God's Word for today

Saturday, 25 July 2009

"Abide with Me..."

I wasn't sure whether I should upload this post, as I know my family reads this blog and I don't want to worry them unduly, but this past couple of weeks has been particularly rough for me. Rev Godfrey Russell, our chaplain at Phase One college, would probably tell me I'm going through a bout of depression, and the way I felt on Thursday in particular would have given some merit to this statement.

So why was Thursday particularly bad? What was different? Well, nothing, really.

I'm still struggling with being separated from my family - words cannot express the extent to which I miss their companionship, fellowship, and presence. I feel like an incomplete person without them.

Then there's the whole uncertainty around my stationing for next year. The Bishops of our Connexion have just met in East London for three days discussing the stations for 2010, and I'm hoping to hear something more concrete once Bishop 'Musi Losaba returns to the office on Tuesday.

The problem with the whole College / Circuit "thing" that is causing so much turmoil, is not so much how it will impact me personally, but there's this little matter of getting my son into a school for next year, and many of the schools have already closed their 2010 applications!

I've also had an uphill battle with a couple of assignments of late - my severe lack of motivation has been making it difficult for me simply to get going. Thankfully I've got two out of three posted off, with the third just about ready to go, but it's been a slog of note.

My financial situation is also not the greatest it's ever been. Granted, I'm managing to pay the bills, and there's food on the table, but my wife's microwave oven blew up last week, and whereas before I would have simply gone out and bought her a new one without thinking too much about it, right now I simply don't have the money for it.

I even found myself doubting my call from God to the ministry. Admittedly - and I've been told this more than once by clergy and laity alike - one has to either be called by God or totally insane to enter full-time ministry, but some days I wonder if I'm really making any difference to people's lives.

Add to that a flat that is bloody freezing (especially with no-one to cuddle!) and a TV that's just died, and you can understand why I'm feeling a little shitty right now.

But then God reminds me of the many blessings that I have. My family may be away from me at the moment, but at least I HAVE a family! Going to SMMS next year is really NOT the worst thing that could happen to me - in fact, there are advantages to going to College as well, especially academically. There is also light at the end of the tunnel as far as the assignments are concerned - at least they're now in, and (hopefully, with a bit of grovelling on my part), the markers will be understanding and mark them. I have food on my table and a roof over my head, and so do my family. Bill (my Superintendent) has loaned me a heater, and I've chucked an extra blanket on the bed. Not having a TV is not the end of the world, especially considering some of the rubbish that is shown sometimes.

And this morning at our weekly prayer group meeting, I saw the most beautiful image of Jesus, affirming my call. The image was not one of "go", where one is sent out into the wild blue yonder to proclaim the Gospel, but rather one of "come", with a crowd of people standing at a slight distance and Jesus, with His arm across my shoulder, walking by my side as I prepared to minister to the people.

So why the title of this post? It started off with Bill singing the opening bars of this hymn in response to our frustration at (once again) having to play the waiting game concerning 2010. (My stationing next year affects him as much as it affects me, for if I go to SMMS no replacement will be sent because of the Phase One programme coming to an end this year. This will place a tremendous burden on his shoulders, particularly with regard to the ministry in the Northern Societies - not the ideal "final year" before he retires). But if one looks at the words of this hymn, it speaks of a deep and enduring confidence that no matter what happens, God will never leave us nor forsake us.

Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

Not a brief glance I beg, a passing word;
But as Thou dwell’st with Thy disciples, Lord,
Familiar, condescending, patient, free.
Come not to sojourn, but abide with me.

Come not in terrors, as the King of kings,
But kind and good, with healing in Thy wings,
Tears for all woes, a heart for every plea—
Come, Friend of sinners, and thus bide with me.

Thou on my head in early youth didst smile;
And, though rebellious and perverse meanwhile,
Thou hast not left me, oft as I left Thee,
On to the close, O Lord, abide with me.

