God's Word for today

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Playing the "race card"

On a more serious note, though, I’m currently working through an issue that I’ve been struggling with for some time.  Now that I am on a much-needed break after a hectic term at seminary, and with my family being up in Johannesburg for two weeks, I am enjoying a bit of time spent just chilling out, relaxing, and watching the occasional movie on TV.

This past Saturday I watched a rather thought-provoking film called "Crash".  I can't really remember too much about the storyline, since it was quite complicated and, being late, I was quite tired, but what kept my interest going (apart from the presence of my girlfriend, Sandra Bullock **) was the way in which the film portrayed the whole dynamic of race relations.

In one particular scene, a politician (I can't remember if he was a senator or a city official, but that's not important) had his car hijacked.  The difficulty that he faced, however, was that he was white, and the hijackers were black.  Being a high-profile public figure, the incident would soon become public knowledge, and his dilemma was that if he mentioned the fact that the perpetrators were black, it would be turned into a race issue, whereas if he did not mention this, he would be seen as being soft on crime (I haven't quite fathomed out why this would be the case, but then again, I didn't write the movie!).

Another scene involved a well-to-do black couple being pulled over by the traffic police, who were white.  Because this appeared to be a routine stop, the husband (who was driving) made every attempt to co-operate, but his wife (who had had a bit to drink) got a bit agitated with the cops.  Unfortunately, the cops then reacted quite aggressively, with the one cop using the cover of a search for weapons to frisk the wife in, shall we say, an inappropriately sexual manner.  Once again, this incident could be put down to an inappropriate (and abusive) response to a drunken overreaction, except for the respective race of the parties involved.

Then on Sunday night I watched "Ali", starring Will Smith, which was about boxer Muhammad Ali's life story, and once again the issue of race was prominent, given that Ali's boxing prime coincided with the years of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.

So where am I going with this?  Well, I've been encountering difficulties in this area quite a bit lately, caused mainly by the fact that race complicates things - especially in South Africa, given our country's history.  For example, if two white guys have an argument with each other, it's called a disagreement.  If two black guys have an argument, it's also called a disagreement.  But if a white guy and a black guy have an argument, it's seen as racist.

Unfortunately, race ends up becoming the deciding issue.  You can't criticise the performance of a person who is of a different colour, because that is racist.  Your preference for using your own vehicle instead of the bus (because you need to be back at a specific time) is seen as racist.  Using examples of people who happen to be of a particular race in a presentation is seen to be motivated by racism.  Wanting to worship in a style in which you are comfortable, in a language you understand, is racist.  Even your taste in music is defined according to race!

The result of this is that you end up walking on eggs.  Because you don't want to be branded as a racist, the temptation is to behave in such a way that completely denies who you are and what you stand for.  And I find this unbelievably frustrating – probably because I'm a "what you see is what you get" kind of guy who values the intellectual freedom to speak his mind.  If something is wrong, then it's wrong, regardless of whether the action is carried out by a white person, black person, or bright-green-with-purple-spots person.  I also believe that, to use a tennis analogy, if I hammer a serve at someone and they respond with a good return, I should be able to take it.  So if I am the one in the wrong and therefore deserve to get my backside kicked, I should be prepared to accept it.  And this should be able to happen without someone reaching into their wallet and whipping out their "race card" because the point of conflict happens to be between people of different races.

The other problem I have is that, given South Africa's history, the idea has developed in some quarters that only one race group (i.e. whites) is capable of racism.  But while I don’t want to get into a pointless debate about which group is more racist than the others, or one about “who started it”, the truth of the matter is that, deep down, we are all racist.  I’m racist.  I'm not proud of this fact, and it’s something I’m working very hard to overcome (by the grace of God), but when you grow up in a society that is defined by race, this is not only difficult, it also takes time.  It was, after all, only once I’d turned 18 (and became a Christian) that I encountered people of different races for the first time as peers (first at university, later in the workplace, and now within the Church).

But the recent debate in the media about the use of certain words and slogans is a case in point.  The ANC has recently gone on record stating that the slogan “Kill the Boer – kill the farmer” should not constitute “hate speech” in terms of South Africa’s constitution.  This one baffles me.  Never mind any arguments about “context” – surely any slogan in which one chants words pronouncing death on a particular person or group (irrespective of whoever that person or group may be) is a form of hate speech?  If people had to go around chanting “Kill Steven Jones” in a song, I would certainly see this as an act of hatred towards me.  Yet commenting on the ANC Youth League president’s inappropriate behaviour is seen as hate speech?  The mind boggles!

