Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A Quote About Love

"And that's when it hit me like so much epiphany getting dislodged from my arteries. The problem with Christian culture is we think of love as a commodity. We use it like money... If somebody is doing something for us, offering us something, be it gifts, time, popularity, or what have you, we feel they have value, we feel they are worth something to us.... This was the thing that had smelled so rotten all these years. I used love like money.... With love, we withheld affirmation from the people who did not agree with us, but we lavishly financed the ones who did.

"Love doesn't work like money. It is not a commodity. When we barter with it, we all lose. When the church does not love its enemies, it fuels their rage. It makes them hate us more.

"I knew what I was doing was wrong. It was selfish, and what's more, it would never work... I was guilty of using love like money, withholding it to get somebody to be who I wanted them to be. I was making a mess of everything. And I was disobeying God... The power of Christian spirituality has always rested in repentance, so that's what I did. I told God I was sorry.... Instead of withholding love I poured it on, lavishly.. hoping that love would pull people from the mire toward healing. I knew this was the way God loved me. God had never withheld love to teach me a lesson." - Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz

Potholes Gone Bad

Monday, July 28, 2008

Beauty From Ashes

Winter is fire season here in South Africa. Every day I can see smoke rising in the distance from a veld fire, and nearly every day I drive by a field that has been blackened from the fires. Along the side of the road, the highway, off in the distance.... the smell of smoke, hazy skies and blackened veld are ever present.

This could be depressing except for the fact that it gives rise to the most beautiful sunsets. Two years ago, after our first visit to Pretoria, I said that South Africa has the most beautiful sunsets, and I am sticking to that opinion. Because of the smoke, because of the fires, the sunsets are brilliant colours - burning orange, pink and every shade in between. I have never before seen such colours.

I am not the type to find spiritual analogies in everything, but I can't help relating this to the way God takes bad things in our lives and makes something beautiful of them. The challenges, difficulties and heartaches - the fires that burn in our lives - can yield the most beautiful sunsets if we will allow God to work in and through us, and not become embittered by our circumstances. If we only look around us, we will see black, charred earth - ashes. If we look up, however, we will see what God has painted with incredible artistry - beauty from ashes.

"...and provide for those who grieve in Zion— to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendour." - Isaiah 61:3

A New Song

"Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus." - I Thessalonians 5:16-18

I learned a new song this weekend at a ladies' conference. It is based on the above verses. Here's the catch - the song was in Zulu! Do you want to learn it with me? Here's another catch - you can't sing it without dancing! Yup, you read correctly. But if I - who grew up in a church that did not condone dancing, let alone clapping in the service (and never mind the fact that I can't dance anyway!) - can do it, so can you!

Njalo, njalo, njalo, njalo
Thina njalo

... which, according to my friend Josephine, translates as: "Always, always, always, always, always praying, always giving, always praising, always." I wish I could share the music with you. I'm sitting at my desk, wearing my coat and scarf, grooving in my chair as I type. You can't NOT dance when you hear this song!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Merry Christmas!!!

Today I was really down. I think I cried half of the day. I feel homesick, I feel like the freaky foreigner, I feel lonely, isolated, and I desperately wish that I could learn Afrikaans faster.

I checked the mail today, which is unusual. 99% of the time someone else fetches it. But today it was me, and would you believe there was a slip saying a package had arrived?

I went over to the post office to fetch the package, and when I got it home and opened it, I found a box full of wrapped Christmas presents and a note from my ladies' prayer group back in the States, which said, "Because you can't have winter without Christmas."

Inside the box were Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, candy canes, hot cocoa packets, spiced cider packets, applesauce (yippee!!!), treats for the kids, popcorn, and all things Christmas-y. My friend Jane happened to be at my house and I was able to make some Christmas coffee, share some sweets, and say "Merry Christmas!" to her. She, of course, thought this to be immensely funny because to her, Christmas is a summer event.

In the States, people often have "Christmas in July" parties with surfing themes, etc., and think it to be humerous because Christmas is a winter event. Here, the surfing, swim party Christmas thing is normal... but that's in December! Right now it's July- and winter- so the Christmas in July thing is confusing... and strangely comforting. Am I making any sense whatsoever?

