Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Such Nice People

I'm not sure if I'm asking for trouble writing this, but something that bothers me is the number of times that theological arguments are topped with, 'but they are such nice people' as if that really is the deciding factor. There are a few reasons that this bothers me - the main one is the number of times that we hear people say - after discovering that their neighbour is an axe murderer - 'but he seems to be such a nice person'.
Another thing is that I am pretty sure that a lot of people don't see me as 'such a nice person'. Not because I am evil, but I am definitely on the introvert side of the scale and it can be difficult to talk to me and I can be somewhat unpredictable. So, if being 'such a nice person' is key, I might be on the wrong side (although I do try, I promise).
My thoughts were prompted by a blog post by Ken Schenck which refers to a Christian scam played by a high profile 'archaeologist', Ron Wyatt. This is part of what the article he refers to says

Christians of all different persuasions have developed the "tickled ear" syndrome. They are so busy chasing the things of the world while claiming to be seeking the things of the kingdom, there is not enough time to really study, search, and pray. We'll just find a nice looking man or woman who, for a little of our money and a couple hours on Sunday will keep us informed of what we need to do to be ready "when the Lord returns." And most of those who live like this do not realize that because of their own attitude about how to spend their time, they have prepared themselves to be a perfect candidate to attend a church with the same kind of leaders as Ron Wyatt.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Called to preach or what?

Something that the Methodist Church makes a big thing of is the idea of 'called to preach'. It's sort of a first step into the ordained ministry which is 'called to word and sacrament'. Preaching has been an imprtant part of what I do for quite a long time, but I have very mixed feelings about it. Coming to seminary this year I knew that opportunities to preach would be few and far between and I was determined to 'bury the call' as much as I could. Oddly enough, I seem to have been quite successful. I think that there are two reasons for this. The one is that I am preparing chapel worship every week and although I am not preaching, I am satisfying something in myself that needs to bring people into connection with God. The other is that I am writing this blog nearly everyday and occasionally interacting on other blogs - and I think some of my 'call to preach' has really been a 'call to wrestle' - with theology, the Bible and God, which I am satisfying on the internet. In fact, when I think of some of the sermons I have preached I wonder how I could ever have brought my wrestling so easily into the pulpit. Of course, 'intellectual' sermons were also more acceptable 20 years ago. So, if I'm called, it is to help people encounter God, to wrestle with an understanding of faith - and perhaps also to preach.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Inkonzo ingena eHowick

I went out to Brentwood this morning as I do most Sundays. But when I got there at 9am the place was all locked up. A sign on the gate said 'Inkonzo ingena eHowick ngo-10.30'. They had obviously decided that today was to be a joint service with the Zulu section of the Howick Methodist Church. Would have been nice if someone had let me know! I decided to go on into Howick and attend the English service at the Methodist Church, although I would be a little late - but somehow just going home felt empty. This meant that as I was leaving I greeted members of the Brentwood congregation as they were arriving. They seemed disappointed that I was going - and it wasn't their fault that the leaders didn't tell me what was happening, but I had promised to be somewhere else around 11.00.
This sort of thing is not uncommon in the black African Methodist Church - but it is difficult to be highly motivated when it does happen!

Friday, March 26, 2010


Today is the last day of term at SMMS. I learnt a new Xhosa word - siyagoduka, which means 'we are going home'. People are packing cars and loading up for trips to their various families and home communities. I am happy to have my immediate family right here in Pietermaritzburg.
End of term means, for me, a time to start tidying up the chaos that I am living in. My Zulu notes are in the bag that I use for clothes, as is my music - I can't remember why, but they've been going backwards and forwards with me for the last few days. The coffee table in my lounge is a sort of impromptu filing system - but it is near the open door, so my filing is rearranged by the wind quite regularly.
The holiday is quite short - because I will be working over Easter (one of the things about being a minister!) But it will be a time to reflect and set new priorities for the coming term.
It's good just to feel the atmosphere of joy and celebration that is here today!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

