God's Word for today

Friday, 9 December 2011

The Summer Day

I'm not a big one for poetry, but this one blew me away - not only for the observations that it makes and the questions that are asked, but also for the implicit searching for the one God who makes it all possible, giving life meaning and purpose...

The Summer Day (Mary Oliver)
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention,  how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Saturday, 3 December 2011

"Sacramental sex"?

Jenny has recently written a post on her blog in which she expresses concerns about modern (or should that be post-modern?) society's apparent slide into sexual immorality.  I can emphathise with Jenny, what with her being a mother of four children - my own son James, who turns 14 next May, is at the age where a number of youngsters' hormones begin to go into overdrive.  I once said (in a sermon, nogal) that males have two heads - one attached to their shoulders by way of the neck, and the other attached to their loins by way of the penis - and that it is (in my admittedly unscientific opinion) impossible for blood to flow to both at the same time!

I would also imagine that any Christian parent would also identify with the following concerns expressed by Jenny:

I don't want to live in a society where sexual experience for teenagers outside of a committed long term relationship is normal.  I don't want to live in a society where the family is no longer a fundamental unit.  I am afraid that our 'higher values' are being determined by our selfish desires rather than a desire for the common good.  We are being extremely short-sighted.

Yet somehow as a Church (and as Christians in general), we don't seem to have a handle on understanding our sexuality.  And when it comes to sin, it seems that we regard sexual sin as being the most heinous of all - certainly, the most severely punished, especially comes to a woman falling pregnant outside of wedlock (the whole gender inequality issues around this are the subject of a separate post, at least for now...).

As a result, we've tended to attempt to regulate sexual behaviour through a series of rules and regulations.  Yet wherever there are rules, our human nature is to try and find loopholes.  For example, in response to a prohibition on sex outside of marriage, those who do not simply ignore this find themselves asking questions such as "how far can one go before what they are doing is regarded as 'sex'?"

Yet at the same time, it's easy for me to be smug about this.  I was married at 22.  Most youngsters nowadays are not likely to get married at such a young age.  In the meantime, James has for the past four years (at least) had a pretty fair idea of what happens behind the closed door when Mom and Dad go to bed.  Add into the mix the continual commoditisation of sex in our society today (even amongst Christians), and clearly the "rules and regulations" approach is going to get the Church absolutely nowhere.

So I was pleased to find a somewhat refreshingly different approach to understanding sexuality in a Christian context - that of being akin to a sacrament.  In a sermon entitled "How Sinful Is Sex" (based on Song of Solomon 3: 1-5 and I Corinthians 7: 1-9), the writer (United Methodist Church minister Mark Schaefer) traces how Christians' generally unhealthy attitude towards sexuality has developed down the centuries (to read the whole sermon, click here).

How, then, does one begin to change these negative attitudes, while at the same time not wanting to be seen to be advocating an "anything goes" approach?  I believe that the "sacramental" approach has merit.  As Schaefer states:

A sacrament, after all, is a visible sign of an invisible grace.  It is a material means through which we experience the love and grace of God.  In our theology, we proclaim that God’s grace is known to us through the free gift of the waters of baptism, and in the free gift of the meal shared in the communion.  Through these ordinary, physical, material things, God’s grace is conveyed to us.

By that reasoning, a meal over beer and pizza with an old friend in which relationship is maintained and grace shared, could be seen as sacramental.  A game of catch with a child, can be a sacrament. Probably not the kind we’ll see in church, but nevertheless sacramental.  Sex can be a sacrament.  Again, probably not the kind we’ll be having in church.

As Belinda and I approach 20 years of marriage, I can honestly say that I have experienced the love and grace of God through Belinda.  I cannot think of any earthly relationship that comes closer to expressing the love that God has with humankind in covenantal relationship.  I don't know anyone else who comes closer to laying their life down for me than my wife - just as Jesus selflessly laid his life down for us.  And our sexual relationship is the physical expression of the love we share.

On that basis, for us, our sexuality must surely be sacramental?  Shaefer asks similar questions:

But why cannot sex be thought of as sacramental? It should be thought of that way.  Indeed, do we not speak of the sacraments as mystery?  Is not our sexuality one of the most powerful—and mysterious—elements of our human existence?  And when sex is used the way it is meant to, does it not convey love and grace?  Is not sex about making oneself vulnerable, open for the sake of the other, with tenderness, love, caring, and commitment?  Does healthy sex not require that?  Do we not see something of God in that vulnerablity, that commitment, that love?

Imagine if we saw sex not as something dirty, something taboo, something sinful and forbidden, but as something sacramental?  How would that change our perceptions?  How would we treat sex if we saw it as sacramental?

He goes on to add:

I am reminded of the reverence that Catholics have for the Eucharist.  They don’t drop crumbs on the floor, they don’t pour the leftover wine down the drain.  There is an air of reverence for the very thing through which they encounter the grace of Christ.  We don’t have quite the same practices of piety, but we are not without reverence for the sacrament.  Would we baptize with water we’d gotten out of a muddy puddle outside?  Would we seek to offer baptism to someone with whom we had no relationship?  Would someone seek to be baptized who didn’t know the congregation or who had no intention of making a commitment in faith?  Would we serve communion using stale bread and spoiled juice?  Would we carelessly throw the bread on the floor or gargle with the juice?  No, of course we wouldn’t because we know that that behavior would not respect what that sacrament means for us.

And so it should be with our sexuality.  We should treat our sexuality with the same reverence, the same respect, the same dignity, the same awe as we would any other sacrament.  As we would any other means through which we encountered the love and grace of God.  We would more fully understand the meaning of the verse from the Song of Solomon that says, “Do not stir up or awaken love until it is ready.”

If we can begin to understand our sexuality in this manner, then we might begin to understand a sexual ethic that is pleasing to God without constantly having to enforce our bad dogma by beating people with a big stigma!

Friday, 2 December 2011

Ways to be more energy-efficient

Did you know that a kilowatt-hour is equal to an entire hour's worth of consumed kilowatts? Or that one kilowatt-hour is more or less equal to 1 kilogram of greenhouse gas? Why is it so important to know such things? You might not know it, but not only are you burning the green of the outdoors, but you're also burning the money in your wallets! Even the tiniest details matter. For example, at this very moment you might not know it, but you have a little culprit munching away on your electricity and causing your electric bill to continually surge skyward. So how can you save Mother Nature and yourself? Here are a few tips to help you become more energy efficient, and cut back on your electric billing.

1. Unplug everything! Most appliances have a little LED light blinking, even when they're on sleep or standby mode. This means that these devices are still consuming energy - even when you're not using them. You can solve this problem by plugging your devices into cords which have an on and off switch. That way, with just a flick of a switch, you're reducing usage!

2. Say goodbye to old light bulbs. Replace your old incandescent bulb with a newer fluorescent bulb. These fluorescent bulbs use only half the amount of energy needed to produce the same amount of light from an incandescent bulb. This means that a 100-watt incandescent bulb can be replaced with a 26-watt fluorescent bulb. You will need to invest a little more but you're cutting operating costs significantly!

3. Add a fan! An electric fan will help air move around to create a cooler atmosphere. This effect will reduce the air temperature by about 4 degrees Fahrenheit (or 2 degrees Celsius), therefore lessening your air conditioner use.

4. Filter your filters. If you simply cannot live without the air conditioning unit being on, remember to clean your filters. This will enable your unit to cool faster and work on lesser hours.

5. Incorporate window shading. Install new covers, awnings and additional screens to shelter you from the sun.

6. Use energy-efficient appliances. If your appliance is still from the 90's, change it! This will be a big investment but it will be well worth it. Most old devices account for your expenses. Remember to look for the Energy Star label on your new appliance, as this will ensure a more energy-efficient machine.

7. Enjoy the outdoors! Don't just sit at home enjoying your air conditioning system in the summer, or the heating system in the winter. Learn to explore the outdoors. You might even lose a few kilos. But more importantly, you're actually evading electrical use! So start paying attention to small details around your house, and you will be able to lessen your expenses! Each person has a unique ability to cope with being energy efficient, but this small start will surely help you become more creative in your journey to killing your kilowatts and becoming more energy efficient.

