Sunday, May 31, 2009

Thoughts on Zacchaeus

If you know the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), you'll know he was a bad dude. He was a tax collector, a cheat, a swindler, and short. The story goes that when Jesus came to town, Zacchaeus wanted to see him so badly that he climbed a tree so he could see Jesus through the crowd. I imagine he climbed the tree not only because he was short, but to to avoid the crowds that despised him for cheating them out of their money.

When Jesus walked by, accompanied by the crowd - the city officials, religious figures, the "important" people - he stopped, looked up in the tree, and said, "Zacchaeus, I'm coming to your house for dinner tonight." Zacchaeus was so stunned he may have fallen out of the tree, and the crowd was so stunned they may have fallen over. And Zacchaeus was so transformed by that evening with Jesus that he paid back four times the amount he had cheated people and turned over a new leaf.

I think we all know someone who has hurt us deeply, someone we despise, someone we really have to work hard at forgiving, loving, extending grace. I was reading the story of Zacchaeus the other day, and suddenly I was the religious snob walking next to Jesus, and the person who has hurt me deeply was Zacchaeus, up in the tree.

I imagined we were on our way to my house for dinner. I had planned a special meal, cleaned the house, and gotten everything perfectly arranged for Jesus. As we walked by the tree, Jesus looked up, and told my enemy (for lack of a better term), "I'm coming to your house for dinner!" I protested, "But Lord, you don't know what this person has done! You don't know how this person harms others. This person doesn't love you! Besides, you'll like my dinner better." (How's that for a petty, last-ditch effort?) Jesus looked down at me with a tender pity that seemed to say, "Do you still not understand my grace?"

And the answer is, No. I do not. But I know that it extends to my most hated enemy as well as to my hero, to those I admire, those I detest, those I love and those whom I feel are sorely misguided.

And I begin to understand that I am all of those people - the admired one, the detested one, the enemy and the hero, the confused one and the confident one - and if God's grace extends to me, then it extends to everyone.

Zacchaeus may have been closer to God than the religious snob, because he knew his depravity. He knew he needed Jesus. The religious snob does not. And I realise that what I should have prepared more than a meal, more than my house, was my heart.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Snack Food Names Gone Awry

Flings Balls. Cheese flavoured. Need I say more?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A Cool Quote

I love the following quote. I don't think I'm clever enough to argue either side eloquently or proficiently; I shall probably dig myself into a hole just by posting this. But still - I love the quote:

"Science is the investigation of the physical universe and its ways, and consists largely of weighing, measuring, and putting things in test tubes. To assume that this kind of investigation can unearth solutions to all our problems is a form of religious faith whose bankruptcy has only in recent years started to become apparent.

There is a tendency in many people to suspect that anything that can't be weighed, measured or put in a test tube is either not real or not worth talking about. That is like a blind person's suspecting that anything that can't be smelled, tasted, touched or heard is probably a figment of the imagination.

The conflict between science and religion, which reached its peak toward the end of the last century, is like the conflict between a podiatrist and a poet. One says that Susie Smith has fallen arches. The other says she walks in beauty like the night. In his own way each is speaking the truth. What is at issue is the kind of truth you're after." - Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking

"I know Whom I have believed..." - 2 Timothy 1:12

Monday, May 25, 2009

A Startling Discovery

Our car has been in the shop since Tuesday (gearbox woes), and over the weekend we borrowed a little car that's about twenty years old. In driving this car, I had a sudden realisation: there are no cup holders.

Have you noticed how cars have evolved? I'm not talking about engines or fuel efficiency. I'm talking about the interior, which increasingly takes into account individual preferences and comfort. Cup holders were added in the 1990's so we could take our coffee with us (or Coke). Then came seat warmers. Then came the DVD player. Then came individual climate control settings. Then came multiple DVD players.

It's a bit scary, actually. Are we that selfish that we can't live without our coffee, our music, our desired temperature, our bum-warmed bliss for 15 minutes? And what does that say about our culture?

Somehow I cannot be proud of these technological advances. They're ingenious, yes, but at what cost? Families go on "family vacations" and never speak to one another, never interact. They lose the creativity and resourcefulness that deprivation often brings about. Individual preference becomes a god and values like sacrifice, generosity, decency, and let's be honest - love - are left for the Mother Teresa's of the world to defend.