I feel like the Pevensie children felt when Father Christmas came to Narnia and the cold winter began to thaw into spring. There is a group of very special ladies who went out of their way to cheer up a lonely American in Pretoria. The amazing thing is, when they sent the package, I was probably doing just fine. This week has been incredibly rough. The package came on the very day that I was at my lowest point. God's timing is perfect, no? Proverbs 25:25 says, "Like cold water to a weary soul is good news from a distant land."

To my ladies' prayer group back in America, you truly are Perfect Gifts. (James 1:17) Enjoy your flip-flop weather, and Merry Christmas!


Today is one of those days. I am tired of being an American in Pretoria. I am tired of being the oddball, the foreigner, the one who is always scrambling to learn how to do things, say things, and fit in. Strangely, though, I don't want to go back to the States. Rather, I want the comforts of home to come to me - family, friends, familiar foods and culture.

All of the pep talks and words I write to encourage you are not speaking to me today. I just want to crawl under my blanket and cry. I suppose this can be chalked up to culture shock. Even after ten months, it occasionally rises up to bite me from behind. This has been a difficult week.

I am not willing to give up, however. If life is a race, then there must be days when we not only glide effortlessly downhill, but days when we trudge along, barely able to put one foot in front of the other, waiting for that second wind. It is important to keep going even when feelings dictate otherwise. I still want my blanket, though!

"He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, 'He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.' " - Psalm 91:1-2

When You Think Life is Hard...

"One of the strangest lessons that our unstable life-passage teaches us is that the unwanted is often creative rather than destructive. No one wished to go to Weihsien camp. Yet such an experience, resisted and abhorred, had within it the seeds of new insight and thus of new life for many of us. Almost because of its discomfort, its turmoil, and its boredom, it eventually became the source of certainties and convictions with which life could henceforth be more creatively faced. This is a common mystery of life, an aspect, if you will, of common grace: out of apparent evil new creativity can arise if the meanings and possibilities latent within the new situation are grasped with courage and with faith." - Langdon Gilkey, Shantung Compound

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Unto Us a Child is Born

Last night I tried out for my church's Christmas choir. Our church is large, and after ten months I only know one other family (from our weekly Bible study). I decided that I wanted to meet a few more people, serve the church, and since I can sing, I figured the Christmas choir would be a good fit.

There were about thirty people there, and what an amazing group of people: our director is from Holland, the woman who sat behind me is from Kenya, there is a woman from Germany, a crazy American (I wonder who that could be?!), and every South African culture was represented as well - Afrikaner, Zulu, English, Indian, Portuguese, Xhosa, Coloured, etc.

We started learning the first song, and when we got to the phrase, "For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given," I am somewhat embarrassed to say that I got a little teary-eyed!

Christ was born for all of us. What an unlikely group of people we are, but our hope in Jesus is what binds us together. We have so many differences, come from such diverse backgrounds and have been shaped by incredibly different experiences, but there we stood, side by side, to focus on what we have in common and what drives our very existence. Just imagine our different accents singing five-part harmony and you'll have a small glimpse of what I felt last night.

"... I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in from of the Lamb... They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God." -Revelation 7:9, 11

The Power of One Life

How does a tender plant, which one could easily pick or crush, push its way up through hard cement to triumphantly display its tender shoots to the world? How does the cement, which is stronger, larger and unmatched in power, crack and yield to such a fragile thing? The only answer I can come up with is this: perseverance.

If you see one daisy in a meadow of flowers, you might not think it so beautiful, though each flower is beautiful in its own right. But to see a solitary flower blooming through a crack in the cement.... you stop, take notice, marvel at nature's tenacity. It stands out because it blooms in such unlikely circumstances.

So to you I say - whatever mountain lies in your path, persevere. If God has called you to a task, do not lose heart. One day that cement will crack. Bloom, my friend.

"...let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith..." - Hebrews 12:1-2

Saturday, July 19, 2008

God is not American

Today I went to Loftus Versfeld (where the Springboks play rugby). My friend invited me to the Loftus for Jesus event here in Pretoria. 70 000 people came to worship, pray, and listen to Angus Buchan share his story and his faith. It was so cool to sit out in the middle of the rugby field, surrounded by everyone in the stands, and listen to the roar of voices singing praises to God.

So I'm sitting there, with the sun burning the left side of my face, singing songs I know from childhood in a foreign language, as most of the music was sung in Afrikaans (songs like "Holy Holy Holy", "How Great Thou Art", "Battle Hymn of the Republic", etc). Have you ever sung "Battle Hymn of the Republic" - an American patriotic song dating back to Civil War days - in Afrikaans??? It was so WEIRD (weird in a good way, of course)! And it hit me: God understands more than American English.