Author - Laurel R. Lindsay - Learn more about Residential Electrical Topics: Residential Electrician - Learn more from Calgary's best Electrician: Calgary Electrician - Article Source: http://EzineArticles.com/?expert=Laurel_R._Lindsay

Sunday, 27 November 2011

21st century communications

With people in the 21st century being accustomed to communicating through ariety of platforms, I've started off by bashing together the bare bones of a website for Camperdown Methodist Church, where I will be stationed from 2012.

It's a bit raw and rough, but pop over and have a gander and let me know what you think. [Click here]

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Boxes!

Woke up this morning
Closed in on all sides, nothing doing
I feel resistance as I open my eyes
Someone's fooling


I found a way to break through
This cellophane line
'Cos I know what's going on
In my own mind


Am I living in a box?
Am I living in a cardboard box?

The worst part of relocating is the packing and unpacking.  This lot in the picture is just my books. Eish...!

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Stationed!

Things have been extremely hectic as my time at the Seminary winds down (and to think I thought life would be a bit calmer once I had completed the BTh phase - eish!), and I find myself making the usual lame excuses for not posting on my blog as regularly as I would like. However, a number of my on-line friends have been asking me what's happening with my stationing for 2012, and now that Conference has come and gone, the embargo has been lifted and I am now free to disclose where I am being sent next year.

God and the Methodist Church have been gracious to post me at Camperdown, which is a smallish town (village?) about 20km south-east of Pietermaritzburg. The location is convenient from the point of view of accessibility to James' school next year, as well as UKZN (although the whole PhD application process has not gone well - more about that in a later post), yet is still far enough away from Pietermaritzburg to give one a sense of being "out in the country".

I have had the privilege of worshipping with the community on a couple of occasions, and thus far my reception has been most welcoming.

There are, of course, some challenges - the main one being that the Circuit's financial position is rather tight at the moment, which means that (initially at least) I will not be receiving a full stipend.  My ministry will be of a "tent-making" nature until such time as the Circuit is able to fully support me financially.  Yet at the same time I sense a great opportunity, not only to lift my own trust in God to a new level, but also to be an example to people who are also trusting God to do something new and exciting in this church community.

Some have questioned my decision, though, and I suppose that it is understandable in a way.  Yet I am at peace with the arrangements in place.  After all, how can I with a clear conscience call upon people to put their faith in God by reaching a little deeper into their pockets if I am not willing to do the same?  If we are truly to be imitators of Christ, then we need to follow His example.  And Jesus' example is this: At no point during His earthly ministry does He call upon anyone to do anything that He has not done first.

As ministers of the Gospel, we would do well to emulate our Lord - after all, it is a known fact that people listen to our sermons with their eyes.  They want to see that this stuff we preach is real.  And so I relish the challenge that lies in the months ahead ... putting the Seminary learnings into practice, and praying fervently that I don't mess up too badly!

Friday, 30 September 2011

Drinking and driving

I got this on an e-mail from a friend in the US.  Although I cannot speak from experience (that pineapple beer in Std 8 aside), I thought that it was priceless nonetheless.

I would just like to share an experience with you all, and it has to do with drinking and driving. As you know some of us have had brushes with the authorities on our way home from the odd soiree over the years.

Well, I for one have done something about it: Last night I was out for a few drinks with some mates and had way too many of the good old bubbly. Knowing full well I was wasted, I did something I've never done before. I took a bus home.

I arrived home safely and without incident which was a real surprise, since I had never driven a bus before............

Sunday, 11 September 2011

I'm getting old!!!

Here is a pic of James pulling Belinda's car out of the garage.  Seems just the other day when I held this tiny baby in my arms...

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Scriptural reflections on prison ministry (5)

Passage: Jeremiah 29: 11-13
" 'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the LORD, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.' "

How does this passage relate to prison ministry?
It is interesting to note Verse 11a, “[f]or I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD …”, since a visiting pastor to the prison, who presented a course on anger management, made the statement that “none of us are here by accident … to be in this particular place at this particular time, participating in this particular session, is God-ordained”. It can certainly be validly argued that, for the prisoners who attended the anger management session, if they took on board the insights imparted, and turned them into lessons to be learned and applied to their own lives, this could certainly be seen as “[a plan] to prosper you and not to harm you; [a plan] to give you hope and a future” (Verse 11b).

It was readily acknowledged that uncontrolled anger was undoubtedly a contributing factor to many of the prisoners committing the crimes that they did, resulting in their incarceration, and being empowered to deal with such anger would give them hope for the future since the likelihood of this anger driving them to re-offend would be greatly diminished.

What relevance does this passage have for ministry?
The passage has particular relevance for ministry, since the message that it contains is one of hope. A problem that many people face as they journey through life is the apparent lack of meaning of it all, a sense that one drifts through life going through the same daily routines for 70 or so years, after which life ends. The fact that God has a plan for our lives gives us hope and direction, and a sense that our time here on earth is not futile but has purpose.

A primary aspect of ministry is to proclaim this message of hope; to help people to understand that their lives do have meaning and purpose. God hasn’t just “lit the wick” and then allowed the candles of our lives to burn on their own until, eventually, it burns itself out. Our job as ministers is to accompany our congregations on a journey to discover God’s plan and purpose for our lives.

How does this passage define serving for Christ?
Jesus’ earthly life and ministry was no mere accident of history – he was sent by God with a specific mission, anointed by the Holy Spirit, and its express purpose was to “preach good news to the poor, … proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, [and] to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (sic)” (Luke 4: 18b-19, NIV). He then set about fulfilling his purpose. Towards the end of his earthly ministry, after he had risen from the dead and was about to ascend into heaven, he gave a mission and purpose for their ministry, being to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28: 19-20a, NIV).

What this teaches us about serving Christ is that, just as he was sent by God with a purpose, so he has called us with a specific purpose in mind as well. Our obligation as Christians, therefore, is to seek the specific purpose to which Jesus has called us, and carry out that purpose with faithfulness and integrity.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Scriptural reflections on prison ministry (4)

Passage: Philippians 3: 12-16 (NIV)
"Not that I (Paul) have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.  Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus."

How does this passage relate to prison ministry?
Referring to the previous verses, whereby Paul claims no accolades from anything he has done in his own strength but gives all glory to Jesus for what he has become, this passage calls upon us to be humble. None of us can claim to be perfect, but we can strive for perfection in Christ. Paul however does not claim to have reached this point yet.

When it comes to ministering to prisoners, one faces a temptation to become smug in believing that because we may not have committed the kind of acts that has resulted in the prisoners’ incarceration, we are somehow better than them, or at least, “less sinful”. This passage reminds us that none of us can claim to have made it. Irrespective of where we may be on the journey relative to others, we need to be conscious that we are all on a common journey, striving towards the goal that Jesus has set for us. Our attitude should therefore not be as one who has arrived and is therefore pointing the other to the destination, but as one journeying alongside the other in order to reach the destination together.

What relevance does this passage have for ministry?
I was given the nickname “Captain Tupperware” during my Phase One year in 2009 because of a declaration that I made in a sermon one day that a “piece of Tupperware” (referring to my clerical collar) does not make me something special in a “holier than thou” sense. The collar serves merely as a badge of office, in the same manner as the black cap with the “M” embroidered on it identifies the person handing me the cheeseburger and Coke as a McDonald’s employee.

Staying with this analogy, when one goes to a McDonald’s, it is not the employee wearing the black cap that is of importance – the reason one is there is because of the food and beverage. The person serving, as well as the person being served, both have an equal need to eat and drink. Likewise, in a ministry context, the important aspect is to be able to draw closer to Christ, which both minister and congregation need in equal measure. The members of the congregation are there for the message, with he minister’s role being merely to deliver that message.

If one were to apply this to prison ministry, we need to remind ourselves, according to Romans 3: 23, that all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. The need for love, compassion, and forgiveness is one shared by prisoner and minister alike

How does this passage define serving for Christ?
The main message that comes out of this passage is one of the need for humility. While it is desirable for us to strive towards Christian perfection, this does not give us the right to become arrogant about it. Paul clearly states that he has not yet arrived, and that in fact his spiritual journey up to this point is not because of his own achievements but because of what Christ has done in him.

This brings a mind a story related to me by a pastor some years back. He was at a preaching engagement out of town, and as he entered the lift lobby of the hotel one evening, a man staggered out of one of the lifts, obviously under the influence of alcohol. The pastor’s first thought was, “How disgusting to be that drunk in public”. He then felt the prompting of the Holy Spirit on his heart, as though he was hearing Jesus say to him, “The only difference between that drunken man and you, is Me”. Convicted of his judgemental attitude, the pastor asked God for forgiveness and began to pray for the man.

