God's Word for today

Sunday, 30 May 2010

James does me proud on the rugby field - again!

My son James is really getting into the swing of things with his new-found sporting love, rugby.

I do however, have some concerns with a masochistic tendency that is starting to creep in!  Lately he has been keeping a "tally count" of injuries, with his new "personal best" being 11 bruises, 3 abrasions, and a cut on his finger (courtesy of a misapplied stud in the scrum).  His latest "thing" is that, win or lose, if he comes home covered with dirt and sporting a new bruise, he's had a good day!

Anyway, I had another proud moment yesterday when he played his first game as a newly-promoted member of the Pelham 4th team (having started in the 6th team a mere two months ago) against St Charles' College in Scottsville.  Not only did the Pelham team win with a thumping 67-0 (James remarked that he's been in lower-scoring cricket matches!), but James was tackled a mere one metre short of what would have been his first try.

The best part of all was watching both the manner in which the side played as a team, as well as the sportsmanlike spirit that prevailed.  Any dad would have been extremely proud of their sons yesterday - I know my chest was bursting with pride for James!

Thursday, 27 May 2010

The Rules of the 2010 Soccer World Cup :-)

Dear Lady In My Life

  1. From 11 June to 11 July 2010, you should read the sports section of the newspaper so that you are aware of what is going on regarding the Soccer World Cup, and that way you will be able to join in the conversations. If you fail to do this, then you will be looked at in a bad way, or you will be totally ignored. DO NOT complain about not receiving any attention.
  2. During the Soccer World Cup, the television is mine, the VCR and DVD are all mine, at all times, without any exceptions. If you even take a glimpse at the remote control, you will lose it (your eye, that is).
  3. If you have to pass by in front of the TV during a game, I don’t mind, as long as you do it crawling on the floor and without distracting me. If you decide to stand nude in front of the TV, make sure you put clothes on right after because if you catch a cold, I won’t have time to take you to the doctor or look after you during the Soccer World Cup month.
  4. During the games, I will be blind, deaf and mute, unless I require a refill of my drink or something to eat. You are out of your mind if you expect me to listen to you, open the door, answer the telephone, or pick up the baby that just fell from the second floor ... it won’t happen.
  5. It would be a good idea for you to keep at least 2 six packs in the fridge at all times, as well as plenty of things to nibble on, and please do not make any funny faces to my friends when they come over to watch the games. In return, you will be allowed to use the TV between 12pm and 3pm, unless they replay a good game that I missed during the day.
  6. If you see me upset because one of my teams is losing, DO NOT say “get over it, it’s only a game”, or “don’t worry, they’ll win next time”. If you say these things, you will only make me angrier and I will love you less. Remember, you will never ever know more about soccer than me and your so called “words of encouragement” will only lead to a break up or divorce.
  7. You are welcome to sit with me to watch one game and you can talk to me during halftime but only when the commercials are on, and only if the halftime score is pleasing me. In addition, please note I am saying “one” game, hence do not use the Soccer World Cup as a nice cheesy excuse to “spend time together”.
  8. The replays of the goals are very important. I don’t care if I have seen them or I haven’t seen them – I want to see them again. Many times, and record them.
  9. Tell your friends NOT to have any babies, or any other child related parties or gatherings that requires my attendance because:
    - I will not go,
    - I will not go, and
    - I will not go.
  10. But, if a friend of mine invites us to his house on a Sunday to watch a game, we will be there in a flash.
  11. The daily SWC highlights show on TV every night is just as important as the games themselves. Do not even think about saying “but you have already seen this ... why don’t you change the channel to something we can all watch??” The reply will be: “Refer to Rule #2 of this list”.
  12. And finally, please save your expressions such as “Thank goodness the Soccer World Cup is only every 4 years”. I am immune to these words because after this comes the 2014 SWC etc.
  13. Do not complain that my new beard is “scratchy” or makes me “look like a caveman”. Showing my support for Bafana Bafana by growing a beard is more important to me than our relationship. If you don’t love your country as much as me, then that makes me sad, and you should leave.

Thank you for your cooperation.

Men of the 2010 Soccer World Cup

Men in Black...