I need Thy presence every passing hour.
What but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?
Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.

I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.

Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

Is the Church being hypocritical about sexual ethics?

Further to my previous post, I received an interesting article with the above title, written by one David Fitch and posted on the Christianity Today blog. I have reproduced selected paragraphs in this post, but those who wish to read the full text, as well as the many comments that have been posted thereunder, may click here.

I found it interesting, not so much in what it says about same-sex relationships, but what it says about our witness as a Church and our understanding of our sexuality within a Christian context.

The writer of the post views it as ironic that a scantily-clad swimsuit model who parades herself around in a "minuscule bikini" can make statements concerning same-sex relationships. To quote: "By saying what she said about gay unions moments after the swimsuit competition, Ms. California was basically telling the world, 'We do the same things, but for gay people it’s sin. Lust is good, objectifying my body is normal, the fulfillment of all desire is good.' Then, on the other hand, she says to the gay and lesbian world, 'But you can’t do any of this, because you’re different'."

I've probably mentioned before that, if as Christians we are meant to be "God's army", we have an amazing ability to go in after the war is over and bayonet all the wounded. Somehow we've got our role completely back-to-front. We take great delight - considering it our responsibility, even - in telling people how sinful they are.

But my understandng of Jesus' encounter with Zacchaeus paints a different picture. Contrary to what many would like to believe, Jesus did NOT go up to Zacchaeus and wag His finger in Zacchaeus' face, telling him what a rotten sinner he was. Instead, Jesus was more concerned with Zacchaeus as a person. And I don't believe that when Jesus and Zacchaeus were having tea (or whatever the appropriate social libation may have been at the time), Jesus would have been tearing into Zacchaeus, either. He would have been instead establishing a relationship with Zacchaeus as a person, one who is precious in God's sight. And it was probably in the face of Jesus' overwhelming love and compassion that Zacchaeus, out of an inner conviction of the Holy Spirit, came out and confessed: "I've done wrong. I've cheated people. I want to make right. I NEED to make right!"

Somehow, by pointing fingers at the gay community, who - let's be honest - make up between 5 and 10% of the total population (depending on which statistics you are using), we divert attention away from the sexual brokenness that the 90 - 95% of us so-called "straight" people seem unable - or unwilling - to deal with.

The writer contends that "[t]he broader evangelical church of my heritage has, generally speaking, not been capable of speaking (any kind of) truth into the sexual lives of anyone — nevermind the gay / lesbian community. We have been hitherto incapable (theologically) of embodying the sexual redemption made possible in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And until we get our own communities to line up with the sexual redemption in Christ, to the gay community we look like empty, judgmental, duplicitous fools who see everyone else as thieves stealing away our enjoyment."

"We need to ask what kind of people we should be in order to welcome gay and lesbian people into the redemptive and healing salvation of God in Christ for sexuality. In my opinion, most evangelicals date and marry much like the rest of society, where an unexamined sexualized attraction is a guiding factor. We teach that lust before marriage is bad, yet lust after marriage is good (implicitly). In our practice of salvation, there is no formation of desire to be integrated and developed into a narrative of self-giving love and commitment to mutuality, self giving and procreation over time in marriage. Without a communal witness of love and redemptive sexual healing, our words are empty. And so we protest same-sex marriage or institute some kind of legislative action. In so doing we reveal our fear for our children and our insecurity in our own sexual formation practices within our church communities."

It's interesting to note that the writer does NOT consider gay / lesbian sexual practices to be normative for the Christian Church. Yet his post reflects a refreshingly honest and balanced approach, not only to same-sex sexuality, but sexuality as a whole.

Somehow in the whole same-sex "debate", one gets the impression that one can only be either "fully affirming" (the term often used for those who advocate full recognition of same-sex relationships within the Church, including marriage), or "fully-excluding" (i.e. wishing to have nothing to do with those who even hint at being homosexual, considering the whole thing - even discussion thereof - as an abomination). It seems that any attempt to discuss or engage with the subject elicits reactions of "he wants to marry gays in our Church" and "he's going against the Bible" from the one camp, and "he's a homophobe" and "he's going against the Bible" from the other.