Paul is clear that the only difference between the “old Saul”, who persecuted Christians, and the “new Paul”, who is an apostle for Christ, is Christ Himself. “Pressing on toward the goal to win the prize” therefore reflects a sincere desire to draw ever-closer to Christ. Our motivation should be to do likewise, journeying alongside others as we become one in Jesus.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Scriptural reflections on prison ministry (3)

Passage: Colossians 3: 12-14
"Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity."

How does this passage relate to prison ministry?
The passage is saying that we have received forgiveness from God, who loves us and has shown “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” to us, and therefore we are called to exhibit the same character traits towards others.

In the case of prison ministry, this passage is of relevance in that the one thing that is sorely needed by prisoners is forgiveness, both from God (forthcoming) and from others (usually not forthcoming). While the person in prison may well have been convicted of criminal acts, their incarceration is part of the debt that they are repaying to society, and given that the aim of such incarceration is rehabilitation, part of this rehabilitation process is the sense that a prisoner can find forgiveness.

Part of our role as ministers in prison ministry is threefold: (1) to proclaim the message of God’s forgiveness; (2) to show the characteristics of compassion, kindness, etc. portrayed in Verse 13 when visiting those in prison; and (3) to help those outside prison – particularly those who have been wronged by those in prison – to come to a place where they too can exhibit these characteristics towards those in prison.

What relevance does this passage have for ministry?
Forgiveness is at the very core of the Christian message, starting with God’s outpouring of love by forgiving our every wrongdoing – even though we are undeserving of such love and forgiveness.

From a heart of forgiveness comes an outpouring of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, and it is such characteristics that attract people to hear the Christian message, respond to it, and demonstrate these characteristics to others.

A minister's primary responsibility is to proclaim this message of forgiveness and compassion, demonstrating it firstly through one's own life and witness. If God is prepared to forgive any and all wrongdoing, as Christians we should surely be prepared to act likewise? While one recognises that such absolute forgiveness is often a difficult and traumatic process – especially when a person has suffered greatly at the hands of another – it is a journey that we need to embark on if we are to obtain release from the bondage of unforgiveness and thereby walk in the fullness of God’s grace.

How does this passage define serving for Christ?
In the same way that the ministry of Jesus is one of reconciliation between God and humankind, we are called to practice the same ministry of reconciliation among ourselves. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to forgive us as we forgive others. True serving thus comes not only from being able to receive the forgiveness of God, but also from being able to extend that forgiveness to others.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Scriptural reflections on prison ministry (2)

Passage: Titus 1: 7-8 (NIV)
"Since an overseer manages God’s household, [they] must be blameless — not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. Rather, [an overseer] must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined."

How does this passage relate to prison ministry?
People in prison have been fed the message that they are no good, have wronged society, and are deserving of their punishment, and in many ways the Church has been feeding them the same message. Our task as ministers is to show them the correct way, but it is far more important that we live out what we are saying. It is inappropriate for us to come along with a message that is condemnatory, when in many cases we are guilty of the same wrongdoing. The only difference is perhaps that we haven’t been caught!

I therefore believe that the relevance of this passage to prison ministry is not so much in terms of the criteria that are to be applied to the prisoners, but to us as ministers. We are to attempt, as far as possible, to live up to these requirements, while at the same time be real and genuine in cases where we too fall short. In this way, one can create a sense that both minister and prisoner are on a common journey together, both trying to become more Christ-like.

What relevance does this passage have for ministry?
There is an old saying that congregants listen to our sermons with their eyes, rather than their ears, and this creates a sense that people want to see that what we preach is a reality in our own lives as well. Our role as ministers is to be open, welcoming, and pastoral. We are also supposed to be able to “take a deep breath” and not react emotionally, but to be a source of stability and wise counsel.

As is the case with ministry within prisons, as ministers in general we need to recognise that we too are on a journey towards becoming more Christ-like – we certainly don’t have all the answers! However, in my limited experience in ministry, people appreciate it when we are willing to be a bit vulnerable in showing that we have not yet arrived, and are thus more willing to take our hands as we share the journey together.

How does this passage define serving for Christ?
This passage emphasises that serving Christ carries a responsibility – one in which the individual needs to be accountable with their own bearing. Serving Christ is born from a response to Christ’s hospitality and steadfastness – qualities which, as imitators of Christ, we need to emulate, especially as leaders in the Church.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

McDowell: "The Internet is the greatest threat to Christians"

American evangelist and Christian apologist Josh McDowell, author of a number of books including The Islam Debate and Evidence That Demands A Verdict, has been in the news recently for his statement that "the Internet is the greatest threat to Christians".  According to this report on website The Christian Post, McDowell blames the decline in the number of Christian youth who "believe in the fundamentals of Christianity" and the increase in sexual immorality on the Internet.

In an address to the International Christian Retail Show at the Colorado Convention Center (sic) last month, McDowell stated that "[t]he Internet has given atheists, agnostics, skeptics, the people who like to destroy everything that you and I believe, the almost equal access to your kids as your youth pastor and you have ... whether you like it or not".

While not wanting to dismiss McDowell's concern, the indisputable fact is that material on all sorts of things has been available since time immemorial - the only difference is that the Internet makes access to such information a lot easier and faster.

Dissemination of content has also been made a lot more accessible.  Twenty years ago I would have had to convince a newspaper editor that the stuff I write is worthy of publication.  And while I do have a tax column that appears in two newspapers each week, most of what I write on this blog either chronicles my ministry journey or provides me with a soap box from which to rant.  There may be a book in it someday - after all, Jeremy Clarkson has sold millions of copies of books in which he does little more than write about cars or bitch about life in general - but for the most part, this blog is more of a release valve than anything of profound literary value (although I hope that my theological reflections from time to time are beneficial to some).

The beauty of the Internet, though, is that I am able to write pieces such as this one, and with relatively little skill am able to publish them for the world to read.  It has also revolutionised the way I look for information, whether for academic purposes, theological reflection, obtaining weather forecasts, looking up bus timetables, or solving the mystery of the Duckworth-Lewis method of determining a winner when a cricket match is rained out (well, okay - no-one has understood how that works other than Messrs Duckworth and Lewis themselves, but we keep searching...).

Internet banking has meant that I have not had to use a chequebook, or walk into a bank branch, for nearly 10 years.  Anyone who has stood in the queues of one of the "Big 4" banks will understand what a relief this is!  Buying certain items (books in particular) has never been easier, whether ordering locally or from around the globe.  Bus trips and flights can be booked by using a few mouse clicks, right from the comfort of my desk. 

But one of the biggest benefits of the Internet has been the way in which it facilitates Christian fellowship.  I would have probably never come to know ministry colleagues such as John and Debbie van de Laar, Jenny and Kevin Sprong, Wessel Bentley, Lynita Conradie, Dion Forster, Pete Grassow, Delme Linscott, and many others were it not for blogs, e-mail, and online forums.

Granted, the Internet can be (and is) misused.  I heard somewhere that pornography accounts for the bulk of Web traffic worldwide.  And yes, I am concerned that my son can obtain access to such filth.  But let's be realistic - if he wants to look at this kind of stuff, he can find it in magazines or on late-night e-tv just as easily.  And realistically, there's not much I can do physically to prevent it.

What I can do as a Christian parent, however, is to teach him values that would obviate the need or desire to look at junk.  I can do this through my own example (by avoiding such sites myself).  I can also do this by ensuring that communication channels are open.  By giving him the straightest possible answers to his questions - theological and otherwise (just as long as he doesn't ask me to explain Duckworth-Lewis).  And most of all, by having a relationship with him, spending quality time and having a genuine interest in the things that interest him.  By going to his sports games, and by being involved in his Scouts.  By ensuring that "Boys' Day" is sacrosanct.  And by including him (wherever possible) in my ministry work.

However, shielding him from "non-Christian" influences, as McDowell seems to suggest, is not the answer.  He needs to know what's out there.  How else will he be able to judge right from wrong.  Now don't get me wrong - I'm not about to allow him to start experimenting with marijuana.  But he does need to know what maarijuana is, how it can affect you, and why it is something that should be avoided.  Some of these things I can tell him; most of them I can't.  I don't know everything - no-one does.  But if I have a relationship with him, he can feel free to ask the questions, and together we can try to find the answers.