... protecting the earth from the scum of the universe.

Today is Thursday, and starting last week my wife and I joined a "Thursdays in Black" campain run by the Diakonia Council of Churches, which is aimed at raising awareness of (and protesting against) rape and violence.  South Africa's rape statistics are truly horrifying, with the annual number of cases being equivalent to a rape taking place every 15 seconds!

Part of the problem identified as a root cause is patriarchal attitudes of men towards women, and so this campaign is aimed at opening opportunities for dialogu that will hopefully lead to changed attitudes.  Like the ant eating the elephant one bite at a time, the aim is to change attitudes one man at a time.

So until rape stops (or I die - whichever comes first), I'll be donning black on Thursdays...

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Tramped upon for exercising freedom of speech

Eish - it's true what Jenny told me once last year - when you put your head above the parapet, you risk being taken out by a sniper's bullet.

The problem that I am currently facing is caused by a number of factors.  Firstly, I wear my heart on my sleeve - if something bugs me or piques my curiosity, I need to raise questions.  It's not that I'm attacking anyone personally - I genuinely want to understand.  Secondly, I tend to express myself a lot more clearly in written form than in speech, which means that a lot of what goes through my mind ends up being written down somewhere or posted onto some or other online forum.

One of the dangers of committing one's thoughts to writing, rather than simply expressing them verbally, is that one's thoughts are then preserved for posterity.  You cannot claim that you never used the words in question, or quoted out of context, since your written words are there in black and white for all the world to see.

It was such a post, or - more specifically - a response to such a post that has caused me much dismay at the moment.  Allow me to explain.  Some time ago (over two years ago, in fact) I posted a piece on this blog about the way we "do" Church, with all our traditions, foibles, stand-up-here-and-sit-down-there antics, and speculated what it would be like to observe such goings-on through the eyes of a first-time visitor.  This, coupled with the fact that I am an English-speaker who is training for ministry in a multi-cultural and multi-lingual church, has set the stage for what happened tonight.

This week we have had some American visitors from Duke Divinity School in North Carolina coming to spend a few days with us at the seminary.  The last time I looked, the USA was a largely English-speaking country, although Spanish is also fairly widely spoken (particularly among the Hispanic community).  As the old Bill Cosby joke puts it, "Americans shouldn't feel inferior becouse they only speak one language.  It's not like in Europe where you can drive for 20 minutes or half an hour and find yourself in a different country with a different language - in the United States, you can drive for eight days and not encounter another language!"

Enter the Seminary, which is a multi-lingual, multi-cultural community located in the heart of a country (South Africa) that has 11 official languages among countless others that are spoken.  And with no disrespect to our African languages, chances are that Xhosa, Zulu, Sesotho are not that widely spoken in the US!

So last night we had a worship service in our chapel, conducted in our multitude of languages (as we generally do) - and I had a concern that some of the proceedings were conducted in languages other than English, without adequate explanations for the benefit of our American guests.  Given that we are preparing ourselves to be ministers, and bearing in mind the background of my original post, I shared some thoughts about this on our internal forum at SMMS.

Lo and behold, tonight I return home from a wonderful meal with the Americans and a number of fellow seminarians, full of the joys of life, and with all this boundless energy I decided that seeing as my wife and son have already gone to bed, I would quickly check my e-mails and have a short squizz at the forum before settling in for a couple of hours of work - only to find that someone has responded to my post in the form of a vicious and hurtful personal attack, accusing me of "hate speech" and racism.

Granted, I know I can be an irritating questioning so-and-so at times.  Well, okay - most of the time!  In fact, my mother once told me I was born with a question on my lips - I promptly asked her what that question was!  And I also know that when it comes to issues that rattle my cage a bit, I'm seldom at a loss for words.  But I'm not aware of ever having attacked anyone personally, used hate speech, or been racist in any of my writings - and if I have, please send me the relevant links with your reasons for thinking otherwise, and I'll quickly and humbly apologise.

So what am I getting at here?  I guess it's about tolerance and mutual respect.  It's about exercising free speech and allowing other's the space to do likewise.  It's about "always playing the ball - never the man".  And ultimately, when we engage with one another, we learn more about one another, learn from one another, and come to understand one another better.

