God's Word for today

Sunday, 29 November 2009

The Bible in a few words

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

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

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

Friday, 27 November 2009

Another academic year is over

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

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

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

Thursday, 26 November 2009

What is true empowerment? Some random thoughts...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Summer has arrived ... with a vengeance!

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

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

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Should blasphemy and the like be banned?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Adding two and two, and getting five...

Sometimes I really open my mouth to change feet!

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Why it's never MY fault...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Damn, that would be funny.

(The original article can be found here.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 16 November 2009

Reflections on being called to the ministry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our God is an awesome God!

Cry, the beloved country!

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

WARNING: Not for sensitive ears!

Saturday, 14 November 2009

The business of church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 13 November 2009

And then this...

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

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

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

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

Reminder of why I'm REALLY in ministry

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

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

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

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

Jack of all trades?

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

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

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Another "last" ...

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Ashamed to be male

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

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

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

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

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

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

So here are a couple of my own suggestions:

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

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

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

In memory of Francis Eugene Widdas

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 8 November 2009


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

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

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

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

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

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

Celebrating our differences - even in death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 2 November 2009

My love/hate relationship with computers

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

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

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

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

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