You might think I'm taking this way out of context, reacting too strongly to a silly thing like cup holders. Maybe... but think about it.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Family Fun, Erickson Style

After a stressful week, we decided that we needed to do something fun as a family. We ended up deciding to have a fun competition to see who could get the coolest thing at the local flea market for R20 or less (about $2.25). We split up and had 40 minutes to scour the market.

Here's what we ended up with:
  • Ben (age 7) - several sheets of stickers
  • Lucy (age 9) - a feathered mask, two glass slippers and a toy car
  • Emma (age 11) - a pair of soft, fuzzy socks
  • me - two Madagascar hissing cockroaches
  • Dan - a wooden model kit of a toilet
I had one of those "I've never said that sentence before in my life!" moments ("Guess what I bought!"), but the problem is, now there are two giant cockroaches in my house. So Emma donated one of her Polly Pocket dolls, and we reenacted a Japanese Monster Movie, South African-style. I don't think I've laughed that hard in a long time.

Friday, May 22, 2009

School Trips, South African Style

Emma got to go on a school trip to the Premier Diamond Mine in Cullinan. If you're not up on your diamond history, the diamond mine in Cullinan is famous for producing the Cullinan Diamond, the largest rough gem-quality diamond ever found, weighing in at 3,106 carats. It was later cut into nine smaller diamonds, two of which are in the Crown Jewels in England:

The Cullinan I, The Great Star of Africa, weighs 530 carats and is mounted in the Sceptre with the Cross. The Cullinan II, The Lesser Star of Africa, weighs 317 carats and is on the front of the Imperial State Crown of Great Britain.

When I was in school, my school outings usually involved exploring dusty old forts or museums depicting the Gold Rush in California. It wasn't the sort of thing that made history come alive; it was the sort of thing that made you sneeze as you brushed cobwebs off your face.

I want to be a kid again - the school trips here are cool (and I bet diamond mine trips don't make you sneeze)!

If I Ruled the World...

Yesterday our power went out three times. One of those times was during our home group. We were watching a DVD, and the pastor was talking about being the light of the world. Just as he was getting to the climax of his message, he said, "The church doesn't need more lights. Go out where it's dark. Shine!" ... and our electricity went out. I have no idea what the rest of his message was, but our house was a pretty good visual aid! Dan lit some candles, our group prayed and we finished up for the night.

This morning, right after our alarm went off, the power went out again. For three hours. It's winter here, and the sun hasn't yet risen when we get up each morning, so everyone had to get dressed using torches (flashlights). And of course, taking showers, making coffee, or doing anything with your hair other than tying it up was out of the question.

If I ruled the world (Dan gets scared when I talk like this) I would schedule power outages for the afternoon, when the sun is out, when no one needs to cook, when your hair is already done and you've had enough coffee.

Sigh... but I don't rule the world. Maybe buying a generator would be a nice consolation.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Nowhere Near Christmastime

I have probably written about this before, but... here we go again:

I have gotten used to the fact that Christmas is in the summer down here, that it falls during summer holidays and that Christmas decorations are sold next to sun block products. I can deal with the fact that turkey, stuffing, and hot chocolate have been replaced with a braai and cooldrink. But I CAN'T get used to the fact of a long, cold winter without Christmas!

Every year when the weather turns cold here, I want to play my Christmas albums, make hot cocoa, and decorate the Christmas tree. Except that it's May, and nowhere near Christmastime. I feel like I'm in Narnia, and I keep waiting for Father Christmas to come and break the White Witch's spell of always winter, never Christmas.

I took a long walk tonight and listened to Christmas songs, which brought on a sudden loneliness and fresh wave of culture shock (why does it come back just when you think you're over it?) And then I cried, which made the security guard at the gate wonder what was wrong. I tried to explain that it was the Christmas music,'s May and nowhere near Christmastime.

So now I'm hungry for gingerbread men, the guard at the gate thinks I'm weird, and I have "I'll Be Home For Christmas" stuck in my head. I was about to cry again, but then I got the giggles. It's pathetic, but sort of funny, too.

Monday, May 18, 2009

A Magical Moment

Yesterday I had one of those memorable church experiences - the kind I hope I will remember for years to come.

It might have had something to do with the ladies doing a spontaneous ululation when they announced the upcoming women's conference (I don't know how they do it; my tongue just does not move that fast!). Or it may have been the special guest from South Korea who played "How Great Thou Art" on a saw with a violin bow. Or it might have been the bikers wearing black leather who gave her a standing ovation. Or the Nigerian in traditional dress next to them who did the same.

