God's Word for today

Sunday, 31 May 2009

Back from Synod and Alpha camp

This past few days was hectic, what with Synod being from Thursday to Saturday lunchtime, and then on to the Alpha camp from Saturday afternoon to today. I'm tired, cold, smelling of braai smoke, but generally feeling quite good about life at the moment, because of the following things that have happened these past few days:

1. A Synod resolution dealing with the Supernumerary Fund and proposals for the use / establishment of other finds within the MCSA that I spent a fair amount of time drafting (with the weight of paper nearly breaking my toe when I dropped it!) was accepted virtually verbatim by the Synod, with one or two minor tweaks. It's good to know that despite having moved on from the accountancy profession into ministry, I am still able to disect a set of financial statements. Accounts tend to be like bikinis, in that what they reveal is interesting but what they conceal can drive you insane!

2. Having expressed my anxiety concerning next year, what with the uncertainty around College, wanting to relocate my family, etc. on the floor of Synod, I'm glad that the Bishop has undertaken to address the matter personally before he attends an EMMU meeting in July. There were no concrete answers emanating from Synod, but realistically I couldn't have expected more. I'm however grateful to Bishop Musi Losaba for showing concern and understanding.

3. I met some AMAZING people at Synod - the van der Laars, John Gillmer, Brian Jennings, Peter Woods, and many more - you all spoke such wisdom into my life. Thanks too to John and Debbie van der Laar for allowing me to be part of worship - it was a truly uplifting experience. In fact, this is what makes Synod actually worthwhile.

4. I turned 40 (on Thursday the 28th), and Debbie van der Laar said I looked 35! I KNEW there was something I liked about that lady!

5. I went from Synod straight to our Alpha camp, where I had the privilege of praying for people and seeing the Holy Spirit move in their lives in a mighty and incrediible way. Lives were definitely changed this weekend!

And so, despite the many difficulties and challenges, I truly believe that the call to ministry is stronger than ever. I just cannot imagine doing anything else with my life, and I pray that I can remain God's humble servant. I still find it astounding that God would choose a broken, impervect vessel such as me to carry out this awesome responsibility - I guess that it really IS true that God uses the foolish to confound the wise!

God is good! All the time!

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Been quiet, and will be quiet for a bit...

I've been a bit scarce on the blog for the past few days, and will remain so until next week. That's not because nothing's been happening, but with College being closed this week I've taken advantage of the two days and buried myself in assignments. Having put a SERIOUS dent into two of them, it's been time well spent.

For the next three days I'll be at Synod, followed by a day and a bit on our Alpha camp. But watch out next week, 'cos I'll have LOTS to share!

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

And these idiots want to run the country in future?

I'm not a big commentator on political issues, but this interview by Redi Direko of 702 Talk Radio, trying to get some sense out of the ANC Youth League's Floyd Shivambu, really takes the cake.

The scary thing is that this wally simply refused to answer a straight-forward question. Is he unable or unwilling to provide a coherent answer? And these are the guys who have aspirations of running the country in years to come?

Listen to the interview, and decide for yourself. DA leader Helen Zille's lawyers must be licking their lips as we speak!

Monday, 18 May 2009

Day off

After an absolutely miserable weekend weather-wise, today has arrived with brilliant blue skies, no "W-word" (old cycling superstition whereby we don't mention that stuff that blows you off your bike), and not too cold, either.

And that's not all - there's more! Unlike in my secular job, where one normally spends beautiful Mondays driving to work, being in the ministry means that Monday is my day off!

God is SO good!

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Why I left the auditing profession

I was wading through some of my old Toastmasters speeches looking for some sermon illustrations, and came across this speech that I did in about 2005 when I was still under the influence of pineapple beer. When you read this, you will understand why I left the auditing profession...

The story that you are about to hear is absolutely true. No names and places have been changed, since there were no innocent people involved.

This is my job. My name is Steven. I work in an office. I am … an auditor!

There! I said it. Now that you all know, please don’t think any worse of me.
What is an auditor, anyway? Some say that he is someone who arrives after the battle is over, and starts bayoneting all the wounded.

I’m not sure when I started on the long, slippery road to becoming an auditor. Some say that it was that pineapple beer that I imbibed in Standard 8 that started it all. Others believed that my personality was too volatile to become an actuary. Still others believed that I didn’t have a personality at all. And here was me thinking that I didn’t have any friends because I was too busy working.

It all started in 1990, when I decided that I wanted to enter this so-called noble profession. Someone told me that auditors earn obscene amounts of money. If I had actually done my homework properly, I would have spent the first two years of my articles packing beer trucks at SA Breweries instead of playing “accountant – accountant”. That is because those fine folks at SAB were earning a lot more than I was during my first two years, and besides, they didn’t have to drink the tea in our office, either.

Speaking of the tea, the venerable gentleman who made the tea in our office each day was the only man on earth who could burn water. I’m convinced that our tea was of the 1-2-3 variety – one part tea, two parts water, and three parts Cremora. It was such beverages that fortified us for our attack on the big bad world.

