The Gipper

Ronald Reagan – The Gipper – used to say that the 9 most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘we’re from the government and we’re here to help’.


The idea behind him saying this was that even in a first world country like the USA of the 1980’s, the State is more than capable – and more than likely – of getting in the way of helping any of its citizens. I’m sure its a sentiment as valid today as it was when he said it.


In the concluding verses of Romans 12, Paul writes that we are not to repay evil for evil.


As emotionally satisfying as it may be to indulge in vigilantism, whether real or imagined, we should trust that the Judge will ultimately make all things right.


As Christians, Paul writes, we are to overcome evil with good. Totally counter-intuitive. How are we to ‘win’ by having manners and not condescending ourselves to the level of our schoolyard bully? Playing fair in the age of cancel culture and mass media’s ability to ruin reputations for holding the incorrect opinion?


We submit ourselves to God and he will sort things out, including schoolyard bullies and the host of people who debase themselves by deliberately hurting others. I’ve read about it in the Scriptures but I’ve never seen God angry with my own eyes, all four of ‘em. That would be some thing to actually see.


A start of my reading of Romans 13 coincided with the court appearance in Senekal of the alleged killers of the 21 year old Free State farm manager, Brendin Horner. The particulars of what happened to him are something I’ve read about but don’t wish to re-read. My heart is broken enough. It’s an injustice and one of many in this country, and unfortunately I have no faith in the legal system.


We’re to trust God and not pay back evil, but then Paul writes that we are also to be subject to and respect the governing authorities.

Romans 13 stands at odds with my natural inclination (look up Gadsden flag and the picture will be clear). Paul had to contend with the cruel maniac that was Rome and happily I have not tasted blood from a Roman fist. In many ways my experience with government has been far more benign than Paul’s.


However this passage make me uncomfortable. I like the way John Piper puts it into perspective however:


Without government, there would be anarchy, which would be worse.


So, we’re stuck with the government we have for the time being. They are His servants, or at least they are meant to be.


Scripture instructs us to pray for those in authority. This goes against my nature as a political being, however it is what Scripture instructs me to do:


I have to walk a fine line between praying as I’m instructed and being genuine and sincere in what I’m praying for.


I don’t trust government’s motives for lockdown regulations, I don’t think government has any feeling one way or another about anyone’s personal freedoms, my common sense tells me that their self-interest and power come way before any consideration of the public good on any continuum.


And yet God has seen fit to let them exercise authority in this time and place.

Living sacrifices

Paul makes an appeal to us, to make a choice about being a living sacrifice.

A living sacrifice seems like a contradiction in terms. When they tied those bulls and sheep to the altar in the old days, the animal didn’t bleet or moo happily as it was released at the conclusion of the sacrifice.


In the light of all the things that God has done for us, laid out by Paul (and inspired by the Holy Spirit) in chapters 1 through 11 of Romans, Paul writes that we should take that all into consideration and choose to be a living sacrifice.


What has God done for us? Let’s review his mercies:


  • He’s justified us, making us right with him through faith
  • He’s adopted us as his children
  • He has placed us under his grace and taken us out from under the law
  • He has given us His Holy Spirit
  • He is with us and helps us in our affliction
  • He assures us of our standing
  • He gives us confidence in future glory
  • He has promised that nothing will ever separate us from Him


Paul writes that all of those are good reasons for us to live differently, than if they weren’t true. These mercies should be able to persuade us without us having to be compelled to do it unwillingly. No one is going to tie us down to an altar like an animal sacrifice in the Old Testament.


Paul calls it our reasonable service (‘proper service’ in the NIV).


It makes sense, it is appropriate to be living sacrifices. Sure, it’s a neat theoretical term, but what does being a ‘living sacrifice’ look like?


The body is a wonderful servant but a terrible master. Being a living sacrifice is using our bodies as a tool for His purposes. And it is doing so in an ongoing manner.


Like when I’d much rather veg on the couch because it’s been a rough week and not do anything, but its time to meet as the church and mutually encourage one another:


24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”


Like looking down at my hands being instruments in helping someone in need, hauling around furniture, or painting a wall, or opening up my Bible in between church services and hearing the onion skin and reading verses of Scripture. Like meditating on those verses and thinking about how they apply.


