The ramblings and observations of an Anglican Pastor in East London, South Africa


I’m going to start re-posting poems from my blog ‘Poems of Faith’ because I think they get a bit lost out there in the ether, and many of them are really rather good and deserve to be read more!

Poems of Faith

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
wich is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

ee cummings

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A response to Time Magazine’s article on Oscar Pistorius

Oscar Pistorius’s shooting of Reeva Steenkamp has raised many emotive issues for us as South Africans, and nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than in Alex Perry’s article in Time Magazine on the killing. Like most South Africans, when I first heard of the death of Reeva, I was shocked. I must confess that, on the basis of many rumours I’d heard over the years from people I knew in Pretoria, and my own exposure to the shocking abuse of women in South Africa, I had decided early on that I knew what had happened. Perry’s article, however, is a master-class in journalism because he achieves his goal of showing how and why it is possible that Oscar’s story is true.

Of course many South African are upset by some of his simplifications, generalisations, and occasional inaccuracies but they are inevitable in the interests of clarity for a predominantly foreign readership. What the article does do, however, is paint a picture of the South African context in such a way that people overseas are able to understand in some sense Pistorius’s thinking, whether we agree with the article’s observations or not. The picture painted is of a completely corrupt society, filled with violence to such an extent that many people feel threatened by it: “Steenkamp was the tragic victim of a racially splintered society in which fear and distrust are so pervasive that citizens shoot first and ask questions later.”

Pistorius doesn’t dispute killing Steenkamp; rather he contends that his actions were reasonable in the circumstances. What does that say of us as a country? It’s quite a scary picture, and if you’re reading it you perhaps understand where all of this is coming from: why a man can get up in the middle of the night, hear a noise in the bathroom, pull out his gun and fire four shots because he thinks it might be a criminal who’s climbed through a small window. What does that say about our society? It says something really tragic.

Perry himself highlights the divisions in our land as a possible source: “Apartheid literally means separation. Nineteen years after Mandela and the ANC overthrew apartheid, South Africa still struggles with its divisions. What race divided, crime and distrust have now atomized. In a reverse of the U.S. experience, segregation has reached its logical end point: disintegration.” We’re disintegrating as a society: “The new South Africa has turned out to be no harmonious band of colours. Behind the latest in intruder deterrents for the elite, or flimsy barriers pulled together from tin sheets and driftwood for the poor, South Africans live apart and, ultimately, alone.”

However, as Christians we have to stand against that image, however much it might help to explain what happened. We know that’s not what God has called us to be; and it does not represent the reality of South Africa either, even if a small minority believe it. Rather, we post a vision of the future that is completely different, that is filled with God’s glory and the potentialities of what His power can do to change our country:
– if there is corruption, challenge it;
– if there is division, build unity;
– if there is hatred, sow love;
– if there is disintegration, bind together in unity.

The church is one of the best places where we can learn to begin to live together in love and harmony. I look out over the people in my own congregation, who come from very different backgrounds, with diverse histories and stories to tell that are quite horrendous. And yet, somehow, we can gather in peace around the communion table, and we celebrate the resurrected Christ in our lives.

In a paradoxical way the things that set Pistorius aside from the rest of us in his athletic career are the very things which we need to do. “Pistorius credits his drive to his mother, who died at 42 when he was 15. He has the dates of her life tattooed in Roman numerals on his right arm, and by his account Sheila Pistorius did much to stamp the Afrikaner spirit of the devout, stubborn pioneer on her son. Just before the 11-month-old Pistorius underwent the operation to remove his lower legs, she wrote a letter for him to read when he was older. ‘The real loser is never the person who crosses the finishing line last,’ she wrote. ‘The real loser is the person who sits on the side. The person who does not even try to compete.’”

That is why he is the kind of person who went out and fought for what was right in the athletics world and why we admired him. It also describes the spirit with which we need to live in this country as well. We are called to throw ourselves into the building of this nation in whatever way that may be, to confront what is wrong and to build for the future what Christ has in store for us. It is so tempting to just become couch potatoes, taking pot shots at the people we’re listening to on the television or the radio (or Time Magazine articles!), vehemently denying all sorts of things, and yet not participating. In this country, we are called to participate 24-7; we have no other option. We are the ones who can never afford to take the back seat. We want to be the people who are there fighting for what is right. Many people in my own congregation at St Alban’s Church participate in very direct ways to fight for what is right in our society through their daily work or as volunteers with various organisations.