How many prayers in Zulu rise up to the Throne every day? How many cries to God in Hungarian, Cantonese, Hindi or Vietnamese does God hear - and answer - each moment? Perhaps this is obvious to you and I am only now getting it, but it amazes me that God understands every language - that He isn't American, that Americans don't have a monopoly on the Holy One.

I fumble with my Afrikaans each day, but God gets it. I don't understand South African English half of the time, but God does. People here don't always understand my American accent, phrases or words, but God can make sense of it.

I don't know... it kind of makes me fall in love with Jesus all over again.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Power of Influence

Today is Nelson Mandela's 90th birthday. Whether you agree with his politics, his decisions, his history.. you have to admit that he is a great leader, a man of incredible influence.

Throughout history there have been many great leaders. Some used their skills for the good of their people, and some committed horrific acts. But they were all leaders.

Personally, I like Nelson Mandela, but I began to think, bringing things closer to home: who/what influences me? And who/what do I influence?

We are not all leaders. Some of us are content to fly under the radar, remain in the background, happily doing our work and minding our own business. But I do believe we are all influenced by various people/circumstances, and we in turn, influence others, be they friends, family, colleagues, or the cashier at the grocery store. By our words we have the power to make someone smile or crush them. By our actions we build up or we tear down.

Influence is a strange thing. It sneaks in and before I know it, I need that new flavour of potato chips because the advert on TV influenced me. I need a certain pair of jeans because all of my friends are raving about them. I need to do this or that because it's the trend, and I will feel left out if I don't. I become frustrated and let anger influence my actions.

Need... or want? I see I have a lot of thinking to do. Just yesterday I realised that I needed a change of heart because a godly friend admonished me, and I thankfully let that influence me.

We all yield to influence, the question is to whose?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

An African Shopping Day

Yesterday I went to two shops. At the first, I bought something for R30. I gave the cashier a R50 bill, and needed to get R20 in change, BUT... the woman only had coins. She started to hand me a massive pile of change, but I begged, I pleaded, can't you please open another till and get a bill? So she asked another employee, who asked another employee, who asked another employee, who made a public announcement on the store intercom, which summoned someone who came over, who called the manager, and fifteen minutes later, I got my R20 bill. I am wondering if it was worth all that fuss.... maybe I should have taken the jackpot of coins?

At the second shop, I needed four items, cream of tartar being one of them. There is usually a tower of cream of tartar jars at the grocery store, but today they were completely out (who runs out of cream of tartar?). So I went over to the meat counter to get some mince (ground beef), and guess what? No meat! Aaahhh!

I came home slightly defeated and grumpy, only to find that we had no running water in the house. Normally, this would be where I lose my head, but today, for some reason, I actually laughed. Seems like I am learning to see the funny side of things and not get too stressed out because the truth is - in the big picture - it's not a huge deal. It is what it is, that's all. This is Africa, my Africa, my home.

Monday, July 14, 2008

It's Cold!

I've been dreading the winters here, being a California girl who is used to centrally heated homes. So now that it's the middle of winter, what's it like? Here's the scoop, from two different perspectives:

The Dramatic Perspective
It's freezing! When the alarm goes off in the morning, it's pitch black (no Daylight Savings here). We drag ourselves out from under our warm duvet onto a cold tile floor in a room that is 56 degrees Fahrenheit (13 Celcius). The initial shock of taking off warm pajamas is heart-stopping. I fish my contact lenses out of two small Arctic Seas - the shock to my eyeballs wakes me up more than a double espresso. Speaking of coffee, in this weather my coffee is cold after five minutes of sitting on the table. I wear my coat and my scarf indoors. My fingers are stiff and don't want to type. All I can think about is getting back under my warm blanket.

The Balanced Perspective
The sun does come out during the day, and warms things up to about 61 degrees or so (16 Celcius). Outdoors is warmer than indoors by midday. Compared to those who live out in the townships, those who don't have warm coats or warm bedding, I really can't complain. One can live without central heat, and outdoors, the winters in California are colder by comparison. Plus, the fact that the sun shines nearly every day is a bonus over those foggy, grey California winters. So..... is wearing a coat indoors really so bad? No, man.... I LOVE South Africa!