So I need to encourage him to explore.  And that means using the Internet, books, or any other source of information.  But I also need to teach him Christian values, not to shelter him, but to enable him to discern what is good and what isn't.  I owe that to him as a father.  Anything less is just abdicating my responsibility as a parent.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Onward Christian Women - saluting our sisters

While browsing through Facebook this morning to catch up with what my friends are up to, I came across this great song (to the tune of Onward Christian Soldiers).

Acknowledgement and thanks to Thandeka Dintlhe for the words.  The picture comes from an ad for a US-based Christian women's employment agency.

Onward Christian Women

Onward Christian Women, God has chosen you.
Much of Christian Service only you can do.
Loyal to your calling throughout many years,
Giving life and comfort, dying human tears.

Chorus
Onwards Christian Women, hear God's call today.
Yours in love to follow, Christ will lead the way.


Any talented person out there up to writing some extra verses?

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Scriptural reflections on prison ministry (1)

During this past year we have been involved in prison ministry at SMMS, and one of our tasks each week has been to submit a reflection on a specific passage of Scripture.

I thought that I would share a few of these reflections on my blog, and I invite comments from readers. I'm particularly interested in any additional thoughts that you may have concerning the passages reflected on - especially if you have a different take on the passage concerned.

Enjoy, and be challenged!

Passage: Romans 12: 2 (NIV)
"Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.   Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is - [God's] good, pleasing and perfect will."

How does this passage relate to prison ministry?
The concept of no longer being “[conformed] … to the pattern of this world”, and being “transformed by the renewing of your mind” resonates with the understanding of the term “correctional services”, where confinement of offenders goes hand-in-hand with rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders into society, rather than “prison” with is connotation of being a facility focused solely on punishment.

A question that however comes to mind is this: If the length of sentence is based on the severity of the crime, i.e. more severe crimes carry longer sentences, is one saying that it takes a longer period of time to “renew the mind” of someone (i.e. rehabilitate someone) who has committed more serious crimes than those of a less serious nature; does the length of sentence contain a punitive element; or is it a question of considering the safety of the wider community when passing sentence? Or is it a combination of these three factors?

What relevance does this passage have for ministry?
In the case of prisoners, it is invariably the “conforming … to the pattern of this world” that has ultimately led to the offender turning to criminal activity, with the consequence of their subsequent incarceration. This places a major responsibility on the minister to ensure that comprehensive teaching (with practical application) around (a) identifying inappropriate “patterns of this world”; (b) understanding what it means to offer oneself as “living sacrifices” in service of Christ; and (c) undergoing a process of “renewing of [one’s] mind” as a means to doing God’s will.

How does this passage define serving for Christ?
Referring to the previous question, it would not be enough to teach in congregations on aspects covered in this passage – one need to also live out such practices in one's own Christian walk. This ensures not only personal integrity, but also integrity in one’s teaching.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Cry Out, Beloved Country

This was too priceless not to share. Acknowledgements to Lead SA

Cry Out, Beloved Country (Stanley King, 2011)

Who am I? I am nobody.
What is my name? It doesn’t matter.

I am a voice crying.
Crying out in the wilderness of service delivery.
Crying out in the barren lands of peaceful protest.
Crying out in the desert of safe streets and neighbourhoods.

I am stuck.
Stuck in the muck and filth of murder, rape and robbery.
I trudge through the swamps of material poverty at the base of the cliff of financial inequality.

I shout.
I shout out against the din of bribery and corruption.
I shout out against the tumult of idle and careless work.

Why don’t I care for you?
I don’t care because you’re not important to me.
I don’t care because my needs and wants are all that matter.
It’s all about me, not about you.

But I am you.
I am you when you are waiting in the queue and you see me go off for lunch.
I am you when I refuse to help you until you put some money in my palm.
I am you when I won’t let you go off to tend to your mother.
I am you when I lie to you about how sick I am for a day off.

I think for a minute.
Who am I to demand such a high increase from my boss?
Who am I to deny my worker a decent wage?
Who am I to go through red lights?
Who am I to drop litter anywhere but in the bin?

I am my Country.
What I do matters to you because what you do matters to me.
I make my country by every action and every inaction.
If I speed why should I be angered when you drive on the hard shoulder?
If I steal an hour off work why should I be surprised when you steal my car?

So I commit.
I commit to the little things such as wearing my seatbelt.
I commit to the little things such as paying my taxes.
I commit to the little things because that is the big thing.

Therefore I choose.
I choose to afford you the respect I deserve.
I choose to give a little more than is comfortable.
I choose to remember each day to be a person of compassion and integrity

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

2012

It's been anticipation and apprehension this week as we received first news of where we have been pencilled in for stationing in 2012.  And while we have been given the usual warnings, disclaimers, "things could change", "subject to confirmation by Conference", terms and conditions apply, E & O E, we are a licenced financial services provider, winners know where to stop, etc. warnings and admonitions, at this stage things are looking exciting for me, both in terms of ministry as well as on the personal / family front.

More news to follow...

(Postscript to my previous post: I see that the masthead on the ANCYL's webpage has been changed, with all references to a R16 million home being removed.  I wonder if someone had hacked their website over the weekend?  Either way, regardless of the hype, accusations and counter-accusations by Malema and media alike, that's sure one seriously fancy pad the self-proclaimed "champion of the poor" is building!)

Monday, 25 July 2011

Is this arrogance personified, or what?!

This past weekend I was doing some research for a piece I was writing on tax policy, based on recent statements made by Minister of Social Development Bathabile Dlamini that the wealthy should be taxed more heavily than at present.

As much as we all hate paying taxes, not so much because we resent contributing towards the common good but because we often see how certain state departments mismanage the taxes they collect, the concept of those with substantial means making proportionally higher contributions to state coffers has inherent merit.  However, one fact that needs to be acknowledged is that our tax tables are already structured according to a progressive scale, which means that while a person earning, say, R50 000 per annum pays no personal income tax, the person earning R5 million per annum contributes almost 40% thereof in direct income tax.

My premise in this particular piece was therefore that taxes aimed at "punishing" the wealthy, especially if they are not carefully thought out, can have unintended consequences.  It is in human nature to protect what one has - after all, you and I would not leave our wallets on the dashboard of our cars with the doors unlocked, would we?  Worldwide experience has shown that excessively high taxation rates have in fact produced lower state revenue when expressed as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product.

Okay - enough of the Tax 101.  Where does Julius Malema fit into this?  Well, calls for a so-called "lifestyle audit" by the South African Revenue Service aside, Malema has been in the news mainly for his stance on nationalisation, stating publicly that such state expropriation of private assets in the mining and banking sectors should be without compensation if necessary.  Needless to say, I expected the ANC Youth League's website to have some sort of statement to this regard, since there is not much different between taxes and nationalisation when you come to think of it - both rely on the coercive power of the state to generate revenue for state coffers.

Let me also state that while the finance person in me does not agree with Malema's proposed methods, and the minister in me has problems with his lavish lifestyle, the Christian in me has to recognise the very real needs of poverty alleviation and access to land that Malema is ostensibly seeking to address.  Horrendous as the prospect may sound to some, the Church needs to in fact be partnering with organisations such as the ANC Youth League insofar as common interests (i.e. social upliftment) coincide.

But nothing could have prepared me for the sheer gall and arrogance that is portrayed in this picture on the ANC Youth League's website masthead (and no, I did NOT PhotoShop the picture - this is as I found it.  Check it out for yourself on the ANC Youth League's website.)














You've got to hand it to Julius Malema and those in charge of the ANC Youth League's website for showing the rest of us how to do arrogance in style.  Malema may as well have one of those horridly offensive bumper stickers that has "F*** the Poor" printed on it stuck on the back of his car.  All I can say is, if I was a poor person (or, for that matter, an ANC Youth League member) having seen this picture, I would have some degree of difficulty fighting back a very strong urge to punch Julie Baby squarely, fiercely, and repeatedly in the middle of his fat smirking mug!

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Homeless!

One of the steps taken in my transition into ministry was the decision to sell our house.  With the property located in Johannesburg and us located in Pietermaritzburg (and likely to be relocating again at the end of this year, depending on the outcome of last week's stationing committee meeting), and our parents having moved out earlier this year (my mom to a retirement village, and Belinda's mom having come to join us in Pietermaritzburg), we felt that trying to manage it as a rental property from far away was a stress we could do without (a previous foray into rental property having ended in tears).