That Culture Thing Again

More than one person has said to me that the aims and ideals of our pre-school shouldn't have anything specific to do with culture, but should be about equipping the kids for 'big school'. And I say to them that this is true to a degree, but working in a different culture means that sometimes things work in different ways unexpectedly.
Last night we had a meeting of the newly formed Governing Body (which went very well, in spite of my concerns). At one point I raised something that needed to be dealt with and the meeting picked it up and discussed it without needing too much input from me (great!). They came to a decision very easily, but I was confused because it was a different conclusion to the one that I would have reached. It was a minor issue and I didn't mind which way it went, but I asked them why they chose this route. They looked at me, at each other, smiled and said this is just the right way. After a little encouragement I did manage to get a sense of the reason and I was happy about it, but what struck me was the way that they had unspoken agreement. It seems to me that something in their upbringing, in their way of doing life, is different to mine bringing about a different 'obvious' answer.
I think that many times our cultural clashes come about because things are 'obvious' when they have been worked through and rehearsed previously - when they become part of a culture. When your obvious is different to my obvious and we are not aware of it, discussion closes down.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Time Off

It was great to have a long weekend! It's amazing how much just a short break helps to put things into perspective. Not that I've exactly solved all my problems . . .
And one advantage of seminary is that we do get holidays - so next week is off too!

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Contemplative Pastor

Last week's reading was The Contemplative Pastor, by Eugene Peterson. It was a good book for me to read where I am now. It starts with a strong reminder of the importance of prayer. Also a call for pastors to remember that they have radical news to proclaim about the coming of the kingdom of God. Peterson calls for us not to make pastoring a tame, compromising profession. This is the sort of thing that gets me inspired.
I'm also inspired to read Annie Dillard - who I see quoted in many places. Peterson has a whole chapter devoted to her and her thinking. So I am going to look out for 'Pilgrim at Tinker Creek'.
To give you an idea of the book, chapters 2 to 4 are titled 'The Unbusy Pastor'; 'The Subversive Pastor' and 'The Apocalyptic Pastor'.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Pre-school blues

The pre-school that I am supposed to be helping 'get on track' is causing me headaches! Neither of the two teachers working there is qualified and they are most upset that I believe that we can only move forward with at least one qualified teacher in place. They tell me that a qualification is no proof that a person has the ability to work with children. Now, this is true, but the opposite is not - having no qualification does not show that you are able to work with children!
So I watch the teacher giving out 'work'. She tears pictures from a stapled set of photocopies. She gives each child a picture and one wax crayon. They know what to do. Go sit at the table, colour in, and don't break the crayon. This is what they always do, with the same set of pictures (things like an elephant playing a cello) and always with one crayon.
I shared this with a colleague who used to be a pre-school teacher - she tells me, 'I would have killed her by now'. Ok, a bit extreme, but I know how she feels. It reminds me of those stories set in the Victorian era where children are treated harshly - fierce discipline and little actual stimulation (and then we have the rags to riches tale of one lucky child). How can we, in South Africa today, have the same treatment given to our children?
But I can't persuade the teacher that she is doing anything wrong. That training helps a teacher to learn how to stimulate the children appropriately.
And if we can't find the money to pay a qualified teacher - or find a teacher who is willing to be a 'missionary' and work for very little, I don't see how we can change anything!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

This time last year . . .

This time last year, I was in Grahamstown. I hadn't seen my husband and children for about ten weeks and there was still ten days to go before I would go home and see them. I was feeling very dislocated. I was thoroughly immersed in Xhosa culture - it was possible that I did not speak to a white person (except my husband on the phone) for days at a time. I couldn't understand the church services or meetings that I had to attend (because of the language).
On the positive side, I had a great supervising minister who made sure that I was included on Sundays and that on weekends I was meaningfully productive. He allowed me to do as much as I could do and I really appreciated that. I also came into the year strong and enthusiastic.
This year - my family is with me - I don't know how I coped last year! The cultural dislocation is far less extreme. On the other hand, I came into this year weak and I am struggling to rebuild myself. I am struggling to find real meaning in what I am doing.
But I can't regret my phase 1 year in Grahamstown - I learnt so much (and the pain is done). I'm sure that God's plan for me this year will become clearer as we go along!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Time to Pray