Friday, July 11, 2008

Meat World!

There are a million varieties of meat here in South Africa. Besides the usual beef, pork, lamb chicken and ostrich, there are a million different cuts of meat that aren't widely available in the States, at least not to my knowledge. One can buy packets of chicken necks, gizzards, sheep stomach (cleaned or unclean), ox heels, ox tails, ox trotters, lamb knuckles, sliced lamb neck, lamb kidneys, any type of liver you want (beef, chicken or lamb), walkie talkies (chicken heads and feet), plus the usual chops, steaks, mince, etc.

I am on a quest to figure out just how to cook and use these different meats. Ox tail is incredibly good in soup. Lamb knuckles are apparently good in curries. Liver is good sauteed with onions and peri peri sauce, and served with rice.

One thing I have come to appreciate is bone-in meat. In the States we're so used to having the bones taken out of our meat, that it was new for me to slurp the marrow out of bones in my stew. The flavour of a South African potjiekos (sort of like stew, only cooked in a three-legged cast iron pot over an open fire) is unparalleled.

I didn't realise how "packaged" American society was until I moved to Africa and had to actually take the meat off the bones myself (although a South African would ask why on earth you would do such a thing!), make macaroni and cheese from scratch, and buy juice fresh with no preservatives. I have to say, despite the fact that cooking takes a bit more prep time, I wouldn't trade it for the world. My kitchen smells good (beef shins for dinner tonight), I like working with my hands, the conversations that take place in my kitchen while food is being prepped and cooked is sweet, and I am learning how much "convenience" I can live without. The funny thing is, I don't find life here all that "inconvenient". I rather like it... chicken feet and all.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Thursday Quote

"They had a farewell service for her [Mrs. Jones] in St. George's Presbyterian Church, Johannesburg. Black man, white man, coloured man, European and African and Asian, Jew and Christian and Hindu and Moslem, all had come there to honour her memory - their hates and their fears, their prides and their prejudices, all for this moment forgotten. The lump in my throat was not only for that great woman who was dead, not only because all of South Africa was reconciled under the roof of this church, but also because it was unreal as a dream, and no one knew how many years must pass and how many lives be spent and how much suffering be undergone, before it all came true. And when it came true only those who were steeped in the past would have any understanding of the greatness of the present.

"As for me, I was overwhelmed. I was seeing a vision, which was never to leave me, illuminating the darkness of the days through which we now live. I had a feeling of unspeakable sorrow and unspeakable joy. What life had failed to give so many of these people, this woman had given them, an assurance that their work was known and of good report, that they were not nameless or meaningless. And man has no hunger like this one. Had they all come, no church would have held them all; the vast, voiceless multitude of Africa, nameless and obscure, moving with painful ascent to that self-fulfillment no human being may with justice be denied, encouraged and sustained by this woman who withheld nothing from them, who gave her money, her comfort, her gifts, her home, and finally her life, not with any appearance of prodigality nor with fine-sounding words, but with a naturalness that concealed all evidence of the steep moral climb by which alone such eminence is attained.

"In that church one was able to see, beyond any possibility of doubt, that what this woman had striven for was the highest and best kind of thing to strive for in a country like South Africa. I knew then I would never again be able to think in terms of race and nationality. I was no longer a white person but a member of the human race." - Alan Paton, The Hero of Currie Road

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

I Greet You in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ

That is how the pastor from the Democratic Republic of the Congo greeted us in church on Sunday over a cell phone call broadcast over the audio system. Our pastor was up in the DRC speaking at his church, and the church - the whole church - spoke their greetings to our church over the phone during the service.

Half a continent away in war-ravaged land, and I - the American living in Pretoria who's had it pretty easy my whole life - realised that this man is my brother in Christ just as much as my closest friends are, and that we will spend eternity together worshiping around the throne of the God we both serve.

I don't know why, but it made me cry. Still does, three days later. When I imagine what his life must be like, and when I take a good hard look at my own life, I become acutely aware of how much I have to learn. Will you join me in praying for this man who is my brother in Christ?

Friday, July 4, 2008

Happy 4th of July, From Half a World Away

Today is the 4th of July, American Independence Day. One of the strange things about living in another country is that no one else celebrates the holidays you grew up with. We have traded in Thanksgiving, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and the 4th of July for Reconciliation Day, Youth Day, and a host of other new holidays, all of which have a historical significance that I am still learning. But back to the 4th of July...

