Friday, April 29, 2011

Mishnah, Dust and Contemporary Authors

I have come across a couple of web pages recently which talk about urban legends that regularly surface in sermons. Two of these, apparently, are that the 'Eye of the Needle' is a gate into Jerusalem and that Gehenna was the rubbish dump outside Jerusalem that was continually burning. While these both have a long tradition of being taught there is no evidence from early times that they are true.
The most recent web page I went to included the 'dust of the rabbi' as an urban legend. This is something that I have read in both Rob Bell (Velvet Elvis) and John Ortberg (God is Closer Than You Think). The idea is that Jewish students were encouraged to follow their rabbi so closely as he walked along that they would get coated in the dust kicked up by his feet. The value, obviously not being in the dust, but in the close proximity to the example and teaching of the rabbi.
I was surprised to see this listed as an urban legend - although I know that it has been said that Rob Bell tends to read too much from the 2nd century Judaism back into Jesus' time, I find John Ortberg to be pretty reliable. I did a bit of researching.

I discovered that Rob Bell had or has an association with Willow Creek Community Church - I didn't know that. At any rate he spoke about 'Dust' there according to their archived programme. At this stage John Ortberg was on staff there and was part of the programme with Rob Bell. I was a bit disappointed to discover that my two 'independent' sources were not independent! Not that there is anything wrong with them not being independent, or both speaking at Willow Creek - it just changes things when you are looking for the truth behind a story.
It turns out (if you read the books carefully) that they both credit Dutch teacher Ray vander Laan with the insights about the dust of the rabbi. He sounds like a fascinating teacher and I think I must get hold of one of his dvd's. (His webpage is at
I can't find out anything about Ray vander Laan's sources - so the trail that I have been following was cut off.
The only readily available source for the 'dust' idea comes from the Mishnah. A tractate called the 'Avot' (or 'Aboth') - The Sayings of the Fathers. These are the words of 1:4 

Yosei ben Yoezer of Tzreida and Yosef ben Yoch
anan of Yerushalayim received from him.Yosei ben Yoezer of Tzreida says, 
Make your house a meeting house for the sages; 
and get sooty in the dust of their feet, and drink with thirst their words.

Given that John Ortberg uses this in the context of Mary sitting at Jesus's feet, it seems to be relevant. I think that these authors may have taken a little license in expanding the principle from the Mishnah, but I don't think it is so far out of court to call the concept an urban legend.

Some links:
Wikipedia Avot Tractate chapter 1
Tom Seid - including the commentary from the Talmud
A contemproary Jewish commentary on this passage from the Mishnah

Of Frogs and Princes

As this is my 800th post, I thought I ought to make it meaningful. But that's a bit boring.
Today is apparently 'Save the Frogs Day'.
It's also the day that the Prince of England marries his princess.
Is there something in that? Something reaching back to the days of fairy tales?

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Knowing too much?

The BibleGateway blog has this image with the question 'Why read the Bible in Greek?' Which caused me to take this thought journey.
Some years ago I was at a local church display of all sorts of interesting bits of pieces. They had some scrap of something with Hebrew writing on it carefully propped up. I looked at it for a while trying to figure out why it looked wrong and then realised that it was upside down. I agonised about it - should I turn it around or just leave it. Should I mention it to anyone? Would they care? Why should I care? I did turn it around and felt guilty later - I think I even blogged about it at the time.
The same with this fragment of Greek above. I looked at it thought - cool, a chance to try out my Greek. But it baffled me. Until I realised that words had been split across line breaks and the the letter 'mu' had gone funny in the chosen font. When I had filled in these bits of the puzzle I could work out most of the Greek.
So the answer to 'why read Greek?' might be 'so that I can see when people make silly mistakes.' But actually I don't like doing that. I'd rather be in happy ignorance of other people's weaknesses and failings. Is knowing certain things really helpful? Or does it just give one a sense of awkward superiority?
I really need to struggle with this whole idea some more . . .

