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

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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”.

Presbytery

Status

Working theory: if you can sit through an entire meeting of Presbytery and come out of it still liking people, the work of the Holy Spirit is nearing its completion in you, my friend.

As an aside, I’m still thoroughly under construction.

 

Faithfully cynical

I don’t think of myself as an optimist. Hardly a situation will pass without a dire warning from me on the likelihood of its going to hell, a habit not helped by the fact that my proclamations are often correct: yes, our recently widowed neighbour was trying to get rid of her tenant’s daughter so she’d have the tenant all to herself; yes, our other neighbour’s new wife used him to have a baby and now wants a divorce and for him to sign the child off*; yes, the gardener everyone was raving about turned out to be a liar and a thief. And so on. I don’t think it’s an ability so much as it is cynicism: you’re rarely disappointed when you bet on the worst of people.

One area I’ve tried my best to battle this ominous cynicism is the church. Yes, the church – which gathers the very worst of us together and sticks labels that read “free”, “saved”, “grace” and “righteousness” on otherwise bottomline bad people – has received a (relatively) free pass from me and my jaundiced eye. Ironic, because if you’re looking for the worst of human pettiness, treachery, hatred and coffee, even in the best of congregations, the closest set of church doors will usually do.

Take for instance the debacle that rocked the tea duty roster at the church where I’m volunteering. Everyone wants to have tea and gossip after the church service; you’ve gotten up at seven am on a Sunday, you might as well, or so the thinking goes. Unfortunately, very few of the people who want to have tea and coffee after the church service want to take turns serving tea and coffee to the other members of the congregation, and so the same five people ended up doing it Sunday in and Sunday out. If I hadn’t been one of those five people, and if I hadn’t been expected to spontaneously take over the tea duty roster on account of a stray vagina I happened to have in my possession, I probably would have cared less; but I am, and I had to. The situation went south rather swiftly.

Okay, we can be pointed about this, the church council decided: tea after church was cancelled. Now, a few weeks later it’s still cancelled, because despite complaints about its absence and the minister’s plummeting popularity re: all matters tea related, there weren’t enough volunteers to prompt its revival. The excuses are varied: we’re busy, I’m sure you understand; we’re men and our hands fall right off if we so much as look at a teapot; we did it before, once, two decades ago; we did it before, once, two decades ago, and swore a blood oath against its then-organiser; we don’t want to; it’s not part of the job description; what is “tea”?

The tea duty roster furore demonstrates on a small scale why so many churches empty every year: we’re bloody awful at church.

So why the free pass on my part, one wonders? There are a few reasons: I really like Jesus and the Holy Spirit and sometimes even God the Father; I like learning more about Jesus and Christianity in general; I have an otherwise fairly useless degree in theology; I want to share my relationship with Christ with other people; I can’t otherwise sing in public. And perhaps, in my heart of hearts, in a deep place that still believes in good things, fundamentally good people and happy endings outside Young Adult fiction, I cherish a hope that church could help transform me into the kind of person who I’d want to go to church with.

But there comes a point when one’s deepest hope begins to flicker like a candle left to its own devices in a breeze. It’s not an instantaneous process. It’s taken a lot of blood, sweat and tears, a lot of pointless politics and small-mindedness, a lot of struggling to adapt and failing to fit in, a lot of strife and gossip and frustration to admit that church as I’ve experienced it is hardly beyond my old friend, cynicism. In many respects I’ve been the church’s unlikely champion, had to be, as a would-be minister. I always defended it on the principle that church could be good – or failing that, better – if only it were done right. But, as we stand on the precipice of a tea duty roster impasse, who knows what is right, anyway?

I still hope that Jesus will disappoint this cynicism of mine, I have to admit, and not just because I want a job at some point. I’d like to be proven wrong about life and people and religion, I think. I’d like a glimmer of the church’s beginnings as a radical, sweeping and transformative first century movement to shake my dusty foundations of tradition and obnoxiousness and privilege. I’d like to be reminded just how deep and wide and tall and encompassing Jesus’ love for bottom-of-the-barrel people such as myself can be.

So even while giving the church a critical once over, I realise that few places are more in need of grace than the church. Some would doubtless stake a similar claim for prisons, but honestly? At least prisons serve tea.


*I was literally revising this when my mother phoned with fresh gossip: the wife left yesterday morning and will be moving out over the weekend.

Unfinished books: 2017 edition

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This year, I set the goal of reading at least fifty books. I didn’t have a set list, just an ever-growing “to read” pile, foolish optimism and a bit of wildness about the eye. I made some headway, but in my reading, there were a few books I started but just couldn’t finish, not even if it put me one desperate book closer to magical number fifty.