When you love someone, you focus on their strengths and not their weaknesses. I think the same is true of a nation. I love South Africa. Most people complain about it, pointing out its many flaws. But I see the strengths, the potential. I love the United States as well. When you live outside of the U.S., you get to hear what the rest of the world thinks of your country, and it's not all good. I understand that America has its flaws as well. But again, I see the strengths. Why? The greatest resource any nation has is its people. And people are people no matter where you live. They have strengths, they have weaknesses. If I could learn to see them through God's eyes, I would probably get less frustrated at times! And so...

I close with a line from one of my favourite patriotic songs, America the Beautiful, though I think I could just as easily insert my name in place of my country's name, and it would be fitting:

America, America, God mend thine every flaw
Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

I Can See Clearly Now

Our oldest daughter, Emma, just got her first pair of spectacles (aka glasses). She was complaining of not being able to see the chalkboard in school ("but only in Afrikaans class"). We had her eyes checked, only to find out that she really, really needs to wear spectacles!

Emma was quite upset with this news and muttered angrily around the house for a few days, "Why do I have to wear spectacles? I can see just fine! I only need them for Afrikaans class." What it boiled down to was a fear that everyone might stare at her, call her names. She didn't want to feel different.

When her spectacles were ready to be be fetched, she dragged her feet all the way to the eye doctor. "Do I have to wear them as soon as I get them? Can I wait until school starts? Can we fetch them next week?"

Once she got them and wore them for a few hours, she perked up. "I can see! That sign isn't blurry anymore!" Now she keeps her spectacles case by her bed. She puts her specs on first thing in the morning, and takes them off last thing at night.

I wonder how many times we balk at God's provision, preferring to settle for the "blurry vision" because we don't want to look different, have people stare at us, or risk standing out, when what we need all along is a "pair of specs"? I find myself praying for things that I would like, and when God gives me what I need instead of what I want, I complain. Is it possible that what I wanted would have muddled up my vision even further?

My analogy is going slighty awry, but my point, I think, you understand. Perhaps we need to act like adults and put on the specs. We would do well to trust God that in the end, what we need might be better for us than what we want.

Hey, Wait a Minute!

This is our son Ben (on the left) with his friend and classmate, Abel. We ran into Abel at the Botanical Gardens this past Sunday. They look like they could be brothers, don't they?

As I mentioned, it's school holidays right now. I was looking forward to having three weeks of a less-hectic schedule and not having to get up so early each morning. Instead, nearly every day is filled with visitors, get-togethers with friends or neighbours, and things to do. I was slightly bemoaning the busy schedule this morning when it dawned on me: we have friends!

We have been pining away for some friends ever since we moved to South Africa. The fact that we can run into someone we know in a city of 1.5 million, that neighbours can phone and ask if their kids can hang out at our house for a few hours, that we can make a plan to go out to coffee or just get together, all bear witness to the fact that we have finally made friends. But when did this happen?

It seems like only yesterday we were spending Christmas day alone, that I was writing pathetic, lonely songs on the piano, wishing for friends, longing for someone to know my name, and now all of a sudden I'm longing for a day when someone doesn't come over!

I have a smile on my face today and realise that I have absolutely no room to complain! I have friends, and that is no small thing.

A Great Day

Yesterday we went out to one of the orphan day centres just to play with the kids. It is school holidays right now, so we were able to take our kids along with us. Here is a photo of our girls playing with some of the orphans (our son was off "coaching" a soccer game out in the dirt road. He doesn't know how to play soccer and yet he has an uncanny ability to order people around with a charming smile on his face, and would you believe they all follow his lead!?)

It struck me that our girls, who came from a relative life of ease in California, were outside playing with girls who live in poverty out in a township, and there was really no difference. They had just as much fun playing Chinese jumprope with a dirty string out on a dirt road next to some shacks as they would have had playing on a jumping castle in an upscale neighbourhood in California.

I cannot tell you how blessed I feel to be able to raise our children outside of the American "bubble" - to expose them to different cultures and to teach them that people are people no matter where you go, no matter what the circumstances or challenges. Everyone - EVERYONE - is made in the image of a Holy God who loves them deeply, and that is something that binds us all together.

Yesterday I didn't go shopping at a mall, I didn't eat at a restaurant, I didn't go out for coffee. I got dirty and mingled with people who live in very different circumstances from myself. It was a great day.