Sunday, December 25, 2005

from our hood to yours

Merry Christmas! Or as they say here, "Happy Christmas!"

Christmas was different this year. We played Marco Polo in the pool under balmy African skies. We barbecued fish instead of cooking turkey. We spent it with our missions team instead of our extended family. And we went to Burgers Park (Pretoria's central park) to attend a Christmas program and to help serve food and pass out gifts to the poor and homeless. It wasn't your typical Christmas program or our typical Christmas experience.

The program was what you might call "low budget." The singing was somewhat strained as people from multiple cultures were trying to understand what was going on, let alone understanding the words of the songs. The dramas were simple, sometimes corny, and the acting was marginal. The food and gift distribution was somewhat chaotic, but at least everyone got a hot meal and every kid under 12 got 1 gift. But you know what? There was joy. And there was dancing.

Strained. Simple. Chaotic. It's certainly not what we're used to. But as I sat in the park among a few hundred poor and homeless people, I wondered if we were experiencing a Christmas more like the Christmas Joseph and Mary experienced than the kind of Christmas we ever could attending a well-choreographed performance held in a climate-controlled and omfortable sanctuary. I'm not sure anyone really knew how the day would unfold out there under the clouds and trees in the park. But in the end, everyone got a gift. And that's Christmas.

May Christ touch your heart this Christmas.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

this ain't kansas anymore

A few nights ago Jonathan—our 18-year old—needed to go downtown to catch an all night bus ride out to the coast to work at a youth camp for inner city kids. Jonathan hadn’t driven in the city center yet, and he wanted the practice. (Driving in South Africa is not like driving back home. You drive on the opposite side of the road, the driver sits on the right side of the car, and you have to learn to shift with your left hand instead of your right. All that takes a little getting used to, not to mention learning to drive in a dense urban environment).

Anyway, driving into the inner city of Pretoria at night also has its own unique challenges…the central one being to avoid getting car-jacked. As we were wandering around downtown trying to find the drop off spot, I found myself coaching Jonathan how to drive downtown at night. Just little things, like easing off the accelerator long before you come to a red light so that you never actually come to a stop; rolling through stop signs if you see guys standing anywhere near the intersection; and not getting too close to the car in front of you to avoid getting wedged between 2 cars.
As I got back into the car after Jonathan jumped on the bus, it struck me how interesting it was that our whole conversation about driving in the inner city at night was so nonchalant. It was just so natural, so matter-of-fact. Neither of us thought it was odd or even troubling to be talking about car-jacking and how to reduce the risk. I guess there are some things you just get used to in a place like this…things you adjust to and learn to live with.

But there are other things I don’t know if I will ever get used to…or even if I should get used to them. Last week I was reading an article in the local newspaper about the epidemic levels of rape and abuse in the city. In 1 downtown middle school, 52 girls reported to have been either sexually abused or raped at sometime in their lives. 52 girls in just 1 school! What is going on?! How do you explain that?

Well, there are sociological reasons that attempt to explain it. For example, it is commonly believed in many parts of Africa that having sex with a virgin will cure AIDS, and the younger the girl, the more likely that she will be a virgin. That’s one huge factor. Pervasive substance abuse is another major contributor to abuse.

But I suspect the deeper reason has something to do with the bankruptcy of people’s souls—something old time theologians would have called “depravity.” I find myself wondering if there is some correlation between being deprived and becoming depraved. I wonder if people actually forget what it means to be truly human—human in the sense in which God intended—if they have been treated as less than human for so long. I suspect that when people have been deprived of love for a long time, they actually forget how to love, and then they end up acting with unimaginable cruelty. Maybe that’s what depravity is really all about—forgetting how to love, and maybe that’s really not so odd. Maybe what’s really odd is when we expect people to act so well when they have been loved so poorly.

I’m not sure if there is anything we can do down here that would be more powerful, more transformational, than just loving people well. Loving them selflessly. When Jonathan spends 10 days hanging with inner city kids at camp, he is loving people well. When Laurie sits and talks with teenage girls at a local “place of safety,” a boarding school for kids who have been removed from their parents, she is showing them how to love. When Brittney goes out to a nearby township to spend time with some teenage girls there, something no other white girls that we know of would do, she is showing courageous love.

