About Lee Botha

Christian, blogger, bookworm, dog person.

Everyone belongs in the heart of God

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A Christianity that excludes is a Christianity that has lost the heart of Jesus, tbh. Jesus wasn’t living it up with the self-righteous religious leaders of his time (and boy, did they resent him for it!) Nah, he was “out there”, teaching the lost, the lonely, and the discarded. He told them that God loved them too – loved them especially – and the religious leaders killed him for it, not realising that they were proving his point. In a way, excluding people because they don’t fit our (traditional, doctrinal or denominational) view of what constitutes a “good Christian” only ever proves the opposite: that everyone belongs in the heart of God.

As Bob Goff says, “Grace draws a circle around everyone and says, ‘You’re in.'”

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Psalm 42b

 

 

My women’s Bible Study group started Renovare’s Prayer & Worship: A spiritual formation guide last week. One of the things you’re asked to do at the end of the first chapter (on worship), is to pen your own psalm. Using Psalm 42 as an example, the book examined worship as a thirst for God. It’s this theme that inspired my own “psalm”.

Psalm 42b

A psalm by Lee

I do not thirst for You as a deer thirsts for water, Lord; that would be too easy.

I am not always sure that I thirst for You at all.

And yet… And yet there’s something, Lord.

I look for it on the Internet and in books, on blogs and at the bottoms of cookie jars, in saying the rights things and trying to act in the right ways, in having a clever answer and a chip on the shoulder, at the tops of fluffy white clouds and at the bottom of the soles of my feet squishing into soft grass, in good humour and PMS and quiet moments and deep, long sighs.

I perpetually pat my spiritual back pockets, checking to see if that something is still there, but I do not know what it is.

I therefore must conclude that it’s You, Lord. Can it really be that easy?

I’d rather it be harder, I think; that way I can get more credit for trying, and thus, more leeway for my standard ill-appreciation of Your grace.

What, after all, does the deer do, other than thirsting, for You to answer it?

What a scandalous notion, that my thirst is answered on no account of my own!

And yet… And yet it makes sense that You. omniscient, loving, kind, patient, forgiving and forbearing, make no sense at all.

You are not human logic but Logos. “Love” is the Word.

In the meantime, I will check mashed potatoes for that something, and being irrationally irritated by minor inconveniences. and judging people by their velocity in supermarket aisles.

Just in case, You understand.

Man! It looks like I’m a deer thirsty for water after all!

A late report on a long Presbytery

 

 

Cold autumn rain chases us up a slick set of steps into a long, low, bright room. Plastic chairs in neat rows face a low stage, an old-fashioned pulpit peering over its modern surroundings from the back of the platform. People mill. There’s a sound test and a missing spanner. We find seats on the less precarious of the chairs. We’re both on the bigger side of the scale, the minister and I, and he identifies the chairs requiring the least amount of clenched butt cheeks to sit on without them collapsing. As nine am rolls around, the rain settles into a steady drizzle. More people arrive, as reluctant as distant family at the funeral of someone they stand no chance of inheriting something from.

Tembisa, Saturday morning. We’re in a Presbyterian church overlooking the vast panorama of the township. The township is something else: crumbling houses giving sudden way to palatial mansions in bright colours, potholes snapping at the feet of children skipping over the road to chase along in excited bubbles of limbs, the slow wade of gogos about their business, bursts of greenery that are as much plant as weed. We passed at least three spaza shops on our way in. One of them was in a done-up shipping container; another had the prices of individual rolls and buns unevenly painted onto its façade. Despite the weather, people are out and about, the vendors at their make-shift street-side stalls, foil packets of cheap crisps in neat rows arranged alongside candy, matches, roll-on deodorant, medicine, sunglasses, fruit.

