God's Word for today

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

God speaking through music

I'd barely pressed "publish" on my previous post when I heard in my mind the voice of Jayne Farrell (of 80s Christian duo Farrell & Farrell) singing "Come Back, My First Love" - a cry to God to rekindle the spark that was planted when she first encountered Christ.

Here are the lyrics - a "first step" for me in my healing process.

Don't know exactly how it came to this, or when this change came over me,
Stepping, little by little, 'til I straddled the middle of the line,
So much compromise; standing on neither side,
A far cry from the way it began when I first took hold of Your hand.

Come back, my first love - my Saviour and love,
How far have I fallen? How languished my soul?
Come back, my first love - I need You, my love,
Bring back all those feelings that only You can bring.

My life was different when I first believed, Your joy was ever in my heart,

And the voice of Your Spirit was so clear I could hear it calling me to walk in Your light,
Try to do what was right ... but lately I've been falling away,
An abandoned ship that's drifted astray.

Come back, my first love - my Saviour and love,
How far have I fallen? How languished my soul?
Come back, my first love - I need You, my love,
Bring back all those feelings.

(Come back)

Come back, my first love - I need You, my love,
Bring back all those feelings, only You can bring,
Bring back all those feelings that only You can bring.

Picking up the pieces ... and being "born again" again

After yesterday's plaintive post appeared on this blog, I was called into Ross' office in a pastoral attempt on his part to arrest what was shaping up to be the complete unravelling of one of his seminarians.  And while I won't go into detail concerning our discussions, I give thanks to God that there are still ministers in our church that have truly pastoral hearts.  I'm especially grateful to Ross for taking the time out to help me through this process, particularly given his already hectic schedule in running the seminary.  His pastoral care will be cherished by me for years to come.

But now it's time to start picking up the pieces and moving towards me gaining a little perspective here.  The first step in this process is for me to earnestly and prayerfully seek God - remembering not only that God called me to this ministry, but also reclaiming the faith and trust in God that carried me through the past 24 years of being a Christian.  "Re-establishing that base of faith and assurance of God's love and care", as Ross puts it.  Part of this process is also to get me to a place where I can "let go and let God".

Clearing the decks is also an important part of this healing process.  And while I must confess that I was feeling totally overwhelmed at the beginning of this week, the fact that I have (finally) managed to sort the insurance company out (after some harsh words were exchanged between me and Hollard's management), as well as having just printed out the fifth assignment this week (out of a total of six) is already causing the heart to lighten a little.

Please pray for me as I work at trying to regain that "first love" for God.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

School applications 2012 - a few dead trees and a broken heart

Today I'm not in a good place at all.  Perhaps I'm just feeling a bit of pressure from the combination of the seminary workload; the need to make a living whilst I'm here; trying to sort out the sale of our house; dealing with the insurers after a break-in last week at the same house; my Mom's impending move to a retirement village ... it's all just a bit overwhelming at the moment, especially with me being 500km away from where I ideally need to be right now.

Hence the broken logo.  It represents partly the state of my heart at the moment, with its torn loyalties, and partly the cause of the stress - trying to follow and fulfil God's call to ordained ministry in the MCSA, yet at the same time trying to fulfil my responsibilities to my family, given to me by the same God who gave me the calling.

Tonight was a case in point - tears were already flowing at our community worship as I tried to sort out all the various stresses weighing down at the moment.  And part of this is due to the fact that Belinda and I have just spent a couple of weary hours filling umpteen application forms for high school for James in 2012, not to mention the wads of supporting documentation required with each application - killing a few trees in the process.

The closing date for these applications is 28 February 2011.

However, the nature of the MCSA stationing process is such that our stations are only confirmed in September.  By then, any attempts to submit applications to schools in the city or town we are stationed to at that late stage (assuming that there are in fact schools to apply to) will be likely to be met with raucous laughter, accompanied by a "don't call us ... we'll call you" response.

The upshot is that we are applying for James to go to a Pietermaritzburg-based high school, and given that my station is unlikely to be here in Pietermaritzburg, we are applying for boarding as well.  Which means that, once again, our family will be split thanks to stationing by the Church (we were separated in 2009 because the then Phase One programme was only for a single year, which made changing schools twice in two years impractical).