One thing that I have observed is that when one encounters relationships where both parties are secure in who they are, race is no longer an issue apart from being a good source of humour, especially when it comes to my total lack of rhythm!  The key to such relationships, to use a rugby analogy (what makes you think I like sport?), is to make sure that you always play the ball – never the man!  Mature relationships create space even for the occasional rush of blood to the head, without such encounters being seen as an attack on the person.  If someone’s acting like an idiot, it has nothing to do with heir colour – it simply because they’re acting like an idiot!

The sad thing for me, though, is that although I have never encountered issues with race in the world of academia or in the workplace, it has been a problem for me in the Church – the one place where we should truly understand what it means to be “neither male or female; Roman or Greek; Jew or Gentile”.  In fact, I have had more issues around race since entering the ministry than at any other time in my life.

Perhaps we need to get to a point where we can all agree to suspend the use of labels, and truly commit to addressing issues rather than people.  When we can discuss issues of race without being labelled as racist.  And perhaps then we can feel free to be ourselves, enjoy our particular preferences and cultures, speak our own languages, and worship in our own styles without being excluding or feeling excluded, and without our motives being questioned that these things are based on race.  Nine times out of ten, race is not the issue at all.

** PS: My wife fully understands and accepts the infatuation that I have with Ms Bullock – after all, she harbours similar feelings towards Cliff Richard (sorry, love – SIR Cliff Richard!), with 21 Cliff CD’s bearing testimony to her devotion.  However, seeing as Sir Cliff is 30 years older than my wife, and happens to live in England, I guess she’ll have to make do with me!  Unfortunately for me Ms Bullock happens to be white, so I guess that makes me racist (at least until Halle Berry’s next film comes out).

Some "light" reading

With me being on a mid-semester break from the rigours of academic life at seminary, I've been able to catch up on quite a bit of reading.  But somehow my reading has been directed by that rush of blood to the head I experienced last month when I decided to embark on a PhD next year.

Kicking off the literary adventure has been a fascinating book by Klaus Nurnberger, entitled "Prosperity, Poverty & Pollution: Managing the Approaching Crisis".  The book is essentially a critique of the capitalist economic system, raising questions around greed, the growing resource gap between rich and poor, and the impact of industrialised economic growth on the earth's natural resources.

Following on from that is a collection of papers presented at a conference on theology, work, and labour in South Africa held in the late 1980s.  This collection is entitled "The Three-fold Cord: Theology, Work, and Labour", edited by James Cochrane and Gerald West.  While the essays concerned were written during the mid-1980s at the height of apartheid, they still contain much relevance for the development of a theology that speaks to a post-apartheid capitalist economy in 2010.

Then I trundled along to the launch of Delme Linscott's latest book, "Now", but instead of buying Delme's book, I picked up a book by his brother-in-law, Tim Weaver (sorry Delme - I only had enough money on me to buy one book on Friday, but I still want to get yours, which is more readily available than Tim's).  This book, entitled "Chasing the Dead", turned out to be quite a harrowing tale of a missing persons investigator who was called upon to find a friend's son, whom everyone presumed had died in a car crash.  But what starts off as a seemingly simple (if somewhat futile) investigation resulted in the main character coming under attach from a dangerous and well-organised cult.  Quite scary in parts, but most intriguing - I couldn't put the book down!

Anyway, I needed a change of gears after that, so (if you'll excuse the pun) I got myself the April edition of "CAR Magazine".  There was a really cool road test of the latest Porsche 911 GT3 - just what an aspring minister needs in order to get around to visiting his congregation in the shortest possible time.  Of course, being on a seminarian's living allowance, the Porsche will unfortunately have to wait until I am ordained (yeah, right!).

So what shall I read next?  My son's Asterix books are usually good for a few laughs, especially with some of the names given to the Roman centurions.  Some gems include "Spurious Brontosaurus", "Crismus Bonus", and my personal favourite, "Raucus Halleluyahchorus".

Perhaps then I'll be suitably fortified to tacke Ernst Conradie's "African Christian Theologies in Transformation"...

