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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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.

Book review: Questions of Life by Nicky Gumbel

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Chances are that if you’re of the Protestant persuasion you’ve come across Alpha. Alpha is a course refined by attorney turned pastor Nicky Gumbel as an introduction to the basics of Christian faith. It’s presented through weekly workshops structured around small groups, Bible study and video lectures.

I’ve never attended Alpha myself so when I got a chance to read Gumbel’s primer on it I thought why not? It’s a dense, inexpensive book, aimed at those already considering or involved in Christianity rather than trying to win over unbelievers. As far as introductions go it does a good job: it covers all the basics, though inevitably some people will take issue with its slightly charismatic slant. Gumbel’s train of thought is easy to follow and he refers back to Scripture often. The book is peppered with his own experiences as he went from atheist to believer, which lends it some credence.

Altogether it’s a solid book. What it lacks in depth it more than compensates for with practicality, and I suspect this has more to do with the book’s target audience than Gumbel’s writing ability or own depth of faith. It’s a great book to be able to give to seeking friends or family members, and one I’m more than a little sad I didn’t have access to myself when I first found Christ. This is not to say that it doesn’t offer something to people who’ve been Christians for a while. Gumbel was the first Christian who convinced me to give “speaking in tongues” a shot, so I really can say that taking a “refresher course” was beneficial for me and my faith.

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: Questions of Life
Author: Nicky Gumbel
Publisher: Kingsway Communication Ltd (1993).
Rating: 4/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 3.92/5)
The best feature of the book: It’s down to earth and practical.
The worst feature of the book: It’s a little dense at times.
Trigger warnings: None.
You’ll like this if… If you’re considering going to church, have questions about the Christian faith, if you’re a total newbie to the Christian faith or want to get in touch with your Christian roots.

Looking Lectionary: Proper 27A/Ordinary 32A/Pentecost +23

A look at the narrative lectionary reading from a prophetic perspective.


Reading: Matthew 25:1-13

“‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’ Matthew 25:9 NIV

“There may not be enough.” We usually read this parable as an indictment of the unprepared virgins. They had more than enough time; they knew the Bridegroom was on his way; and as they hurried off to buy more oil, we see a lack of resources wasn’t to blame for their situation, merely unpreparedness. But Jesus loved telling stories inside of stories, and I think we find a deeper, more complex message here than “just” “you know the day and the hour”. This parable isn’t just about the five unprepared maidens, but about the five “prepared” ones too.

In the months leading up to the 2016 US presidential election, I was “friended” to a popular prophetic account on Facebook. I’d say that 95% of the people on that page were pro-Trump, and one of the reasons they gave was that Trump would be God’s “trumpet” – that he’d herald the beginning of the end, bring on the glory of the Lord and the final judgment. Quite a few of these people seemed to understand that Trump would be a terrible president, but – to their way of thinking – that would only hark on the end of the world all the more quickly.

I’ve never understood this obsession Christians have with the end times. Some people are literally excited that Jesus is coming to judge and cast all unbelievers into fiery damnation. This has got to be the epitome of insider mentality. I mean, whose fault is it that so many people are unsaved? We love to lay all the blame at the door of unbelievers. “We brought enough oil,” we say. But would we still be so excited about the day and the hour if we admitted our culpability in the decline of the Christian religion? If we faced the fact that people leaving the faith or not wanting to join in the first place isn’t God’s fault, or their fault, but ours?

We’re such schmucks, Christians. You just have to cast an eye over the news to see the often viral evidence of our failings, not just as Christians, but as human beings. In the parable of the ten virgins, can we really say that the five “prepared” maidens acted in a Christ-like way? If our salvation is secured (and it is, when we believe); if we are new creations in Christ (which we are, whether it feels like it or not); if we are living in a state of grace, mercy and love (check, check and check) just what are we so afraid of losing if others, lost as we ourselves once were (and often still are) get to experience the saving grace that we do? Why so afraid, Christians?

I do believe that the day and hour will come. I don’t look forward to it, because – graced as I am – I know I’m guilty of others’ loss. But maybe if I’m more willing to share my most undeserved “oil” with others (by giving them the benefit of grace, for instance), on some day, at some moment, someone will share their undeserved “oil” with me in turn, and we can go into the Feast together.