Thursday, March 29, 2012

Thoughts on Redemption

re•deem, v. 
1. to compensate for the faults or bad aspects of (something)
2. (of a person) atone or make amends for (error or evil)
3. to gain or regain possession of (something) in exchange for payment
 ORIGIN  Latin redimere, from re(d) - 'back' + emere 'buy'

Christians use the word "redeem" a lot.  With Easter coming up, the concept of Christ's death atoning for our sin and being redeemed as people to a right standing with God is the topic du jour.  Sometimes, though, I think we use "church" words so much that we have forgotten what they mean, if we knew at all.  May I share a quote that lends a unique perspective to the word "redeem"?
"I choose the word 'redeemed' with care, knowing how it has devalued over time... Yet no other word quite fits.  Restore and reclaim or re-create, which hint at the original good that God has promised to reinstate, lack a layer of meaning. A redeemed slave is not truly 'restored': he still bears scars from the whip and carries within the trauma of being wrenched from home, family and continent and sold in chains to a human master. Precisely because of that trauma, freedom means more to the redeemed slave than ever it did before. In spite of all the hardship, or perhaps because of it, something has advanced, progressed. The Bible's glimpses of our eternal state all indicate that what we endure on earth now, and how we respond, will inform that state, help bring it about, and be remembered there.  Even the resurrected Jesus kept his scars."~ Philip Yancey

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

An Interesting Week

On Sunday I had the absolute honour of seeing Vusi Mahlasela in concert.  I first heard his music in 2006, when I was researching all things South African.  I admired his guitar playing and lyrics very much, but knew little else of him or the context of his music.  When I found out he was giving a concert at UC Berkeley, I wanted very much to attend but was unable. So... when we moved to South Africa in 2007, seeing Vusi in concert was at the top of my list. 

Four and a half years went by with no Vusi concert.  In the meantime, however, I was a student of South Africa.  Feeling like I had been thrown into the deep end and left to fend for myself, I began to learn bureaucracy, daily life, culture, cuisine and how to drive on the left side of the road.  In retrospect, this added to my appreciation of the concert, the music, and the man himself.  Vusi's music is so poetic and while it speaks of some painful parts of South Africa's history, it always ends on a hopeful and inspiring note.

On Tuesday my iPod was stolen.  In the past four years I've had a car, my ID documents, my bank cards and my handbag stolen.  And now my music (which for a musician, is hitting below the belt!).  I know the crime stats of South Africa, and I never thought I was above the statistics our outside of them.  For some reason, however, losing my music really bothers me.

So... the best of South Africa and the worst of South Africa in one week.  The question is: on which am I going to focus?  I know what my natural tendency would be, but I also know that intentionality says a lot about how the day/week/life is going to turn out.

I want to be more intentional.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Monday Quote

"Knowledge can be a subtle curse. When we learn about the world, we also learn all the reasons why the world cannot be changed. We get used to our failure and imperfections. We become numb to the possibilities of something new. In fact, the only way to remain creative over time - to not be undone by our expertise - is to experiment with ignorance, to stare at things we don't fully understand. This is the lesson of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the nineteenth-century Romantic poet. One of his favourite pastimes was attending public chemistry lectures in London, watching eminent scientists set elements on fire. When Coleridge was asked why he spent so much time watching these pyrotechnic demonstrations, he had a ready reply. 'I attend the lectures,' Coleridge said, 'so that I can renew my stock of metaphors.' He knew that we see the most when we are on the outside looking in." - Jonah Lehrer, Imagine: How Creativity Works

Friday, March 23, 2012

On a Side Note...

I love memos from our Homeowner's Association.  They're truly my comic relief for the day.  Here's the latest:

I just have two questions:
  1. How exactly do you keep cats from roaming the neighbourhood?  Aren't most cats "outdoor" pets?
  2. What is an "erf"[1], and how do you keep pets inside of one at all times?

[1]  This was actually an Afrikaans word that wasn't translated into English.  "Erf" means "property" in Afrikaans, which brings me back to question 1...

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Thoughts on Individuality and Honouring Otherness

 Ernest Shackleford later reflected, " The personnel of an expedition of the character I proposed is a factor on which success depends to a very large extent... They must be able to live together in harmony for a long period without outside communication, and it must be remembered that the men whose desires lead them to the untrodden paths of the world have generally marked individuality."

Generally marked individuality... I imagine this is a very diplomatic way of saying these men are not average but rather unique, to say the least.  Different.  Mad scientists.  Crazy inventors.  Awkward social skills. The weird neighbour from whom you shield your children. The one member of the extended family you'd like to disown.  The guy everyone thinks is a lunatic until he discovers uranium... or the adhesive behind post-it-notes... or chocolate molten lava cake. And then, of course, everyone is knocking at his door for book signatures, speaking engagements and the opportunity to name drop ("He's my neighbour!" or "He's my cousin!").

