Greenleaf Reflections


Jun 23, 2005
Umfundisi

Note the date--this is a reflection from last Wednesday, the day after the experience on which my last reflection was based.


June 15, 2005


Luke 19:1-10 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way.  When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today." So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him.  All who saw it began to grumble and said, "He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner." Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, "Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much." Then Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.  For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost."

 

      I met Glenda this morning as the Phakamisa ladies processed out of devotion.  I had intended to go back today, but got caught up and did not make it.  I was to go with Glenda around to visit some of the centers (Educare Centers) where Phakamisa trainees were teaching the preschool aged kids, and to visit the Gogos who were caring for the orphans, as well as, in many ways, the whole communities where they lived.  We got in the car, and made our way toward the townships.  Glenda told us about the morning’s devotion.  Today’s topic seemed to be mostly about rape.  One woman told the story of a 3 year old who had been orphaned first by her mother and father, then her aunt, and was now left with a grandfather, who was raping her.  There is an urban legend that raping a virgin is a cure for AIDS, so rape is common among the children here.  The women from the community report on it at Phakamisa, but in most cases there is no way to stop it.  Another told of a taxi driver (Taxis are the primary mode of transport here for those in the townships.  Taxis here are mini-buses that seat maybe 12-15 and are quite hazardous to ride in or encounter as a driver on the road) who has been raping a class of mentally challenged children who take his taxi to school every morning.  The women were dropping their children off in the morning at the taxi stop--then the taxi driver proceeded to drive them into the bush, have his way, and drop them back off, threatening them so the mothers were none the wiser.  Each story, told second hand, was like someone punching me in the stomach.  Glenda told us of a 5 year old who had been orphaned by his mother, then father, then aunt, and finally grandmother.  He had cared for all of them, hauling water back and forth and scrounging for food when they were in their last days (take a look a few lines above and recall his age).  The Educare teacher from Phakamisa went to look for him when he didn’t show up at her class, and found him digging furiously at his grandmother’s grave.  When asked what he was doing, he replied, “My granny has to get up now.  Who will take care of me?”

      We got to a corner in the townships, where we picked up Jabu.  She was a large lady with a very distinctive laugh, which she blessed us with often.  Her name, Glenda explained, means literally “happiness” (from Jabulani) and it fit her demeanor.  We drove first to one of the centers, where we found a room of grannies waiting for us.  They’d set up a nice display of the things they’d sewn and brought out juice and biscuits (cookies) for us.  Some stood and talked about what they needed and the different situations they were dealing with as caregivers.  They were very happy to have us and it was easy to see that it was a big deal for us to be there to visit them.  Glenda made a lot over the things they’d sewn, and with good reason.  It’s remarkable what they’re able to do with so little.  They also had huge radishes and tomatoes they’d grown in their gardens, which they insisted on Glenda taking with her, despite the fact that they themselves were in such great need.  We left clothes and cakes with them.  We went down and visited the Educare Center, where there were two small classes of children doing some sort of activity, though there was literally nothing for them to use as toys or games.  Teachers are forced to use improvised games and puzzles made of paper or old soda bottles or egg cartons.  The children were precious.  They are so beautiful, and their smiles are so bright.  The teachers brought us several who were orphans, with no one to look after them or take them in.  We stood there and hugged them and smiled at them and spoke happily to them, and they responded with smiles.  The smiles faded in just a moment though, as they returned their gaze to the floor and their eyes returned to pleading for a minute’s peace or shelter, relief from what the world has been all too content to dump on them in their short lives.

      We left there and went to another meeting of grannies.  This time we stopped in an informal section, with houses made of tin and sometimes mud, with no electricity and no running water.  We parked and walked between the homes till we got to a round house with a tin roof and a dirt floor, large for the area, where the grannies had gathered.  Inside they were seated around the wall, with a couch and chair and small table in the center for its only furniture.  They too had their crafts on display.  Glenda introduced Julia (a teacher visiting from Mississippi), and then me.  She introduced me as Umfundisi, which is Zulu for “minister, preacher.”  The ladies all made much fuss when she introduced me as such, and I was honored to bear the title.  We then made time for them to stand and tell us their needs.  The host stood and welcomed us, and in part Zulu, part English began to speak about the significance of our visit.  She recalled the story of Zaccheus, and how Jesus had told him to come down out of the tree in order to meet him, and she thanked me for coming to be in her home. She spoke of how Jesus had fellowshipped with Zaccheus in his home, and that if they buried her today she could die happy because I had been there to visit.  Those of you who know me might know also that I am not often speechless.  I have no words for the effect her words had on me.  The ladies went around and talked about their problems, and Glenda took notes to take back with her.  We stayed only a short while, but the lady who hosted us asked us to step into a house of another woman in the community who wasn’t home.  It was a small hut, with a bed and a shelf with a little food, another shelf with nothing on it, and a small spot where a fire had been, there was no door and the walls were made of thin sheets of tin.  It might have been 8’ x 15’.  Seven are living there.

      The three of us moved on to another of the sites where the traveling teachers meet, and found a class.  They were meeting on a blanket under a tree.  When we got there the children came running up and grabbed our legs and gave us hugs.  The wind was blowing and the cold cut through to the bone.  Some of the children had on track suits (like pajamas) that had been made at the trackathon (a clothing drive were churches gather to sew them for the township kids), and some were in shorts and t-shirts, freezing in the cold wind.  All of them had snotty, crusty noses, pitiful and beautiful all at once.  This was their preschool, on a dusty blanket with no shade and no shelter from the wind.  We dropped off some clothes and a bag of bread and listened to them sing us a few songs.  The teacher again pointed out two orphans and once again, the kids bore it on their faces, the pain of being passed from person to person and being hungry most of the time.  To look into their eyes is like looking into the sun--so bright, but so painful it hurts you to look.  And likewise, you find yourself looking at them, but not directly, so you can avoid the full force of their suffering.  I had to force myself to see beyond how cute they were.  Behind their smiles one can easily uncover suffering and pain for which there are not words.  It takes only a moment, only a lingering look into their eyes to see it and to change you forever.  Still, to be such a short time, simply looking at them and really taking them in is one of the most painful things I have endured.

      Glenda left the supplies (bread and clothes) there and we made our way back to Emmaus (see the second to last entry).  There were Gogos there who were waiting with their handmade items and vegetables, which Glenda hadn’t realized.  We went inside to find two classes of children not much different from the ones we’d just left.  They had a bit more to work with than the other two.  Glenda realized that she should leave the supplies she left at the other class with the Gogos that were at Emmaus, so she drove back up the road to pick them up.  By the time she got there, they were gone.  It could not have been more than 10 minutes—the kids were all chomping on the bread, probably all some of them would get to eat today or for a few days.  We talked to the grannies for a few minutes, but we were pressed for time.  We left and made our way to the local monastery for lunch.

            I spent the afternoon with another local pastor, accompanying her to all of her various visits and appointments, a confirmation class and a Bible study.  My mind wasn’t in it.  I could not get the morning’s images or stories out of my head, and I felt like I was walking around in a fog.  Mercifully, we got finished at about 8 (12 hours after I’d originally gotten to the church this morning) and we headed home.

            I cannot put into words for you what I have seen today, though I have tried.  I believe the human race has a unique ability to deeply feel the suffering of our brothers and sisters, and that we have sufficiently numbed ourselves to that ability, because the intense suffering of others is so difficult to bear.  I have seen people who were poor before, I have been among them, and spoken with them . . .or so I thought.  Today was different.  It is beyond the commercials you have seen, the images on your television that send you scrambling for the remote or bring about a fleeting minute of sadness until you are distracted by some happier thought.  I am not talking about being a spectator, driving past or looking at—I am speaking of an encounter with suffering that is deeper than surface emotion.  This is the kind of suffering that, once you have borne witness to it, will not leave you, will not be chased away by sentimentality or the comforts of home.  This is God, forcing your eyes open and forcing the inner most walls of your heart open, behind which are the most vulnerable and deeply human aspects of your being.  God peels the layers back till you’re exposed, that person you were who has always been an agent of this suffering because of your silence and your blindness to it.  This is Jesus Christ, confronting you in Biblical fashion on a dusty hillside, challenging you with the call to discipleship, one so demanding and convicting it takes your breath and leaves you stammering at what you will have to give up to follow Him.  You end up like those poor saps on the road, like the rich young ruler, who dared ask Jesus what it would cost to follow Him into the Kingdom, only to be crushed by his answer: “All of it.”  This is the Holy Spirit, fixing your eyes on the one child in the corner whose eyes are dark and round and look ready to explode with tears at any moment, until you become a mirror of his restrained tears and pent up sorrow.  There, with your heart now exposed, God leaves the deep pain behind the eyes, the sad irony in the smiles, and the desperation of people who long for healing, for relief, for the peace of Christ.  With any luck the images agitate you and eat at you until their suffering becomes your own, that you might bear their burdens with them and in the end be molded into the likeness of Christ.  It might, and has for me, made the way we do “church” incomprehensible and foreign, maybe even irrelevant.  What is a ‘church’, who is a ‘Christian’, who has not at least the will to see these who suffer so deeply, who refuses to make themselves vulnerable enough to have their hearts broken in the name of Christ and His people?  What are they? They are a dusty hillside encounter short of a life worth living.

Tonight we drove back down the road into Pinetown, and the twists and the turns coming down the hill gave us a view over the valleys on either side of us.  There were lights all around, but one huge black area in the midst of the light.  It was a township, where there was no electricity.  I thought again of the lady who’d made me Umfundisi (these titles are given, not earned), who had been so thrilled at my presence in her home as to bestow such an honor on me.  She had shared her suffering and her faith with me in a way that left me fumbling for a way to think and feel, or a way to begin to process the magnitude of her statement.  “If they bury me today, I will be happy because you have been in my home.” My eyes were fixed on the darkness below, where the candescence of the world cannot be found, but where the light of Christ burns brightly.  She had not known it, but she had relayed the perfect Scriptural story.  Today Zaccheus came down out of his tree—I gave up my bird’s eye view of Jesus and looked Him in the eye, came down to meet Him, to spend time with Him, to be in His home.  May salvation come to all our houses.  May the Son of Man come again to seek out and save the lost.  Zaccheus—Church—hurry, come down, and meet Christ Jesus.


Posted at 03:28 am by furrdawg
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Jun 20, 2005
Christmas in June

The first of two reflections on experiences I had last week.  I do apologize for the gap between updates, and promise to get more things up to read.  Thanks so much for those who continue to read this and send me notes of support.  They mean a great deal to me, and I am strengthened each day by the knowledge that there are people at home who are thinking and praying over me as I spend my summer here.  Please know that things are well, and that I am having a great time. 

