Saturday, August 15, 2015

Failure


“…the goose pimples of rejection run up and down your spine.” – Alexander Solzhenitsyn [1]

I have failed – and have spent the last two months licking my wounds.

I entered the 2015 Comrades Marathon, run on 31 May. This is an annual 90km road race between Durban and Pietermaritzburg that has to be completed inside of 12 hours. I last ran it ten years ago – my 12th run - and upon finishing it I said I would never again run it.  But this year was the 90th edition of the race, and the whisper of the challenge saw me entering the race again. I worked hard, running 1200km of training between January and May. I ran two marathons, and three ultra-marathons and when race day came I felt that I was ready to prove my mettle. I set off at sunrise along with approximately 17000 other runners as we wound our way from Durban to Pietermaritzburg. And this uphill run became a mental ‘uphill’ for me – because I had a bad day and every step became an effort. I found myself running with the 12 hour ‘bus’ of Vlam Pieterse, which carried me to the halfway mark. However, when they pulled away from me on the Inchanga hill I knew that it was all over. I dejectedly walked all the way up this painful hill, found some momentum on Harrison Flats, but was pulled off the road at the Umlaas Road cutoff – 57km completed but 30km short of the finish. I felt relieved and deeply disappointed. I had struggled all the way and was glad to stop, but had never before had I failed to finish this race – in fact any race. I had worked so hard at preparing for this race, and I felt the crushing weight of failure.

This has given me an opportunity to reflect on how I feel about failure.
  
Let me begin by saying it as it is: I do not like failing! Since I was a child I have been acutely aware of the feelings associated with failure: shame, embarrassment, humiliation and inferiority – what Solzhenitsyn has so evocatively described as that moment when “…the goose pimples of rejection run up and down your spine.”   The reason I know this so intimately is because these feelings have often visited me: I was a reserved child who hung back and hoped that someone else would be asked to speak/play/run/shine, just in case I failed to do it well. To make matters worse, I did not attend schools big enough to have many winning teams. I played rugby for the teams that got beaten by other schools, and got thrashed by the tennis teams of the bigger schools.

I have found two conflicting reactions to attempting anything that has a prospect of failure: the one choice is to avoid doing anything that might cause me to fail. However, in contrast, maturity has produced a stubborn streak in me that whispered “try it” when a challenge was presented. It is not that I lost my aversion to failure, but rather the greater debilitation of the knowledge that I did not try, has motivated me to face my fears. So when I did my compulsory military service I volunteered to do the Physical Training Instructor’s course, precisely because it was tough and I feared it. When my friend Alan began postgraduate studies I again heard the aggravating whisper of the difficult endeavour and enrolled for further study. And when a friend mentioned that he was running the Comrades Marathon, I knew that I would have to do it – in order to pacify that internal challenge. To my amazement I discovered that I could rise to these challenges. Truth be told, I have generally succeeded beyond what I deserved or believed myself capable of.

This is not to say that I have never failed. I failed my Biblical Hebrew exams – twice! Which means that I graduated from seminary two years after my class. I have lost many league tennis matches, and come at the back of many road running events. A big one was when I applied for a position that I really, really wanted – and was turned down. I have learned that the fear of failure does not go away. It sits out there as a beacon that mocks me, entices me, and sometimes seduces me. Which brings me to my most recent failure.

It has taken me some time to recover. My running shoes mostly collect dust in the corner. I have been back on the road – but now have niggling injuries. It is therefore easier to stay in bed in the morning. I have just seen that the theme for the 2016 Comrades Marathon is IZOKUTHOBA - IT WILL HUMBLE YOU.   Ironically I was humbled this year! So do I put my hand up to be humbled again next year? Right now I do not have an answer for this question. It is in this space that I hear the echo of Winston Churchill’s observation that "Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts."  This reminder of the impermanence of both success and failure challenges me to embrace my journey through life as an adventure, rather than a competition. It is this that is drawing me out of my self-imposed hibernation. It is this that now enables me to think of trying new things. So here is my resolve:
·         I will continue to choose to live a curious life, something that might lead me to attempt difficult things.
·         I will continue to risk the possibility of failure by trying things that frighten me or stretch me beyond my current experience.
·         I will continue to embrace the opportunity to learn new things – even if it mean falling flat on my face and learning how to get back onto my feet.




