Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Matthew 14: All in a Day's Work

Verses 22 to 33 tell a strange story - Jesus puts the disciples in a boat and sends them to the other side of the lake while he goes off to pray.  The disciples must have been talking about feeding the 5,000 and feeling pretty on top of the world at that point.  A wind comes up and the boat is buffeted back and forth in the waves.  Progress is slow. Then comes Jesus, walking on the water, which basically freaks them out (one translations says, "They began to scream from fear" - big burly fishermen that they were...)  Jesus tells them not to fear; it's him.  Peter suddenly says, "If it's you, then tell me to come on the water."  Jesus invites him, and for a brief moment Peter walks on water.  But fear and unbelief get the better of him, he begans to sink, and Jesus has to save him and put him back in the boat (the story comes full circle?).  As soon as they get back into the boat, the wind dies down, and they realise that Jesus is the Son of God.

This whole "walking on water" business is hard for me to grasp.  I don't know if it's because I grew up in a church that relegated miracles to the annals of history, if it's because I'm too concrete and logical, or it's because I have never seen such a miracle and lack faith.  I do like to know things from experience, or at least be able to explain how they might be possible... and I can't with this story. But let's leave that thought where it is.

What I love about this passage is the following:  Peter went through just about every possible emotion in the course of one day - elation, frustration, terror, bravado, doubt, fear, humiliation, confusion and awe.  What a day!

The humanness of Peter - screaming like a sissy one moment and daring Jesus to give him superpowers the next - makes me smile and somehow encourages me tremendously.  We're all a little bit like Peter, aren't we?  Boastful and on top of the world one moment and running to our mommies the next, licking our wounds.  We're human, in other words.  Flawed but beautiful, full of emotions and life.

Some days are like that. It's okay.  Embrace the moment and the emotion, because Jesus is right there, loving and laughing and crying with you... and that is a miracle in which I can easily believe.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day... From Half a World Away

Memorial Day falls on the last Monday in May and is a day for Americans to remember all those who have died in service to our country.  It is a reminder that our freedom came with a price and a reminder to honour those who paid the ultimate price for that freedom.

It is also a three-day weekend and the unofficial beginning of summer. Most Americans barbecue and relax on the public holiday.  A few will attend services at the local cemetery and place flags on the graves of servicemen.

Freedom is not free, and most people around the world know this (In fact, at the risk of being offensive, I will go so far as to say that there are some who know it far better than Americans because they have fought and suffered so much more), but is it enough to just be thankful, to honour the men and women who fought and sometimes died for that freedom?  Or do we have a further responsibility?

Are we really free when others around the world are oppressed, suffering under evil regimes or abject poverty with no one advocating for them? Are we really free to turn a deaf ear to their cries, to let "someone else" fight for them, to only be concerned about our own freedom (or lack thereof)?  In other words, how self-centered can we be when it comes to freedom?

I won't answer that question for you.  I think the answer is different for each person, and I would never presume to make a blanket statement that applies to everyone.

I can only hear the words of Jesus echoing in my mind - "You give them something to eat."  I want to protest, say that I couldn't possibly...  I'm just one person; I don't have the skills, qualifications, or expertise...

...Yet here I am, halfway around the world in South Africa, wondering what it means to offer myself and all that I am to this country, wanting to be respectful of their many cultures and contribute to helping people reach their potential.  I do not wish to force my culture or Western mindset on anyone but rather desire to encourage and uplift people, give them hope, help them heal.  I want to see the Imago Dei in each person and treat them with the dignity that every human being deserves - from the richest to the poorest, from the educated to the not-educated, from the highest to the lowest, and even from the kindest to the cruelest.