Christmas in June

June 14, 2005 

 

Pinetown Methodist Church has what one might call a church “campus.”  It really looks much like a college—the sanctuary is situated to the left, as soon as one enters the gate (the church, like all other buildings, has a wall and a gate in front because of crime), and attached to it is a two-story building with individual classrooms and offices.  It was formerly the building in which John Wesley School (the school the church started and still supports) was housed, but is now home to Phakamisa (pug-a-MEES-a), the church’s ministry that serves the poorest of the poor in a variety of capacities.  They hand out clothes and food, but most importantly they teach women from the townships to teach preschool age children in the community various things that will give them a head start in the classroom.  Many of these women would be caring for the community’s children anyway, so they are equipped (at Phakamisa) with the knowledge and skills they need to make the time they spend with the kids enriching.  There are various “educare centers” in the townships (when I say "township" I am referring to informal settlements of extremely impoverished people who live in improvised homes, made of mud or scrap metal) that are supported by Phakamisa.  There are also woodworking classes offered each day for the men in the community, along with gardening, sewing, and beadwork courses for the older women (grannies, or “Gogos” they call them) who are often looking after grandchildren who are AIDS orphans or other orphans from the community.  The campus continues around with a Hospitality Centre (Fellowship Hall) along with another Hall to which are attached the church offices.  In the center is a courtyard with a large shade tree and a kiosk, where various information can be collected after the Sunday services. 

            Every morning, between 8:30 and 9:30, the campus is filled with the sounds of Zulu singing.  If one is near an open door or window, the voices find their way to you.  I have known ever since I got here that those were the sounds of the women of Phakamisa gathering for morning devotion, but until today I had not taken part in one of them.  I had been looking forward to this day on my calendar so that I would finally know what it was that produced this singing, and I had the sense that there was something special about the ministry of the program.  We gathered and Glenda (Director of Phakamisa) found a woman to translate for me.  We began, of course, with a song and Glenda opened with a prayer.  Glenda had explained to me that the bulk of the devotion time is spent allowing different women to come forward and make prayer requests.  There was one candle lit in the center of the altar rail, and others on either side of it, about 12 in total.  They were to be lit by the women for family members or friends who had died over the previous few days.  The procession of ladies began, and though they spoke in Zulu and I was hearing their stories from someone translating for me, their pain was clear.  Each one came forward to ask for prayer over whatever tragic or desperate situation was ongoing in their lives.  Many involved someone around them who had been shot or were victims of other violent crimes.  Almost all had neighbors or children who died, leaving orphans (sometimes their own grandchildren behind with no one to care for them).  Most who came forward were caring for a number of children orphaned by crime or by AIDS, some as many as 8 or 9.  Some were taking on new ones, because someone had just succumbed to an AIDS related illness.  They wore their sadness on their faces, and the gasps and whimpers from the women in the pews told me that someone else had been taken too soon, another child had been left alone and hungry, and another family had been ripped apart.  The translation of their words was almost unnecessary.  Without fail the women stood there in strength and told their stories.  When they’d finished they would turn and make their way to the altar, where Glenda would join them to place her arm around them, light a candle, and say a prayer.  All the while the women of the congregation began a song, often one with a happy tone, though it was impossible to tell without knowing the words.  These were the sounds that filled the courtyard, the praise of women bearing burdens the world knows not.  I did not count one who was not reduced to tears at the altar; they would sob, the sort of weary, tired tears one has when the pain and suffering has been so great and so long that the spirit can hardly take it in nor find any other way to express it.  Shoulders slumped and shaking, hands gripping faces, another candle lit, and more voices raised in praise.  The devotion lasted maybe an hour and it became so heavy to me, witnessing the pain of these women who will return to their communities, where there is no relief in sight.  I knew that eventually their stories would end for me and their pain would stop confronting me, and I would be able to breathe again.  But the orphans will be there, hungry, and tomorrow someone else will pass and leave behind another child who needs a home and these women will again take them in, while I have long since come back to this laptop to write more about the day’s activities, with my stomach full and no worry of ever having a life like theirs.  The collective pain was so great—I watched as each candle was lit, how it represented a life now gone, and children left alone.  Each candle burned at me it seemed, angrily, an active burn that would not leave me alone as I watched these women who were bearing such heavy burdens as they laid them at God’s feet, and still managed to sing praise.  For some reason, as I watched the flames burning steadily, I found myself thinking of the Advent candles and the Advent wreath.  The candles weren’t arranged in a circle, and we’re a long way from Christmas.  The candles burned with longing, with hoping, with pain and suffering, and most of all with the desperate need for Christ’s presence, for his coming to dwell among us.  What I saw today was a different sort of Advent, without the nostalgia of Bethlehem or the cold air or the warmth of family and friends.  It was instead desperation, pain, suffering, longing, the deep hope and desire for God to bring about what God has promised, peace, justice, hope, healing, comfort, life.  Another candle was lit, another life gone, more cries of desperation.  The stories finally stopped because of time.  Twelve candles were lit.  Maybe 7-8 women had spoken.  There were about 80 in the church.  We’d only heard a bit of what was there in those pews, the pain and hope all present at once in these women who have strength beyond comprehension.  It came out in their praise, in the singing, which poured out the open windows as we processed out.

            As I left the Church campus at the end of the day, I saw the women headed down the sidewalk toward home, the food packs and clothes they’d received at the Church balanced so beautifully and amazingly on top of their heads and under their arms, and the weight of brokenness and death and violence and pain and sadness added to it, etched into the lines on their faces and slowing their tired walk back to those with no other place to turn except to these elderly women with a small offering from the Church.  The candles on the altar burned again in my mind, and as I watched the tragedy and beauty unfold before me I could only think of the simple Advent prayer—“Come, Lord Jesus.”


Posted at 06:49 am by furrdawg
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Jun 7, 2005
On the Road to Emmaus

June 5, 2005

Luke 24: 13-51

“Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened.  While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, "What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?" They stood still, looking sad.  Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, "Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?" He asked them, "What things?" They replied, "The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him." Then he said to them, "Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!  Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?" Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.  As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, "Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over." So he went in to stay with them.  When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?" That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together.  They were saying, "The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!" Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.  While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you." They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.  He said to them, "Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have." And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.  While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, "Have you anything here to eat?" They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence. Then he said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you-- that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled." Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.  And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high." Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.”

           

Today Mpumi took Julia Ridgway (a teacher visiting from Mississippi) and I to Emmaus Methodist Church, which is all black and Zulu speaking, for morning worship.  We drove out of Pinetown and into the surrounding hills in the warm, early morning sun.  It was my first trip to the areas surrounding Pinetown, and we were in a rural area very quickly.  The road wound up the hill, curving back and forth, overlooking hillside neighborhoods with small houses and into neighborhoods with temporary housing, the small shacks that characterize townships.  We passed women carrying large jugs of water on their heads, children dancing barefoot in the streets, and women dressed in red and white, on their way to the church.  The women wear red and white dresses with white hats as a mark of their belonging to some sort of women's league, and the men ties and jackets.  We pulled up to the church, which was a small building with a tin roof.  The sign was the only way to know that this building was, in fact, a church.  We parked and were met by the steward of the congregation, a short lady in a red outfit.  She greeted us and welcomed us inside, where a few had already gathered.  They began to sing happily, which is the way of welcoming visitors, Mpumi told us.  They swayed and clapped, and Mpumi made her way around, greeting each of the people gathered there.  Julia and I stood awkwardly, completely unaware of what the song was saying; I noticed the astonished looks from the children, who seemed amazed to see a white person in their midst.  We sat down and more gathered, singing and swaying, until the preacher arrived.  She was a short, older lady, with an unassuming presence.  Mpumi told us the order of worship, and that we would be introduced following the offering.  The Methodist churches in the small townships still use a set liturgy, a holdover from the missionary Christianity that was brought to them, though it is all in Zulu.  Certainly it was no stand still, emotionless, ordinary liturgy.  Everything was sung, the swells of their singing becoming loud and emotional.  They had taken a Christianity that was given to them by colonists as a means of control, though it was in the name of ‘evangelism’—they had taken this form of the faith and made it their own, singing happily things like the Apostles Creed.  Their singing was emotional, happy and painful, bold and humble, all at once.  No words I could find would do justice to the sounds that filled the place.

I looked around me, at the tree branches that made up the roof trusses and the light peaking through the tin roof, the carpets that were pieced together to partially cover the concrete floor.  Outside the door were women walking down the street, still with large jugs of water on top of their heads, so heavy it would seem they would collapse under the weight.  The music swelled again to a spirited pitch, and I looked around at the faces, the small children still watching these strangers who’d shown up, the women and men singing this liturgy with the fervency of a spiritual.  The music filled that small space , and I looked out the door again at the dilapidated shack across the street, then over top of it to the crest of the hill next to us.  The music must have carried across the town, maybe even down the hillside.  The light was bright from the door.  It seemed like we were worlds away from anything, lost in a place where only worship mattered.  The sun was an intrusion that reminded me that in fact there was a world outside, and it made me notice how much their worship had drawn me in.  There was no time to keep and no rush for Sunday lunch.

As the service progressed, the singing became more and more spirited; everyone swayed or danced, one rang a bell, and still others pounded on a sort of cushion that serves as a percussion instrument.  I closed my eyes, and felt the music swell over my head, echoing against the tin roof.  I had no idea what they were saying, none, but I felt the music down deep, the echoes and moans from the various parts of the congregation building in a low roar of praise.  They asked Julia and I to come forward and introduce ourselves, which we did.  They again sang our welcome.  We took our seats, and the preacher carried on with the sermon, on Exodus 14—Moses leading the Israelites across the parted Red Sea.  I had no clue what the sermon was about or what her point was, but I could feel the relationship of a poor and sick people with that of a people long under the slavery of Pharoah, weary and tired of the long journey to freedom, before God intervened and made a way out of no way.  I prayed that the words might simply find their way to God, that whatever was being said in the loud shouts of prayer and praise may find God’s ear and be heard.  I looked around again at this small group of poor people gathered together in a forgotten place to worship God and proclaim the truth of Jesus Christ, and it struck me that this must be the closest we can get to the early church, the first Christians who were a forgotten people and were relegated to the margins.  I have never felt the presence of God so strongly, or the notion that this must have been what Christ came to be, a peace in the midst of chaos to those the powerful and the wealthy had long forgotten.  Here is where it is, I thought, the dwelling place of God, Jesus’ kind of people, where we might have found him then and where we might find him now.  The singing started again following the sermon, and we all knelt to pray.  Each person prayed their own prayers aloud, creating a confusion of words, some impassioned and loud, others subdued and quiet.  We rose, sang again, and Mpumi told us it was time to go.  We left, and as we walked down the short aisle, we were bid farewell by smiling faces and happy waves.  The steward gave us each a hug.  We got in the car as the people carried on with their meeting, and drove back down the dusty road into Pinetown.