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Easter Sunday

Our children were all away on camp over the Easter weekend, so my husband came with me to Greytown on Easter Sunday. As we were driving through the town on the way to the church he remarked on a long line of children being shepherded along. "I wonder where they are all going?" he said. "Um, I can guess," I answered, "would you mind giving some thought to a children's address for this morning's service?"
And so our Easter service went from the anticipated 30 or 40 people to a church that was nearly full  - mostly children from the local orphanage.
It was actually awesome - God just took it and everyone helped. The ladies scrambled to get more Communion elements sorted out. My husband did a children's talk. Everyone sang with enthusiasm. I got through the sermon with at least some of the children following. The Bible reading that I chose to focus on was Peter's address to Cornelius's household from Acts 10 - one of the lectionary readings. I started by describing how Cornelius had gathered his whole family and all his friends to hear what Peter had to say - and it felt like a similar thing had happened with all the children and their carers present.
God is good!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Dalton Methodist Church

Dalton is about halfway between Greytown and Pietermaritzburg. Dalton Methodist Church is in the same Circuit as Greytown and I will be spending some time at Dalton as well as at Greytown. This morning (Good Friday) I took a service at Greytown and left them singing the last hymn to get to Dalton not-too-late. The congregation is bigger than the one at Greytown and has a more established leadership structure. My role will mostly be to do Communion services periodically.
Dalton raises all sorts of questions about the role of a minister in the Methodist Church. What should a church like Dalton do? They are not,due to financial contraints, in a position to invite a minister of their choosing. They can manage reasonably well on their own. However, lay people are not allowed to preside over the sacraments. I should think that inevitably there would, after time, be some shift from Methodist discipline and doctrine in  the absence of a trained person who is accountable to the larger Church.
To be honest, my position at Dalton is likely to be uncomfortable. They might feel that I am forced on them because of my 'power' to do sacraments. I don't want to meddle with a working system when I will only be around for a few months. Ideally, they should try to get into a position to take on a minister, but from what I have heard they do not want to go that route.
For myself - I will look and listen to see where Jesus guides me. But I think this is something that the church as a whole needs to get to grips with.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Greek Exercise

How do I meaningfully blog on Greek exegesis- or translation? Does anyone care? And if they do, how much Greek do they know? So let me just start in the middle and see what I learn!
John 8:58
εἰπεν αὐτοις Ἰησους-ἀμην ἀμην λεγω ὑμιν, πριν Ἀβρααμ γενεσθαι ἐγω εἰμι.

εἰπεν - he said (past tense, Aorist)
αὐτοις - to them
Ἰησους - Jesus

Because word order in Greek doesn't determine meaning as it does in English, we recognise that Jesus is the subject of the sentence from the form of the word Ἰησους and so the translation so far is 'Jesus said to them'.
I've put a hyphen next - it should be a dot in the middle of the line, but I can't find it on my keyboard! Here it implies that direct speech follows.

ἀμην - truly
ἀμην - truly (again!)
λεγω - I say
ὑμιν - to you (plural).

πριν - before that
Ἀβρααμ - Abraham
γενεσυαι - came to be: This is where it gets fun! The verb is infinitive, I think because it needs to be after πριν (before that). It is also not possible to tell whether the intention is active or passive because the verb forms are the same. But I can't think of any other meaningful way of translating it except 'came to be'.

So far 'truly truly I say to you, before that Abraham came to be'.

ἐγω - this a pronoun emphasising 'I' because the pronoun is already implicit in the verb (which is why you don't see ἐγω above with I say).
εἰμι - I am.

Thus the whole sentence in my own translation:

Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly I say to you (pl); Before Abraham came to be I (with emphasis) am."

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

New Words for Calling

I said in a previous post that I was hearing my calling to the ministry in 'new words'.
The first of these new words came about this time last year. I was having a conversation with Ross Olivier (president of the seminary) in his old office at the Texel residence. I can't remember the context of the conversation or what I said, but at one point he said, in some frustration, 'I don't think any of us really know what we are called to.' When one looks at Ross's ministry, which has included all sorts of different things, that statement makes sense - I don't think he even thought of being president of a seminary when he responded to God's call, for instance.

But the words struck a chord with me. The essence of my call is to be used wherever God wants to use me. I know that this is in a church context. I know that I need to preach, lead and probably teach. But beyond that . . . I'm open to the adventure of the unknown.

