A Tree Between Other Trees

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Two of the most contrasting places you will find sitting across from each other in Pretoria has to be at the Sheraton Hotel.

People from around the world pay heaps of money to sleep in the Sheraton. On the left hand side of the road, the Union Buildings is situated. These are two landmarks in Pretoria. Some pretty influential people walk the expensive carpets of the Sheraton and the Union Buildings.

But the contrast is found, not on the left side of the Sheraton, but directly across it. Here you will find the Compassion Centre. At the Compassion Centre, you will find a host of interesting and inspiring people, busy with some crazy stuff.

During the evening, the doors of the Night Church are opened. At the Night Church, people from all walks of life are welcome to enjoy a cup of coffee, have some free medical check-ups done, rent small storage lockers almost for free, and take part in a short devotion. The Night Church is also planning to open a shelter during the winter months.

On the one side of the road, people pay thousands of rands to sleep in style. On the other, you can sleep for next to nothing. At the Sheraton, you have to have loads of money to be welcome. At the Night Church, it really doesn’t matter how much money you have. The doors are open for all.

The other evening, I saw a guy at the Night Church who had a familiar face. I thought that I might have seen this guy at the Night Church before. He came up to me and said: “How long have you been in Pretoria? When did you leave Nelspruit?” This guy knew me from my hometown! And then it dawned on me: we attended the same school. He came to the Night Church, because he was living on the street. 

It was the weirdest feeling.

When I moved into our neighbourhood a few years ago, I couldn’t help noticing a middle-aged guy constantly walking around in the street. He would often sit against our wall. I later found that his parents still stay in the neighbourhood. But he is not welcome there. He got addicted to drugs many years ago, and he would pawn all of their stuff so he could get his next fix. I also found that this guy attended school in our community, and there is a man in our faith community that was one of his classmates. He once told me that he can remember vividly how this guy had a drinking problem when he was still in school.

I wonder how different the lives of these two men could have been (or still can be) if someone took the time to befriend and support them. That someone could have been me or my friend in my faith community.

Many of us can recall some great outreaches that we have been on in faraway places. But wherever we are planted on a permanent basis, we are planted between different trees. And we need each other. We don’t always have to look far to see that we can have an impact on someone’s life.

That is what I find so inspiring when I think about Jesus’ life on earth. Wherever He went, lives were touched. Whether the people were influential, like Nicodemus, who was part of the Jewish council, or exiled, like the leper that was healed by Jesus; He was aware of those around Him.

Jesus’ life has taught me to be tuned in to the trees planted around me. And to be available.  

Rethinking How We Determine Worth

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One of my new favourite TV shows is Storage Wars. It documents the lives of people who buy storage lockers that are auctioned off after three months of the rent not being paid.

I’m not sure why I enjoy the show that much, really. I think I find the story each locker tells quite interesting. By looking at the stuff in the locker, I try to guess who the owner could have been. But what I find even more fascinating, is when a locker holds some really valuable, hidden treasures. I have often seen people buying a locker for $300, when they later discover that it’s actually worth $30 000.

We often have a skewered idea of worth. The criteria that we use to determine whether it’s worth investing some of our time, money or attention into something, is sometimes just baffling.

In some communities, having a disabled child is believed to be a curse. Many parents leave their disabled babies for dead, or drop them off where they will be looked after.

Many introverts are rarely appreciated for the unique qualities that they possess. Unfortunately, in most instances, if you have a loud mouth, you are taken seriously. But few people take the time to pick the mind of a person who doesn’t control a conversation.

I received a phone call this week from a young, newlywed guy who was part of our faith community when he was still studying. He called to hear how we were doing, and to say that he was thinking of us. Even though it was only a small gesture, phone calls like this one really can’t be measured in worth.

Jesus had an upside down way of determining worth. He looked differently at things and people. The worthless, according to society, felt worthy in His presence.

If we don’t train ourselves to be on the lookout for potential in people and situations, we will have a poor view of what worth really is all about. I think we have been conditioned to evaluate things, people and situations at face value. If the worth is not evident, then it’s not worth our attention, time or money.

I believe that Jesus has shown us the alternative when evaluating: dig deeper. The deeper we dig, the more we realize that we should always be open to the possibility of transformation. When Jesus spoke to children, he didn’t see them as a nuisance, but as a great opportunity for mutual learning. And when we learn, we change. When He welcomed a prostitute into his circle of influence, He did so because He knew that she had the potential to be a beautiful woman, on the inside and the outside.

I want to keep on challenging my view of the worth of things. I also want to broaden my boundaries when it comes to the potential I see in people.

Worth is not only found in the big and the impressive. It’s often found in the small, the seemingly worthless, the queer.       

Poster-boys and -girls and their Promises

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The Spear-Head (see what I did there) of my country will today explain to parliament why he cannot be blamed for blatant corruption at his homestead in Nkandla.

The older I get, the more I realize that no political party will ensure the health or happiness of a country, even though (especially before elections) that is what all of them are claiming to do if they were to be in the steer.