Because I came out of Phase One as "damaged goods" in a sense, largely as a result of being apart from Belinda and James, I was adamant that we would not be separated again.  I also decided last year to draft a resolution aimed at changing the stationing process per our Laws and Disciplines to make it more pastoral and "family-friendly", taking into account matters such as schooling and spouse's employment.  It was accepted by our Circuit Quarterly Meeting, passed through the Synod, and was ultimately enacted by Conference.  However, the nature of the beast is that it will take some time for a resolution to translate into practical application, which means that the current process remains in force for the moment.

Yet here I am, just over a year down the line, about to break my promise to my family that we would not be apart again.  At the same time, James is at a critical stage in his school career, and we can't afford to mess with that.  What does one do ... I've often been told that our priorities as ministers should be God, family, and church - in that order.  Yet often it seems that our priorites are God, church (or sometimes even church, God), with family coming in last place.  I'm hoping and praying that the abovementioned L&D amendment will go some way (however small) to realigning one's priorities to what they should be.

But such is life ... I did after all promise to go wherever the Church sends me.  Still, there are more than a few tear stains on the application forms we completed tonight.  And the heart will tear even further when we hand them in...

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Standard operating procedure

James returned from his 3-day school camp stinking to high heaven, with ALL of his clothes dirty, very tired, and with a nice round bruise on his right arm (courtesy of a paintball game that got a bit serious!).

All in all, the perfect camp as far as he is concerned...

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

PhD - still percolating...

Some of my blog readers may be wondering what has happened to all my talk about doing a PhD (then again, most of my blog readers may, for all I know, not give a rat's proverbial, lest I get delusions of grandeur!).

Well, the latest news is that it is still on the radar screen.  You may recall that I had a bit of a setback last year when it was virtually "all systems go" for me to register, except for a not-so-small matter of a legislative provision prohibiting me from simultaneously being registered for two accredited qualifications.  But (Lord willing) I only have a further 4 1/2 months to go to complete my BTh, which means that I will then be free to register for the PhD.

In the meantime, I am trying to get the skeleton of my proposal on track, and this is proving to be a big ask.  I'd like to write the definitive thesis on theology and economics.  However, PhD's don't work like that.  They don't want you to say a little about a lot of things; instead you need to be able to say a lot about a little (if that makes sense to you, then please explain it to me!).

The process is therefore to take this massively wide subject, and narrow it down to something a bit more bite-sized.  A huge thanks to Jon-Mark Olivier, who is willing to meet with me each Monday afternoon to help guide me through his minefield - there's nothing like a bit of external discipline and accountability to keep one focused!

Naming and shaming ... in a positive way!

It's human nature to generalise or make sweeping statements, and I must confess that I've been as guilty as the next person in this area!

You all know the drill - if, for instance, you happen to be in the Pofadder branch of Standard Bank, on a particular day at a particular time, and Teller No. 3 is having one of those "days from hell" and gives you somewhat less than exemplary service, you end up telling all and sundry that Standard Bank - yes, the ENTIRE institution - totally sucks!  And I've been guilty of doing the same with the Church, which is, after all, a Godly institution comprising not-so-Godly human beings.

For some time now we have been challenged us to be more honest and specific in our "naming and shaming".  When A's halo slips a bit, it's not the entire Church that's at fault - it's A!

Now don't get me wrong, here - I'm by no means saying that we have a licence to go and diss all and sundry.  We are commanded to love one another.  Our Christian responsibility to bring about restoration remains.  But by using sweeping generalisations such as "the Church" does / doesn't do XYZ maligns the entire institution for the sins of the few.  And when we have the courage to identify and confront the actions of A, we can come to realise that B, C, and all the other letters of the alphabet are actually doing their best to live lives that are worthy of the name "Christian".

Let me give you an example.  I find it both unfortunate and unfair when, as people meet me for the first time and establish that I am a minister, I sometimes hear a wisecrack along the lines of "it's a good thing you're not a Catholic priest, or I'd need to watch my son" (a reference to the molestation scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church in recent years, whereby a handful of priests have been accused of abusing young children).  This is most unwarranted.

