Dion's random ramblings

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Almost at the top of the Helderberg! The view is the reward for a serious climb!

This is one of my favorite places - I love getting to this point in the ride (normally at around 12km of solid climbing). The view is spectacular. I often ride with friends on a Tuesday and Thursday morning at 5am (before work). When we get to this point we say a brief prayer over our city, for our families and for one another.

It is a blessing and a joy to have good friends, good views, and good health!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Smoke from Thesen Island, fire at Knysna Lagoon / Brenton (I think)!

A Christmas reflection - God chooses unlikely persons and unexpected places...

That God should choose to live among humans is a remarkable thing!  However, that God should choose to come into the world through a young, unmarried, pregnant girl, and to be announced to poor shepherds in a minor town in Judea is a reminder that God wants to do remarkable things in ordinary persons, and in unexpected places!  

If you're interested in a longer Audio reflection of the ideas in this video you can listen to the following recording of my next Radio Pulpit broadcast (download the 6MB MP3 file here).  If you enjoy the program please do visit the Radio Pulpit website and vote for the show.  I'd appreciate it!

The original posting from which this comes is here:

Our God is intentional - there is not a single detail in all of creation that is not filled with purpose, meaning, and God's loving intention.
I must admit that I have become so accustomed to the Christmas story, and to the characters of this narrative, that I no longer notice the subtler details. When I think of the characters of Christmas I often tend to wander towards what they have become, rather than the truth of who they were. What they have become for me are those cute kids who play Mary, Joseph, the Angels, the Shepherds, the wise men, and of course the 'Baby born' doll (or light bulb) that plays Baby Jesus in the school nativity play!
Yet, I think that sometimes we forget that the very reason why there is a record of the lives of particular people is because God desires to communicate something particular and important to us. God encounters people with a purpose. These characters are no different. Today we shall encounter some very interesting characters - the shepherds that we read about Luke 2:8-20, and we shall see what lessons we can learn about them, about ourselves, and about the God who deliberately wishes to encounter us this Christmas.
I want to encourage you to put the 'school play nativity' scenes out of your mind for the next few minutes. I want to encourage you to ask God to speak to you about the REAL shepherds that were encountered in that field outside of Bethlehem that night. Ask God to speak to you about your REAL life as God speaks to you about their real lives!
I am weary of all the cliched messages in Advent that try to get people to stop shopping and get them out of the malls and into Church... I have wasted many hours preaching sermons like those... We cannot stop people from doing these things with a 30 minute sermon on a Sunday. Rather, we should be encouraging people to find Christ, and the miracle of the Christ of Christmas, in their everyday lives. The Lord has really been telling me that we need something more substantial than the conflict between the economy of Christmas and the Gospel. Thankfully this week's scripture reading has a wealth of meaty stuff to consider!
This message will look at the principles of God's Kingdom that come to the fore in the encounter with the shepherds at Bethlehem. Some social history of the time tells us that these shepherds would have been poor, possibly among the poorest in their community. They were certainly unskilled, and were often people who had a criminal record or were outcasts in society (hence the choice to work at night). Bethlehem, as we know, was not the centre of the Universe! In fact it was a bit like the 'Piet Retief' of it's day... far from everywhere, no great political, economic and social prestige.... Yet, the Christ goes there to be born, and God sends angels to a field outside of this little town to announce the miracle of his birth! So this encounter is about people who don't really matter, from a place that doesn't truly count. Yet somehow they make it into the most popular book in history, and they get a focus one Sunday a year for the past thousand and some years! There must be something significant here.
In this message we shall see what lessons we can learn from these people and their role in the Christmas narrative.

Then for those who would like a text version of the thoughts please download this MS Word file (prepared in 2007)

May you and yours be blessed this Christmas by God unexpected, and inexplicable, presence!  Dion, Megan, Courtney and Liam

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The absurdity of hypothetical geometry and Alice in Wonderland

Some of the most creative works of fiction come from some of the most analytical minds!  I guess that in some sense we all need something that is the antithesis of our regular lives to help us find some measure of balance (or equilibrium at least).  See 'Flatland - a romance of many dimensions' by Edwin Abbott Abbott as one of the most engrossing and creative examples of the translation of an epistemic discipline to a phenomenological one.

Another classic example is 'Alice in wonderland' (originally titled 'Alice's adventures in wonderland' by Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carol).  It is a fascinating tale of the multiverse, calling into question the laws of physics and the principles of metaphysics.  Of course the Matrix trilogy of films were strongly influenced by Dodgson's masterful tale of wonder!

I suppose the Hegelian synthesis is one of the best explanations for this kind of dynamic tension - we all have a thesis, we reach for an antithesis and find harmony in a synthesis of the two.  Dodgson was a mathematician in his 'ordinary' life, and then in his other life (as Lewis Carol) he told fairytales!  Alice in wonderland is a synthesis of these two interests.

I came across the following very interesting insight into 'Alice in wonderland' on boing boing.  I was not aware that some of the best known characters in the story were added in later redactions.  It is quite fascinating!

What is your antithesis?  What is there that you do in order to bring balance (or equilibrium) to your life?  I find the balance between science and theology to be quite a healthy one in my life!

The original story of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is missing what have become some of the book's most iconic characters and scenes: the Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter's tea party, the Knave of Hearts' trial, and several other great moments. Why did Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) add them later? According to Alice scholar Melanie Bayley, Dodgson, a mathematician by day, created the scenes to make fun of edgy math ideas floating around at the time. From New Scientist:

 2008 08 Alice-And-The-CaterpillarOutgunned in the specialist press, Dodgson took his mathematics to his fiction. Using a technique familiar from Euclid's proofs, reductio ad absurdum, he picked apart the "semi-logic" of the new abstract mathematics, mocking its weakness by taking these premises to their logical conclusions, with mad results. The outcome is Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
Take the chapter "Advice from a caterpillar", for example. By this point, Alice has fallen down a rabbit hole and eaten a cake that has shrunk her to a height of just 3 inches. Enter the Caterpillar, smoking a hookah pipe, who shows Alice a mushroom that can restore her to her proper size. The snag, of course, is that one side of the mushroom stretches her neck, while another shrinks her torso. She must eat exactly the right balance to regain her proper size and proportions.
While some have argued that this scene, with its hookah and "magic mushroom", is about drugs, I believe it's actually about what Dodgson saw as the absurdity of symbolic algebra, which severed the link between algebra, arithmetic and his beloved geometry...
The madness of Wonderland, I believe, reflects Dodgson's views on the dangers of this new symbolic algebra. Alice has moved from a rational world to a land where even numbers behave erratically.
"Alice's adventures in algebra: Wonderland solved" 

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

MIT to revisit Artificial Intelligence research

This story from boingboing.