And a bad world it was, too. The inappropriately named South African Revenue Service was known as the Receiver of Revenue in those days. At least that was its official name. We used to call it the “Deceiver of Robbin’ You”, and this may have had something to do with the name change.

Their offices were in that dark, dingy hovel at the top of Rissik Street (in downtown Johannesburg) in those days, and there must have been about a hundred doors in that place. The perfect environment for a bit of fun – at the expense of one of our first-year clerks. One fine day, we decided to send her down there for a “Tax Evasion Form”, which resulted in her spending a rather fruitless afternoon exploring the building. “No, sorry, Ma’am, we doesn’t have dose forms, dey must be at Counter Free.” She would then go to Counter Three and be told, “No, youse can’t get dem here, you will have to go to Room 101.”

I haven’t heard anything from her since her arrest, but I understand that she will be let out of prison any day now.

We had some rather interesting clients as well – like old Mr Beinashowitz at Thistledown Knitwear, or Tinseltown as we used to call it. He was a wonderful old soul, but there was one thing that you NEVER asked old Mr B – especially at about twenty past four in the afternoon, when you were packing up to leave: “So how was your recent holiday in Israel?” “Ahh ... Israel is a very interesting country,” he would reply, and then go on to tell you about his latest holiday. The record was about a quarter to seven that we left the one night, courtesy of the Israeli Tourism Bureau.

Then there was Mr Chaim Goldsmith of SA Weatherwear. This company made those baby poo brown safari suits that the Boere used to wear on the railways. We arrived at his factory the one day to check the stock, and the conversation went something like this:
SJ: “Good morning, Mr Goldsmith. Do you have the stock figures for us, please”
CG: “You vant ze stock figures?”
SJ: “Yes, please.”
CG: “You vant to know vot ze stock figure should be?”
SJ: “Yes, please.”
CG: “Vot do you vont it to be?”

Another clerk was doing the petty cash audit, and asked Mr Goldsmith for some vouchers. “Aah, some vouchers?” He opened his desk drawer, and hauled out a pile of vouchers, gave them to the clerk, who started beavering away at them. He then came back, and asked for some more vouchers. “Aah, some more vouchers?” said Mr Goldsmith, who then opened the second drawer and hauled out another pile of vouchers – this pile smelling a bit musty. Two hours later, the clerk sidled across to my desk, and said, “The old bugger’s given me too many vouchers. What do I do now?”

Worse still was the stock audit at a client in rural Swaziland. The client was ostensibly a hardware store, but they in fact sold anything, ranging from tractor tyres to wooden coffins, and it was with one of the coffins that I had a rather unfortunate encounter. Clambering up onto one of the shelves, I lost my footing, and fell on top of the coffin, split the lid lengthways, and came to rest right inside the coffin.

For the rest of the audit, none of the locals wanted to even come near me.

My most harrowing audit experience, however, was when I was sent to a flour mill in Bronkhorstspruit. This client had the ghastliest archive room in the world – old bags of flour, rats running around – and the partner asked me to fetch the Verbal Agreements File. And come hell or high water, I was going to find it!

I have since left the audit profession, deciding instead to settle for a quieter life clearing landmines in Mozambique. However, to those brave men and women, and their proud laptops, I dedicate the following poem:

A man knocked on the Heavenly Gates, his face was lined and old.
He stood before the man of faith to seek admission to the fold.
"What have you done," St. Peter asked, "to seek admission here?"
He said, "Sir, sir, I've been an auditor, for many and many a year."
The Pearly Gates swung open wide, St. Peter rang the bell.
"Come in and choose your harp," he said, "You’ve had your share of hell."

The bias of a heterosexual male

"You never truly know someone until you have walked a mile in their shoes" - Anonymous

Yesterday at College we had a second session dealing with the link between spirituality and sexuality, in which we went through parts of a discussion document issued a couple of years back by DEWCOM (the Doctrine, Ethics, and Worship Committee of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa) dealing with our attitudes as Christians towards those of same-sex orientation.

It's a most difficult debate, made all the more confusing by the fact that there are sincere, well-researched positions across the entire spectrum of positions. Right now I have on my PC's hard drive 20 documents from MCSA sources (individual ministers, DEWCOM, Conference resolutions, etc.) as well as 37 documents from non-MCSA sources. This excludes the countless number of publications that I have read, of which I have not kept copies.

And to be honest, I'm more confused than ever.

This morning my heart was torn in two when I read a good friend's blog, as I do most mornings - in particular, his post entitled "Time to take my stand". And after reading this heart-wrenching post, I realised that underlying all the debates, positions, theology, "proof texts", discussion documents, arguments, and the like, one easily loses sight of the fact that there are real people, with real hurts, who are affected by all this.

Not having walked in his shoes (and those of his ex-wife), I cannot begin to imagine the anguish that they have gone through (and are probably still going through).

For me this whole thing is still a journey and a struggle, and today I need to be honest and admit that there are aspects of same-sex relationships that I cannot conceptualise, for no other reason than that I am a heterosexual male in a "conventional" marriage relationship with a heterosexual female. (Note that these biases are male-centric simply because I am a male. Nothing in this post should be construed as wishing to exclude females, but being of the male gender I have a limited understanding even about how females feel about heterosexual intimacy, let alone that of same-sex orientation.)

