Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Last Word

"But face the facts, all you oppressors, and then wring your hands. Listen, all of you, far and near... Plan and plot all you want- nothing will come of it. All your talk is mere talk, empty words, because when all is said and done, the last word is IMMANUEL, God With Us."
-Isaiah 8:9-10, The Message

Friday, December 26, 2008

I've Been Here 15 Months... What Happened?

I was taking a walk today, thinking, when I realised something:
  1. I don't miss Starbucks anymore.
  2. I'm not sure I'd know how to use a dishwasher if I saw one.
  3. Clothes dryer? What's that? Oh... you mean the sun!
  4. Reese's Peanut Butter Cups are great, but I can wait.
All of the things I missed when we first moved here - the things that I begged for people to send in the post - I've learned that I can easily live without (except Mexican food. I'm sorry, but I still miss it!).

The longing for family, friends, people and places familiar - the desire to be where traditions I grew up with and hold dear are practised - that is ever present. I wonder if that will ever go away?

Still, at the end of the day, I wouldn't trade our experiences for anything. All of the loneliness, confusion and discomfort that comes with living cross-culturally is nothing compared to the wealth of relationships and learning. God is growing our hearts, expanding them to know and love new cultures, and that is priceless.

Merry Christmas to all of you, a day late, and Happy Day of Good Will.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

My Day in Pictures




Here are a few pictures from my day... I have to say the hippo gave me the fright of my life, as we rounded a corner in the road and didn't expect to see him at all! He was not too pleased to see us, either, and I was afraid he was going to charge us (hippos do kill more people in Africa per year than any other animal), but thankfully he turned around and walked away.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Not Just Any Green Beans... African Green Beans!

Last year my garden miraculously grew green beans that I didn't plant. They were really long. This year they miraculously re-seeded themselves, and they are still really long (one bean can completely wrap around my head... not as pretty as a beaded Zulu headband, but it was the best I could do...). This one was 22.25 inches (56.5 cm) long (and now you know how big - or small - my head is!)

NEWSFLASH!!!

We have a new potato chip flavour in this country: pickled onion!

I have always said that you can tell a lot about a country and its culture by its potato chip flavours. Whenever I visit a foreign country I have to try the "weird" flavours - shrimp, chicken and thyme, spare ribs, tomato sauce, etc. Back home in the U.S. my favourite flavours were dill pickle, chili and lime, and cool ranch. I suppose those flavours are just as weird to people who didn't grow up in America.

So who decides what would make a good potato chip flavour, anyway? I think I want that job.... (peanut butter, hot mustard, swiss cheese and white wine fondue...)

Saturday, December 20, 2008

On Having Faults and Remembering Scripture

Ever have one of those moments where you become acutely aware of your faults? I had one of those moments last night. I think satan uses those late-night-I'm-tired moments to attack us, but even so, I really DO have faults that I became acutely aware of last night. I wished desperately that I were near-perfect (because nobody's perfect, right?). I even got to the point where I felt so bad that I was irritated with myself for feeling irritated! But then I was reminded of some Scripture (which is why memorising Bible verses is good - you can't remember something you never learned in the first place!), which had for me the soothing effect of putting aloe on a sunburn:

"Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your unfailing love; according to Your great compassion blot out my transgression. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me... Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow... Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from Your presence or take Your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me... You do not delight in sacrifice or I would bring it; You do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise." - Psalm 51: 1-3, 7, 10-12, 16-17

To feel so unlovable and then remember once again that the God of the universe loves me - ME - and forgives me... what an amazing comfort I can hold onto no matter where I am in the world. The love of God transcends all reason, all culture, and any contrivance of man.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

On Bare Feet and Death-Defying Millipedes

I went to the garage yesterday to fetch something, and while I was looking around I felt something tickling my bare feet. I looked down to find this millipede (aka shongololo) crawling on my toes. I screamed, which probably proves that I am still more of a California girl that a South African girl.

There is a story with this millipede, though. It has been living in our garage for a few weeks now, and I'm telling you it's suicidal. It always manages to crawl under the garage door just as we're closing it, or crawl into the car's way just as we're driving into the garage. We have always managed to spare it's life (thanks to my children, who have become quite the advocates for creatures possessing more legs than me) thus far...

Until last night. The millipede with the death wish crawled in the way of the car one too many times, and as it was dark, Dan accidentally ran over it. The children were heartbroken, but as for me... while I do not rejoice in it's death, my toes are rather relieved!

My Kids Are Smarter Than I Am

My kids were sitting around the table eating lunch with their friend, discussing the world's problems - HIV/AIDS, cholera, etc. I was in the other room listening intently, thinking, "I can't believe my children are discussing this stuff... over lunch!" My oldest (who is only 10) piped up, "Well, cholera comes from dirty water, and God doesn't make dirty water. It's people who make it dirty for whatever reason, so you can't blame THAT one on God."

Out of the mouths of children sometimes comes profound wisdom.

Funny how we tend to blame God for our misfortunes.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Mixed Feelings


It is ten days until Christmas and I am starting to get into these southern hemisphere summer Christmases which are decidedly warmer than the winter Christmases I grew up with.

What is on my mind more than anything else this Christmas season, however, is not the weather but the number of friends I have who are are traveling home for the summer holidays... to Zimbabwe.

So many Zimbabweans live in South Africa. Statistics indicate that there are more Zimbabweans living outside of Zimbabwe than inside due to politics, food shortages, and now the cholera outbreak, which has claimed over 900 lives and infected 18,000.

I am concerned for my friends' safety and for their families. One friend summed it up best when she said, "Cholera? That's the least of my family's worries. What they need more than anything is food."

Empty store shelves. An inflation rate of 11 million percent. Food shortages. Cholera. A president who won't relinquish power. A collapsed health care system. No schools. And this in the country that used to be called The Bread Basket of Africa.

I don't want to dampen your Christmas joy, but these are the realities in parts of the world. Remember Zimbabwe in your prayers. It was for Zimbabweans, too, that Jesus was born into the world, died on the cross, and came to redeem. Pray for them to be strengthened in the face of such challenges. Just... pray.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Rainy Season

I love the rainy season here in South Africa. There is something miraculous about that first rain that cleans the air and signals the beginning of land turning green once again after a long, dry winter. Those powerful thunderstorms which were once scary are now comforting, for they bring the promise of relief and change.

I never thought much about rain in California. Time was marked by seasons - winter or spring, autumn or summer - and sports - football or baseball, water skiing or snow skiing. If it rained, it rained.

But here in Africa... rain is more than just rain, at least for me. Sometimes my heart can grow dry and weary from a long season of trials or difficulties - an emotional or spiritual drought, if you will. But then God teaches me something new of Himself, refreshes my spirit, and my heart begins to turn green and lush once again, overflowing with joy.

The rains of Africa remind me that no matter how dry the season or how weary my heart, God is faithful to come and make all things new, cause things once dried and withered to flourish once again.