Monday, 24 May 2010

The Synod I missed

It was a weird feeling this weekend, knowing that I would not be attending Synod for the first time since I was "suckered" into being a Circuit representative back in 2006.  Since then many things have happened, including my responding to a calling from God to enter full-time ministry - which meant that I would be "sentenced" to attending Synods for the next 25 years.

Or so I thought.

Being at Seminary has changed a number of things, of course, and one of those changes is that instead of all of us traipsing off to this annual gabfest, only one representative from the seminarians is appointed to attend on our behalf, in addition to the ministerial staff at SMMS who are required to attend.  To many this may be a blessing, but I must confess that I was a bit disappointed not to go - not that I particularly enjoy wading through three days of business, but because Synods provide a great opportunity to meet one's colleagues within the District.

So it is with much interest that I await the feedback from the Synods this year.  As I write this, I have not heard too much from those from SMMS who attended, but it is, after all, only Monday and we have been informed that formal feedback will be provided in due course.  Ross is normally quite good about this, and I have no doubt that this feedback session will happen.  I was involved in the drafting of a resolution aimed at revamping parts of the stationing process, which we passed at our April Circuit Quarterly Meeting at SMMS, so I'm particularly interested to see what the outcome was at Synod.

But it has been interesting to read what some of my fellow bloggers have had to say (read here and
here) - some of which makes me hang my head in despair.  Talks of power struggles, incompetence, and re-election of leaders considered to be not up to the task do not make for inspiring reading.  I'm not blaming the writers - they are simply telling it like they see it.  I do however wonder whether delegates to Synod have any real "teeth" - and if they do, why these are not used.  Given that the process of appointing leaders in the MCSA is largely a democratic one, is it then a fair statement to say that we get the leaders we deserve?

And in the final analysis, is it then no wonder that the voices of the people at Society level become so diluted by the time Conference meets in September, that many simply no longer even bother?  If this is the case, then our Church is in REAL trouble since, as the old saying goes, "bad things happen when good people do nothing".

Am I getting too cynical, too early in my fledgling ministry?  If so, is it justified?  And if so, how does one change this (without dishing out the palliatives)?

Friday, 21 May 2010

Semester exams - one down!

We kicked off the first semester's exams with Hebrew, which at times is all Greek to me!

When asked how I found the paper, my reply was "I opened my eyes, and there it was!"  Anyway, I survived it in one piece, and while I don't think I did particularly great in it, I hopefully did enough to pass!

Thanks to all those who are keeping my colleagues and I in your prayers.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Affirming our sisters - finding the balance?

This is a dangerous post for me to write.  Many might even say that, as a male, I have no business commenting on such matters.  However, I'm hoping to open some discussion around this issue.

Let's start off by saying that it has been an interesting week, having had two visitors whose messages have been around overcoming discrimination (and worse) against women.

The first was Rev Phumzile Zondi-Mabizela from the kwaZulu-Natal Christian Council, who heads up an organisation called SOFIA.  Because discrimination against women is unfortunately still alive and well, even (and some may say particularly) in the Church, I was quite keen to hear how one can overcome this phenomenon - particularly as a male.

The second was Rev Jenny Sprong from the Diakonia Council of Churches, who invited us to take part in a campaign called "Black on Thursdays" which is aimed at spreading the message of non-violence towards women.  As I sit at my desk typing this, I am dressed in black and sporting a badge that reads "Thursdays in Black - towards a world without rape and violence".

However, my concern is how to find a balance.

On one level I'm beginning to see myself as a bit of a "feninist-theologian-in-a-male-body" in that I affirm and support the right of women to enter any field they choose, including responding to a call to ordained ministry.  I am also appalled by the shocking levels of rape and violence against women in our country, and firmly believe that the attitudes of men needs a radical overhaul.  I also believe that it is the responsibility of us as men to help our brothers to journey to a place of understanding where we are not "superior" to women.

I also don't believe that, speaking from a male perspective, we need to stop being men.  What we need to do is to start truly understanding what it means to be a real man.  Real men are secure in their masculinity, and don't need to undermine women in order to prove that they are men.  A real man would never try to demonstrate his power over women, whether this be emotionally, physically, or sexually.