1. As a heterosexual male I cannot imagine myself in a physical relationship with another man. For as long as I can remember, I've been physically attracted to girls.

2. I find physical contact with other males difficult and awkward. I'll shake another man's hand, and even hug another man, but that's as far as it goes. I do not kiss my son (although I hug him plenty). Holding my son's hand is okay (he is 11), but I squirm when I hold an adult male's hand (even when we say "the grace" in church). The only time I as an adult male have ever kissed another adult male was the day I got my Matric results, and upon seeing that I had schieved university entrance, bounded down the school steps and planted a smacker on my best friend's cheek.

3. Seeing two men holding hands makes me feel extremely uncomfortable (even in cultural contexts where this act does not denote anything sexual). Two men kissing causes me to turn my head. The thought of more intimate physical contact between two men

4. I have two gay friends, with whom I have had lengthy and indepth discussions about issues of sexuality. I have no problem with normal social interaction, and have absolutely no fear that either one of them would be attracted to me in a sexual way. I have even been in social settings where the friend's partner has been present, and have interacted socially with the partner as well. However, I have never been present when they have shown any signs of physical affection towards one another, and would not know how it would affect me if such signs were to be shown (unlike the case with my heterosexual friends, especially the married ones, who hug and kiss in my presence with no effect on me whatsoever). Obviously I'm not talking sex here - that's something intimate and private, and quite frankly, I don't want to see ANY of my friends having sex, whether of the heterosexual or same-sex variety!

These inbuilt "biases" (for want of a better word) will undoubtedly be a powerful force in shaping whatever view I may have about same-sex relationships. The questions I have to ask myself, though - and this is part of the journey - are:
- Are these biases consistent with my understanding of what Scripture says concerning the relationship itself (and in particular, the physical expression thereof)?
- Do I actually base my feelings on Scripture, or on these biases?
- Do these biases block me in any way from ministering to those of same-sex orientation? Specifically, do I keep the commandment of Jesus to "love one another, just as I have loved you"? Do these biases prevent me from obeying Christ?
- Do these biases cause me to hurt, rather than love, those of same-sex orientation?
- Do I actually have any concept of the hurt and pain that many people of same-sex orientation experience because of such biases?
- Do these biases (in isolation) give me the right to condemn those who hold different views because they are not similarly biased? (I believe not).
- Do these biases contribute to my current position that I cannot see myself as a minister consenting to marry a same-sex couple?

An honest stand on this issue (and any other issue, for that matter) needs to be based on a sincere desire to honour God, in a Christian loving attitude, and after much prayer and reflection. To base a position on inherent biases is a cop-out, a short-cut, and one based on man's reasoning rather than God's Spirit.

Whatever my stand as a Christian and as a minister is (or may become), I confess and repent before Almighty God that my attitudes and biases may have caused hurt. That I have not loved as Jesus loved. That I have not cared as Jesus would have me care. That I too have been guilty of snide comments and off-colour jokes concerning those of same-sex orientation. That I have approached this issue intellectually and theologically, without regard to the real people concerned. And that I have not always listened to those who hold different views to mine.

Hanno and Alet, you remain in my prayers, as always.

The journey continues...

Tempered cynicism, and looking at the bright side of life

I met with my Learning Partnership last night, as we do each month, and last night's meeting was mainly to discuss my progress thus far as a Phase One, and to go through the small forest of trees that have been cut down and transformed into reports for Synod. Some of the questions require quite a bit of soul-searching, especially those that I am required to answer for myself. One such example was a question on how I see myself. I answered that I am generally quite an upbeat, optimistic person tainted by a degree of cynicism carried over from my days as an auditor.

There are times that this cynicism comes out when I look at the Church, as some of my previous blog posts will have revealed. And there are many things going on that cause me great distress. But last night at the home cell meeting, my mind went back to a conversation that I had with my Superintendent this past Sunday, in which he said that whatever he may have encountered at the hands of the institution at large over the past 36 years that he has been in ministry, what keeps him going and true to his call is the sense of service to the local church community. While the local church context is not without its problems, there are also many, many salt-of-the-earth people who love Jesus with every fibre of their being and wish only to serve Him.

And as I got into the shower this morning, I remembered something that I read in my son's school newsletter about five years ago. Responding to a question concerning drug abuse - a problem that, sadly, plagues most schools and private schools in particular (because the kids have easier access to the money needed to buy the junk, perhaps?) - the headmaster was quite candid in saying, "yes, we have had the odd learner involved with drug abuse, and this is how we deal with the problem". He then proceeded to list the measures taken by the school, including awareness programmes, counselling, and so forth.

I remember thinking at the time that I would rather have the headmaster acknowledge that there is a problem and take active steps to deal with it, rather than to stick his head in the sand and deny that such problems exist in the first place.

And so it is with the Church. I can only speak for the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, for that is the institution I serve as a probationer minister, but I have no doubt that every church on God's great earth has problems of some sort. How can it be otherwise? They are imperfect institutions, run by imperfect people, trying their best to serve a perfect God.