The church itself is that curious, charming mix between community hall, shopping centre and rich relative’s living room that characterise many township places of worship: big, shiny floor tiles, a low ceiling, lots of fluorescent lighting, a fair amount of stoic “make do”. Fancy drapery in the UPCSA colours decorate the entire back wall of the room behind the pulpit. There’s a sense of pride among the minister and his congregation that comes from having built something up over time, rather than inheriting it, like most churches out in the suburbs. A finished church, one might say, is a temptation to think that the church’s work is finished as well.

And yet: that a bunch of people from all racial and socio-economic backgrounds would choose to spend a Saturday morning at Presbytery is at least one sign that the days of miracle are not yet past. Deputised by our various Sessions, we Presbyterians gather once a month to indulge in the process that’s at the heart of Presbyterianism: meetings. Autonomy is outweighed only by the paperwork making it possible, and the paperwork is only made possible by the people who enjoy that sort of thing (not me) or who find themselves there anyway (me).

Like all meetings, Presbytery is a mixed bag. You get to catch up on news official, unofficial and inferred through meaningful looks and knowing eyebrows. You have the opportunity to put faces to names and/or email addresses. Presbyteries offer a second or third or fourth chance to catch the name of someone you’ve met twice before and who you always exchange pleasantries with, without your lapse being either obvious or awkward. There’s free food and the opportunity to pick fights over minutiae in the minutes. So there are obviously benefits.

As far as I can tell, the biggest drawback to this sort of thing is that at every Presbytery meeting there are people who really want to be there. They’ve brought paperwork and opinions, and they are Christian enough to share either, often without prompting, to whomever they think is most deserving. They do so at length, and often. They always have five more minutes to spare, come hell, high water or the general, seething consensus that they need to sit down.

A mixed bag, as I said.

The biggest issue at March’s Presbytery was the centralisation of stipends. There’s a real need for supervision with stipends: some churches feel that they need only pay their minister when they like them (and no minister is ever liked that much if we’re honest). A minister whose name I did not catch (but give me another Presbytery or two and I should have it) spoke very eloquently about the tension between “freedom” and “fairness” as far as stipends go. Rather too eloquently, I’m afraid; he mentioned a central stipend fund as a kind of assistance for those churches who can’t afford their ministers’ stipends, into which wealthier congregations could pay contributions. If centralisation is realised, I suspect that at some point that tension between “freedom” and “fairness” will be moved along to “fairness” and contributions will become mandatory, but I digress.

From the comments made, the gist of the antimony against centralisation is that you don’t load an already wonky bureaucratic system with more paperwork, lest it actually collapses. Faced with dissension, the meeting thus did the only thing it could: it set up a committee.

People who claim humans cannot turn invisible have never been in a room full of other people who might reasonably nominate them for a committee.

Four reluctant volunteers later, the moderator announced a leg stretch to try to revive the flagging faithful, which commenced the start of the “race to the toilets” section of the proceedings.

There are several things one needs to understand about this race:

  1. It is not, strictly speaking, billed as a race.
  2. Yet it is a race.
  3. You’re allowed to smile in a kindly manner while you briskly overtake a lagging elder.
  4. But do not smile so kindly as to elicit a conversation, which the elder will use as a means to get ahead in the queue when they finally reach the toilets.
  5. You had better pooped at home.
  6. You had better have brought your own toilet paper.
  7. For the minutes you’re in the queue, you are mysteriously deaf to the sounds of other people urinating.
  8. It is absolutely a race.

I came in fourth; a relief, because it means I was never faced with the decision of having to use the stall without a door.

Nothing very notable happened after that, and thank the Lord: my chair had started to register alarm as, quite against my wishes, my gluts decided to reward themselves with a break after their unusually stressful morning.

I imagine coming back from a Presbytery bears more than a passing resemblance to post-traumatic stress: the ring of voices, the threat of some errant paperwork resulting in a call-out from the Moderator, someone promising, “I’ll be brief” (a falsehood). And if the meeting itself doesn’t do it, then the consequences of your “unsupervised toddler” eating at the lunch table probably will.

Perhaps that is the Darwinian function of Presbytery meetings: to weed out the weak and ill-resolute.