 Newsoffice  Images Article Images 20091204121447-1-1MIT has launched a new $5 million, 5-year project to build intelligent machines. To do it, the scientists are revisiting the fifty year history of the Artificial Intelligence field, including the shortfalls that led to the stigmas surrounding it, to find the threads that are still worth exploring. The star-studded roster of researchers includes AI pioneer Marvin Minsky, synthetic neurobiologist Ed Boyden, Neil "Things That Think" Gershenfeld, and David Dalrymple, who started grad school at MIT when he was just 14-years-old. Minsky is even proposing a new Turing test for machine intelligence: can the computer read, understand, and explain a children's book.

Fore more details please follow this link. And, for some posts that I've written about Artificial Intelligence, neuroscience, and consciousness please follow the links listed on the next page.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Ordained deacons and the sacraments of Baptism and Communion in the Methodist Church of Southern Africa

For those who do not follow my blog regularly, I am an ordained Presbyter (in the USA, an ordained Elder) in the Methodist Church of Southern Africa.  Simply, it means that I was trained and then ordained for the ministry of word and sacrament in the Methodist Church of Southern Africa.  For some years I have served as a member of the Methodist Church's Doctrine, Ethics and Worship Commission (DEWCOM) - this is the committee of the Methodist Church that seeks to offer theological perspectives (and sometimes even position papers) on pertinent issues related to our faith.  Sometimes they are issues of an ethical nature (like whether the Church should ordain persons of a same sex orientation).  At other times they are issues related to the worship and polity of the Church, such liturgies and orders of ministry.

When I was still the Dean of the Methodist seminary in Pretoria I had a strong connection with the Methodist Order of Deacons - I still have a particular affinity to this order (and sometimes think that I would have been far better suited for this order than the one in which I am ordained).  In short, Deacons are persons who are ordained to the ministry of word and service.  Their ordination is non-sequential (in other words, unlike the Anglican Church that first ordains a person as a Deacon, and then after further training and spiritual formation ordains them as a Presbyter, our denomination sees the ministry of a Deacon as equal to that of a Presbyter.  It simply has a different focus within the body of Christ).  All persons are called to ministry, as Luther rightly suggested we are all 'ordained' to a common ministry in our Baptism into the Priesthood of all believers.  It is worth noting that the Bible speaks of the priesthood of ALL believers (thus the priestly function of the body is fulfilled when all of the members respond to their call and perform their function within the body).  This is different from the common misconception which I call the priesthood of EVERY believer (which considers each members an individual priest, having the ministry responsibility of the entire body of Christ expressed in EACH person).  I don't think the second model is either realistic or Biblical.

Some years ago while serving the DEWCOM the Methodist Order of Deacons requested dispensation to administer the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion (specifically the sacrament of Holy Communion), since many Deacons found themselves stationed by the Church to Pastoral oversight congregations.  As part of the life of the congregation they would be expected to administer communion as a regular part of the Methodist sacramental discipline (at least once a quarter).

Presbyters as agency and extreme unction.

In the regular order the Deacon would have to ask a Presbyter to A) preside over the sacrament in the presence of the gathered congregation, or B) ask the Presbyter to set aside the elements of bread and wine in another service of worship and then allow the Deacon to administer these elements in their congregation [just as an aside, Methodists don't consecrate the elements since we don't believe in the doctrines of consubstantiation or transubstantiation but rather we believe that Holy Communion and Baptism are 'real instruments', and 'means of grace' through which we experience in concrete terms the unseen Grace of God in community].

The Deacon's request was a pragmatic one - there are not enough Presbyters (or more accurately not enough willing Presbyters) to preside over the sacrament.  Moreover, their initial request stated the common pastoral concern that they are often called to the deathbed of congregants and in times of crisis such as this they can seldom get a Presbyter to serve communion (either because of distance or compliance).  The net result is sacramental starvation.

Of course this second issue is not truly an issue for two reasons:

1.  Traditionally the Church has made an allowance for any believer to preside over the sacrament of Baptism (and so I guess by extension also the sacrament of Holy Communion (as a means of grace)) in emergencies.  For example a lay doctor could baptise a dying infant.  In this sense any person (including a Deacon) should be allowed to preside over the sacraments in an emergency.
2.  The second reason is also a theological exclusion; quite simply, Methodists do not practice extreme unction (what the sacramental traditions of the Anglican and Catholic Church popularly refer to as 'the last writes').  For Catholics the Eucharist is not just a means of grace (i.e, a visible expression of God's forgiving and reconciling grace), it is an actual moment of grace (since in transubstantiation the recipient receives the actual body and blood of Christ that cleanses sin and brings forgiveness).  Thus, a person would wish to receive communion, or at least extreme unction as close to their death as possible in order to die without sin.  We simply don't believe that Holy Communion forgives sin or has that function.  You can read my paper for a clearer understanding of the intention of the sacrament of Holy Communion for Methodist Christians.