So where do I go from here? I'm not going to deny the problems that I encounter - that would be like putting my head in the sand. Rather - just like the headmaster of my son's school - I'm going to continue to acknowledge the things I encounter. But more importantly, I'm going to channel that energy into doing something about it. Starting with prayer.

George Bernard Shaw said: "The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him... The unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself... All progress depends on the unreasonable man."

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Good news - and bad news

Back at College, and the good news is that my one colleague's son, who was involved in a serious car accident a couple of weeks ago, has undergone an operation which was successful. We give thanks to God for His mercies, and pray for a speedy recovery.

We also give thanks to God for another colleague's stationing situation, which seems to have stabilised for the moment.

I've also been given the responsibility of being timekeeper at this year's Synod. Some of my more cynical colleagues see this as a strategic move by the "powers that be" to ensure that I keep my big gob shut, but the corollary to this is that I have total control over the stopwatch... har, har, har! :-)

The bad news is that there is this "culture of fear" that remains in certain contexts, particularly when it comes to rank and hierarchy. This manifests in comments like "a Phase One must know his place", with the impression given that the validity of what someone is saying hinges on their rank and somehow cannot be accepted on its own merits.

Personally, I believe that this is a cancer that needs to be eradicated from the
Church sooner rather than later. My own stance is that while it's important to respect one's seniors, particularly those that hold office, one should be able to speak one's mind without fear or favour - something I've always believed in, and will continue to do, Phase One or not.

Monday, 11 May 2009

100 facts of life

These are cool! You may not agree with all of them - I didn't - but a great number of them are really profound!

1. People who spend lots of time in other people's lives are avoiding dealing with their own.
2. People who confess "I shouldn't tell you, but....." will do the same thing to you as they do to everyone else.
3. Speaking your truth is not telling other people that they are wrong and you are right.
4. If you have to ask someone else if he/she is right for you, then they probably aren't.
5. Without the journey, there is no point to the destination.
6. People who stick their head in the sand will eventually get their butts kicked.
7. What you see on the surface is rarely what lies underneath.
8. Courage is not to stand in the path of the lion, but to seek to understand why it wishes to harm you in the first place.
9. We are not born parents – we have to learn how to be parents.
10. Words only have as much power as you give them.
11. Wise people sit in silence, only then will they hear their own voice.
12. Angels are not there to do the work for us, but to show us the work to be done.
13. There is no such thing as the perfect (earthly) relationship.
14. Never put the milk in before the hot water when making a cup of tea.
15. We control nothing but our own thoughts and actions.
16. No one can make you happy except yourself.
17. It is only a mistake if you learn nothing from the experience.
18. I don't know everything, so teach me. I can't hear everything, so tell me. I won't see everything, so show me. Together we will grow.
19. There is more to life than increasing its speed (Gandhi).
20. Regrets are choices we failed to make.
21. What you hold in your heart is what you will take into the next life.
22. Just because you don't see the seed once you have planted it, doesn't mean it isn't growing.
23. It is only there because you believe it to be there. If you had believed it was not there, then it would not have existed.
24. There is no ultimate truth, because truth is merely perception combined with a judgment.
25. Gender does not exist – everyone has ying and yang traits.
26. Your experiences are not who you are.
27. Assumptions are those things we make when we are too lazy to check out the facts.
28. No one is totally objective.
29. Family is not always the one you were born into – sometimes it can be an outstretched hand and a welcoming smile.
30. You are not always going to be right.
31. Humility is the ability to admit you were wrong.
32. Character is the thing you do when no one else is looking.
33. The measure of a man is not what he carries in his wallet, but how he carries himself.
34. Speedos are not attractive – no matter who is wearing them!
35. If you give an inch, chances are you will gain a mile.
36. If you would not want it done to you, then you shouldn't do it to others.
37. If you are not dealing with reality, than all you are doing is creating an illusion.
38. Pride is a badge only a fool wears.
39. The person who knows the most is usually the one who talks the least.
40. Everyone deserves to be valued and to be loved.
41. No one has your answers but you.
42. You can only create with the tools you have, so don't hesitate to add more to your toolbox.
43. Some days are going to suck – life is not perfect.
44. You never get it wrong; you only learn another way that doesn't work.
45. It is people, not things, which give life meaning.
46. You can't take it with you when you go – no one has ever slipped a Mercedes past the pearly gates.
47. The world will not fall apart if you are not there to hold it all together.
48. It’s okay to say no - people do it all the time.
49. There are some things you will never know the answer to.
50. The future does not exist, nor does the past – you only have this moment.
51. Relatives don't always know better.
52. Skeletons in family closets will always be there to haunt you.
53. Standing in your truth means respecting the right of others to theirs.
54. You cannot hear anyone if you are talking.
55. You don't have to live life with the hand you were dealt – you can always shuffle the deck.
56. Potatoes won't grow out of your ears if you fail to wash them.
57. Adult eyes have a tendency to make the world small, yet are always looking for the big things. Child eyes make the world big, and yet are fascinated by the small things.
58. We should try to see not how people with disadvantages are different from us, but how they are the same.
59. It is easy to be a big fish when you live in a small pond.
60. Adults should not let children take responsibility for their (i.e. the adult’s) life choices.
61. No matter how shitty a job your parents did, eventually you have to take responsibility for your own choices.
62. Those who seek enlightenment will never find it.
63. If you need to say it, say it now. If you need to do it, do it now.
64. The biggest regret of those whose time is cut short is all the things they never said and all the things they never did.
65. We only have the moment we are in.
66. You don't need an inner critic – you need to be your own best friend.
67. Change requires action.
68. Misery likes company.
69. We have to be careful that helping doesn't turn into enabling.
70. Not everyone is going to like you, and you are not going to like everyone.
71. Stuff happens – that's just life.
72. Everyone should grow fairy wings and splash in the puddles occasionally.
73. If you keep doing for people, they will never learn to do it for themselves.
74. “Please” and “thank you” are highly underrated.
75. Nothing is more contagious than a smile.
76. The best gift you give anyone is your time and patience.
77. Patience is the ability to understand that it is not always about you.
78. There are many rivers which lead to the same ocean – you just have to be willing to look for them.
79. True beauty is not determined by a look, but by a thought and a deed.
80. Time stands still for those who are in the moment, not rushing by it.
81. Having knowledge does not make you wise – this requires knowing as well.
82. Meditation does not require whale music and contortions, just the ability to go to your happy place.
83. You are not going to see the bigger picture until you have all of the pieces.
84. No matter which way you place it, tofu turkey is not turkey.
85. It is wise to take a moment before you take a step – that way you get a chance to see where your feet are going to land.
86. You may have a seed of greatness within you, but you still have to nurture it.
87. Everyone has to find their own pathway.
88. You are not limited to one act of greatness in your lifetime.
89. The only way to stop an argument is to find a solution.
90. Everything you do or say will come back to you eventually – it just may not be in a form you are expecting.
91. Asking for help means you are smart enough to get the things you need to create the life you want.
92. Just because one chapter in your life is closed doesn't mean you cannot write another one.
93. People are not perfect, and we all need a break every now and then.
94. Never leave unsaid words in a room.
95. Nothing is ever about what is we think it is about.
96. Boundaries are the things adults use to make sure that no one colours outside of the lines.
97. Every one is more than they believe themselves to be.
98. Every footprint counts, no matter who made it.
99. Love will always be the way.
100. Lists fall under the category that it seemed like a good idea at the time!