It was one of those services where you might come in as a banker or a construction worker, a maid or a doctor, rich or poor, Zulu or Afrikaans, but during the course of the service all the labels we put on each other quietly slipped off, and we left as human beings - brothers and sisters - side by side on a journey to becoming like Jesus.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

A Few Important Rules

South Africans are very excited about hosting the soccer (aka football) World Cup next year. They're also extremely excited about hosting the Confederations Cup next month. As Pretoria is one of the host cities for both, we get to be in the middle of all the excitement, decorations, billboards, etc. To that end, I thought I'd share some information from the "Fan Guide" that is given out at any ticketing centre. Here are a few of the rules to be followed at any South African stadium:

(just one problem.... what's a vuvuzela?)

(This includes all shields, spears, and clubs)

(I know it's tempting, but...)

If you've never been to South Africa, and you're a soccer/football fan, now would be a good time to visit. You might be in for a good football match, but the real treat is the people and land of South Africa. They are not the wealthiest people on earth, nor is South Africa the most sophisticated country, but you will never find a more hospitable, resilient people, and when you leave, your smile will be a little bit bigger.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

He Spoke Too Soon

The other day everyone in our neighbourhood got a memo stating that our electricity would be out from 08:30 to 15:30 today, as they were working on the lines.

This was not really inconvenient because our power goes off every other day or so, usually at the worst times of day - the morning rush or dinner time. In fact, I found it humerous because we were actually being forewarned, which involves planning and scheduling... two things I have had to chuck out the window in order to survive Africa (in other words, be really, really flexible).

By 15:29 our power had not gone out even once. Dan said, "I guess they're not going to do it today." And just as he finished his sentence, the power went out.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

I Wonder....

Do you ever look at a person's eyes and see a whole history? I look at this woman and I see such a rich story in her eyes. I wonder what she has seen in her lifetime, what she has suffered, what story she could tell if given the opportunity. I wonder what I could learn from her and imagine there is much. I wonder what her favourite song is, what her greatest joy is, how many children she has. I wonder if she can give me tips on how to make good pap and gravy, and what her childhood dreams were.

I wonder if she knows how precious she is, and that the Creator of the Universe knows her name and cares about her deeply.

Monday, May 11, 2009

These kids are the future of the beautiful country of South Africa. They have smiles that would melt any heart, laughter that would cause the hardest of faces to soften, and dreams that rival those of children anywhere else in the world. They also have to carry their chairs from classroom to classroom because there isn't enough money for each classroom to be properly stocked.

Whatever it was I was complaining about today, I forgot.

An Educational Sugar High

Today I would like to talk about Lick and Learn Traffic Lollies (see - you think I make this stuff up but I have the photo to prove it!).

Apparently, as your kids lick the lollies, they will study the wrappers, which have printed on them various traffic signs... so they can learn AND get cavities at the same time! Seriously, it's very important to know the traffic warning sign for falling rocks. One could easily mistake them for falling snowballs, or falling cotton wool, because as far as I know, falling rocks are not white. But then, this is South Africa -a geological jackpot - so the falling rocks very well could be white. Which brings us back to the effectiveness of Lick and Learn Traffic Lollies.

Generally, kids fling lollipop wrappers on the ground - usually in my front yard - and whether they learn anything from the traffic lollies or not I don't know. But I at least learned something new tonight - the triangle signs are "traffic warning signs" and the circular signs are "traffic instruction signs."

This of course brings up an interesting philosophical problem of whether a warning is a type of instruction, or an instruction a type of warning. Are the two really distinct? But that, I'm afraid, is another blog, and one I am not willing to write.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

My Annual Performance Review

I like Mother's Day. I like getting coffee and breakfast in bed. I like the cards and pictures my kids make. I like going out to eat, but my favourite part of the day is my annual performance review. Yes, you read right. Every year on Mother's Day my kids give me a review - telling me what they like and what needs improvement. It's the one time in the year where they can speak freely and not worry about offending me ("Mom, you're really terrible at... !")

They're actually pretty gracious. Emma said I was a great cook but I need to work on being more patient. Lucy said I was a great cook and good at fetching them from school every day but I should work harder on getting along with Daddy (do we really argue that much?). Benjamin said I was great at everything and perfect and didn't need to work on a thing. Nice, but totally inaccurate!