I think.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Pre-School Teachers

I spend part of every second Monday at the Phakamisa Pre-School Teachers training programme at Metro Methodist Church in Pietermaritzburg. We have a group of nearly 30 ladies who are working at pre-schools in the area who come in to get hands on training. They start the day with 'arrival activities' where they colour in pictures to be used as visual aids or other classroom decorations (such as birthday charts). When the whole group has gathered they move on to 'ring time' where actual classroom lessons are demonstrated, with the teachers acting as the children. In the middle of the morning they have tea and then devotions in the church. After this it is back to their classrooms for more teaching sessions and they finish at lunch time.

As far as the students are concerned, my role is 'umfundisi'. I wander around being friendly and then lead the devotions. This is a role that I struggle with - because it feels like I could use my time more effectively - but I have always felt convinced that this sort of thing matters. I am now learning to understand it as a 'ministry of presence'. The people involved know that I could be doing other things, but they know that I have chosen to rather spend the time with them. And this validates them.

And I'm just like them - if someone chooses to spend time with me when I know they have other things to do, I also get a lift! All part of being 'Jesus with skin on'.

Phakamisa Pietermaritzburg is an outreach of Phakamisa Pinetown.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Easter is Coming

Last Sunday I asked the congregation at Greytown if they could organise a banner to put on the fence for the Easter services. This Sunday I arrived and - there it was!
One lady said it brought tears to her eyes - seeing the banner that used to be there every Easter up again. I hope and pray that this Easter will be a time of resurrection for this little community - but I don't know what their long term prospects are. Methodist ministers are in short supply and cost money.
We had a local preacher from nearby Dalton take the service this morning. There were 36 people (because I was just sitting I could count!) I am starting to know the regulars.
My immediate challenge - to take it easy and not to drown the congregation in my newby enthusiam. To listen and watch carefully to see what Jesus wants to do. To find some pastoral work to do during the week.
God is always good.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Detail or Big Picture

Someone made a comment to the effect that I focus too much on detail. I saw it a couple of days ago, and it's been knocking around in my mind. I have never been a detail person and I have found that if I'm forced into detail mode for too long I can't function - I just give up. Earlier this evening I was at a loose end and I was playing with an online aptitude test, which cried out triumphantly to me 'Jenny, you are an ACCOUNTANT'. With apologies to all the accountants out there, that comes at me almost like an insult! But, accountancy is an area that requires detail and precision, so it makes me think. I am studying Greek - again that is a discipline that requires attention to detail. Am I becoming a 'detail person'? Does it matter?
On the other hand - and this is what really counts! The original comment was not intended to be taken too seriously. The online test was unbalanced and at least one of the questions did not have the correct answer available and so I can't be sure that it was reliable. And while I enjoy Greek, learning the detail has become a torture - which I will endure!
But it's not a bad thing be able to work with detail, even if it's not my home ground.

Friday, April 15, 2011


On Wednesday I fetched my boys from school at about 4pm and took them home. We must have just missed the most massive hailstorm. We drove through dense mist, the roads were streaming with muddy water and were rock-strewn. The pavements were white with hail - and under the hail was a layer of leaves. Some trees are now standing bare and some even have broken branches.
In one of those odd coincidences I had just read the account of the plagues in Egypt from Exodus. I certainly have a better feeling for the devastation experienced by the Egyptians now. And even a 'tip of the iceberg' understanding of what New Zealand and Japan have been going through.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Hello Kevin

Rev Kevin Zondagh is a Methodist trainee (probationer) minister who is a year ahead of me. He has started blogging about doing ministry in Kimberley here. It would be cool if some folk stopped by and said 'hi'.


I had thought that I should have a go at some Greek exegesis on this blog, seeing as I am putting so much effort into learning the language. However, when I looked at my chosen verse (John 8:58) I struggled.
So here is the meaning of ουκ (ouk) which Terry Pratchett fans will know is very similar to the only word used by the librarian of the university in Ankh-Morpork - ook. I can't read Greek text without being reminded of this librarian because the word occurs quite often. As something of an anticlimax, it simply means 'not'.
In the meantime I will wrestle my limited Greek into submission and try to parse γενεσθαι in order to translate my chosen verse.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Sangomas and Cell Phones

I am busy reading 'The Elephant Whisperer' by Lawrence Anthony who is the founder of Thula Thula Game Park in KwaZulu-Natal. One particular story that he recounts really appeals to me as a cameo of South African culture. It raises so many possible 'questions for discussion' in a class on the subject - but the best thing is that it shows how we, as South Africans, are able to look at ourselves and smile at our complexity.