I am so grateful for rain these days, and for the faithfulness of God to redeem things (even me!). If you find your heart dry and weary, may God restore it to overflowing with joy and lushness, like the land after an African rain.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Things I Learned Yesterday


  1. Never go on a ride called "The Tornado" right after lunch.
  2. Never - NEVER - go on it twice.

Monday, December 8, 2008

My Humiliating, Embarrassing, Ego-Bruising, Culture-Shocked, Bubble-Bursting Moment

I haven't written in a few days because I've been recovering. I don't even know how to explain this without writing a novel, so here's the facts:
  • I was the guest speaker at a creché (kindergarten) graduation on Saturday out in a township (this is a story in itself as they printed the programmes with my name written down as the guest speaker before they even asked me, so I didn't really have a choice!)
  • I am not a public speaker (I am not afraid of being in front of a crowd at all; I just... don't do public speaking)
  • I worked really hard on this address - I prayed, I studied, I dug deep in the Bible, I practiced, I made sure my illustrations were culturally relevant, I even endured an ant attack at the Botanical Gardens working on this speech - and I was ready!
  • I was asked to speak for 15 - 30 minutes.
  • I was ten minutes into my speech when a woman walked up and whispered something to the interpreter. After another minute or so the interpreter turned to me (I was expecting her to translate what I just said) and said, "The parents say they are bored and can you please stop talking?"
Now what would you do if you had poured your heart into this and were stopped - on stage - by the interpreter? It gets even worse - one of the parents went back to the pastor and asked him to cut me off. He refused. There was also a lady sitting right in front of me making lovely gestures to get me to stop. I somehow ended my speech in a few minutes, cutting most of it short (I had to bring it to an end semi-gracefully, right?).

Dan assures me that I wasn't actually boring. The pastor apologised... but I still had a wounded ego for the rest of the day. I didn't ask to be the guest speaker, but I gave it my best. Ever have one of those "What's up with that, Lord?" moments?

I confess I'm still smarting from it two days later (just a little), but I realised something: Jesus didn't always get a great reception when He spoke, either. Or Paul. Or Stephen. Or many other Bible greats. I am not comparing myself to them, but if they, who were great orators, sometimes got a less-than-ideal response, who am I to think that people should thank me for speaking, or even listen to me? It is humbling, to say the least (on the plus side, they didn't stone me!)

So the moral of the story is.... um... that's a hard one. Maybe the whole point is just to be obedient to God and leave the outcome to Him. I don't really need to know the answers; I just need to obey. (But Lord? Please don't ask me to do any more public speaking!)

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Time to Dance

I was reading my friend's blog the other day when I got a good dose of perspective. She was listing all the things for which she was thankful, and I realised that lately I've been letting the little things get to me, rob me of joy. Granted, this is a hectic time of year with school ending, holidays looming, and year-end tasks at work, but if I really stopped to think about each day (like my friend Chris did), I would come to realise that the blessings of each day far outweigh the frustrations.

SO... I am preaching to myself today when I say, "Just stop! Stop worrying, stop feeling frustrated, stop letting the challenges of the day bog you down. Just STOP and take a few minutes to dance with Jesus, if you will, and bask in the blessings of each day." And if this speaks to any of you as well, then by all means - please come join my dance party!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Creativity of God


The animal on top is an okapi. I am sorry his bum is facing you, but that's the most interesting part! The okapi is chocolate brown all over with the most amazing stripe patterns on his legs.

The bird we found in a nest at the Union Buildings. It's called a Paradise Flycatcher. It has the most amazing blue-coloured head and copper body, with a long tail.

The creativity of God amazes me. I could never in a million years think up some of the things I see around me.

I'm not feeling particularly eloquent today, but sometimes I think it's alright to simply say, "That's cool, God. Thanks for making that, and thanks for giving me eyes to see it."

Monday, December 1, 2008

View of the City


Here's a view of Pretoria from the top of the gondolas at the National Zoological Gardens. Isn't it beautiful?

Mary and Joseph

We went to the zoo on Saturday, and as we passed a picnic area, we noticed a creché (preschool) graduation taking place. The kids were all dressed in men's white t-shirts (they were angels) except for two children who were dressed as Mary and Joseph.

I love it that Joseph's staff is an umbrella, and that Mary is wearing a Power Puff Girls bathrobe (the cartoon characters are on the back of her robe). I think Joseph is also wearing a tablecloth.

I think sometimes we (Americans) get caught up in how things look, only using the newest and the best. In all the years I've attended Christmas programmes at schools and churches (in the U.S.), I've never seen Joseph use an upside down umbrella for his staff or Mary wear a Power Puff Girls bathrobe.

Somehow this mismatched hodge podge of using whatever one has on hand seems more fitting to me. It's like the Little Drummer Boy, who had no gift for Jesus except his drum-playing skills, or the woman who put in two cents for her offering because that was truly all she had.

It's not about looking perfect; it's about giving ourselves - giving our best, whatever that may be - as a sweet offering.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy What??

I am embarrassed to admit that I forgot today was Thanksgiving (my favourite American holiday, no less!). I forgot because here in South Africa, I had to go to work and the kids had to go to school. It is not a holiday here, so life continues as normal.

When we first moved here, we had so much to learn and we wanted to fit in. Now that we've been here one year, we still want to learn and fit in, but we also don't want to completely lose our cultural identity. How much of the South African culture do we adopt? How much of our American culture do we maintain? Finding that balance is, right now, difficult.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Two Random Stories

  • Today at lunch Lucy randomly asked, "What's a glutton?" I told her a glutton is someone who loves food so much that they become addicted to it and eat even when they're not hungry, as food becomes something they love more than anything else. She said, "Well then it's a good things these crackers are glutton-free!" I was a bit confused until I looked at the box of crackers - rice crackers - that said "gluten-free". I had to keep myself from laughing out loud! I suppose that rice crackers really aren't on top of the desirable food list, so in a way they probably are glutton-free!
  • I wanted to make beef stroganoff for dinner tonight. I had great plans for a nice dinner. As luck would have it, the store was out of both mushrooms AND sour cream, so now we're just having beef without the stroganoff.
Ah, Africa... the only place in the world where you can eat glutton-free crackers and mushroom-less, sour cream-less beef stroganoff. And I actually think this is funny, so maybe I'm finally learning to be flexible! (See mom? There's still hope for me!)

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Lesson of the Ants

I had choir practice yesterday, and my friend challenged me to find a reason for Friday's ant attack. She said maybe there was a lesson to be learned. I said, "Yeah, right. The only thing I learned was:
  1. Don't take walks around the perimeter of the Botanical Gardens;
  2. Sometimes nature can be more distracting than the office; and
  3. Always carry a can of DOOM with you (that's the local brand of ant spray...rather appropriately named, don't you think?)"
She said, "I'm serious." I said, "So am I." But upon further reflection (and another day of recovery), I had to concede that yes, I did in fact learn something:

There is power in numbers, but more specifically, there is power in unity. One ant can't do much to one human. I'm bigger, stronger, and more scary-looking! But when all the ants work together to accomplish a goal (like scare the wee out of me), they can really do a lot, can't they?

Jesus prayed in John 17, "I pray also for those who will believe in Me... that all of them may be one, Father, just as You are in Me and I am in You. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that You have sent Me... May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that You sent Me and have loved them even as You have loved Me." vv. 20-21, 23

I can't help but wonder, if Christians could stop their bickering and disputing over petty things, if we could shake the critical and judgmental spirit and unite towards a common goal, that is, sharing the love of Jesus with a world that desperately needs hope, would we be as powerful as an army of ants? Could we take down giants, swarm the world with love?

Something to think about, at any rate.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

An Indiana Jones Moment

Everyone talks about the violent crime in South Africa, and how "horrible" it is to live here. I can honestly say that I love it here and have never felt any fear... until yesterday. Yesterday I experienced one of the most terrifying moments of my life, only it had nothing to do with violent crime or even people. It had to do with the National Botanical Gardens and some ants.

I was taking a walk around the perimeter of the Gardens, working on a speech I have to give in two weeks. I thought it would be easier to be alone with my thoughts and really tackle this speech than to be at the office or at home where there are too many distractions to break my concentration.

While I was enjoying the beauty and solitude of the Botanical Gardens, I was getting some great ideas and really making progress on my speech... until I looked down, that is, to find my shoes covered in ants. Not tiny American ants, but big African ants. I shook my shoes, but the ants wouldn't come off. I tried to brush them off, then I tried to flick them off, but they wouldn't budge. It was like they had hooks and were hanging on for dear life. Then they started to bite. That's when I started to stomp my feet, and then run, but they *still* kept coming.