I’m really proud of my family. They are making their lives count down here in a place that is very different from anything we’ve ever experienced. I’m also proud of Melissa, our 20-year old who is back in San Diego in her 3rd year of college. She is a psychology student, and each week she volunteers at a local elementary school to counsel kids who have been removed from their classrooms because of emotional and behavioral problems. Melissa is also doing her part to change our world…one act of love at a time.

May we learn how to love—really love—and may it become contagious.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

living right side up

Most of the people I know have a pretty well-honed sense of what it takes to fit in. If they’re younger, they know what it takes to be cool. If they’re a little older, they know what it takes to be considered successful. Within the social circles we traffic, we know how to be polite. If we go to church, we know what it takes to be proper.

So what is the right way to live in a country that was built on 350 years of black servitude? What’s the proper thing to do when you are living among white neighbors who grew up under a regime that both created and religiously enforced the systematic separation of blacks and whites under a body of laws collectively know as Apartheid? ("Apartheid" is an Afrikaans word meaning “separation,” which defined the legal and social relationship between blacks and whites from 1948-1990).

For us the right thing to do is to live right side up in an upside down world. The right thing to do is to do the very thing most people won’t do.

One of our favorite times of the week down here is Sunday afternoon. Each week we host a very culturally appropriate braai, (a South Africa BBQ), on our stoop and we invite all the folks we have befriended to join us. What makes it really fun though is that we draw a very culturally inappropriate crowd! There are poor blacks from the nearby township, upper middle class white students from the university, black children of domestic workers, white businessmen, Christian pastors and ancestor worshippers all sitting side-by-side.

Many of the people who come have never experienced an upside down gathering like this before, and you can bet our
neighbors haven’t ever seen a group like this gathered in their neighborhood! It’s just not the “right” thing to do.

But we just happen to think it gives our revolutionary God a great big smile. It gives us one too, so we’ll keep doing it. And in time we’ll see who else wants to live right side up in an upside down world.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

orienteering in the bush

Each year we take our missional community in South Africa out into the bush for an adventure in orienteering. We break them into teams, we give each team a compass and a set of coordinates to follow, and then we turn them loose to hunt for a series of markers and (hopefully) the spot where we will rendezvous for lunch. We haven't lost anybody yet out in the bush, but yeah, we definitely get lost! But that's part of the fun. And part of the learning.

The orienteering experience launches us into a 3-week learning focus we call LifeCompass. Building on the orienteering experience, we guide the community through an intensive self-discovery process in which we each create a new kind of map, a new kind of compass, and a destination worth giving our lives for.

The map is the story of our lives to this point. It's a personal timeline we each create in order to gain a better understanding of where we've come from and how God has been at work in us all along. It also reveals what may lie ahead. As we unpack our life journeys we gain a clearer sense of who we are, what we value, and what we have to offer. These learnings become our compass...a compass that keeps us on track and keeps us from drifting off in directions we were never meant to go. It keeps us focused on the destination we have been created to pursue.

This past week we wrapped up our LifeCompass focus and we listened to each person in the community share their take-aways. It was an awesome and powerful experience. It was even more special this time around as Laurie, Brittney, and especially Jonathan (that's him in the photo) were able to join us throughout much of the process.

In another 6 weeks the participants who have joined us for this leg in their journey will be heading off in different directions. Some will be coming back to South Africa. One will be heading to Venezuela. Another to Dallas. A few will be traveling to Canada to explore a potential next step. But all will be leaving with a clearer sense of who they are and the destination they have been created for.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

into africa

It feels so good to be here! From the first day I began to architect NieuCommunities and help get it launched, I've wanted to live among the young leaders who are getting to experience what we designed. I've made lots and lots of trips to our sites over the past 4 years and I've had a taste of the adventure, but there's just no substitute for being here day in and day out.

We've been having a blast settling into our little house on the Pangani property that also serves as the NieuCommunities Hub in South Africa. The team here had already done so much to fix up the house to have it ready for us...all we really needed to do was unpack our bags, move a few things around, and stock up the fridge and cupboards.

These first two weeks in Africa have been rich. First we were reunited with Jonathan who had already been here for over a month. I "guess" he was glad to see us...but he was sure having a lot of fun before we got here too and he was lovin' his independence! Then we were warmly welcomed by the whole community with a braai (South African BBQ) and a game of cricket...our first ever. (But take note of Laurie's natural swing).