Throughout my struggle with the vicissitudes of success and failure I have treasured the encouragement of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. He is a man whose writings and life embodies the courage to rise above the rejections of life: 

"Live with a steady superiority over life ...
don't be afraid of misfortune, and do not yearn after happiness: it is, after all, the same: the bitter doesn't last forever, and the sweet never fills the cup to overflowing.
It is enough if you don't freeze in the cold and if thirst and hunger don't claw at your insides. If your back isn't broken, if your feet can walk, if both arms can bend, if both eyes can see, if both ears hear, then whom should you envy? And why?
Our envy of others devours us most of all. Rub your eyes and purify your heart - and prize above all else in the world those who love you and who wish you well. Do not hurt them or scold them, and never part from any of them in anger; after all, you simply do not know: it might be your last act ... "

- Alexander Solzhenitsyn: “From Island to Island” The Gulag Archipelago




[1] Alexander Solzhenitsyn: “From Island to Island” The Gulag Archipelago

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Black Methodist Consultation – from a white perspective.


I am part of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa. There is a black caucus within my church called The Black Methodist Consultation, which has just met in Johannesburg. These are some of my random thoughts about an organization that has nothing to do with me, but at the same time has everything to do with my church. Its 2015 programme notes that the “BMC exists for the Transformation of the MCSA into a truly African Church (in character, doctrine, ethos, identity and practice) by challenging and equipping Black Methodists to contribute meaningfully, actively and intelligently in the MCSA given the context of Africans”.[1]

The BMC was founded in September 1975 in response to a Methodist Church that “was a mirror image of the apartheid society in which it laboured”.[2] Despite a black majority of members, the MCSA was dominated by a white clergy, white administrators and white financial muscle. In the words of the BMC: “The BMC then had to deal with issues that negatively affected the majority of the people called Methodists”.[3] This year it celebrates 40 years of a history that has succeeded in ensuring that the MCSA now has a majority black leadership: the MCSA has a black Presiding Bishop, black General Treasurer, black Lay Leader, and a majority of black Bishops, Superintendent Ministers and Circuit/Society Stewards. It must be acknowledged that the BMC has succeeded spectacularly in transforming the MCSA from a white led church to a black led church.

I do not for one minute think that this is the end of the road. There is still much work to be done in transforming our theological reflection and practice to represent an African context. The MCSA is captive in many parts to a western, materialist theology that is driven by wealth and glamour: we honour those ministers who are good fundraisers; we choose to hold our conferences and conventions in places of glitz and glamour; and we want to see our leaders dressed in the garments of the powerful. We also betray our own African roots by so easily singing songs written in other parts of the world, while ignoring our African rhythms and idiom. We still need to engage the split spiritual personality of our members who are Methodist by day, and African Initiated Church by night. This includes the way we use traditional cultural practices at home, but hide them from our Methodist community as if being African was not acceptable in the Methodist Church.  This practice also leads us to adopt anything from our culture into our spiritual practice without thorough theological interrogation – precisely because we do not allow the MCSA into this part of our lives. So I look to the BMC to help us to reflect on how we become a “truly African Church”.

