Sunday, August 31, 2008

Isn’t Life Strange?

I have often written about Joe.
A man who has lived nearly sixty years, many of them plagued by an addiction to alcohol. A man of great kindness and sensitivity. A man who is able to turn his hand to many tasks, including woodwork, painting, gardening, welding, shaft-sinking on the mines, and much else. A man who is willing to work very hard.

But a man who has his own rhythm of life. After being extremely responsible for a while, needs to take off: which results in him sitting with a friend or two on the street corner outside my church doing nothing but drink from a secreted bottle. He is then either robbed, or does something stupid like get into a fight, and that is enough for him to sober up and begin the cycle with sobriety again.

Well here is the next chapter:
Lynn, my church administrator, came across an advertisement in the local “You Magazine”. This had been placed by two daughters looking for their father whose last known address was |somewhere in Cape Town. And she recognized Joe’s name, and the names of his daughters. He had often spoken of them, but had said that he could not contact them because he had messed up their lives too much. (He often added that he had done something terrible and could not go back.) Lynn showed the advert to Joe and he confirmed that it was about him. And he asked me to contact them as he feared that it was bad news.

So I phoned his daughter, who cried tears of disbelief. They have not heard from him in 12 years, and thought him dead. So they have been placing an advert each month for a year in the hope that someone knew him. And she told a complicated story. A story of a father who was in and out of her life. A father who was both lovable and kind, and irresponsible and unpredictable. A father who drove the family to exasperation, and who had been missed by his four daughters. As they got older so they longed for their father. And longed for a grandfather for their children.

I have spend time in telephone conversations with her. And she is under no illusions. All they want is to see him. And for the grandchildren to see their grandfather.

So yesterday Joe climbed on a plane to Johannesburg.
Pray for this family reunion.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


Peter is a car guard/traffic co-ordinator in the road outside of my office.
He used to work on the mines with Joe. He has also worked on oil rigs as a machine operator, and in his younger days he restored old cars. He has a daughter in a nearby town, which has been fostered by a caring family. He tells of how he once travelled to this town and sat across the road from her home to catch a glimpse of her. He did not want her to see him because he was ashamed of being on the streets.
He has been looking after traffic for about 5 years. And for four of those years he has slept in the front garden of the church at night. Many of these nights has seen him raging drunk by 8pm. He has destroyed our plants. He has used the garden as a toilet and our drains as a storage place for his clothes.

Now Peter wants to clean up his life. He met Beverly, who has managed to bring him closer to sobriety. They have been attending the early morning Sunday service for about six months. They sit right at the back, so as to be anonymous. More recently they took a small step out of the shadows: they asked if I meant what I said at the beginning of Holy Communion. I was blank: “What did I say?” “That all are welcome to Communion”. I replied that this is the place to discover the welcome of God. It is part of our mission statement that we are a “church for all people”. And so they have been coming forward for Communion....with great hesitation and gratitude for being able to participate in something that has deep spiritual significance for them.
Peter does not rage as he used to. Do not misunderstand me: Peter still struggles with alcohol. And I doubt that there are any days that he is able to avoid it completely. But he is much calmer.

Tonight he arrived at an orientation evening that welcomes new members. He and Beverly want to join the church. He was not entirely sober. But he had showered and was dressed in clean clothes. He told the group that he has landed up on the street, and wants to change his life. And that this church was helping him to do it.
The thing that encouraged me – was the way the other new members accepted him. I do not want to chalk him up as a victory (or carve a notch on my Bible for another conquered soul). But I do ask your prayers for someone who struggles very hard against the things that tie him in knots. And who sometimes wins.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Seven Weeks

We drove from George through to the Karoo via Seweweekspoort (Seven Weeks Pass). This winds for 17km through the mountains between Ladismith and Laingsburg, crossing the stream 23 times, while the mountain slopes on both sides reach 1500 - 2000m above sea level. The magnificent vertical rock folds, reaching for the skies on both sides of the road, reflecting volcanic eruptions millions of years ago.

