God's Word for today

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.

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.