It’s not to say these books weren’t good, but for whatever reason, they just didn’t appeal. I may try them again at some point, but at present, they’ve been relegated to the reject list (and I’m sure these authors are quaking in their boots at the thought of being in some random blogger’s bad graces, but they must carry on as best they can!)

In no particular order…

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Falling Upward by Richard Rohr

According to my tablet, I got 34% through this one. A rec from a favourite Christian podcast of mine, I stocked up on a few Richard Rohr books thinking I’d be able to relate. And while Falling Upward has a great premise, the book and I just never hit it off. It didn’t help that Rohr kept throwing shade at “young people nowadays”, which is just presumptuous.

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Black, Ted Dekker

Ted Dekker is sort of the Stephen King of Christian fantasy fiction, so I set into the first in the Circle series, Black, with some enthusiasm. Now, I consider myself a fairly die-hard fantasy/horror fan, but Black crept me the hell out. Worse, the parts that freaked me out weren’t supposed to! I didn’t get very far with this one before I gave it up.

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History of a Pleasure Seeker, Richard Mason

An irreverent and somewhat sexy read (think The Talented Mr Ripley meets Downton Abbey, but set in the Netherlands), the chief characters soon lose their appeal, and after that, the novel feels self-conscious and pretentious. I’m aware that this may have been intentional given the protagonist, but still.

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Look: A practical guide for improving your observation skills, James H. Gilmore

My tablet suggests I got all of 11% into this one. I wasn’t expecting it to turn me into Sherlock Holmes, but the theory was so boring I stopped reading it before it could even try!

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The Art of Intuition, Sophy Burnham

It’s a very finger-wavy book. Contrary to popular belief, the existence of what we call intuition is closer to scientific fact than to anything esoteric, but don’t tell this book that: it wades right into spiritual topics, and that’s fine, but it wasn’t what I was looking for.

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The Book of Joy, Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama

I’ll finish this book one day, but today (or this week, or month, or year) isn’t it. It’s a good book and it delivers keen insights into the topic at hand and the men discussing it, although it’s been so sanitised you can practically eat off of it. Hardly a page-turner, however.

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The Dictator’s Handbook: Why bad behaviour is almost always good politics, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith

Another good, but kind of dull, book, it offers fascinating insights into the nature of politics. This is the academically toned down version of the authors’ work, but I think it’ll take another level of dumbing down to make it as absorbing a read as it is an intriguing one.

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Fallen, Lauren Kate

Lest it be said I scorn only intellectual books… I’ve written before about my ambiguous relationship with YA fiction. Well, when the movie adaptation for Fallen came out, I set to reading it, thinking I wanted to finish the novel before I see the film. Now I doubt I’ll ever even watch the movie. The book is just plain badly written, dragging its feet across the dull flagstones of its story world. I should probably be intrigued by the Mysterious and Rude Boy, but Edward Cullen has saturated my tolerance for that business. Hard pass.

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Too Like the Lightning, Ada Palmer

Reading the blurb for this sci-fi novel, it ticked a lot of boxes, not least of which is the fact that the author is a woman. The premise is interesting and I don’t hate its execution, but after a few chapters, the weight of the story world just begins to sag down on all the beguiling characters and the decent plot.

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The Upside Down Kingdom, Donald Kraybill

Another good book that fell to my book version of ADD, Kraybill’s The Upside Down Kingdom takes a thorough and enlightening look at the social, economic and political nature of Jesus’ Kingdom message. This really is a good book, and one I’ll endeavour to finish, but I doubt it’ll make 2017’s “read” pile.

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Identity-Driven Churches, Malan Nel

I heard Nel speak at a church event and loved him. He’s a very clever man and his book, Identity-Driven Churches, is full of timely insight into the post-Christian decline of churches. All that said, I could not get more than a few chapters into this book, my best intentions despite. Part of the problem is that because he knows so much, even the simplest statement of his is buried in footnotes and more information. It isn’t a book so much as a roadmap to knowledge, of which his book forms only one link in the chain.

A good book, but hard to read. It’ll remain on my “try again” pile, if only for my consternated ego’s sake!

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Pad Na Gebed, Jorg Zink (The Way to Prayer)

I found this little book in a secondhand bookshop, and while I love it in theory, in practice I never read much farther than its mid-point. A collection of prayers and devotional writing with tender insights into the human condition, it’ll stay on my shelf, probably perpetually unfinished but comforting in its presence.

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The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy

As a hack writer, I feel guilty about this one purely because Roy’s writing is so beautiful: every sentence is like opening a present of literary merit. That’s part of the problem, though: if you’re not in the right mood, the novel becomes a slog rather than a wondrous journey, and all the flowery language in the world won’t make you identify with characters who don’t give you much reason to.


What didn’t you read this year, and why?