Like stopping to help people who interrupt me when I’m in the middle of something. Jesus was constantly being interrupted and I have a lot to learn from how he used interruptions to connect with people and help them.


‘Do not conform to the pattern of this world’, Paul writes. The basic operating principle of the world is selfishness. Conformed to God’s way is putting Him and then others ahead of ourselves.


Just look at what Paul writes in the rest of the chapter:


  • Not thinking too highly of ourselves (verse 3)
  • Living as members of one body in the church (verses 4 – 5)
  • Using our gifts for the benefit of the body (verses 6 – 8)
  • Not merely virtue signalling and saying the expected things but being genuine in our love for one another (verse 9)
  • Giving preference to one another, not to self (verse 10)
  • Rejoicing, praying, enduring (verses 11 – 12)
  • Giving to those in need (verse 13)
  • Blessing those in opposition to us (verse 14)
  • Rejoicing and alternately weeping with our brothers (verse 15)
  • As if to repeat verse 3, to not be proud (verse 16)


The body is a wonderful servant but a terrible master. In light of God’s mercies we can repurpose our tools from the selfish building projects that have consumed us and into the building of his kingdom.


Mind, tongue, muscles, hands, legs. It all belongs to him anyway.


The hound must be walked, preferably once a day.


And I’m not sure whether I’m impressed or disappointed that she keeps her land-mines for her own territory. But it is her way.


As the designated walker on our rounds, I’m constantly scanning and studying the environment with my eyes and ears. Not doggo. Nose in the dirt, sniffing.


It amuses me. In advance of our path sometimes I’ve seen cats and squirrels that would be of interest, but doggo’s visual reconnaissance extends as far as just in front of her nose.


Reading up on it helps to understand the dog’s perspective on things:


Compared to our olfactory senses there’s an insane amount of information available to this snout.

No escaping this nose

During the walk yestersday morning, I’m thinking about the 2020 election and the hyperventilating going on Stateside and I wonder about how a dog may see the whole thing: sniffing the respective rear end of each candidate and deciding on which candidate smells more pungent.


One bark: Trump!


Two barks: Biden!!


The article says we are ‘splendidly stinky’ to our dog.


In all seriousness though, sometimes doggo settles down around what seems to me to be a random patch of sidewalk and sniffs around like she never wants to leave.


It evokes for me the title of the poem ‘The hound of heaven’ by Francis Thompson. He flees from God, but God follows ‘with unhurrying chase and unperturbed pace’.


We can no sooner hide from God than Dr Richard Kimble can hide from US Marshall Samuel Gerard. Or elude our Heavenly Father.


And that for me is a comforting thing.

Asking the right questions

They say you should never ask a question to which you do not already know the answer.


Perhaps this is true in a political sense, or in a debate.


But in any normal context asking a genuine question is like the process of writing.


Sharks rugby player Stefan Terblanche once said when he remarked on the latter years of his career, that he still got butterflies in his stomach, but that they tended to now fly in formation.


I can’t speak for everyone, but for me, writing is a process by which I take inchoate thoughts and capture them like butterflies and then order and categorise them. I start, never quite sure how it is going to conclude, but sure that when it does there will in fact be a conclusion.


Therefore, writing is kind of like asking a question.


When God asks a question, of course he already knows the answer. One of the most striking images in Scripture is of the prophet Ezekial in the valley of dry bones. And God then asking him a question:


‘Son of man, can these bones live?’


No phone a friend, no audience to ask. Ezekiel ponders before answering perfectly: ‘Sovereign Lord, you alone know’.


If you don’t ask the questions, how can you get the answers? Reading through more of the Emmanuel Press material, Jesus reaches people a lot by asking questions as well as answering questions.


Ravi Zacharias once remarked that apologetics works best not simply by answering the questions of skeptics, but addressing the questioner.


The Pharisee Nicodemus visited with the Rabbi Jesus at night, probably to ensure that there was no social pressure. Jesus tells Nicodemus that to see the kingdom of God, a person must be born again. “How can someone be born when they are old?” “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”


We can infer that Nicodemus was no dummy and that he knew Jesus wasn’t speaking literally of a guy entering a birth canal to then enter the world again. Not even in the realm of sci-fi B-movies. Yet.