Okay, so I can cook, and I manage to keep everyone clothed, fed, and to school and bed on time, but even I know I have weaknesses. Sometimes I need to hear it from another person, because let's face it - it's easier to point out other people's faults than see my own. And I truly want to know. I know there are areas I can improve upon, and I want to always be growing and learning; that's one of the best things I can model to my kids, I think.

Kids are honest, sometimes brutally honest. And except for the time I wore a plaid skirt and Emma told me I looked like a bagpipe, I've been really blessed.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Presidential Inauguration

Today Jacob Zuma became the President of South Africa. The Inauguration took place here in Pretoria, and heads of state came from all over the world to attend the ceremony. I have never lived in the capital city of a nation before, so the week's festivities and preparations for today's Inauguration have been kind of fun.

All week long the South African Air Force has been practising for their fly-past, so we've been treated to an acrobatic show by the Silver Falcons every day. As we were watching the Inauguration on TV, the announcer would say, "The Silver Falcons are scheduled to fly past in fifteen seconds." We could look out the window and say, "Yep, there they are."

And then we heard this amazing rumbling sound. We looked out the window to see three South African Airlines passenger jets flying in formation right over our house! It is really weird to see something on TV and happening in real life at the same time. It's even weirder to think that all these famous people saw the same thing I did - President Qadhafi from Lybia, King Letsi III from Lesotho, a delegation from the U.S. - and they were only fifteen minutes away from my house.

A Week of Quotes to Inspire Thought: Day 7

"Nationalities are the wealth of humanity; they are its crystallised personalities; even the smallest among them has its own special colouration, hides within itself a particular facet of God's design." - Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Nobel Lecture on Literature, 1972

"Undoubtedly, the greatest source of wealth in Africa can be found in her people. Each son or daughter of Africa is made imago Dei - in the image of God - and together they create one of the richest tapestries of people anywhere in the world." - author unknown

"Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given us." - Romans 12:4-6

Friday, May 8, 2009

An Unusual Family Reunion

Once upon a time our son was born in Hong Kong, and after a month in the hospital he was taken to an orphanage where a beautiful South African woman cared for him for a year until we flew to Hong Kong and brought him home to California to be our son.

Five years later we found ourselves in South Africa, and the woman who cared for our son in Hong Kong is also in South Africa, though she lives in Cape Town and we live in Pretoria. It is a beautiful, long story, but not the one I want to tell today.

The one I want to tell today is about her cousin, who happens to be in a band that is playing at the Presidential Inaugeration tomorrow, and who happened to invite us to his band rehearsal. And thus we were introduced to Cape Town jazz... that is also another story!

I don't know what it is or why it touches me so, but to stay in contact with this woman who lovingly cared for my son and then to meet her cousin and to think that we're all in South Africa now after jaunts on two other continents, it felt like a small taste of heaven, a teaser of the amazing family reunion to come.

A Week of Quotes to Inspire Thought: Day 6

"Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, 'Do it again'; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, 'Do it again' to the sun; and every evening, 'Do it again' to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore." - G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

"He called a little child and had him stand among them. And He said, 'I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." - Matthew 18:2-3

Thursday, May 7, 2009

A Week of Quotes to Inspire Thought: Day 5

"Yes, John and Adam needed help in their daily tasks, but I, too, was constantly saying, 'Help me, help me.' And when I had the courage to look deeper, to face my emotional neediness, my inability to pray, my impatience and restlessness, my many anxieties and fears, the word 'handicap' started to have a whole new meaning. The fact that my handicaps were less visible than those of Adam and his housemates didn't make them less real... I was going through the deep human struggle to believe in my belovedness even when I had nothing to be proud of... I found myself resisting this 'becoming like Adam'. I did not want to be dependent and weak. I did not want to be so needy. Somewhere though I recognised that Adam's way, the way of radical vulnerability, was also the way of Jesus." - Henri Nouwen, Adam: God's Beloved

"But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things - and the things that are not - to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before Him." - I Corinthians 1:27-29

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A Week of Quotes to Inspire Thought: Day 4

"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory or defeat. It is not the critic that counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly, who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds." - Teddy Roosevelt

"Whom have I in heaven but You? And earth has nothing I desire besides You. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever." - Psalm 73:25-26

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A Week of Quotes to Inspire Thought: Day 3