I believe that if we sincerely want to be true disciples of Jesus Christ, then we need to love one another, just as He loves us. We love to sing the song "A New Commandment" in our churches, but they are just words - we don't really live it out, and especially when it comes to the same-sex issue.

And let us be constantly reminded that we are not dealing with an "issue", or a "debate" - we are dealing with PEOPLE!

Like the writer, I honestly believe that if we are to gain a true Christian understanding of our God-created sexuality, we need to "become the kind of community that:
a.) does not indulge hyper-romanticist notions of sexuality that objectifies sexual attraction as the basis of heterosexual marriage,
b.) quits disembodying sexuality in the way we do whenever we make the Bible into moral propositions that should be enforced, instead of a narrative world to be shaped and directed towards so as to live into.
c.) worships in a way that orders desires towards God and away from narcissism (feel-good pep-rallies), for any other kind of worship cannot train us out of our narcissistic obsessions with sex.
d.) stops acting like heterosexual marriage and sex itself are absolutely essential for a fulfilling Christian life. We should elevate celibacy / singleness as a vocation, testifying that sexual drive and all desire needs to be sub-ordered to God’s purpose and mission for anything remotely fulfilling to take place in our lives.
e.) loves and nurtures the hurting souls and bruised lost ones who seriously desire to be shown another way but are too consumed at this moment to see anything else."

If we gave a fraction of our time that we spend debating same-sex relationships, to earnestly engaging with issues such as pregnancy out of wedlock, abortion, sexual abuse (both within and outside of marriages), and the general lax attitude of "anything goes" concerning sexual matters - remembering that in all cases, people created in the image of God are involved - perhaps then we might just get to a point where true healing and restoration can take place.

Sexual immorality?

Jenny has created this post of the same name, in which she speaks of her struggle with different interpretations of what is considered immoral by various people, vs. what is regarded as "culture".

What makes this whole discussion quite awkward is that certain forms of sexual activity that would have been considered taboo a generation or so ago, are seen as normal today. "Living together" has become such an accepted part of modern society that one is almost made to feel a bit square for being married!

One of the things that concerns me is that a while ago at the Phase One college, a discussion came up concerning legitimate expressions of sexuality within a heteroseual context (same-sex relationships is a whole different subject on its own), and I was quite alarmed that some members of the group (who, bear in mind, are training to become Methodist ministers) consider extramarital sexual activity to be okay. When pressed on the issue, the persons concerned raised questions as to what constitutes a marriage?

When it comes to Christian marriage as practiced generally in South African society, there are two distinct and separate components, notwithstanding the fact that they are typically combined and intermingled in a single ceremony: the promises that the couple makes before God, and the legal formalities in terms of the Marriage Act. In terms of South African law, the religious ceremony without the legal requirements is not recognised as a valid marriage.

On the other hand, given that there is now legislation on the cards (if not already passed into law) that seeks to regulate "domestic partnerships" as though they were marriages, thereby creating a legal framework that deals with financial arrangements, duty to support, etc., the old argument of wishing to avoid the legal ties no longer holds water. In fact, one would probably need to enter into a specific contract if the provisions of such legislation are to be specifically excluded.

This means that if you are in a relationship with another person, and this relationship involves sexual activity, and you are sharing a common household, and such relationship is deemed to be "permanent" (various courts have held that a relationship that has lasted six months could be regarded as permanent unless the couple concerned acts to the contrary), then effectively you are legally married - the only difference is that you don't have a piece of paper stating this explicitly.

Christian proponents of living together in a sexual relationship without going through such a ceremony have varying views. Some consider themselves to be "married in the eyes of God" without having to go through a specific legal process, while others argue that there is no obvious Biblical prohibition on sex outside of marriage (apart from adultery), and therefore sexual activity by unmarried persons is not considered to be wrong.