Those of us who come from Western cultures say that we prize individuality, but do we really?  It seems to me that we also hold conformity equally as high.  Be an individual as long as you're like me and I agree with what you're doing.  Be unique as long as it fits within societal norms.  Be daring as long as you don't offend anyone (did you ever consider the impossibility of that?).

Not only does it require courage to be daring; it also requires to accept others who are daring and honour their uniqueness.  

Thoughts on Antarctic Explorers and Greatness

"WANTED: Men for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success."
Such was the advertisement placed in a London newspaper in 1912, by Ernest Shackleton, a British Antarctic explorer.

My question is: Who on earth would respond to such an advertisement?  Small wages, harsh conditions, imminent death... The only positive thing in this ad is a dubious hope for honour if success is achieved, which is not likely by the sounds of it.

There's something in us that longs to live a life of greatness, isn't there?  Who aspires to mediocrity?  We may fall into it, but I doubt there is anyone who intends to live a life that makes no difference and leaves no mark on the world.

I'm sure there are countless studies on what constitutes greatness and how to achieve it, and I won't add to the wealth of academic studies.  I do, however, want to note a few characteristics that stand out among the "great" men and women I know:
  • They were willing to take great risks.
  • They went against modern thinking, conventions and even wisdom at times.
  • They failed many times before they succeeded.
  • They never gave up.
These are characteristics we admire - once success is achieved.  When a person or group of people is in the middle of trying and failing, however, we often discourage them, count them as "foolish" or even laugh at the absurdity of their ideas/efforts.

I have to wonder... if we believe in others as much as we believe in ourselves - if we encourage them and believe that success is possible no matter what challenges arise - if we are open to new ideas and "absurd" ways of doing things... of what great achievements will the world be able to boast?

The potential for greatness lies in each one of us.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Thoughts on Vengeance

I've been learning about vengeance in the Psalms through a course[1] I'm taking.  As I study, I find that I keep wanting to distance myself from the Psalmist and claim some sort of moral piety: I would never wish vengeance like that upon anyone!  And yet... if I am honest I have to concede that that level of emotion lies in each of us.  Beneath our politeness and the rules that dictate social interaction lies a bubbling turmoil in our spirits that cries out for justice, vindication and punishment for those who have harmed or hindered us.

I try to keep that part of me hidden; who wants to acknowledge such ugly emotions?  Yet it is only in bringing those emotions out into the open - only in expressing them and owning them - can we move past them (or rather, through them[2]) to some sort of equilibrium.  And perhaps the cry for vengeance masks our true emotions:  hurt, helplessness, rejection, abandonment, fear, or loss of control. These are perhaps the root causes of what pushes us to rage and lash out at others and even (dare we admit it?) to God Himself.

What is most disturbing about this idea of vengeance is that recompense and justice for myself mean punishment for another.  I am in a battle jockeying for positions of blessing and favour.  Am I really that self-centred? Positions of favour are not cheap.  Not only do they come at great cost to God (as exemplified in the Incarnation and crucifixion of Jesus); they also come at great cost to my fellow man. My good fortune is another man's judgment. Vengeance is the "dark side of compassion."[3]

I begin to realise how flippantly I have accepted God's mercy and compassion and even - on occasion - laid claim to it!  As a matter of ethics I can no longer do this.  I must rather pause and consider the seriousness of this dilemma:  in requesting compassion or mercy I am indirectly requesting judgment.  In requesting vengeance I am indirectly requesting to be elevated to a position of favour over another.  This is a sobering thought indeed.

1.  For other courses offered or to find out about Coram Deo, a pastoral counseling centre, visit their website.
2. As suggested by Walter Brueggemann in his book, Praying the Psalms.
3. ibid.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

What it's Like to be a Californian in South Africa

It is powerful thunderstorms
breathtaking sunsets
beautiful mountains
and missing the fog
roll over the Golden Gate Bridge

It is love for my new home
longing for my old one
learning new worldviews
joy at the discoveries
and ache for loss of the familiar

It is warm smiles
generous hospitality
confused glances
and angry gestures of
“What were you thinking?”