            Today, like those first disciples, Christ appeared to me on the road to Emmaus.  I saw His hands and His feet, looked into His eyes and saw His joy and His sadness, His smile and His suffering, and my mind was opened so that I might understand the Scriptures.  It was not a ghost.  I am a witness to these things.  What they said is true—He lives.





 


Posted at 05:31 am by furrdawg
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May 30, 2005
Week One!

For now, I'm just going to be posting some daily reflections, maybe a week's worth at the time.  Once I'm engaged more in the ministries here at PMC, I'm sure this will become more focused.  Things are going very well, and the people here are great.  It promises to be a very exciting summer.

May 22-23, 2005

I met up with the three other students from Duke traveling with me at the airport in Atlanta, and we took the 10:30 flight to Johannesburg. I was surprised at how full the plane was; it was occupied mostly by a group of undergraduates from Hope College in Michigan.  I’m not sure what kind of trip they were on, but I gathered it was some sort of mission trip/educational experience.  The other group that was well represented were hunters, making the trip to do some big game hunting in the wild life parks.  The flight was not as bad as I expected.  Each passenger had a fairly extensive selection of movies to choose from, as well as games, tv shows, and radio stations to view on the monitor in the headrest in front of you.  I set my watch to South African time (six hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time) as soon as we took off so I could try to adjust myself to the time as soon as possible.  We ate lunch and I watched a few movies, and I managed to fall asleep for a short power nap.  By that time we were in the Cape Verde Islands, where we landed long enough for the crew to be switched out and the food restocked and then took off. 

We landed around 9:30 or so.  We got off the plane on the runway, which I found unusual for a jet that large, and took a bus to the terminal.  I chuckled when my foot hit the pavement—I never thought I’d be walking off a plane in Africa.  The weather was better than I expected, about 60 degrees.  We took the bus to the terminal, waited to get through “Passport Control” and then at baggage claim.  We survived all that without any trouble, and Customs was really fairly easy as well.  I suspect US Customs on the way back will be a bit more of a hassle.  It must’ve been about 11 or so when we got done making our way through customs.  Rev. Dion Forster from John Wesley College was there to pick us up.  It was good to see a welcoming face, especially one that was sympathetic to our exhaustion.  We were stopped by a crew from South African Airways magazine, who was doing a story on people visiting South Africa.  They snapped a picture and got some information and we went on our way.  We got some rand (South Africa’s currency) from the ATM there, and Dion put us in the van to bring us to John Wesley College.  We drove out of Johannesburg—I was under the impression that the seminary was in Johannesburg, but it’s actually in Pretoria, the capitol, about 45 minutes from the airport in Johannesburg.  Dion drove us, and pointed out various things along the way.  It is easy to see the country’s beauty just from driving down the interstate.  Rolling hills and clear skies make it seem like you can see for miles, and we passed some beautiful new neighborhoods.  Money is now the determining factor for those neighborhoods, as opposed to race, so they are integrated, but still primarily white.  The medians were all burned over—Dion told us that often during the dry season the foliage in the median gets so dry that a cigarette tossed from a moving car will ignite the whole thing.  Of course, there was the oddity of driving on the left side of the road, something I don’t think I’m at all interested in doing, though Dr. Storey wants us to be able to drive ourselves in Cape Town when we’re there.  We shall see.

We got to the seminary and were briefly introduced to some of the students.  It is small, very small, but is really beautiful in many ways.  One gets the impression that what is here is a small group of Christians who want very much to learn and are working very hard at it with limited resources.  The vibe here is a very happy one.  Everyone was extremely welcoming, and Dion kind of rushed us through so that we could get to our rooms and get some rest.  We’re staying in cottages here, which are pretty nice.  They’re nicely furnished, with a TV, twin beds, and a bathroom.  I don’t much like the shortage of phones there seems to be.  I guess that’s something I’ll just have to get used to.  We put our bags down and our hosts left us for the afternoon.  We promptly crashed.  I slept for maybe 2-3 hours, and it could have been more, but I didn’t want to get to a point where I couldn’t sleep tonight.  Somehow, I don’t think that will be a problem.  We’ll be picked up for dinner shortly, then we’re pretty much free for the evening.  Chapel service begins at 7:30am tomorrow, and I believe we have a fairly full day of visiting classes, etc, after that.  On Wednesday, we’re supposed to be traveling with some students to the places where they do field work, and then on Thursday Ryan and I catch flights out of here.  I do wish I could check my email and find a phone.  More later. .  .

            Dinner was great.  We ate with the students here, most of whom seem to be men in their early 30s.  I was at a table with all females, which of course, got me some jokes from the guys from JWC.  After dinner I got into a conversation with Zakele—it was amazing how quickly the conversation took off.  It wasn’t long before we were talking about our families and our education, the issue of gays in the church and the convenience of buying things on ebay.  Zakele is kind and funny, very sharp and intelligent.  I was captivated by the ease with which he spoke on the various topics that came up, and I was struck how similar his calling seemed to mine, like God had spoken to us across time and space but in the same way.  R.G. and Ryan (two of the other Duke students) and I all stood outside with the guys from the school and laughed and joked like we’d been around each other for years.  That was due mostly to the kinship between the guys from the seminary and the way they welcomed us.  They made jokes about race—“this guy is colored, he is no good!” This guy is black—watch out for your wallet!” They explained the racial dialogue to us, and it is clearly much more on their minds than it is our own.  Rather than remaining an awkward topic to be avoided, it is often at the forefront of conversation.  The students here are amazing people.  They have sacrificed a great deal to be here and go through difficult training, and are pleased to be involved in all of it.  They live apart from their wives for months at the time, and yet see God working in all of it.  I am excited about getting to spend more time with them.  Chapel is coming early in the morning and then classes with the folks, then dinner with Dion.  Thanks be to God for the fullness of these days.

 

May 24, 2005

            Today has been very full.  It started this morning at 7:30 with chapel service.  The chapel is very beautiful—it is situated at the top of a steep hill and overlooks a beautiful valley.  The songs were sung mostly in native African languages, Khoso, S Sotho, Tswana, or Afrikaans but the spirit was easily to feel.  I was amazed at the joy and enthusiasm at such an early time of day.  We sang two hymns in English, Amazing Grace and How Great Thou Art, and prayed in various languages.  A student preached a very powerful sermon on Romans 5:1-5, challenging us to love, as the mark of a faithful Christian.  He was impressive and enthusiastic.  We had communion as well, which was powerful, kneeling at the altar in a chapel on top of a small hill, with the place filled to the ceiling with music.  We came from there and ate breakfast with the students, then met with Dion for a while to talk about the program here.  It is much more focused on the practical—students spend a year in a cross cultural setting, where they are immersed in the opposite culture.  They spend two years working in the field, where they learn to do all sorts of practical things.  They seem much more equipped to actually practice ministry than those of us who go to seminary in America.  After we met with Dion we had some down time before lunch.  At lunch I got into a conversation with a student about the image of America abroad.  He seemed somewhat envious of America and what it represents, but also critical of our consumerism, our hunger for power, and the war in Iraq.  He held the tensions better than I do.  I expected to learn more about what is wrong with my country while I was here, but instead I’m getting a lesson in some of the things we have managed to do right.  Still, it is easy to see how the suffering of some people is directly related to American economic and foreign policy.  Thankfully, people do manage to separate America from President Bush.  They like the country and the people, but as for our government, I have not found one person who does not have a profound dislike for his administration. 

We attended a New Testament class in the afternoon.  Today’s focus was Romans, and it was a solid lecture on the background of the letter.  From there we went for a ride with Dion in and around Pretoria.  He took us to a township, or an “informal settlement” as they’re politely called.  We passed small houses on the way, maybe 12 x 12, and our jaws dropped when Dion told us that the people who lived there are considered middle class.  They were constructed by the government in an attempt to provide some adequate housing.  We drove on to the village, which were houses made of tin and cardboard and scrap wood for as far as one’s eyes could see.  In some places they are literally touching each other.  There is no running water or electricity or sewage.  They often catch fire; it starts with one and spreads to the others.  A dozen families can lose all they have in a flash.  It was poverty on a grand scale.  The striking part of it was the immensity.  There thousands of these shacks, row after row in a field that seemed to go on forever.  I’m not sure I have processed it completely yet, but I’m sure I’ll get more exposure to it at Pinetown.  We left the township and drove into downtown Pretoria, where we saw the State Building and the University of South Africa.  The downtown area was cool, and in many ways wasn’t much different from what I expected.  I was amazed that we could drive right up to the State Building—much different from the security in the U.S.   

            He drove us back to the school and we had some down time.  I walked around and took some pictures, then got into some good conversation with Lottie, R.G., and Ryan.  We’ve begun to bond and I’ve appreciated their company.  We had dinner tonight with Dion and his family—wife Megan and daughter Courtney.  Courtney is 5 and a beautiful child, and his wife is very kind.  Dion is becoming a good friend.  He truly enjoys having us here and engaging in conversation, and he is an amazing guy.  He has been a great host to us, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting to know him.  I will miss him and the students when we leave here.  Dion is very passionate about South Africa and the effort to reconcile the people here.  His introduction to the country has been very valuable. 

            I haven’t slept very well yet here, hopefully that will change tonight.  I haven’t had a nap today, so I should be good and tired.  Tomorrow is another full day.

