God's Word for today

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?

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Getting a bit over-zealous

This is what happens when you ask Chuck Norris to open your milk carton for you.  Well, not quite - I was having breakfast and the carton was not quite living up to its "easy-open" claim to fame, so I applied the universal principle to things that won't open - force it!

(For those of you who can't see the effects of my bowl of ProNutro this morning, look in the top right-hand corner - the space where the lid and the threaded bit SHOULD be.  Notice something missing?)