It is tear-stained dictionaries
trying to communicate
always being a student
never assuming
and often misunderstanding

It is hiding my accent
trying to blend in
being laughed at or pitied
wearing my nationality
like a scarlet letter

It is not having a shared history
entering mid-story
journeying together
learning to put people first
and tasks second

It is eleven official languages
850 bird species
the most gorgeous country in the world
despite the challenges
and a profound sense of gratitude

It is being the luckiest girl in the world.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Beauty From Ashes

This is a photo of a table at a local government school here in Pretoria.  The two cans - which once held instant coffee powder - now serve as ashtrays.  It is an ugly sight, but every Friday morning for one hour it is transformed into a place of beauty.  Six women speaking six different home languages sit around this table for Bible Study.  Six women from six different cultures have set aside their personal differences to unite in prayer.  Six women with six different worldviews have found a common bond of being sisters in Christ.  And that transforms this scene into a place of beauty - beauty from ashes.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Thoughts on Handel's Messiah, Pronouns and Grace

Yesterday I was listening to a unique version of Handel's Messiah.  "For Unto Us a Child is Born" is my favourite song on this album.  The voices switch between English and Swahili while the music changes from European classical to African traditional.... it is a beautiful counterpoint of culture and language, yet surprisingly the coherent "glue" that holds it together is found in a two-letter objective, plural pronoun:  us.

Unto us a child is born. 

I sometimes wonder if we Westerners think we have a monopoly on Christianity or the Incarnation of Christ.  Unto [everyone in the Baptist denomination] a child is born...  For God so loved [white middle-class Americans]...  For it is by grace [conservative church-going, law-abiding citizens] have been saved through faith...

Unto us a child is born. Who is "us"? 

The English language does not have a delineation between "us" as in "you and I" to "us" as in "a select group of people" to "us" as in "everyone".  There is only "us".  So "us" is the homeless woman on the streets of San Francisco with matted hair who smells like urine.  "Us" is the man on death row who raped and brutally murdered a young high school student.  "Us" is my neighbour who jumps nude on his trampoline while shooting a pellet gun over the wall.  "Us" is the religious fanatic who leaves a wake of destruction in order to promote his agenda.  "Us" is everyone who speaks Swahili.  "Us" is even you and I.

Kwa sisi mtoto amezaliwa.  If I don't honour the all-encompassing nature of "us", I will miss the blessing of the wild and unfathomable Grace that was gifted in the form of a child and will one day culminate in the craziest family reunion ever...

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Keep Practising!

"The road you bid me take, revered master, is rough and thorny. It is hardly possible to spend so much time on such a difficult task without becoming tired of it."

"I can understand your complaint, my dear Josephus, and I sympathise with you. But the mountain of the muses is to be reached only by a very precipitous path. There is no craft - however modest it may be - to which the novice does not have to serve an apprenticeship of at least three years. What should I say then about music, which not only surpasses the simpler crafts and arts in ingenuity, difficulty and richness, but, in fact cannot be rivaled by any of the liberal arts?* The benefit your efforts may bring you - the hope of success, the facility in writing which you will gradually acquire, and finally, the firm confidence that what you are writing is well-written - may encourage you."
-Johann Joseph Fux, Steps to Parnassus: The Study of Counterpoint, 1725

* This was written in 1725 when other crafts and technologies were not as advanced as they are today.  I mean no offense to those who aren't musicians in posting this quote!

Friday, March 9, 2012

Another Story of Attachment Disorder

 "I just don't like you! I want to be angry at someone and I picked you!  I don't want to obey, and I don't want to do my schoolwork."  He shrugs his shoulders matter-of-factly, not realising the effect his words have on his mother.

She appreciates his honesty.  It isn't easy to give voice to such raw emotions, but what must be done?  The mother was torn.  Every day was a battle of homework, a battle of wills, a battle to encourage the best in her son and help heal the wounds deep within.  She could not reach those wounds, though, and the battle was such that there was no winning side.  Both mother and son were bleeding to death yet refusing to surrender. The mother felt like she did her best and only received anger and rebellion from her son.  The son wanted desperately to know he was loved but rejected the love and healthy parameters that were offered.

The mother looked at her son and paused.  In a moment of grace she was able to set aside her hurt and ask the following questions of herself:  "How do I express sorrow about his choices while expressing love for him? Does he know that he is loved for who he is, regardless of his performance?  And how do I love someone who professes their profound dislike for me every day?"  She knew how often she failed at loving him unconditionally, knew how much her love was based on his performance that day, and knew the depths of her shortcomings.  And it grieved her deeply.

She reached out for him, her little porcupine, and hugged him with what little strength she had left in her.  She felt his quills pierce her heart but she held onto him tightly. "I love you, little tiger cub, and I won't stop loving you. It's my job to help you grow up into the best tiger that you can be, and I'll keep trying no matter what.  I'm not giving up on you."  Tears fell silently down his cheeks.  The porcupine quills retracted and he returned her hug.  "I love you, too, Mommy Tiger."  The bleeding slowed, and scabs began to form over each of their wounds.

"Courage does not always roar.  Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, 'I will try again tomorrow.' " - Mary Anne Radmacher

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Thoughts on Obedience

"He saw at the water's edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets.  He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, 'Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.' Simon answered, 'Master, we've worked hard all night and haven't caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.' When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break." 
- Luke 5:2-6

I've read this story many times and always, it's about the miracle of the catch of fish.  This time, however, something completely different stood out to me - the obedience of Simon.