Another fact that Perry mentions is that “Pistorius has said he remembers Sheila, a working single mother who had divorced his father, shouting to her children as they got ready to leave the house, ‘Get your shoes! And Oscar, get your legs!’ By giving him no special treatment or pity but showing no hint of underestimating him either, Sheila gave her son a belief not just that he was normal but also that he was special–divinely destined for the extraordinary. After he became an athlete, Pistorius chose a second tattoo for his left shoulder with the words of 1 Corinthians 9:26: “I do not run like a man running aimlessly.” Those are powerful words for us as Christians. The context that the apostle Paul sketches is this:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” (1 Cor 9:25-27)

That passage needs to become a heartbeat for us, that we are the runner racing for Christ in whatever task we have been given; that we have the marvellous opportunity to be part of something wonderful, special, and new. Even when things don’t look so good around us, that doesn’t matter because prophetically we speak God’s reality constantly into being by our positive attitudes, by the way we honour people when we talk to them, by the way we dream of a new land where people live in harmony, love and acceptance, united before Christ. That might take longer than we think, but we keep our eyes fixed on it.

As a novice paddler doing a short race at sea recently, I had to contend with what felt like large waves battering my surf-ski as I came into shore, causing me to cry out to God: “help me Jesus, you are my strength and shield.” I had a sense that God was saying to me that is how it will often be for us in this country: we live a life of terror, the conditions constantly changing, and we cry out to God, “help me Jesus, you are my strength and shield”.

But, the prophet Isaiah draws a picture of a nation which will be a blessing to other nations because of the people’s walk with God: “See, I have made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander of the peoples. Surely you will summon nations you know not, and nations that do not know you will hasten to you, because of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has endowed you with splendour. (Isaiah 55:4-5)

God loves us so much: we live in a world enveloped in His love. I believe God called you and I to this place at this time, for such a thing as this, to be a glorious vision of what God can do in a people, as we reach for one another across cultural, gender, and age lines and build this wonderful nation of which we are a part; build a world where Christ lives through you and His church, healing the old divisions, calling the broken, lost and lonely to Himself. We need to be a sign to the nations, especially as we were lauded in 1994 for what we came through, creating an environment that allowed everyone to participate in our land.

As we approach the remembrance of Christ’s Crucifixion & Resurrection this Easter our cry is that of the psalmist expressing his longing for God: “My soul thirsts for you, and my flesh yearns for you, in a dry and barren land where there is no water.” (Psalm 63) More than ever, we need God. My own prayer for Lent has been “Lord, I want to know what it is like to be on the cross with you. I want to know that pain and suffering that people feel in the world. I want to more fully experience the resurrection and the joy of your power at work bringing newness into what is horror and terror at present.”

In one sense Perry was accurate, helping us to understand where Pistorius might be coming from. But we, as Christians, stand against that vision because we will not be part of a country that destroys itself through violence and corruption. We are a part of the new vision: Christ restoring all people to himself. Whatever we read in Time Magazine and elsewhere, we stand for the vision of a country that belies the reality we are so violent we carry guns around in order to defend ourselves.

I also lost a dearly beloved child, a son aged 9, in an armed robbery in Pretoria in 2000. That night was stark with horror as I came home with my wife to find him lifeless in a pool of his own blood, but I didn’t go and buy a gun to defend myself as a consequence of that. Rather, our response has been to say that we will work with young people who are at risk of committing the same crime, and we spent the next five years of our ministry to students of all cultures and backgrounds in Pretoria fighting for that reality. We continued that ministry when Bishop Thabo Makgoba invited us to East London to work among students in an inner city parish here. My wife Simone continues to teach in a Christian High School near Mdantsane, East London in order to prepare young men and women for lives of sacrificial love and service rather than violent crime.

That has been our response to how we are going to fight against the evils we see in the world around us: we want to be part of the solution. I will not lie down and see that vision of what Christ can do for us, trampled into the dust. I am going to stand up and fight with Christ for right, and unity, justice, peace and joy in our land.

Finally, we must be so careful of judgement. Luke tells us that “we all are sinful and fall short of the Glory of God”. On the same night my son was killed we were able to forgive his killers, purely through God’s Grace, and because we had such a vision of the complicity we all share in the crime and violence of this nation of ours as South Africans, partly because of the privilege we use to exclude others from a fulfilled life, and partly because of our un-involvement in its transformation as we sit and watch from the sidelines.