It was a question meant to draw an elaboration out of the Teacher. But even when Jesus explains that a man must have a spiritual birth, Nicodemus asks “How can this be?”


So convinced in his own ways that he was doing the right thing, it never occurred to him that he was spiritually dead and needed spiritual life. Jesus chides him. How could this teacher of Israel, Nicodemus, not know it? Perhaps that question resonated with Nicodemus for a long time. He thought he knew the Scriptures, he thought he knew what God wanted, but here was the Christ telling him about spiritual life and he was clueless.


And here is Nicodemus and without a context to tell me differently, he’s the first Pharisee to hear John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” He probably had more questions.


I think of another Pharisee (Acts 9) who was confronted with the question: ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? And asking his own question, ‘Lord who are you?’ I reckon Paul knew the answer as he asked the question.

I like what the EE3 material has as diagnostic questions for the Un-Believer:


Do you know for sure…if you had to die tonight…would you go to heaven?


If God had to ask you why you should be admitted entrance to heaven…what would you say?


I like the rhetorical question Scripture has for the Believer:


What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? (Romans 8:31) Sin is no longer an impediment for us in walking His way. God is for us, we’re on His mission (if we’re not, we should be) and He is backing us all the way.

Somerset County

I read a charming article this week by Salena Zito in the Washington Examiner.

The one and only Joseph Biden zipped off to Pittsburgh to drop off some pizzas at a firehouse and then deliver a 12-minute speech, parts of which were intended to be used as material for campaign ads.


Salena Zito took the same trip by car along the highways and byways of Pennsylvania, heading west, writing of what Biden could have seen had his staff decided to drive: the rolling farmlands of Lancaster county, the Harley Davidson plant in York, the famous Gettysburg, coffee shops, ice-cream parlours and political signs from the competing campaigns. Taking a journey by road means can you can stop and connect with people.


In an age of infection, and frankly more fear than infection, a luxury in addition to being politically useful.


Along the way to Pittsburgh, Biden may have passed the Flight 93 memorial in Somerset County.


It is approaching 19 winters since the events of September 11th. A lot of water has flowed under the bridges of Madison County as well as the bridge spanning those turbulent waters.

Who even remembers anymore?


We no longer mention Al-Qaeda, ISIS is fading in memory as well. Socially, we are slaves to this moment where revolutionary movements try to maintain their momentum beyond what is natural. Kenosha, Portland, Rochester and whatever place will be next.


9/11 is pretty much forgotten. News cycles are born, live and die.


Call me old fashioned though, because 9/11 is still like a scar, where my fingers check in the flesh what I know is there in the memory. I remember. I remember Flight 93, and Todd Beamer and the heroes of that flight in a desperate effort to re-assert a measure of control.


A day when the whole world mourned with America but then moved on.


Except I didn’t really. I still remember and a flag rests on my desk.

First foot forward

At the last census in 2011, the town of White River in Mpumalanga recorded 16,639 residents. Along with several other missions students, I happened by there in 1997 and was impressed by the agricultural lifestyle: colder in the morning, fresher, less noise, physical labour, but surrounded by green things and iron-rich soil that is just about burgundy.


We saw a little publisher in the town called Emmanuel Press, at that time managed by a gentleman that resembled Colonel Sanders, but without the dark framed spectacles.


David Newington has since fallen asleep.


Strange, all these years later – and because we’re in a lockdown – I decided to make use of free online courses that they offer and I’ve been at it fairly regularly. For a long time I’ve wanted to study theology. I’ve heard it described as the ‘queen of the sciences’ because it lies at the summit of a type of Unified field theory, that collates everything that can be discovered about God from all the other scientific disciplines and in fact leaps over the barrier of what we can discover about God from logic and observation of his creation and into the territory of what God says about Himself in Scripture.


So, I’m happily studying the first module and its basic stuff. But what I like about Scripture is that one verse can slam through your eyelids, cause you to suck in your breath, fire up your brain and tug some nose hairs on its way out.


A verse can have a profound effect. Because the Word is alive.


I read a lot, and Scripture is the only place where I find this happens.


“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”


The context is Paul contrasting our earthly bodies with our heavenly home, and us wanting to please Him, whether in our tents (earthly bodies) or at home in His presence. And then Paul reminds us that we have to give an account for the things we have done in the body, whether good or bad.


