God's Word for today

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Opening one's mouth ... to change feet

Amidst the mountains of laundry, Belinda and James spent yesterday morning at Pelham's inter-house athletics meet, where my "I'm dog-tired and need a break from helping people" wife got stuck in buttering rolls and chopping lettuce for the food stalls.  In the meantime I ws in Phayipini with one of the society stewards from Prestbury, discussing matters pertaining to the Matthew 25 ministry that Prestbury runs.

By the time we got to lunchtime, it was as hot as blazes and we would have LOVED to have gone home for a much-needed snooze, but unfortunately Mother Hubbard's cupboard was bare and we needed to do some shopping.

Now when a mind is dog-tired, it makes some rather strange (and, in this case- X-rated) connections.  For instance, James is still trying to figure out why, when I picked up a packet of pasta (the type with the twirly-wirly shape) and said to Belinda, in a fairly loud voice, quite innocently (I swear!), "You like screws, don't you", that she went all red-faced and burst out laughing.

It seems that, once again, I had opened my mouth to change feet.

Friday, 27 August 2010


Yesterday afternoon it was back at Town Hill Hospital to drop off yet another batch of clean laundry, and to collect yet another batch of dirty laundry ... now I know about the whole idea of "a housewife's job is never done", but on an intensified scale.

However, as we spend more and more time there, one starts to identify some of the "characters", and one who stood out for me is a dear soul namesd Sipho.  Now I don't know what sort of mental problem he has that warrants his stay at Town Hill (and to be quite honest, I'm a bit scared to start analysing different forms of mental illness since I'm convinced there's a category that I fall into myself!), but when I first met him on Wednesday, he was standing at a barred window shouting at one of the nursing staff who was snatching a five-minute breather, swearing like a trooper.  She was quite embarrassed at this for my part, probably because I was wearing a clerical collar, but I assured her that I would not fall over for a few expletives, and I'm sure that God wouldn't, either.

But as we unpacked the car, who was standing next to us, but dear Sipho - placid as a lamb.  Unsure quite what to do, I handed him a bundle of clean washing to load onto the trolley - and his face shone like a beacon.  Granted, he was a bit unsteady on his feet, and his trolley-driving skills leave a great deal to be desired, but clearly this little bit of help he was offering did wonders for his sense of self-worth.

So yesterday, when we arrived to collect our next load, Sipho was in the thick of things, helping us to sort out the clothing from the sheets and other bedding while keeping up a four-lettered running commentary punctuated by "What else can I do, Father", and "Are you okay, Father", and "You must wear gloves, Father - this stuff is f***ing dirty, Father".  Sipho is probably old enough to be MY father, but although I am not a Catholic or Anglican priest (Methodist ministers are not normally addressed as "Father", and in fact I prefer "Steven" or "Hey You" rather than "Reverend"), the respect with which Sipho addressed me, amidst the swearing, was quite touching.

As we left the hospital, I was reflecting on this encounter with Sipho, and pondered on the main need that human beings have.  It's not food or shelter - it's the need to be needed, to be of use, to make some sort of contribution in life - no matter how small.  Hopefully, for a few brief moments, we were able to give Sipho this dignity.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Hospital strike: Losing patience

Now that government has upped its wage offer to 8.5%, the time has surely arrived for unions and the state to return to the negotiation table.  For what it's worth, I think that making an offer that is 0.1% less than the unions' demands smacks of gamesmanship on the part of government; a kind of schoolboy playground "nyah nyah, we didn't give you what you wanted" type of thing, but in the greater scheme of things, if you earn R10,000 per month, you're talking about ten bucks, for crying out loud!

But the question is, why should I care anyway?  While I sympathise with the quest by workers to receive a "living wage", let's be real here: (a) we live in a democracy, which means that no-one was forced to become a teacher or a nurse.  It would be like me giving up my lucrative commerce position to come into ministry, then bitching about the low stipends (!); (b) the original 7% offer was already more than 1% above inflation; and (c) having a "right" to strike should imply that those who don't want to strike should have the right not to strike without fear of intimidation.

Any sympathies I may have had for the plight of the strikers evaporated when I arrived at Town Hill Hospital the day before yesterday and saw filthy wards, patients who had not been cared for, and a week's worth of laundry (if you think your washing basket at home looks bad after a week, imagine a psychiatric hospital with 13 wards!).  Not the fault of the staff who stalwartly remained on duty - they have been runnung themselves ragged 24/7 for the last week.  Add to that the intimidation, the traumatised patients and staff still on duty, the hassles of us trying to get in and out in doing our relief work, and the car in the parking lot with slashed tyres and smashed windscreens, and quite frankly I would be inclined to "negotiate" with the strikers by means of some "five-fold ministry" applied in a brutally percussive manner, if you know what I mean?