Of course there must be consequences to Pistorius’s actions, and so even as we forgive him, he will need to account for his crime of killing this beautiful and intelligent young woman and daughter, however much he may justify it, and whatever the verdict. But we as Christians, faced with the horror of the place to which we have brought our beloved land and its people, must stand at the foot of the Cross and gaze on Him whose 1st cry from that place was “Father forgive them for they know not what they do”, and then spend our lives utterly in following His way through to healing and transformation in the Resurrection.

Mark Spyker, St Alban’s Anglican Church, Vincent
(This article was written up from an edited transcript which Ray Hartle made from one of my sermons)


From ‘Possessing Joy: a Secret to Strength and Longevity’ by Steve Backlund, #51

If we speak new truth into our lives it begins to replace the old thought patterns and attitudes: “A first step in warring against lies in our thinking is to capture them and replace them with God’s promises… speeded up by getting into our lives and into our future… we ‘seed’ the clouds over our future through our beliefs, our words, our prayers and our actions. Our thoughts primarily.. cause spiritual rain or drought. That is why we vigilantly replace hopelessness, worry, and unloving attitudes.” In this regard “speaking truth is a key to breaking old mental struggles,” uprooting old strongholds and establishing new positive strongholds of hope, joy, love, and faith.

A powerful step to take here is to ‘seed’ clouds over different aspects of our lives by speaking words of affirmation, vision, hope, & God’s promises into them on a regular basis (for at least a couple of minutes of time each). Declare: “I have a plan to seed the clouds of my future so I joyfully speak God’s promises into my life.”


From ‘Possessing Joy: a Secret to Strength & Longevity’, by Steve Backlund, #19.

Steve Backlund has some very important observations to make about what he calls the “Enemy of Joy: A Critical Spirit”. Pastors are often dealing with this through their whole lives, both in themselves and people around them, so I have quoted Steve extensively!

“An obsessive attitude of disapproval and finding fault is called a ‘critical spirit’. Those with this attitude regularly see negatives, regularly complain, and are usually upset with something or someone. Their identity is rooted in what they are against rather than what they are for. This spirit greatly hinders joy.

A critical spirit is fueled by insecurity, competition, perfectionism and self-criticism:
INSECURITY causes us to focus on the faults of others so that we don’t have to fully face our own issues (we tend to judge ourselves by our own motives and others by their actions);
COMPETITION creates an ‘us against them’ mentality (the successes of others are seen as a threat to our own future);
PERFECTIONISM makes us ‘not fun to be with’ because we give little encouragement for improvements or positive steps made by others;”

Backlund goes on to say that the ‘biggie’, though, is SELF-CRITICISM. “When Jesus said, “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 22:39), He was giving us more than a command. He was sharing this principle of life: how we feel about ourselves will strongly affect how we feel about others. I we love ourselves, we will love others. If we hate ourselves, we will have the tendency to hate others. If we accept ourselves, we will accept others. If we are critical our ourselves, we will often have a critical spirit concerning others.

Letting go of the critical spirit can be scary. There is a fear that doing this will actually increase negative behaviour in others. (It is believed that keeping negative will help others ‘tow the line.’) The use of criticism as a motivational tool may bring some short-term positive results, but it will produce long-term relationship strain (as well as damage the ‘father concept’ in people’s lives.)

When we get a life-altering revelation of how much we are loved and forgiven, then we are on the road to eliminating the critical spirit. When we see how much mercy we have been given, then we will give mercy. Of course, this does not mean that we are ignoring problems that need to be addressed; but we will do so from a spirit of love and wholeness, and not from a ‘critical spirit.'”


From “Possessing Joy” #17 by Steve Backlund.

Luk 15:28-30 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. (29) But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. (30) But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

The older brother can be seen in the right hand figure of Rembrandt’s classic painting, arms folded and in bitter judgement of the prodigal who his father nevertheless lavishes his love, forgiveness, and attention on. ‘Isn’t he a bit like you and me?!’ Steve Backlund points out that the “elder brother spirit” can come on any of us, and is evidenced in a number of ways by:
1. being ‘disturbed’ by ‘too much’ celebration and joy in the church;
2. being jealous over the grace that others receive;
3. having a ‘competitive’ spirit;
4. focusing more on performance than on relationship;
5. being bitter at God when things seem unfair;
6. being isolated and unwilling to participate in the ‘family’.