Lay agents administering Holy Communion (as a precedence)

The Deacons provided another very good pragmatic reason for wanting to be allowed to administer Holy Communion.  The Methodist Church of Southern Africa has the very strange practise of allowing Lay Persons to administer the sacrament under license and discipline of their District Bishop (the discipline is confined to a circuit and the Circuit Superintendent Minister has disciplinary oversight).  Methodists may be suprised to hear me saying that Lay Persons have a license to administer the sacraments!  Most would probably say that only ministers are allowed to administer the sacraments in their context - well, if you have a students ministers (also called a probationer minister) labouring in your circuit and she / he administers the sacrament then you have a Lay Person presiding over the sacraments!

Simply stated, a person remains a lay person until she or he is ordained!  That is just the way it is!  You only cease being a member of ho layos when you are ordained either as a Presbyter or Deacon (you can see my book 'Methodism in Southern Africa:  A Celebration of Wesleyan Mission' for a detailed discussion of the three orders of ministry and the role of the Lay Christian / Lay minister in that order).  Probationer / student ministers receive a license from their Bishop to administer the sacraments within their circuit (they can be charged if they administer Baptism or Holy Communion outside of their circuit!)

This arrangement has been a source of great debate and even embarrassment in ecumenical circles.  Our Anglican sisters and brothers struggle to understand how we can allow lay persons to administer the sacraments.  However, I am led to believe that this pragmatic concession was made by our Church leaders some years ago (before we had an order of Deacons) in order to allow student ministers in very remote locations to meet the sacramental needs of their congregations.

On these grounds the Order of Deacons are absolutely within their rights to say that they, as Ordained persons, should be allowed to administer the sacrament of Holy Communion in areas where there is inadequate agency (whether through geography or apathy).

However, theologically it would not be permissible!  Simply because the Church has made a pragmatic consession in one instance (that is not theologically justifiable) it cannot make ANOTHER such concession (two wrongs do not make a right).  What the Church should do is:

1.  Not license Probationers to administer the sacraments.
2.  Train more persons and ordain them as Presbyters (if one is called to the ministry of word and sacrament that is the area within which one should labour).

Two positions on Deacons and Sacraments in the MCSA.

My friend, Dr Vernon van Wyk, who is an ordained Deacon raised a question on facebook about two perspective on Deacons and the sacrament of Holy Communion.  The two perspectives are presented in two position papers which I would encourage you to read.

Position 1: Dion Forster
Position 2: Diane Sundberg

In summary, my position is a straightforward theological position.  In terms of historical and Biblical theology one is ordained EITHER to word and sacrament OR word and service.  If one feels called to administer the sacraments one should train as a Presbyter.  The pragmatic concerns of agency and precedence (mentioned above) should be solved by means other than theological expediency.

If I read Diane's paper correctly she relies on two points to suggest that we reconsider allowing Deacons to administer the sacraments.  First, that Wesley's theology is pragmatic in nature and so the founder of Methodism would have made a pragmatic allowance for persons such as Deacons to administer the sacraments.  I say persons such as Deacons since the Methodist movement of Wesley's day only had Priests and Lay Preachers and only ordained Priests (even those ordained by Wesley himself) were allowed to preside over the sacrament.   The second argument is that of theological precedence (i.e., the Church already allows laity to administer the sacrament, why not ordained Deacons)?

My thoughts:

1.  I am still of the view that the theology of the Church, from Scripture and history is quite clear.  We should respond to the call to ministry in keeping with the one who calls.  The Church has a responsibility to discern the call and ordain persons to their respective ministries (word and sacrament or word and service).   This is the only theologically sensible thing to do!

2. I still believe that the pragmatic concerns are real concerns and that the Church will need to find some real solutions to them.  First among them is to ensure that there are enough ordained Presbyters to administers the sacraments.  Second, to no longer license lay persons to administer the sacraments as a general expectation during training for ministry.  Third, to formally acknowledge that there will be some instances in which the ordained Deacon should be allowed to administer both Baptism and Holy Communion.  Fourth, to educate both our ministers and members to understand the purposes of the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion as means of grace within the Church (so as to avoid using Holy Communion as a sacrament of 'extreme unction').

3.  I am still firmly of the belief that Deacons perform a distinct, valuable and necessary ministry within the Church.  I further believe that the value of this ministry is eroded if we turn Deacons into Presbyters!  In my paper I discuss the theology of a servant who is sent into the world as a high calling, not only equal to that of a Presbyter, but in some instance even higher than that of the celebrant.

So, I cannot agree with Diane's position (if I have understood it correctly). 

Whilst Mr Wesley was a pragmatist he was not a Methodist, certainly not in the way we are Methodists (he was an Anglican Priest who never considered or hoped that we would become a denomination free from the Anglican discipline.  Moreover he did not have any concept of the Order of Deacons as we have it in contemporary Southern African Methodism).  Moreover, while scripture does not forbid it, it certain does offer clearer examples of the order of ministry in the developing New Testament Church.  Applying the line of argument that scripture does not expressly forbid something is quite dangerous!  Scripture does not expressly forbid the use of atomic bombs in war, but it DOES give some clear guidelines about the sanctity of life.

Where we can sensibly see, in Church tradition and Scripture, which direction we should follow, we need to exercise extreme caution in going against such clear direction and guidance.
In conclusion I am not against Deacons administering the sacraments, I am however against Deacons eroding the unique character and gifting of their ministry for the sake of pragmatic expediency. 

We should take great care that we don't sell the high calling of servanthood at the price of a quick fix for accessible sacramental agency! So, I would encourage the Order of Deacons to so transform the Church through facilitating the true meaning of Holy Communion (as a sacrament of true reconcilliation NOT only in the Church but more specifically in the world) and Baptism as a sign of evangelism (bringing persons from the world into the Church, the body of Christ), and where necessary not to settle for poor planning and stationing by the Church's committees, or non-compliance and cooperation by ordained Presbyters.    If a Presbyter will not avail him or her self to serve (serve!) the sacraments when called upon, his or her ministry as an ordained person should be called into question.

What our Church needs is many more servants, persons truly called to exemplify the nature and mind of Christ (in accordance with Philippians 2).  This ministry is necessary for the Priesthood of ALL believers to allow Christ's body to fulfill its priestly functions in unity.