And if any of my readers think that I should be unbiased as a minister, be fair to both sides, etc., let me respond by saying that while Jesus fed and healed the one side, He was calling the other side "a brood of vipers".  Hardly what I'd call "unbiased".  Given Jesus' preferential option for the poor, coupled with John Wesley's call to not only go, but to "go to those who need us most", my allegiances are squarely and firmly with the hospital and its patients, and right now the strikers can go and get stuffed - even if some of them ARE Methodists!

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

A day at the wishy washy

Upon our arrival at Town Hill Hospital this morning, and after a short time spent in prayer, the seminarians were assigned their various tasks which included cleaning floors, taking out the trash, administering medication (those with nursing backgrounds), serving meals - and doing the laundry, which is what I am currently busy with.

This entails collecting the laundry from the various wards - quite a messy job since (a) no laundry has been done for a week, and (b) being a psychiatric hospital, much of the bedding is wet from involuntary urination.  Then it is loaded into the back of mine and Martin's bakkies, where it is taken to the two residences.  Getting everything washed, dried, folded, and returned to the hospital is proving to be quite a task, especially given the damp weather (with the day starting off rainy).

I'm now starting to get a real and tangible understanding of the kind of ministry offered by the Good Samaritan in Jesus' parable - and although my bakkie, the laundry, and I will need some serious disinfecting once this is all over, right now I am feeling a sense of being in God's perfect will.  And it feels great! 

Hospital strike - doing some REAL ministry

Today a group of us from SMMS have been called upon to assist some of the local hospitals that have been gripped by the strike by health workers, and as our president Ross Olivier announced that the seminary would become involved, I felt an excitement stirring within my spirit.

About two years ago when faced with the xenophobia crisis, I responded to a call by then-Bishop Paul Verryn to "get all hands on deck" in providing whatever assistance one could.  As a result, I ended up spending nearly a week ferrying food and clothing back and forth between collection points and police stations where many of the xenophobia victims had taken shelter.  Mundane work, I know, but somehow I felt that in some small way I was making a real difference.

Today will probably be similar - our expectations are to spend the day scrubbing floors, shunting food trolleys around, changing bedding - yet in my mind I can picture Jesus washing His disciples' feet.  And as I have often said, if the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords can get down in the dirt and perform this most humble and mundane task, then the rest of us have no excuse whatsoever.

I've spent the last week moaning about the strike - now God has presented me with an opportunity to actually DO something about it!

(Cartoon source: Mail & Guardian website)

Sunday, 22 August 2010

"Day Off" at Unit 14

Eish, talk about famine or feast - I don't blog for weeks, then I put up three posts in one day!

Anyway, this morning I was worshipping at Unit 14, which is a Zulu-speaking congregation situated in what is part of the Edendale township just outside Pietermaritzburg.  This is part of the system whereby each seminarian is formally attached to one of the local congregations - preferably in a cross-cultural context.  (I am also "informally" attached to Prestbury, being the congregation my family started worshipping at when we arrived in Pietermaritzburg.)

The congregation at Unit 14 is relatively new (probably in existence as a separate congregation for about five years), and is in the process on erecting a new building that will seat about 120 people.  At the moment they have erected the bare walls and put the roof on, and while the doors, windows, and finishes still need to be installed, what they have done thus far is a fine achiement considering that (a) this is a relatively poor community, and (b) all the building work so far, including materials and what little outside labour they have had to utilise (most of the work has been done by congregation members) has been paid for in cash.

Unfortunately, no context is without it's picadilloes, and in the case of Unit 14, one of the main problems is getting Local Preachers to take their preaching appointments.  Since there are only three men in the congregation (two Society Stewards, a new member who was welcomed today, and yours truly), and with the ministry of Local Preachers still being largely a male preserve in this context (**), most of the Local Preachers are from other Societies, and now that word has got out that there is a batallion of seminarians in Tupperware collars running around attending services, many of the preachers simply don't bother to pitch up.

The result has been that in six visits by me to services at Unit 14 thus far, I have ended up conducting the service at five of them.

Now don't get me wrong.  I enjoy preaching - I really do, the struggle with the Zulu liturgy and Scripture readings notwithstanding (although I can read Zulu fairly well, I do not as yet speak or understand the language).  It is, after all, what I am called by God to do.  However, I have found that pitching up in a collar each time kind of obliges me to preach, since it would be churlish of me to arrive seemingly dressed for the occasion, then refusing to take the service.