So we decided to sell.  A buyer was found on Easter Saturday, and transfer went through this past Friday.  This means that for only the second time in our adult life, Belinda and I do not own any fixed property.  This is a strange feeling that will take some getting used to, although being housed in church property we are of course not "homeless" in the sense of not having a roof over our heads.

My African colleagues have a different concept of "home" to us Westerners.  For them, their birthplace will always be "home", and many endeavour to acquire property in the area they call "home".  We have a more fluid concept of "home", and while my own situation is necessitated by the itinerancy of the Methodist ministry (resembling a line out of the Paul Young song Wherever I Lay My Hat, That's My Home), generally any place of abode where my family and I are recently settled is considered to be "home".

Onward then to the next adventure in ministry - stationing!  Amongst other things, knowing where we are to be stationed will give us an indication of where we can next call "home"...

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Boys and their toys...

One of the many benefits of being at seminary, and especially at a state-of-the-art campus that SMMS is blessed with, is that we get to play with state-of-the art toys from time to time.  One such "toy" is the unbelievable sound system that has been installed in our chapel.  I don't know the exact specs of our kit, but suffice to say that all the top brands are represented - JBL speakers, Crown amplifiers, Shure microphones, Tascam CD and DVD player, and Soundcraft mixing desk.  Total power output is, oh, about a gazillion watts, and while mere words cannot describe the sound that this thing puts out, suffice to say that when the speakers were mounted, the installers had to hire a mini-crane to lift them!

Where do I fit in?  Each seminarian has certain duties, and because my passable singing is completely overshadowed by my total inability to dance (I have a problem with my left foot, i.e. I have two of them!), which means that I've been put on the sound desk.  Now you also need to know that although I am training for the honourable vocation of ministry, I am also (like all boys) doomed to forever remain nine years old.  So picture the scene - a deserted chapel, the brass all away at the stationing meetings, all this amazing kit ... and this video clip.

I'll leave the rest to your imagination, but I suggest that before you click "Play", you make sure that your PC is connected to the finest sound kit you can get your grubby paws on ... and enjoy!

Sunday, 17 July 2011

My body's in another time zone - and academics are to blame!

Most people engaged in academic pursuits will at some time or other utter the lament, "if it wasn't for the annoying need to sleep ...", usually because of a sense that the workload exceeds the number of waking hours available. Over the years I have been studying as well as during my corporate career, I have been no stranger to the term "pulling an all-nighter" in the quest to meet some or other deadline or to get an assigment submitted on time.

Trouble is, one's body can only cope with so many nights of three hours of sleep before it shuts down in violent protest, and I have tried to find creative ways in which to overcome the sleep deprivation.  This is no easy task for someone who needs (on average) about 7 hours of sleep per night, and as last semester drew to a close I decided that since pushing late hours was becoming a futile attempt in shoving an indeterminable amount of knowledge into an increasingly recalcitrant brain, getting to bed early and waking up before sunrise seemed like a good idea.

And it worked like a bomb!  Trouble is, now that the pressure of being in final year BTh is over, I cannot get my body clock to readjust itself.  The upshot is that for the past three weeks I have been passing out on my bed sometime between 7 and 8 pm, and waking up anytime from 2 am onwards.

Busy people often respond to the request to add yet another task to one's overloaded schedule by glibly replying, "sure - after all, I'm not currently busy between 2 and 4 in the morning".  Except in my case, these are beginning to emerge as viable hours of availability!

The problem is not insomnia - I'm getting sufficient sleep, even if each night's quota is taken in two instalments (I invariably wake up after about four hours, read for a bit, then crash for a further three).  Also, it's not as though I'm waking up fatigued, either.  This morning I was up at 2:15, fresh as a daisy, and decided that the sensible thing was to get up and have the "3 Esses" (shower, shave, and ... oh, come on, you all KNOW what the other S stands for!).  I've also managed to put together the bare bones of a sermon I'll be preaching this coming Thursday, and even sent a couple of e-mails - all in the blissful silence of a sleeping household, long before sunrise.

The thing is, though, my current sleep / wake cycle is not something most people would regard as "normal".  Not that this is causing any problems as such - my wife has always been an "early to bed" person, so it's not as though I'm crashing out four hours before she does.  It hasn't negatively impacted the physical side of our relationship in any way.  I am awake and available during the "core hours" demanded by family, seminary, and life in general.  So is this something I should be concerned about?  Should I seek professional help?  Or should I simply adapt myself to this somewhat unorthodox sleep pattern and accept what have become three of the most productive hours of my day (between 4 and 7 am) as a gift from God?

Friday, 15 July 2011

Touch ... pause ... engage!

So this phase of my seminary sojourn comes down to this - a completed BTh.  Which gives rise to the obvious question: What next?

Readers of this blog for some time will be aware that I've been toying with the idea of doing a PhD.  These ideas have become a lot more crystalised over the last year, with my main area of interest for research being the interaction between John Wesley and the economic context of the Industrial Revolution.  It is my firm belief that it is critical for the 21st century church to understand this interaction so that it can develop its own understanding of contemporary economics, with the aim of having a similar interaction with the economy of our times that Wesley had in his day.

But why now?  Surely one reaches a point where one is all "studied out"?  At the age of 42, I have spent most of my life in study - 12 years in school, followed by 15 (non-cumulative) years of tertiary education.  Being the bean-counter that I am, I've worked out that 65% of my life thus far has been spent in some form of formal education.

Add to this the prospect of going into a Circuit appointment at the end of this year, with its own sets of pressures, combined with further training requirements that our Education for Ministry and Mission Unit (EMMU) has, and it seems that embarking on any further course of study at this stage, let alone at doctoral level, seems foolhardy.

So once again - why now?  The answer to my apparently poor sense of timing comes down to "fitness".  A conversation with John van de Laar yesterday brought up the subject of "academic fitness", which the two of us defined as being in the groove and routine of study.  It came up because of my observation that while the pressures and workload of my first semester at SMMS pushed me to the brink of a nervous breakdown, prompting me to plead to Ross for the seminary to ease up a little (and his response that I should stop being such a cry-baby!), things became a lot more manageable in the second semester, despite a similar workload to that of the first.  And in the third semester, although the workload intensified both in level of advancement (being final year) and quantity (I did 10 subjects this semester), I somehow found the work pressure to be far less intense.  In fact, I began to really enjoy what I have been studying.

Similar observations can be made in other areas of one's life, in that in between a sedentary state and fitness comes a fairly lengthy period of pain - and once you stop your given activity, the fitness soon dissipates and getting back into the habit takes time and effort.  This applies to physical activity, one's spiritual life - even this blog, as the paucity of recent posts has demonstrated.  In short, once one gets out of the habit of a particular discipline, it invariably takes a Herculean effort to get back into it.
Part of the motivation to want to get going with the PhD now is not only that the opportunity of fulfilling a 12-year dream now presents itself, but also that I am currently academically "fit" and need to keep going while the momentum is still there.

Therefore, while this moment for me is one of celebration for having completed the BTh - the culmination of 4 1/2 years of hard work, sweat, and many tears (both of despair and of joy) - I need to view this interlude as the preamble to a rugby scrum.  The referee's instruction to the two teams to "touch ... pause ... engage" represent the sizing up of the task at hand, a momentary pause to ensure that everything is in place, and then an almighty thrust as the next phase of action commences.

So onward to the next academic phase...

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Up Periscope

Lately it seems that all I'm doing is making lame excuses for not posting anything on my blog, but as the final weeks of the final semester of the BTh programme wind down, it's been absolutely hectic trying to get the final assignments in.

Now that I'm on the "home stretch" with three examinations down and just five to go, there is some light at the end of the tunnel ... and perhaps I can re-discover what it means to write for pleasure, not just to get some or other piece of work submitted.

Normal service will be resumed shortly...

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

We went to this polling booth and ... and ... er ... put a cross in a box!

It's been a while since I've managed to squeeze out five minutes to update my blog, but today we managed to take some time out (being a public holiday and all) to go and cast our vote in the municipal elections.

The process reminded me of the first time I had the privilege of casting my vote in an election, which in turn brings to mind this sketch by British comedian Jasper Carrott.  Enjoy!

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Jesus. The Way. The Truth. The Life.

What is the mission of the Christian Church?  In Luke 4: 18-19, Jesus declares his mission from God, using this direct quotation from Isaiah 58: 6 as follows: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour."

