Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Congregational Dissent

It is amazing how a small group of people can claim to speak on behalf of the congregation – until this is tested by meeting with the rest of the congregation!

I called a meeting of my troubled congregation last Sunday night. My friend Craig facilitated a conversation amongst the membership. He asked my bishop to attend, as well as some other colleagues. And so the airing of opinions began: and people discovered that we are diverse. We discovered that there is no one definitive point of view on how we live as Christian people. We are divided by different generations, by our history, by our theological opinions, and by our family ties. And having allowed the different points of view to be expressed, Craig allowed us to discover our unity of purpose, of faith commitment, and of mission.

As Craig reminded us: difference of opinion is a normal human expression of life. It is how we resolve our differences that is critical. I want to believe that space has been opened up within this congregation for an acceptance of different points of view.

Saturday, May 15, 2010


Jer 1:1 ..... Jeremiah son of Hilkiah, of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, to whom the word of the LORD came ........
Jer 1:17 But you, gird up your loins; stand up and tell them everything that I command you. Do not break down before them...They will fight against you; but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, says the LORD, to deliver you.

Jeremiah was a conflicted, tortured man who was asked to speak very difficult words that nobody wanted to hear! And we have a way of calling someone a Jeremiah when we think them as a ‘prophet of doom’.

And I really, really understand him.
Because I have had moments when I have felt an inner compulsion to speak about difficult things – knowing that they are unpopular words. These words often begin inside of me: somewhere in the region of my stomach. I sense that they need to be said, but my stomach gets knotted and my voice becomes trapped somewhere in my throat. My mind burns with the knowledge that the words need to be spoken, but I struggle to speak them.

I remember this during the turbulent years of South Africa in the 1980’s. And how I very reluctantly spoke to my local white parishioners about the injustices of our land – and faced disgruntled members who told me that they “did not come to church to hear about the problems of the country.” When I was arrested by the security police they stopped paying my stipend.... even though no charges were ever proved against me! I remember speaking in the years we were moving into a new democracy of the need for a gun-free society, and having the military-employed members of my congregation choosing to withdraw their financial contributions because “you do not want money that is earned from guns.” Well it is happening again: I have a congregation who have discovered that their former minister has entered a same-sex civil union. They are deeply unhappy that I have asked them not to be her executioners, but rather to offer her their support and prayers. And so they walk out of my services when I get up to preach; and they with-hold their financial contributions; and they have run to my bishop to complain about my lack of Christian belief.

And it eats at me!
Because I have no aspirations to be Jeremiah. I wonder if there is a way to avoid saying the words. I look desperately for reasons why I should stay silent. I long for a peaceful life – the kind of life where people love me, and thank me for the reassuring words I offer. But all the time I know this driving inner prompting that asks me to speak about the difficult things.

So pray for me that I might be faithful to the promptings of the Holy Spirit – especially when I feel like putting my head down and avoiding the flack.

Sunday, May 09, 2010


We built a garden.
It began at a rubbish dump in Rosemore, a very poor, neglected suburb outside of the city of George in the Eastern Cape. Many years ago the Methodist Church worshipped on this site. But the Grand Apartheid policies of the old South Africa moved the black members to “their own” township and the remaining members gradually dwindled away...until all that was left was a broken down building that the city council eventually demolished.

That is until the Rev Ansie Liebenberg became the minister to the handful of members who faithfully met in the local crèche building. She heard how the church used to occupy what had become a wasteland, and she helped build a vision to reclaim this ground. Daring to dream the impossible, the people raised funds and bought back their land. Assisted by Methodist people from George, a simple church building arose out of the rubbish tip. Then they built a garden. The permaculture skills of the Rev Philip Bauser were imported from Johannesburg, and he helped the people build a church garden. Now they are feeding the poor in the community from the vegetables in their garden.

So this week I accompanied a group of student ministers to the Rosemore Methodist Church. My task was to help them develop a theology of ecology. Sponsored by the training unit of the Methodist Church of SA, Phil Bauser shared the principles of Earthkeeping, and taught them how to build a garden. Then they were asked to go into the community to lay out gardens for 8 local families. As the students left the church building it began to rain, and I thought that they would begin to grumble. But to my amazement, undeterred by the drizzle, small groups walked cheerfully through the surrounding shacks to their designated hosts.

I accompanied one group to a home occupied by a mother, her triplet daughters and a toddler. This was a one roomed building with a “long-drop” toilet outside. After initial introductions the family took us to the place they had identified for their garden. They knew about the garden because they had seen the example at the church.

This family’s garden was alongside the toilet – which was also where the local tap for water was located. The mother and girls joined the students in laying out the garden, putting down the mulch, and planting the seedlings. There was laughter, rain, dirty hands and excitement.

They all posed for a photograph, and prayers were offered: one of the students praying in Afrikaans while the mother simultaneously prayed in Xhosa, both expressing thanks for the gift of life.

Then a splashy scramble back to the church, soaking wet and deeply satisfied.