It's the only way I know how to celebrate Memorial Day, by giving all that I am and have in response to the freedom that I inherited and grew up with.  I did nothing to earn that freedom but I certainly benefited from it, and I cannot in good conscience be selfish with that freedom - physical, emotional, mental or spiritual. Yes, I am only one person, and not the best "specimen" of a person there is, but I can still do what I can do... offer my "five loaves and two fish" and trust that God can somehow use it.  That's all any of us can do.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Matthew 14: When the Impossible is Asked of You

"As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, 'This is a remote place, and it's already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.'  Jesus replied, 'They do not need to go away.  You give them something to eat.'  'We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,' they answered. 'Bring them here to me,' he said." - Matthew 14:15-18

"You give them something to eat" - "them" being 5,000 men plus women and children.  Why would Jesus say that to his disciples? Surely he knew they had nothing.

Phillip responds as any clever man would respond - "Eight months' wages would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!" (John 6:7)  Phillip stops just shy of being disrespectful (as in, "What are you smoking, Jesus? Are you out of your mind?").

Then comes Andrew.  Andrew is the sort of guy that has a qualifier after his name - Andrew, bless his heart - It's as if concessions are made for Andrew because he's, well, a little different.  Andrew follows up Phillip's accurate and very logical assessment of the matter and says, "Hey - here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish!" (John 6:8-9)  Andrew was either really dumb or a man of great faith (and if we were completely honest, we might concede that there is a fine line separating one from the other) to find a kid with the Middle Eastern version of a McDonald's Happy Meal and think he's well on his way to a solution.  Optimistic, yes, but hardly practical.

John's account records that Jesus said this to test them, for "he already had in mind what he was going to do" (John 6:6).  I think Jesus was looking for two responses from his disciples:
  1. An acknowledgement that they needed help, that they were not self-sufficient and couldn't do it on their own, and
  2. The offering of what little they did have and a trust that Jesus could somehow bless and use it.
You give them something to eat... I can't - I have only have this one small meal... It is enough; bring it to me.

"And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over." (Matthew 14:19-20)

The real miracle of this story is not that 5,000 people were fed; it is the miracle of offering what little we have - gifts, skills, possessions, time - and trusting that God can use it to make a difference in the world.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Matthew 14: Second Wind

"When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them..." - Matthew 14: 13-14 (NIV)

I think if I withdrew privately - only to be met by a large crowd - compassion is the last response I would have.  I would probably get back in my boat and row somewhere else!  I've always wondered, how did Jesus do it?  And if we're supposed to be like him, how do we do it?

It makes me think about singing, probably because I do sing but specifically in regards to this story.  When you take a breath, you take in more air than you think.  In fact, when you think your lungs are empty, they're not!  Try it - take a deep breath and then exhale it completely.  Before taking another breath, sing a few bars of your favourite song.  Surprised?  That's because there's always a certain amount of air - called residual or reserve air - left in your lungs.

Or take marathon runners.  They often reach a "wall" in their running and then speak of getting a second wind - a renewed energy to continue running when they thought they had nothing left.

I wonder if it's like that in Jesus' case as well - if he got a "second wind" of being able to cope with the demands of the public, a renewed energy to care about people when he just wanted to be alone, and a "reserve compassion" when he thought he was empty?

Pause.  Take a deep breath.  Let it all out.  Guess what?  Your lungs are still quite full. 


Monday, May 21, 2012

Matthew 14: Peer Pressure

"Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of the people, because they considered John a prophet...The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted." (Matthew 14:5, 9 NIV)

Herod didn't do what he wanted to do and did what he didn't want to do because he was afraid of what others would think. I think we all feel like that sometimes, but the pressure must be greater for leaders; everything they do is scrutinised under a microscope by the public and deconstructed mercilessly.

I had planned to write about the importance of following your convictions no matter what, but 1) There are probably enough writings on that and 2) I'm stuck on an interesting thought -

If we look at Herod's actions from the reverse angle - that is, instead of blaming his poor leadership skills and lack of integrity - and look at those whom he led, what will we find? In other words, if we look at Herod's constituency, did they make it easy or hard for Herod to follow his convictions?