The fact of the matter is that there is probably not a single church where such goings-on have not happened - or mosque, school, youth club, etc.  When I re-joined the Scouts as an assistant Troop Scouter last year, they did not ask me for two character references because they have nothing better to do or they like administration.  Something must have happened in the past to warrant such measures.  But provided that the institution deals decisively with specific people who have gone off the rails in whatever manner, no institution deserves to be maligned for the sinful actions of a tiny minority.

So from this day forth, I'm turning over a new leaf - and will henceforth be more appreciative of the countless good people that are doing their best in our instutions.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

So heaven now belongs to the ANC?

During our 2010 course at SMMS, "Leading the Congregation", our lecturer Ross Olivier was explaining how we as future ministers can help a congregation develop a vision for its mission.  Using the words of the Lord's Prayer, "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven" (my emphasis), he suggested that the primary mission of the church is "to bring heaven in and get the hell out!"

After the raucous laughter had died down, Ross iterated that "getting the hell out" does not mean that the Church should run at the first sign on adversity.  Rather, the Church should be at the forefront as agents of God in making these words of the Lord's Prayer a reality.

Examples of "hell" on earth include abusive relationships, unemployment, poverty, spiritual dryness - and bringing in "heaven" could include practical interventions such as support, marriage counselling, skills development, poverty relief, fellowship groups / cells / classes (pick any name you like - they all mean the same thing anyway!) - in short, the kinds of things that Jesus did in His earthly ministry.

Sitting in this class caused me to broaden my thinking somewhat - and I can certainly buy these concepts of "heaven" and "hell" in an earthly sense.  But never in my wildest dreams did I ever equate these two concepts with the box on the election ballot in which I would insert my cross.

The ruling African National Congress (ANC), however, has a different idea.  According to our President last week, a vote for the ANC is equated with "heaven", while voting for anyone else is "hell".

Now one might dismiss such remarks with the contempt they deserve, deciding not to dignify them with a response.  Certainly, they are offensive to many Christians (myself included), and a cheap and tacky election trick if ever I saw them.  However, one of my colleagues in the Methodist Church sees it differently, according to this press release taken from the ANC's website:

ANC Chaplain-General in defence of President Zuma

7 February 2011

Amid the reigning debate sparked by remarks made by African National Congress (ANC) President Jacob Zuma over the weekend, the ANC Office of the Chaplain-General would like to give clarity on the Biblical and theological context in the use of the words "heaven" and "hell".

We also fully share the ANC view that the expression used by the President was figurative - similar to other popular phrases like "marriage made in heaven", "heavenly voices" and "sweets from heaven" "and also find it important that we further explain the Biblical context.

While the popular Christian understanding of heaven is equated to a physical place, theologically heaven can also mean the presence of God.

When the President urged citizens to vote for the ANC, equating that with heaven, he meant that voters - theologically may miss the opportunity of being in the presence of God if they do not vote for the ANC. The alarm and the hullabaloo by African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) leader, Kenneth Meshoe, Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille and others over the President`s metaphoric expression, should be viewed as nothing else but lack of broad understanding of the concept of heaven.

In using the word "hell," the President did not mean eternal damnation of anybody, but missing an opportunity of being in heaven in a theological sense. The ANC - as a movement that was born on the alter - respects all forms of religion, and its President has not and will never insult such an important social force of our people.

Issued by:
Rev Dr Vukile Mehana
African National Congress

Well, Rev Mehana, I hate to burst your bubble, but if your idea of "being in heaven" is a vote for a political party - ANY political party - then you have a very narrow view of heaven.  One that I, for one, want no part of.  If that means that I also "lack a broad understanding of the concept of heaven", then so be it.

Source: Madam & Eve on-line (www.madamandeve.co.za)
And while I'm on my soapbox, last time I looked at my Laws and Disciplines, Paragraph 4.92 states that "[a] Minister who takes up a party-political post or any other appointment that Conference or the connexional Executive considers will compromise the necessary independence of the Church in its witness to the Gospel in society, shall resign from the ministry failing which shall be deemed to have resigned".  This was the reason why Rev Mvume Dandala resigned from the MCSA when taking up a party-political post with The Congress of the People (COPE).  Rev Dandala only returned to the ministry once he had relinquished his post as COPE leader.