The unbeliever appears before the great white throne of judgement. The Christian appears before the bema (judgement seat of Christ). As Paul notes, when apart from the body the Christian is at home with the Lord. There is no question of his or her eternal destiny. It is heaven. The judgement seat of Christ resolves the issue of what the Christian’s reward looks like.


Faith is expressed in actions and those actions are judged. The apostle James wrote that faith without works is dead. I figure, works without the right motivation is just sweat.


The Father knows our motivations and in the light of His word, he evaluates in all the things that we have done.


I read this verse and wondered…any of the things that I have thought and turned into action, or have said, or have actually done, how much of it has been ‘for Christ’? It’s a question without my being able to resolve it. How do I know what my motivations are? I’m capable of deceiving myself and only He can show me.


When I first ventured to White River, it was the year when I remember asking the question, what would He say to me at the end? Would it be ‘well done’?


Well, I could obsess about the question and sigh and pace around like Hamlet, or I could do what Paul wrote about: forgetting what lies behind and reaching for Christ, the goal, the prize, I strain towards what is ahead.


The lazy servant in the parable (Matthew 25) didn’t do anything with his Master’s investment but buried it in the ground. I can briefly engage in some contemplation about what my motivation has been up to this point…have I done it for Christ? Or what have I done for Christ? But sooner rather than later, contemplation has served its purpose and I stop looking into my own heart (yuck) and I start looking into Scripture and then put the first foot forward again.

Forgetting what lies behind…straining towards what is ahead

In this lockdown, would it be hard to convince you that it seems I’ve taken as many steps backwards as forwards?

Obsessing like Hamlet

And then I start looking into Scripture and then put the first foot forward again.

Common grace

I watched ‘Groundhog day’ first and endured the South African lockdown second and one reminds me of the other.


As in every time we tuned into hear ‘My fellow South Africans…’ it was six more weeks of winter.


And yet, despite the happenings in the country and ‘the troubles’, on taking the hound for its exertion early this morning, a flight of birds whipped past me at tree-top level and in my recollection of the moment now hours later, their dark avian forms paused with a pregnant gray cloud as a backdrop looking to the east.


The regulations temporarily forgotten, our walk continued and the rain cloud gradually caught up to us.


Free as a bird like the saying, but thinking about being cared for as His child, which is of far more importance.

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? (Matthew 6:26 NIV)

Raindrops falling on my head, being reminded of His common grace, enjoyed by child and foe alike, oppressor and oppressed.

He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.(From Matthew 5:45 NIV)

Tiny green and pink colonies, there one moment and gone the next, but noticed in His providence.

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. (Matthew 6:28 NIV)

Spotting a rainbow, though insipid on the cell phone camera, vivid on my photo receptors and in my memory, speaking of how His mercy persists.

I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. (Genesis 9:13 NIV)

Get thee a wife

‘Much ado About Nothing’ is one of my favourite comedies from the pen of William Shakespeare and concludes with the deliriously happy Benedick offering advice to Don Pedro: “Prince, thou art sad. Get thee a wife…get thee a wife!” (Act 5, Scene 4).


Pretty much everyone loves a happy ending and what’s better than a wedding, a union, a life of possibilities ahead.


On the occasion of our thirteenth anniversary, I think of my wife in view of the writer of Proverbs:


10 A truly good wife
is the most precious treasure
a man can find!”


I think of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, writing about how marriage is a mystery.


It’s not a mystery in the sense that you wonder how the guy got together with the girl in the first place. In our case, gradually.


It’s not a mystery in the sense that you wonder how they’ve stayed together this long. No idea, just blinked a few times and its now 13 years later.


It’s a mystery in that the bedrock, common, ordinary relationship that billions are familiar with expresses a meaning far greater than the obvious. And it’s been understood in this way only since Christ.


“Why did God design the world this way? Why two sexes, and why one male and the other female? Why one called to lead, provide, protect, and shoulder final responsibility, with the other called to actively receive, beautify, and strengthen humble initiative and care? Why a dance of two complementaries, rather than just two of the same?”


Not two of the same because husband and wife don’t have the same function as any other partnership on earth.