Bird brains!

My wife and son are currently in Johannesburg for a couple of weeks, but they need not worry too much that I'll be lonely, since I have two birds for company.

Now before any of my readers climb on the horn to Ross to report one of his seminarians' "inappropriate female company" - especially with my wife not being here - these particular birds are of the feathered variety.  (No - wait a minute - that doesn't sound right either - visions of Las Vegas chorus lines come to mind...).

Let me try again - I'm looking after two birds that are in a cage (oh no, that also sounds wrong - stop it!).  Okay, let me get to the point - THESE birds have wings, can fly, live in a cage that rests atop my dressing table, and weigh about 30 grams apiece.  (That should do it!  I AM after all a minister-in-training, and we DO want to keep this blog as a family show...)

So how did this change in my domestic arrangements come about?  Well, with my colleague Christine having also made the journey to the "big smoke" this Easter, I offered to take care of her babies for her.  But having established the true (and appropriate) nature of my new relationship with these tiny creatures, I DO have a few confessions to make:
1. I don't know what kind of birds they are, other than being "teeny weeny white jobs".
2. I've forgotten what their names are, so I've renamed them.  Because of the little beeping noises they constantly make, I've named the one "R-2" and the other one "D-2"  (If you don't know who "R-2/D-2" is, then just go away and read someone else's blog - there's no hope for you!).
3. I have no idea how to tell them apart, so their new names (see 2 above) are being used interchangeably.
4. They are competely gender-neutral (in my eyes, at least) since I don't know how to determine a bird's gender, and they (thankfully) haven't got up to anything that would otherwise enlighten me.

I must say though that generally, they are quite well-behaved.  When there's no-one in the room, they keep to themselves.  When I go to bed at night, they greet me with a couple of quiet peeps - nothing too raucous, mind; just pleasantly bidding me goodnight.  And when I switch my light off, they go to sleep.  (I wish I could say the same for some of my colleagues at the seminary, but that's another story!   Besides, being alone at Waalhaven during this time has proved to be quite peaceful...).

However, they are obviously missing their Mom, because today they completely freaked out, knocking over their food bowl and sending feathers and seeds flying everywhere!  Yet when I discovered this act of unauthorised frivolity, they were carrying on as though nothing had happened.  In fact, if birds can have expressions on their faces, I'd say they actually looked quite chuffed with themselves!

In order to restore my bedroom to a state of human habitation, I decided that it was clean-up time.  But Problem no. 1 was to get D-2 to get off the floor of the cage and sit on his (her?) perch so that I could unclip the base of the cage.  Needless to say, even though Christine is about half my size, I'm scared of her (!), and therefore would prefer not to have to explain why one of her little feathered friends is now out on manoeuvres with the Pietermaritzburg Air Force, or joined the French Foreign Legion, or whatever it is that little birdies do when they escape from their cages.

Having successfully detached the base without either R-2 or D-2 having a stroke or attempting to "boldly go where no man has gone before" (wait a minute - isn't that Star Trek?  Whatever...), it was off to the kitchen, where Problem no. 2 hit me: How on earth does a creature that weighs less than a packet of crisps (the small one, which is normally half-full, unlike in my youth where the packets were not full of air gnn gnn gnn...) manage to turn minuscule quantities of bird seed into SO much poop?  In hindsight, I could have gone into the fertiliser business!

Enter Problem no. 3: In order to get the poop dislodged, I decided to use some chemical warfare involving Sunlight dishwashing liquid and lots of hot water.  Trouble is, once the sink is filled with hot, it is impossible to (a) get any cold in, and (b) remove the plug to let some hot out.  Time to be brave.  Strong.  Who needs skin on their hands, anyway?  But having managed to get the base and all the feeding apparatus clean without suffering third-degree burns or emitting too many choice words, I felt quite proud of myself in that I was able to complete the task without too much of a song and dance, only once saying "Oh dear, this water's rather warm" (or words to that effect).

The next challenge was to find a piece of newspaper with which to line the cage.  Now this should not be a problem, since we have quite a bit in the flat, but one has to choose carefully.  For instance, using the front page of last month's Dimension (the one with the picture of the Presiding Bishop on it) would probably count against me in an ordination screening committee some day.  On the other hand, a picture of Julius Malema would have been perfect except for the fact that I'd already used that page the other day to scrape a doggy-do off my shoe.  In the end, I settled for a double-spread containing advertisements for plumbing supplies - appropriate, given what the birds will be using it for.