 

May 25, 2005

            This morning we woke up early to go with the students to their field work.  Ryan and I went with about 7-8 who do visitation at Pretoria Academic Hospital, and R.G. and Lottie went to an “Old Age Home.” The hospital is state owned—in South Africa health care is divided into a public and private sector just as it is in America, but the disparities are more pronounced.  The hospital looked very much like a scene from the 1950s in America.  We met in a group with the directors of the pastoral assistance program for a small devotion, which ended up in a heated discussion about the nature of the devil and evil, which I found a little heavy for that early in the morning.  The leaders were all older Afrikaaners, which are whites of Dutch descent who were the driving force behind apartheid. I was interested to see how they treated the students, who are all black.  The relationship seems to be good natured, but it felt a little paternalistic still.  One woman was staunch in defending her point of view, but in a way that made what the students were saying seem like they were in need of direction.  It felt strange.  I then went with Michael who is colored, and Ralff, who is also colored, but a mix of black and colored.  Here colored is not a derogatory term.  It refers to anyone is not clearly distinguishable as black or white, those of mixed race or of Indian descent.  It is often difficult to look at someone and tell the difference.  The black and colored guys definitely have fun with each other about their respective races.  We went up to a general ward, where there were people with all sorts of illnesses, and simply approached the patients.  The scene was a little surprising.  There between 15 and 18 patients all in one large room, each bed just a few feet from the others, eliminating any hope of privacy.  We talked with one man who looked very ill.  He began speaking in English, before Ralff offered to converse in Afrikaans.  Almost everyone here speaks English, but for some it is a 3rd or 4th language and they are more comfortable conversing in their native tongue.  Both Ralph and Michael were native Afrikaans speakers, so they conversed well.  Ralff translated for me as Michael conversed with the man speaking Afrikaans.  He told us how he was ill with cancer and with high blood pressure, and how the doctors had told him there was nothing else they could do for him.  He also shared how they told him that he had three weeks to live—that was back in 1996.  He talked of God and of his faith, and how it had sustained him through his illness.  He was clearly in great suffering, and yet continued to speak of his hope that God would bring healing.  In all, the faith of all the patients seemed to be very strong.  They seemed much less interested in the doctor’s prognosis and more interested in speaking of God and praying with us.  We spoke with one nurse, whom Ralff and Michael engaged in conversation.  She told us how she had converted to Christianity to Islam.  Ralff underwent a similar conversion and spoke candidly with her about the difficulties.  Ralff and Michael were very good with the patients, and very good at relating and caring for all of them.  We came back together with the group and shared our experience and debriefed.  We left and drove back to JWC in time for lunch.

            I had lunch with the students, and I spoke with Tabang, the preacher from yesterday about America.  He wants to visit the U.S. and wanted to know what U.S. cities to visit.  I mentioned New York, Washington, Florida, and New Orleans, and described each place to him.  I couldn’t help noticing the look on his face, as if I was describing some sort of dream land.  I hope while I’m here I begin to understand what it is about America that seems to captivate the people here.  Is it our money and technology?  Or is it something else, intrinsic to our way of life? 

            Today we visited the mall in Pretoria with Dion, so we could buy some various things we needed for the summer.  I was amazed at the size of the mall—it was bigger than any I had been to in the States with the exception of the Mall of America in Minneapolis.  We spent some time talking with Dion, who is someone I have come to admire.  The facilities at the seminary are far, far away from ideal.  Their main classroom is in a building across the street that they rent from the state theater, even though it was originally the property of the Methodist Church.  It is in poor condition, and the computer lab is made up of old computers donated by the Divinity School that often don’t work.  Dion makes the most of his limited resources, and so do the students.  He is passionate about the curriculum and his relationship with the students, and despite his hectic schedule knows each of the students personally.  He is on staff at the University of South Africa, is Dean of the College, working on his PhD, has a wife and a 5 year old, and still managed to expend much of his time and effort on us.  I’m grateful we got to know him.

            Tonight we went to see a movie, again at the mall.  We saw Red Dust, a film about a fictional case brought before the TRC here in South Africa.  It was a chance to see how that has worked its way into the consciousness of the people, so much so that it is even part of popular culture.  At the mall, we even saw a chess set with the opposing sides made up of characters in the struggle.  On one side were Nelson and Winnie Mandela as king and queen, Desmond Tutu as bishop, and ANC militants as the pawns.  On the other side were white like PW Botha and Verwoerd, and the Secret Police were the pawns.  Dion was surprised to see something that flippant, and I must say I was too.  Ryan and I said our goodbyes to Dion, since we will be leaving early in the morning for the airport to fly to Cape Town (Ryan) and Durban.  I still can’t get to sleep at a reasonable time.  I have to finish packing, and thankfully take my last bath in the bathtub here.  There are separate faucets for hot and cold, and me trying to bathe is not a pretty sight at all.  Tomorrow is an early rise.

 

May 26, 2005

           

We got up a little past 6 to get ready to get to the airport.  The airports are much different, because you don’t board from the terminal.  You take a bus out to the runway and board the plane from there.  Ryan and I got there early enough to get breakfast and I spent some time sending emails since it was a wireless hotspot, as it’s called here.  Security is nowhere close to what it is in America.  I ran my bag through the X ray machine where one person was watching a monitor.  The rest of the security personnel were engaged in conversation and paid no attention to me as I passed through.  Quite a change from Atlanta where I got the full search.  The flight from Durban was an easy one.  I haven’t flown many of the nicer domestic airlines at home, but SAA seems nicer than any I know.  I’ve enjoyed flying with them, though one hour is better than 18 no matter what kind of plane you’re on.  I got my bags and was met by Glenda Howieson, a petite lady who greeted me with a bright smile.  It was clear she has a lot of energy.  We hit it off very well, and began talking.  The weather is unbelievable here.  This is winter, and it is like the perfect spring day, breezy and in the upper 70s with plenty of sun.  She informed me that Durban might just as well be referred to as heaven.  As we drove, I began to see what she meant.  The city is sprawling and diverse, just minutes from breathtaking coastline.  (I sound like I’m writing for one of those airline magazines.)  We drove to Pinetown, where she quickly pointed out some landmarks, then we came to the Pinedene Lodge, my home for the summer.  It reminds me of an old hotel/inn.  My room is tiny, but it’s enough.  I have a closet, a desk, a twin bed, a sink, and thankfully. . . . .a shower!  The toilet is down the hall, which is sort of odd, but they’re clean, so that seems fine.  Downstairs is a small restaurant where I will eat.  There is a larger hotel in front of us that is owned by the same people, but more expensive.  Glenda left me to unpack.  It was great to get things out of my suitcase and be somewhere that felt semi-permanent.  I took a shower, which was great, then Glenda came back for me with Gordon.  Gordon is an older guy who is active in the church, and the two of them took me to lunch.  We immediately got into the conversation about America and its foreign policy, which I’ll admit is a conversation I’m looking to have with the people here.  They both have a hard time understanding the point from which Americans come to see war.  Glenda said she was so shocked to see a first world country treat a problem with third world methods.  I was struck by that.  She’s right.  They were interested to hear about the emotions and the mindset of the people in America that led to the support of the war in Iraq.  They’d made plans to take me out this afternoon, but wanted to leave the choice to me.  I insisted that they choose what we did, because, like I told them, whatever we do or see will be new to me. 

            They chose to take me to the Victoria St. Market, a downtown section of Durban occupied almost all Indians and blacks.  It was similar in some ways to what you would find in Chinatown in NYC, in the different street vendors and people selling things.  I loved it.  As soon as you walked in you could smell the curry, in the food that was cooking and the in the spices that the vendors were selling on the streets.  There were many shops selling African touristy style gifts, which I will have to go back to.  We spoke for awhile with one spice salesman, who got us to try several of the seasonings.  He’d sold.  We laughed at the “mother-in-law killer” hot spice that seemed to be common at all of them.  The place was a wash of African Zulu culture and Indian arts, crafts and spices, and we were a clear minority.  We went into the fish market, where they sold various sorts of seafood and meats in a remarkably unsanitary form.  The smell was awful, and I found the source quick.  We passed chicken feet and the heads of calves hanging from hooks.  I watched one young guy in a butcher shop cutting up the head of a calf for display.  They kept the skin and the eyes in—it was disgusting.  There were other various organs I couldn’t begin to identify laying around and hanging in long bloody strands from different hooks.  You name the part, and it was there for you to take home and eat it if you wanted to.  I’d seen the whole ducks in the windows of Chinatown but this was a long way from that.  We walked back out onto the street and walked up and down, passing Indian vendors and black people selling all sorts of things.  The hustle and bustle was great.   It had a big city feel, but so different because the people were so different, people of all colors passing one another on the street, weaving in and out of the stores and stands.  We walked into Emmanuel Cathedral, a Catholic cathedral right in the heart of downtown.  It is surrounded by all that I just described.  We walked in and it was surreal.  It was as if the noise and movement outside had stopped and there was a silence and peace about the place that was a great departure from where we were just a minute earlier.  The inside was beautiful.  We went back into the melting pot, and back among the African women carrying children on their backs and young children in school uniforms and the Indian people selling things in their shops.  We stopped at a Zulu medicine store, where we spoke with the woman.   Behind her was a wall full of various plants, roots, and spices, and we spoke with her about the various herbal cures she had to offer.  She had medicine for diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, skin rashes, even an immune booster for HIV.  She mixed various leaves and herbs and spices to make these pictures that you would either boil and drink or inhale the steam.  She told us about how she’d learned it from her father and he had learned it from his father.  There are all sorts of shops around where this sort of healing is offered.  Glenda was disappointed that none of the Zulu men were around to mix a potion for me that would make me rich or make my girlfriend love me forever.  They make those of various unknown liquids and animals hooves and hair, and we saw the beginnings of it, but never anyone we could get to make me a potion.  The Market was incredible.  We walked in the warmth of the sun among people from places I’d only ever read about, with the smells filling my nose and noise of various languages filling my ears, the cacophony of God’s kingdom ringing in my head.  I wondered if Glenda’s statement about heaven wasn’t just a joke.  It wouldn’t surprised me if one corner wasn’t something like what I saw in the crosswalks.

            We went from there to have tea, which I think is great, because the tea here is really good.  I’m already addicted.  We went to the café in a very nice hotel.  It was a big change from the scene on the street, with our white tablecloths, chandeliers, silver teapots, and Danish pastries.  We sat and talked and Glenda and Gordon asked me some questions about my call story and my plans for the future, which I was happy to share.  After one afternoon, we seem to have quite a bond.  They are obviously two very special people and I think they’re going to take good care of me while I’m here.  They are both very culturally aware and seem very faithful.  I’m going to love being with them for the time I’m here.  Gordon is a smart man who is very cultured—he asked me as we left the market if I kept a journal.  He knows what I’m in for, and he knows a lot about what makes Durban and South Africa go.  I’m going to soak up what I can from them.