I looked ahead of me, and the brick path that I was on was covered in ants as far as I could see. That's when I began to panic and pray like crazy. It took me about 25 minutes to reach the exit of the Botanical Gardens, and when I got to the parking lot I kicked off my shoes, only to find my socks covered in ants. I peeled my socks off, and the ants were INSIDE my socks on the bottom of my feet!

I ended up using my car keys to scrape off all of the ants, and then I got into my car and cried for fifteen minutes! I phoned Dan, who calmed me down, and just when I was about to start the car and drive home, I realised that some of the ants had crawled up my jeans and were on my legs. That's when I *really* lost it!

I am happy to report that I made it home and that my feet are now fine. It really was a bit traumatic though. That feeling of having no way out was most unpleasant.

I went to the Botanical Gardens to work on my speech with no distractions.... but I think I would have been better off at the office!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Letters, Letters!

I love my job! We are starting to get correspondence flowing between the orphans and their sponsors. It is really precious to read what some of them write. One little girl drew a picture of a cigarette with a line through it and a caption that said, "Don't sock!" There was an "m" inserted above it which corrected it to "Don't smock!" Some of the children ask for prayer as they are struggling with illness or school work. Some share their favourite Bible verse or talk about what they want to be when they grow up. Those are the ones that make me cry, because statistically, some of these children will not live long lives due to HIV/AIDS. They are already affected by it, having lost one or both parents to AIDS, and the odds of them going to university are not good. YET....

The encouragement of one person can be huge, can't it? That's where our orphan centres, the local church, and sponsors come in. Hopefully there will be a whole group of people encouraging these children to keep going, to not give up. "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." -Philippians 3:12

The sponsor letters are precious as well. Some write of losing a spouse and can easily relate to the sense of loss these orphans feel. Some write of life lessons learned. All are encouraging and uplifting. The power of the written word is tremendous. How often have you read and reread a letter that was special to you?

Here's your challenge for the day: write a letter to someone and encourage them. You never know how much it might mean, how timely it may be, or what the impact will produce in that person's life.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Wednesday Quote

We stand in awe of the ocean,
The thunderstorm,
The sunset,
The mountains;
But we pass by
A human being
Without notice
Even though
The person
Is God's most
Magnificent
Creation.
- St. Augustine

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Full Circle of Life

Yesterday in church the pastor said we had a special guest. He then introduced "Auntie Doreen", a 91-year-old woman who's been a member of the church since 1929 and taught Sunday School for 60 years. The pastor wanted to honour her, not for being at the church for so long, but for living a godly life and being an example and inspiration to the rest of us. When he said that, the congregation spontaneously gave her a standing ovation. The pastor encouraged us all to find an older person to mentor us. And THEN all the new babies in the church were introduced and dedicated. It was the full circle of life!

What I love about this is that there is room for all of us. We nurture the little ones and learn from the older ones. In my own culture, it seems like once the older generation passes the baton to the younger generation, they are forgotten, or worse - cast aside. We honour them when they die, but we seldom value their wisdom and experience as we are too busy with our fast-paced, technologically-advanced world. I realise I'm making sweeping stereotypes here, so maybe I should personalise this so as not to offend anyone:

I was pleased to see the church honour someone who has lived their life well. I hope that I never get so caught up with my iPod and email (or blog!) that I fail to enjoy the older generation, share a cup of tea, and just... listen.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Fetaroni

Once upon a time we had been in South Africa for only five days and were feeling very culture-shocked. In an effort to find something familiar and comforting we went to a pizzeria, only to be shocked by the pizza topping options:
  • bacon and banana
  • chicken livers and peppadew
  • mince meat and avocado
  • feta and kalamata olives
Fourteen months later, we have learned that while South African pizzas are completely different than American pizzas, they can be equally as good; we just had to change our expectations. Instead of expecting a Round Table American Pizza Supreme, we expect a thin crust pizza with toppings uniquely South African.

So here's my advice for today: When you move to another country (or just visit) and you find something that is called by the same name as in your home country, remove all expectations! It might be completely different BUT equally as good. If you expect it to be like it is "back home", you might miss out on the discovery of a new food (which coincidentally is called a "burger", "pizza", or even "ice cream").

In fact, today we ordered a Fetaroni Pizza, which consists of feta cheese, pepperoni and hot chili peppers on a very thin crust. And it was good!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Hopelessly American

This morning our power went out at 6:15, right in the middle of our morning rush. I had to go to work with unstyled hair, we couldn't make our morning pot of coffee, and we couldn't get the garage door open to back the car out (Dan had to manually open it and hold it open while I backed the car out). We have gotten used to power outages in the past year, but they have always been during business hours, never during the "getting ready for school and work" hours.

I was not a happy camper this morning. In my opinion, the power should never go out until I've done my hair and had my morning coffee! After that I can face the day, with all of its joys and challenges, but this morning, I was not ready for Africa. I wanted to be in America, which reminded me that no matter how long I have lived in South Africa (or will live), I will always be an American. That has its strengths, and like this morning, its weaknesses.

Food for Thought

I read the following quote today and wanted to throw it out there for discussion. What do you think? Do you agree or disagree?

"Let us be humble in acknowledging that Westerners do not have exclusive insight on all that is right and wrong. God is not restricted to Western ways, and He has not exhausted His wisdom and grace on North America and Western Europe... People of the Word [of God] need each other to exercise collective discernment in interpreting the Bible, which stands as the final authority and judge of all that distorts God's glory in any culture." - Duane Elmer, Cross-Cultural Conflict

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Unusual Kindness

"The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold." - Acts 28:2

Unusual kindness.... I love that phrase. I think we can all think of someone who, just when we needed it most and were on the verge of desperation or losing faith in mankind, showed us unusual kindness. Just the other day I went into a shop where the employees are known for being UNkind. I was having trouble finding something, and one of the employees went out of her way to help me. Unusual kindness. It made my day. I left smiling and wanting to pass that kindness on to someone else.

Funny, though, that it's often hard to show "unusual kindness", as it can involve going out of our way, taking more time than we want to give, or require more patience than we think we have. I expect others to be kind to me and make allowances or give me the benefit of the doubt, yet I am not so quick to extend that grace and understanding to others.

I love it how one phrase in the Bible can stand out and inspire me. I want to make more of an effort to show "unusual kindness" to those I come in contact with each day. I am reminded of something C.S. Lewis once said, "The opposite of selfishness isn't unselfishness; it's love."

Monday, November 10, 2008

You Know You're Feeling Settled in South Africa When...


  • You're starting to think your son looks cute in shorts and knee socks (school uniform)
  • Your honey mustard salad dressing is grey, but as long as it tastes okay you don't care about the colour
  • There is a flock (flock?) of beetles mating on your roof, and you think it's rather romantic

On Birthdays, Seasons, and Minor Delusions

I'm about to confess to you one of my many delusions: my birthday falls in autumn, and every year I like to think that the trees changing colour is God's birthday present to me. Silly, I know. They change because God commands them to, and the colours are a blessing to everyone, but still... it was sort of a "nature birthday bonus" for me!

When we moved to South Africa, not only did I have to adjust to the fact that Christmas is now in summer, but - gasp! - my birthday is now in spring!! While I appreciate the beautiful (and just as colourful) spring blossoms, it's just not the same as autumn leaves. I was mentioning this to my friend (who, amzingly, is from South Africa and now lives in my hometown in California! Her birthday falls during the same time of year, so she was lamenting the opposite - that her birthday is now in autumn and not spring!)