No job is finished until the paperwork is done

I'm busy wading through one of the Phase One reports that we are required to complete for submission to Synod. Eish...

Feeling encouraged

"... But first be concerned about God's kingdom and his righteousness, and all of these things will be provided for you as well" (Matthew 6: 33).

"Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house..." (Malachi 3: 10)

Two of the Societies that I am responsible for have been experiencing severe financial difficulties for some time, and my presence is the result of such Societies no longer being in a financial position to be able to afford an ordained minister.

The departure of their ordained minister last year has caused a degree of trauma; however, they have a history of financial struggle. While poverty does play a role, attitudes towards giving, coupled with cultural practices around giving that are not in line with Scripture, have been largely responsible. A history of conflict has also added to the malaise.

Coming into this situation, I was quite overwhelmed at first - after all, what difference can one make in a year? I therefore took the decision not to try to be a hero, but to reinforce the fact that (a) I am not their "ideal" minister in terms of continuity, since Phase Ones move on after their first year; (b) there is a lingering hurt (and possibly embarrasment as well) concerning the departure of their previous minister, which needs to be recognised; (c) the itinerant nature of ministry within the MCSA means that ministers come and go but the community remains; and (d) God raised up a previous community to establish a work in these areas, and the continued existence of that work is largely in the hands of the present community.

In the first quarter of 2009, I felt that the finances had completely fallen out of bed, particularly since the Circuit has assumed control thereof (which in itself has caused a great deal of unhappiness). But in the last month or two, I have sensed a quiet and gradual change, as though the message of "we must move forward" is finally beginning to hit home.

And so I was extremely encouraged at the vast improvement in the level of giving over the past two weeks. For the first time this year, it looks as though we will not only make our full Circuit assessment for the month, but begin to make inroads into the arrears as well.

It's early days yet, and my Superintendent has warned me that such "spurts" have been experienced before. But with the stewardship campaign only due to get into full swing this coming weekend, the initial signs are very encouraging indeed...

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Catching up on old events

The elections are long behind us, but here's a 'photo of people in Uitenhage standing patiently in line to cast their ballots.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Anger management

I'm not quite sure how to word this post without getting myself into trouble with the "powers that be", but yesterday something happened that made me SO angry I was ready to go and blow up something or punch someone!

Not the sort of healthy emotion one would expect from a minister. And this kind of anger really bothers me - a lot! Especially when I feel this way towards the Church that has provided me with the outlet and space to explore and develop the call that God has placed on my life to full-time ministry.