The author has had some positive experiences with a sangoma . . .

Francoise had an idea that overseas guests would be interested in this, so we made an arrangement with a local sangoma to receive lodge guests who wanted to "have their fortunes told". He started doing well with the extra fees he was receiving and the guests loved it.
The next thing we knew he was showing off a brand new, shiny briefcase which he carried with him wherever he went. We spoke to him, explaining that his image and regalia of skins and beads were important for overseas guests, and that he must always hide his new briefcase when they arrive. He agreed most reluctantly, because, as he explained, it was such a beautiful briefcase and the guests would be most impressed.
As his income increased his accoutrements grew to include a new cellphone which he strapped to his belt with Zulu beads. We also had to reason with him about that because he had taken to making calls in the middle of his divinations, explaining to his clients that this special phone didn't need wires.

(The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony, published by Pan Books 2010, page 268)

Sunday, April 10, 2011

My Colleague

This is my colleague Akhona Gxamza. He will be working with me at Greytown Methodist Church. Here he is doing the readings at the service this morning.
I think that we will work well together.

Today's service was somewhat bigger than last week - about 30 or 35 people, I guess. The weather was much better and I'm sure that encouraged more people to venture out. There is an enthusiastic spirit and we are looking forward to our Easter services.

Friday, April 08, 2011

What am I called to?

I have been rereading Gordon MacDonald's book, "Ordering Your Private World". The chapter that has made me stop and think is the one where he says that we need to be sure that we know what we are called to - and then to order our lives according to that calling. I think, I hope, that this is part of God putting me back together to go out into the real world after seminary.
About a year ago I stopped stressing about 'call'. I was unhappy, but couldn't work out if it was something to do with my 'calling' and I wasn't getting anywhere struggling with it, so I let it go. It has in many ways been liberating. But at the beginning of this year I could not have formulated my 'call'. If someone had asked me to explain my call I would not have been able to - not that I didn't believe in it anymore - just the old words didn't apply.
But in the last little while (I'm not sure how long, time blurs) I have felt that God has been giving me a new sense of call. With new words. And I must admit that I am excited and very much overawed that Jesus should really want me.
So I am listening quite hard at the moment.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Like Fantasy Fiction?

Do you like Fantasy Fiction? Would you like to help a fellow blogger?
Ryan Peter is looking for beta-readers for his book 'When Twins War' - click here for more info.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Bring on Africa

Man, this is the best - you have to read Khaya Dlanga and The Two Most Romantic Bible Stories!
Bring on Africa! We are real.

Back to that PhD

Today is the day. I have a handful of admin things that I am going to ignore. One idea that I might pursue. Otherwise, I have until 3.30pm today in which I am going to read for my thesis. I have done exactly one hour of work in the last three weeks and am frustrated. But now it ends!
Already, this morning, I am starting to get a bit of clarity of purpose and direction. The big things is always THE PROPOSAL. Everyone asks about it. Is it in? Approved? How are you doing?
Except for my supervisors. In my first discussion with Prof Gerald West last year when I started stressing about proposals he brought a different angle. From his point of view the usual rush for a proposal is for the doctoral candidate to convince the university that they have the capability to write a PhD thesis. He said that I had already convinced him in conversation and the little that he had seen of my writing [my ego grows a bit here!] I am not to worry about the proposal. Go and read and read and read and it will all come together quickly later on.
That has only really sunk in now. I've let other things drive me. This is my PhD. The seminary is helping me, but it is not theirs. It is not a competition nor a race. It is an opportunity for me to put my head down and see if I can do some internationally acceptable academic thinking.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Child of Wotsizname