            Tonight, it was dinner with Ian, the pastor, and his wife Holly.  One of the other ministers, Andrew, and his wife Mary also ate with us.  I like both Ian and Andrew a lot.  We seem to have some things in common, and they’re both young people who like to have fun but are also focused on life in the church.  Molly had told me that I might hit it off with Andrew and I think she may be right.  They were also very kind and very welcoming to me, as everyone has been since I got here.  Tomorrow morning Ian is picking me up to go with him to John Wesley School, where he will give a short devotion.  After that I think someone is going to show me around the school, and then maybe in the afternoon he’s going to take me with his son, Alex (he’s a toddler) to the beach, which I’m anxious to see.  In the afternoon, I’m going to Andrew’s young adult bible study, then to youth group, then on Saturday all day long at the church, then Sunday I’m offering the prayers at the two earliest services . . . . I’m going to be a busy man it sounds like, which is good.  I’m excited about the people here and the city that is just down the hill.  I feel much more relaxed about being here, which says a great deal for only having been here a day.  I am still a little homesick, mostly for Katie.  There was no doubt before about whether she was the one for me, but after this it’s a sort “can’t live without feeling” I have.  This is what being in love should be, and I just can’t wait to get home and be about it full time.  To bed, hopefully.

 

 

May 27, 2005

            This morning I got up early to go with Ian to John Wesley School.  He led a devotion there in the children’s morning assembly.  There must be around 200 students, maybe more.  They all wear red sweaters or jackets and black shorts or skirts for uniforms.  They look sharp, and the children have a spirit about them that is very bright and happy.  I didn’t get to see much of it today, but I will before the summer’s out.  After Ian, his son Alex (almost 2) and I went to the beach.  The beachfront here is beautiful, just as it said in the travel guide.  I didn’t get wet, but I plan to before the summer’s out.  Ian is a good guy, and we seem to have some things in common.  I think I will be closer to some of the others, but he and I will get along well I think.  He dropped me off at the church and I did some looking around there.  After that I came back here and crashed at about noon.  I still can’t get to sleep before late, then I’m in a haze till noon.  I wanted to stay awake to beat this jet lag, but I gave in and caught up on some sleep.  After I woke up I got out and went to the grocery store, which is close to here.  I got an ironing board, an iron, some laundry detergent, stuff that will help me feel a little more at home.  I dropped it off and went to the mall, which is the other direction from the lodge, and bought some postcards, some sunglasses, etc.  The mall was packed.  I was really amazed at how many people there were crammed into it.  Unemployment is nearly 30%, so I guess a lot of people pass time there.

            Tonight was the Bible Study for the youth at the church.  I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would.  The kids have incredible insight.  They are very mature in the faith for people their age (13-14) and I got a lot out of what they had to say.  At 7 the youth group met and went to the drive in to see a movie.  I was introduced to Michael, who is a younger guy who just got engaged.  He and I hit it off, and talked a lot on the way to the movie and even during it (Kingdom of Heaven = horrible).  I met a few of the younger people from the church, and they seem like a lot of fun.  I hope to get to know them more.  It’s been a good day, I’m beginning to get my bearings in Pinetown, and I’m actually tired and ready for bed tonight.

 

Saturday, May 28, 2005

            Today I slept in a little (8:30), got up and went to the “Trackathon.” The Church has an all day marathon sewing session, where mostly the women of the church sew “tracksuits” to give to the kids in the township.  A track suit is like a sweat suit but lighter.  It was a little on the boring side, because I hadn’t yet met any of the people there.  Some of the women quickly put me to work pinning together the cut out fabric for them to sew, and I got to know a few of them.  I stayed there till a little after 1, then came back here to do some laundry.  It was occupied, so I walked around to try and find an internet café.  I walked around to the mall and some other spots, but no luck.  I ended up having lunch by myself at the mall, which was really sort of depressing, but good because I can sit and people watch, which is interesting in such a different place.  I came back and actually started some laundry, when Glenda tracked me down on the phone downstairs.  I desperately need a cell phone.  She asked if I would want to go with her and her husband to the bookstore and then to have tea at her house (I love this concept of having tea—they serve it everywhere, and it’s very good).  I agreed since I didn’t have anything else to do, but then Michael stopped by and wanted me to go eat dinner with him and his fiancée.  I couldn’t because I’d agreed to go with Glenda, but I felt good that he thought to stop by here and find me to ask me.  I think he will be a good friend to me here.  He’s really a very nice guy, as all the people are. 

            So I went with Glenda and her husband Heldein, which I’ll spell like that till I figure out how to spell it the right way.  We went to the bookstore, a smaller scale Barnes and Noble sort of place, then back to their house.  We spent most of the night embroiled in the conversation about American foreign policy and our parallel history with South Africa.  I’m enjoying that discussion, but I’m going to hold off writing down all my feelings till I can synthesize more what’s being said.  I came back here and got to bed so I could get up early for church, 7:45 service.  And I thought 8:30 was bad.

 

Sunday, May 29, 2005

            I got up early and made my way to church for the 7:45 service.  I offered the prayers.  The services are informal, which I like, everyone wears maybe a collared shirt and pants.  Ian introduced me to the congregation.  The people at that service were mostly older, and the service was very traditional.  It was full though, which was surprising at that hour of the day.  Today’ scripture was the end of the sermon on the mount, the passage about the houses built on sand vs. rock.  It was a good sermon.  I prayed again at the 9:45, which is more contemporary complete with a praise band.  The services were generally the same as any you would find at a smaller congregation here.  I went to lunch at Gordon and Julie’s, which was great.  Their house is amazing.  It has a great view, the sort of place you would see in a magazine.  We had lunch on the patio, with classical music playing, it was really pretty surreal.  After that we drove up to Keirsney College for a festival they were having which ended up being not much, but there were a few vendors selling things.  I’m hoping that I can bring home all the things I want to bring home as gifts.  I was exhausted though from being up so early, so I probably didn’t pay enough attention to our drive.  We drove through what’s called the Valley of a Thousand Hills, which is breathtaking.  The views here are tremendous.  We stopped at this sort of tourist spot where you could visit a traditional Zulu village, but the show times were not convenient, so we kept driving.  We went back to their house for tea, then Gordon drove me back here.  I got a short nap before time to eat dinner.  I ate here at the Lodge, which I’ll talk more about later, then went to church to meet my support group.  They’re designed to be a sort of sounding board for me while I’m here.  I haven’t gotten much of a glimpse of what my time will be, so I don’t know what things will come to mind once I’ve started to get involved in the ministries.  After that was the evening service, which was all contemporary.  That’s going to take some adjustment.  I don’t care much for the music, but we’ll see how that goes as the summer goes on.  Andrew preached, and it is easy to see that he is going to do very well in his ministry.  His preaching style is very captivating. 

            Afterward I went with the young people to Mugg and Bean, a coffee shop here.  I’m glad I’m getting to know some people my age.  They’re all really cool people, with a deep faith, who still like to have fun.  I’m going to enjoy being with them a great deal.  I’m getting tired though—the pace and the jet lag are starting to catch up with me, so I’m getting on schedule.  Tomorrow will be good, as I meet with Ian to talk about my schedule for the summer, so I can begin to know what I’m doing for the summer.


Posted at 10:31 am by furrdawg
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May 26, 2005
Greetings from South Africa

Hello from South Africa!  As I write this I'm sitting in the airport in Johannesburg waiting on my flight to Durban to join the people from Pinetown Methodist Church.  The past few days at John Wesley Seminary in Pretoria have been amazing.  I loved getting to meet the students there and the Dean, who was our host, is an incredible guy.  We've been very fortunate to have such loving brothers who were so happy to have us.  I'll be posting my reflections from the first week or so in the next few days.  South Africa is a beatiful country--the landscape, the cities, and especially the people.  I'm looking forward to settling in at Pinetown and putting down roots for a few weeks, unpacking my bags, and finally getting adjusted to the time.  I feel like a man without a place or a time!  No time of day feels much different from any other, but I suspect that will catch up with me in the next few days.  I hope all of you are doing well, and feel free to send me an email or leave feedback.  Hearing from home is a good thing these days.   Off to Durban!
                                                                                      peace,
                                                                                             Christopher

Posted at 02:43 am by furrdawg
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Apr 26, 2005
South Africa

   It's been quite awhile since I've updated this, mainly because of a busy spring semester.  The blogging is about to pick up again though--I found out in early March that I'll be spending this summer serving a church in South Africa, Durban to be specific.  The church is Pinetown Methodist Church (www.ptnmeth.org.za), and is located just outside the city of Durban.  Durban is a city of roughly 2.3 million people, and is located in the Kwazulu-Natal province along the Indian Ocean coastline.  As many of you know, the HIV/AIDS epidemic in many African nations is reaching tragic proportions and threatens to wipe out an entire generation.  Kwazulu-Natal has the highest rate of infection of all South African provinces, with some 37.5% infected in 2003 (http://www.avert.org/safricastats.htm).  Who knows what my time there will bring?  I plan on getting as much of it as I can on this space, for my own benefit, and for those of you who would like to read as the summer goes along.
   How did I come about this program in SA?  The Divinity School sends four students each summer to serve churches in South Africa, a program facilitated by Dr. Peter Storey (see my blog entry on May 25, 2004).  I was looking for an even greater learning experience, one that would once again take me far outside my comfort zone.  There is a lengthy application and interview process.  13 applied and 4 were accepted;  I am still amazed and humbled that I was picked as one of the four.  And so I'm going, to serve and to learn, as ignorant about what waits for me as I was when I headed to Greenleaf and started this blog a year ago. 
   So tune in.  I'm going to write every step of the way, so you can keep up if you want.
                                                                              For now,
                                                                                      Chris

Posted at 12:53 pm by furrdawg
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Feb 1, 2005
Chris's Journal: Going Home with the Gospel

As some of you may know, Greenleaf and First Christian held a second joint service on January 23.  You can read my reflection on the first service below on this blog, and I plan on posting some more personal reflections on this particular service when I get the chance (and some pictures too, if I can figure out how).  For now, I'll post my part of the sermon (the middle section of a 3 part sermon given by Rev. Barber, myself, and Rev. Lance Perry, entitled "Going Home with the Gospel") and the article that appeared on the front page of the Today section in the Wilmington Star News on Saturday, 1/29. 

Scripture: Mark 5:1-20

They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes.. And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, "What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me." For he had said to him, "Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!" Then Jesus asked him, "What is your name?" He replied, "My name is Legion; for we are many." He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; and the unclean spirits begged him, "Send us into the swine; let us enter them." So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea. The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it. Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood. As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. But Jesus refused, and said to him, "Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you." And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.

