Thursday, September 29, 2011

Thoughts on Mutuality

Agnes is a woman who comes to our house one morning a week and does some work for us.  She wants nothing more in life than for her daughter to finish her education and have opportunities that Agnes herself never had.  Agnes is a wonderful lady - amazing, really - and we have been able to help her out some.

If that were it, however - if the relationship stopped there - it would be a tragedy (that is a strong word to use, but I choose it intentionally).  In order for any relationship to be healthy, there has to be give and take on both sides. Agnes has to have the opportunity to give to me, and I have to have the humility to accept what Agnes gives to me (that which I cannot earn or do on my own) as much as I give to her.  Otherwise the relationship would be unhealthy, imbalanced, even parasitical.

What I give to Agnes and what Agnes gives to me is not the same; it couldn't possibly be.  But it is just as valuable.  Agnes is my teacher.  She teaches me Setswana.  She teaches me culture.  She teaches me how to navigate between a Western and non-Western mindset.  And I desperately need Agnes' wisdom as much as she needs my help in ensuring her daughter gets an education.

This mutuality allows each of us to maintain our dignity.  Neither one of us is demeaned or put in a position of always being on the receiving end.  Each of us has something valuable to offer.  Each of us is grateful for what we receive.  Our lives are equally enriched. 

Mutuality is the opposite of independence, and quite possibly the opposite of Western thinking.

Thoughts on Unity

The Drum Cafe came to my kids' school this week.  I had no idea what the Drum Cafe was (or rather, who they were) until my prayer group was interrupted by a sound I cannot describe even if I tried.  It was louder than thunder.  It made my whole chest cavity vibrate. It was amazing.

Imagine 300 drums beating out rhythms in unison. I don't know what it is about large crowds doing something in unity that makes me cry, but it does.  Whether it be singing a national anthem, cheering, or playing drums, I get a lump in my throat every time.  There's something grand and much bigger than the sum of our individual parts that occurs when people do something in unity.  And those are just physical acts.  What if we translated that into the spiritual realm?

I can't help but wonder - what would it look like if Christians lived out their faith in unity?  There is far too much division among us.  Too much focus on ourselves, our wants and style of doing things, and far too little humility and giving deference to one another.  The end result is that we shoot ourselves in the foot; we look like fools to the world because the message we preach is not the message we live out.

We could learn something from Drum Cafe.

"I have given them the glory that You gave Me, that they may be one as We are one - I in them and You in Me - so that they may be brought to complete unity.  THEN the world will know that You sent Me and have loved them even as You have loved Me." - John 17:22-23 (emphasis mine)

It's not a Volkswagen, but...

... it was in my driveway.  It's beautiful, nè?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Thoughts on the Prodigal Son

"When he came to his senses, he said... 'I will go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called you son...'

"But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him." - Luke 15:17-20

While he was still a long way off.  This phrase stands out to me profoundly.  The son was not even home before the father came to embrace him.  How is it that the father saw his son while he was still a long way off?  Was he standing on the stoep every day scanning the horizon for news of his son's return, anxiously hoping against all hope for a reconciled relationship despite his son's folly?

I find myself wanting to hide from God (as if that were even possible) when I mess up.  I chastise myself for my lack of performance, lack of perfection.  I knew better, I tell myself.  God must surely be cross with me.  I wonder what the consequences of my sin will be this time?  Whatever they are, I am sure I deserve them.

Yet while I am still a long way off, I hear God's voice wooing - yes, wooing - me from a distance.  "Anna, come home. You're so far away. I'm waiting for you..." When I finally come into view, my head bowed with shame and remorse, He doesn't lecture me, doesn't shout and berate me for my poor choices.  He runs to me, tears in His eyes, scoops me up in His arms and twirls me around, holding me ever so close to His heart.  "I've missed you so much."

God seems to be more interested in relationship than keeping score.  He seems to place an emphasis on love and not performance. I begin to realise how backwards I've gotten it all these years and while I desperately want to be like God, the way He loves people is so foreign to the way I love them.

There are times when the only word I can think to pray is, "Help."