If I were Simon, I would have said something like, "Look, Jesus.  Leave the fishing to me and I'll leave the rabbinical duties to you.  Don't tell me how to do my job!  I've been working all night and if I haven't caught any fish, it's because there aren't any fish in the lake!"  I would have argued, and whether I would have obeyed in the end is questionable.

At this point in the story, Simon didn't know Jesus was the Messiah.  He was just some rabbi who used Simon's boat as a pulpit because the crowd on the beach was too large.  Maybe it was this unconventionality that drew Simon to Jesus ("I like this guy... swimming upstream from everyone else!").  Or maybe Simon obeyed out of sarcasm ("Hey guys, the Rabbi is telling us how to fish.  Should we entertain him?  This should be a hoot!").

In any case, he obeyed, and that obedience was rewarded with so many fish that the nets began to break.  And that led to a career change for Simon, who eventually became Peter and the pioneer of the early Church.

I wonder how much I have missed because I - in my own wisdom and "expertise" - refused to obey?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Tuesday Quote

"It was the unexpected that brought to these moments this tender, unnameable rush of understanding, this joy in being alive. It was safety following danger, it was food after hours of hunger, rest following exhaustion, it was the astonishing strangers who had become her friends. It was this and more, until the richness of living caught at her throat, and all the well-meant security with which people surrounded themselves was exposed for what it truly was: a wall to keep out life." - Dorothy Gilman

Monday, March 5, 2012

Thoughts on Righteousness

"For though a righteous man falls seven times, he rises again." - Proverbs 24:16

I used to think that what made a person righteous was how close to "perfect" he/she came.  Striving, measuring up and ticking off accomplishments became my MO in obtaining righteousness.  It was my way to measure how good I was... or wasn't, as each failure sent me into a downward spiral of despair, guilt and shame.

Somewhere along the line I realised that maybe what makes a person righteous isn't how perfect they are but how they handle their failures. Being honest about what I don't know, where I'm weak, the mistakes I've made and what I've learned from them... maybe that says more about who I am than all of the achievements and successes I've garnered thus far.

"Perseverance is failing 19 times and succeeding the 20th." - Julie Andrews

Maybe righteousness has more to do with not giving up, with pursuing the goal no matter what - whether everyone else is miles ahead of us, whether we've tripped and fallen flat on our faces, or even if it seems hopeless - picking ourselves up after every setback, dusting our knees off, and limping forward.

"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." - Atticus Finch to Jem in To Kill a Mockingbird

Righteousness, perseverance, courage... these days I'm not sure where one ends and the other begins.  I'm not sure that they can be separated.  I'm not sure that they should be separated.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Thoughts on Complaining

I have a confession to make:  I've been mildly frustrated with Americans lately when I hear them complain about petrol prices, football games, or bad press in my hometown about a recent incident that involved a teacher and student.  I want to say, "Really? Aren't there bigger things in life about which to worry?"  I want to point out that the petrol price here in South Africa is twice as much as it is in California (if you do the conversion it comes out to $6.00/gallon).  I want to point out that football is just a game.  And I want to point out that there are bigger issues to deal with that one couples' actions: world poverty, for example, or sustainable energy sources.  Then I realised that I complain just as much, only about different things.

I complained about having to wait three years for our land line to be installed so we could get aDSL. I complain about having to stand in long queues. I complain about having to pay R115,20 ($15.00) in tolls every week just to use the highway, which is so congested that it usually takes 45 minutes to drive a 20-minute distance.  So where did the frustration with Americans come from?

In becoming frustrated with American complaints, I am taking a stance of superiority; I am assuming that my complaints are more valid than theirs.  And that's ridiculous!  I suppose, if you really wanted to be technical, you could come up with a ranking of "worthy complaints" based loosely upon Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (and which ones are not being met), but would that really accomplish anything?

The real issue here is the complaining.  I justify my complaining by declaring it to be more "valid" than someone else's complaining.  But guess what?  It's still complaining, which doesn't accomplish anything.  Complaining doesn't solve the problem!

A better use of my time, perhaps, would be to work on creative solutions to the problem, or, if there aren't any, to use my energies in a more productive way - for instance, starting a conversation with the person in the queue rather than complaining about the queue itself.  It could be that the person behind or in front of me needs a word of encouragement, needs to be acknowledged as a human being.  I can give them that.  I can also be thankful that the toll and petrol prices aren't higher than they currently are (it could always be worse, right?).  And I can be thankful for a vehicle that gets me from Point A to Point B each day.

I think it's time to exchange that attitude of superiority for one of appreciation.  The catalyst in the equation is - not surprisingly - PERSPECTIVE.