I would however disagree with the view that the Bible is silent on this issue. Granted, I'm aware of the danger of using "proof texts" to make a particular point, and the statement in Hebrews 13:4, "Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled" would require further exegesis. For instance, the phrase "the bed undefiled" could be understood that sexual expression is legitimate within marriage, not to be ashamed of, but it could also be read that sexual expression in this case is legitimate BECAUSE it is within a marriage.

However, if sex wasn't considered to be such an important part of marriage, reserved for marriage, the writer of this passage could have simply wrote that "marriage is honourable in all". Full stop. Why add the "bed undefiled" bit?

So what makes sex so special? I cannot speak for others, but for my wife and I, who have many different kinds of (non-sexual) relationships with a whole host of people, sex is something that is just for the two of us - an act of sharing our bodies in a deeply intimate way that no-one else on God's great earth can share with us. It is ours alone.

But it's far more than just a physical act - there's a deep emotional and spiritual bond as well. On an emotional level, there is a bond that we share as a married couple that we do nt share with anyone else. Sex is an outward expression of that bond. And on a spiritual level, I'm not ashamed to say that some of the most amazing sex has taken place right after the two of us have joined together in prayer. Somehow there's a sense that if Jesus were to 'phone me in the middle of making love with my wife, and ask me what we are doing, I would be able to tell Him with an absolutely clear conscience.

Some would of course argue that society and the Church has conditioned me to make these statements, but I honestly don't believe this to be the case. On the other hand, I've yet to hear a convincing argument as to why it is beneficial to join one's body to another in sexual intercourse without being prepared to join oneself to another in an emotional, spiritual, nurtering, and yes, even legal sense as well? Why would you give away something so precious and sacred to someone who doesn't respect you or care for you enough to commit to you totally?

Rapped over the knuckles

I was severely rapped over the knuckles by Baden Clack, a deacon in our circuit, for not having posted anything in the past week. It's been a hectic and difficult week on a number of levels, but that's no excuse - I should rather be using this forum to vent my spleen on a few things that I'm struggling with at the moment.

Good on you, Baden, for keeping me accountable and on my toes!

Friday, 17 July 2009

Mozambique Mission (1)

Well, as I said in a previous post, I'm back from a two-week mission trip to Mozambique. I didn't realise the impact that this trip would have on me as a minister, a Christian, and as a person, with the result that I've been feeling quite unsettled since my return.

I'm therefore still trying to gather together my thoughts on the whole mission, but in the meantime here is a brief PowerPoint presentation that we shared at the youth service this past Sunday.

Mozambique Mission 2009

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Honey, I'm Home!

The title of this post comes from one of my favourite 80s TV shows, Dinosaurs, and that's what I said (albeit to an empty flat) when I arrived back from Mozambique. I'll be blogging more comprehensively on this awesome mission at a later stage, but at the moment I'm still trying to get back into the swing of things here in Uitenhage.

Good news is that Belinda and James will be joining me for a couple of weeks in August. Not so good news is that my trusty Dell laptop looks like it wants to expire at some point. Could be a couple of months, could be three years - who knows?

Anyway, I can't risk being without a machine, and to fix the Dell will set me back around four grand, so I've invested (or rather, my credit card's budget plan has) in a new Acer Aspire One laptop. It's not quite as small as Jenny's Midget, but it is far more svelte than the chunky Dell, weighing in at a slim 1.3kg and having a screen measuring a diminutive 10 inches. It's taking some getting used to, but I like the 7 hours of battery life - I like it a lot! 160GB of hard drive, and 2GB of RAM makes it quite a nifty little performer, and should house my stuff for a few years to come.

On the stationing front, it's now looking about 50/50 that I'll either stay in Circuit or go to College next year. Please pray for the Bishop's Stationing Committee meeting that takes place today and tomorrow in East London.

Ciao for now