God's Word for today

Friday, 30 April 2010

Confessions of a perfectionist

I'm really feeling the pressure at the moment, what with wall-to-wall lectures at SMMS coupled with umpteen assignments.  But that's okay - as my son says to me, "if you want to run with the big dogs, you need to learn to pee in the long grass".  However, what's REALLY petrifying me at the moment is the thought of writing about 8 exams at the end of May.

Now those of you who know me ar probably thinking, "What's this guy's problem?  He has a Masters degree.  Surely he's 'been there, done that, got the tee-shirt' as far as writing exams is concerned?"  Yes, that is true, but it's more of a case of 'been there, done that, cried / puked on the tee-shirt' - the reason being that I'm not good when it comes to exams.  Give me an assignment any day.  Even a 10,000 word one - bring it on!  But I go into a complete tail-spin with this whole "assimilate - percolate - regurgitate" cycle of examinations.  My whole attitude towards them is negative, in that I see them as speed tests or memory tests, but definitely not competency tests!

Looking back at my academic transcripts over the years, my marks are reasonable but nothing to write home about.  And when I did my Masters, I still believe that it was a major puncture in the one mid-year exam that robbed me of the possibility of getting the degree with distinction.  And so I go into the mid-year exams at SMMS with an 80% average, petrified that my mind will go blank and the sub-minimum rule will bite me in the bum.

If it was up to me, I would never write another exam for as long as I live.  Give me an assignment, a thesis, anything - I'll even write a book for you - just not exams.  Surely there must be a better method of assessment than this archaic "3-hour pen fest"?

The real problem is this perfectionist streak that I have in me.  The whole "go big or go home" bit.  If you're going to do something, then do it well.  A winner never quits, a quitter never wins.  That kind of stuff.  And while this aspect of my personality has enabled me to achieve much, it also drives me to distraction, even paralysing me at times.

This morning we watched an inspiring video of Rob Bell which dealt with the cultural background to how disciples were chosen in Jesus' time - how the rabbinical students were "the best of the best", and how Jesus broke convention by choosing disciples who (in an earthly sense) did not meet up to this measure.  The main message was that even though Jesus chooses us despite our imperfections, it is because He believes that, just as is the case with the rabbis, we can become like He is.

It is for this reason that Peter walked on the water.  And when Peter sank and Jesus questioned why Peter had so little faith, it was not that Peter had lost faith in Jesus (after all, Jesus had not sunk) - Peter had lost confidence in himself.

But just as Peter strove to do his best for Christ, so I identify with Peter.  Which means that advice from Ross (a self-confessed perfectionist himself) to cut back a little, perhaps aim for 60% instead of 80%, is not really helping too much right now.  While it may enable me to take a bit of pressure off myself, deep down I know that if I did this I would be getting 60s but knowing that I'm capable of getting 80s.  In other words, not giving of my best.  And as a former Boy Scout, the promise to "always do my best" is something that is deeply engrained in me.  As Yoda said in "Star Wars", there is no such thing as "try".  You "do" or you "don't do" - no "try".  I either serve Jesus or I don't.  I love my wife or I don't love her.  I approach my work hard, or I don't approach it at all.

I like to be in control.  I like to feel competent.  And few things make me feel more incompetent than examinations - especially when I feel that they are not a true measure of one's actual competence with the subject matter at hand.  How else could one explain the massive contrast between assignment performance and examination performance?

And right now this is creating huge amounts of pressure on me, to the point where I'm not a very nice person to be around right now (apologies to Rowanne and the many others that I've managed to antagonise of late). 
Trouble is, I don't know any other way to be without somehow compromising my integrity.  So telling me to "cut back" or "take it easy" or "settle for less" will be unhelpful advice right now.

I guess that part of the problem is that, unlike in anything else I've done in life, I feel totally out of control.  Everything is set out for me - class timetables, assignment schedules, even subject choices - all tightly packed together without any respite (we are doing 8 subjects in comparison with the 4 that UKZN BTh students are doing).  I've even found that I have had to train my body to go to the loo after hours (I kid you not), otherwise I run the very real risk of being late for one or other of my classes.

And the biggest hassle is that I have virtually no say in the whole process.  I even find myself snapping at my wife, as I write this, for making the innocent comment that I'm meant to be working instead of updating my blog.  I'm tense because I'm finding seminary life a continuum of being told what to do, when to do it, and how to do it.  Having held responsible positions including running my own business, its not about hard work but about having no latitude to set my own pace.  It's certainly not what I anticipated doing at age 40!