I would never do anything to malign the institution. At Synod last year, where we were accepted as ministry candidates, we took a vow in the presence of all present not to do so. But I really need to get something off my chest, in the hope that it will (a) bring about healing, and (b) hopefully invite others who have walked this road to provide me with wise counsel.

Allow me to explain.

When I candidated for the ministry, the normal process of probation was that once you were accepted as a probationer, your first year would be spent out in the boondocks somewhere. You would attend lectures two days a week at a Phase One college situated as far away from your home as humanly possible, while those who live within striking range of such Phase One station would in turn be stationed at the Phase One centre that was actually only 15km away from where you lived before the Church decided to send you 1000km away from home.

I understand that the reason for this is to take you out of your "comfort zone" and allow you to experience cross-cultural ministry. Fair enough - in a country that has historically been as fragmented as South Africa (and still is), gaining an understanding of other cultures is important.

Because the first stationing is only for one year, making my son change schools and then change schools again 12 months later seemed to be not such a good idea, especially since (at that stage) I did not know where the Church was planning to send me. This resulted in the heart-wrenching decision to leave my family behind in Johannesburg - a decision made a little easier by the understanding that when one enters the second phase of training - Phase Two - you normally settle down in a Circuit for three years, judging by the experience of Phase Twos that came to my old Circuit. In my mind this meant being reunited with my family from 2010 onwards.

Then came the idea of sending all probationers to the new Seth Mokitimi Methodist Seminary (SMMS), which is being established in Pietermaritzburg. However, at this stage there is no "official" clarity on whether all probationers will go to SMMS or not, and for those who do, whether this will be for one, two, or three years.

This would not be an issue if I was 22 years old, single and carefree (the ideal ministry candidate, if the HR report tabled at last year's Conference is anything to go by. This document is lamenting the fact that the average of candidates is 42). My problem is that I'm actually 40, married, with one wife, one child, one mother, one mother-in-law, one dog, one scooter, three cars, and 20 years' worth of accumulated furniture, garage stuff, and other bits and pieces - all under one roof.

Clearly even the most dyed-in-the-wool free spirit can see that some decisions need to be made here! One doesn't simply sell up and relocate this lot in a matter of days, or even weeks - one needs about six months to be able to make all this work smoothly.

And herein lies the rub - the "powers that be" that are talking to us don't have the information, and those that do aren't talking to us! In fact, I'm beginning to get the distinct impression that since the Phase One is likely to be done away with from next year (i.e. probationers will go straight to SMMS), the Phase One Class of 2009 is like an unwanted orphan, a square peg trying to knock the edges off a round hole.

So what made me so angry yesterday? It was the fact that there are certain requirements that are expected of us - reports to Synod by our Superintendent and Learning Partnerships, for instance. And while I'm not for one second suggesting that we need to be spoonfed - after all, we are supposed to be ministers of the Gospel, and we are supposed to be mature adults - one would think that it's only reasonable that if the "powers" expect something from us, they actually TELL us what that something needs to be, when it must be submitted, and to whom it must be submitted.

What actually happened is that a couple of us had to go scratching around for ourselves, trying to find out what is required. After all, there's a whole truck-load of reports that had to be handed in by last year's Phase Ones - the worst thing that could happen is when we get to Synod and are asked, "where's such-and-such a report", we stand there with a mouthful of teeth, shrugging, "what report?"

We are meant to have a Probationer's Handbook, but such Handbook is (apparently) no longer in print. Yet many of the aforementioned requirements, forms, etc. are in the salf-same Handbook! How is one supposed to meet the requirements if we are not informed of them? Surely we shouldn't have to go around scratching for these things?

I'm normally quite an optimist by nature. Yes, I know that it's meant to be tough. I know that "what doesn't kill, fattens". I know that we are meant to stand on our own two feet, and all that good stuff. But I'm getting the feeling that in this transition period between the old and the new systems, there is a group of people that are stuck in the middle that are a bit of a thorn in the Church's side, and as a consequence are numbers to be processed rather than real people. And I'm starting to get just a little bit tired of being treated like a mushroom - kept in a dark corner, and having manure dumped on top!

I'm also getting fed up of being told, "calm down - you're in Phase One - don't rock the boat - keep your head down - just do as you're told - you don't want to become a 'marked man'". It may be good advice to some, but I've had a belly-full of it. I'm a human being, dammit! I have a brain. I have feelings. I already have a 20-year business career and twelve years of post-school education (excluding my current theology studies) under the belt. And so I'm getting just a little bit hot under the collar at the moment!

Trust me, I don't want to just rock the boat for the sake of it. And believe me when I say that I'm not rebelling against the Church's decisions. I want to be singing off the same hymn-sheet. All I'm asking for is to be treated like a human being, not like a number. Things I'd like to know include: What are the Church's plans? Am I going to SMMS or not? If so, I need to know fairly soon in order to sell up in Joburg and find a place to rent for my family in Pietermaritzburg (I can't somehow see me shoehorning my menagerie into College-provided accommodation, however generously-proportioned such accommodation may be). There's also the matter of schooling for James. What about studies - will I be allowed to complete my degree by the end of 2010? If so, what about post-graduate studies - is this something that the Church encourages and can actually make some use of, or is it simply a "nice to have"?

