Greetings and blessings to you in the precious name of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. The year 2013 started with a bang and, no doubt, by now some of us may be still succeeding in keeping some of those New Year’s resolutions and others of us may have already failed. The quest is to never give up but to keep trying.
Remember that saying: “If at first you do not succeed, try again.” So what do you do if you keep failing? Hmm… sounds like a really tough one, doesn’t it?
Well, I believe that the Apostle Paul has something to tell us about this as he writes about pressing on towards the Goal in Philippians 3:12 – 14: “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus.” The Apostle, of course, speaks here in the context of Jesus having the power to control everything and to transform our ‘lowly’ bodies. It is with this understanding that he pleads for perseverance with the call to ‘stand firm.’ So no matter your successes or failures, stand firm in the Lord!
As I ponder on those words to ‘stand firm’ I am drawn to the words of the prophet Malachi to the people of Israel who wavered on their faith often forgetting the power and grace of God showered on them at different times on their journey. The prophet admonishes their priests in the name of God with the words: “you have not set your heart to honour me.” (Malachi 2:1). This admonition is further deepened with the following question: “Why do we profane the covenant of our fathers by breaking faith with one another? The prophet then goes on to say: “So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith.” In putting these thoughts together then, this is my prayer and hope for all our ministers, leaders and members within the UPCSA: 1) Set your heart to honour God, 2) Stand firm in the Lord and, 3) Guard your spirit and do not break faith. There is always the temptation to nurture dissatisfaction instead of nourishing and flourishing in God’s grace and love. The Israelites were always grumbling and moaning by what God was supposedly not doing so much that they failed to see what God was doing. In our Denomination (Central Office), Presbyteries, and local congregations we often get caught up with what we want to see but are not ‘seeing’ so much so that we are blinded from actually seeing the things that God is doing. So instead of harbouring on the negatives let us sift out the positives, celebrate them and give thanks, and we will be surprised by what God is doing in and through us.
Let me offer you some thoughts on what we can celebrate in the UPCSA:
1. The over 450 ministers and numerous congregations and preaching stations we have in the UPCSA.
2. The thousands of lay people who are involved in various ministries in and through their congregations and are making such a significant impact in their communities.
3. The 2 Synods and 19 Presbyteries we have in South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe which oversee our work in the different regions.
4. The fact that we are a transnational, multiracial, multicultural and multi-lingual Church which embraces the diversity of God’s people.
5. Our new Vision, Mission and Mission Priorities of the UPCSA which put ‘developing and supporting missional congregations’ at the heart of what we are called to do as the UPCSA.
6. The many HIV and AIDS Projects, Educare Centres, Crèches, feeding programmes, clinics and schools we run throughout South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
7. The ecumenical contributions we are making in South Africa and worldwide. Do you know that at least 5 ecumenical organisations are led by ministers from the UPCSA?
8. We celebrate and give thanks for congregations which faithfully pay assessments so that the rest of the Church may be blessed. As I have said before, the assessment income goes toward the selection and training of ministers to serve congregations (7,8%), providinggrants for congregations to be able to have a minister and church development and planting of new congregations (12,3%), holding workshops and conferences to encourage and empower ministries to benefit ministers, elders and congregations (4,5%), the running of the Central Office (including salaries, property maintenance, administrative costs, etc. (24,9%), Banking charges, computers, audit fees and pension fund (18,1%), work of Assembly Committees and the holding of General Assembly/ Executive Commission (15,9%), Education Bursaries (8,3%), Pension Administration (2%), and legal fees (6,2%). It is the kind contributions of congregations, most times under really trying circumstances, that enables us to bless other congregations who cannot afford to have ministers and maintain ministries. So when we bemoan the fact that we pay too much in Assessments to the Central Office, let us be reminded that it is not to the Central Office per se but to all of the above. As you can see more than 75% of Assessments are given back to empower and assist congregations and Presbyteries.
9. We rejoice in the fact that we are currently looking at the rate of Assessments. It is my sincere hope and prayer that we would be able to reduce it to a more manageable flat rate at least at the 2014 General Assembly. In fact, steps in this direction have already been set in motion with a decrease by 2% at the 2012 General Assembly. However, if this is to have any significant impact it is necessary that those congregations that are not making any assessment contributions do so as soon as possible.
We need to remember that we are covenanted to one another and that giving to the wider work of the Church is an essential sign of that covenant. It is no small wonder then that the prophet Malachi rebuked Israel for her failure to bring her “tithes and offerings” to bless God’s work.
10.The 2012 General Assembly decided that we should engage external mediators to address the situation of the Church Associations. Immediately after the Assembly I drafted a document outlining possibilities of organisations we could approach to help us with mediators. This document was circulated to all parties concerned for comment and discussions. I was hoping that we would be able to identify external mediators by the end of 2012. Unfortunately, some of the organisations have not responded to the document as yet. I have met/talked with those concerned and we have firmly agreed that by the second week in March we would settle on the matter of the external mediators.
So, we give thanks for this positive indication and pray that the process will start in due course.
In conclusion, let me express a sincere thanks to all the “saints” (believers) in the UPCSA for your dedication, faithfulness and commitment to both God and the UPCSA. There are countless people who sacrificially continue to keep the ‘fire burning’ in congregations and Presbyteries. We thank God for you and pray for continued wisdom, grace and strength to be given to you as you serve God and God’s people. May this year be filled with bursting vision, joyful ministry and abundant energy as you: set your heart to honour God, stand firm in the Lord and guard your spirit so that you do not break faith.
Stay blessed and keep the faith!