The Boshoff Street Methodist Church in downtown Pietermaritzburg has been partaking in this mission since 1882, and the picture shown is of the inside of the church building, with its choir pews upon which wooden carvings of the words "Jesus.  The Way.  The Truth.  The Life" have been mounted.

Sadly, the choir is no more.  In fact, the congregation this morning comprised six attendees.  For reasons that I'm not at liberty to go into here, this once-thriving congregation has declined to its current sad state.  Yes, granted, the demographics have of the inner city have changed, and many people now worship at one the many suburban churches that have sprung up over the years, both Methodist churches and those of other denominations.  But these factors are not the full story.  Suffice to say that there have been issues brewing for a number of years, culminating in a recent upheaval that included the resignation of the former minister and the mass-exodus of a substantial portion of the membership.

With the Circuit looking to consolidate the ministry work in the inner city, and now this latest crisis, one could be forgiven for sensing that the vultures are circling.  And the question on the lips of those faithful few, who remain committed to a Society that may not be dead yet but is showing serious signs of coughing up blood, is this: Where to from here?  Is this it?  Is God finished with ministry at Boshoff Street?

Perhaps the beginnings of a possible answer to this question lies in the sermon that Rev Diane Worringham conducted this morning.  Preaching from John 11: 1-6; 17-37, which is the well-known account of the death of Lazarus, she asked, among other things, the question most of us would have asked if we were Mary or Martha: "Jesus, we sent for you - why on earth did it take you four days to get here?"  One can sense the anguish in Martha's voice when she said to Jesus, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died".

I must confess, with apologies to Diane, that my attention began to wander at this point, for I was beginning to say the same of Boshoff Street Methodist Church: "Lord, if you had been here, this church would not have died".  And in the same way that Jesus wept when he saw that Lazarus had indeed died, I believe that he is also weeping for Boshoff Street.

But when one goes back a few verses, we read that Jesus said to Martha, "I am the resurrection and the life.  The one who believes in me will live, even though they die, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die".  And it was at this point that my eyes became fixed on the empty choir pews, and the words inscripted thereon.  "Jesus.  The Way.  The Truth.  The Life".

I must confess that I had questioned why the Seminary had chosen to attach me (together with two of my colleagues) to Boshoff Street for the remainder of my stay at SMMS.  After all, I've been happy at Prestbury, getting involved with ministry to the senior citizens (which included monthly services at the Sunnyside retirement village).  What is our brief, anyway?  Are we here to bring about healing?  Or are we here simply to give this nearly 130-year-old Methodist witness a decent and dignified burial?

Yet as I sat there, looking firstly at the choir pews, then secondly into the eyes of the six congregants as we shared the benediction, I had a deep sense that somehow God is not yet finished with Boshoff Street.

Time will tell.  At this stage, our task is to be faithful, diligent, and caring - and to proclaim the Kingdom of God.  And to help the Boshoff Street congregation rediscover that Jesus is indeed The Way, The Truth, and The Life.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Ouch!

As I sat down in front of my computer, I smashed my big toe against the desk.  Sometimes I'm convinced that the reason why God gave me toes is so that I can find my furniture in the dark...

:-)

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Big words I sometimes don't fully understand

I've been having some interesting online discussions around the "Blogroll" that Mark Penrith has published on his blog, Because He Lives - mainly because, in an attempt to provide himself with a sort of "ready reference" of where various Christian bloggers stand theologically, he has attempted to classify the various bloggers according to their denominational affiliation (or non-affiliation, where applicable), and provide a basic theological framework that each blogger subscribes to.

As is normal with classifications such as this, there is often a degree of subjectivity involved, which Mark readily acknowledges - accompanied by a great deal of good-humoured leg-pulling as we compare our different labels (in pretty much the same way as a Sharks / Bulls debate or one over whether or not Sri Lanka's fast bowler Malinga "chucks" or not).

But then there was an interesting request from "Elmarie" (who is / was? also a regular contributor to website Discerning The World), asking Mark to include Biblical Christianity as a sub-category along with Calvinism and Arminianism.  This led me to question what is understood by the term "Biblical Christianity".  Together with my question, I made the statement that "I don’t consider myself to be a literalist, yet I regard myself as a Biblical Christian".

A response to this statement by "Grant" was somewhat surprising.  Although he stopped short of branding me as a heretic, he was clearly purturbed by my statement, questing whether my position is "even attainable by an individual?  To me [Grant] that is like saying: 'I don’t consider myself to be literate, yet I regard myself as being able to read'."

Well, either Grant has misunderstood my question, or I've misunderstood the term "literalism", which led me to fire up the trusty Free Online Dictionary, which defines literalism as follows: "(1) Adherence to the explicit sense of a given text or doctrine; and (2) Literal portrayal; realism."

Very few (if any) people use language that is always meant to be taken in a literal sense.  For instance, in South Africa, when one refers to a usually used and invariably neglected car as a "dog", they don't mean that this four-wheeled vehicle has become a four-legged canine animal.  Rather, the term figuratively means that the car is a "lemon" (to use the equivalent American metaphor) - it is dilapidated, in poor condition, and likely to be extremely unreliable.

Using a simple example from Scripture (appropriate, since I am a simple person), let's have a quick look at the version of Matthew 16: 18 in the Good News Bible: "And so I tell you, Peter: you are a rock, and on this rock foundation I will build my church, and not even death will ever be able to overcome it."

Jesus was obviously not literally saying that Peter was a boulder, and He was probably not even referring to the rocky outcrop of the area in which this statement was made to literally denote the physical building of a church, either.  In the original Greek, Peter's name - petros - means "rock", or more specifically, "smaller rock".  Jesus used this metaphor to depict Peter as the kind of person, who has seen Jesus for who He really is, to carry forth the message that Jesus is the Messiah - at the appointed time.  However, the "rock" on which Jesus will build His church - petra - depicts a firm foundation.  This firm foundation on which the church will be built will be Jesus Himself.

Clearly the use of the two Greek words for "rock" are not meant to be taken literally.

The fact that I have explored and (hopefully) understood the metaphors used, and the context in which they are used, means that I would not be a literalist in this sense.  Yet, if I have understood the truth of this passage correctly, and accepted it as being God's Word, then I can at the same time claim to be a Biblical Christian.

Another example would be Deuteronomy 22: 22, in which the penalty for anyone caught in adultery is death by stoning.  If a literalist were to in fact encounter such a person engaging in adultery, he or she would be duty-bound to ensure that the guilty parties receive the mandated punishment.  Failure to do so, according to my understanding of literalism, would be to fail to be a Biblical Christian.

So am I saying, then, that being contextual is Biblical and being literal is not?  Not exactly - besides, there are a number of passages in Scripture that appear to be self-evident on the face of it.  However, if one is to admit - however grudgingly - that all Christians do apply some degree of contextualisation, the challenge, if one wants to honour Scripture, is to discern which passages are contextual, and which ones are of universal application.  (The two terms are not necessarily mutually exclusive, either!)

Anyway, over to the theological "brains trust" for comment and discussion.  But please, lay off the "flame wars" (whether contextual in terms of hurling abuse at me on this blog, or literal in terms of trying to set fire to me with a flame-thrower) - I'm not trying to score theological brownie-points, but rather am earnestly seeking to grow closer and closer to Jesus each day.

It's a journey, folks - none of us can claim to have "arrived"...

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Reflections from a prison cell

"... I was in prison and you came to visit me ..." (Matthew 25: 36b, NIV)

This morning, as part of our Field Education and Ministry course here at SMMS, we went to what is known as the "new" Pietermaritzburg Prison to start the first practical phase of our training for prison ministry.

As I entered the gates of the facility, the first thought that went through my mind was, "right, this is it - this is where the tyre hits the tarmac".  And I must confess to having had very mixed feelings as I walked through the door.  One part of me - the "grace" part - hoped that the conditions would be decent and humane, in keeping with the right to human dignity.  Another part of me - the "law" part - wanted the conditions to be as harsh as humanely possible (forgive me if this sounds like an oxymoron).  To be honest, part of me deems it to be unfair that prisoners are granted amenities such as sports facilities, television, study opportunities, etc. when there are many people outside of prison who are deprived of such amenities - particularly the victims of the crimes that the prisoners had committed.  But then again, if the aim is to rehabilitate offenders, then one needs to employ such means as part of the rehabilitation programme.

It sure gets confusing at times.