What exactly is the MCSA expecting of me between now and ordination? Is there someone I can sit down and have an open and honest discussion with? To do a bit of "career counselling" with me, for want of a better term? To provide me with some direction so as to allow me to give my family some peace of mind concerning what's going to happen for the next five years? To allow me to lay my cards on the table, and for the Church to do the same with me?

Am I asking too much here? Is this a fair request, or am I being unreasonable?

So yes, I'm a little bit angry at the moment. But God is faithful, and despite everything, I still believe that God has called me to serve Him in full-time ministry. It remains something that I want to do more than anything else on earth.

The Church, in turn, wants ministers who will respond to God's call and will serve Him with zeal, diligence, and integrity. I really want to be such a minister.

Right now, I really need prayer...

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

A good day at the (academic) office

Yesterday was a good day academically.

First I received one of my assignments back (which, I must confess, I was a bit concerned about), and received 77.5% for it. Since I've always regarded the first assignment as a way of establishing what the examiner is looking for, this is a gratifying start indeed!

Then it was the turn of my exegesis script (an assignment that we as probationer ministers submit to the Church to assess our skills in interpreting passages of Scripture). I must confess that my skills still need a LOT of honing (judging by the 52%), but at least for purposes of examination, it was a pass. The oral examination seemed to go a lot better, with the examiner twice asking me why I hadn't included points that I had raised in my script. In hindsight, I think I consulted too many commentaries when preparing the written part of the assignment! Anyway, although we will only get our final marks at Synod, we were informed that we all passed the oral, so that's another notch to carve on the academic belt.

Finally (and by no means least) my son James, who is in Grade 5, has weighed in with a stunning school report for his first term. I was really concerned as to the possible impact my absence would have on his academic performance, but in between making the Under 11 "A" cricket side and advancing from Cubs up to Scouts, he also put in a sterling performance with 4 As and 2 Bs. Well done, James - you make your Dad SO proud!

Monday, 4 May 2009

A random thought...

Isn't it strange how we tend to want to deal with a person's sin, and only then are we prepared to deal with the person as a person. Jesus, it seems, worked the other way around.

Just a thought...

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Spirituality, sexuality, and same-sex relationships

Every two weeks at our Phase One college we have a session on "Journeying in Faith", in which we explore different expressions of spirituality.

Last week we had a guest speaker, Johan Strydom, who came to address us on the connection between spirituality and our sexuality. He shared some of his background with us, particularly the trauma he went through during the time he took the Moreleta Park Dutch Reformed Church to court for unfair dismissal relating to his sexual orientation - a case that he won in the end.

Naturally this led us to a discussion around same-sex relationships - a subject that has been fairly hotly debated within the Methodist Church of Southern Africa since the first discussion document on this issue was released by the Doctrine, Ethics and Worship committee (DEWCOM) a few years back. Given the strong views that people on both sides of the debate sincerely hold onto, this document was an attempt at enabling the Church to look at this issue a lot more pastorally than in the past.

Views tend to move from the one extreme, being that those of same-sex orientation should not even be allowed onto church premises, to the other extreme, where those of same-sex orientation should be treated no differently to those of hetrosexual orientation, even including marriage. The passing of the Civil Unions Act in South Africa, which legitimises a legal form of same-sex relationship without going as far as to call it "marriage", has added further fuel to the debate, with many feeling that the Church is lagging behind the State in granting equal rights to same-sex couples. On the other hand, there are those who point to clear indications in Scripture where sexual activity between people of the same gender are prohibited.

Without wishing to state (or defend) a particular position, I have a few concerns that I am currently trying to grapple with:

1. I'm well aware of the danger of using certain so-called "proof texts" in order to defend a particular position. However, the other side of the coin the the danger in "cherry-picking" Scriptures in terms of which ones are contextual, and which ones are of universal application. One even finds both within the same passage of Scripture! I must be honest in saying that my theology is not sufficiently developed to be able to come up with any hard-and-fast rules as to how to discern the difference (if, in fact, such rules exist at all), but sometimes I wonder whether we base our findings on which Scriptures we agree with (therefore of universal application) and which ones we don't (therefore contextual). I know that I should be relying on the inner prompting of the Holy Spirit, yet there are sincere Christians who believe that the Holy Spirit is prompting them to hold onto a position that I am decidedly uncomfortable with.

2. Is the formulation of a particular position based on a sound interpretation of Scripture, or personal prejudice? I have to confess that as a person of heterosexual orientation, who could therefore not even contemplate being in a same-sex relationship myself, a degree of prejudice has to be a factor.

3. One could of course look to the Church for a definitive declaration on the matter. However, this is unlikely to bring about certainty for many people, and will most likely end up alienating a large number of people.

4. The question of other orientations would also need to enter the debate. How does one then discern which ones warrant legitimate expression sexually, and which ones don't?