I know, here is where some of you will protest and point out that each man is responsible for the choices he/she makes; the blame cannot be shifted onto another. I agree with you. I'm just wondering, though, how hard or easy do we make it for our leaders to do the right thing? If they have to deal with constant in-fighting, special interest groups vehemently pushing their agendas, and criticism around every bend, I think I'd cave to the pressure as well!

But what if we showed a measure of humility, support, encouragement, and stepped into being respectful followers of our leaders (yes, I know none of them are perfect, but neither are we) who honoured their vision, trusted their judgement and submitted to their authority? What if we made it a joy for them to lead rather than a burden?

This filters down the workplace and even the home:  Do you make it easy for your boss to lead you? Your spouse to partner with you? Your children to follow you?

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Matthew 14: Withdrawing

"When Jesus heard what had happened [John the Baptist's beheading], he withdrew by boat to a solitary place.  Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns." - Matthew 14:13

I think I know how Jesus felt.  Not exactly, of course, but I know what it feels like when something bad happens, or you hear of something bad that happened to someone you love, and you just need to withdraw and go away to process the information and get over the shock.

Jesus was so popular, however, that even when he tried to get away, it didn't work. Maybe you know what that's like as well.  Maybe because of your job, your position, or the roles you play you can't get away, either.  For myself, well... I have a confession to make:

I'm sitting in my car in the church parking lot and I can't seem to will myself out of the car into the building. The idea of having to put on my "joyful" face and sing happy praise songs just makes me want to... withdraw.  I can't even hide in the back row because people know me.  Even people I don't recognise know who I am because I'm part of the music department.  There's no place to hide.

It's been a rough week.  I had nightmares all night long.  I know that God is worthy of my worship no matter how I feel - I know that absolutely.  But I need the freedom to worship him in a quiet, solitary place today.  I need to acknowledge his sovereignty from the depths of my emotions, which doesn't include corporate praise today.

I don't have a boat; I have a car.  I'm not on the Sea of Galilee; I'm on the Sea of Parking Lot. And there isn't a crowd of people following me wanting to be healed.  But there are four people inside that building who need me, will be expecting me to cook lunch in a few hours, mend school uniforms, help with projects, discuss ideas, and generally know where everything is and keep the schedules juggled and in balance at all times.

The silence of withdrawing comforts and renews.  I can be still.  I can be in God's presence without distractions. My broken parts are mended and I am slowly made whole once again.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

A Country's Greatest Resource...

"Nationalities are the wealth of humanity; they are its crystallized personalities; even the smallest among them has its own special colouration, hides within itself a particular facet of God's design." 
- Alexandr 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." 
- Unknown
"Resources do not come from the ground but from the innovation of the human mind." 
 - Unknown

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Comfort of Nature

It's been a rough week.  For some reason checking up on "my" spider and making sure she's still there made me feel better.  Look at the string of insects she's eaten.  Amazing, isn't it?  She uses it to alert birds to the presence of her web so they won't accidentally fly through it, as she builds her web for life. 

Golden orb spiders are amazing for so many reasons, but I think one of my favourites is that if the male spider (who can be less than 1/10 the size of the female) gives her a back massage before they mate, she won't eat him afterwards.

I named her Stella. :-)

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

I Corinthians 13: A Gentle Admonition

I'm sitting here at the National Library of South Africa, looking at the rows of bookshelves and all the people doing research or studying.

Libraries are like Disneyland to me. I love books because I love learning.  I love to read the books, of course, but I also love the way they feel and smell.  I love the weight of a heavy book, the smoothness of a leather-bound book, and the history of a book that has hand-written notes in the margins.  I love it when the pages of a new book stick together. I love the soft, worn edges of old books. I love falling asleep with a book on my chest and waking up to find it's still there, exactly as I left it. When I borrow a book, I wash my hands before I pick it up - every single time - to somehow honour the solemnity of being entrusted with such a precious thing.

As I look around this library, with all the knowledge I could possibly want at my fingertips, I am haunted by the words of I Corinthians 13:2 - "If I... can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, but do have not love, I am nothing."