When we went into the maximum security section, I must confess that I was feeling rather claustrophobic, and not just because of the confined space in the corridors.  I could not imagine spending 25 years to life in such a place - personally, I didn't feel as though I wanted to spend more than 25 minutes there!

Our first encounter with prisoners was in an open area, where prisoners are allowed a certain amount of time each day for exercise and recreation, and our first task was to introduce ourselves with two of our group being called upon to give a short message.  I must say that, contrary to my normal willingness to step forward with a message, I held back this time.  As someone coming from the freedom of outside, to which I would shortly be returning, I didn't feel as though I had yet earned the right to stand up within a minute or two of first sight, and immediately begin to preach a message.  That will undoubtedly come once relationships and credibility have been established.

Certainly, there is a sense that being imprisoned is a very "in-your-face" experience for the prisoners - over and above the obvious condition of being locked up in a correctional facility.  I cannot imagine what it must be like to wear orange fatigues with the words "prisoner" emblazoned thereon - all day, every day.  To be honest, being labelled like this, in a manner not too dissimilar to the purple meat grading stamp that is embossed on beef carcasses, would probably drive me insane within a fairly short period.

After my two colleagues had shared a short passage, we were then given the opportunity to interact one-on-one with the prisoners, and it was at this point that a flicker of light began to shine.  The young man I spoke to was articulate and quite willing to talk to me, opening up about his background without actually going into the crime he had committed (perhaps they are instructed not to discuss their crimes; we have been instructed not to ask).  There was even an element of being "kindred spirits" since we both hailed from Johannesburg.  He was quite candid about why he ended up being imprisoned - falling in with the wrong crowd, getting involved in drugs, etc.

But the revelation for me was that he saw prison not as a place of punishment, but as a place of redemption.  He admitted openly that had he not been ultimately been arrested and imprisoned at the time he was, his life of drugs and crime would probably have resulted in his death by now.  At this point the thought went through my mind: If prison was the "turning point" in this young man's life, what should we as a Church be doing (that we aren't doing now) to be a "place of turning points" in people's lives?

We were then escorted into another room where a group of prisoners had gathered for a church service, normally conducted by a visiting pastor who graciously allowed us to "hijack" the session while our facilitator led with a short lesson based on 1 Corinthians 13:11, in which he exhorted us to leave our childish ways behind (note: not "child-like") and become adults in Christ.

When we bid our farewells and shook hands with the prisoners, one enquired of me where he could make contact with me.  Having been forewarned in our classroom sessions that this might happen, I could only respond that our only contact could be when we actually visit the prison itself.  Reflecting on how this relates to ministry in an ordinary congregational context, I was once again torn between the need to be available and the need to protect oneself, privacy issues, etc.  In a sense it was easier in this case to hide behind the "we're not allowed to" moniker, but this is one of many things that I need to come to terms with.

As we ventured down the corridors on our "long walk to freedom", our spirits began to lift as we sensed that we were about to be freed from our prisons in both a literal and a spiritual sense.  This is without a doubt different to anything I have experienced before in ministry.  I'm not sure that I'm entirely comfortable at this stage, but then again, much (if not most) of ministry takes us out of our comfort zones.

Returning to the seminary campus was a bit of an anti-climax.  Having gone through what was an extremely emotionally taxing and spiritually challenging experience, I would have ideally liked to have gone through some form of "de-briefing" in order to process my thoughts, feelings, and emotions.  One of the facilitators, recounting his first visit to prison, indicated that it took him almost a week to find the words to adequately express how the experience had impacted him, and I'm in more or less the same place right now.  Still, it's early days yet - hopefully, like anything else in life, it gets a bit easier the more we do it!

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Mm, Mm, sweet nothings...

After the "blitzkrieg" of last week, which included having to prepare eight separate pieces of work as well as moving flats, this past long weekend was just what the doctor ordered - three days of doing as little as possible!

Well, okay - I DID take the service at Sunnyside on Sunday. However, even though I've just started my third year in ministry, I still struggle to see preaching as "work". (Long may this continue!)

But with James busy with an aptitude test on Monday morning for one of the schools we've applied to for 2012, Belinda and I managed to enjoy some "us" time, starting with breakfast, an aimless wander around the mall, some coffee stops ... and some of what Brenda Lee best described in her 1959 hit ...

My baby whispers in my ear
Mm, Mm, sweet nothings
[She] knows the things I like to hear
Mm, Mm, sweet nothings

Things [she] wouldn't tell nobody else
Secrets, baby
I keep them to myself
Sweet nothings Mm, Mm sweet nothings

We walk along hand in hand
Mm, Mm, sweet nothings
Yeah, we both understand
Mm, Mm, sweet nothings

Sittin' in class or trying to read my book
My baby, give me that special look
Sweet nothings
Mm, Mm, sweet nothings

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Bible study material: Wisdom in sexual behaviour

One of the requirements for our HIV and AIDS course at seminary was to put together a Bible study that deals with wisdom in sexual behaviour.  This was my attempt at such a study.  I'd be interested in readers' comments and suggestions as to what other pertinent issues could be covered in such a study.  Suggestions concerning other readings that deal with sexual ethics would also be welcomed.

Bible study material: Wisdom in sexual behaviour

Scripture reading: Genesis 39: 5-20
Target audience: Adults (25-40); both male and female; both married and single; university graduates / professionals
Purpose of study: Sexual ethics amongst young adult professionals

Summary of passage
Joseph had been sold into slavery because of the jealousy of his brothers, and had been taken into Egypt where he was purchased as a slave by Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard. The passage picks up where Joseph, having portrayed evidence of God’s favour upon him, is appointed head over Potiphar’s household where he served with diligence. Having proved himself in this role, Potiphar gradually transferred total responsibility for his affairs to Joseph.

However, Joseph was not only an astute administrator, but was also handsome and had a well-built physique. These traits had come to the attention of Potiphar’s wife, who became physically attracted to Joseph. Taking advantage of their relative differences in status (bearing in mind that, despite his responsibilities, Joseph’s status was still that of slave), Potiphar’s wife made sexual advances towards Joseph, which were emphatically rebuffed. She was however quite persistent in her pursuit of Joseph, and made a grab for him when none of the other servants were around. Deciding that a good run was better than a bad stand, Joseph fled the house, leaving his cloak behind in the scuffle.

Since “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”, so the old saying goes, Potiphar’s wife cried foul, accusing Joseph of attempted rape. Given that Potiphar would invariably take his wife’s word over that of a slave, and believing that Joseph had broken his trust, he had Joseph imprisoned.

Questions for reflection
What evidence can be found in this passage that Joseph was a God-fearing man who obeyed God’s laws? Comment on similar character traits that would apply today that would indicate to the world that a person is God-fearing and obedient to God’s laws. Discuss how the above character traits would apply specifically to sexual ethics and morality.

Joseph is described as being “well-built and handsome” (verse 6). When a woman is raped, some people make statements to the effect that she “asked for it” because of her attractiveness, wearing revealing clothes, being in the “wrong place at the wrong time”, etc. In this reversal of roles where the woman (Potiphar’s wife) is portrayed as the sexual predator, would Joseph’s handsomeness have been a contributing factor to Potiphar’s wife making advances towards him? Discuss and critique the fairness (or otherwise) of this statement.

Do you think that Potiphar’s wife took advantage of Joseph? If so, ignoring for the moment the constraints imposed by the master / slave relationship, what measures do you suggest that Joseph could have taken to protect himself from being taken advantage of in this manner?

Having had her advances spurned, Potiphar’s wife falsely accused Joseph of rape. Because no-one else was around at the time, it boiled down to Joseph’s word against that of Potiphar’s wife. In 2006 the future South African President Jacob Zuma faced a similar accusation of rape. Although the court subsequently acquitted him, his reputation was harmed to the extent that people still talk about it five years later, with cartoonists such as Zapiro still parodying Zuma based on that alleged incident. Discuss some of the consequences of allowing oneself to be in a compromising position such as this (once again, ignoring the constraints imposed by the master / slave relationship in this passage).

Referring to the above question, Jacob Zuma is widely believed to have been guilty of the rape he was accused of, notwithstanding the findings of the court. Without getting into the merits of the particular issues around Zuma personally, discuss the obstacles that a rape victim faces in terms of being believed, and seeking justice. What role can the Church play in creating a climate that can overcome these obstacles?

