Thursday, February 23, 2017

Expensive 'Gift'

Recently someone received a "gift" from a charity, and a big bill to go with it. But they were puzzled. They hadn't ordered it or invited it. So they stored it safely on a shelf without opening it. Next thing, they received a lawyer's letter, demanding the money. I visited the charity on their behalf, and returned the gift. No, said the charity, they didn't send out lawyer's letters. I showed them the letter, with their name emblazoned on it. I asked for proof that there had been an order -- or something of the sort. They revealed several audio recordings of their "customer". But just one of these was connected with their charity. It was their "customer" wondering why in the world they had received this "gift". I said: "This is not proof!" The charity offered to pay to the customer the amount they had demanded from them. And so there was peace.

Manifest Funding

I took this photo in 1994, of Jubilee Church on the small atoll of Beru, in the Republic of Kiribati. This was funded in an interesting way. The London Missionary Society had a "brick machine" which impressed the names of donors on the bricks of which it was built. Today, on the outer walls of the Church, one still finds countless names of donors impressed in the bricks. OBSERVATION: I took the photo wading in the lagoon. One could safely wade very far from land, and the water was warm. This is something I loved as a boy.

Church Reversion

This is an oft told story in Churches. After nearly two decades of urban ministry, an old man said to me: “We want our Church back!” I thought, Which Church do they want back? The Church of the late 1990's -- a small, elderly congregation, with leaking roofs and sinking finances? Or the resurgent Church of the early 2000's -- before the growth of Black participation? There wasn't much else to speak about. And then, wasn't it “our” Church more than ever? No member, no office-bearer of the Church, had been elected without a mandate from the members. No resolutions were passed without them. OBSERVATION: To approach a minister with such a desideratum was puzzling. People do assume sometimes that the minister is the “engineer”. In contexts other than Congregational, that might apply.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Human Body

Something I have learnt since marrying into a (largely) Xhosa culture is that they have a completely different attitude to the human body. Almost anything one would take for granted as a European is different. Just think of it, and it's different. The first thing I noticed, unsurprisingly, was the lack of privacy. But since then, my observations have (figuratively) grown to a book. Forget about European sensibilities, European conceptions, European prohibitions. At least, forget about them as you ever thought of them. OBSERVATION: I myself have adapted, to some modest extent. And I can't help thinking that the Xhosa way may be the better way, by and large.

Churchy Vacations

When I take a holiday / vacation, I make it a "Churchy" holiday. I make contact with the Church where I go, and become involved there. I took this photo during a holiday in Cambodia in 1994. It was the first Church to appear in Kampong Cham at the end of the war (before this, Kampong Cham was exclusively Buddhist). And I met the city's first Christian, an old woman who was too frail still to attend Church. I preached in this Church, which was full. There was hearty laughter when I stood up, because the people of Kampong Cham, and my interpreter, were small. I only find the photo in false colour.

'Educating' Myself

I did many things which brought greater discipline to Church finances. But there were a few things I missed. Here are lessons I recently learned from those of greater ability and experience than myself. I share them here in the hope of this being of some help to others. Firstly, I took too much on trust. This is natural, but it is not what one should be doing. When one looks at words and numbers on a page, they don't have trust or distrust written on them. Secondly, I appealed to facts where we had a problem. I should have appealed to authority. Or rather, I should have appealed more to authority. I was a trustee. That is easy to overlook in a Church which is governed congregationally. Thirdly, I should have insisted that every payment was minuted in meetings, and thoroughly followed up in the meetings which followed. OBSERVATION: There are many other things I could note about sound financial procedure, but these are points where I myself needed educating. Usually, of course, everything is fine in a Church. But one is not called to assume that everything is fine all the time.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

'Scripture Neat'

What makes an urban Church thrive? I wrote an article on it once. Near the top of my list was "Scripture neat". I have developed a strong emphasis on letting the Bible speak for itself -- to present central biblical themes and accounts as far as possible without dilution or rationalisation. OBSERVATION: The African city is frequently a place of trauma, turmoil, and degradation. It is frequently a place where talk about human solutions, through human agency, seems vain. People have little interest in what appears to them to be rationalisations or platitudes or pleasant stories. They need power and encouragement from on High. I believe that this has been very important in my ministries, above all in urban ministry.