That said – I am wondering if the BMC has been too successful in the work it has already done. What I am seeing emerge is not a black-led church. I am seeing a black Methodist Church. White members of the MCSA are a dying breed – literally! We are getting older and greyer, with our younger white membership dwindling to insignificance. Some of this attrition is a reflection of the general ageing of Christian Churches in our country: in general we as the MCSA are becoming older. But in addition to this, younger white members are leaving – some to other churches, and some to no church at all. Simply put: white people do not feel like they belong. They feel excluded from the MCSA, because the ethos of the MCSA has become black. It does so by using uniforms, rigid collective organisation, black caucuses, and organisational conventions. This is essential to black spirituality, but means nothing to white identity. So I am experiencing ‘white flight’ from my church: some white colleagues have joined other churches, and some are leaving for other countries. Those who stay have disinvested from Synods and Conference: they choose not to engage in debate, but instead grumble together on their own google websites. White members have withdrawn into white local church, and leave the national church to the black majority. So we struggle to get any white members to leave their local church meetings and go to Synod or Conference. And we have no white candidates for the ministry. In fact we have had no white candidates for the past three years.  

Now this is perfectly acceptable if we have decided that the MCSA is to be a black church. In some ways it feels like we have done so. The Presiding Bishop and the General Secretary of the MCSA have just visited the BMC as if it is an official gathering of the MCSA. This is the non-statutory caucus that makes decisions for our church. What puzzles me is why the black voices – who dominate the church – need the BMC to help them to be heard in the church. The annual Conference of the MCSA is a black majority voice! It is not necessary to mobilise against white oppression, because the whites are leaving. I predict that within 20 years the existing loyal white members will have died, and the next generation will have moved elsewhere because they find no space in the MCSA. In my experience black Methodists do not care whether we lose all our white members or not. And why should they? For 140 years black members were oppressed by white members before we had our first black President of Conference. I have sympathy for the fact that the black agenda right now is about occupying positions of power and influence in the MCSA. I am tempted to adapt Steve Biko’s famous phrase and hear the new slogan: “White man you are on your own”.

So should I dream of finding ways to help white people find a home in this church? Should I form a White Methodist Consultation to help us find identity? Because our culture and race really do affect the way we think and behave, and those who make the claim “I am not racist” are often the most racist of all! It is only in acknowledging my race/culture/history that I can authentically engage people who are not like me. But a caucus of ‘white Methodists’ fills me with horror, because I cannot bear those insensitive, self-righteous white members of my church who demand that the MCSA must run according to ‘their’ norms. I cannot stomach the white members who use their wealth to patronise poor black churches; and I hate the way my white colleagues make absolutely no effort to understand their black colleagues – or to support them in their work. I want no truck with those white members who whine about ‘the good old days’ and complain about their loss of privilege. I abhor those white people who sneer at the way black people practice their faith, and who keep telling our black leadership how to do things.  

What I am reaching for is how to define my church. I embrace the fact that I live in a black majority country in a black majority church. However, when I encourage young white people to enter the ministry of the MCSA, do I tell the prospective candidates that they must learn how to ‘do church’ like a black person – or find another denomination.  I cannot help thinking of the way St Paul dreamed of a church where in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, slave nor free……. And dare I say it: neither black nor white?  I am reminded of the John 17 prayer of Jesus that his disciples should be one. Should we as the MCSA not be an example to our country of a “one and undivided” people? Surely one contribution we can make to bring healing to our land is for us to model a community who respects, cares about and loves one another – irrespective of race and culture?






[1] The 2015 programme – to be found at http://methodistbmc.yolasite.com/resources/BMC2015_resources/BMC%202015%20Information%20Brochure%20-%20PRODUCT%20-%20SERVICE%20-%20FINAL.pdf
[2] Cited from the 2015 programme
[3] From the 2015 programme.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

A Time for Everything

The Seth Mokitimi Methodist Seminary had our Graduation today. This is the devotion I used: 


Ecclesiastes 3:1  For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: 2  a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; 3  a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; 4  a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; 5  a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; 6  a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; 7  a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; 8  a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.

Moreover:
there is a time to come to seminary and a time to leave seminary
a time to learn and a time to put learning into practice
a time to make much noise in chapel and a time to be silent
a time to work in the garden and a time to watch the plants grow
a time to ride in the seminary vehicle and a time to walk
a time to eat seminary food and a time to eat KFC
and there is a time to study and a time to graduate;

Ecc 3:14  I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him.