Friday, September 23, 2011

Thoughts on Selfishness

"If you asked twenty good men today what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness.  But if you had asked almost any of the great Christians of old, he would have replied, Love. You see what has happened? A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance. The negative idea of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point." - C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

I realised something about myself this week: not only would I have been among the nineteen to say Unselfishness was the highest of virtues but I would also be among the least unselfish.  That is to say, I discovered how utterly selfish I am.

It pains me to admit this.  It's far too easy to focus on the faults of others rather than face my own shortcomings.  It's embarrassing because what might be obvious to many of you is only just beginning to dawn on me.

To look in the mirror and face your faults take courage. To work on overcoming them takes even more. I'm not sure I've got what it takes, but I'm about to dive headlong into trying.  I have to, for I don't just want to be unselfish; I want to love.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Thoughts on Discomfort

I keep wondering why I relish spring so much here in South Africa, for I have never felt more appreciative of spring than I do now.  I enjoyed the four seasons back in California but didn't rave about them.  In fact, winters in California are colder and longer, and yet I didn't seem to care when winter ended and spring began.  This morning, when I put on my plakkies (flip flops), I suddenly figured it out. 

In California we wear our plakkies year-round.  Not because it's not cold outside (it is), but because our homes are heated.  Our cars are heated.  Our workplaces are heated.  We are always at a comfortable temperature, except when walking from the house to the car, or from the car to the office.

Here in South Africa the homes are not heated.  I wear my coat indoors for three months. I  am perpetually cold.  And that is perhaps why, when the first buds of spring begin to bloom, I am so incredibly grateful.  When the discomfort of having constantly cold hands, feet and nose is over, I celebrate. Were it not for the discomfort of winter, I would not appreciate spring.

In America, discomfort is considered to be an enemy and we spend our lives avoiding it.  Here in South Africa it is, to some extent, a slice of life.  After the initial complaint I find ways to push through, persevere, be resourceful.  When the discomfort ends I find myself appreciating the simplest things with so much gratitude.  Sunshine is brighter.  Flowers smell sweeter.  Friends are more precious.  The funny thing is, I never complained more than when I had all the comforts of life back in America.

Maybe discomfort isn't a bad thing after all.  Maybe my culture got it wrong.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Thoughts on Passing Judgment

I bought this plant last year that is supposed to have the most beautifully scented flowers.  It's called a "Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow" bush because of how the flowers bloom:  on the first day the blossoms are purple, the second day they fade to lavender, and the third day they are white.  Consequently, on a flowering bush you will see three different colours of flowers.  It's really quite gorgeous.

As soon as I planted the little bush, however, it died.  All the leaves fell off.  It was just a bunch of sticks - tiny, sad looking sticks.  I thought maybe the plant was in shock or just needed to adapt to its new environment, so I kept watering it.

Five months later the plant was still dead and I was still in denial, so I kept tending to it.

Nine months later the plant was still dead and I had moved into stage 2 of plant grief - disorganisation and anger.  Should I pull it out? Should I leave it and hope it comes back to life?  I spent so much money for that plant!

Eleven months later the plant was still dead and I was entering the "isolation and depression" phase - maybe I just can't grow plants in South Africa.  Maybe I should give up.

 Last week I pulled weeds and planted seeds for my vegetable garden.  I went around the side of the house to finally pull up the flower bush.  This is what I found:

If you only saw the photo, you would think it to be a pathetic little plant.  In knowing the story, however, you realise it's actually quite a triumph.

It's the same with people.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Sunday Quote

"There is no passion to be found playing small - in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living." - Nelson Mandela

(the above photo is of Abibe Bikila, who won the the gold medal in marathon at the 1960 Olympics in Rome... and he did it with no shoes)

Thursday, September 15, 2011

We Will Resume Our Regular Programming...

 ... after we announce that the U.S. Rugby team won their first match of the 2011 World Cup!!! Go, Eagles!

(photos courtesy of the official RWC2011 website,

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Maybe I've Said This Before, But...