"There are many things which I cannot see even at close quarters, many things in which the Hand of the Highest will correct me. But this casts no cloud over my feelings. It makes me happier, more secure, to think that I do not have to plan and manage everything for myself, that I am only a sword made sharp to smite the unclean forces, an enchanted sword to cleave and disperse them. Grant, O Lord, that I may not break as I strike! Let me not fall from Thy hand!" - Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

"To know God is to be free of the incessant need to understand exactly what He is doing before you place confidence in Him." - Joni Eareckson Tada, When God Weeps

"Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight." - Proverbs 3:5-6

Monday, May 4, 2009

A Week of Quotes to Inspire Thought: Day 2

"It has always been the courageous obedience of one single person to God's call that has set in motion a powerful spiritual movement... Obviously this is not the exclusive privilege of Christianity... Therein lies also the danger; for the same contagious power of courage is the same when it is inspired not by God, but by hate or pride... Actually, I do not think we should ever be exhorting people to be courageous. To be really fruitful, courage must come spontaneously, in answer to an inner call... Jesus puts us on our guard against placing upon others a burden which we do not bear ourselves... I have always observed that when it is God who calls us to make that sort of decision, He also gives us the strength to bear the consequences." - Dr. Paul Tournier, Creative Suffering

"The Lord will guide you always; He will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and strengthen your frame." - Isaiah 58:11

Sunday, May 3, 2009

A Week of Quotes to Inspire Thought: Day 1

"Mrs. Dubose was a morphine addict... She'd have spent the rest of her life on it and died without so much agony, but she was too contrary - she said she was going to leave this world beholden to nothing and nobody... she said she meant to break herself of it before she died, and that's what she did... Son, I told you that if you hadn't lost your head I'd have made you go read to her. I wanted you to see something about her - I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do. Mrs. Dubose won, all 98 pounds of her... She was the bravest person I ever knew." - Atticus to Jem Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

"For none of us lives to himself alone, and none of us dies to himself alone." - Romans 14:7

Saturday, May 2, 2009

I Just Wanted to Kill a Mosquito, Not Annihilate It!

While we're on the subject of lice, let's talk about bug spray. When we moved to South Africa, I thought it was funny that the insect spray was called DOOM. DOOM advertises "Deadly Killing Action," comes in the "Mosquito Destroyer" and "Insect Terminator" varieties, and is also "Scientifically proven to kill every time" (in case you were left wondering). And you think *I* lack tact and sensitivity!

In the U.S., however, our bug spray (notice I said 'bug spray', not 'mosquito destroyer') is kinder and gentler. 9 out of 10 housewives sympathetically agree that it lulls those hungry mosquitos (who were only doing their job) into a peaceful slumber, ending their lives in a humane, compassionate way which allows said underprivileged flying pariahs to maintain their dignity until the end. Aerosol hospice, if you will.

It's funny how far we can go with euphemisms. And sad.

(do you think DOOM makes a "Lice Obliterator" version?)

Friday, May 1, 2009

Spring is in the Air/Lice is in the Hair

Okay, so technically it's autumn down here, but it's still that time of year... the time every parent dreads, the time when typed memos come home from school detailing that head lice is running rampant, how to treat it, etc. Before I continue my story, however, there are two things you need to know:

1. At South African schools, they are NOT allowed to send a child who has head lice home, as that could cause "emotional damage" by causing the child to feel "singled out." (In the U.S., however, call us insensitive, but we'd rather deal with emotional damage than head lice, so children are sent home until the lice has been effectively treated.)
2. The headmaster at my children's school loves documentaries and nature shows. Hence all of his memos have that National Geographic on Location feel....

Okay, back to my story. So the memo comes home, the weight of its contents being lessened somewhat by the sheer entertainment of reading said memo ("Head lice are small parasitic insects about the size of sesame seeds living mainly on the scalp and neck hairs on humans where their legs grasp onto hair shafts. They derive nutrients by blood-feeding once or more a day for about 30 days. They cannot survive without ready access to a person's blood.")

Where's my pith helmet, my mosquito net and my skottel braai? I'm ready for Survivor: African Government School Edition. ("Lice are grey or flesh-coloured and not easily visible. They become reddish-brown as soon as they start feeding. Head lice do not imply a lack of hygiene practiced by their host.")

I lined my kids up, military-style, and did the obligatory lice-check. Fortunately, my children are lice-free... for now. But if and when those "grey or flesh-coloured parasitic insects about the size of sesame seeds" take up residence in my house, I have an excellent memo that would almost - almost - make treating head lice fun.