Sunday, April 05, 2015

Holy Week 2015


This past week I have shared in the life of the Goodwood Methodist Church. I was invited to teach at their Holy Week services, and found myself deeply enriched.

This is a working class community of people of various generations, life experiences, and cultures. These people are the ‘salt of the earth’: generous, hospitable and spontaneously spiritual. I count myself privileged to have been allowed to share in this life of this community. I made new friends, renewed old friendships, and was refreshed by the wonder of God at work in the lives of people.

What makes this congregation especially interesting is that the Cape Town Korean Church joined us for the week. This raised the unique challenge of being inter-culturally sensitive in a way that allowed for unity while not imposing uniformity. The Holy Week Services included the Korean Church choir leading us in an anthem, Pastor Lee leading prayers in Korean, and the reading of the Bible in Korean while English words were displayed on the screen. This morning’s service was enriched by the Korean choir leading an Easter Cantata which, while sung in Korean, was a moving testimony to our shared faith in Jesus Christ. What I found particularly poignant was the way the Goodwood Methodist people rose to their feet in enthusiastic applause when the choir offered their concluding bow of greeting.   


 Easter is a moment when our common faith in Jesus enables us to simply be human together. And I am grateful. 

Sunday, December 21, 2014

When God Breaks in ... each one is remembered!


Advent Four 21/12/2014
Sermon preached at
 Prestbury Methodist Church 9am and Wesley Methodist Church 6pm

Isaiah 49: 8-16
Luke 1:26-38 

Isaiah 49:15  I will not forget you. 16  See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me.
Luke 1:30  The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.

Introduction:
Q: If you want to remember to do something – and you really, really do not want to forget it: what do you do? Who writes on your hands?
......... Today I want to speak about God writing on his hands!
We have two stories – one from Isaiah and the other from Luke – both of which tell us of a God who does not forget his people.

The first story takes place in 580BC.
Nebuchadnezzar II colonised the children of Israel. Their leaders were taken off to Babylon, while the peasants stayed behind to produce crops for their new rulers. Apart from building his empire, Nebuchadnezzar began building the Etemenanki ziggurat. This was a seven story, 91 meter high monument of gold, silver and precious stones. He was determined to be remembered by this building – and so he put his name on the doorway.
In time the Jewish leaders in exile were offered leadership posts in the Babylonian government, and they began to live more comfortably – so much so that when they were offered an opportunity to return home, many chose to stay in Babylon.
All this time the poor worked the land to make Babylon wealthy – and prayed for God to rescue them from their corrupt rulers.   

The Prophet Isaiah responds by assuring the children of Israel that God had not forgotten them.
Isa 49:14  But Zion said, "The LORD has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me."
Isa 49:15  Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.
When God breaks in – each person is remembered.

Fast forward five hundred years and we find the children of Israel have new rulers. But not much else has changed: this time it is the Romans who rule them, and the Roman soldiers who collect the taxes from the poor. Something else that had not changed were the politicians – the leaders of the people co-operated with the Roman rulers: the Chief Priest was appointed by the Governor; and King Herod was appointed by the Emperor.
One other thing that had not changed was the desire of the King to build a monument: King Herod embarked on an ambitious project to rebuild the temple.  Herod employed 1000 priests as masons and carpenters in the rebuilding, and the new Temple was finished in a year and a half.
But the poor continued to struggle : Herod taxed them for his building projects, and the Romans took their fish and wheat to feed the army and the people of Rome

Again we discover the intervention of God. Luke tells us that an Angel of God announced that God was breaking into history: 
Luk 1:30  The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God.
Here is the thing – who was Mary?
Not who do we now know her to be, but who was she in her time? The reality is that she was a 16 year old girl from a forgotten village in a forgotten province. But she was not forgotten by God – in fact God even knew her name!
When God breaks in – each person is remembered.