One thing I refuse to compromise on, however, is my family time and my worship time.  Memories of 2002 when I was working flat out, doing long hours, and nearly losing both my family and my relationship with God loom large in my memory.  So as far as I'm concerned, Saturday is family time, Sunday is worship time, and everything else will just have to fit into the days in between.  Hence the late nights and/or early mornings, with the resultant sleep deprivation adding to the general sense of irritability and cynicism that I'm feeling right now.

So are there any "perfectionists" or "control freaks" out there who have had to deal with this same dilemma, and is there any advice you have that would be of real help in my current situation?  And PLEASE don't say "cut back" - between seminary, family, and worship priorities, that's simply not a viable option at the moment.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

A special birthday for a very special lady

Gosh - so much for wanting an early night.  In between trying to get yet another assignment finished, and preparing some stuff for the men's breakfast at Prestbury on Saturday, I'm once again breaking my cardinal rule: Never go to bed on the same day you intend getting up again!

But in 30 minutes' time it will be a special day indeed - a very special lady in my life reaches an important milestone, that entering the ranks of the "Naughty Forties".  However, in case you think I've just managed to truncate my life expectancy, Belinda doesn't mind me telling people her age - in fact, considering that she wasn't expected to live much beyond her 6th birthday due to leukaemia, turning 40 is, for her, a celebration of God's grace in sustaining her for all these years, having been given the "all clear" from her doctors some 20 years ago.

So to my "Proverbs 31" wife, may this day be one of particular blessing, and I thank God for allowing me to share just over half of those 40 years with you.

Pet hates

If there’s anything that really gets up my nose, it’s when people stand at opposite ends of a building (or on different floors) and scream at each other rather than going up to one another and speaking like civilised human beings.  It’s especially irritating when you are trying to do some work while there is bedlam outside.

So I had a real rush of blood to the head when, while sitting at my computer in my first-floor flat, someone was shouting my name at the top of their voice, from the ground floor!  The “hugely urgent” message was that the licence disk on one of the seminary’s vehicles had expired at the end of last month.  Granted, this is important when we are about to use said vehicle for field work, but would it have taken too much effort to come and knock on my door?

Another pet hate is when people who ‘phone you can’t be bothered to leave a message.  Because I spend the major part of each day in lectures, I am invariably unable to take calls during the day – not to mention the fact that it’s just downright rude to leave your ‘phone on while someone is conducting a class.  For this reason I leave my ‘phone on silent.  When it rings, I have a quick glimpse at the display in case it’s my wife, who knows my class schedule and would therefore only call me if it is something urgent.  If it’s a number I don’t recognise, I let the call go to voicemail.

But herein lies the rub: If someone wants to get hold of me, and it’s important enough to them, then why, for crying out loud, can’t they be bothered to leave a message?  Am I expected to ‘phone every strange number that appears on my ‘phone to find out who might be trying to get hold of me, and why?

A case in point is some persistent soul from the Pietermaritzburg area who has been trying to ‘phone me virtually every day for almost two weeks.  They must be going through a switchboard, since the number is different each time.  That’s the only explanation I can think of, since I don’t know that many people in Pietermaritzburg!  Anyway, today was the last straw so I decided to ‘phone the number, only to find that it was a debt collection agency for a group of doctors I’ve never even heard of, let alone made use of.  In fact, the only doctor’s visit we’ve had since arriving at seminary was for James’ repeat prescription for his asthma medication – a visit we paid cash up front for.

Based on the premise of “don’t get mad – get even”, here are some rules that I’ve put into place, effective immediately:
  • If you shout at me from the other end of the building or from the ground floor – you will be ignored.
  • If you call me on my ‘phone and, when I’m not available, don’t leave a message – you will be ignored.
  • If I am busy with an assignment or have another engagement and you summon me to your office for something that is not particularly urgent, and you haven’t made an appointment with me – you will be ignored.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Oh dear - the Audi's been crashed!

When I started Phase One at the beginning of 2009, I noticed that the two ministers in the Circuit both drove Audis, and I was beginning to feel a bit left out!  My son, the ever-sensitive one, decided to buy me one for Christmas.  Of course, his financial wherewithal is somewhat less than that of the ministers concerned, so the "Audi" James bought me was a set of four glasses with the Audi logo embossed thereon.

This has, of course, added some new terminology to the Jones family lexicon, because whenever we drink something out of these particular glasses, we speak of "taking the Audi for a drive".

Unfortunately, this morning the inevitable happened - my wife Belinda was sorting out the dirty dishes from last night, and in the process "crashed the Audi"...