“Certainly we need mature fathers and mothers in our midst that can help us to not forget the ancient boundaries (Proverbs 23:10) of the faith and help us maintain proper biblical order; but elder brothers have the tendency to ‘major in minors’ and to devalue the role that joy has in our lives. Truly, the presence of joy is one of the main signs of spiritual maturity!”


From Possessing Joy #15, by Steve Backlund

“Do not sorrow, for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh 8:10)
Like Samson with his Nazarite vow we have a secret that can give us great strength. As Steve Backlund puts it: “Listen to this: ‘Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage. As they pass through the Valley of Baca, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools. They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion’ (Ps 84:5-7)… Supernatural strength will increase to those who move forward on a pilgrimage to transform hopelessness into places of life and joy. This life-attitude of turning our problem into our opportunity will cause us to find strength, and then move us from ‘strength to strength’ in ways that will amaze others and ourselves.”

Try this for a declaration: “The joy of the Lord is my strength. I am increasing in joy daily. It is a secret in my life for endurance and power (spiritual strength). I am going from strength to strength in my life.”


From Possessing Joy #10, by Steve Backlund

“Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth. Worship the LORD with gladness; come before him with joyful songs” Psalm 100:1-2

Backlund says that “‘gladly serving’ is a catalytic mindset that provides a secret door to our prophetic destiny”. Called to minister in faith and love (shouldn’t we add ‘hope’, perhaps?), “these qualities are positive forces that generate enthusiasm – which is foundational for gladness”. Pointing out that the word ‘enthusiasm’ came into the English language in 1603 with the meaning ‘possession by a God’, ultimately from the Greek ‘entheos’, “having the god within”, Backlund claims that “Gladness and enthusiasm are spiritual ‘muscles’ that can be developed to higher levels because they are already resident in us”.

“The key to help you,” he says, is to “Act more glad and enthusiastic than you really feel”. Now I know that sounds trite, and we have all been told it about 100 times in different contexts, but how many of us actually practise it regularly and consistently?! Backlund re-states the obvious conclusion that as you do, our emotions will catch up with our actions. “Then your ‘muscles’ of gladness and enthusiasm will grow, and you will increase your influence for Christ (because you have overcome the lies that robbed you of serving our Lord in faith with joy”.

Try this declaration today: “I serve the Lord with gladness. I am enthusiastic about the opportunities to minister in the name of Jesus. I am an increasing joy to those who are around me”. Note this is not a prayer to find joy, but to be a joy to others! Remember we are thermostats and not thermometers!


I find Steve Backlund’s book/daily devotional, Possessing Joy – A secret to Strength and Longevity, very powerful. One meditation, ‘Feeling guilty about being joyful’, spoke to me because I think that I am actually a naturally joyful person who has allowed teachers, peers, parishioners, etc. over the years to ‘steal my joy’! I do believe we need to set our joy free more and not allow ourselves to be oppressed by the doom and gloom of others! I know my essential problem is that when others are down I think that somehow it is my fault!

Backlund nails this when he says that this is usually a consequence of “…’guilt trips’ that others seemingly put on us if we are too happy…”, but then observes that “if we continually curtail our joy and optimism, we are robbing them and ourselves of a much-needed aspect of God’s nature… we unconsciously believe that we are still unworthy and undeserving of being happy.”

“[But] people around us need to possess joy. By doing so, we are more able to set others free (and leave an inheritance of victory). Our breaking through the lies of the enemy will allow us to impart ‘the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness’ (Isaiah 61:3). We will bring faith to a whole new level in the lives of those we touch.”
“Of course there are times we need to be sensitive to the needs of others and ‘weep with those who weep’, but we cannot let guilt and shame hinder us from possessing outragious joy for our lives. If we do then we will be restricting our strength for our journey and our influence for Christ on others. Truly, biblical joy is a catalyst to breakthrough in the kingdom of God.” (Day #2)

Try this Declaration on for size over the next few days, and see if it does not impact your joy (Backlund believes that verbalising God’s truths for our lives out loud helps to realise them!):
“I am forgiven. God loves me. The resurrection and death of Jesus has made me worthy and deserving to be happy and blessed. I am sensitive to the needs and emotions of others around me, but I still move forward in rejoicing in the Lord. My joy increasingly breaks off spirits of discouragement and heaviness all around me.”