There are several stories explaining the origin of the name:
it took 7 weeks for mounted troops to escort a gang of highway robbers through the Poort; or it took 7 weeks for the authorities to catch a stock-thief who fled into the mountains; or it took 7 weeks for a gang of brandy smugglers to return through the Poort from Beaufort West. The most likely explanation is that the Poort was named after a missionary from Amalienstein, Reverend Zerwick. In time the local population turned “Zerwickspoort” into “Seweweekspoort”.

Irrespective of the name, it is worth the drive to appreciate the beauty of a Creative God.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Local Preachers

The Local Preacher is key to sustaining the work of many small Methodist churches. They are lay people who have experienced a call to preach. After training they are given authority to preach in local congregations. i am in George training 100 preachers. They represent the three language/cultural groups of the Western Cape. And I am stimulated by rhis diversity and the challenge of cross-cultural teaching. i love being in South Africa.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Outeniqua Mountains

The Outeniqua Mountains tower over the City of George (yes it is a city because it has an Anglican Bishop and Cathedral). The name is from the indigenous people who lived here before the settlers arrived, and means "they who gather honey". This from a mountain covered in heather, bees, and....honey! It is sweet to have arrived.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Visiting George

I am going to visit George.

For those who are not in South Africa, George is a town about 400km from Cape Town, proclaimed on St George’s Day 23 April 1811 and named after the reigning British monarch, King George III. The town originated in 1776 when the Dutch East India Company established an outpost for the provision of timber. It had 12 woodcutters, a blacksmith, wagon maker and 200 oxen plus families and hangers on. Gold was discovered in this area in 1873 and by 1875 there were 1500 diggers.

My personal interest is that in 1875 my great-great grandfather landed in Mossel Bay and moved into the George area. The family soon established a butchery in Oudtshoorn, and there has been family in George ever since.

The Methodist Church has invited me to teach. I will spend time with men at a breakfast on Saturday morning; I will be training preachers on Saturday afternoon; and I will preach at the morning services on Sunday. And I count myself privileged:
• Privileged to be able to return to the land of my ancestors.
• Privileged that people actually want to hear what I say.
• And privileged to be able to go with my wife Jenny.

We will return home via route 66, and the Seweweekspoort Pass (Literally ‘seven-weeks-cutting’) I’ll tell you more of this pass when we get there.
Pray for the George Methodist people.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Ripples in the Street

The street outside my church is home to a community of street people.

Miela, her sister, her mother, Bennie and Prevan all live behind the flower sellers against the Seven Eleven wall. They store their things in a trolley across the road from my office. And each evening they pull out the double bed mattress and make a fire in a tin can to cook a can of baked beans, or some chicken off cuts. And their days are committed to gathering money to buy the alcohol that got them onto the street in the first place.

Peter looks after cars on the corner across from the bank. He is a qualified machine fitter, but has allowed alcohol to deprive him of this work, so now works as a car-guard. He comes to the 9:30 service on a Sunday with Beverley his girlfriend. Beverley has a job, and collects Peter at 5 each evening to take him home - before the allure of the pub across the road get too much for him.

Barry sits in the main road outside the print shop. He makes leather key rings and other trinkets which he displays on a plastic milk carton. He also gets occasional work inside the print shop when they are under pressure, where he collates paper, or cleans machines.

Dave was with me in the SA Airforce in 1976. He is qualified to work on aircraft, but too many evenings spent in an Airforce pub has robbed him of that ability. He resigned with the rank of a Sergeant-Major, and has spent his pension payout. Now he sits on the corner watching Peter watch cars, and sometimes paints aircraft on squares of hardboard.

And Joe. Right now Joe guards our church property at night...mostly with great diligence and responsibility. He worked with Peter on Rustenburg Platinum Mine, and they gravitated to Cape Town together. And Like Peter, he has alcoholic lapses.

