Sunday, February 28, 2010

Ten days in Uniform

It is 32 years since I last regularly wore a uniform. I was in Regimental Instructor in the South African Air Force (which now seems like another life). One of my duties was to ensure that the troops dressed correctly – and to frighten them into correcting anything that was out of order. Well I have worn my clerical uniform since Ash Wednesday.

This has become my Lenten practice/penance. I have worn a clerical shirt every day of the past ten days. And in the process of doing this, I have discovered that I have both given up something, and taken on something.

I have discovered that wearing a clerical shirt takes away my anonymity. I am now noticed. In the past week I have taken two weddings and a funeral (why does this sound familiar?), and numerous church services and meetings. Here the clerical collar was accepted mostly without comment – although some wondered why I was “dressed for a funeral”. It was the other occasions that raised comment: I attended a 21st birthday party at a beach venue at Yzerfontein; I went to On Broadway, a dinner theatre venue; I went to the Maynardville Carnival; and in between I had coffee at VidaE, and Dulce Café; and shared meals at Montebello, and Kauai. These moments caused more than a second glance, with me being aware of ‘being watched’ and others around me aware of my presence. Someone remarked that she had spotted me at the theatre because of my collar, while many strangers at the Carnival either greeted me or – more disturbingly - moved out of my way. The 21st party did not know what to make of me, but it was my niece’s party and she is always unfailingly warm and welcome of me.

What have I gained? I have gained an awareness of living my life for Jesus. The outer garment is a constant reminder of this. It is always my desire to integrate my religious practice with my daily living, but I realise just how easy it is to rise to the occasion from time to time, but mostly to survive the daily pressures of life with little conscious thought of living for Christ (Note to self: I must read Brother Lawrence again). I have also gained an acute awareness of representing the Christian Church. I have had many greet me as “Father” and “Priest”, although my own church tradition does not ask this. In the process I have been humbled by this respect (entirely unmerited), and aware of the way I struggle represent the Church. Because right now my church has persecuted my friend and colleague Ecclesia de Lange for her sexual orientation. She has been dismissed by the Presiding Bishop from her ministry because she married her partner Amanda. I do not want to represent this awful legalism, and yet I am called to be part of this church. I continue to experience the deep conviction that I am exactly where God wants me to be.

So I will continue to wear my uniform for in Lent: and learn the lessons God has for me. While I do not run road races in my collar, I look at the next few weeks and I see that I have taken a weekend off to attend the Buffalo motorcycle rally – I will keep you posted!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Funeral

I walked into a swaying throng of singing people – mostly dressed in the red and black uniform of the Methodist Church of SA.

On Friday morning I attended the funeral of Nonkosi Makananda, the wife of my friend and colleague Fikile. The venue was the Langa community hall, which was really too small for the occasion, but was the largest building available. I am not really good at estimating numbers, but at a guess I would say that there were 1500 people present. … five of us were white surrounded by a grieving black community.

I had nothing to say, and had no official part to play in the proceedings, but just being there was enough for me. This is consistent with the African urge towards ubuntu – a concept of human solidarity encapsulated in the Zulu maxim umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu. I believe that my humanity only becomes real when it connects with others, and in attending this funeral I became part of the human community. And it is here that I recognized the sharp division between the white and black members of my denomination: black Methodist people came to this funeral from all over the country, while white Methodists were conspicuous by their absence. For black Methodist this was about standing alongside a family in their grief, something white Methodists simply do not understand.

White South Africans are generally very bad at dealing with death. We want our funerals to be swift and painless; we want our grieving to be private and invisible; and we do our best to “put it behind us” and to “move on with our lives.” In the process we do not grieve well, and have very little space to find real spiritual healing from the trauma of death – witness the thriving trade of psychologists, spiritualist mediums, and anti-depressant medication. And for this reason we avoid funerals.

I stood alongside my friend Fikile – because I am a human being who recognized his humanity.

And I was in uniform.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Exerpts from "Ash Wednesday" by T S Eliot

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the agèd eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

Because I do not hope to know
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is
nothing again………

This is the time of tension between dying and birth
The place of solitude where three dreams cross…..

Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will…..

And let my cry come unto Thee.

In Uniform

Today is Ash Wednesday, and I spent the day in my uniform.

I have been a Methodist minister for the past 30 years. And I very seldom dress in official clergy garb. When I first began this ministry, I had no wish to be like the senior ministers in this church: they dressed in black, and many wore their clerical collars permanently. They did not connect with the rock music culture that shaped me - a culture of blue jeans, t-shirts and informality. I wanted to be the kind of minister who was approachable; one who young people could talk to; one who stood alongside people who were marginalised by the formality and the rigidity of the “professional clergyman.”

Later in my ministry I found myself amongst poor, working-class people. These were people who worked under supervisors and foremen in factories and on shop floors. They translated this into their church life and wanted me to be their religious “boss” / supervisor / foreman. And I resisted this by refusing to dress in a way that reinforced the power of the clergy. For the ten years that I was their minister, I never once dressed in any clerical uniform. I wanted to underline the fact that that we were a team of people – each bringing different gifts and abilities to serve the common good, but no one more powerful than any other.

And so I have spent most of my life dressing down, dressing like my congregation, dressing in ways that speak of being a team rather than emphasising status. But I am gradually discovering space for “Clergy Clothes”: there are moments when it is necessary to be clearly identified as clergy – like when I officiate at a funeral of people who are strangers to me and my church… it simplifies matters when the mourners can immediately identify who the minister is. There have also been other moments – such as walking into a busy city hospital, or participating in a political protest – when being instantly recognisable has been useful.

I am now finding it helpful to dress as a clergyperson for sacramental moments: Baptism and Holy Communion are becoming increasingly strange to the society we live in. People in my congregation are no longer schooled in my church tradition. Many have come from little or no church tradition at all. So I need to find ways of indicating moments of special significance. It is therefore helpful to put on a uniform to indicate to those who come to church that this is a special event.

Today I wore clergy uniform…..Because it is Ash Wednesday.
And I wanted to mark this as a significant day in our Christian journey.
Perhaps I will wear my clergy shirt tomorrow as well - to mark this journey of Lent.

...... I will let you know.

Sunday, February 07, 2010


My friend and colleague Fikile is having to deal with something truly terrible. This is the report of the incident on the front page of the Cape Argus today:

"The wife of a Methodist minister was found stabbed to death in her Bothasig home on Friday night on her 54th birthday. Police have named as a suspect an 18-year-old relative, who has since disappeared.

Expecting to celebrate his wife's birthday, Fikile Makananda and three of his children arrived home just after nine with a cake. But instead of a celebration, they were confronted by Nonkosi's body lying in a pool of blood in the living room.

She had been stabbed seven times in the chest. There were also slashes on her arms indicating she had tried to fend off her attacker. There were no signs of forced entry and nothing had been taken from the house.

Rumours are flying around - including one that says his son is missing.
I ask your prayers for this trumatised family.

Thursday, February 04, 2010


Silence frees us from the need to control others ... A frantic stream of words flows from us in an attempt to straighten others out. We want so desperately for them to agree with us, to see things our way. We evaluate people, judge people, condemn people. We devour people with our words. Silence is one of the deepest Disciplines of the Spirit simply because it puts the stopper on that.
- Richard Foster, from his book Freedom of Simplicity