Now all is quiet - with fresh food and water in a nice clean cage, the little critturs have gorged themselves, had a bath, and are busy catching 40 winks.  I guess it takes relatively small things to amuse small minds...

Monday, 22 March 2010

A long weekend I don't really want to repeat in a hurry!

This past weekend is what one would refer to as a "long weekend", having combined the normal weekend with a public holiday today (Monday).  But unfortunately it was not one that I particularly enjoyed.

Well, okay - it wasn't ALL bad!  My son James played in his first ever rugby match on Saturday morning (07h30 start!), but unfortunately his team's inexperience showed in that they were absolutely creamed in all four matches.  But he had a lot of fun, and can only learn some valuable lessons for next time.

Then on Sunday I had the privilege of leading the service at the Sunnyside Retirement Home just outside Prestbury.  It was the first time I had preached since Christmas Day 2009, and considering that I used to preach at least twice on a Sunday last year, there were some serious withdrawal symptoms to deal with.  I must say that I enjoy ministry to the elderly - my firm and long-standing belief is that the folks who are now in institutions were there fore the Church during their active lives, so the Church needs to be there for them in their golden years.  Sadly, our modern throwaway society seems to "dump" the elderly once they are perceived to have reached their "sell-by date".

But this weekend has also had some low moments.  James had a morning market at school on Friday morning, coupled with a hobo evening at Scouts that same evening, and I think that all the junk he ate has wreaked havoc with his insides.  Certainly the Waalhaven sewerage system has never before been so well utilised, and as I write this post on Monday night, he is still not 100%.

As for me, the bulk of the weekend has been spent nose-down in the books, either pecking away at my computer doing assignments, or studying for our Hebrew test tomorrow morning.  On the assignment front, one can see that it's the end of the term since we have FOUR assignments due this week.  Thankfully I have three of them under the belt, so hopefully a Herculean effort on the last one tomorrow (which is due on Wednesday) will bring some light to the end of the loooooong tunnel.  The noise levels in the building have been irritating, though - it seems that very few of us actually have work to do!  Either that, or I'm going to have the last laugh later in the week as some of my colleagues try to explain why their assignments are not handed in.  We'll see...

The real downside of this, though, is tht my family has seen virtually nothing of me these past three days.  It's just been work, work, work, and the number of late nights I've had as a result is making me rather grumpy.  Even my normally super-duper-supportive wife was getting a bit fed up of the workload - hopefully it will be a bit more spread out next term.  People think I'm having delusions of grandeur when I say that the PhD I'll be embarking on next year will in fact be easier than ohat I'm doing now, but I must admit that research projects have always been more my forte, and besides, I'll also have greater control over my own time.  I'm certainly not planning to pull too many "all-nighters" once the BTh is under the belt...

Anyway, enough whingeing for now.  Scripture promises that God will never allow us to go through anything beyond that which we are able to endure, so I guess that the fact that I'm still able to sit at my PC and peck out this post after my "weekend from hell" means that, once again, God has come through!

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Some catching up

Wow - time certainly flies!  I can't believe that it's been 12 days since I last got the opportunity to do any blogging.  I guess that happens when you're in wall-to-wall lectures and have a gazillion assignments to submit. Anyway, here's an update on what's been happening over the last couple of weeks.

Firstly, I had a GREAT meeting yesterday with Dr Simanga Kumalo from UKZN concerning my proposed doctorate - not only because he is one of the nicest men I have ever met, but also because of his obvious excitement about my proposed research topic.  The tricky bit may be that I have my Masters in financial management rather than in theology, but it doesn't sound like this is insurmountable.  As things stand at the moment, Dr Kumalo has indicated that he will start the ball rolling on Theology's side by talking to his colleagues, while my job is to make contact with Commerce to sound them out on the idea.  The whole process is not quite as simple as falling off a 1300 Kawasaki, but then I'm told that getting going with doctoral studies tends to be like that.  However, Michael Stone, the minister at Prestbury (who is also currently busy with PhD studies) told me something quite encouraging - he said that once you are accepted for doctoral studies, you cannot fail; you can only quit.