I would love to hear your perspective on this matter!  Please do drop me a comment here, or on facebook!

Together with you in Christ,


Just beyond my limits...

By now the regular readers of my blog would know that I am somewhat committed to cycling!  Yes, yes, I know that is an understatement!

It is a passion that brings me great joy and blessing! 

I enjoy riding on the road - particularly when I can do a nice long, quiet, ride.  I find it therapeutic. 

However, what I really love is getting onto 'the beast' (my Mongoose mountainbike) and heading up into the mountains - we have more than a few of those in Somerset West! 

Offroad riding takes a lot more energy and skill to safely make your way up the hills.  Sometimes there are wide dirt tracks where you can spin large circles with your feet, feeling the soil passing under your wheels at a smooth and rapid rate.  I love the climbs since I find that I have more strength than courage!  So, I tend to pass my cycling friends on the way up the hills, whereas they pass me on the way down. 

Since my motorcycle accident I have worked hard to build strength in my legs, and it has paid off to a great measure.  In fact, I would venture that I ride a lot better than I walk!

When the wide trails end and the single track starts it is even more fun!  It is exhilarating to navigate the narrow ruts between the trees and rocks, your legs are burning, your lungs feel like they're going to explode, but you can't stop pedaling, because if you do, you'll slow down and fall over... 

It is even more challenging when you're riding on the side of a fairly steep drop-off.  If your wheel slips you could tumble down the side of the hill (I've done this once with fairly disastrous results!  I ended up in the emergency room with cracked ribs and a few nasty scrapes and bumps!)  But, the risk is part of the fun!  So, I have learned how to keep control of my bike in order to get to the top of the hill safely and fairly quickly.  The basic principles I've learned are:

  • Choose your line in advance, it is easy to get stuck in the wrong rut and find that you cannot get out of it, or that you ride along a path that takes you straight into an obstacle that you can't get over or around.  My friend Phil ended up careering straight into a 'river bed' with large round stones on the one side and trees on the other.  He and his bike took a serious pounding when he hit the dirt!  When I came around the corner his bike was in a tree and he was lying flat on his back about 30 meters further down the track.  Choosing your line is crucial!
  • You'll go over whatever your attention is focused on!  I learned this the hard way when I first started mountain-biking!  If there is a large loose rock in the path and you focus on it you will ride straight for it! Tried as I may, I realised that I would always navigate for the obstacle that my attention was focused on.  So, the lesson I have learned is that I need to be aware of obstacles, but I should always look beyond them (so don't be dumb and not look at the tree you're riding towards!  Ha ha!  No rather find the line around, or beyond, your obstacle and focus your attention on that.  Amazingly, it works!)
  • Attack obstacles; hesitation most often has disastrous consequences.  One Saturday morning while riding at Oak Valley in Grabouw a friend, who is a much better cyclist than I am, had quite a serious fall while riding over a log bridge (it was extremely steep on the back end, and a large rut had been washed out below the end of the bridge.  When he was riding over the bridge he saw the ditch and hesitated, touching his front brakes for just a split second, and with that his front wheel dug in and he went over the handlebars spraining his thumb and injuring his arm, shoulder and leg).  I watched others ride the bridge, attacking the obstacle at speed and incredibly riders with much less skill made it across the bridge without a single incident!  It seemed that the courage to go off the end of the bridge with a little bit of speed gave them enough inertia to push their back wheel down the bridge and through the ditch.  Courage does help with most things in life!  The converse is also true though, stupidity is not all that helpful!  But, I'll say more about that below.
  • Learn from your mistakes and know your real limits.  I have come to understand that there are certain things that I cannot do as well as some of my riding companions.  I am not all that good at jumping large obstacles, so I choose to ride around them when I have a choice.  I'm not that good at directions (as many a lost friend will tell you!) so I am willing to ask others to point out the correct route.  At the end of the day I have had to learn from my mistakes so that I can make the most of the few precious hours I can find between 4.30 and 8.00 when I cycle!  Now, you'll notice that I put the word real in italics... That is because I have also come to realise that I need to push myself a little beyond my perceived limits most often in order to discover my real limits.  I tend toward safety and comfort, but I find it so much more rewarding when I have acquired a new skill, overcome a fear, or conquered a new obstacle.
  • Have fun!  Life's too short not to enjoy it!  This final one is common sense!  Some people think that I am eccentric and strange because of my penchant for fun.  Sure, we're all 'wired' differently, but the truth is that life is just too short to spend it doing things that you don't enjoy or want to do.  So, I do my best to enjoy the people, the places and the opportunities I have within my reach, and I try not to get too hung up on the places I'll never go or the opportunities I'll never have.  Make the most of what you do have!  It makes a difference.
This year has been a lot like my riding - I have constantly found myself stretched beyond my limits (what Paul calls epekteinomai in Phil 3:12-14 - to strain).   It is for a clear goal and purpose, yet it requires some measure of courage and discomfort to achieve it. 

  • I do my best to choose my line in advance (I do this on a macro scale, working for what I believe I am called to do, but also on a micro scale, by praying through my appointments, meetings and tasks for each week on a Sunday evening).  
  • I do my best to keep my focus on the correct things (my family, my faith relationship, and within my faith relationship on issues of grace, justice, mercy, loving inclusivity and the hospitality of Christ.  It is easy to become disheartened, down and bitter when I look at the many things that are wrong with the world.  I do my best to try and find opportunities for God's grace to operate through me (and in spite of me) in every situation!)  
  • Then, my friends will know that I have always attacked the obstacles!  Where I currently serve there are a lot theological and spiritual issues that I have to deal with, and sometimes with very powerful and influential people.  I have found that a firm and clear engagement is most often the best remedy for challenge and conflict.  Of course I ask God for wisdom, courage (and necessary restraint), but I have found that I can engage most people and tasks well enough to edge them forward (even if just by a millimeter each time!)  I have particularly found this approach helpful when facing daunting challenges (I am currently working on a new book with a prestigious South African Christian publisher - it is the first time that I am attempting to write something 'popular', it is a challenge, but I am enjoying it and tackling the task head-on!)
  • Well, learning from my mistakes and knowing my real limits are both areas in which I still have some growing to do.  I do tend to be somewhat head-strong - but the knowledge of this character trait has at least helped me to understand some of my disappointments and struggles!
  • Finally, I am learning to find opportunities to fall in love with life in every situation!  How can I not love life?  I am blessed with a wonderful family, I get to serve God (and survive with my financial and practical needs met), I live in a beautiful place and meet incredible people...  Plus there is still so much that needs to be done in the world, and God trusts me enough to tackle of few of those tasks... I have much to give thanks for!
So, tomorrow morning I'll rise at 4.30 am again and enjoy my bike.  I am thankful to be just beyond my limits of comfort!