Celebrating Freedom Day

One of the noticeable aspects of cultural differences is the way in which we commemorate national holidays.  This was clearly evident when I read my usual news websites, which gave details of the various rallies that were held to commemorate Freedom Day yesterday (27 April 2010).  And I won't be too surprised if in the next few days there will be at least one letter or statement bemoaning the fact that certain population groups are "unpatriotic" for not attending such commemorations.

But for me it's not a question of patriotism, but culture.  For instance, I consider myself to be a patriotic South African (note that "patriotism" or "loyalty" does not mean one is uncritical).  People have asked my why, when I hold dual citizenship (I'm British by birth; South African by naturalisation), I chose to remain in South Africa when I have the option of emigrating to Britain.  The answer is - I love this country.  After living here for nearly 36 of the 41 years I have walked this earth, I consider myself to be South African.

However, there are a number of reasons why I did not attend any of the rallies yesterday.  The first one is the same reason why I did not go to Angus Buchan's "Mighty Men" gathering the other week - I don't do crowds.  Even the Easter services were uncomfortable for me, not because the whole thing was in Zulu (in our church you learn to live with worshipping in a different language), but because gathering together with thousands of people is not my idea of fun!

Secondly, I don't particularly enjoy being castigated for how I supposedly benefited under apartheid, somehow owe the world a living because of my skin colour, and the like - and that is how political rallies in South Africa in the 21st century tend to turn out.  No thanks - I've had quite enough of being told that, whatever I do to try to make a contribution to the New SA, it will never be enough because my skin is simply not dark enough.

But thirdly - and this is the main reason - Freedom Day happens to also be my son's birthday, and so I celebrated James' 12th birthday (and SA's 16th) by spending the day with my family, making it an extra-special "boys' day" and staying as far away from political mouthpieces as possible.


Wednesday, 21 April 2010

PhD - light at the end of the tunnel?

After last week's setback I was beginning to feel a little dispondent about my prospects of getting into a PhD programme next year.  The problem is two-fold - my proposed research topic (critique of economic systems through the lens of the Gospel) fits nicely into the School of Theology, but my Masters is in Financial Management.  Trouble is, on the Commerce side the topic fits more into Economics rather than Finance, and the people I spoke at UKZN to last week felt that it's too much of a jump from Economics I to doctoral studies!

However, I had a further meeting with the deputy head of the School of Economics at UKZN yesterday, and he seemed quite enthusiastic at the prospect of me carrying out this research.  Granted, so were the others, but in this case he was asking probing questions and taking copious notes.  The meeting ended with a commitment on his side to discuss the matter with the heads of both the School of Economics and the School of Religion and Theology, as well as with members of the Higher Degrees Committee.

In short, he indicated his commitment to somehow find a suitable home for my research topic where my current academic background meets the criteria for PhD study.  So there's light at the end of the tunnel ... for the moment.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Same-sex relationships - an attempt to move forward?

I've been following the ongoing debate on the MCSA Ministers' Forum on Google for some time, and at times I have despaired at some of the attempts by those on both sides of the debate to try to ram their particular point of view across as being the "correct" one.

However, over the past week or so I have detected a genuine willingness by the participants to try and move forward on this matter, particularly in light of the unfortunate situation where Ecclesia de Lange was discontinued as a minister of the MCSA on grounds of her having entered into a civil union.

I've also been mulling over in my mind how one could take matters forward, and a recent class discussion we had at SMMS that has been ticking over in my brain could possibly shed some light on where we need to go with the whole same-sex issue.

The topic for discussion was this: "Suppose you are sent as a minister to a Circuit where polygamy has been practiced for generations, and you find out that your Society Steward and two of your Local Preachers, while practicing otherwise exemplary Christian lifestyles, each have more than one spouse. You have been taught that leaders, according to 1 Timothy 3 vv 2 and 12, should be "the husband of but one wife (sic)". How do you respond?"

Possible responses discussed included:
  1. Require the person in the polygamous relationship to divorce all spouses (except for Spouse #1) in order to comply with the "one spouse" requirement.
  2. Suspend any person in polygamous relationships from all leadership positions, and possibly from the church as well.

Needless to say, 1 and 2 above would be the legalistic approach. For instance, suppose the person complies with 1 - what happens to the spouses who have now been cast out of the common household? What about any children born to such relationships? In the case of 2, the Church would (once again) stand accused of casting people away from the Church at a time when people are most in need of the Church's support.