However, I share Jenny's concern (expressed in her blog post here) that we end up "re-misinterpreting" Scripture by attempting to counter a male-centred hermeneutic with a female-centred one.  The role of women and men in Scripture need to be acknowledged.  In fact, we need to stop being so hung up on the gender of the people concerned, and focus instead on how God has used such people throughout Scripture.  In this way it can be possible for women to emulate Paul, and men to emulate Ruth, for instance.

I also have a concern that if we start pushing the feminist agends to the point where we sound like hysterical feminists, burning our bras (those who wear them!) and denouncing all that is male, this issue will never be taken seriously.  And that would be a tragedy, because the discrimination and violence against women will only continue if we don't all make a stand.

So what, then, should we do?  This question has many answers, but I believe that a good starting-point is for men with changed attitudes to influence other men to change their attitudes.  Ephesians 5: 25-27 - "husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the Word, and to present her to Himself a radiant Church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless" - need not only speak to husbands and wives, but can also serve as a blueprint for how men should regard women.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Misplaced "development" expenditure?

While driving to church last night, I saw this BMW 730d driving through the centre of Pietermaritzburg.  According to BMW South Africa, the current list price of this "base model" in the 7-Series range is R947,000 (assuming that no "extras" have been fitted).

If this car indeed does belong to the United States Agency for International Development, can one conclude that our politicians' penchant for expensive cars is based on "First World" benchmarks?

Surely a "development agency" should be leading the way by providing their officials with more modest transport?  If one were to be gracious enough to concede that the stresses of working in Darkest Africa justifies the "right" of such officials to cosset their derrieres with leather upholstery, a BMW 320i Start at R299,000 should fit the bill nicely - leaving R648,000 in the budget to "divert" to "development" projects.

My Mom's one client, a construction company specialising in low-cost housing, could build around 11 houses for this sort of money.  Alternately, such an amount could cover the stipend budget for the entire current contingent of seminarians for six months. Or provide 125 needy people with R100 per week for a year.

It just makes one wonder where the priorities of these so-called "civil servants" and "development agents" lie.

(Oh, and if the vehicle depicted in this photograph is NOT the property of USAID, you might want to get onto the KZN traffic authorities - someone's vanity plates is giving you boys a bad name!)

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Examination tips for seminarians - how NOT to answer your papers

The pressure is really mounting as we struggle to get our final assignments in before the final slog for our semester examinations.  What's more, because we are being "formed for ordination" as well as being "prepared for graduation", we end up writing eight papers (compared to the four that the UKZN BTh students would be writing).

As you can imagine, we are scrounging for every tip we can lay our hands on, and so this one that a friend of mine sent me today is a timely indication of the kind of answers that are likely to keep us at seminary until we are ready to retire.

(Click on image to enlarge)

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Happy Mothers' Day

Gosh - I nearly forgot!  Happy Mothers' Day to all the wonderful moms out there.

Well, I didn't really forget.  What actually happened is that my aversion to crowds (plus my cheapskate tendencies carried over from my accountancy days) meant that James and I took Belinda out for lunch yesterday rather than today, while I also wished my mom 'Happy Mothers' Day' when she 'phoned me last night (as she does every Saturday).

Thanks to Delme for the reminder (and the cartoon - couldn't resist!).  To read Delme's amazing blog and to purchase his books, click here.

Goat strike at Unit 14

Today was my second visit to the Methodist Church at "Unit 14", a sub-section of the Imbali township just outside Pietermaritzburg, and once agan I was amazed and humbled at the welcome I received.  People also seem to be starting to get used to the idea of a whitey in their services, and for my part my aim is to be just like any ordinary member of that society (although my Zulu still needs a LOT of work).

I also managed to dodge preaching today.  Not that I want to do this - on the contrary, preaching opportunities are proving to be few and far-between at seminary, so one would think I should want to grab any possible gap to get up there and do, after all, what God has called me to do.  However, while I appreciate the respect and willingness with which the local Society is willing to hand over their pulpit to me, simply on the basis of me having a sliver of plastic tucked into my shirt collar, I also believe that it is not right when a Local Preacher has gone to the effort of preparing the service, only to have me butt in and take over.