Confederate Flag

I have found some strange things in my Churches, especially when I have had a little time waiting for appointments, burrowing around. One of my strangest finds was a beautiful Confederate flag (see the photo), which was tucked away with some very old things. I tucked it back, so it is probably still there, somewhere. OBSERVATION: This was a puzzle. This is, after all, Africa. The Confederates were the "slave states" in North America. See also Servicing Grenades.

Levels Of Ministry By Members

In my ministr(ies), every Sunday, I have sought to include ministry by members (the priesthood of believers) -- on three levels:
• Level 1. Member participation with little original input: handing out books, taking a reading in Church, and so on.
• Level 2. Members have brief personal input: presenting a song, introducing a set prayer, and so on, with a few words of their own.
• Level 3. Members have significant personal input: leading the Sunday prayers, giving a testimony in Church, and so on. 
Where I have found Level 2 and Level 3 not to be present in a Church (which is in every case), I have introduced them gently, one after the other. OBSERVATION: Level 3 is the greatest challenge, particularly in a chaotic, African urban environment. Whenever I have had Level 3 items in Church, I have had a Plan B to back them up. I have found that these three levels of ministry by members greatly enrich the Church. Diversity is also a goal here: all ages, cultures, and stations in life. (When I say "I", it is really "we". Everything proceeds through consensus).

Monday, February 20, 2017

Horse Thieves

I took this photo of an 11-year-old girl on a farm. Her grandfather had just told her that they had stolen horses on the neighbouring farm. Here she says: "But ... how can they steal horses Grandpa?" OBSERVATION: "Grandpa" again means someone of that whole generation. Kinship terms are by and large generational. One does not think in terms of "my" grandfather, or "your" daughter, and so on.

Effectual Editing

I have been working this morning with an article, which is interesting, yet it is a bit fragmented. Later today I shall meet with the author. She writes about a branch of philosophy called linguistic relativism, makes some observations about the two dominant views, and makes the assumption that she holds one of the two. But woven into her article -- which she does not appear to recognise -- is a new view of her own. I think it is big, and I think it is sound. So if we can draw that out, and overcome that fragmentation, and create something that is satisfactory to the senior editor ... This is the kind of thing I enjoy about editing, or perhaps I should say, about the kind of editing that I and my colleagues do.

'Buyer Beware'

It's not the best of photos, but it proves the point. I took this photo of a private security guard, heavily armed and aiming his assault rifle at the entrance of Woolworths. If that should fail, he has an automatic pistol. Perhaps that is a stun grenade at his left shoulder. A customer is walking past. OBSERVATION: It seems one can't trust the customers too much these days. When this started in South Africa, such security guards were discreet. That may not be the case any more, as one sees here. What is happening here is a transfer of cash out of the store. Such photos are not advised.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Far From Home

In my youth, I crossed paths with many people who were far from home, due to their service to the empire or to missions. Thus "songs of homesickness" were often heard, although I myself never felt as homesick as when I got home. One of my favourites, which I learnt word for word as a child, is A Scottish Soldier: "But fair as these green foreign hills may be, they are not the hills of home." OBSERVATION: I find that this is something that my own people cannot fully understand, while it seems quite common in other cultures: to be bonded to one's land and the land of one's people. I took the photo of green(ish) hills in my Karoo parish.

Pastoral Visitation

When one speaks of pastoral visitation, people often think of a minister doing the rounds drinking cups of tea. The reality may be quite different, at least in urban ministry. Most of my own visitation has been to people in crisis, and that is visitation that a minister will often do quietly and "invisibly". People won't know about it. Also, a single crisis may involve many visits. There is, too, a kind of pastoral visitation, where the minister pays visits for the purpose of being a help: chasing up authorities, for instance, seeing a landlord, or accompanying someone to the morgue. OBSERVATION: To keep the routine "cups of tea" visitation going, I have had the simple rule: one routine visit each week to a member who didn't need it or expect it. This might seem little, but the rest of the visitation is major, and it is tough. (In Congregationalism, I should perhaps note, there is little formal separation between minister, Church officers, and members. Ideally, pastoral visitation is shared by all).

Pastoral Vehicle

For nearly ten years of ministry, I drove these things (pictured). I now drive a bigger one of a different make. I felt that there were many advantages to such a vehicle. It was very useful (a load bed at the back), it was easy to get in and out of (easier than a car / automobile), it was cheap to run, parking was easy, I could wave to people in the street and easily talk to them from the cab -- and the reaction to this vehicle was warm in the townships. One also picked up all the sounds and smells around one. OBSERVATION: A minister friend near Cape Town followed suit, and bought one.