I know that I really need to make more time to pray. I used to say - this was maybe five or six years ago - that I didn't know how one could be a pastor or a minister without spending at least two hours a day in prayer. I wasn't a pastor, but I managed for quite some time to get in two hours - most days. But somehow that eroded - the rhythms of life change, children get bigger, I don't know what exactly. But right now I am feeling the lack of time to pray acutely. I thought that I would try to allocate an hour of my seminary time to prayer - starting yesterday. Except that the first time I thought about it was in bed last night.
I really am going to try, starting today. I know I won't manage it every day - there isn't space in the schedule - but I'm going to do what I can.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Last Lecture

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch is the last thoughts of a professor of computer science who discovers that he is dying of cancer. Very easy reading, but challenging and motivational. He writes the book as a way of recording memories for his small children who will probably have few, if any, actual memories of him. I didn't find it an emotional book - just a very self aware sharing of a journey and his own particular way of coping.

Saturday, March 13, 2010


What makes a blog like 'Discerning the World' so popular? It would seem to have such a narrow focus that one would expect it to have limited appeal - but I don't really know what the 'person in the pew' is thinking. The thing that I don't enjoy about the blog is the spirit of mockery that I find there.
As a preacher I have learnt to be very careful about mocking the things with which I disagree. It is is a very easy way of scoring cheap 'points'. It is quite easy to ridicule something and to get people to laugh and then they are somehow convinced that you are right and that those others are wrong. But they are cheap points - because we are wired deep down to side with the strong - and let's face it, those who are being laughed at are the weak. It is like the school playground where the class wimp has fallen in the mud and the school surrounds him and laughs and jeers. Or perhaps just watches. We know that we ought to go into the centre of the crowd and support him - but if our mockery is validated (we are told that this is appropriate behaviour) then we love to stand in the crowd and jeer. We feel strong, because we are not the one who is in the mud. We are part of the mocking crowd. We belong.
It is also cheap because we can usually find something to ridicule about everyone and their beliefs. We are not all 100% consistent and logical. But one or two silly spots doesn't necessarily invalidate us or our beliefs. Though, I must confess, that there are Christians who do seem to major in silly points and the ridiculous and these shouldn't be ignored either.
We had a speaker in seminary earlier this year. I can't remember anything that he said except that he was a mocking preacher. He mocked Joyce Meyer and her type. Then he mocked Rick Warren and his work. Then he indirectly mocked the Bible. He kind of lost credibility in my mind.
So I try hard not to mock when I preach.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Esther and Daniel

I am in the second year of my 'read the whole Bible in three years' programme and this week we have been reading Esther. In the last few years I have been struck by the similarities between the books of Daniel and Esther - which is maybe not surprising given that they are both set in the period just at the end of the exile.
The stories follow the same sort of theme. Esther is a young Jewish girl, Daniel a young Jewish boy (or teens if your prefer). They are both beautiful and well-respected and everything good. But they are Jews in foreign lands and they are living in rags rather than riches. However, they are 'discovered' in way or another and brought to positions of power in the countries in which they live. They continue to be good, well-liked and respected by all. But the time comes when they must make a stand for what is right. How will they use their positions? Both come through with flying colours and even after their great risk are well-liked and respected.
I suppose they are classical heroes - or maybe, rather, Biblical celebrities.
For me this flawlessness of the characters could detract from the book, but I guess it is a style of writing which tells the stories in its own way - and it is nice to have squeaky-clean heroes every once in a while.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Reduction to office work

Today I have almost too many things to do. But they all things that I can do on my computer and all things that I know I will be able to do (a lot of my journey this year has been into things I can't do!) So I need to put my head down and go and try not to panic or worry (which takes up time).
But I wonder how it is that I have managed to reduce all of the varied projects that I have into computer work? For today anyway. Is this something that I will always do? Do I LIKE office work? Do I somehow feel that I only achieve when I produce something on my computer?
I'm sure that other people will brings things down to different places - perhaps reading, or creating or visiting.
Do I like who I am? Is it useful to God? These are questions that I think are useful and I am glad that seminary is leading me to them.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

College Life

Ok, so things are settling down into a routine. Which is good and bad - bad because routine can become rut and good because I can start to plan. So I sat down and made sure that I could give seminary 40 hours Monday to Friday and also spend time with family and doing household chores. That all fits, plus some 'downtime'. But - I don't get to pray for more than about 10 minutes at a go, no space for regular exercise and no time to plan for doing a doctorate. So something must give . . .