There was an interesting little incident on the way home, however, in that while I was driving up the hill toards the main road, I hit two goats that ran out in front of me.  Seemingly goats are tougher than double-cab bakkies, since while the section of plastic bumper that surrounds my left foglamp is now completely cracked, the goats didn't even so much as lose their footing as a result of the impact.

However, while I was making sure that I hadn't gone and made any goat puree for Sunday lunch, a shirtless man (who was under the influence of a different kind of spirit to the one we had encountered in church) came running towards me, shouting what sounded like Zulu obscenities and brandishing his fists.  Discretion being the better part of valour, I decided to hop back into the truck and execute a strategic retreat.

So after lunck I will be learning yet another new and useful ministry skill as I attempt to put my bumper back together again.

Incidentally, what is the going rate of compensation should I ever have the misfortune of squashing a goat en route to my next visit to Unit 14?  And is there a "clergy discount" for these things?

Friday, 7 May 2010

Change for Britain?

It's looking (at this stage, at least) that Britain is about to see a change in government, with the Conservative Party holding the early lead.  I wonder what that will mean in terms of my Mom (and millions of other British pensioners living in Commonwealth countries) getting their pensions unfrozen?  My Mom's has been fixed since 1998 in terms of a bizarre and discriminatory ruling that states that UK pensions are frozen for those living in certain countries.  If she were to return to the UK, her pension would almost quadruple!

Sunday, 2 May 2010

If only life followed the rules of accountancy...

Accountancy, if you think about it, is a very straight-forward discipline, in that for every debit, there must be a credit. Without this, the double-entry system simply doesn't work.  "Where did the money come from (credit)?", and "What did you do with it (debit)?", will provide the answer to virtually all accounting transactions.

Life, on the other hand, is far less straight-forward - especially when the issues become emotional.

A topic we've been discussing quite vigorously on our internal electronic forum at seminary stems from the ongoing debate around same-sex relationships.  (Before you exclaim "Oh no - not THAT old drum again" and click the little red X, please bear with me for a bit).  The main issue in my mind at the moment is not so much about whether such relationships are "right" or "wrong", but rather around how we formulate and apply "rules".

We were discussing this matter as a family during a drive to Greytown yesterday.  I particularly enjoy these Saturday drives, because even though petrol is expensive (and going up again by 29c per litre on Wednesday ... grrrr), a tank of juice is still cheaper (and far more enjoyable) than an hour on a shrink's couch.

But getting back to our discussion, which was prompted by a sign alongside the R33 just outside Pietermaritzburg.  It was one of those "camera" signboards indicating that the local authority is doing speed trapping by camera, but there was no sign indicating what speed limit was being enforced.  Since we were already 20km outside an urban area, one couldn't take it for granted that the applicable limit was 60 (and certainly the taxi that was driving up my jersey had a difference of opinion in this regard!), but what speed then were we allowed to drive at?  70?  80?  100?  40?  How can one seek to prosecute when the rules themselves are ambiguous?

Bringing this into the realm of the same-sex debate, former colleague Ecclesia de Lange has been disciplined (and subsequently discontinued from ministry) for entering into a civil union (the South African legal framework for same-sex unions).  Now on one level it can be argued that "the Bible is clear", but the problem is that the Methodist Church of SA has, starting with the initial discussion document sent to Circuits in 2003, created a degree of ambiguity.  This has resulted in those on the "anti" side seeing the discussions as being contrary to what has historically been seen as a clear prohibition in Scripture, while the "pro" brigade are seeing the discussions as a willingness to exercise grace to those who have struggled with their sexuality for many years and are now seeing the possibility of the doors being opened.  And it's probably fair to recognise that while there may well be those who are "pushing an agenda", one cannot say that this is only coming from one or other side.  Likewise, I believe that there are sincere Christians on both sides of the debate who are seeking an outcome that is consistent with the Gospel message as contained in Scripture.