To conclude, I offer this joke:

Q: How do you get Presbyterians to attend a meeting?
A: You make a typo in the agenda.

Warm regards,
Your neighbourhood Presbyterian

Book review: The Ironic Christian’s Companion by Patrick Henry

 

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In the unlikely event of a gun being put to my head in order to discover my true and final opinion on Patrick Henry’s The Ironic Christian’s Companion, I still wouldn’t be able to offer an answer without some sort of qualifier. Did I like the book? I did; Henry is clever and I appreciated many of his insights; one or two of them made me sit back and go, “Huh” in an impressed way. Is it a good book? Sure, but I don’t think it will be to everyone’s tastes. Would I recommend this book? Maybe, depending on who was asking for the recommendation. Do I like Patrick Henry? Eh, I’m not sure; there’s more than a little self-importance there, tempered with (what I’m hoping is) genuine reform. You see? It’s complicated.

I picked up the book on sale; that and the title was the deciding factor for the purchase. I’m vain enough to think of myself as an “ironic” Christian (someone who is Christian but not as Christian as the obviously stupid people who are also Christian, in essence). The book is a series of ten essays, all loosely connected to the theme of being a Christian who has doubts and reservations about their religion, if not always their faith.

Henry’s writing is an interesting mix of memoir, theology and academia, with keen insights and the patience to let you discover them for yourself.

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: The Ironic Christian’s Companion: Finding the marks of God’s grace in the world
Author: Patrick Henry
Publisher: Riverhead Books (1999)
Rating: 4/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 3.41/5)
The best feature of the book: It’s eminently quotable.
The worst feature of the book: It errs on navel gazing at times.
Trigger warnings: Mentions of suicide (Henry’s father killed himself).
You’ll like this if… You, like me, are stupid enough to think your faith is “ironic”.

Book review: Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

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I’m happy to report that after years of living as a “late returns” fugitive, I’ve been granted amnesty (literally: South African libraries have a national, annual “book amnesty” week at the end of every March) and I’m now able to partake of the hushed, thoughtful aisles of my local library again. Gilbert’s Big Magic is one of the first books I picked up post-exile.

I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have picked a book I feel more ambivalent about if I’d tried, however.

Big Magic is one author’s attempt to quantify the creative process. Gilbert writes about the lessons she’s learned during her many years of writing and publishing. The book feels like chatting with a particularly warm, slightly ditzy and self-centred pal, coffee in hand and an afternoon to while away. It has that same strange paradox of painful self-awareness and painful self-ignorance that characterised the only other book I’ve ever read of hers, Eat Pray Love.

On one hand, Gilbert’s insight into the creative mind feels very genuine. She’s someone who has worked at her craft and has clearly spent a lot of time trying to understand why she (and creative people in general) do things the way they do. It’s from this place that she tries to give guidance. And she’s roguishly charming about it, of course.

On the other hand, I spent the majority of my time reading Big Magic thinking that she isn’t nearly as aware of her privilege as she believes she is. Her advice often veers from innocent into the downright naive. It’s condescending to hear someone who has achieved so much commercial success warn others against its improbability, for instance. She’s someone who’s encountered one or two locked doors and equates her experience with someone who faces a hallway of them.

Overall, one of those “take what resonates and leave the rest” books.

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear
Author: Elizabeth Gilbert
Publisher: Bloomsbury (2015)
Rating: 2.5/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 3.9/5)
The best feature of the book: It recounts some amusing anecdotes and has a few charming turns of phrase.
The worst feature of the book: Not everyone is going to be taken with Gilbert’s spiritualisation (even deification?) of creativity and inspiration.
Trigger warnings: None that I can think of other than white middle-classness.
You’ll like this if… If you’re a fan of her work I’m sure you’ll love this book; many ardent fans gush to that effect on Goodreads. If you dislike her you’ll inevitably dislike the book, as the acidic reviews on Goodreads can testify. There doesn’t really appear to be much of a middle ground.