So this morning I decided to attend worship in a pair of slacks and a golf shirt.  Now in a historically white context, that wouldn't matter.  At Prestbury, for instance, I have seen Michael Stone (the resident minister) wear a collar exactly once, while a previous youth pastor (Michael Bishop, who together with his wife Kym are now ministers in Krugersdorp) apparently gave up wearing shoes for Lent one year and consequently preached bare-footed ever since.  Last year at Uitenhage, the youth pastor preached in shorts, T-shirt, and slops (I wore a T-shirt once, but couldn't bring myself to risk scaring the young ladies with my 40-year-old legs and ingrown toenails, so stuck with longs).  But in a black context, such apparel is an absolute no-no, and while I would be considered to be "smartly dressed" at Prestbury, there is just no way that I would be permitted to conduct the service at Unit 14 wearing a golf shirt and a pair of slacks - which was all part of my plan to try and force the issue.

Unfortunately for the poor steward who was pressed into service as the preacher of the day, having been given all of 10 seconds' notice, the preacher didn't arrive - again!  Fortunately for him, he has learnt from what appears to be a regular occurrence, and he prepares a sermon irrespective of whether he is preaching or not, so he managed to conduct the service with aplomb under the circumstances.

As a result, for the first time in months I was actually able to simply be part of the congregation, and it was quite cool to park myself on a bench among the Sunday School.  At one point I was in the joyous (if somewhat absurd) position of being the mlungu (a derogatory Zulu term for a white person, which I have sort of adopted as a nickname for myself) teaching the Zulu liturgy to a young Zulu man.  Priceless!

However, my dilemma with the preachers remains.  If this was my own congregation, I would simply raise an objection at the next Local Preachers' Quarterly Meeting against the names of the recalcitrant preachers (***), and they simply wouldn't be planned to conduct services until they bucked up their ways (not that it would make any difference to the current state of affairs, in which they simply don't arrive anyway).  Unfortunately - and this is a common problem with our church attachments as seminarians - things are never quite that simple...

(**) Officially, all offices within the Methodist Church of Southern Africa are open to both males and females.  However, in some of our more conservative communities (both white and black), patriarchy is still fairly entreanched and female participation outside the traditional "ladies' ministries" (Women's Auxiliary / Association / Manyano) is not encouraged.  Many of my female colleagues in ministry have, in fact, had a torrid time at the hands of such patriarchal congregations, even in situations where women are overwhelmingly in the majority.  But that's the subject of another post.

(***) Lest anyone thinks that I am all about law instead of grace, nothing could be further from the truth.  However, Local Preachers are well aware of the discipline whereby if they are unable to conduct a preaching appointment, it is their responsibility to source a suitable replacement, and let the Society Stewards know.  The only exception is in the case of illness or similar incapacity.  In any event, the nature of communities such as Unit 14 is that the leaders would soon rally around someone who is going through difficulty, which is not the case here.  According to one of the Society Stewards, many of the Local Preachers have been on plan for years and are "getting tired", but are unwilling to relinquish the "status" of being a Local Preacher - despite this particular Circuit continuing to recognise their long-serving preachers as "emeritus" when they are no longer active.  To be honest, I don't quite know what the answer is in this case - certainly the Circuit has learnt to live with the situation, and seems to tolerate it.

Shoe shopping sob story

"Before you criticise someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes.  That way, when you criticise them, you are a mile away - and you have their shoes."  (Jack Handey, American comedian)

In between ranting and raving about the teachers' strike, I also found myself in the annoying position of having to replace two pairs of shoes that I have walked a few miles too many in.  For me (as, I guess, for most guys), clothing is a grudge purchase, and when it comes to shoes I literally own four pairs - a brown pair, a black pair, a pair of sandals, and a pair of tackies (sneakers to my American friends - I've forgotten what they would be called in the UK), and replacement is on the basis of disintegration.

Problem is that my local Edgars here in Pietermaritzburg doesn't stock brown shoes anymore.  Nothing.  Nada. Zip.  Now I'm not talking about those ghastly suede things with the gangsta rap buckle and the one-inch white sole - I'm talking about normal brown shoes - the kind you would wear with a smart pair of slacks or a suit.  According to the salesman, brown shoes "don't sell" (well, duh!  They won't sell if you don't stock them!).  I know now how Henry Ford's customers felt when purchasing a Model T - "you can have it in any colour, as long as it's black!"

Now you might think that I'm making a big deal about brown shoes, but now that I have rejoined the Scout movement (as an assistant troop scouter, some 23 years and MANY kilogrammes after completing my Springbok Scout), it's critical that I have a brown pair to go with my uniform.  Besides, when you only own four pairs of shoes in total, you need some options!  So on Saturday it was off to Durban to see if the bigger stores stocked what I was looking for.  Edgars at Gateway didn't have any brown shoes either, and while Jet did have some (quite cheap as well), they threatened to disintegrate if I so much as looked at them for too long.