    Friday, December 11, 2009

    Just met @USB_ED ! Here we are @EtiennePiek and I.

    It was such a blessing to attend the senior management development course (SMDP) - I learned such a great deal!  I loved being a student again, and it was fantastic to connect with new friends!  Etienne and I serve together in the Global Day of Prayer - Etienne heads up GDOP we were the only two 'dominees' (priests for those who don't speak Afrikaans) on the course!

    You can see more photos from the graduation here.

    Thursday, December 10, 2009

    Dr Liam Forster, wearing my doctoral gown - he thinks he's superman! Ha ha! Too cute!

    Isn't he cute! Courtney and Liam love wearing my doctoral gown. When I took it out the cupboard Liam's face lit up (it is the first time he has noticed it!) He shouted 'SUPERMAN!' Ha ha! So, I draped the gown and 4 hoods on him for fun - he loves the hat.

    Fun times! They grow up way too quickly!!!

    Wednesday, December 09, 2009

    Identity theft on the internet... A woman using pictures of my son.

    Every once in a while I notice a massive spike in the number of visitors to my blog.  When I start checking the referring site I normally find the same thing - since December 2006 a woman has been using pictures of my son Liam on various websites (I believe she mostly seeks sympathy, but I have also been told that she uses the pictures to try and get money from people).

    So, when I noticed a spike in visits to my web page this week I checked the refering link (this time you can see it here) and saw exactly the same thing.  The investigation is still ongoing into the allaged perpetrator and some time ago it was suspected that another woman was attempting to frame someone.  That case is also under investigation.

    Regardless, Megan and I are grateful for the many persons who have asked about Liam.  Here is a recent post from his 3rd birthday (16 November 2009).  We praise and thank God that he is well!

    If you're interested in the story about the woman who stole his pictures you can scroll to the bottom of this post and read about it there.

    Just to say that Megan and I are long past getting upset about this sad situation.  We pray for the person who is doing this, and we hope that she finds healing and peace before she gets into trouble or that she seeks help before she is caught.  Also just to mention that the woman who is doing this often visits my blog (we have a trace on the range of IP addresses that she uses).  When she does there will often be a string of comments.  I delete them, so if you see deleted comments on this post in the next few days you'll know why

    Post on Liam's Birthday 16 November 2009.

    It was three years ago today that Liam entered this world!  How wonderful it is to celebrate his 3rd birthday!!!!

    The 15th of November was one of the most difficult days of our lives as Megan went into labour for the third and final time, then just 27 weeks into her pregnancy.  She had been in hospital for about two weeks since she first went into labour after falling ill in her 26th week of pregnancy.

    On the that evening I had just arrived home with Courtney after visiting Megan in hospital when the phone rang and the doctor asked me to come back as quickly as I could.  I took Courtney to our friend Madika's home and raced back to the hospital where Megan was already in the delivery room.  An hour or so later little Liam entered the world at barely 1kg.

    Naturally we were overjoyed at his birth, but we knew that we had a journey ahead of us.  As Megan was wheeled into surgery after the birth I stood by as the doctor and nurses prepared Liam to go into the intensive care unit at Pretoria East hospital (the neonatal ICU).  He was so tiny and fragile.

    Well, you can follow some of the story here, and some other bits here.

    About a week or so after Liam's birth we took this picture of him with this tiny little teddy-bear.  Look how small he was!

    We prayed through the day and night, and had many wonderful friends and family praying with us!  Liam remained under the wonderful care of the ICU unit for almost three months.  They were truly wonderful, not only caring for him medically and for us emotionally, but they even worked out a way to help us when our medical aid funds ran out two days before Christmas!  The hospital and doctors negotiated a reduced rate so that we could keep him in the ICU.  It was truly a magnificent Christmas gift!

    Of course there were the many friends, like Wessel Bentley and his wonderful congregation who helped us to cover the almost quarter of a million rand shortfall that we had for his medical expenses.  Between our friends, and an extension to our home loan we were able to cover the costs entirely and soon Liam was at home growing at a rate of knots!!!

    There have been a few little moments inbetween, he has been in hospital a few times (as you'll see from the links above), and we still have to pay some attention to his physical and cognitive development.

    But, these little hiccups are not even worth considering in comparison to the joy of his life!!  He is growing up to be such an incredible little guy!  He has a wonderful sense of humour, he roughs it with the best of them (climbing, running and jumping), and like his dad, he loves his bicycle!

    We were cautioned to expect the worst, and we are thankful that we have only been blessed with the very best!

    Here's an updated photograph of our little miracle boy taken this morning... Just look how much he has grown in relation to that same little blue teddy-bear!!

    Today Liam turned 3 years old, and we give thanks to God for the gift of his life!

    Courtney and Liam are the most precious gifts we have ever received!  Please take a few moments to give thanks to God with us for Liam, and perhaps also to thank God for your children.
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    Here is the original post about the identity theft (from here).

    Update 26 March 2008: Thank you for stopping in to check out this post. The woman in these pictures, who stole pictures of our son and many others from what the police have told us, is clearly not well. Please do offer a prayer for her. But also please do be very careful of her (particularly if you encounter her in real life). Her real name is Sammie Banks. See her myspace profile here. You can also see her teenscene profile here.