Right now I'm keeping my head below the parapet as far as my own position on this issue is concerned, although I have willingly shared it with those who have asked - particularly members of the congregation, who have a legitimate right to know where their minister stands on this issue. But it remains a journey for me, and I need to get to a point where I am comfortable that I am being true to God's will.

At this point I believe that those of same-sex orientation should be pastored, just as any person we minister to should be pastored. Whether or not one believes that same-sex orientation is a chosen behaviour or part of what a person is should have no impact on how we share the love of Jesus with another person. How this impacts whether one should be celibate or not, issues of church leadership (including ministry), and marriage, is something I'm still trying to deal with.

Dey've all left me ... dey've gone!

Only those readers who are familiar with the Liverpudlian accent for which 1960s UK comedian Tom O'Connor can appreaciste the anguish in the cry of the title of this post. In my case, it's because my family has left for Joburg this afternoon.

My wife already turned on the waterworks during the service this morning, and it took every fibre of my being not to break down myself while standing behind the pulpit! So her hurried peck on the cheek as we got to the station was her valiant attempt at avoiding any more "snot en trane" as we said goodbye.

Afterwards, I left the station and came straight to the office, where I've spent the afternoon reading and blogging. I'm not quite up to facing an empty flat just yet. However, after the Alpha meeting and the evening service, I'm sure I'll be okay. I'll have to be - there's nowhere else for me to sleep...

Got me a red shirt, now I'm in trouble (I think...)

It will be my birthday this month, and seeing as my Mom will be back in Joburg by then, she decided to give me my birthday present early - a lovely red short-sleeved clergy shirt. I was initially a bit apprehensive, since Bishops wear a distinctive colour. However, the ladies at the Upper Room bookshop in Port Elizabeth, where we purchased the shirt, assured me that the colour that Bishops wear is a distinctly purple colour, even showing me a sample to reassure me.

So when my Superintendent greeted me at the door after church this morning with the words, "Good morning, Bishop", I got that distinct feeling in my gut that here comes trouble. Hopefully the wide grin on his face was an indication that he was pulling my leg, but us Phase Ones tend to be a little insecure about these things...

First "white" funeral

On Saturday I did my first-ever funeral in a white context, which sounds strange coming from a white minister! However, last year and this year I've been serving the Church in coloured communities, where things are done a bit differently than us "whiteys" are used to.

For instance, when someone dies in a coloured community, services are held in the home from Monday night through to Thursday night. Friday the family is given a "break" (a misnomer, since they normally spend the time preparing the catering for Saturday). On Saturday morning, there is a service in the house, followed by the funeral itself in the church. Then it's the service at the graveside, and then back to the house for lunch. As the minister I normally conduct the church funeral as well as the graveside service, and attend one of the mid-week services in order to meet with the family and to support the local preachers. For this, I am rewarded with pride of place at the house on Saturday, having had a gargantuan plate of food placed in fromt of me. I often feel guilty because (a) the families concerned are often not in a position to afford being able to feed upwards of 250 people, and (b) many of the guests are sitting outside, while I'm being treated like the guest of honour inside. I guess it's a case of "when in Rome, do as the Romans do", but it's not a situation I'm comfortable with.

In a white context, on the other hand, funerals are a far more subdued affair. One meets with the family a ciouple of days beforehand to sort out the arrangements for the service, and the funeral itself is normally not much more than about 40 minutes. At one point, when the coffin was being brought into the foyer of the church, I asked the undertaker whether the family had requested viewing, and he was horrified! "If we open coffins inside the church, we'll get fired!" was his response. How was I to know? In my coloured congregations, the viewing of the body is standard operating procedure. Ah, well ... chalk another one up to the learning curve.

The other thing that struck me as strange was the three envelopes handed to me by the undertaker. Somewhat bemused, I gave them to Jean, our secretary, and asked to be enlightened. Her resopnse was: "One for the church, one for the organist, and one for you" as she thrust the envelope marked "Reverend" into my hand. Now I'm not sure what to make of this, as I'm also not familiar with the customs around funerals. Certainly I never considered receiving payment for the funeral - after all, I am the minister, and I do receive a stipend, so technically I've already been paid for doing the funeral. Still feeling somewhat uncomfortable about the whole thing, seeing as the church said that it's mine and I feel it's the church's, I handed the (still sealed) envelope to Neville for the upcoming Mozambique mission.

New blog: "Reading as Discipline"

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, once stated that "if a preacher does not read, that preacher shall not preach". If ever one needed good motivation to read, this surely must be it!

I'm actually quite fortunate in that reading has been one of my pleasures in life since I was three years old. In fact, no matter how late I end up going to bed, I cannot sleep unless I've read SOMETHING, even if only a page. However, absorbing what I read is another matter, and I must confess that in some cases I'm better at this than others.

My colleague Jenny and I have therefore come to a point where we need a bit more of a "helping hand" when it comes to keeping discipline with our reading. This includes not only regular Bible reading and required reading prescribed for our studies, but also reading Christian and other literature in general.

I suggested starting a blog for this purpose, that others can contribute to as well, and being a lady of action, Jenny has done just that! So why not pop over to Reading as Discipline and have a look what reading material we are filling our heads with.