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Gifted to lead: The art of leading as a woman in the church

I finished reading 'Gifted to lead: the art of leading as a woman in the church' by Nancy Beach (while waiting for my son's bus after a cricket match on Saturday).
It's a solid book. No fireworks, but it tackles real issues meaningfully. I haven't experienced the sort of intentional sidelining of women that she has - well, I've been to those churches, but never as someone who wanted to do more than be involved in a women and babies group. I'm glad I read the book. I'm glad that it is introduced by John Ortberg. I'm glad that increasingly women are being recognised as having leadership roles to play in the church.
The thing that I am wrestling with about women in leadership is that naturally men get on with men and women get on with women. It's not 100% always true, but at a social gathering the men group together and the women group together. Men talk sport or work and women talk family or work or whatever. There is such a natural inclination, then, for men to include other men on their leadership teams - because they get to know each other when talking rugby, while the women remain the unknown. They are people that you make polite conversation with and then move on. And this is natural - I don't think it is evil. Basically there is little chance for 'chemistry' to develop between men and women - the sort of chemistry that Bill Hybels talks about making for a good leadership team. And of course when I use the word chemistry, we all get nervous because 'chemistry' between a man and a woman can lead to the wrong places. It can be really hard work building relationships. But God's team is a winning team and let's see where he takes us!

Monday, March 08, 2010

Circuit Quarterly Meeting

The seminary students at SMMS constitute a circuit of the Methodist Church. Because of this, we have 'circuit quarterly meetings'. This does make sense, because we are not part of the local circuits in Pietermaritzburg and would not otherwise have the opportunity to participate in the formal discussions of the Methodist Church.
The main task for this evening's meeting was to look at the issues that had been referred back to circuits from the annual conference. Three of them - should it be true that once a bishop always a bishop? Should the Methodist Districts be made larger in order to cut costs (by having fewer districts and thus fewer bishops)? And some changes regarding youth representation which were really just clarification.
Somewhat unexpectedly, these all received unanimous responses from our meeting (no to permanent bishops, district rearrangement to be discussed by districts concerned and yes to the youth changes).

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Altar Calls

One of the features of black African Methodist services is what could be called an altar call. This happens after the sermon and another speaker (not the preacher) who is called ugqogqa will make a call for people who were touched during the sermon to come forward.
In my own context this call would be for people to dedicate themselves to Jesus, or to somehow express a new commitment to him. In this context, the call is to join the church or one of the organisations in the church. There is little or no talk of a personal commitment to Jesus or of repentance or a desire to live a new life.
I am confused - because I have never seen how the next step works. Last year, when I worked in the Eastern Cape, the leaders used to take the names of these people, but there was no follow-up. I'm not sure if they do follow-up in the church where I am now working. It could be that in the invitation to join instruction classes for church or organisation membership there is a discussion of personal commitment and repentance. And so, perhaps this is just a different route to the same place.
At Brentwood the people seem to be coming in numbers to join the church - it is great to see such a positive feeling. Today there were quite a few children and young people in the church. It will be interesting to see how things carry on.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Oh yes, hermeneutics (sigh)

Someone said (I can't remember who) in a comment on a blog some time back that we shouldn't wish for 'the one hermeneutic to rule them all' (based on Tolkien's one ring). But I do wish for that. As Christians, we mostly agree that the Bible is relevant to our faith. The crunch comes when we say how relevant? and how do we understand it?
I enjoy Ken Schenck's writing, although I often can't properly understand it (being an amateur theologian myself). This is what he says in an introduction to a paper he is writing:

An underlying thesis of this paper is that, in the end, only two approaches to the biblical text are coherent: 1) a historical-contextual approach and 2) reader-centered approaches that locate meaning (or "experience" of the text) in relation to specific readers and communities of readers. The spectrum of hermeneutical models currently in play are all varied combinations of these two broad categories, however they might self-describe. Despite the "ugly ditch" that often arises between conscientious use of contextual method and traditional faith readings of specific passages, the ditch is crossable. That is to say, these two hermeneutics can be integrated in a coherent way.

I enjoy his clarity of thought - and I think his optimism that we can bridge a fairly complicated hermeneutical divide. I hope at some stage we will have access to the full paper!

A question I ask myself . . .

. . . is why do people who claim to be in favour of women's rights and gender equality spend so much time talking about the gender of God and 'inclusive language' and so little time addressing issues of alcohol abuse which tend to lead to woman abuse?

Thursday, March 04, 2010


I can't wait for the weekend! Life is just a little busy at the moment. I've got to prepare a talk for tomorrow - and have I had a chance? Not yet, but it is next on the list. Without preaching regularly I am not in any sort of routine for preparing sermons!
My pre-schoolers impressed me today. For some reason they thought to ask me if I had brought worms with me! This is because I've been trying to teach them about insects and small beasties after I found them trying to kill an earthworm which they thought was a snake. Then they wanted to go into the playground and look for ladybirds. No ladybirds, but they did find a small snail and I was so pleased with their new attitude. They were gentle and curious and all the good things kids should be about creatures. Hopefully that will translate to how they treat each other as well!
On my way back to seminary I went to the bookshop to buy a Zulu hymn book and found 'special offers' - so I now have Jesus Creed by Scot McKnight to read (I can't quite figure McKnight out) and a book by Eugene Peterson. Life could be worse.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Covenant Group

Part of life at seminary is being part of a covenant group. As far as I can see, the exact format of each group is up to the group as long as there is space for sharing (and I suppose caring!) Our group had its first meeting today and it was great. We met at 7:45 and I came into the day more relaxed with the sense of starting with fellowship. I already knew most of the group reasonably well, so it wasn't too much into the 'unknown'. We had a short prepared devotion and then each of us just told the group who we were and what we were doing. We ran out of time, so that we couldn't pray for specific individual concerns, but it made me ask myself what I might have asked for prayer for. And then I realised that I have been so wound up that I haven't ever even asked myself what I would like God to do for me most. I've had to drag myself to a point where I pray for the events of my day and I need an unusual amount of discipline to pray for those people who really matter to me. Praying for myself, selfishly, has just been beyond the horizon for me. So, I hope that this group will continue to be a place that reminds me of things that matter - because I do matter! What would I like God to do for me most? Right now, to be officially allowed to spend every night at home with my family!

Monday, March 01, 2010

Methodists with a white past and a black future

I have just finished the book, 'Methodists with a white past and a black future' by Simanga Kumalo - having borrowed a copy after my own 'went missing'! Simanga Kumalo led our synod devotions last year and I first heard the title of this book when they introduced him to us. I was already feeling quite insecure being in a very small white minority at synod and the title of this book really made me want to give up and go home. There was clearly, in my mind, no space for white people in the Methodist Church.
However, it might have been better if Rev Kumalo had put a question mark at the end of the title of his book, because if his book is an answer to that question, then the answer is 'No'. Methodists are not a people (in South Africa) with an only white past or an only black future. Both people have been active throughout Methodist history in Southern Africa.
The first half of the book is basically a history of Methodism in South Africa, especially in KwaZulu-Natal. The second half is the history of the Central Methodist Church in Durban from about 1960 until now. The first part is interesting as a summary of Methodist history and particularly as it details the struggles around apartheid. The second part is a really honest look at black/white dynamics within the Methodist Church - and also at black dynamics.
For anyone who is interested in the Methodist Church or in doing 'multi-cultural' church this is a very good book to read.