Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year’s Eve

“There is a bullet with my name on it.”
This was a common thought during my days in the South African Defence Force. On border patrol there was no point in wearing a helmet because no matter what I do - “There is a bullet with my name on it.” I have since found that many people use a similar thought to express the idea that no matter what we do we have no control of our fate. “God has already decided my fate.”

I do not believe this.
I believe that God has dreams and plans for my life, but that God has given me the freedom to choose to participate in them – or not.

Today I stand at the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. I will therefore admit to the moments in 2009 when I failed to participate in God’s dream for my life. Some of this was because I became too busy, and did not allow space for reflection. And some of this was because although I knew what God expected of me, I did not want to surrender my lust, greed, and inner selfishness.

And tomorrow I will again choose to seek God’s will each moment of each day in 2010. When I get up each morning of the New Year I will place my day at God’s disposal. Then I will choose to live the day as richly and as generously as possible. And when it is over I will thank God for the experiences of the day and make peace with my mistakes.

May the Peace of God be with all of us.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Virginity, Sex and Christmas

markpenrith read my previous post Scandal and asked me the following question:

"Does, Now I do not know how Mary got pregnant. I do not believe that pregnancies can be manufactured from thin air. mean you don’t believe in the virgin birth?"

I believe that God – the Almighty Creator – is capable of creating life out of nothing. This means that God can use a virgin to give birth to Jesus. I am not alone in this, as there are millions of Christians who believe this too. But Christians are not alone in this belief: Parthenogenesis - the Greek word for virgin birth – is a common requirement in ancient mythology for the birth of kings or gods.

For me the more important question is why we need to believe that Jesus was “born of the Virgin Mary”. The original Greek for what we now choose to translate into English as “virgin” does not insist that this be a woman who has not known sexual activity – these texts can also be translated as a “young woman.” In fact the early Christian community new nothing of Mary being a virgin. This was the work of Augustine of Hippo, who formulated a theology that equated the absence of sex with goodness. He suggested that those who abstain from sexual activity are pure, and are therefore closer to God.

Which is why Mary the “young women” was transformed by the Church into Mary “the Virgin”: this line of thought held that the Mother of God could not possibly have engaged in the defilement of sexual activity. Some even suggest that she never ever knew what sex was, and went to heaven in this “pure” state.

Which is fine as a quaint and interesting notion. However, this becomes the foundation for far graver implications.
1. From this we live with the idea that for priests of God to be pure they need to be celibate. And this suppression of sex as a natural God-given human function has led to some priests expressing a distorted sexuality with choir boys and other vulnerable people.
2. The idea that abstinence from sex equates with purity has left many young people feeling defiled and guilty for their early sexual awakenings. No matter how hard they pray – they still think of sex, and therefore are defiled.

So while I can be awed by the idea of God impregnating Mary, I can be as awed by the idea that God took the seed and egg in the womb of Mary and created Jesus from it. The latter idea certainly gives me hope for the power of God to take what could have been a “scandal of this world” and to transform it into a “triumph of heaven.” This then gives me courage to believe that God can take my own frail, deeply flawed life and turn it into something useful and good.

Friday, December 25, 2009


Joseph, a respected member of the town, with a well-established carpentry business, discovers that his fiancée Mary is pregnant. She has been living under the strict supervision of her parents and he knows that he is not the father of the child. And he had asked the village mothers to examine her before they got engaged to ensure that she was a virgin.

And as the women gathered to draw water at the well they all passed on the gossip, which was quickly relayed as soon as the women got back home. The whole village knew.

I have often wondered what Joseph’s parents must have thought of Mary. Imagine this: Your son gets engaged, and then you hear that she is pregnant. So you storm into your son’s room and ask him – "Don’t you know how to be careful?" And he says to you: “It isn’t me.” What would the next words be? Probably something like:
“Get rid of the slut immediately.”

We have dressed up the Christmas story with so much holy language that we have lost the impact of it. Mary is about to have an illegitimate child….in a culture that did not just skinder – they stoned women for such things.

Now I do not know how Mary got pregnant. I do not believe that pregnancies can be manufactured from thin air. But I do see God taking what was a disaster and turning it into a blessing.

We are told in Matthew Chapter 1 that Mary’s scandalous illegitimate child was to be called Jesus – which means “God saves”. Matthew then points us back to the Old Testament, and says that the birth of this baby is a sign that God is with us. The shame has been turned into good news. This is the way God works with us. God can take a scandal and turn it into something useful.

We do not have to be perfect before God notices us.
God is with us in our scandal.
God is with us at the places that we feel ashamed.
God is with us when the whole community rejects us.
God is with us even when we know we have failed.
This is the good news of Christmas – even when we feel rejected by everybody – God does not reject us!
If God could love Mary, and use her scandal as a blessing to the world – then how much more will God not turn our scandals into blessings.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Wedding

My friends Ecclesia and Amanda were married on Tuesday night.
I have known them for the past 5 years, and have shared the very difficult journey that allowed them to acknowledge the love they have for one another.

I grew up in a society does not easily cope with two women who love one another.
More particularly – I grew up in a Christian community that never thought about people of the same gender who love one another. And so right now my church (the Methodist Church) is really struggling with the fact that Ecclesia, who is a Methodist Minister, has chosen to get married to a woman. Her Superintendent minister has asked for her to be suspended, and has laid a disciplinary charge against her in our church courts.

I understand the thinking of her Superintendent. He believes that he is defending the truth, and therefore needs to protect our church from people who do not conform to the traditional teaching. This is familiar to me: It was this thinking that prevented people of different racial groups getting married in our church in South Africa’s past. It was also this that prevented divorced people from being married in our church. But we changed: God convicted us to move beyond the limits of the racially segregated marriages proposed by the Apartheid government. And God helped us to become more Grace-filled in our approach to divorced people who wish to marry for a second time.

I have discovered a God who challenged me to outgrow my prejudices. And for this reason I am convinced that my church needs to change our position on same-sex marriages. I would rather see us encouraging people to live in committed relationships, than see the secretive behavior manifested by gay and lesbian Christian people. I believe that the uncommitted relationships (and often promiscuous sexuality)of Gay Christian people are a result of our failure to ask them to commit to marriage.

I therefore wish Amanda and Ecclesia God’s blessings as they begin a new life together.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

No Words

Hi Pete,
Just checking all is well, you have not been blogging for a while and I have missed you!!
Love in Christ,

Dear Stephen
I am so tired. Not physical tiredness – I am running 5km per day at the moment and am beginning to feel fitter again. I am also eating well, and am generally sleeping at night.

No - I am emotionally tired.
I have had seven funerals in seven weeks. And it has wiped me out. I meet with the families; I plan the service in a way that has personal meaning for the family; and I try to say something that both celebrates the life of the one who has died, and that offers courage to those who continue with life. And I have run out of words.

But I have to find the words:
Because outside of the funerals life goes on: I have to come up with words for Sundays, and for Christmas, and for New Year. And for the 4 week teaching series in January that needs to be printed now before the Christmas shut-down of businesses.

So I have nothing to say in a blog right now.

Except that I am very, very grateful for the friends like you who ask me how I am. And who pray for me. And who write from time to time to give me courage.

God Bless

(Stephen’s only fault is that he supports England’s sports teams. Naturally as a South African I support the World Champion Springbok Rugby team, and the world Number 1 Protea cricket team, and world ranked golfers like Ernie Els and Retief Goosen, and surfski world champion Dawid Mocke).