But right now the street is not well. Because Patricia has arrived. She used to live in a caravan behind the Seven-Eleven, until it caught alight. Most street people think that the owner of the block of flats had a hand in this, as he had wanted the caravan moved. Patricia has taken up residence next to Barry. The complicating factor is that she has recently inherited money: sufficient to invest, with enough interest to buy a bottle of whiskey per day. She denies that she is in need of help: “I can stop drinking anytime I want to”.

And that one bottle on the street is like a stone dropped into a still pond.

Because Barry cannot ignore the bottle on the pavement between them. And neither can Peter pretend that there is not this bottle just around the corner. And Beverly seems to have given up fetching Peter at 5 and instead joins him on the block. And Joe sees the bottle too. And Clive, a long-gone resident boyfriend of Miela, has reappeared on the corner.

And Peter is no longer sober. And Dave is far too friendly. And Beverley had a papsak under her arm yesterday. And long-gone street resident, Clive, has made Benny jealous that he will take Miela away from him. And Joe has locked himself into our property: he has cleaned our toilets, and painted walls, and gardened in an attempt not to be distracted by Patricia’s bottle.

Pray for our streets.

Monday, August 11, 2008

In the Wilderness

I have found a section of the Old Testament that has helped me to understand my country. The book of Exodus tells the story of a newly-born nation.

• This is a nation that emerges from slavery and struggles to become free. The ex-slaves complain about the food, and the living conditions, and their leadership; and so develop a culture of entitlement that expects God/the authorities to supply their every need.
• This is the story of slaves who struggle to behave like free people. They want to get wealthy by hoarding their possessions; and they want to become very important people by dominating people who do not think like them (the Amorites, the Hittites, and the Canaanites).

And so God sends this nation to “Wilderness School”…. a place where life is not easy. This is a place where their common struggle for life welds them into a nation that trusts God. It is a place where their hardships force them to learn to share God’s blessings. It is God’s dream that they might become an example to the other nations of the earth: Isaiah urges them to become a “light to the nations” (Isaiah 61).

And as I read this it was familiar: because South Africa is in transition from the old to the new. And we have ex-slaves who believe in hoarding personal riches, and who practice a culture of entitlement, and who want to become Very Important People. This is not the stuff of a new nation. We are in the wilderness between the old and the new. And there are many lessons we need to learn before we become a new nation.

Sadly there are many people of faith who are unable to discover the call of God. Many, many God-followers have fled this challenge. Some spend their energy in complaining about our wilderness life; some avoid the wilderness by withdrawing into gated communities; and some have fled the wilderness by emigrating to other countries.

But South Africa is on a journey with God. This is a journey that asks us to become “a light to the nations”. And we are not alone: God is shaping us into something useful.

Pray for us to follow God faithfully through this wilderness.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Beautiful day

My friend Dion, his son Liam and Mertyl the monster. Dion is passionate about life, his family, his scooter and following the way of Jesus. i am en-couraged by him

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Funerially Tired

I have averaged a funeral a week for the last 4 weeks.
But today I have two. And as I walked into the office between the two funerals I discovered that I have another on Thursday.

It is hard doing this.
Because I meet with the grieving family and offer comfort and support. I help them plan an appropriate celebration of the life for the person they have loved. And I think of ways of providing pastoral follow-up after the service
But at the same time I too am saying farewell to people I have loved.
 Audrey Smith: a petite 88 year young lady with a will of iron. She walked two km from her flat on arthritic legs to help us feed street people every Tuesday morning. And if we sold boerewors rolls on a Saturday morning she came especially to buy one. And every Sunday she always sat third row from the front…and her place is empty.
 Mercy Ricketts lost her Australian son very suddenly. Mercy turns 90 this year and he was to have come for her birthday. And she is grieving the unfairness of it all: because mothers ought not to bury their sons.
 And others: a family shattered by the suicide of one they loved. And a son having to bury his father. And a man of 96 who has spent a year grieving the loss of a wife of 66 married years.

So far I have had 19 funerals this year…number 20 on Thursday.
And I am emotionally tired…..
Tired of saying goodbye.
Tired of seeing empty places.
Tired of grieving the loss of really good people.

I will get over it.