed such a scenario, and we would hope that our view would be that while it is by no means her fault that conception took place in such a brutal manner, neither does the fault lie with the unborn child.

So if there is anyone reading this post who was in the service this past Sunday, and I offended you, I pray that you would forgive me. However, I make no apologies for causing anyone to feel uncomfortable, as it is from such discomfort that deep thought takes place.