What we read of this possessed man here in Mark is not typically described as a miracle story.  It isn’t lumped into the same group with the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 or walking on the water, but it should be.  What happens is, after all, nothing short of a miracle.  The possessed man’s life was beyond hope, he had spun out of control; he could not be contained physically and he ran wild throughout the country side.  His torment was so great that no one in the community could bear to witness it, so they tried to put him out of sight and out of mind, and it just wouldn’t work.  His life was nothing but chaos and sadness.  Truth is, his situation was probably headed for a violent end, either the people in the community taking matters into their own hands or him hurting one of them . . . whatever the case, it was not going to end well.  But just when everyone was at the end of their rope with that situation, just when it seemed like the man was beyond hope or healing, he happens on Jesus.  And Jesus takes this hopeless, mess of a situation and makes it new, he calls the demons by name and casts them out, into their rightful place, setting the man free.  He sends them into a herd of pigs, which were regarded in those days as unclean and unholy, and in doing so, he demonstrated to those who would have faith in Him what he is capable of and to those demonic forces what their fate will be.  What seeks to torment and torture will not survive the reign of Jesus.

             One of the most significant events in the history between the races in America took place in this very city, only a few miles from here, in the year 1898.  It began with a campaign to squash the political legitimacy of African American residents in this community.  The campaign was led by Colonel Alfred Waddell, a white supremacist who would be mayor of Wilmington, and a prominent mill owner named Hugh McCrae.  Before the election of 1898, Waddell exclaimed at a rally, “Go to the polls tomorrow and if you find the negro out voting, tell him to leave the polls, and if he refuses, kill him, shoot him down in his tracks.”  White democrats won victory in that election, but that wasn’t enough.  They took to the streets and burned the printing press at the Daily Record, the only African American newspaper in the country, and then marched through predominantly black Wilmington neighborhoods, indiscriminately murdering African American citizens.  No one knows exactly how many were killed, but Hugh McCrae boasted that there were ninety dead.  Some say it was more than 300.  White men forced the few African American city officials in Wilmington to resign their positions at gunpoint.  1400 black citizens fled the city, while others huddled in the swamps along the Cape Fear to avoid the gun-toting mob.  The pastor of one of Wilmington’s largest churches, then and now, proclaimed from the pulpit, “We have taken a city.  To God be the glory.”

            When my parents were in high school at New Hanover High in 1971, the now famous Wilmington Ten were a group of young African Americans at the center of another riot on the city’s streets.  This time, presumably incited by the closing of Williston, a previously all black high school, and the poor choices made in integrating the New Hanover Co. schools, young African Americans swept up in the violent resistance of the Black Power Movement set fire to buildings downtown.  Police officers fired on the building where ten of the city’s main African American leaders had barricaded themselves.  All ten were later convicted of inciting the rioting and violence, on what was, at best, circumstantial evidence.  The most notable among them was local church leader Ben Chavis, whose 35 year prison sentence was not overturned until 1980, the year I was born.

            In Wayne Co., there is a high school named for Charles B. Aycock, former governor of North Carolina and one of the architects of the white supremacy campaign that resulted in the 1898 Wilmington riot, who, to be fair, also turned into an advocate for the state’s education system.  But the school’s webpage says nothing of his past, nor does the website for the historical site where he was born.  In 1916, John Richards was lynched in Goldsboro for the alleged murder of a farmer named Anderson Gurley.  A photo of the event recently toured the country in an exhibit that recalled our difficult history.  The schools located within the city limits of Goldsboro remained 100% African American in the year 2004, the same year in which we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education.

            I’m sure you’re wondering why I’ve chosen to bring up these depressing parts of our past on what is supposed to be a joyous celebration and certainly you’re curious what all that has to do with today’s Scripture.  It is not to assess blame, to make some of us feel guilty or to reopen old wounds.  No, the point here is that we must recall this history.  Our history is what possesses us—our memories are our own legion of demons.  These events haunt and plague us, running our society crazy with the echoes of blood and hate.  These memories are the things that have driven us to the lie of division in the Church, brokenness in our communities, distrust and apprehension, they are the cause of our chaotic attempts at healing this past that threatens to overwhelm us.  Our history is our demonic possession and it still holds us captive, no matter how we try to deny it, no matter much we think than we can erase the pain of 400 years with a few decades of cordial, less than honest contact.  Our hurried attempts at quick healing have looked much like wild wandering in the country side.  These events will haunt us like the demons in this story if we will let them continue to exist in our subconscious, festering and thwarting our attempts to heal. 

One of my professors at Duke says that if you were raised in America, especially the South, the history of strife between the races was in the water you drank and the air you breathed.  You took it in without even knowing it.  Want evidence of our possession?  Today, one of the largest parks in Wilmington, the place where I played Little League baseball, is named for Hugh McCrae, the same man who helped torture this city in 1898, a known and notorious racist and murderer.  I was born and raised in this city, went to the public schools here, and the first in-depth description I ever heard of the racial history of my own hometown came in a history course at UNC when I was 21 years old.  The Wayne Co. School Board cannot see its way to integrating the school system in Goldsboro, despite the fact that Goldsboro as a city is remarkably integrated.  And the Church?  Well, in the congregation today is Amanda Green, the religion reporter from the Wilmington Star- News, covering this service for the newspaper.  News of this service went out in an email sent nationwide by the Office of Reconciliation for Disciples of Christ denomination.  Friends, the fact that we are worshipping together is news!  Not just news, but national news!  100 years after Jim Crow, 50 years after Brown vs. Board, 30 years after the Wilmington Ten, the fact that we can come together and worship the same God and the healing power of Jesus is newsworthy because of its rarity.  And take notice of the emotions that welled up within you as I told those ugly stories.  The deep sadness or anger, resentment or uneasiness . . . still need evidence of our possession?

            All this history is part of us, it is in our make-up whether you will choose to acknowledge it or not.  You will certainly deal with all of our fractured past as you seek to reach out in your own communities and bring the Church together.  The residual emotions left from these events will be part of any conversation we have.  It can seem a mountain too large to pass.  Overcoming our fractured, violent past seems an impossible proposition; about as impossible as the man in this story being purged of his demons.  But friends, I’m here to tell you that we can be healed, just like the man in this story.  And we stopped by the beach, just like he did, to encounter Jesus again and to ask him to heal us, to unite us, to purge us of our demons, to consecrate us as people who are bold enough to say: “Our past is ugly and painful and we are wounded by it still.  But there is a common place where we may gather and proclaim a common truth, that Christ is Lord of all, healer of all, redeemer of us all, and that if we seek his Spirit in truth, we will be raised from the pain of our past.”  As the body of Christ, His real presence in this world, we will say to everyone who will hear and even those who won’t that we will not continue to be possessed by our history; instead we will claim the healing power of the One who works miracles beyond our imagination, who can and will heal any affliction, in any time, and in any place.  We believe it and we will live it.  Today, we ask Jesus not to remove our history, our brokenness, and our division that stand as tall as a mountain between us and true reconciliation.  Instead, we ask Him to help us climb it.  Together.



Here is the article as it appeared in Saturday's paper:

Brothers and sisters
Integrated services a step toward understanding

By Amanda Greene

In a perfect world, this would not be newsworthy: blacks and whites worshipping together on Sunday morning.
But in Wilmington, Goldsboro and many other towns in the United States, 11 a.m. Sunday is still the most segregated hour of the week.
First Christian Church in Wilmington, an all-white congregation, and Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, a predominantly black congregation, met at 11 a.m. Sunday to try to change that perception with a sistership service between the two Disciples of Christ congregations. Holding joint services – the first one was in Goldsboro in July 2004 – is the beginning of an ongoing relationship between the churches to unify and reconcile the races and worship as brothers and sisters in Christ, the pastors said.
“The gospel itself is betrayed when whites and blacks go to malls together and eat in the same restaurants all week and then go to separate churches on Sunday,” said the Rev. William Barber, pastor at Greenleaf Christian. His church brought about 150 people from Goldsboro for the service.
About 350 people packed the sanctuary’s pews. Whites and blacks stepped out of their comfort zones to sit with friends they made in July at the first joint service.
The Rev. Lance Perry had only been pastor at First Christian for 10 weeks when he took part in the groundbreaking service. He knows that “the church is, by nature, an agent of reconciliation.”
The churches chose the weekend after Martin Luther King Jr. Day for the service to show that talking about race isn’t reserved for the third Monday in January. For Rev. Barber, segregation and racism are theological issues and types of idolatry. He said that by staying silent about segregation, churches are enabling it to continue.
“Until we deal with our divisions from a theological point of view we can’t be the body of Christ,” he said. “We have to come together first before we can reconcile ... Racism is about developing a God in our own images. That’s what fear does. So this is breaking the fears, moving beyond the norm, believing in the possibility.”

Plans for change

The sistership between First Christian and Greenleaf Christian began with Chris Furr, a master of divinity student at Duke University. He grew up in Wilmington, attending church at First Christian and returned as a college student for a ministry internship.
But when it came time for his second internship, Mr. Furr was looking for a challenge, so he chose Greenleaf.
“I discovered that there are real obstacles that we have to overcome, but other things are only in our head and can be overcome through the Gospel,” Mr. Furr added. He proposed a joint service last year between the two churches to begin a continuing partnership and saw great results.
The first service lasted more than three hours and included foot washing. The ministers asked people to come forward as they felt led by the spirit to accept communion.
To have racial unification, you have to confess what is painful.
That was the lesson Mr. Furr, Rev. Perry and Rev. Barber taught their two congregations on Sunday.
Using the miracle of Jesus healing a man possessed by many demons called Legion, each pastor gave a history lesson. They called out the racial incidents in both their cities, including the lynching of a black man in Goldsboro and the 1898 race riots in Wilmington.
The ministers didn’t mince words. They were there to speak the truth.
“We’ve been trying to use man-made methods to solve a God-sized problem,” Rev. Barber said. “The vision of America can’t tame our racial divisions. . .We need something greater than holding hands and singing We Are the World once a year.”
He said coming together as God’s children is the only solution to racism in America.
“Either we try to live like Jesus or we live like hell,” he said.
Mr. Furr’s mother, Pam Furr watched from the choir loft as her son recounted the city’s race riots in 1898 and 1971. His father, Chris Furr, watched from the pews.
“It made you uncomfortable to hear all those things recounted because we raised our son to know that all people are created equal. We didn’t want him to be reminded that people could be that ugly,” she said.
But Mr. Furr insisted: “We have to recall our history to heal. Our history is what possesses us. These memories are our Legion of demons. It’s our demonic possession.”
The service was full of music that accommodated both congregations’ styles – the straight-laced, hymn-singing of First Christian and the hand-clapping gospel singing of Greenleaf.
Some of the white congregants appeared uncomfortable at first as they shifted in their seats. Some older members of First Christian stood during the songs, looking around at the clapping without joining in. During the offertory prayer, the sanctuary echoed with whispered “thanks,” “thank ya Jesus” and “Amen.” But by the end of the service, the entire congregation was swaying, clapping, holding hands and singing Keep Hope Alive.
Marjorie Geigher, a member at Greenleaf, thought the service was a success.
“It’s been superb. It’s always been time for reconciliation,” she said, “and doing it this way is good because it’s not white and black, just unity in the body of Christ.”
Betty Shook, a 79-year-old member of First Christian, thought it was a beautiful service, but she said one service is not enough.
“I hope we have more services like these,” she said.
During one of the last prayers of the service, Ms. Geigher whispered her hopes: “Hearts are going to change. We are one in the spirit.”
THE NEXT MOVE
Since the first service, members of the two congregations have begun pen-pal relationships, and are planning mission trips together.
In May or June, First Christian’s Christian Men’s Fellowship group will help Greenleaf build homes for their community development corporation called Re-building Broken Places.
In mid-July, Greenleaf’s youth group will join First Christian’s youth group on its Appalachian Service Project to help poor families in Floyd County, Ky.
The churches haven’t planned any more services yet.
“The idea was we wanted to move beyond (joint services) but not exclude them,” Rev. Perry said.
At the end of First Christian’s service, Mr. Furr gave credit to a higher power for starting the sistership.
“I prayed a simple prayer this morning,” he said. “I prayed ‘God, turn it loose.’ I think my prayer was answered.”