Anyway, to make a long story short, I got a package in the mail the other day. It was from this friend. Guess what was inside? A bunch of autumn leaves from my hometown!! When I opened the package, the smell of a California autumn greeted me. I cried! It was wonderful! What a special gift (and lightweight to ship!). I now have my very own California leaf pile here in South Africa!

I think next year I should send her some jacaranda and coral tree blossoms. What do you think?

Friday, November 7, 2008

Yay! A Visit From Friends!

"A generous man will prosper; he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed." - Proverbs 11:25

Our friends Steve and Dianne came down from Kenya for a visit this week. Wherever we went Steve would pull something out of his pocket and have a bunch of kids captivated. This time, it was a surgical glove. He blew it up, drew a face on it, and instantly had a flock of kids smiling, laughing, playing.

Beyond the kids, he and Dianne also had our family smiling, laughing, crying, as they encouraged us, spent time with us, babysat the kids while we went out on a date, and even cleaned my floors!

They are amazing servants, not because of what they did for us, but because of their hearts for the Lord. Whether ministering to people in the prisons of Costa Rica, working with street kids in Kenya, or just encouraging some friends, their hearts beat with a single purpose: to share the hope they have in Jesus with others. May it be so even with us.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Apartheid Museum

Today we went to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. When we bought our tickets to enter, we were each given a card that either said "Whites Only" or "Non-Whites". We had to use separate entrances based on our cards. We entered the museum and walked down separate hallways (depending on whether we were "white" or "non-white"). We eventually met up together and could walk through the rest of the museum as one group. Right from the start... wow. There are just no words.

The building of the museum feels cold - it is all concrete and filled with razor wire - so you sort of feel like you're in prison, or being interrogated, or just... unsettled. I suppose this echoes that time in history, in which case the museum does an excellent job of setting the mood. It was strange watching television clips of the apartheid government defending their actions, seeing footage of riots, hearing the testimonies of those who lived through those times.

The very last exhibit was current newspaper articles that related somehow to apartheid or equal rights. Today as we left there were articles about Barack Obama being elected President of the United States, and Nelson Mandela's congratulatory letter to him.

I haven't even begun to process my emotions from this experience, so I feel a bit scattered writing about it. Still, if you're ever in the Johannesburg area, you really must visit the Apartheid Museum.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

A Holy Moment

Last night we went to a good-bye party for some friends of ours. In the course of the evening there was an opportunity to stand up and share how these people have impacted our lives. At one point a woman got up and said, "I was sick for two years. My daughter was also sick. But then I met my friend, and she loved me. She cared about me and loved me enough to help me. I got the medicine I needed. I'm HIV-positive, and my CD4 count was 4. I'm standing before you tonight, a changed woman, because someone loved me with the love of Jesus."

One thing you have to understand is that no one - NO ONE - publicly admits to being HIV-positive here in South Africa. The stigma is still so strong. People are often ostracized and rejected by family for admitting to such a fact. Consequently many refuse to be tested and would rather face death than isolation from their community.

I've never seen such courage before. This woman is an amazing testimony of what happens when we are touched with the love of Jesus. She radiated beauty from the inside out. It was one of the holiest moments I've ever witnessed.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Let Earth Receive Her King

Today I had a four-hour choir rehearsal in preparation for our Christmas programme at church. In the course of our music we sing some lines from "Joy to the World." I've grown up with that song since childhood, but a phrase from that song stood out today like never before - "Let earth receive her King."

I suddenly had the image of a South African township in my mind, of women sweeping the dust outside their corrugated tin shacks, roasting mealies in old oil drums, boiling water to make pap (maize meal), tidying up whatever property they own, cooking what food they may have, in preparation to receive their King. And when I saw this image, as sparse and simple as it was, I thought, "Yes, this is an offering fit for the King." And I wept through the rest of the song.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Worms, Anyone?

Since our dog may have died of worms, and since we live in Africa, our colleague suggested that we take a de-worming tablet once a year, just to be on the safe side. So today I went to the chemist to get the tablets for our family, but I was a bit nervous (not to mention that I felt like a dog who has to wear a giant cone-collar after surgery). I waited in the queue and when I got to the counter I said, "I need to know if you have (lowering voice) de-worming tablets... (raising voice) for my KIDS, of course."

It was the cowardly way out, I know. Heaven forbid that I - ME - need to take a de-worming tablet! The woman got the medicine for my children, and then I said, "Um... maybe my husband and I should take it too... (quickly) just in case." So the woman smiled - one of THOSE smiles - and got the tablets for my husband and myself. On my way out she yelled, "GOOD LUCK!" I turned seven shades of red. I wanted to hide. I felt utterly humiliated!

Taking medication for malaria or yellow fever sounds kind of cool, but there's just no glory in de-worming yourself.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Fast-Food Faith

In my last post I mentioned waiting joyfully on God. That's a hard one for me. I tend to pray about something and then try to "help" God in answering my prayer, thereby speeding things up. Drive-thru God.

In today's day and age, we have everything at our fingertips. We seldom have to wait for anything, and if we do, we become impatient. I wonder if we're like that with our faith as well - expecting God to do everything in "thirty minutes or less, or your money back!" When God is seemingly silent, we question whether we are in His will, whether He hears us, whether He cares. We want fast-food faith.

One thing I admire about eldery people is their ability to wait. They didn't grow up in a generation where they could have everything NOW. They know how to work hard for something, how to wait for it, how to delay their gratification for the better thing rather than settling for a cheap substitute in the here and now.

Let's be honest - while convenient, fast food isn't all that great. There's nothing like a homebaked, slow-cooked meal (just thinking about Grandma's Sunday roast makes me salivate). Same thing with our faith. Sometimes God says, "Wait." Sometimes He needs to orchestrate pieces to fall into place. Sometimes He knows that we need a good lesson in patience. He will always answer our prayers... maybe not in the way we think He will, but always with our best interests at heart.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A Lesson Learned (well, Learn-ING)

One thing I've been learning lately is that while I believe God and His Word, I don't often live like I believe it. For instance, I'll often pray about a situation and then worry about it all day! How silly is that?!

I've decided to make a conscious effort to live like I believe God, to live in such a way that my actions reflect my prayers, whether it's stepping out in faith, finding joy in times of waiting, or leaving things in God's hands and trusting Him for the outcome. If it's a battle I need to fight, then I need to fight knowing that my God is bigger than anything satan can throw my way. If it's speaking the truth in love, then I need not fear the outcome. If it's just walking with God hand in hand, taking the long way around the mountain, then I need to enjoy the hike and live in the moment, not worry about what's around the bend or hiding behind trees.

"Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?.... But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness...." - Matthew 6:27, 33

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Floor Moppers and Shelf Stockers

In the U.S., store shelves are stocked and the floors are cleaned after business hours (or before, I suppose). Here in South Africa, it is done during business hours.

If you go to the grocery store you will find pallets of goods blocking half of the aisles. You have to walk around store employees who are stocking the shelves, and if they are blocking something you need, you just have to wait. Pushing your trolley down an aisle without having to wait, say "Sorry!" or manoeuvre around a stack of goods is a rarity.

Then there are the floor moppers. I have asked several people why they have to mop the floors during business hours and they all reply, "To keep them clean." But then where am I supposed to walk? If I walk across the wet floor, I'll just make it dirty again (or go surfing). Walking around the wet floor isn't always possible, and I don't always have time to wait for it to dry. Most of the time I just have to walk through it.

I understand that people need jobs, and I understand that customer service doesn't seem to be important here, but I still haven't figured out how to shop without incurring the wrath of the floor moppers and shelf stockers. Any ideas?