A third possible response, however, was to look past the legalistic position and focus instead on the underlying relationship, considering aspects such as: Are all spouses afforded the dignity and respect that is their due? Is the sppropriate duty and responsibility of care being adhered to? Is the entire family "submitting themselves to one another out of reverence for Christ" (Ephesians 5:21)? Is the household a place of prayer, devotion, and service to Christ?

Our problem seems to be that if something doesn't comply with our own particular understanding of what is "right" and "normal", we condemn not only the "non-compliance" but also the persons who are "guilty" of such "non-compliance". It's as though we are telling that person to "fix themselves up first" and comply with OUR norms before they can come to Christ. I can't speak for anyone else, but I know that I was a mess when I accepted Jesus as Lord, and that it was only Jesus who could sort me out.

And in the case of same-sex relationships, while my mind goes fuzzy on the whole "nature vs. nurture" debate, conversations with people whom I believe to be sincere Christians who also happen to be gay have been heart-rending. One such person told me, with tears in his eyes, that he looks at my relationship with my wife and son and longs for the same. Not to mention the ridicule, the prejudice, and the hate that his sexual orientation has engendered towards him during most of his 40 years spent on earth. His conclusion was that no sane person would "choose" to live this way. Yet even though he lives an exemplary Christian life, showing nothing but love, kindness and friendship to all he meets, the Church chooses to reject him.

Yes, polygamous relationships can be abusive - but then so can monogamous relationships also be abusive. Likewise, same-sex relationships are probably as likely to be abusive as heterosexual ones do. By the same token, just as heterosexual relationships have the potential to exemplify Christ-like characteristics, surely polygamous and same-sex relationships have similar potential? And isn't THAT what we as a Church should be teaching and encouraging - relationships modelled on Christ?

In short, I believe that the debate around who is "right" and who is "wrong" concerning same-sex relationships is going to keep us going in circles. Both "sides" will continue to hold the moral high ground. Both will claim fidelity to Scripture. And while the debate rages, people such as Ecclesia will continue to be hurt and rejected by the Church. But focusing on relationships that exemplify characteristics of Christ-like living? THAT is something I'm sure that we can ALL agree on, and something that we as a Church should be striving towards.

As always, the journey continues...

(These thoughts have also been posted to the MCSA Ministers' Forum on Google)

That horrible "R"-word - again!

Last night we had our Seminarian Council meeting at the seminary, and two of the items up for discussion were likely to cause a fair bit of steam to rise - and so it proved!  I guess it's inevitable that when you have nearly 80 seminarians plus families trying to live together in community, the odd moment of disharmony is bound to crop up from time to time.

But the thing that got under my skin was that during the discussions, the hoary old chestnut of race reared its ugly head once again.  And while this is inevitable given South Africa's past, I wonder when it will be time to put this one to bed?  Often we raise the issue of race when the matter under discussion has nothing to with race whatsoever.

As I discussed with one of my black colleagues afterwards, suppose that (hypothetically) I was playing my music a bit too loudly, and he knocked on my door asking me to turn it down.  The issue would have sweet blow-all to do with race, and everything to do with me violating my colleague's right to some peace and quiet.  And he agreed with me.

If one is hurling racist abuse, that would be another matter entirely, but the majority of our disputes have nothing to do with race.  Why then do we have to whip out our "race cards" at every opportunity?  Is it because we are too afraid (or immature) to address the real issue at hand?

Thursday, 15 April 2010

You DON'T need to be a cultural "expert" to be a cross-cultural minister!

Yesterday I was feeling really sorry for myself in that I considered my lack of understanding of African culture to be a real impediment to being an effective minister.

But then today one of my African colleagues at seminary took a turn for the worse as his blood sugar suddenly and unexplainedly dropped dramatically, causing him to pass out and enter a near-coma state.  This meant a frantic rush to the Medicross Centre, where they managed to stabilise him before having him transferred by ambulance to the Midlands Medical Centre in the centre of Pietermaritzburg.

In hindsight, it was by the grace of God that Buyisile had passed out in the hallway of his flat, minutes before we were about to leave for fieldwork, enabling us to see him and take the necessary action.  I shudder to think what may have happened had he collapsed in his bedroom, or we had already left, given that his blood sugar levels had dropped to 2 by the time we got him to Medicross.

However, I'm happy to report that his blood sugar levels have now stabilised, and he is resting in hospital as I write this (they have kept him in overnight for observation).  He is also waiting for the results of blood tests taken to try and identify the cause of the sudden drop in blood sugar levels.

The result of all this is that I spent this afternoon shuttling between the two hospitals, fetching clothing, and keeping in telephonic contact with the "powers that be".  Yet in some strange way, the events of this afternoon made me feel good - not that Buyisile has been hospitalised, but that I got a sense that, for the first time since arriving at seminary, I was doing "real" ministry - ministry that transcended all cultural barriers.