 


Posted at 04:44 pm by furrdawg
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Dec 24, 2004
Chris's Journal: Christmas Eve

   I haven't posted here for awhile, but I figured now would be as good a time as any, as I wait to attend my second Christmas Eve service of the night at 11pm.  I appreciate the many, varied responses to my post election entry.  It seems that whether or not you agreed, it at least evoked some response, which I guess is good.  I haven't sunk into the post election depression that many who were disappointed by the result have, but I find it hard on this evening to view the footage of the bombs exploding around the world, even as we celebrate the birth of our Savior and echo statements like "peace on earth, goodwill toward men."  Here's a meditation (again, thanks to Dan Webster) that gets at this sentiment pretty well:

Context

December 13, 2004

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CHRISTMAS GIFT

 

Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz. (Isaiah 7.10)

By Tom Ehrich 

With Christmas twelve days away, the choice again comes down to simple or complex, easy or difficult, shallow or deep.

A simple prelude listens for familiar tunes and hums along, savoring the simple delight of cheerful carols. Complex hears those same tunes and remembers what the world was like when Der Bingle sang “White Christmas” (America’s dark first year in World War Two), how Longfellow’s despair after Gettysburg shaped “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” how the tragedy of that war stirred Phillips Brooks to write “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” how a future Confederate soldier named James Pierpont wrote “Jingle Bells,” even as his nephew James Pierpont Morgan prepared to build a fortune selling defective rifles to the Union Army.

Easy decorates a tree and abides by family expectations. Difficult remembers other trees, sees empty chairs, longs for childhood, is confused by feeling out of synch.

Shallow makes a list and adds an average of $1,000 to credit card debt. Deep grapples with not having enough and yet having more than most, and wanting what isn’t on the list.

Simple doesn’t want complex near. Hence the label “Scrooge” for anyone who isn’t cheerful at Christmas time. Easy turns away from difficult. Hence the annual binge of food and drink.

Christmas, you see, always has a context. The ancient prophecies had a context. The Biblical record of events in Bethlehem had a context. The transfer of Christmas to December 25 (birth date of the Sun god Mithras) had a context, as did the emergence of gift-giving in the 19th Century, Dutch-flavored legends of Saint Nicholas and his depiction as a jolly old man by an artist for Coca-Cola Co. in 1931.

Every year, our celebrations of Christmas have a context, rarely simple, easy or shallow. The question is whether we will see the context. We will feel it for sure. But will we own it? Much in us yearns to be that 10-year-old child again, safe in the bosom of family, a recipient of magic and love, awestruck by tree and lights. Dealing with the context can seem an offense against the holiday. We want the events to be exactly as Luke described them, even though Biblical scholarship tells another story. We want our family Christmas to be the same as last year, even though our lives have changed.

I wrestle with this dilemma. But I believe the context contains the meaning.

Ahaz, for example, was a weak and fearful king of Judah. His allies were mounting forces against him. He wanted a stronger neighbor, Assyria, to be his protector. The prophet Isaiah bemoaned Ahaz’ timidity, but reassured him that his enemies were merely men like himself, and God was sovereign. Proof of that sovereignty was the pregnancy of a young woman – probably Isaiah’s wife – and the birth of a son, whom God would instruct Isaiah to name Maher-shalal-hash-baz, meaning “spoil speed prey hasten,” indicating that the “the spoil of Samaria will be carried away by the king of Assyria.” (Isaiah 8.1-4)

In fact, the weak kings did what weak leaders usually do: they dallied, they consorted with evil, they sold out. Eventually, the men of Jerusalem would be carried away in captivity, mocked by their captors for believing in such a weak God. (Psalm 137)

These events forced Yahweh’s people to reconsider their God, not as a guarantor of political supremacy but as a redeemer of the weak, who wouldn’t prevent exile but would find them in exile, who would be revealed in time in the weakness of Jesus, just as God was once revealed in a young prophetess and her son, leading Isaiah to call the child “Immanuel,” God-with-us.

   
   
   Just something to think about.  Here's another:  This semester has been a long one, the longest of my education, at dook* or otherwise.  My class schedule was difficult and my responsibilities at the Divinity School added to that; there were other factors that made it difficult that I will not name specifically here, but as I look back on this past semester, I am thankful for the month long break I'm now in the middle of.  Many times I went back to read the motivated entry I wrote at the end of my time at Greenleaf, when I was driven and eager to build on that experience by going at my studies full bore.  It did not take long for that motivation to wane, and I wondered whether the conviction I felt as I left there had been genuine.  I'm still not entirely sure--I believe it was.  What I think is that the preparation that began before I ever went to Greenleaf and made leaps and bounds while I was there has continued over the course of these months.  The difference has been that it has not exactly been the kind of experience one relishes.  I'm not sure I'm saying what I mean--let me frame it this way.
   Advent has taught me something this year, perhaps more than in the past.   I am always awed by this night, the revolutionary scene of the Savior born to a single mother in a back alley stable.  It is ridiculously counter intuitive.  Not one of us has an imagination vivid enough to dream up such a thing.  It is beyond any far fetched tale any author has been able to tell.  But to begin to comprehend its mystery, we must understand Advent.  We must know what it means to wait.  Israel had, after all, been waiting for awhile, through exile after exile, violent war after violent war, through kings and judges and prophets, waiting for the perfect image of the King to come to them.  Their waiting was not pleasant.  Read the Psalms, they are the work of a people who found God elusive and who grew weary in their waiting for a revelation from God.  They were tired of waiting for Him to send what was promised.  But He did.  And it wasn't what they had been waiting for--they thought they knew what they needed, a mighty king who would strike down any who threatened God's people and win the victory over their oppressors on the battlefield, who would come mighty and triumphant, the king of all earthly, warrior kings.  And what they got was so different from what they were looking for that many of them missed it altogether.  They got what we remember tonight, a young mother and a carpenter, gathered in a barn, with no place for them in the Inn.  They got a man who came in peace and spent his time wandering from town to town with misfits and outcasts, befuddling the religious and political leaders, a King who would rather die than be the warrior so many wanted.  Christmas is the ultimate demonstration of God's imagination, how it continues to dwarf ours, and thankfully so. 
   And so what is best for us (and for me) is to wait, to wait patiently with eyes open for how God will choose to be revealed in our lives.  We might best spend our time trying to get rid of those preconceived notions about what we need, what we're waiting for, what we want.  What I need, what I'm truly waiting for, what I want, only God knows.  My hope is that I am awake when it comes, to wonder at how great and beautiful and imaginative it is, to be awestruck by how much better it is than anything I could have imagined or planned for myself, and to give thanks for it.  Whatever it is I'm waiting for, or what we're waiting for as the Church, as a country, as a world, God is working it.  It is most certainly not what we think we are waiting for, God is simply too creative to be pinned down in such a way.  God grant us the humility to resist giving God orders for what we want or need, and marvel at what we find in the manger instead.  Merry Christmas.
 

Posted at 09:06 pm by furrdawg
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Nov 8, 2004
Chris's Journal: Voting in the Dark

