Saturday, September 26, 2009

Beginning a Looong Road

Today I feel inspired. I have been running at the foot of the majestic Langeberg Mountains, close to the Breede River, on a farm between Bonnievale and Swellendam. Today is day three of my journey towards the 2010 Comrades Marathon. This 90km race takes place on 30 May next year. It is the 85th running of this race between Pietermaritzburg and Durban, and will be my thirteenth run. I wish all my runs could be as satisfying as today.... And I know that the memory of today will be the inspiration for tomorrow.

Friday, September 25, 2009


He lives in the city but chooses to cycle the obscure semi-desert roads of the Karoo. Vincent catches the train to Laingsburg, unloads his bicycle and sets off for Ladismith through Seweweekspoort. This was where I met him last Sunday. On a previous trip he had befriended my hosts, Geoff and Jette. So he phoned them and arranged to come for lunch. He duly arrived, having covered the 60 kilometres from town since sunrise. I met a retired airways manager, who lives in Observatory, Cape Town. He went to France in the '70's as a conscientious objector to military service, where he lived until Nelson Mandela became President. He has cycled all over Europe, and now chooses to explore South Africa from a bicycle saddle. He has no car, speaks with warmth of his French-speaking Congolese neighbourhood in Cape Town, and volunteers as a receptionist at FAMSA (a community counselling service). Vincent makes friends as he rides, and has a wealth of stories to tell...'with eyes that watch the world and can't forget.'

Friday, September 18, 2009

Road Trip

Today I climb on my BMW GS11:50 and head for Vleiland.

This is a farming community about 300km from home. Head up the N1 to Laingsburg and turn right along a dusty road towards Seweweekspoort (tr: 7 weeks pass). Just before the cutting in the mountains is a lovely fertile valley watered by the Huis River.

Three years ago my friends Jeff and Jette Vye abandoned the city to farm tea and vegetables, and have invited me to stay with them for the weekend.

I have twice been to visit this valley: each time to take a church service for the community. 10 farmers bought the old Dutch Reformed church, and they take turns in leading a fortnightly Sunday service. Some of them can do this: one studied at the Stellenbosch theological seminary before his father’s death called him to take over the family farm. Another is the son of a Dutch Reformed Minister. (Of the latter – Jeff says that it feels like he reads his father’s old sermons when he takes the service). But when it is Jeff’s turn he asks me to come.

The farmers are a mixed group of people, some of old faming stock, and some like Jeff having escaped the busy city life. They and their workers all crowd into the church, forming this fascinating, mostly Afrikaans, congregation. The pianist is hard of hearing, so she takes the bit between her teeth and sets off at her own tempo, dragging the singers behind her. And there is a whiff of Saturday night’s revelry that fuels the lusty singing.

The last time I was there I encountered a wizened old man who announced that he had brought his son to be married. He explained that his son was 40 years old and had lived with a woman for 20 years and he was so glad that I was there to see that they “did the right thing”. He was bitterly disappointed when I pointed out that I did not have my marriage documents with me. So I promised to return.

Tomorrow there will be a wedding. And I will take the Sunday service. And I am grateful to be part of the life of this community.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


I have written of him before. He is his own worst enemy.

Joe is a kind, gentle man who speaks quietly, and is a thoroughly nice man…. When sober.

Sadly, Joe is a binge drinker. He can go for months on end without drinking. But when the urge hits him he keeps drinking until he has destroyed all that he has so painstakingly built up over the previous months of sobriety.
He longs to stop.
But this disease eats at him. Sober he says that he needs help – only to reject the help when the alcohol kicks in. And, once again, he is self destructing.

We have housed him in a room at our church in exchange for odd-jobs around the premises. But he has gradually stopped doing anything. He has a girl friend with a monthly pension. And Joe has been visiting her for liquid comfort. Yesterday I found the two of them drinking on our church premises. On top of this he managed to find the food that was prepared for a church function and finish it off on the two of them. And when I challenged him he explained that he did not steal it, he only “took it”. And he explained that his girlfriend needed somewhere to sit because she felt unsafe. And that they were not drinking – and the bottles in the room were a co-incidence.

So I blew my gasket and ordered them off the premises.
And now Joe is sitting on the corner across from the church glaring at us.
Within a day or two this will turn to self-pity, and then despair. And finally he will arrive with deep sorrow and heart-felt apologies to ask for his room back.

And, because he is a 58 year old man, I will not patronise him by thinking that I know what is best for his life. I do not agree with the choices he makes, but I cannot prevent him from exercising his choice of lifestyle.

