Thursday, May 30, 2013


I have been silent for a while. It is as if writing about Ross left me unable to write anything else. But here goes:
Once a year it is our Methodist Synod weekend. This sees a gathering of District (regional) leadership of Methodist people at various centres around Southern Africa for three days of reports, worship, food and friendship. The quality of these meetings depends on the skill of the District Bishop, and the experience of Synod ranges from routine and boring, to creative and inspirational.

I have just returned from Piet Retief, where I attended the Synod of the Highveld and Swaziland District. It was chaired by Bishop Jon Anderson. His unassuming, nearly seven foot tall, ungainly figure belies a sharp intellect and a deep personal spirituality.  We have been friends for at least 35 years, and I appreciate his humility and uncompromising integrity. It would seem that his District does too, because they elected him to a further three year term as their bishop. I was honoured to have been invited to lead Bible Studies for the Synod, as well as preach at a public witness service, where those new to the ministry give a public testimony of faith and calling.

The ride from Pietermaritzburg to Piet Retief and back was exhilarating. I rode the GS1150 and we had 900 kilometres of fun. The experience of Synod was affirming. It was wonderful to have people appreciate my contribution. And I return inspired for the next stretch to exams / marking / reports … everything that demands buckets-full of inspiration in order to survive.



Thursday, May 02, 2013

The Death of a Friend

A friend died a year ago today.
And something of me died with him.

Ross Olivier
Ross had invited me to work with him. He asked me to apply for this job – and such was his passion for this seminary, and his inspired articulation of the possibilities of what this could be, that I was persuaded to apply for the position.

Ross was a visionary. He could see opportunities and adventure where other people saw problems. Not only could he sketch the future – he made it come true.

·         I saw this happen when he was asked to become an agent of change for the Methodist Church of SA, as we struggled to know how to respond to the political and social change of South Africa. I was inspired by his “Journey to a New Land” programme and enthusiastically participated in effecting organizational change in my District.

·         I saw this happen when he was elected as General Secretary of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa. He helped shape the way our church was run and brought a vision for excellence.

·         And when he stepped down, he set off on a journey to Mississippi where he enabled his church to respond to Hurricane Katrina; and to offer theological conversation to Southern racial prejudice. He pastored people from all walks of life – ranging from beggars to U.S. senators.

When he asked me to join him at the Seth Mokitimi Methodist Seminary I gladly signed on. And I spent a wonderful, exhausting, hard-working, and exhilarating year alongside of him as he led us in the training of Methodist Ministers.

Then he died.

Ross died for a number of reasons.

He died because he was absolutely and utterly exhausted. He had driven himself relentlessly without a break for many years. In fact he had possibly never stopped pushing himself... ever. He took the Wesleyan concept of Christian Perfection into the core of his being, and therefore constantly worked at everything in his life. He had a book on the theology of Elvis bubbling on the side, while he worked on an article on Christian ministerial education, as he wrote resolutions for the various church committees he sat on. He would think of ways to improve his class lectures, while he prepared for a Sunday sermon, while he was thinking through the shape of the seminary’s registration with the Department of Education. He was in conversation with various church Bishops, while he offered encouragement to members of staff, and counselled seminarians. He literally wore himself out – and refused to heed to concern of family and friends as we asked him to slow down. His standard answer was “I have always been like this”. But this was not good for him.

Ross also died because of medical complications. He lived with pain from neural damage to his jaw as a result of dental surgery gone wrong. This saw him taking ever stronger pain medication, which became a process of addictive chemicals, very difficult medical treatment, and often inappropriate responses. Ross seldom went out without packets of headache powder in his pocket, which he would consume like sweets. His medical advisors saw that this potent combination of chemicals was affecting his mood, and diagnosed depression. Ross found this very difficult, and was at first tempted to “tough it out”. Eventually he was forced to take sick leave – from which he never returned.

Ross died because he was human. We wanted him to be our great leader. And we looked to him to get us out of trouble, to come up with the next plan, to get us to the next level. Because of this, we – I - did not fight him to take his leave; I did not insist on him doing less; I did not have the stand up confrontation that would have seen him focus on what he alone could do, and relinquish that which others could also do. He was so good at everything, that I would step back and let him get on with it. And he did – until the day he could not keep going any more.

When he could no longer fulfil our expectations...
When he could no longer live with the pain...
And especially when he could no longer live up to his own exacting expectations of himself...

Ross died.
And I lost a friend.       

I miss him.