Secondly, I'm expecting some rather nasty correspondence any day from Anthony Tibbit at MCO because I STILL haven't managed to finish my preliminary assignment on the King III project I've been working on for the MCSA.  (Not entirely true - Anthony is not the sort to send out nasty correspondence, even though I deserve some right now!)  I'm really hoping to make some headway with it over the coming weekend, so that I can make a (belated) delivery on my promise.  Suffice to say that the scope of the exercise far exceeds my initial estimate, with the document running to 43 pages, and counting...

Thirdly, I'm pleased to report that my resolution on the stationing process was accepted by our Circuit Quarterly Meeting last Monday, with only one amendment.  While I was pleased that the meeting saw fit to endorse the proposed changes (which deal mainly with pastoral concerns around stationing, as well as the amendment of certain clauses that contain discriminatory elements based on gender), some of my colleagues expressed concern that my proposals go against the spirit of our itinerant ministry, where we have promised to "go where we are sent".  My response was that it was not my intention to create a structure whereby ministers can "cherry-pick" their stations, but rather to open up space for pastoral dialogue.  Given the size of our Connexion, I can't see how a body such as the Connexional Executive, even with the best will in the world, can have intimate knowledge of each and every minister's personal circumstances.  However, District Bishops and Circuit Superintendents are more closely acquainted with the ministers under their oversight, and opening up channels for dialogue would assist the Church to carry out its pastoral responsibility towards its clergy.  Of course, this doesn't mean that the proposals will automatically be accepted by the wider MCSA - it first has to go through our Synod in May, and if accepted there, onward to Conference in September.  The wheels of bureaucracy tend to turn rather slowly in big organisations such as ours.

Finally, this coming Sunday I get to preach for the first time since Christmas Day 2009!  I can't believe that I went from doing two services a Sunday to one service a quarter, but such is the nature of being in seminary.  I suppose, to be fair, trying to accommodate 78 seminarians in the surrounding churches can't be an easy task, especially since the resident minister and local preachers also need their slots!  I guess this is also part of what Ross means when he says that we "need to learn to be disciples before we can be sent out as apostles".

Friday, 5 March 2010

Being kept out of mischief...

After the nearly two-month hiatus where we spent much of our time picking our noses, the seminary programme is in full swing.  I therefore had to chuckle when Ross asked me whether I was "still bored" - right now, my main problem is this annoying need to sleep.

But it's not only the seminary life that's keeping me busy at the moment.  I'm also involved in a number of projects, the details of which I'm not at liberty to make public at this stage, but let's just say that they concern somewhat sensitive issues.  I'm grateful to those who have roped me in for placing their trust in me.

In addition, I've also been given permission by the seminary to conduct preliminary investigations into the possibility of me commencing with doctoral studies next year.  This is something I'm very excited about, since it has for some time been my dream to combine my financial background with theology.  The area of research I'm looking at is an examination of economic systems in the light of the Gospel, looking at ways in which the Church can have a meaningful voice to the business world.  (My mother is excited too, but for a different reason - she is just relishing the thought of calling me Dr Indiana Jones!  That's a family issue we'll need to sort out since, as the fans of the films will know, Dr Jones Senior had actually named the dog "Indiana"!)  At this stage, as any PhD student would know, research of this nature entails a truckload of reading - someone told me that every page in a thesis needs to be represented by one book's worth of background reading.  That means I probably need to read about 300 books over the next five years!

As if that wasn't enough, the King III project I'm working on for MCO is also ongoing, as is the development of material aimed at improving the financial management knowledge and accountability within our Church, based on Scriptural principles.

Finally, since SMMS is constituted as a Circuit, we are having our first Circuit Quarterly Meeting this coming Monday, and I'm working on a proposal to amend the Laws and Disciplines concerning the stationing process of ministers.  While it is accepted that in an intinerant ministry such as ours we are called to "go where we are sent", there are a number of pastoral considerations that I believe the MCSA has sadly neglected on many an occasion.  So watch this space, as I intend to make the wordings of my proposal available to other Circuits once it has been finalised and presented to our meeting.  Whether it is accepted or not, I believe that it opens a vital conversation within our Church in the 21st century.

So if you've been wondering why I've been so silent on my blog of late, take heart that at least I'm no longer bored!

Monday, 1 March 2010

Computer trouble

Having some issues at the moment - my mouse is stuck in my printer!