We've been having a blast getting to know the whole NieuCommunities gang down here and having them all over for dinner at the clip of about one person every other night. We've loved hearing their stories and seeing what God has been doing in their lives. In just these first 2 weeks we have...
- participated in several rich times of worship and prayer with the community
- facilitated several training workshops
- attended a volleyball tournament to support one of our participants and the team he is playing with
- attended a very lively 3-hour church service in the black township of Soshanguve
- helped host a braai for our neighbors and another braai for a church group from the township of Soweto
- coached several staff and participants as they work on developing their "Life Compasses"
- planted grass in front of our house
- figured out where all the stores are
- eaten lots of good food
- enjoyed the company of an awesome group of young leaders!

I will use this blog page to capture our experiences this year and keep you up to date. So come back weekly and watch how the journey unfolds.

Email us and let us know how you are doing too. You can use the email function right from this web site. Just click on the little envelope icon at then end of this, or any article, and it'll take you right to an email screen. Looking forward to hearing from you!

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

on my nightstand

"The Story We Find Ourselves In," by Brian McLaren. I finally got around to reading this second book in Brian McLaren's narrative trilogy, and was fascinated and inspired by it. The book should come with this warning though: "If you are content with the theology you're used to hearing in most Christian churches, well, fasten your seat belt." From beginning to end, in very compelling story-telling fashion, McLaren will make you think again about the belief systems you've grown up with. If you haven't read the first book in the trilogy, "A New Kind of Christian," I recommend you start with that one. And if you're still with him after that, give this one a shot. You may not like it all, or agree with it all, (I didn't), but it will certainly cause you to stop and ponder what it really means to be a follower of Christ and a player in the story. If you'd like a little lighter, shorter, and less controversial look at the "story we find ourselves in," pick up John Eldridge's "Epic." I loved it. It covers similar ground, it is written to inspire, and it succeeds!

"The Disappearing Girl," by Dr. Lisa Machoian. If you have teenage girls, this book ought to be required reading! It will take you inside the world of teenage girls, inside their hearts, and inside their minds to give you a first-person glimpse of the challenges girls face every day growing up in this culture. Don't let the subtitle; "Learning the Language of Teenage Depression" scare you off. Your daughter may or may not be depressed. Machoian, who taught psychology at Harvard, unpacks the battles all girls face in our society, battles that will most likely result in some kind of depression if not won. She writes with a lot of hope and gives us parents great suggestions to help our girls navigate through those tough years. My girls are 15 and 19. I just wish I had read this book years ago.

"The History of South Africa," by Leonard Thompson. This sociological history written by Yale historian Thompson is one of the finest books ever written on the formation and evolution of the country we now call South Africa. For those of you who have read James Michener's outstanding historical novel, "The Covenant," but weren't sure how acurate it was, you'll be pleased to know that Michener did his homework. Thompson's scholalry work backs Michener's story telling throughout, and offers a solid and readable historical perspective for anyone visiting, living, or just interested in South Africa.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

spirituality? really?

A recent UCLA national survey of more than 112,000 freshman entering 236 universities and colleges revealed some hard to reconcile findings. For example, 80% of the freshman surveyed claimed to have an interest in spirituality, but only 47% thought it was important to seek out opportunities to grow spiritually. 79% said they believed in God, but just 40% thought it was important to follow religious teaching in everyday life.

Huh? Is that really what it means to be spiritual? Is it enough to have thoughts about faith without any consequential response? Are these the responses of a truly spiritually minded generation? I don’t know. On one hand, I’m inclined to think the study more accurately portrays a large group of people who like the idea of being spiritual far more than they like the idea of actually pursuing spirituality. On the other hand, 47% and 40% respectively still represents a whole lot of people who seem to know that it takes personal engagement, and not just sentiment, to become truly spiritual. That’s encouraging.

I do believe this generation is more spiritually sensitive than mine. But it's not enough to be just sensitive. Sensitivity may help us become more tolerant, and perhaps even more curious. But true spirituality demands personal demands a long obedience in the same direction. It costs us something. But it is oh so worth it.