I am beginning to think that we Westerners don't know how to grieve.  We feel uncomfortable with sorrow, whether our own or that of others.  We often try to keep ourselves busy in an effort to not feel the pain, or we surround ourselves with friends, music, entertainment... anything to avoid being alone with the silence and the hurt.

Even Christians are quick to quote Romans 8:28 as some sort of spiritual "Chin up, little camper!" mantra. Or worse, we point out that if you just had enough faith, enough trust in God, you would be bursting with joy. Don't get me wrong; Romans 8:28 is absolutely true, more faith and trust is always a good thing, and we can find joy in the bleakest of circumstances.  My point, however, is this:

Sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do - the most Christ-like thing you can do - is to sit and cry with someone.  Enter into their grief, because you know what? It's completely appropriate to cry when someone you love dies.  Or if you've had a rough day.  Feeling sad doesn't indicate a lack of faith and trust; it means you're human and have emotions.  And when those emotions are preached away by a "fast food" Scripture approach, we are actually teaching people that it's not okay to grieve.  And that, in my opinion, is wrong.

My favourite verse in the Bible is John 11:35 (it's also the shortest verse in the Bible, which makes for easy memorisation):  "Jesus wept."  Jesus knew how to grieve.  Jesus was God made flesh.  Jesus understood.  Jesus wasn't afraid to enter the places that freaked everyone else out.

I want to be like Jesus.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Happy Anniversary!

Today marks the four-year anniversary of our move to South Africa.  To celebrate, I've asked a guest author to write today's blog entry - my daughter, Lucy.  Here's what she has to say:

Living here for four years has been fun and full of good experiences such as Pilanesburg, the Pretoria National Zoo, being in six of the nine provinces, rugby, the soccer World Cup, the friends we've made and the fun times we've had together.  I like a lot of the foods here - boerewors, bobotie and pap.  I like the indigenous plants like baobabs and proteas. I like the wild animals. I really enjoy living in South Africa.

I still miss holidays in America like Thanksgiving and the 4th of July, but I do like holidays here in South Africa such as Human Rights Day and Heritage Day.  In some ways I wish I was still in America, but in other ways I'm glad I moved here.

Being a third-culture kid is good because you see the world differently and you can travel and meet really cool people.  It's hard, though, explaining America when you're in South Africa and then explaining South Africa when you're in America.

Overall it's been great living here. Happy 4th Anniversary of living in South Africa!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Thoughts on the U.S. Rugby Team

First of all, yes, we have one.  Not only that, the U.S. team is playing in the Rugby World Cup right now in New Zealand.  Out of the twenty teams there, the U.S. are ranked 18.  They played their first game today against Ireland.  They lost.  This was not a surprise to anyone, but I want to propose to you that the U.S. rugby team is to be respected and admired.

Most Americans don't know about rugby (I'm not trying to be mean to my fellow countrymen, but it's true), let alone that we have a national team playing in a World Cup competition at the moment.  So think about it -  when the Eagles (that's our team) take to the field, they do it without the support of their country, without those back home rooting for them and cheering them on. 

In contrast, here in South Africa there was a huge sendoff when the Springboks left for New Zealand.  An estimated 65,000 people came to say good-bye to the Boks as they left for the airport.  Every Friday, the nation wears green and gold in support of the team, as well as on every match day.  Even babies are dressed up for game days.

On match days you can watch the game at a multitude of restaurants, pubs, shops - even the grocery stores will have the game on in the electronics section. And when the Springboks take to the field, they know their country is behind them.

But what about the Eagles?  In many ways they play every match "alone."  And that takes a huge amount of courage. 

Would you play as well - give it your all - if no one was behind you?  The same as if 50 million people were cheering you on?  I wonder. 

America, get behind your rugby team! 

Saturday, September 10, 2011

It's Just not Right

Agnes is a young single mother of a nine-year-old daughter.  She, like any mother, longs to care for her child and help her grow up to reach her full potential.  The problem is, Agnes is trapped in a cycle of poverty and hopelessness.

Agnes lives in a township outside of Pretoria.  To be more accurate, she lives on the other side of the township.  Way out there.  She does what she can to get work in the city (Pretoria), but transport into the city alone costs $3.00 a day.