Early on in my study of Greek I was struck by the way that our theological or church language has been shaped by the structure of the Greek language. I first saw this in the way that we talk about Jesus as the Son of God and less commonly as God's Son. We call him the Lamb of God - it sounds very odd to talk about Jesus as God's lamb. The structure of the Greek drives the Bible translation to the more clumsy English construction - but it shouldn't and it shapes our thinking! If someone asks me whose dog I am playing with, I tell them that it is my son's dog - not the dog of my son!
It is interesting that if you ask a black South African whose home language is not English, "Whose child is that?" they will often respond, "That is the child of . . . of . . . wotsizname" and use the 'of' construction because that is natural in at least the Nguni languages just as in Greek. So English: God's son. Greek: ὁ ὑιος του θεου isiXhosa: uNyana kaThixo - where even the Xhosa contains an archaism in that uNyana is not in everyday use except as reference to God's Son!
And the wotsizname comes in, not because the speaker has forgotten the name of his or her friend, but because they are struggling to remember the name that this person is known by to white people! One of the good things about seminary is when black seminarians come to realise that some white people would like to know their 'home name' and call them by it. And when white seminarians come to know that some black people are willing to share their home names with white people.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Dear Google Ads

Dear Google Ads

The feed that was successfully fetched was my blog feed - I am not embarking on a farming exercise and am not interested in farrowing sows.


The Average Blogger
(Google is a technology company - right?)

Greytown Methodist Church

This is Greytown Methodist Church, where I have been 'attached' as an intern for the rest of the year. I took the service there this morning - and I must admit I am kind of amped!
It took me just over an hour to get there. The road is good, but there is the occasional truck and today was misty as well. It's a pleasant drive - not quite up to Grahamstown standards, but better than going to Howick (Brentwood) in terms of scenery.
The people were very friendly and welcoming. They have been through a fairly rough period with ministers coming and going. It is going to be quite interesting - understandably, they feel a little suspicious of ministers. There were about 20 people in the service. The mix was what I think has become predictable in small English-speaking Methodist churches - grey haired white people and young black people with a few others as a bonus.
I arrived with a reputation as a 'musical expert' preceeding me and they wanted me to play guitar (they were bit apologetic that they don't sing hymns - unusual!). This guitar thing is something that I have only done seriously at seminary, so I feel a bit under pressure!
We got through the service and had tea together. Now I need to think! It would be very easy just to coast along (and in truth it might be the best thing to do), but I don't want to. I'd like to make some (even small) impact. So what do I do next?

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Detecting Fraud

I was thinking about this recent discovery of ancient writings and wondering what obvious things would point to forgery. The first thing to do would be to check up on the scientist making all the fuss. What I read about him seemed ok at the time, but it seems that he has been seen as suspect before. The second thing that made me wonder was the fact that the codices were made up of lead, or lead compounds. I don't know anything about early metal tablets, but lead struck me as a highly unlikely option because it is so soft. If the idea was to create something that endures, surely a harder metal would be used. It seems though that it is more the fact that the lead is cast that is making experts suspicious. The third thing that struck me is that the writings were apparently in Hebrew or Hebrew code - I think that this would be anachronous in that the early Christian Church would have used Greek or Aramaic. However, if a code was intended, then Hebrew could be a good option. As it turns out, the writing seems to be both Greek and Hebrew and the 'code' is probably just a lack of understanding of the languages. Portions have been copied from texts kept in a museum in Jordan and sometimes incorrectly copied - creating a sense of almost meaning!
Maybe the things that make us wonder should make us wonder some more . . .

Friday, April 01, 2011

More on Jordanian Codices

The 'newly-discovered' codices from the Jordan don't seem to be so mysterious after all. Thanks to Ken Schenck, here are two expert articles. Peter Thonemann and Rogue Classicist. Pity.
Here's a challenge to myself - to be able to engage in these sort of conversations on a meaningful level based on my own knowledge!

Called to blog?

I haven't blogged much in the last three weeks. Intentionally, and mostly because I was afraid that I might say things that I really shouldn't say - let's leave it at that! But I have found that while blogging was always a discipline for me - something that I needed to make a point of doing - I miss it. In fact, the compulsion to blog has become something like the compulsion that is in me to preach. It's not a question of wanting to do it or even enjoying it. There is something that will make me preach in spite of how I feel and sometimes in spite of whether I think it is a good idea or not. And certainly in spite of whether I think I am any good at it or not! In the Methodist Church, and no doubt others, we say this is a 'call to preach'. So now if I have the same feeling about blogging, am I 'called to blog'? There are some very interesting ideas there - such as the church possibly training bloggers! Why not?
"The lion has roared- who will not fear?
The Lord has spoken- who can but prophesy?"
Amos 3:8.