    I would suggest that you keep your children as far as possible from her, and immediately alert your local police if you see her! She lives in the United Kingdom. We have naturally alerted the UK police (Cybercrimes and identity theft) who have an ongoing investigation into the matter, as well as interpol who have also opened an investigation. Naturally I cannot comment on the content of these investigations. It is, however, just a matter of time before she is apprehended. The link to the baby announcement below is no longer operative. The kind administrator removed all photos of Liam. However, if you wish to find more details on this woman (Samie Banks) you can follow link removed upon the request of the form since there is an investigation pending. Thanks!.

    To see a collection of photos that she has 'stolen' from us and other parents you can follow this link (the password to log in is bailey).

    The woman in question has tried to make contact with us using various aliases and different email addresses. In each case we simply forward all correspondence to the relevant authorities who assure us that she is being closely monitored.

    Original post of December 2007 below:
    This is truly bizarre! An unwell woman is using pictures of my son (and the details of my son and daughter) on various parenting websites! See the picture of her on the right, and compare that to two of the original pictures I posted back in November 2006 when I announced Liam's birth

    This morning I received an email from the moderator of a website in Australia - the website has a forum for mothers to discuss birthing and parenting issues, and support one another. The moderator informed me that a woman from (who I believe is from England) had signed up to the forums announcing that she had given birth to a premature baby at 29 weeks...

    She had posted numerous photos, various descriptions of her experience in giving birth to a premature son named 'Kabe', and had received a great deal of support and encouragement from members of the forum. However, the moderator of the forum noticed a few strange things in the posts and photographs and so decided to check it out...

    When she investigated she discovered that this woman (see the picture above) was claiming to have had mine and Megan's children (Liam and Courtney), and one other child! She photoshopped her face over Megan's picture in the birth announcement!

    Then, you'll see in the picture below (click on it to enlarge it) that she simply lifted, and reposted, two pictures of Liam, renaming him 'Kabe' (you can see our original pictures of Liam here and here).

    I am not posting the link to the forums on which she posted the information about Liam etc. - she has been banned from there and various other forums. However, if you want to see the site that she set up with the birth announcement you can click here DON'T type in your email address (just to be safe)! Simply use the password kabe to gain access.

    What does one do? I am at a bit of a loss... It is scary to think that someone has targeted one's children in this manner! Is there anyone out there who has any idea how we can trace who this is and put a stop to it? Off site email will be the best means to contact me (see the link on the right of this page).

    Thanks for any help or advice!

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    Tuesday, December 08, 2009

    A sunset ride in paradise! Mountainbiking in the Helderberg.

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    Gnome Chomsky! I wonder what he thinks about the snails in my garden!?

    This wonderful bit of humour came from BoingBoing.  Noam Chomsky is one of the most critically informed 'fringe' political analysts I know.  I have read most of his works on global economics and politics (for those who have not read him, I say that he is a bit like Michael Moore with a brain!  Noam Chomsky is actually a world famous Professor of Linguistics who has made some incredible breakthroughs in communication theory.  However, he is perhaps best known for his insightful political commentary on hegemony in Western politics).

    Featured in The Nation's charity auction, this Garden Noam Chomsky sculpture, of a run "probably limited to less than 100".

    Gnome Chomsky the Garden Noam (Thanks, Fipi Lele!)

    Monday, December 07, 2009

    The beast! Back from a service (this picture taken in the wild!!)

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    Sunday, December 06, 2009

    Dealing with difficult people without getting hurt or causing hurt!

    Over the last little while I have found myself doing a lot of conflict resolution and relationship guidance ? it seems that as we grow weary (towards the end of the year) we all need a little encouragement to be more gracious towards others, and conscious of our own shortcomings in work, family and other relationships!

    So, this episode of my radio program 'The Ministry and Me' discusses 'Dealing with difficult people without getting hurt or causing hurt!'

    The book that I mention is John Ortberg's book 'Everybody's normal until you get to know them' (Published in 2003 by the Willow Creek association).

    Here's the link, as usual this is a sneak preview.  Please could I invite you to visit Radio Pulpit at http://www.radiopulpit.co.za and vote for the show?  Also, for those of you who live outside of the Radio coverage range (elsewhere in South Africa or the world), you can listen to the live stream from the website.  As always I'd love to hear your comments and feedback!


    Tuesday, December 01, 2009

    An HIV+ Church in an HIV+ world - Positive in prayer

    Today is World AIDS day. Today we remember that the Church has AIDS. We do not minister to people who are HIV positive, as if they were people outside of the body of Christ. Rather, we ask God to heal us, for all of us suffer from this disease.

    Whether you are HIV+ or not, this disease reminds us that we shall all face death. It reminds us that we shall all be ill at some stage. It reminds us that we need one another to be strengthened and encouraged to face the reality of struggle. It reminds us that society can be cruel and that people can be judged for something that afflicts them. Most of all, this disease reminds us that we have a God who cares and longs to bring us healing and hope.

    Prayer of invocation:

    Loving God, you are our parent. You look upon us with mercy and compassion. You understand our weakness. Our suffering breaks your heart. Look upon us with love, grace, and compassion today. Father, you know the pain of losing your only son to death. Jesus, you know the pain of dying and leaving those whom you love behind. Spirit you are the giver and sustainer of life. With confidence we approach your throne of grace that there we may receive mercy.

    Renew our spirits and draw our hearts, bodies, and minds close to yours. All of us are subject to the frailties of life. Strengthen us in our weakness, bring us wholeness in spite of disease. For those who live under the impending threat of death, offer them comfort and strength in the knowledge that death does not have the final victory and that in you there is true, eternal, and blissful life that lasts for eternity. For those who feel the pain of seeing a loved one die, fill them with courage through the power of your Spirit of life. Surround them with caring and loving people who will show to them the love that you want to give them in their time of need.