So how does this touch our lives today?
Well – it seems that some of this story is very familiar:
These are stories of kings who embark on building projects to show their importance
– Nebuchadnezzar built a Ziggurat
-      Herod built a temple
-                Anyone familiar with a story of our chief ruler building a monument to himself?

These are stories of politicians who become comfortable –
The Jewish leaders who are carried off into exile begin to enjoy their status
The Leaders of Israel in the time of Jesus look more and more like the Romans
It seems to me that political leaders do not change much through history – and we still see people who use their positions to look after themselves and their friends. 

We see the corruption,
                   and the crime,
                             and the poverty,
 and nations going to war, and Ebola, and Aids and it is easy to become despondent.

But the story of Isaiah and of Luke reminds us that God does not forget us.
Hear the Good news: Christmas is coming – God will break into our history once again.
Let me return to the words of Isaiah: 
 Isa 49:15  Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.
Isa 49:16  See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands

This takes me back to the image I introduced at the beginning – “writing on our hands”. Isaiah says that our names are written on the palms of God’s hands! Can you see your name written there: every time God looks at his hands he sees your name.
He can never forget you because he knows you by name.

This is the Good News of our faith: but I will fail the Gospel if I stop here.
I am asking us to remember that when God looks at his hands, yours is not the only name there: there are other names too!  Sometimes we reduce our faith to “Jesus and me” and forget that we are called to live in community. This is not only the community of the church, but also the human community. Our challenge is to remember other people in the same way that we are remembered by God. John 3:16 tells us that “God so loves the world...” This includes everyone. We cannot pick and choose whose names are engraved on God’s hands: everyone’s names are there.

Christmas celebrates a God who breaks into our history and remembers us.
Perhaps we can demonstrate this by sharing God’s love with others. Let us give gifts as a sign of the love of God: but here is my challenge: to give a gift to someone who will not give one in return!
God bless us all – and may we be God’s breakthrough into the lives of other people.





Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A Day of Reconciliation


Today is a national holiday in South Africa. This public holiday is rooted in two different (and separated) sections of our community:
·         For white Afrikaners December 16 was the day set aside to celebrate an 1838 victory in battle against the Zulu leader Dingane kaSenzangakhona Zulu. Afrikaner leaders were convinced that God had given this victory in exchange for aVoortrekker vow to keep this day sacred as a holy day.
·         This day marked the 1961 founding of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the armed wing of the African National Congress. As white South Africans celebrated an ancient victory over black people, this became a day that many black South Africans renewed their commitment to overthrow white minority rule. 

This becomes a difficult day for the new South Africa: two such different meanings make this an emotionally divisive day. Those who proposed the new list of national holidays chose this as “The Day of Reconciliation” – but we continue to be a nation divided by race, privilege and history. A New Constitution, or a majority governing party, or tough minded determination cannot force people to be reconciled to one another.

I am convinced that the Christmas story offer us the only real hope of reconciliation. Christmas begins as a story of betrayal and shame... and ends with reconciliation. Joseph, a righteous young man is betrayed by Mary his fiancĂ©. She is pregnant and he knows it isn‘t his child. He is shamed as a man and as a faithful Jew. Yet he sets aside his personal beliefs and chooses the tougher route – the route of reconciliation. This is not romantic, and is extremely deliberate. And this is only possible because God is in it:  as Matthew 1:23 points out – “Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us."    

This then becomes the hope for my South African nation – and for every nation in need of reconciliation; this is the hope of divided families, and of individuals who are divided one against another: Emmanuel

When God is with us we are enabled to embrace the gritty task of reconciliation.  The challenge of Christmas is for us to be reconciled to one another. Reconciliation is the real meaning of this Advent season.

  



Advent Three




With warm regards

Pete
Rev Dr Peter Grassow

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Sunday, November 30, 2014

Advent One


May today be a sign of hope as we begin a new Christian year. 

With warm regards

Pete

Rev Dr P Grassow

Seth Mokitimi Methodist Seminary
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