Friday, October 24, 2008

Our Speeding Ticket Adventure

The speed limit on Zambesi Road is 80 km/hr. There is one small stretch of road where the limit drops to 70 km/hr, and right after the posted sign there is a speed camera. If the robot (traffic light) is green and you go through the intersection without having to stop, you actually have to step on the brakes to get down to 70 so the camera won't flash you. Well....

The camera caught us. The ticket came in the mail four months later (I guess they're not in a hurry). We paid it today, and I am thankful to say it only took us FOUR offices to figure out which one was the right one! How's that for adjusting to South African life?

First we went to the police station in Sinoville. They said we had to pay it downtown at Tshwane Metropolitan-Something-or-Other building. We went down there, to the cashier's office, and they said we had to go into the building next door and up to the second floor (which is the 3rd floor for all you Americans). So we did that, and ended up at the "Representation Enquiries Desk" (what?!). The woman there said we had to go in the office next door and view the picture on the computer (the one the speed camera took) to make sure it was indeed us. It was. That woman said, "You must now go across the hall and into the door on your right to the Prosecutor's Office (again, what?!). Ask him for a fee reduction."

So we walked into the Prosecutor's Office and said, "Um.. can we have a fee reduction?" He took our speeding ticket, stamped it, and reduced the fee by 1/3, no questions asked! (at this point I'm feeling like my head is in someone else's body - I have NO idea what's going on, whose office I'm in, what all these titles mean, and how on earth they can reduce our fine for no reason!). We then had to go back downstairs to the building next door to pay the fine at the cashier's desk (finally, this one makes sense!). And off we went!

I didn't mention the four complete strangers on the street who offered to pay our fine for us, while we were walking from the car to the office building.

I LOVE South Africa! I have no idea what's going on half the time, or where I'm going, or what those office titles mean. But I am happy to report that today's adventure only cost $10. Cheaper than a movie, and I had more fun!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Thoughts on Disappointment

"I asked him how he kept such a good attitude all of the time with so many people abusing his kindness. Bill set down his coffee and looked me in the eye. 'Don,' he said, 'If we are not willing to wake up in the morning and die to ourselves, perhaps we should ask ourselves whether or not we are really following Jesus.' " - Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz

Do you ever feel disappointed because you were looking forward to something and then it didn't come to pass? That's how I felt today. I was SO disappointed, but then I read this quote and had to ask myself: Do I want what I want more than what God wants? Will I relinquish my will for God's?

I am challenged once again to die to myself and my desires each day, knowing deep down that God's plans always turn out way better than mine!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

An Unwelcome Guest

I don't know if you can see this, but there's a huge spider just above our family portrait. Anyone who knows me knows that I really, REALLY am not fond of spiders. Snakes are okay, rats, mice, beetles and other insects are good, but spiders give me jelly legs. Dan says, "Spiders are our friends" because they eat mosquitos (and we have lots of those), but still - I wish this eight-legged wonder would find some other family portrait to join, because as much as I can appreciate the fact that God made spiders, I don't want them in my house!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Smell of South Africa

Have you ever notice that countries have smells? When you travel to another country and get off the plane, there is definitely an unfamiliar smell in the air. I'll never forget the smell of New Zealand - Dan and I had flown all night, rented a car upon landing in Auckland (can you believe they let us rent a car even though we had never driven on the left side of the road?), stopped by a petrol station in Hamilton to get a cup of coffee, and... (breathe)... what an incredible smell! To this day, every time I see a certain shade of green, I think of the smell of the air in New Zealand. But this is a blog about living in South Africa, so...

What does South Africa smell like? Or more to the point, what does Pretoria smell like?

In the winter it smells like a campfire. You can always see a plume of smoke rising in the distance from a veld fire.

In the spring it smells like flowers. There is a tree with little yellow puffballs on it, and the smell is so sweet it perfumes the air all around it.

In the summer it smells like rain. The good sort of "wet dog" smell. The thunderstorms wash away the dirt in the air - the sweat and smog and hard work of the day- and we are left breathing in fresh clean air. In the cool of the morning after a thunderstorm... that is my favourite South Africa smell.

One can always always smell the diesel fumes and black exhaust smoke from cars that are in desperate need of servicing. I call it the "Third World Traffic" smell, the smell of dirty pale blue buses and beat up taxis.

I would be chastised severely if I failed to mention the smell of the braai - there is nothing like walking out of a shop or walking through your neighbourhood and having the smell of wors waft past your nose.

It's funny how smells affect us, remind us of a long-ago memory, cause us to feel nostalgic. What does your country smell like?

Sunday, October 19, 2008

A Sacrifice of Praise

Back home, my favourite week of all at church is not Easter, not Christmas, but missions conference week. I love seeing the church decorated with flags of the world, reuniting with some of my favourite people who serve God around the world, and meeting people who are passionate about their faith, fulfilling the Great Commission, and in love with Jesus.

I was excited because THIS week, it was missions week at the local church we attend in Pretoria. We walked into church to see flags of the world hanging everywhere. I noticed the United States flag hanging next to Greece, and I suddenly got a lump in my throat. Seeing my home country's flag, feeling the absence of the happy reunion with those we know and love... I didn't expect this but I cried all through worship.

It is lonely, sometimes, to be the ones half a world away, to need encouragement and fellowship from people who know what it's like (and who know us), and to not get that. We sang songs in church about the nations bowing down before the Lord and I cried. I cried because I am happy to sacrifice for the sake of the Kingdom of God, and I cried because I got this sudden wave of homesickness.

A verse popped into my head - "Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise - the fruit of lips that confess His name." - Hebrews 13:15. Sometimes praising God is a sacrifice, when our minds want to dwell on what is "wrong". But if there's one thing I've learned since moving to Africa, it's that when you walk into church, you leave your troubles at the door. The next few hours belong to God. And I have found, that God is sufficient for all that I need.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Swinging in Swaziland

Here's Emma, enjoying a few minutes to herself. Isn't she beautiful?

(yes, I know this is one of those shameless "Here's a photo of my kid" blog posts. But it's such a magical photo that I had to post it!)

The First Rain

Rain came to South Africa today. It was the first rain of the season, and long overdue. During the long, dry winter people warm themselves by building fires that often burn out of control. One can see the smoke from a veld fire nearly every day. Consequently the air quality is pretty abysmal during the dry season. Contact lenses feel gritty. Allergies abound. Never have I wished for the rains to come like I have this spring.

Last year the rain started mid-September, right after we arrived in South Africa. This year, it's already mid-October and no rain... until this evening. The sky suddenly darkened, and then came the magnificent lightning bolts and thunder (Dan took the above photo of lightning over our next door neighbour's house). Thirty minutes later, the rain began to fall - big, fat drops that quickly merged into one large downpour. I ran outside, barefooted, and danced in the street with my children. Dinner could wait...

"Do any of the worthless idols of the nations bring rain? Do the skies themselves send down showers? No, it is you, O Lord our God. Therefore our hope is in You, for You are the One who does all this." - Jeremiah 14:22

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

We're All Just a Bunch of Kids

We went to Swaziland a few days ago to take clothes and shoes to an orphanage. Lucy was immediately surrounded by some of the kids. They were fascinated with her freckles and hair, and Lucy, to her credit, was unusually patient and tolerant about having lots of little hands in her face.

What I love about this photo is this: the Swazi kids are not defined by being orphans. Lucy is not defined by being an American or having two parents. They are just a bunch of kids enjoying each other.

How often we attach labels to one another that define who we are and determine our worth. In God's eyes, however, we're all just a bunch of kids. Our identity and worth should come from our position in Christ, not from whatever labels the world decides to stick upon us.

So.... labels of the world, I am officially "unsticking" you. Fall off!