   It seemed like it was darker than usual, but then I guess it should've seemed that way.  We drove past the gate, where a man who was probably younger than myself was dressed in camoflauge and armed.  He inspected the sticker on the windshield, saluted, and waved us through.  We drove through the night into what seemed like another world; the strangeness of being on a military base in the middle of the night made it seem like the kid at the gate marked passage into another kingdom under the reign of some other power, some other place where the rules are different and life's possibilities are altered.  We drove for just a few minutes, maybe only a mile or two, but it seemed like we were worlds away from regularity, from the rest of the world, from the people who were sleeping comfortably as "civilians." The night seemed darker than usual, and the lights dimmer.  We passed the chapel where my good friend--no, my brother--and his wife were married.  The irony of returning to that place hit me.  That day the sun had shined and everything seemed just so, just as it was intended, "right" in every sense of the term, as I stood at the front of the Church next to him and watched her walk down the aisle.  The divine perfection of that day seemed all the brighter compared to the darkness of this night.  This time, instead of white, she was wearing her own camoflauge, riding in the back seat in the dark with an anxiety different from the kind one has just before walking down the aisle to be married to your high school sweetheart.  No, this time, in that parking lot behind the church I helped two women I care about unload pounds of military gear, in the dark, surrounded by 18 year old Marines who seemed used to this drill, meeting in the middle of the night to leave home for three weeks of live artillery training, taking a bus to a facility where they would be issued a 9mm pistol or an M-16.  I don't know what affected me more--the two women who wanted no part of this darkness, or the young men who were numb to it.
   None of us knew how to act or what to say, whether to acknowledge the strangeness of the darkness and let our sadness show or protect one another by pretending that all of this really wasn't as unnnatural as it seemed and that peace of mind could somehow be preserved.  The complexity of figuring out how to act just turned into an awkward interaction that fit the mood of the night perfectly.  It was dark, but I will not soon forget the images, the same way one remembers scenes from a dream.  The look on the faces of those two women was one of fear.  The kind of fear that makes the one who witnesses it well up with anger.  Around the parking lot, there was laughter and lit cigarettes and Kevlar.  There were the serious faces of young men who seemed (sadly) affirmed by the darkness, by the Kevlar and the gear and the covert nature of it all.  We said our stumbling goodbyes and left.
   It seemed like we left quickly.  We drove back past the chapel, down the dimly lit road, past the young men at the gate, and back into town.  We crossed back over that threshhold that made it feel like we had entered into another world, but the world I saw wasn't the same one we left.  We drove through town as it slept.  It was as quiet as it had been when we drove through it on our way to the gate, but this time the sleepyness seemed eery.  The image of what was happening behind the gate made me want to wake everyone up. 
   But they slept.  They slept, and we drove through flashing stop lights until we were back on the country roads where my friend lives.  The darkness was even more pronounced.  We talked heatedly about war, about Iraq, Jesus, the Bible, the military, the draft, the President, foreign policy, "the power of pride", the election.  We drove down those dark country roads where people slept comfortably, warmly, without thinking at all of Kevlar or artillery training or the ones who had to think of those things.  We drove past houses where people slept deeply, without the images of fearful women or young men who've been trained to kill in their heads.  I thought of how they would wake up and turn on their morning news, feeling proud of America as the defender of freedom and inspired by the President's latest speech on the war on terror.  I thought of how they would wake up and drive around with American flags stuck to their bumpers, without so much as a clue of what that scene behind the gate actually looked like.  It had been hidden from view, behind the gate, under the cover of darkness.  We drove and we talked about America as the modern Rome, the prideful empire that becomes convinced of its invincibility and intoxicated with power and money, reeling like a drunk, just before it falls. 
   As we drove, I felt certain that this country would make a change, that we would prove young enough as a nation to remember what it feels like to be under the reign of a country that cares nothing for those it dominates and repent for the last four years.  I hoped that we would hold the man who necessitated the particular scene I witnessed behind that gate accountable, that we would revoke his authority to send young men and women into places where their lives were at risk because of the way he has abused that power.  I thought that maybe Christians would hold him accountable for using the name of God to justify the slaughter of men, women, and children in the name of some perverse concept of "democracy" or "freedom."  I thought that the followers of Jesus would go to the polls and tell him that hubris, pride, and arrogance were not the marks of a person faithful to the example of Jesus.  I held out hope that Christians would see the use of force as contradictory to the teachings of Jesus, and hence just as much a "moral" issue as two homosexuals who wish to pledge their lives to one another.  I hoped that those with the "Support Our Troops" stickers would define that slogan by refusing to ask them to a fight a war that cannot be justified, or that Christians would refuse to ask them to be soldiers at all.  I hoped.
   We drove along in the darkness, past dark house after dark house, until it was pierced by a bright light.  It came from a spotlight in the yard of one of those sleepy houses, whose residents slept through my excursion past the gate.  They had not seen the Kevlar or the young men who were trained to kill or the people I care for on their way to be issued a pistol.  No, they slept through it.  The light they'd placed in their yard shone on a huge sign mounted on the side of the house. 
The sign read "Bush-Cheney '04."  And America slept.

Posted at 09:29 pm by furrdawg
Comments (1)




Sep 30, 2004
Sermon from York Chapel

Here's the full text of the sermon I preached to students and faculty at the Divinity School today.  One thing that might help as you read: the Div School is in the process of adding on a huge building addition, which has been quite a big deal and is much anticipated around the school.


Luke 16:19-31

The Rich Man and Lazarus
19"There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21and longing to eat what fell from the rich man's table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22"The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24So he called to him, 'Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.' 25"But Abraham replied, 'Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.' 27"He answered, 'Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father's house, 28for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.' 29"Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.' 30" 'No, father Abraham,' he said, 'but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.' 31"He said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'"

 

 

 

Preparation for the Fire?

This isn’t going to be pleasant.  This text from Luke’s gospel is not the warm fuzzy sort that sends you on your way from worship with a gentle pat on the back as you head down the road of discipleship.  It is instead one of those passages of Scripture that makes you shift in your seat even in hearing it and arouses some apprehension as to what the preacher will say about it.  It makes us uncomfortable because it talks about wealth, more specifically a situation where one is exorbitantly wealthy while another languishes in extreme need, and well, we Christians who live in America live in a country of exorbitant wealth that routinely leaves Lazarus at the gate to fend for him or her self.  The scene between the rich man and Lazarus is all too familiar, but it isn’t that circumstance that gives us trouble so much as it is the result, what happens to the rich man.  Like good liberal Protestants, we get a little nervous when the language of the story turns to the rich man’s destiny, the lake of fire and torment, unquenchable thirst, a great chasm and alienation from God, topics we like to avoid in the interest of not sounding like fire and brimstone Christians.  And while we may be patient enough to read this text and wrestle with it for awhile, we don’t linger long, because eventually we put ourselves in the story, we try to find our place in this parable to see how it relates to us, and we find ourselves on the wrong side of the chasm.  That’s too much for us. It’s just too depressing to take too seriously.

            What do you do with texts like this one, when you’re as rich as we are?  The rich man has ignored the plight of Lazarus, he has never really seen his need or how he could help him, even though he had been right in front of his house, in plain view.  We might explore questions like, “Well, was it that he was so selfish and conceited that he just wouldn’t help Lazarus?  I mean, if that’s the case, then it wasn’t really his wealth that was the problem, but his obsession with it, his unwillingness to use his wealth for good.  There’s a difference between being rich and being greedy.” Problem is, the text doesn’t allow for those questions.  It simply doesn’t make any distinctions as to whether it was his wealth or his greed that got him to the fire, if the two can even be separated.  So there’s no exegetical loophole to be found here, there’s no nugget that can make us feel better about the fact that Jesus has condemned the accumulation of wealth and we are found wallowing in our plenty. 

                The truth is that we’ve spent too long looking for ways around dealing with this text and ones like it.  For too long we have read what Jesus teaches about wealth and shrugged our shoulders and moved on. It is a curious phenomenon; Jesus has other demanding teachings about things like non-violence and forgiveness that we are quick to take seriously, to build our lives around.  Why is it that when it comes to wealth, we find what Jesus teaches to be unintelligible and impractical?  Maybe we’re in too deep, we’re too dependent on our possessions to bring us comfort, we’ve become too accustomed to our privilege.  And so we look for ways around it, so we can try and keep our discipleship and our money too.  What about what Jesus says to us with this story do we not understand?  Have we so grossly underestimated the cost of discipleship?

            It seems so.  This is the trend now in the Church, it has been for awhile.  Maybe it is the product of making the leap directly from “born of the Virgin Mary” to “suffered under Pontius Pilate” for so long that we lost our understanding of what happened in between those lines in the creed.  Whatever the reason, it seems we are becoming increasingly hazy on what exactly it means to follow Jesus, to live a life like His even to a death like His, so that we may hope to be resurrected like Him.  At the end of this text, the words of Abraham leave us with a haunting foreshadowing that now rings eerily true.  The rich man has begged him to send a resurrected Lazarus to warn his brothers about the dangers of wealth, with the idea that the appearance of a dead man might convince them that there is a different way to live.  Abraham’s reply?  If they haven’t heard Moses and the prophets, they won’t hear a man who is raised from the dead either.  Turns out he was right about us, even the resurrection hasn’t forced us to take Jesus seriously here . . .

            We haven’t heard this teaching with regard to wealth and we haven’t heard many of the other things Jesus teaches us about how to be faithful followers--at the least we haven’t taken them seriously, and so now we find the concept of discipleship suffering.  For some reason, we seem to be embarrassed by these demands Jesus makes on the lives of those who seek to follow Him.  We’re timid about being honest with people who come looking to understand what it means to be a Christian, we seem to stand on the front step of our churches waving people in . . . “Bring it all, bring your flag, your nationalism, your inclinations to violence, and most certainly your money, please bring that, because real ministry costs money.  You can bring it all with you, we have a sort of discipleship that lets you keep all of it, just so long as you have some warm tender feelings about Jesus and you felt guilty when you watched ‘The Passion’, you can keep it all!”  Somewhere along the line, we traded in the concept of costly discipleship for a bargain basement variety.  But to lower the cost of discipleship to the price we are willing to pay, or worse, to what we think others will be willing to pay, is to propagate a self indulgent heresy that puts our very salvation at risk.  We simply can’t do it anymore, we can’t stand in our pulpits and tell people anything other than the absolute truth about what Jesus taught, in this case that He condemned the accumulation of wealth, especially while others suffer right in front of us.  We are called to live differently, and we’re embarrassed by that.  How presumptuous, to make ourselves into apologists for Jesus. .  . .

            And so we have to wrestle, we have to be honest, we have to confess.  We must read and hear this text and let it move among us.  How do we read this text in the shadow of a $22 million dollar, 45, 000 square foot building addition that God’s people are constructing, while Lazarus still stands in the median on 15-501, holding his sign—“Hungry. . . .Living in the Woods. . . .Please Help. . . God Bless”?  What happens to us as God’s people when we read this text even as we go about our daily routine, pounding away at laptops, reading Scripture from our palm pilots, complaining about construction noise and the inconvenience of having class in this chapel, while young Lazarus sits in a classroom a few miles from here, without the materials she needs to learn, without a facility that creates a positive learning environment, perhaps without a teacher qualified to instruct her, and certainly without so much as a chance of ever seeing the inside of a classroom at a university like this one? How can we read this text without it killing us, when on Sunday God’s people will file through the doors of churches to give praise and worship to God and proclaim Jesus to be their Lord and Savior, and on Monday Lazarus will find those same doors locked, as she walks from church to church, eviction notice in hand, looking for just another month’s grace until she can get on her feet?  What do we do?

            Our hope rests in what Hauerwas tells us about the formation that comes from hearing the Word, that our hearing of this most difficult story will form us and shape us into something different than what we currently are, into something more than the sum total of our greed.  We are being prepared for something, God is still working our redemption.  My hope is that we are being formed to be the kind of pastors who can leave this place and preach this text honestly and unapologetically to the same people who sign our paychecks, the kind of pastors who can resist the temptation to make our callings upwardly mobile, to search for the “better” appointment or calling, a nicer parsonage or better pay.  Perhaps we are being shaped into the kind of leaders who can lead people away from their dependence and obsession with their possessions and out to the gate, where we find Lazarus.  It would be wonderful if God forged us into a new generation, a part of a reclamation process that restores some sense of a first century discipleship to a Church that has fallen victim to the riches of today’s Roman Empire.  Maybe the conviction this text brings will make us bold enough to tell people that following Jesus will mean giving up some of the things they now treasure, maybe we’ll be able to show them that by discovering what life in Jesus Christ is, we come to the realization that the things we gave up to follow Him weren’t worth much in the first place.  When it comes to fellowship with God, the purpose for which we were intended, cars and houses and money and stock portfolios turn to dust, they perish.  Yes, we’re being prepared for something. . . . I just hope it’s not the fire.


Posted at 06:54 pm by furrdawg
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