I can hear God's gentle voice - "What good is all that learning if you don't love people, Anna? What good is it to know so much? Do you amass knowledge for knowledge's sake, or do you amass knowledge to feed your passions and fulfill your potential and calling? That potential and calling ultimately need to make a difference in the world, and the only way to make a difference in the world is to make a difference in people's lives.  Love them, Anna."

It was not an admonition against learning and knowledge; it was an admonition against valuing knowledge above people.

Monday, May 14, 2012

I Corinthians 13: Eloquence or Noise?

"If I speak with the eloquence of men and of angels, but have no love, I become no more than blaring brass or crashing cymbal." - verse 1 (Phillips)

If I close my eyes I can see a thousand news channels playing at once, from airport lounges to homes to electronics stores to Times Square.  I can hear the rhetoric of activists and lobbyists pushing their agendas, the carefully scripted speeches of politicians, and the headlines of newspapers across the world in a hundred different languages - big, black letters that spell out what we need to know.
But see that guy over there, the one waiting for his plane?  He just found out that he has cancer and needs to figure out a treatment plan.  The woman sitting next to you in the theatre?  She's going through a painful divorce and has to sort out a visitation schedule for her children.  The impatient lady behind you in the queue?  Her mom died a few weeks ago and she's not coping so well.  The man who cut you off in traffic?  He's facing a mounting pile of bills because he lost his job awhile back.

We are bombarded with "eloquence" every day.  It can be pretty overwhelming sometimes.  At other times it is welcomed because it numbs us to what's really going on inside and distracts us from facing our deepest feelings.  If we strip it all away and sit in silence - if we are truly alone with ourselves - what will we find?

Our hearts beat for love.  We yearn for it.  The man who found just found out he has cancer - he's scared and needs his mom (and haven't we all been there, longing for that reassurance and strength?).  The woman going through a divorce?  She longs to know that she's not a failure, that she's still attractive and desirable.  The woman in the queue needs someone to love her in her grief.  She wants to be free from the pressure of holding it together and having to perform.  The man who lost his job desperately desires to know that he still has something to offer the world, that he's unique in some way from everyone else on the planet.

We can offer these people our eloquence (and often do), but do we love them?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

I Corinthians 13: Does All Really Mean All?

I keep getting stuck on verse 7.  Notice the wording in these different translations:
  • "It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres." (NIV)
  • "Love puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back, but keeps going to the end." (The Message)
  • "Bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." (NASB)
  • "Love keeps quiet about others' faults, continues to trust, continues with hope, endures everything." (my English translation of the Nuwe Lewende Vertaling)
  • "Covers all things, believes all things, hopes all things, bears all things." (my English translation of the Afrikaans 1983 Vertaling)
  • "Love protects where people need to be protected, love always believes the best of other people and anticipates it from them. Love knows no end." (my English translation of Die Boodskap)
Always trusts... endures all things... puts up with anything... covers all things... always perseveres... bears all things.  When it says "all things," does it really mean all things?

Western society would say otherwise.  Love up to a point.  Love only as long as it's good for you.  Love until you've had enough, can't take it anymore, need to move on.  Love as long as it benefits you and serves you well.  In other words, only give love if you get something in return.  Somehow I don't think that's what Paul (or Jesus) meant, but on the other hand, this "bears all things" seems so... impossible at times.

What about all of the evils in this world?  The betrayals, violence, rejection, blatant harm and hate? Does love endure that?  I don't want to make a blanket statement and incite the wrath of half the world (mostly because I don't know the answer to this question, and even if I did, I can't say that what's right for me to do is also right for everyone else), but some of the most amazing stories - humanity at its best - involved people loving their "enemy", enduring "all things" with a love that goes far beyond my comprehension.

In those cases, I'm not sure where love ends and forgiveness begins, or if they are synonyms of one another.  Maybe it's always like that.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

I Corinthians 13: (Insert Name Here)...