Tuesday Quote

"Men and women of faith know they are strangers and exiles on the earth because somehow and somewhere along the line they have been given a glimpse of Home... By grace we see what we see. To have faith is to respond to what we see by longing for it the rest of our days; by trying to live up to it and towards it through all the wonderful and terrible things; by breathing it in like air and growing strong on it; by looking to see it again and see it better. To lose faith is to stop looking. To lose faith is to decide... that all you ever saw from afar was your own best dreams."
- Frederick Buechner, The Clown in the Belfry

Don't lose faith, friends. Don't lose faith.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Skaapkop

Christo, my co-worker, said he brought a treat to share. It was in the microwave, he said. When the microwave beeped, I opened the door to find a... sheep head! Half a sheep head, to be specific. "This is skaapkop. Look - here's the brain, here's the eyeball, and here's the tongue! This one's peri-peri flavoured." (deep breath) Okay....

The brain tasted like livers, but I like livers, so that was okay. The eyeball... Christo got out a knife to flick the eye out of the socket, and when he did this black gel bulged out of the centre. Elsabé piped up, "We don't eat that part in Namibia." Christo said, "Well I do," and popped it into his mouth, leaving the rest of the gelatinous eyeball. I didn't want to eat the eyeball - I REALLY didn't want to eat the eyeball - but I had to admit (to my shame) it was delicious. Elsabé and Christo just laughed at me. "Not bad for an American," said Elsabé. The tongue tasted like roast beef, but I've had beef tongue before, so sheep tongue wasn't that different (except that Christo was sitting next to me saying, "I wonder what that sheep has licked in its lifetime...." ).

Dan joined in the fun, and when every last bit of meat was picked off the skull I said, "I think I know what vultures feel like." "Come on," Dan said. "We're carnivores!"

Maybe... but I still can't believe I pulled a sheep head out of the microwave.

Friday, October 10, 2008

We're Still Not the Nel Family

Remember the bad day I wrote about in which someone by the name of Nel (who owes a lot of money to the city) put our address on their electricity bill? That problem still hasn't been solved! Our electricity has been cut nearly every day this week.

Trying to figure out bureaucracies in one's home country is hard enough, but when you're in a foreign country, where do you go? Who do you talk to? How do you handle things? We pay our bill every month, but to a different company. It's weird that some other company can just come in and cut our power.

So today we drove out to Akasia to the "Finance Building" of the City of Tswhane. We met with a woman who tried to help us for an hour. She did all she could and then said we had to phone an "Inspector" to come out and inspect our property, make sure we are who we say we are, that our property address is our property address, and that we are not the Nels. Dan has been with the inspector now for over an hour. They've gone through a pot of coffee, and the problem still isn't solved.

Amazing how one typo can adversely affect the wrong person. It's also amazing that we only care about what affects us directly - I care about this injustice because it affects ME. But do I care about others? Jesus commands us to care. "Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?" - Isaiah 58:6-7

This whole electricity mess has caused me to realise that I need to care not only about what affects me, but about what is right for everyone.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Mid-Week Prayer

"O God, You are my God,
earnestly I seek You;
my soul thirsts for You,
my body longs for You,
in a dry and weary land
where there is no water.

I have seen You in the sanctuary
and beheld Your power and Your glory.

Because Your love is better than life,
my lips will glorify You.

I will praise You as long as I live,
and in Your Name I will lift up my hands."
- Psalm 63:1-4

"I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain." - Philippians 1:2-21

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

One of My Favourite Shops

We pass this shop often when we go out to Soshanguve. Public phone, chicken pies and umbrella repair - all under one roof! I love the entrepreneurial spirit in South Africa. With a little creativity and a good attitude, there are opportunities around every corner.

Just Because You Found a Shop....

... doesn't mean its shelves are stocked!

On first glance, Pretoria looks like any large city - shopping centres, infrastructure, rugby stadium, etc. But every now and then something is there to remind me that I'm not in America anymore.

Yesterday I went to four different ATM's before I found one that actually had money to dispense. Sometimes the supermarket will be completely out of meat, milk, or whatever I happen to need that day.

Last week I went to the photo counter at a shop to have some photos printed from my flash drive, and the man who helped me didn't tell me until after I had placed my order, paid, and had the photos printed that the printer was out of ink. I took a look at my photos (which were all a sickly grey-blue colour) and asked him why he didn't tell me that ahead of time. His reply - "Some people don't mind if their photos look like this." I then had to go through the process of getting a refund, which involved filling out form after form and was almost as much labour as trying to get a work visa from the Department of Home Affairs!

I really have to fight the tendency to complain because the truth is - it has been good for me to learn to improvise, be resourceful, find creative dinner solutions when there is no meat or milk to be found. When you don't have what you need, there are almost always other options. I am also learning to be patient and content. If I don't get my photos printed today, is it really the end of the world?

Growing up in the United States, I had access to everything I needed or wanted. I am learning now that not having everything at my disposal can actually be a blessing. The people of South Africa are so good at finding ways around their challenges, their lack, their frustrations. If I had never left the U.S., I would never have seen that, and I would have missed out on some amazing ingenuity.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Philosophical Musings on Cross-Cultural Experience

Yesterday Dan and I were talking about what it's like to live in another culture. Dan, of course, has more experience in this arena as he has lived in three countries. I was telling him that living in another culture, for me, has been one of the loneliest experiences of my life, but also one of the most enriching. He asked me how it was enriching, and I had to think for a while before I could articulate it. Here's what I came up with:

1. Living in another culture has shown me more than anything else that missions (and life) is all about living somewhere and loving people with the love of Jesus. It really is that simple. All of the -isms and -ologies, while good, can't take precedence over the simple act of loving your neighbour.

2. When you live in another culture you are neither in your home culture nor fully at home in your "host" culture. In some ways you are "outside" of all culture, which allows for an interesting perspective on both cultures' strengths and weaknesses. It is like standing on top of a hill and looking down to see something: you get a completely different perspective when you're on the hill than down in the valley.

I have to wonder - no, I have to think - that Jesus often felt lonely and outside of culture while on earth. He could fully identify with man, to be sure, but He was also fully God and in that regard, not understood by man (at least, not by most).

It is strange and yet comforting to see loneliness as being one of the most enriching experiences of my life. It is also strange and yet comforting to see Jesus in a completely different light. It makes the Bible come alive all over again for me.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Why Macadamia Nuts are So Expensive

I got this bag of macadamia nuts thinking it wouldn't be so bad to crack the shells. I was feeling smug because the bag of nuts was cheaper than a can of shelled nuts. I was trying to enjoy one of South Africa's foods (South Africa is one of the world's largest producers of macadamia nuts and the single largest planting of macadamia trees is also in South Africa). I was wrong, I was wrong, I was wrong!

I have never struggled so much to crack a nut before! I finally ended up holding the nut in one hand with a pair of pliars, and then beating the nut to death with a hammer in my other hand. After about 15 blows (per nut!), the shell finally fragmented and exploded all over my garage floor. I needed muscles, I needed a macaw parrot (they are apparently the only animal that can crack the shell), I needed protective eyewear... I needed the can of already shelled nuts!

This morning my daughter came in from the garage holding half a shell. "Look at this, Mom! I don't know what it is, but isn't it pretty?" Grrr.....

All I can say is, whoever invented the machine that commercially cracks macadamia nuts deserves every cent he/she gets!

Monday, September 29, 2008

A Trip to the Hospital

Today my eldest daughter, Emma, had her tonsils removed. She was a brave ten-year-old and came through with flying colours, being the only family member to have survived surgery in a foreign country (she's quite proud of that!).