I guess that somehow God, through this episode, has shown me that one doesn't need to be a cultural expert in order to be able to minister cross-culturally.  All one needs is an open heart guided by the Holy Spirit, and a willing pair of hands and feet.

Now you might be thinking, "sure, Jones - you just happened to be in the right place at the right time".  Maybe so - yet somehow, given the low I felt yesterday, I needed a reason to believe that God CAN use me as God chooses, and today God proved that to me.

So if you are reading this post, please spare a prayer for Buyisile's speedy recovery - and give thanks that God can use even the most inept of servants to be instruments of ministry.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Feeling inadequate ... again!

Today had a very "Africanist" flavour, starting with our chapel service this morning in which Kevin Zondagh was sharing on how being in Christ should transcend our skin colour, culture, language, likes and dislikes, political affiliation, etc.  His telling words - ones that should cause us to look very deeply within ourselves were the statement: "We live the truth, but we sing lies", whic basically reflects how our songs of unity reflect themselves (or, rather, DON'T reflect themselves) in our lives.

Then it was into our Missiology course, in which we started discussing the impact of colonialism on mission.  At one point things got a bit heated as we reflected on modern-day "colonial" practices that still exist, even within our church - areas such as probationers / junior ministers being treated as "empty vessels", as though they have nothing to contribute and should therefore remain silent; the culture of not wanting to raise issues or ask questions for fear of possible recrimination, and similarly evil practices.

Straight from there was our Systematic theology class, in which we looked at liberation and feminist theologies from an African perspective.  While I'm fairly comfortable with feminist theology (in fact, I regard myself as a bit of a "closet male feminist theologian"), and understand liberation theology from a textbook perspective, I am really struggling, as a Westerner, to get to grips with the nuances of African theology.

Then to cap a tiring day at seminary, it was off to the Zulu class, in which we are trying to understand how the number 898 comes to be represented by the word "amakhulu ayisishiyagalombili namashumi ayisishiyaga lolunye nesishiyaga lombili" (I kid you not!).

As a result of all this, it dawned on me today just how inadequate I am to be a minister in an African context - not because I have a problem getting to grips with things academically, but because I know so little about African culture.  Looking back on Phase One, I realise that my presence was merely tolerated with much shaking of heads, "ag shame - the whitey doesn't really understand us", and "at least he's only here for a year".  Add to that the "walking on eggs" feeling that my every question, every honest cock-up, and every challenge will be viewed as being motivated by racism, and I end up with serious doubts of my ability to be an effective minister.  If I were to be placed in a black rural context for five years after my stint at seminary, my fear is that it would not only be the death of my ministry, but that it would also have a detrimental effect on the local congregation who would effectively be "guinea pigs" for me to "experiment" on.

And so right now I'm feeling quite overwhelmed - in fact, shit scared, to be blunt...

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Celebration - and a slight setback

Joy has returned to Flat 24 Waalhaven with the return of my wife and son after their two-week break in Joburg.  I didn't realise just how much I resent being apart from them for any period of time - amazing what Phase One experiences can do to you!  Needless to say, I have of late become rather strident in my opposition to any practice within our church that has the result of separating spouses, no matter how inadvertent and unexpected such a result may be.  At the beginning of this year I put forward a resolution via our quarterly meeting here at SMMS, aimed at amending L&D to allow for consultation concerning stationing, especially when a proposed station will have an adverse impact on one's family.

But for now, I'm SOOOOOOO glad to have Belinda and James home again!

However, "into every life a little rain must fall" (Michael W Smith, "Leesha"), and my attempts to get into a PhD programme suffered a few drips today.  It seems that my proposed research area, being a critique of economic systems in the light of the Gospel, is falling into a bit of "no man's land".

The problem is that, firstly, I don't have a Masters in theology, but I do have one in financial management, so the School of Religion and Theology at UKZN indicated that while I would be supported by them in such research, it would probably be an easier path to entry if I approached the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences.  I had such a meeting today, and while my proposed topic was received with the same enthusiasm that Theology did, there may be an issue convincing Commerce's higher degrees committee to allow me to embark on research that (a) has a primarily theological approach, and (b) is in the area of economics whereas my Masters is in financial management.

The door is not closed, though - the lecturers at Commerce have expressed willingness to explore other options, and to discuss the matter further with Theology.  However, getting admission to the PhD programme is not going to be quite as straightforward as I originally anticipated.