Last week Agnes' daughter fell sick.  She took her to the free clinic, but they had no medicine (this is either because a) They were out of stock, which is inexcusable when we're talking about a simple antibiotic, or b) Due to corruption, the medication was stolen by the someone who had access to the supplies).  Without medication, Agnes' daughter grew sicker and sicker.  Her only other option was a thirty-minute drive to the nearest hospital, but transport and the examination fee would cost $7.00, a price Agnes simply could not afford.

People have died from illness that were treatable by common antibiotics.  What's even worse is that people are dying from illnesses that are treatable by common antibiotics.  The fact that there are still places in the world where people do not have access to health care is a fact I am not okay with.  The fact that it is happening in my own back yard is even worse. 

I was never much of an activist until I met Agnes.  Then it became personal, because someone I love is sometimes denied basic rights.  And I am ashamed that I never cared until now.  I should care just as much if it happens to strangers as to friends.

All this to say... wherever you are in the world, if you have access to medical care, be thankful.  Be very, very thankful. (And, by the way, thanks to a donation, Agnes was able to take her daughter to the hospital.  Her daughter is well on the road to recovery.)

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Learning English... Again.

When we first moved to South Africa, I knew I would have to learn Afrikaans.  I wanted to learn Setswana as well, somewhere down the road.  What I didn't know was that I would have to learn English.  The words, the phrases, and idiomatic expressions of South Africa are so different that four years later I still have moments when I say "Huh?" in confusion.  In fact, they make separate dictionaries for South African English:

 If you want to know just how different South African English is, click here.

Add to that all the slang words, and you can understand why I view South African English as a completely different language to British or American English.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Spring, Southern Hemisphere Style

South Africans know how to celebrate spring.  September 1, while not exactly the spring equinox, is known as "Spring Day."  People dress crazily at work, call it "Casual Day" and donate to charity.  Children get to wear civvies to school instead of their uniform.  We get ice cream at church on the first Sunday in September, and there is always a big, colourful celebration. 

I used to wonder why.  It seemed a bit... "pagan" to me, almost as if the season itself was worshiped.  But this year, I finally figured it out.  Let me explain:

You Northern Hemispherers (is that a word?) celebrate Easter in spring.  The analogy of new life is visually displayed by nature - flowers are beginning to bloom, trees that lay dormant all winter are budding,  baby chicks are hatching, the sun is shining, etc.  It's all very convenient for you.  You have an instant visual of what our lives look like when Jesus redeems us.

Here in the Southern Hemisphere, however, we celebrate Easter in autumn.  The weather is turning cold, leaves are falling off trees and everyone is preparing for the long, cold winter ahead.  And I have to confess, it's hard to be excited about Jesus rising from the dead when I am preparing to wear my coat 24/7 for three solid months.  There are no pastel colours at Easter in South Africa.  No picnics.  No lilies.  Just... impending gloom.

Ah, but come September we can celebrate.  It's Palm Sunday all over again.  The bright colours come out.  New life triumphs once again.  We sing Hosanna to the King.  And we eat ice cream... because we can.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Thoughts on the Journey

Friday mornings are my favourite. Not because the weekend is looming but because I get to share the morning with a group of boys that I have grown to love.

These guys are young on the outside. They are old on the inside. They have been through more than most experience in a lifetime. They are ten years old. And they are amazing.

This morning one of my boys was having a rough day. He was on the verge of tears all morning, but he didn't want to talk about it. I asked if I could pray for him. He said yes. When I finished praying, tears were streaming down his face. I hugged him. I told him how much I care about him. And I ache for him. It's hardly enough; it won't change his circumstances or ease his pain. But maybe - in that brief moment - he knew that he wasn't alone. There was someone there to acknowledge his pain and suffering.

Who am I to touch another's life - I with my own problems, issues and hang-ups? I only know that we are all on a journey. If that journey moves towards knowing Jesus and true Love, so much the better. I don't have all the answers; I really don't. But I know how to hold your hand. I know how to cry with you. And I know how to walk, putting one foot in front of the other.

And maybe that's all it takes.