The Church authorities are understandably wanting to promote debate and hear the views of all sides, while at the same time they are being reluctant to make a clear decision on which way to go, for fear of a split in the Church.  And such fears are well-founded - I have no doubt that if the MCSA decides that same-sex relationships are not acceptable, the "pro" brigade will up and leave, while if the doors are opened to same-sex relationships, the "anti" brigade will go.  So, for the moment, the "safe option" is to make no decision at all.

My concern, however, is that the MCSA is currently in a situation similar to the one I faced on the R33 yesterday - the threat of prosecution (from the camera) is clearly stated, but the underlying rule is ambiguous.  Similarly, while the impression is being created that the doors are being slowly opened for those who are of same-sex orientation, it is now clear - as Ecclesia recently found out - that as soon as a foot is put through the door, it is quickly slammed shut.

I don't want to get into the debate of the merits (or otherwise) of Ecclesia's actions and the MCSA's response in this particular post - I've certainly written many a word of debate on the SMMS forum as well as on the MCSA Ministers' Yahoo forum - but when all the dust is settled and the debates have died down, the real issues are not as clear or straight-forward as an accounting journal entry, and trying to understand them is not quite as easy as falling off a 1300 Kawasaki motorcycle.

The following question was posed to me this afternoon: "How will my son James discover who he is?" (referring to sexual orientation).  And the honest answer is: I don't know.  In fact, I don't even know how I discovered who I am.  It's not like I woke up one morning and said to myself, "Okay, I'm now 14, all my friends have girlfriends, so I need to choose whether I like girls or boys".  I didn't read a passage of Scripture (granted, I wasn't a Christian then); nor did I flip a coin or use some other means to decide.  All I remember is that a point came in my life where girls started looking interesting.  Nature basically took its course.  I would therefore imagine that the same would happen with James.

But what would my response be if James came home one day, age 18, and said that he was going out on a date with Chris - and the "Chris" in question turned out to be "Christopher" rather than "Christine"?  To be honest, I cannot really say.  I have no doubt it will be quite a shock to the system.  Certainly we've spoken about homosexuality (insofar as the level one at which one can have those discussions with a 12-year-old) - we've been through the various Scriptural accounts of homosexuality (both prohibitions and events in which homosexual acts are depicted), but we've also had a chat about the inappropriateness of "moffie" jokes and the like.

And I make no bones about the fact that while I would be ecstatic about having a daughter-in-law some day, I'd be less wild about the prospect of a son-in-law (seeing as I have no daughters). Yet I think of someone with whom I was good friends with a number of years ago before he relocated, who is quite a radical Christian, having spent the lion's share of his Christian walk attending Pentecostal / Charismatic churches and being intensely involved in the life of the Church since he first accepted Jesus as Lord.  He studies the Bible diligently, has spent two years at a Bible school, and would in all likelihood follow a traditional interpretation of the Scriptural stance on homosexuality.  And his daughter recently got married - to a woman.

I cannot begin to think what sort of emotions must have gone through him and his wife.  Undoubtedly they must have been torn between their love for their daughter, and everything they've ever been taught and come to believe as Christians.  Unfortunately we lost contact some years ago, so I cannot purport to speak on his behalf.  But all indications (as related to me by a mutual friend) are that when all is said and done, his daughter remains his daughter and he doesn't love her any less because of the choice she has made to enter into a civil union.

This is where I struggle most of all as someone who is training for the ministry.  My calling is to the ministry of Word and Sacrament.  This means that I am called to teach and preach the Gospel to my congregation, and draw them together as the Body of Christ through the administration of the sacraments.  Pastoral care and the like goes hand in hand with this calling.  But I believe that this calling also includes the responsibility to love - my congregation, my colleagues, and my family.  And while you don't necessarily love what those closest to you may do, true love means that your love for the person must remain undimished.

There will of course be times when loving a person means the removal of such person, especially in cases where their continued actions would cause harm to others.  But this would be an extreme measure.  The default position should be to keep the person within the fold wherever possible.  This is why I regard Ecclesia's discontinuance as being particularly sad - not because we have made a stand either way on same-sex relationships, but because we have chosen to exclude her rather than to journey with her.

If only life followed the rules of accountancy...