Not just to make babies, but to model, express and show the relationship between Christ and His church.


Paul rightly says that it is profound.


Now from the profound to the co-incidental…it was before I had even proposed, in 2006 we wandered into a music store and they handed us each a flier:

I don’t do omens, since it seems like taking things that are co-incidental and reading a conclusion into it that isn’t there. It was a cute coincidence, but we are called to live by faith in the revealed word of God and so I kept these fliers for fun, but I read Scripture for life.


Not-so-famous Grouse
Bridge made of recycled plastic. In my day we did it with wood
Almost like green feathers
A gentle stream, very unlike our world at present
Hiding place
Trees in a row within a random arrangement
Character lines in wood
A bio system within a bio system
The reservoir

It’s the sap, not the wood

Imagine a world in 2020 without the novel corona virus. What would we be talking about? Where would our focus be? Sadly, that would merely be a thought-experiment, a pleasant day-dream.


What are the lasting effects that are going to emerge out of 2020?


  • The overuse of the term ‘Covid19’ which will be shorthand to explain everything without having to elaborate?
  • A distrust of the media and their ability to get us caught up in a panic for clickbait?
  • The ripple effect of millions of job losses and all that means for South African families?
  • Less importantly, the members of Sanzaar’s Super Rugby taking the opportunity to split the kids in the divorce.


Perhaps, the lasting effects will not be all that lasting. Our kids won’t remember things quite so acutely as we will, who went through it as adults with fully developed anxiety.


From my further reading of Paul and his letter to the Romans, I came to wonder what 2020 and all this present craziness would look like in arboreal time. I mean, imagine the core sample of a mature tree and what lockdown would look like in contrast with other years.


Not that dissimilar I’ll bet. Just another tree ring, representing an annual orbit around the sun, but you could still point it out and say, ‘that there was 2020’. And trees can live hundreds and even thousands of years.,thought%20to%20be%20more%20than%203%2C600%20years%20old.


In that context, even the corona virus pandemic of 2020 will eventually be forgetfully contextualised.


What do trees have to do with Paul’s letter to the Romans? Romans 9 through 11 are an examination of the nature of faith and what that means for Paul’s people, the Jews. And also for the Gentiles. Previously, Paul had agonized over the non-acceptance of Messiah and wished that he could be lost if it meant that his people could be saved.

Paul uses the imagery of a tree as a picture of faith and being connected to God. As a herald of the coming Messiah, John the Baptist warned the religious leaders of the Jews that they were complacent:


10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
The religious life in Israel viewed salvation in a national context, not an individual one. The thinking was if you were descended from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, you were in. John the Baptist was telling them that they had the genealogical heritage in place (a family tree if you will) but that that their connection to God couldn’t depend on that.


Genealogy without faith is dead. Faith without works is dead. There needs to be fruit, evidence, sap flowing through the leaves and branches.


In this section of Romans, Paul explains that God elects. He chooses. He has mercy on some and he hardens others. Paul writes that its just the way it is. God is like the Potter and we are the clay and the clay can’t mount an accusation against the Potter and call him unfair. God’s prerogative has included the Gentiles where they weren’t included before. Now both – Jew and Gentile – have the same way to salvation, through faith in Christ.


Paul knows that people are going to bring up all the promises God made to Israel. Isn’t this chucking away all those promises? If God can shake up the system and make it all about faith now? From the first chapters of Romans, Paul is writing that its always been about faith. Abram believed the Lord and that faith was credited as righteousness.


God hasn’t rejected Israel. He points at himself:


“I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew.”


Not all Israel are Israel. Not all the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had faith. Perhaps they had an assumption, but they didn’t necessarily have faith. However there have always been a remnant, a faithful core of Believers among Israel.


Paul writes that God has been faithful to Israel and he will be faithful to the Gentiles. He uses the picture of an olive tree with branches (Gentiles) that were grafted in. Fruitfulness is the criterion for staying connected to the tree.


Jesus also used the analogy of a vine to illustrate the sap that must flow through the branches to show connection to the plant (John 15).


Genealogy without faith is dead. Faith without works is dead. There needs to be fruit, evidence, sap flowing through the leaves and branches.


In this time especially, it’s important to know that we are securely connected to God, like living branches on a living tree.