If, hypothetically, Joseph had consented to having sex with Potiphar’s wife, there would still have been the issue of adultery to deal with. Discuss this in the light of today’s permissive sexual morals, including some of the risks and potential consequences (both in terms of relationship, as well as from a health perspective) that could arise from unsound sexual ethics.

Did Potiphar have a role to play in contributing to his wife’s dalliances?

What other lessons can this passage teach us today?

Sunday, 13 March 2011

God's Word for Today - the right Word for the right moment, always!

Oh Lord, You are so amazing!  Given some of the emotional stresses I've been dealing with over the past couple of weeks, it was particularly apt that I've just glanced at today's verse that feeds through to this blog from BibleGateway.  It comes from Romans 8: 28, and reads as follows: "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose" (NIV).

As Jenny often says on a number of her posts, God is SO good!

Hotazel? I thought I lived in Pietermaritzburg!

Yesterday we went through to the Wartburg Kirchdorf School about 32 kilometres east of Pietermaritzburg in order to hand in application forms for James for 2012.  This is one of our options for next year, at least until we get some indication of where we are to be sent by the Methodist Church.

It was quite a pleasant drive, made all the more pleasant by the really efficient air-con in my truck.  The Chinese have however put some interesting gizmos into what is a fairly entry-level vehicle, which includes inside and outside temperature guages.  And as we were almost back home in Sleepy Hollow, I glanced at the temperature, noting with shock and horror that while inside was a fairly pleasant 21, outside it was 43 degrees!

Small wonder that we spent the afternoon crashed out on the couch, too tired and too hot to do anything more than raise a cheer as our Proteas pulled off a stunning win over India in the cricket World Cup.  But as for the one commentator's remark about the sides "really feeling the heat out there", my response is that they should come to Pietermaritzburg - the heat really gets going here!

Learning about each other

This past Friday night at Scouts was quite interesting, in that a Scout was leading a talk on different cultures as one of the requirements for his First Class level.

The first part of the talk was led by two Scouts who are of the Hindu faith, and it was fascinating to hear about some of their beliefs.  One must at this point bear in mind that while inherent in the Scout Promise is a "duty to God", as an organisation open to members of any faith it is important that we respect the right of members of a particular faith to perform their "duty to God" as they understand it in their own particular faith.

There was a moment of raucous hilarity, as some of the Scouts started peppering the two presenters with questions relating to the clothes they were wearing.  While certain items do have some traditional meaning, much of what members of the Indian community wears is a matter of personal taste - in the same way that others may wear jeans and T-shirts, for instance.  The young lady's response to the many questions about the meaning of each minute item of her apparel - "Because I like wearing this.  Why do you wear a T-shirt with a Smurf on it" - was priceless!

Once they had completed their session, the Scout leading the discussion then gave a brief discourse on the Christian faith, since the criteria called for a comparison between different cultures or belief systems.  And it was at this point that things began to get a little bit heated - especially when it came to comparisons between the Roman Catholic and Protestant branches of Christianity.  While I allowed the discussion to run as part of the learning exercise, when one of our younger Scouts (who happens to be Roman Catholic) started getting a bit wound up at what she perceived to be attacks on her own faith, I stepped in and exhorted the Scouts to focus on commonalities and embrace differences.

They were in fact quite interested - both from a Catholic and a Protestant perspective - to learn that much of the tradition handed down from the earlier Church that remains in use in many Protestant churches, such as the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed, and various forms of spiritual discipline, were handed down to us from our Catholic ancestors.  They were also gratified to learn that both branches of Christianity acknowledge the Triune God, and regard Jesus as Lord and Saviour.

But the eye-opener for me was that, given a little bit of guidance, the youngsters were quite ready and open to understand and embrace one another's differences, and celebrate their diversity.  Certainly, despite some robust discussion, no friendships seem to have been jeopardised by the subjects that came up.  And herein lies the lesson for us so-called "adults", who have gone to war over far less!

And all credit to our two Hindu Scouts, who took the brave step in sharing their faith story in front of nearly 30 of their fellow Scouts.  In an environment where the overwhelming majority of the youngsters come from Christian backgrounds, they have never considered themselves to be anything other than a part of the Scout troop - nor have their friends ever regarded them in any other way than as fellow Scouts, either.

For me as a Christian, it was an object lesson in tolerance, friendship, and mutual understanding.  I'm pretty certain that this is how God would have wanted it.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

My first YMG meeting

Tonight was my first YMG (Young Men's Guild) meeting.

Well, actually it was my second meeting - the first was one I attended whilst still in Phase One, and to be honest, as a non-member of this particular uniformed organisation of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa (MCSA) at the time (having visited in my capacity as minister), I was not exactly made to feel overly welcome.  Tonight was different, as we received hearty welcomes from our colleagues who are already YMG members.

At this stage I don't know too much about the organisation, other than that it is the largest men's movement within the MCSA, and a veritable institution within the historically black section of the church.  And I'm sure that the sight of the "Three Mlungus" (Nuno, Wesley, and myself) dressed in our black jackets and grey trousers must have been the source of some amusement - especially as I was wearing a stiflingly-hot black long-sleeved clerical shirt and collar, as against a white shirt and black tie by the other two members of the pale trio.  Lord alone knows how much perspiration I'm likely to shed once a red waistcoat is added to the whole ensemble!

The YMG is also known for its music - which provided its second moment of mirth of the evening, once again at my expense.  During the singing of the first hymn, one of my colleagues loaned me his hymn book, and I was doing fine with the first two lines, but the next two were somewhat different to what the rest were singing - until I realised that I was using a Zulu hymn book while the rest were singing in Xhosa!  (Note to self: Take Xhosa hymn book next month!)

It should become interesting as the months unfold...

Monday, 7 March 2011

Doing one's civic duty

This past weekend Belinda and I registered to vote in the upcoming municipal elections.  However, because we were both in different voting districts during the previous election (the general election held in 2009), we had to complete forms with our new address details, enabling us to vote in our current district (Pelham, Pietermartizburg - don't ask me what the ward number is - 36, I think?!).

The thought also crossed our minds that by the time the next election comes around in 2014, we will have to repeat this process since we will have again moved to a different voting district.  Seems like this is likely to happen quite often, now that I am in the Methodist ministry...

But while we were in the public-spirited groove, we also popped in to CANSA's annual Shavathon where, for a donation, volunteers will shave your head as an act of solidarity with cancer victims (many of whom end up losing their hair as a result of the chemotherapy treatment they receive).

I was gung-ho, partly because I needed a haircut anyway, partly because a shaven head is MUCH cooler when the outside temperature still hovers around the mid-to-upper 30s, and partly to honour an old friend who had a sign in his shop that read "God only made so many perfect heads - the rest He covered with hair".  Belinda was less enthusiastic, however - not only did she have her fair share of baldness some 35 years ago during her own bout with leukaemia, but she had also recently pampered herself with a new hair-do which included highlights - something that she was NOT about to ruin with pink and green streaks!

Sunday, 6 March 2011

"Imagine there's no heaven ..."

Okay folks, relax - I'm not about to reveal a confession that I've suddenly renounced (or lost) my faith in Jesus.  Far from it.  But there has been this strange throught mulling around my head for the past 10 days or so.

What I've been pondering on is this: We all know the words of John 3: 16, "For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life" (NLT), but is this the only reason why we believe in Jesus?  In other words, the question I'm asking is whether we would still love Jesus if there was no promise of heaven, no promise of eternal life?

I ask this question because I wonder sometimes whether we love Jesus for what He can do for us, rather than for who He is.  How many altar calls have we heard where the preacher asks the question, "if you were to die tonight and you don't know where you are going, ask Jesus to come into your life".  Then we wonder why it is that so many of these "new converts" fall by the wayside, with the church acting as some kind of revolving door in the process.

Think of this from the "other side" for a moment.  Jesus doesn't love us because we are "good" people or because of the things we do.  Nor does He love us because we could possibly do something for Him if that love were to be reciprocated.  He loves us just as we are. "... God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation.  For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son" (Romans 5: 8-10, NLT).

If Jesus loved us unconditionally without any guarantee that we would even respond in any what to that love, shouldn't our love for Jesus be on the same basis?  To love Jesus for who He is, rather than for what He promises?  Imagine how our relationship with Christ could grow.  Imagine if we could apply this same principle to our earthly relationships - loving one another, not for what we can get out of the relationship, but for what we can put into it.  Wouldn't our relationships - and the world - be a far better place?