Something else: Simone and myself once listened to a podcast by Graham Cooke as part of the Leadership Development Program we did with Bethal’s Global Legacy, and he remarked on that sense of coldness, or even hostility we get from some people when we enter a room, or even church, sometimes! My instinct is to go on the defensive, and sometimes to go on a hostile offensive! Cooke’s comment was that they are telling you something about themselves; that they are joy challenged, wounded, and hurting. Our response should always rather be to bring love and healing (with sensitive discernment), BUT to never allow them to take away our joy, rooted as it is in our own secure knowledge of the Father’s love for us!


I have to say I find this one of the most difficult things to do, but I remember Simone a long time ago encouraging me to love a colleague who I felt kept putting me down. I repeatedly expressed love toward him and affirmed him, never quite turning our acquaintance into friendship, but nevertheless ultimately bearing fruit in others ways, both then and many years down the road! I have a tendency to reach a point of ‘that’s enough and no more!’, but I believe scripture does teach us to walk the long road with people who don’t like us and even actively undermine us! I think Backlund is right when he says that “Taking the high road means to do things with integrity and honor even if others are not”, and at least pray that by God’s Grace I may be able to so in all my relationships!

“I Take the High Road
(Overcoming burning bridges in relationships)

“If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men” (Romans 12:18).

Before we start this teaching, let me share what I am not saying when I urge you to take the high road. I am not saying that you should allow people to continually walk all over you or to allow your family or yourself to be abused. I am not saying that you should never confront people for wrongs being done. With this understood, let’s look at this important mindset for your life.

Taking the high road means to do things with integrity and honor even if others are not. David did this when King Saul was trying to kill him (1 Sam. 24 & 26). Jesus did so when He spoke with Caiphas (Matt. 26:62-74). Jonathon took the high road when David was chosen to be king instead of him. Paul also did so with the high priest (Acts 23:1-5). The Bible is full of people who took the high road, and Scripture has numerous truths and commands that show us how to do so (especially the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7). Taking the high road entails believing that doing things God’s way will have benefits for eternity and in this life.

When we take the low road in situations; we are usually reacting out of hurt, fear or anger. Our emotions compel us to do and say things that we will most likely regret. We will defend ourselves by tearing others down. We will spread the “truth” about those we believe have wounded us; and when we finally leave the situation, there will be the tendency to burn bridges in relationships by taking a few parting shots fueled by our bitterness.

Those who take the high road realize this truth: If this does not work out, God has something better ahead. They bless those who hate them or despitefully use them. They forgive when mistreated. They do everything possible to keep bridges in relationships so there can be healing and forward movement in the days ahead. They have learned to hold their tongue and trust God for their lives. They live in an incredible mindset of taking the high road in all they do. Let’s do it, too. (Steve Backlund, Victorious Mindsets” (Thomas Nelson, 2008), 46)


I’ve got this theory that all of life is actually meant to be play, which is why I like the title of Eugene Petersen’s book on Spiritual Theology, “Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places”, and then quotes Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem as an introduction:

“As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.

Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

I think Steve Backlund has something similar to say in his statement that we are meant to ‘love life’, and that one of the ways we can express that is to work ‘with’ God rather than ‘for’ Him!

“I Love Life
(Overcoming working for God, instead of working with God)

“The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life… more abundantly” (John 10:10). “He who would love life and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil… ” (I Peter 3:10).

Do you love life? I am not asking if you love God, but something different. Do you truly love to be alive? Peter lets us know that there is a pathway to “loving life.” Jesus also said that He came to give us abundant life, not just eternal life. The Greek word for abundant in John 10:10 is “perissos” which means “superabundant (in quantity) or superior (in quality); excessive; advantage; exceedingly; very highly; and beyond measure.” If we combine any of these words with “life,” we realize we have been promised something wonderful for living now.

One main way to grow in loving life is to focus on working with God instead of for God. This perspective will help us be child-like, which will enable us to see life as full of possibilities, adventure and opportunities (because we are friends with a good and big God). Those with a “working for God” mindset can find it difficult to love life to its fullest because of a fear of displeasing God and being ultimately punished for not measuring up.

“Working with God” can be easier with our strengths than with our failures because we wrongly believe we must “get our act together” before reconnecting with God. This mistaken thinking is at the root of why many Christians don’t “love life.” Hebrews 4:15-16 is an antidote to this error and an igniter to loving life. “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses… Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace… and find grace to help in time of need.” Even in our weaknesses, the Father delights in giving grace (divine enablement), so we can experience the abundant life. Now that is good news!” (Steve Backlund, Victorious Mindsets (Thomas Nelson, 2008), 24).

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