South African hospitals are so different than American ones! I guess I should have expected that, but somehow I missed that one on my list of "Things to Wonder About". There are six patients to a room (as opposed to two), the beds are really narrow (not much wider than a stretcher), there are no electronic buttons to move the bed up and down or call the nurse, no TV's in the room, and no vending machine in the waiting room. On the plus side, though simple (or maybe American hospitals are too posh?), it was clean, well-run, the staff was friendly and helpful, and South African hospital gowns actually cover all of your body parts!

When I filled out forms I had to indicate whether I was English-speaking or Afrikaans-speaking, but it didn't matter as everyone addressed me in Afrikaans, from the nurse to the anaesthetist to the cleaning lady. In a room with six beds and five different Afrikaans conversations going on around us, it was a very lonely and foreign feeling. When they wheeled Emma away to theatre (that's South African English for "operating room"), I almost cried. I felt like the only English-speaking person in the whole country.

Emma was released three hours after surgery. She was nauseated from the anaesthesia, and my favourite moment of the day was when she said, "Mom? I think I hate throwing up almost as much as I hate satan." I have to agree...

(By the way, if you want to know how to say "tonsillectomy" in Afrikaans, it's "mangeluitsnyding")

Saturday, September 27, 2008

A Trip to Prison

Today we had the opportunity to go to Baviaanspoort Prison and be family for some inmates who haven't seen their families in years (some of them haven't had a visitor in over ten years!). We were touched by this opportunity because we, too, haven't seen our family in while. We know what it's like to spend Christmas, Easter, and birthdays away from family and friends.

At the prison we were introduced to Thabo and Thabo and were privileged to be their family for half a day. Thabo likes to sing and is training as a tailor. If he comes across a word he doesn't know- whether in a song or book- he immediately goes to a dictionary to look it up. He is thirsty for understanding. The other Thabo likes to draw and read. He, too, has a thirst for knowledge, and keeps his Bible and sketchbook in a battered suitcase that he carries with him. We had a great time getting to know them and sharing pap, vleis and cooldrink with them.

At the end of the day as we were preparing to leave, my son Benjamin asked me, "When are we going to meet the prisoners?", not realising that we had just spent four hours with them, fellowshipping, sharing a meal, praying with them, encouraging one another. And my son's question caused me to realise something:

In the world's eyes, we are often defined by what we do and where we come from. Thabo and Thabo are defined by being from Soweto and having committed a crime that landed them in a medium security prison. I am defined by being an American living in Pretoria, and I have my own list of sins and accomplishments. But in God's eyes, I am not defined by the sins I've committed or what I've done. Neither are Thabo and Thabo. Nor are we defined by where we come from. We are defined by our position and identity in Christ. I can picture God looking down and saying, "These are My children. I love them. Aren't they beautiful?"

Today we met two brothers in Christ that we will spend eternity with. I am so blessed to have met them this side of heaven.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

How Information Changes our Assumptions

Imagine what this woman is thinking, without knowing anything about her. Why are her eyes closed? Is she tired?

We make assumptions about people based on how they look. When we get a piece of their story, we change and adjust those assumptions. Let me tell you that this woman has eight children. Now what do you think about her?

The more information we get about a person, the more we understand where they are coming from and can adjust our assumptions and judgments, becoming less critical, more understanding and compassionate (hopefully!). What if I told you that she is raising five of her grandchildren because five of her children have died from AIDS? What if I told you that at least two of her remaining three children are also HIV-positive, as well as her eight-month-old granddaughter?

These are the pieces of her story that I know for sure. It is possible that this granny will outlive all of her children, and some of her grandchildren. Look at her photo again. What do you think now?

Let's imagine further: What if I told you it is probable that those remaining three children prostitute themselves when money is tight to help put food on the table, and that's how they became HIV-positive? What if I told you that even if ARV's were readily available and affordable, many people from her culture opt for traditional healers and herbalists due to ancestral beliefs and the mistrust of Western medicine, believing AIDS to be a disease brought on by white men to wipe out the black population? How would your assumptions and judgments change? Would you blame her, call her a victim, sympathise with her? Would you pass or suspend your judgment?

I don't have all the answers (I have very few), but what keeps me going is the belief that no one is beyond the reach of God. No one is beyond His touch, His healing, His redemption, His hope.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

And You Wonder Why I Get Lost?!

This is one of the highway signs we pass nearly every day. The N1 is heading south toward Johannesburg, the N4 east toward Witbank, and the M2 takes you to Pretoria's city centre. The problem is, you have to KNOW this: the road numbers, what city they lead to, and what direction you are traveling.

In California all roads pretty much lead to San Francisco or Los Angeles. If you want to go South, for instance, you follow the sign toward Los Angeles. When your city of destination comes up, it tells you, and you hop off. You know which direction you're traveling because the sign always tell you. It is really hard to get lost on the California highway system.

But here.... let's just say that the first time we went to our friend Jannie's house we had to pay the toll three times because we couldn't figure out the above sign!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Zambezi Road

The street signs in Pretoria are an amazing thing. Take Zambezi Road, for instance. Sometimes it's printed "Zambesi Road", sometimes "Zambezi Road", sometimes "Zambesirylaan" (the Afrikaans translation). Every block it's different, switching from English to Afrikaanas, and sometimes just plain misspelled.

Lavender Road is sometimes "Levander Road". "Enkeldoorn" is sometimes "Enkeldoring". The misspellings are humorous, the switching from Afrikaans to English keeps us on our toes ("3rd Street" becomes "3 de laan"), but here's where it gets really confusing: 23 streets are up for renaming in Pretoria, including my beloved Zambezi Road, "in an effort to celebrate our rich cultural diversity." I can understand wanting to rename Hendrik Verwoerd Street, but what's wrong with Zambezi?

Just when I thought I had all the variations memorised, it's going to change. I shall feel like a tourist all over again, but at least this time, everyone else will be in the same boat!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Uncertain Times

If you stay current with world news, you'll know that South Africa is now a country without a president. In the latest chapter of the Mbeki-Zuma rivalry, the ANC fired President Mbeki rather than let him serve out the remainder of his term. There is an emergency Cabinet meeting this afternoon. An interim president will be appointed until elections in the early half of next year, when Jacob Zuma is groomed to take over. Whatever your political views are, we are all wondering, "What will happen now?"

For an American like me who's grown up in a safe and stable environment, this is a new adventure. I'm not sure what to think. There are times when I feel like I'm standing on shaky ground, and there are times when I think, "Nah. I'm overreacting." But some things I know for certain:

God has called us here to South Africa. For me, speculating about the future leads to anxiety and fear, causing me to miss opportunities to make a difference TODAY.

I'm just a sheep. All I have to do is follow the Shepherd, wherever He leads me. It's far better to let Him make decisions concerning my life than try to control things myself (look what happened to Jonah... would you rather go to Ninevah or be swallowed by a fish?).

Our pastor said this morning that shaky times are a part of life. Shaking will come. But the faithfulness of God is unshakeable.

"This I recall to mind, therefore I have hope. The Lord's lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness." - Lamentations 3:21-23

Saturday, September 20, 2008

If Elvis Were a Bird...

Dan took this photo at the Johannesburg Zoo. Every time I see it, I get "Blue Suede Shoes" stuck in my head.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Not Exactly Rocket Science, But...

I have this theory: If you want to learn about a country and its cultures you should research its art, music, literature and history...

You can also learn a lot by looking at the potato chip flavours.

School Trip

Here's Emma with her classmates, Tshegofatso and Khumo. They went on a school trip to the Sammy Marks Museum. I think they look so smart in their school uniforms.

In case you were wondering who Sammy Marks was, he was a leading industrialist and prominent businessman in the old Transvaal Republic (I had to look this up as I am still learning South African history). Incidentally, he was also originally from Lithuania, which made him an immigrant. I wonder if he ever had issues trying to convert his driver's license (only he would have driven an ox-pulled wagon, not a minivan). But I digress...