    Help each of us to strengthen our resolve to obedience and service. Give us courage so that we would not shy away from facing our own frailty and pain. Move us to go to the places of death, like your beloved disciple John went to your cross, so that we may offer love and healing to those whom you love.

    Let us delight in doing those acts of mercy that will bring healing and honour Your name.

    Today we declare the faith that neither height, nor depth, neither life, nor death, neither angel, nor demon, nor anything in all creation can separate us from Your love. You are the creator God. You make a way where it seems none can be found, your bring forth living waters in the wilderness. We place our trust in You, through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN

    A meditation to guide your prayers and actions today

    Nosipho's story - no greater gift.

    Nosipho is just thirteen years old - tonight she is lying awake next to her 8 year old brother and her 5 year old sister. Her father named her Nosipho when she was born. She remembers that tonight. Her name has a very special meaning. Nosipho was born to her proud parents, Mxolisi and Vuyisile, in a remote part of South Africa called northern Kwazulu Natal. There was no work there for Mxolisi so he went to the city to find work as a labourer working on the roads. Mxolisi wanted to live a good life and take care of his family as best as he could. So, he faithfully brought money back to his Vuyisile and Nosipho at every opportunity. He and Vuyisile were blessed with a son who they named Andile (meaning 'the family is growing'). They loved their children very much and had great dreams for their future.

    However, with each year that passed it became more difficult for Mxolisi to be alone in the city. The months that Mxolisi and Vuyisile spent living apart took a toll upon their marriage and they would often disagree and argue. Once, when they argued, he told her that 'he had needs', 'like all men do'. And so, he decided to take a 'city wife', as many of his friends had done. Sadly, his city wife was HIV+, and so when Mxolisi returned home one December, himself HIV+ by this time, he gave Vuyisile another child, Thandi (which means 'nurturing love'), but, he also gave her the killer virus that would take both their lives.

    Mxolisi and Vuyisile discovered that they were HIV+ in the year that Nosipho turned 8 years old. Andile was 5, and little Thandi was just 2. Thandi had already been infected with the virus her mother was carrying through the milk she drank from her mother?s breast. Sadly, both Mxolisi and Vuyisile died of AIDS within 3 years of discovering their status, Thandi, however, is still alive and now a little girl of 5.

    Nosipho is a clever little girl. However, she hasn't been to school since her father died when she was 11 years old. By that stage her mother was already very ill and confined to bed, but at least then Andile and Thandi could stay with their mother while Nosipho begged for food and money at a traffic intersection on the edge of the township. She watched the other children going to school dressed in their smart school uniforms, with book bags that had pencils, paper, and no doubt some lunch to eat. She wished that she could be like them, but that would not happen - her mother eventually died as well.

    Tonight as she lay in bed she was no longer a child, but a parent, overnight she had become a 13 year old head of a household of three. She knew that she had a much greater responsibility than other 13 year old children. Each day she has to get enough money from the cars and commuters that come whizzing by to feed her two siblings and herself. She has a small cardboard sign on which she has written in a child's handwriting 'No parents, no food, no work, 3 people to feed. Please help. God bless you'. She also needs to get a few rand extra every month to help pay for Andile's school fees. She wants him to stay in school and learn so that he doesn't have to suffer like his father did. She doesn't want him to suffer like she is suffering now. Whatever money she has left after she has paid his fees, when there is any, is given to the 'aunty' who looks after her sick sister, Thandi, while Andile is at school and she is begging at the traffic lights. She doesn't trust the aunty, she drinks, and she's sure that she hits Thandi. But, she has no option. It is too dangerous for Thandi to be with her at a busy traffic intersection.

    There are other girls like Nosipho. In fact most of the child headed households in South Africa are headed by girls under the age of 15. Nosipho knows this because she meets some of them every Sunday at a little group for children like her that is held in the tin church near her shack. They sing songs, some kind ladies read stories to them from the Bible, and then they say prayers and get some food to eat. The church has also given her clothes and shoes for her and for her brother and sister. There is a lady from the government clinic who comes to visit their group once a month. She always asks Nosipho if she is safe, and asks if she and her brother and sister are getting enough to eat. You see, Thandi needs special medicine to keep her healthy, but she can only take her medicine if she eats properly, or else the medicine will make her sick instead of healthy. So on days when Nosipho does not get enough money, or food, to feed all three of them she lets Thandi eat first, so that she can take her medicine. Andile eats next, because he can't learn when his stomach is empty. Nosipho often lies awake at night hungry, but she knows that she is a 'gift' from her parents to Andile and Thandi ? that?s what her name means. Nosipho means 'a gift'. It?s the name her father gave her. She doesn't play anymore, she simply lives to be a gift to her brother and sister. Tonight she prayed to ask God to help her because a man has said he will give her R20 if she takes her clothes off and sleeps with him. She's praying because she is afraid. She has been told at church, and she has seen the posters, and heard the stories - Nosipho knows that's how little girls get sick and die ? but she needs the money. She wants to be a gift. She doesn't know what to do. Maybe God will do something to help her tomorrow? It is Sunday, she will ask one of the ladies to help her.

    Reflection: Stories such as this are common in South Africa. In KwaZulu Natal the death rate is higher than the birth rate because of AIDS. Recent statistics from UNICEF have suggested that up to 50% of children are HIV+ and an increasing number of children are growing up without their parents. Children like Nosipho face a stark and dreary existence. They are robbed of their childhood and dignity in a quest to survive. Very often their only support comes from community organisations such as churches and civic groups. For most children the lack of access to food, or poor nutrition and feeding practises, coupled with infection, leads to their untimely death. Children who are born in rural areas who do not have 'bar-coded' South African Identity documents do not qualify for medical care, schooling, or any form of government grant. Sometimes the most basic of help, like helping children register for an ID Book, or offering children a daily meal, and seeing that they take their medication can mean the difference between life and death. Methodist Churches in Southern Africa train all of their ministers to offer support and care to persons who are infected and affected by HIV. It is a central part of their training for ministry. In the region of the world that has the highest rate of HIV infection it cannot be any different. The Gospel demands that we bring healing and transformation. Perhaps the work of the Church near Nosipho could keep her from turning to prostitution at the age of 13? All that is needed is a courageous group of caring people who will see her plight, understand what she needs, and help her to find it - food, shelter, and loving adult support. This is what Jesus would do.