I used to think I was a pretty nice person... until the other day.  I was reading I Corinthians 13, the famous chapter on love.  Most people start out in verse 4 with "Love is patient, love is kind..."

I was reading it in Afrikaans and translating it directly, with the hope of getting a fresh perspective based on the different vocabulary words. I got more than I bargained for.  Somewhere in the middle of reading I got this crazy idea to put my name in the text every time it said "love" or "it"-
Anna is patient.  Anna is kind.  She does not envy, does not boast, is not proud.  Anna keeps no record of wrongs.  She covers a multitude of sins.  Anna bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
I couldn't finish the chapter.  I put the Bible down and wept. I miss the mark so many times. I have only to look at my family and think of how often I've pointed out their mistakes, become frustrated, or generally done the opposite of what Love would do.  And that's just my family!

For three days now I keep trying to get through this passage, inserting my name where it says "love," and each time I end up having to put the book down to go fetch a tissue. I don't write this because I'm having a pity party or feeling depressed about my shortcomings; on the contrary! I'm writing about it because I feel a genuine remorse.  There is a breaking of my heart, a softening, a desire to grow and become more like Love - seeking to honour others more and seeking my own agenda less.  Maybe I'll never get through the passage without crying; that's not necessarily a bad thing.  As long as I'm living there is always room to grow, become, and enlarge my capacity to love.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Tuesday Quote

"Individually and corporately, no matter how noble our words about love may sound, we are conditioned to believe efficiency is everything. Efficiency is the standard by which every person and enterprise is judged in our modern, developed culture. We weigh people's worth by how well they function... By worshiping efficiency, the human race has achieved the highest level of efficiency in history, but how much have we grown in love?" - Gerald May, The Awakened Heart

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Speaking of Spiders...

The very same day that I was imagining spiderweb anchor lines, I drove by the biggest spiderweb I've ever seen...
...complete with the biggest spider I've ever seen:
This is a golden orb weaver spider, and they are amazing for many reasons:
  • They build the biggest web of any spider, measuring up to 1m in diameter.
  • The tensile strength of the web is almost equivalent to kevlar, the strongest man-made material in the world.
  • They build their web for life, so it has to last 2-3 years (other spiders tear down and rebuild their webs many times).
  • Their webs are big and strong enough to trap small birds, who can tear the web in the struggle to become free.  Consequently, the golden orb spider leaves a string of insect carcasses (see the photo above) to alert birds to the web's presence.  It's the equivalent to putting a sticker on a sliding glass door to prevent people from walking into the glass (just think... spiders did it first!).
  • The largest golden orb spider ever found was discovered in... Pretoria!
Even if you don't like spiders, you have to concede that the engineering feat of the golden orb spiderweb is rather amazing!

Thoughts on Anchor Lines

The other day I was picturing myself as a spider in the middle of my web, looking at the anchor lines that securely suspended my web in its place.  I began to wonder, if this were "real" life, to what would my "web" be attached?  In other words, to what is my identity anchored? [1]

I suppose being a wife would be one anchor (identity) line, but there was a time in life when I was not a wife.  Being a mother is another anchor line, but there was also a time when I wasn't a mother.  Musical ability, serving at church, my faith, being a lifelong learner... all of these form my identity and are anchor lines in a sense, but I began to wonder - what if they were all taken away?  Who am I at my core?  Is it possible that these anchor lines can become idols to which I attach TOO strongly?

I began to visualise removing these anchor lines one at a time...  What if I were no longer a musician? My spider web began to wave in the breeze as the anchor lines were removed one by one until it was completely cut loose and I was clinging to my web for dear life, floating through the air wondering where I would land.

As I completed this contemplative imagination, my web landed somewhere dark, but warm and completely secure.  There was a constant rhythm and my web swelled in and out to match this rhythm.  I couldn't see, but for some reason I didn't need to.  I was perfectly content.  My web had landed, stuck to the very heart of God.