I must however confess that I'm a bit of a cheapskate when it comes to clothing, and shoes in particular.  Because I have a major wheel alignment problem in the form of severe supernation (where the outside of the foot hits the ground first), coupled with my right leg being 12mm shorter than the left one, I am extremely hard on shoes.  Whether I buy expensive ones or cheap ones, the end result is the same - totally wrecked within 6-9 months.   Needless to say, I don't know which wally would be prepared to pay four grand for that pair of shoes I saw at Stuttafords (don't ask - I was getting desparate at this stage), but it sure as hell AIN'T gonna be me - especially on a seminarian's stipend!

Finally, on the verge of suicide, I dragged my sorry self into Woolworths, where lo and behold, there were shiny new pairs of ordinary lace-up shoes - in brown, and in black.  A quick swipe of the credit card later (it's only money after all), my wardrobe was replenished and I could finally turf out the punctured brown pair with the big cracks right across the sole and the disintegrated black pair that looks fine from above but has broken its back between heel and sole!

So now I'm sitting at my desk wearing my shiny new pair of black shoes.  Now If only I can wear the buggers in, because they are hurting like hell!  And I need to break the brown pair in as well before my Scout meeting on Friday...


James has been at home from school since midday on Thursday, and is only going back on Tuesday this week as a result of the nationwide strike that is currently underway by teachers.  Now none of the teachers at James' school are on strike, but the school was closed due to threats of intimidation from striking teachers from other schools in the area.

One thing that freaks me out about this strike action is that those who are on strike are exercising their right to strike, but are not prepared to respect the rights of those who do not wish to join the strike action.  One colleague argued with me that the non-striking teachers will still benefit from any eventual settlement, so they should be compelled to join the strike, but I strongly disagree with this notion.  Then again, I have never been a member of a trade union, preferring instead to state my case on an individual basis with management.  In any event, once I entered the ranks of management myself, the whole idea of "across the board" increases became irrelevant.

Now it might seem strange for me to come across as seemingly anti-union when they are so part and parcel of our Wesleyan heritage.  For it was John Wesley himself who formed what became the precursor to the first trade unions in England, in response to the widespread exploitation of workers during the Industrial Revolution.  And I think that there is a place for unions - a "voice for the voiceless" in that while it may have been relatively easy for me as a graduate professional to approach management concerning one's employment benefits, a factory-floor worker would have not enjoyed the same degree of access.  But our unions have gone beyond this, and I see them as a bunch of fat cats inciting members to (often violent) strike action to try and prove a point by throwing their weight around within the tripartite alliance (ANC, COSATU, and the SA Communist Party), rather than truly representing the workers.  When employers apply the principle of "no work, no pay", I'm almost certain that full-time union officials don't go without!

So I'm feeling rather cynical about the strike at the moment, especially when one reads reports of pregnant women being turned away from hospitals whilst in labour (the health care sector has also embarked on strike action).  In the meantime, there are thousands of matric students less than two weeks away from their preliminary examinations, and teaching has ground to a complete halt.  Some students are even being intimidated when they form their own study groups on school premises.

And as a seminarian, I feel a bit helpless at the moment.  If I was a minister in a congregation, I would be rallying around those who are able to provide some form of tuition, and make space available on church premises (halls, etc.).  I would probably even be taking some of the classes myself (with a masters in financial management, I would be able to handle the accounting, business economics, and entrepreneurship classes).  If need be, I would even have a bash at teaching English.  Unfortunately, being at seminary, I don't have such authority or access to resources.  The thought of bunking classes for the next week and pulling into one of our local churches had crossed my mind, but I'm not sure that such course of action will go down too well.

Sigh ... one day I'll no longer be in seminary, and then I'll be able to do this kind of thing.  In the meantime, I just need to keep my nose to the grindstone...

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Eish! Time flies when you're having fun...

The runours of my blog's demise are greatly exaggerated (to paraphrase Mark Twain), but my absence has been caused by (a) extreme busyness at SMMS, and (b) hitting my data cap.

On the latter front, I delayed purchasing additional data on account of me having access to the wireless network at the new campus, but although this permits me to download e-mail, the Internet access is limited with certain restrictions being put in place, which include a block on access to any social network sites (including Facebook and Blogger).

The net result is that I haven't been able to blog for some time.  But now that I've reloaded my private data acccount, I'll be able to inflict my random thoughts on the suffering world once again.  Much has been happening, but I just need some time to gather my thoughts and put pen to paper (or is that finger to keyboard?).  As Arnold Schwarzenegger once said (in Terminator, I think it was?) ... "I'll be baack!"