Rev Mehana may well argue that many Methodist ministers hold chaplaincy appointments.  The difference in this case is that this particular chaplaincy is to a political party.  In my eyes, his statement issued on behalf of the "ANC Office of the Chaplain-General" would certainly "compromise the necessary independence of the Church in its witness to the Gospel in society" in many people's eyes - mine included.

While I consider it my civic duty to exercise my freedom to vote for the party of my choice, and would certainly encourage others to exercise this hard fought-for right that all South Africans of voting age now enjoy, I have never been a card-carrying member of any political party, and as a minister of the Gospel, I will never do so.  When I stand up in front of a congregation one day, I want to be able to look each and every member in the eye and ensure that they know that I am there to serve all of them, regardless of their political affiliation.

Whether Rev Mehana will be able to have the same relationship with his congregants who choose to vote for parties other than the ANC is debatable.  Or will he simply tell them that they are all in "hell"?

Monday, 7 February 2011

Talk may be cheap, but words written down are another story!

Our Systematic Theology course on Wesleyan theology started today, and one of the prescribed books is "Good News to the Poor: John Wesley's Evangelical Economics".  We do have some copies in the SMMS library, but with certain books it is better to have one's own copy.  Unfortunately, a drive to three Christian bookshops in Pietermaritzburg proved fruitless, since none had stock.

But while we were about it, we decided to enquire about pricing for the "New Interpreter's Bible Commentary".  Not just the one-volume version (I have one of those), but the "real McCoy" - the 12-volume version, which our lecturer (Pete Grassow) mentioned was a "bit expensive" but a worthwhile investment nonetheless.  Needless to say, the booksellers didn't have this in stock, either.

I then went onto website loot.co.za, who I'm told are the cheapest in SA.  "Good News" was R241.00, including postal delivery - a reasonable chunk of change, but not too bad when compared to most academic books.  But the price for "Interpreter's" was a jaw-dropping R5,924.00!

This is equivalent to four times my seminarian's monthly living allowance (plus a bit of extra change), so either I don't eat for four months (no snide comments, please, Pete), or alternatively, like Dion, I'm going to have to start harvesting kidneys to pay for my "tools of the trade" - unless there's some kind benefactor out there :-)

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Do we want a "big piece" or a "little piece" of Jesus?

This morning we took part in Holy Communion at Prestbury Methodist Church, where I've been worshipping for the past year, and I had the privilege of assisting Michael Stone (the resident minister) with the serving of the elements.

At Prestbury we do things a little bit differently, in that instead of using wafers or little pieces of bread, one of the Society Stewards brings a loaf of home-baked bread each time we celebrate Communion.  Believe you me, there is nothing quite like walking into church on a Sunday morning and having your nostrils caressed by the incredible aroma of freshly-baked bread.

There is also something incredibly symbolic in the image of Michael ripping this massive loaf of bread in half, while speaking those immortal words ... "Jesus took bread, broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, 'this is my body, broken for you ... take, eat...' ".

But is was also, as always, a source of great amusement to me when Michael bent down and engaged in deep conversation with the children, because I knew what he was asking them: "Do you want a little piece (of bread) or a big piece?"  Judging by the massive hunk of bread that each child was bearing as they came past me to receive the grape juice, there was no doubt what their request was.  In fact, it made me wish I had a similar-sized cup of grape juice for them to wash it down with!

(For those not familiar with Methodist Communion services, it is our practice to have separate little cups for each person to partake of, rather than using a "common cup" from which all drink out of.  I'm not sure whether the reasons are theological, hygienic, or both - perhaps this is something I can explore in a later post.)

But this whole "big piece / little piece" got me thinking about this particular question on a deeper level.  Jesus speaks in John 6: 35 about being the "bread of life", and in this context Michael's question to the children got me thinking: Do we want a "big piece" of Jesus - one that will fill our lives completely?  Or are we content to settle for a "little piece" - just enough for Sunday, but one that is gone, forgotten, "digested" by the time Monday comes around?

The other interesting thing is that it's the younger children who ask for the "big piece", but as they get older, they show preference for a "little piece".  Could there be an illustration of child-like faith at work here?  Do we lose this faith when we get older?  If so, why?  And more importantly, how can we get it back?

I'm not sure if anyone has ever developed a theology around the size of a piece of bread, but I sense next week's sermon (which I will be preaching at Prestbury) starting to percolate here...