For me, it's fine (and healthy) to have attachments and a sense of identity in my relationships or in what I do, as long as I don't forget who I am at my core - a child of God.  As long as I can see the Imago Dei in myself and in others, the rest is all secondary.

1. The original idea of spiderweb anchor lines as a metaphor for lines of power/identity came from a class discussion at Coram Deo.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

I Kings 19: Food for Take-Away

I keep looking back on this chapter with a sense of gratitude - not only for Elijah and his imperfections but for God's compassion and care in light of those imperfections.

I grew up seeing God as a harsh Judge and never as a loving Father.  I knew intellectually that He loved me, but I also believed that He was ready to beat me over the head for every little sin or shortcoming.  I lived in terror of Him.  Every mistake caused me to fear that I would go to hell or that I wasn't really "saved." 

I wish I could go back and tell that scared, little girl a few things:
  1. You don't have to be perfect to be loved by God or to make a difference in the world.
  2. God shows incredible compassion and love in the face of our weaknesses, and appreciates it when we are honest with Him about what we're thinking and feeling.
  3. God is a brilliant strategist and problem-solver (so why try to do it on your own?), and
  4. God even takes care of "silly" little details like a hot meal and drinks.  His nurture and attention to the fine points are unparalleled.
  5. There are times in life when we want to run away, scared like Elijah, and times when we live life with reckless abandon like Elisha.  Accept the season you're in with a sense of awareness and presence.
And then maybe we'd go burn a plough and have a lekker braai... ox tjoppies?

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

I Kings 19: Deleted Scenes

I said in my last post that we had come to the end of the story, and that was true in terms of Elijah.  I Kings 19 actually ends, though, with Elisha entering the scene as Elijah's successor.  Elijah walks up to Elisha, who's ploughing his fields with twelve yoke of oxen.  Elijah puts his cloak around Elisha, and without saying a word Elisha seems to know what that means.  He asks Elijah if he may go and say good-bye to his parents, slaughters one yoke of oxen, and cooks them, using the plough as firewood.

What I love about this story is that Elisha didn't leave anything in place just in case "things didn't work out" as prophet.  He slaughters his oxen and cooks them on his farm equipment.  There's no going back at this point, because there's nothing to go back to.  That's faith!

This chapter is all about Elijah, but I have to say, I like Elisha.  He's got guts.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

I Kings 19: God's Intervention

And now we come to the denouement of the story - all of the pieces come together and we arrive at a well-ordered resolution.  God tells Elijah to anoint two new kings and a successor to himself as prophet to Israel.  I don't think Elijah could have imagined a happier ending - he gets a break from the "perks" of being a prophet, the bad king is kicked out, and God puts into place a contingency plan to protect Elijah.  As if that weren't enough, He also tells Elijah that there are actually 7,000 people who are on His side, so Elijah's not as alone as he thought he was. 

This should be the end of the story, but it leaves me flinging my popcorn and walking out of the theatre.  Why?  Because I have a pressing question:  If God knows the heart, if God doesn't give us more than we can handle, if God provides and takes care of our needs, then why did it take a 40-day trek into the desert and an attempted suicide before God showed up and helped Elijah?  Didn't He know that Elijah was at the end of his rope, scared, tired, stressed, and in need of a very long rest?  Why did God wait until the point of desperation before He intervened? 

I've been thinking about this for more than a week, and my honest answer is:  I don't know!  There may be elements to the story that aren't mentioned in the Bible, factors I haven't considered, or perhaps my culture or perspective colours my Christianity so much that I can't see a reasonable answer. 

The only answer I can hope for - the only one that would make sense to me - is that God waited until Elijah was ready to be honest with himself and with God.  Maybe Elijah was trying to be the hero, striving to do his work and ministry, when on the inside he was slowly wasting away.  And maybe he was in denial about that.  I could see God waiting until Elijah was ready to be transparent and vulnerable with what was really happening in his heart...

But I'm not God, and God often doesn't make sense to me.  I'm learning to be content with that.