    [I wrote this story as a case study for a book that is in publication in the Cambridge Theological federation, UK. Please do not copy it without contacting me. I shall put you in touch with the publishers to get permission. Thank you.]

    Silent reflection and prayer.

    • What do you feel? What do these feelings tell you about yourself?
    • What does this story tell you about the world, and others in the world?
    • What do you think God feels? What would God want you, or your Church, to do?
    • Knowing this, what do you need to pray to have the courage to do?
    • What will you do today? What will you plan to do tomorrow? What will you want to achieve by next year this time?
    A benediction for today

    Almighty God, by the power of your Holy Spirit open my eyes to see the world as You see it, my ears to hear the cries that You hear, my heart to have the courage to feel what You feel, and my life to be present to You and all those whom You love this day. Give me the courage to worship and serve you in faithfulness, to be a blessed and healing reminder of Your love to all whose lives I will touch. I offer this prayer in the name of Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father, and in the power of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.

    If you're looking for some facts on HIV / AIDS here are a few that may be of interest:

    Have you ever taken time to consider the relationship between faith, economics, globalization and the suffering of people?

    Well, recently I did a post about the neurological causes of greed, and how these can be managed as a 'value transaction' in order to address some of the economic inequalities that we face across the world.

    Let me show you a few basic analogous maps of the world to illustrate the economic inequalities that exist in the world.

    First, here is a basic map of the world based on geographical land mass (i.e., this is the traditional manner in which maps are drawn - the area of each land mass is a represented equivalent of the actual land mass drawn to scale).

    Now, take a look at this next map - this map is analogous of the world's wealth. In other words, the more wealth a nation has the larger it will appear on the map. Look how large North America and Europe are in relation to the rest of the world - it is also worth noting how rich Japan is on this map. Clearly, the world's wealth is concentrated in the Northern Hemisphere, and it is largely concentrated in the West. I shall, however, say something about the shifts that are taking place in the world's economy at a later stage.

    Next, take a look at this map which analogous of poverty across the world. It is almost an inverse representation of the wealth map above - this map shows nations that are poorer as larger masses on the map.

    Now, take a look at this map which shows HIV / AIDS infection across the world - it is interesting to note that 68% of all HIV+ people live in Southern Africa (that is 22.8 million out of the 33 million persons who are HIV+). I have just written a study on this for a new book on a Christian response to HIV / AIDS - it is shocking to see the prevelance of AIDS deaths in Africa. But please do take a look at the last map in this series.

    This last map gives an analogous representation of where the world's Christian population lives. Isn't it sad to see that Christians live in most of the places where wealth, poverty and HIV / AIDS are significant problems? Clearly we have a few things to learn about money, God's economy, health care, reproductive care, women's rights, and sex!

    OK, now I made mention of the fact that the world's wealth is concentrated predominantly in the North and the West - this is changing! Within the next 10 years the economies of the USA (North America), and most of Europe will show negative growth in some instances, and decline in others. The economies that are on the rise are China, India and Brazil (Australia is also a Southern Hemisphere economy that is growing at a significant rate). In other words, by 2020 we will see a completely different picture in global economic power! My advice is that you send your kids for a 'gap year' in China! As for me, I'm starting to study Mandarin!

    If you're interested in a more detailed discussion of these shifts you can read this paper that I wrote for the Stellenbosch University Business school in 2009.

    Sadly, Africa's economy will only show marginal growth since it is crippled by the impact of AIDS, political instability, underdevelopment and international debt. However, if we play our cards carefully the continent could be the next economic powerhouse after China and India since we are one of the only continents on earth that still has natural resources!

    So, here's the point - did you realise that if we spent just 10% (190bn US$) of the annual world budget for military expenditure (1235bn US$) we could BOTH restore the earth's natural resources (cleaning up our water, replanting trees, creating environmentally friendly and more sustainable energy source), AND meet the basic water, sanitation, education and health care needs of the whole world! Just 10%... You can read about that research from Brown 2008 (entitled Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to save civilization) here.

    Christians make up more than 40% of the world's population - surely we could take up our responsibility to manage the 'household of God' (oikos nomos - economy) for the transformation of the world?

    What do you think? How do we do it? What practical steps can you suggest to start making a difference within your sphere of influence... As I've been doing this research in recent weeks I've been praying one text consistently:

    The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it. (Psalm 24.1 NIV)

    If you're interested in an article / chapter that I have published on the subject of the environment and earthkeeping you can read

    • More red than green ? a response to global warming and the environment from within the Methodist Church of Southern Africa. Forster, DA in The Epworth Review - the Journal of Methodist ecclesiology and mission Vol 35, No 2 (2008). This paper was also published in
    • Forster DA, 'More red than Green', in What are we thinking? Reflections on Church and Society from Southern African Methodists. Forster, DA and Bentley, W. 2008. Methodist Publishing House, Cape Town. ISBN: 978-91988352-6. (2008:117ff. Chapter 7)

    (This is not my area of expertise by the way, I am far more interested in justice and economics, but there was not much being written on this topic from our perspective so I took it upon myself to do some research in the area).

    If you're interested in reading a chapter that I wrote on the Christian's response to Greed and Economics please see:

    • Upon the Lord's sermon on the mount - discourse 8 (a contemporary exposition of John Wesley's sermon on stewardship and the use of money from an African Liberation Theology perspective) in Shier Jones, A and Reisman, KD 44 Sermons to serve the present age (2007), London: Methodist Publishing house. ISBN: 97807162063

    Oh, and if you're looking for my 'other' post on maps of the world please go here. This is the MOST clicked linked on my blog - isn't that amazing!?

    For more posts on HIV / AIDS please follow this link.