My First Toyi-Toyi

I stopped by the shopping mall to fetch the mail (yes, the post office is in the shopping mall), and in the parking lot was a crowd of Woolworth's employees on strike. But it was more than a strike; it was a genuine South African toyi-toyi.

I've been hearing about toyi-toyis for over a year now. They are not just protests, marches or strikes. They involve dancing, singing, foot stomping, chanting... It turns protesting into an art form. The singing was marvelous - at least three-part harmony - and as good as any choir concert. The dancing was passionate and made every bit of the statement they intended to make. I don't know if it will help their cause or not, but it was amazing to watch.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Who Needs Supermodels?

Isn't this woman gorgeous? Her eyes, her smile, the lines on her face - even the chipped tooth - all tell a story, her story. I wonder what it is? Unfortunately, language is often a barrier in speaking with people here. Every time I go out to the township, I use a little bit of English, a little bit of Afrikaans, a greeting in Sotho or Zulu, hand motions, and lots of smiles.

Sometimes our smiles say more than words ever can... especially this woman's. Say what you will, but I think she's stunningly beautiful.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Aftermath of the Bad Day: Spiritual Lessons Learned

One of things I love most about having children is that I can learn so much from them. On the evening of the infamous "Bad Day", all three of my children curled up on my bed with my husband and I for the nightly bedtime story. Sometimes my son Ben plays with my hair while I read, sometimes Lucy rubs lotion on my feet, sometimes Emma lays her head against my shoulder, sometimes Dan is sitting next to me.... but I always feel the touch of at least one family member (it is hard NOT to feel that with five people on the bed!). Even if no words are said, I am aware of their presence and their love for me. Through my family, I could feel God's presence. Even on bad days, God's touch is always there to say, "I'm here. I love you."


After the story, it was time to pray. I thought my kids' prayers would focus on the dead dog and mommy's grumpiness, but no... they still managed to find it in their hearts to pray for those who have it worse off than we do. Emma prayed for Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe. She prays for him every night, that he would turn his heart to God. Lucy prayed for some children in Thailand, Rwanda, and a little girl out in a Pretoria township who lost her parents and all of her belongings in a shack fire. Benjamin prayed for the lion in the story we read... but still, he makes me smile.

I was utterly convicted in my spirit, that I had focused on myself and what had gone wrong for me the whole day. It took three children - MY children - to remind me that the world does not revolve around me (good grief - even Job prayed for his friends!) and that God is ever-present no matter what the circumstances. I so love my family!


"You have loved us first, O God, alas! We speak of it in terms of history as if You have only loved us first but a single time, rather than that without ceasing You have loved us first many things and every day and our whole life through. When we wake up in the morning and turn our soul toward You - You are the first - You have loved us first; if I rise at dawn and at the same second turn my soul toward You in prayer, You are there ahead of me, You have loved me first. When I withdraw from the distractions of the day and turn my soul toward You, You are the first and thus forever. And yet we always speak ungratefully as if You have loved us first only once." - Soren Kierkegaard

Monday, September 15, 2008

A Bad Day, Part 3: The Repercussions of a Typographical Error

After the dog died, and after the license-switching fiasco, I was helping the kids with their homework and trying to forget the awful morning when our electricity was cut. Not thirty seconds after it was cut there was a knock on my door. I opened it to find an employee from the Tshwane Municipality Something-or-Other standing there.

"Are you Mrs. Nel?"
"No, I'm Mrs. Erickson."
"Well, is this stand 1173?"
"Yes... why?"
"Your surname isn't Nel?"
"No."
"Well, we cut your power because the Nels owe R12,700 (nearly $2,000) on their electricity bill, and they listed this address."
" (Sigh....) I'm very sorry, but we are not the Nels. The Nels have never lived here. We are the second owners of this house. The first owners weren't the Nels, either. And besides, we pay our electricity bill. I am very sorry that they haven't paid their bill, but must you punish us?"
"Well, they listed this address."
"It is incorrect. I can assure you that the Nels have never lived here. I can also assure you that I pay my electricity bill, and I would really, really appreciate it if you turned my power back on."
"Maybe you should talk to my manager."
"I would love to speak with your manager, if it means reconnecting my power."

So... after a long discussion in which I assured the manager that I was not Mrs. Nel and that I pay my bill, they reconnected my power and said they would get to the bottom of the mix-up. The thing is, this is the SECOND time this has happened!!

Will they fix it? Will they cut our power again? Just who are the Nels? And how is it possible to rack up a R12,700 electric bill for a single-dwelling home??? Stay tuned....

A Bad Day, Part 2: The Joys of Bureaucracy

I kept my American driver's license because the South African government recognises it. In other words, I don't need a South African driver's license. The problem is, my license expires next month, and I have to renew it "in person" because of a "change of address." So....

I found out that it's possible to switch/transfer my license from an American one to a South African one (even though it's not required). Since I can't renew my American license, I thought this might be the way to go. I contacted the AA via email. They said to go to any AA office. I went to the one in Menlyn. They told me they couldn't do it; I had to go to a licensing/testing facility. I went to the one in Waltloo. I couldn't even figure out what queue to stand in. So I went to the office in Rayton. They said I had to go to the Old TPA office in central Pretoria. I did; they were closed.

This morning (after my dog died) I went back to the Old TPA office. They said I had to go back to Waltloo. Waltloo said I had to go to Centurion. Centurion said they could do it, BUT I have to be a permanent resident, and I can't do that until I've lived here for five years.

So.... now I'm stuck. If I can't renew my American license because I have to do it in person, and I can't switch it to a South African license because I'm not a permanent resident, what am I supposed to do? The joys of being an immigrant...

A Bad Day, Part 1: Experiencing Loss

Today our dog Sprocket died. He was only 7 months old. He lost his appetite over the weekend and this morning he didn't look so good, so we took him to the vet first thing, and while they were getting an IV drip ready for him, he died. We didn't opt for the doggie autopsy so we don't know what actually killed him, only that it was sudden and unexpected.

Telling the kids after school was the hard part. It brought back memories of having to tell them Great Grandpa Williams died six months ago. Just last month, Emma's best friend at school moved away... another loss (Emma wrote a heart-wrenching poem about it). And we still have our days where we feel the sting of moving half a world away and leaving all things familiar behind - friends, family, culture. Just when we start to heal, another loss occurs. It sometimes feels like having a scab that someone keeps picking open.

The mother hen in me wants to protect my children from loss, but that's not possible or realistic. The best thing I can do is teach them how to deal with loss - how to grieve and how (and when) to move on - whether it's the loss of a country, a great-grandpa, a friend or a seven-month-old puppy.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Old-Fashioned Fun

I found a stack of old coffee cans at work yesterday, which reminded me of my childhood. We used to make "telephones" out of small cans and rope, and the larger cans we used to make stilts. So... history repeats itself once again as you can see in the photo. We made some stilts for the kids, and they had a blast racing down the hallway at work.

It's amazing how much fun you can have with so little. I have to wonder if we really need all of those toy stores. I have seen kids in South Africa make soccer ball out of plastic grocery sacks, goal markers out of bricks, and any number of things out of old tires. I half think the creativity and ingenuity is worth more than anything money can buy. Five points for African resourcefulness! I realised the other day that we haven't bought a single toy since moving to South Africa, and I don't miss it. The kids don't seem to mind, either. They are content with the toys we brought from the States. Just yesterday Lucy turned a cabbage leaf into a floating cabana in the sink for her Polly Pockets.... until she found a slug on the leaf. Then she screamed and yelled for Daddy to come save the dolls. And in a dramatic rescue that rivals any Godzilla movie, Lucy had the time of her life!