I will not stop giving him my friendship and support. And I will continue praying for him.
Perhaps you might pray too.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Who do people say that I am

Mark 8:27 - 33

This has been quite a week for gossip!
The South African 800 meter athletics champion, Caster Semenya, has had her dignity stripped from her by gossip. But this is what human beings do: we gossip! Today’s Gospel story is all about reputation and gossip.
Mar 8:27 Then Jesus and his disciples went away to the villages near Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, "Tell me, who do people say I am?"

Jesus is in Caesaria Phillipi, a Roman Town built by someone who worried about his image. Caesarea Philippi was a holiday resort on the Jordan River built by Philip the Tetrarch. This was a ruler who lived in the shadow of his father, King Herod the Great. Imagine growing up hearing everyone calling your father “The Great”. And then your father dies and you get to rule part of his kingdom – along with your two brothers. And as you try to settle in and take control you hear “Herod the Great” this, and Herod the Great” that. The last thing you want is that people remember you because of your father.
So how do you establish yourself?
Philip built a city, and named it after the most powerful man on earth: Tiberius Caesar. And then he linked his own name with Caesar and the city is called Caesaria Phillipi. This is a town built by someone who worried about his image. “What are they going to say about me? Well they can say that Caesar and I are in charge”.

I have the sense of Jesus and his disciples joking about Philip the Tetrach and his fragile ego. And then Jesus turns to his disciples and asks"Tell me, who do people say I am?" Here is Jesus asking his disciples: what do you think of me? And they fumble around for an answer:
- Is Jesus like John the Baptist: come to call the religious people back to God..
- Is Jesus like Elijah: come to reform the nation.
- Is Jesus like the prophets – come to speak a word from God.

Peter then gives an answer that probably surprises even himself: “You are the Messiah” This is considered a highlight of the Gospel story: Here at last is recognition. The penny has dropped/ the light bulb has come on. This is an “Aha” moment. “You are the saviour who has been promised”. And the whole of creation breathes a sigh of relief. The Messiah has come.

And it is at this point that everything comes crashing down for Peter. Just when he thought he knew Jesus – he discovered he did not. Because he heard Jesus speaking about suffering and struggle….
Mar 8:31 Then Jesus began to teach his disciples: "The Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the Law. He will be put to death, but three days later he will rise to life."

And this did not fit his picture of Jesus. So Peter tried to correct Jesus: Because the Messiah that Peter wanted was not the Messiah that Jesus wanted. Jesus speaks of a Messiah who suffers but Peter wanted a Messiah who crushed the opposition.

Which takes us back to the question: Who do people say that I am? Which is the challenge of this story. We form a picture according to our expectations….We want Jesus according to our desires….We make Jesus in our own images. But Jesus refuses to be boxed!

Today’s reading invites us to be open to discover Jesus according to Jesus. So when we discover that Jesus is our ‘anointed one’ we also need to remember that Jesus is also the Messiah of my neighbour.

Jesus is the Messiah of white, blond haired, blue eyed people.
But he is also the Messiah of black, curly haired, African people.
And he is also the Messiah of Chinese people.

Jesus is the Messiah of Men
And he is also the Messiah of Women
And he is also the Messiah of Children

Jesus is the Messiah of couples
And he is the Messiah of single people

Jesus is the Messiah of heterosexual people
And he is the Messiah of Gay people
And he is the Messiah of people who are caught between genders.

I invite us to stop gossiping about each other: and become accepting of one another. And as we learn to welcome each and every person on our planet: we will learn a little bit more about our Saviour.

The only real picture of Jesus is when we see Jesus in other people – because each person reflects a bit of Jesus.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Remembering those who died

Chile 1973
2001 New York

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Going to a Funeral

My friend Barry died tragically last week - aged 37. He set off for a morning’s exercise with his surfski, and was blown out to sea. I am going to Port Elizabeth today – for his funeral tomorrow morning.

I have discovered different reasons for being there:

I am going in support of those who mourn. While the presence of other people does not lessen the pain of sudden loss, no one should mourn alone. I too am mourning. So I am driving with three friends who loved Barry, and I need their company.

I am going because Barry’s death has reminded me of the fragility of life. I cope well enough with people dying who are older than me. But it is hard when people die who are younger than me. It reminds me of my own mortality. And of all the things I still want to do in life…. And of how often I defer them because I think the time is not yet right. Moments such as these remind me of the importance of living in the present.

I am going because I need ministry. I am normally the one who offers care when other people die. I visit the bereaved; I preside over funerals; I visit people in the lonely months when everyone else has got on with life. This seldom allows me to grieve, because I have to hold the show together for other people’s tears. But somehow the years have caught up with me – and I need space to grieve: I am in pain not just for Barry, but for the many other people I have loved and lost.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

My friend Barry died yesterday.
And I am sad.
I am sad because he is so young.
I am sad because he has a young family who will grieve terribly.
And I am sad because he brought joy, challenge, integrity and laughter with him.