God's Word for today

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Walking through the valley of the shadow of death

Fans of the Rocky movies will know that a fair amount of time elapsed between Rocky V and Rocky Balboa, and so it seems that a similar amount of time has passed since my last blog post.

And just like Rocky Balboa, I have a lot of "stuff in the basement" that I'm struggling to deal with at the moment.

Without a doubt, coming to SMMS at the beginning of this year was always going to represent a major upheaval in my life, but i had no idea just what a challenge the experience would be.  The fault is not that of the seminary - my struggles have a lot more to do with my stage of life than anything else, and the staff have (for the most part) been extremely pastoral and supportive to my family and I - especially when we've needed a shoulder to cry on.

Yet somehow, after nine months here, I'm finding myself facing a number of struggles.  Individually, they are manageable.  Collectively, they are becoming overwhelming.

Firstly, the workload.  SMMS represents a sizeable investment by the MCSA, and the "powers that be" would certainly not want to have us sitting around picking our noses.  And I have quite a capacity for work - after all, this is my 14th year of post-school education, and the first on a full-time basis, which means that I've spend virtually the bulk of my 20s and 30s juggling studies with a corporate career or business.  In fact, during 2001 I was seconded to a major implementation project, was completing the second year of my Masters, and had also been enrolled in the Management Development Programme (for which I had been turned down two years previously, hence the Masters).  So I know what it takes to keep the balls in the air - or so I thought.  You see, last year I had a major fight with EMMU (the body that "owns" probationer ministers in the MCSA) because they had only enrolled me for three subjects and I wanted to do four.  This would have left me with just four subjects plus an academic report to enable me to complete my BTh through TEE College this year, which would have been a doddle seeing as I am now full-time.  However, the powers had other ideas and decided to switch me into the SMMS BTh programme, which meant that we are now doing eight subjects (nine last semester).  Granted, the credit values are lower, but the time spent in class is not - nor is the assignment load.  God put me on this earth to achieve a specific number of tasks.  Right now I'm so far behind, I'll never die! 

Secondly, the culture shock.  Now don't get me wrong - despite growing up in apartheid South Africa, I did in fact have contact with black people, especially since the advent of democracy.  I've worked with a number of black people over the years, and count a number of them among my friends.  But this is a bit different - with 7 whiteys out of 77 seminarians, things are going to be a bit skewed away from the culture we have grown up with.  And that's okay.  I can handle going to church and reading the liturgy and Scripture passages in Zulu.  I can deal with Amadodana-style singing (although I SO wish that sometimes they'd pick up the pace a little).  And I've got used to the long prayers in Xhosa.  But there's other things my colleagues do that get under my skin after a while - little things like talking to one another at the top of their voices, the driver of the Quantum leaning on the hooter because the kids for school are a bit slow out of the blocks, and the animated discussions that take place between the ground and top floors when I'm trying to get some work done.  One can handle this for a few days - a month, even - but after nine months it begins to wear a bit thin.  So today, when one of my colleagues was washing her car and playing her music rather loudly, I snapped at her a bit more harshly than I might have done under different circumstances.

Thirdly, the loss of independence.  For instance, I've been a member of various medical aid schemes for 20 years.  I've got the whole procedure "thing" nailed.  And because the MCSA's medical scheme is one where you have to pay up front for your day-to-day services, I've worked out that if you go to the doctor and pay by credit card, provided that you get the paperwork in quickly, the money's usually reimbursed into your bank account by the time you need to pay what's owed on your credit card.  However, at SMMS many of my colleagues have never been on medical aid before.  The majority don't have credit cards.  Which means that a different plan needs to be made, involving the seminary handling all claims, receiving the refunds, and even having to regulate the doctor visits (one or two have seen a weekly visit to the GP as being their "due").  Unfortunately, the approach is "one size fits all", which means that whereas before it was just me, the service provider, and the scheme, now the long hand of the seminary is involved in my medical affairs.  When you've held a senior corporate position and run your own business, the last thing you want is someone else controlling your finances - no matter how well-intentioned the system may be.

Fourthly, there have been a couple of episodes where, being a minority, I've felt rather out of place - even unwanted, in fact.  I'm not at liberty to go into details, but every once in a while one comes across a person who, when they find themselves in a dominant position or a position of power, tend to throw their weight around a bit.  Add into the mix a bit of a chip on this person's shoulder about how the whites have been the oppressors for 350 years (which is true to a large extent, except that (a) I'm only 41, and (b) I'm not consciously aware of having "oppressed" anyone, irrespective of their race), and, shall we say, it's upset me enough at times to want to either leave the Seminary or punch said person very hard in the face.  Not very Christian, I know ... perhaps one day I'll look back and see God's lesson in all of this.

Add to this the "normal" pressures of trying to squeeze in some form of family life (I nearly lost my family in 2002 because I spent every waking hour at the office, so family time has become sacrosanct), earning some money to keep the wolves from the door (seminarian allowance doesn't go too far when you have a wife, child, two parents and a house to look after), and maintaining some sort of devotional and worship life (both for my own spiritual sanity and to remind myself why I'm here), and you can imagine that it would be an understatement to say that I'm feeling somewhat overwhelmed at the moment.

So this morning was (almost) the last straw when my wife came back from the washing area to inform me that some of her underwear had been removed from the line.  This is not the first time something of ours has gone "walkies", and I'm not the only seminarian who has experienced this.  It's horrible to think that there may be some amongst us who have sticky fingers, but the evidence sadly proves otherwise.

Right now, I'm not in a very good place at all.  I need time to work through these "demons" - something which, four weeks away from the start of final examinations, I'm unlikely to get too much of.  What I DO need is massive amounts of prayer.  This weekend my family and I are going away on a church camp with Prestbury Methodist.  They are good folks and many of them have become dear friends, but they're also honest and mature enough not to take any of my crap, either - which is probably just what I need at this point in time.

Yet as I write this, it seems as though the flow of words onto the screen have had a cleansing effect on me.  The issues haven't gone, of course, and they still weigh heavily on my soul, but I get a sense that they're now "out there" and I can start dealing with things.  And I can somehow begin to identify with King David who, at a time in his life when he had lost the plot in so many ways, was given, by God, the comforting words of Psalm 23:

1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures,
       he leads me beside quiet waters,
 3 he restores my soul.
       He guides me in paths of righteousness
       for his name's sake.
 4 Even though I walk
       through the valley of the shadow of death,
       I will fear no evil,
       for you are with me;
       your rod and your staff,
       they comfort me.
 5 You prepare a table before me
       in the presence of my enemies.
       You anoint my head with oil;
       my cup overflows.
 6 Surely goodness and love will follow me
       all the days of my life,
       and I will dwell in the house of the LORD
       forever.

God being my helper, the issues that are threatening to overwhelm me will also be overcome.  Like a small child who swallowed a five cent piece, this too shall pass...

1 comment:

markpenrith said...

You're a good man Steven. This will pass.

Thanks for sharing. It's good to know that others are experiancing similar pressures.

In Christ,

Mark