I have said before that Africa especially has a desperate need for leaders with integrity. Apart from a few legends like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the moral fiber of this continent leaves much to be desired. Having said that, I am not going to live with the expectation that influential and important people are going to change this continent.

There are many unimportant, seemingly of no use, people who are choosing to live inspiring stories. People who don’t make promises to create ‘A Better Country For All’ or ‘Economic Freedom in Our Lifetime’. They are people who do what seems right, who cares about the people in their community. Society might not see them as the ones worthy of leading people, but maybe that is a blessing in disguise.

Like a handful of people in the poor community of Derdepoort who have started a bakery called Bethlegem (house of bread). They bake bread at cost price for non-profit organizations, like old age homes, social work offices and orphanages. One of the team members that provides much of the funding doesn’t want anyone to know that he is involved. He would rather not have his face on a poster.

Like two young men who stay in Olievenhoutbosch; a poor community on the way to Krugersdorp. Even though they are also studying, when they are back from their class at about 14:00, they go to a school close to their homes everyday to help the kids with their homework. On Saturdays, they play games with all the kids in their community, that teaches them core values. They also share the love of Jesus with these kids that are so hungry for love.

Like the nurse who works night shifts for twelve hours straight. After her night shifts, she does volunteer work at schools, by teaching children about the Bible. She is the coordinator of these classes and has many people who does volunteer work with her. Because of her dedication, hundreds (maybe even thousands) of children hear the Good News.

Like a lady in my community that receives food parcels and distributes them to struggling families at her own cost. The irony is that she is also struggling financially.

Like the young lady that struggles with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and an eating disorder, who cannot hold a job, but still chooses (with much effort) to treat other people by preparing dinner for them.

‘It only takes a minute amount of yeast…to permeate an entire loaf of bread.’ The Message

It certainly is true of these people. Their small contributions has a far-reaching impact.

I don’t care what the posters say. When people start making promises, you can almost always be sure that they won’t be kept. I would rather be on the lookout for people who try to dodge the limelight; people who are busy working where most people dare not go.

That is where you will see the Kingdom at work. 

Image

Some of the bakers at Bethelegem bakery.

 

How To Excuse Your Way Into a Better You

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I met a great man a few weeks ago.

It seldom happens that I meet someone new, and get the impression that they really want to get to know you. This man did. He kept on asking for my name when he forgot, and every time he saw me, he asked questions that would help him to get to know who I am.

After a while, I commended him for the way that he spoke to people and how he did his best to really get to know people.

His reply was: ‘Thank you so much for sharing this with me. You know, that is the one thing that I have been struggling with and I have asked God to help me to become better.’

I sometimes get the idea we think that some people are born with the ability to be great people, and others not so much. I have realized that I sometimes use excuses as to why I cannot become better. Here are some excuses people (myself included) like to use:

-          I don’t have time: Most people don’t have much spare time. But ultimately, we should always remember that the time we spend, is the time we have chosen to spend. If most of my time is spent on things that doesn’t add meaning to my life, or other people’s lives, then maybe it’s time to re-evaluate my timetable.    

 

-          I’m sorry, but…: We really suck at taking responsibility for things. I have come to the conclusion that if I cannot say ‘I’m sorry’ without a ‘but’, I am not really that sorry. You see, if we add a ‘but’ to all our apologies, we will always look for the reason why we couldn’t have been better. And that pattern has the knack of repeating itself.

 

-          It’s in my genes/ It’s because of my culture: I have heard many people try to find excuses for their bad temper in this way. If you believe that your behaviour is bound by your genes or culture, then I have some great news for you: you always have the opportunity to choose how to respond in any given situation. If addiction runs in the family, does that mean that my wife, children, colleagues and friends should suffer because of this? I don’t think so. From emotional intelligence we have learnt that we always have the ability to choose the alternative. It might not be easy, but it sure is possible.

 

-          You don’t know what I’ve been through: Life isn’t always fair. I cannot answer why people have to experience pain. I also don’t know why all people can’t be dealt the same blows. Circumstance (poverty, abuse, neglect etc.) often digs holes that we fall into. I have experienced how people sometimes find security in the holes that circumstance have dug for them. We sometimes find our identity in our circumstance, because we start believing that this is who we are, and this is what we deserve. But (often with the help of other people) no hole that circumstance might dig, is deep enough for us to become stuck in.

 

Philippians 2:12-13 helps us with how we should strive to be better:

‘Be energetic in your life of salvation, reverent and sensitive before God. That energy is God’s energy, an energy deep within you, God himself willing and working at what will give him the most pleasure.’

The longer I follow Jesus, the more I realize that He wants me to get better, and closer to Him.

To Ubuntu or Not to Ubuntu? That is the Question.

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In the years that I spent on the campus of the University of Pretoria, there is one memory that I don’t think I will easily forget.

An old man parked his nearly-falling-apart bakkie (pickup truck) on campus. On the back of the bakkie was a whole bunch of family members. They wore their best Sunday outfit, even though their best outfits couldn’t hide the fact that they didn’t have much.

It was the first graduation in the family. They were making a noise and rejoicing as they walked to the auditorium.

I don’t know how they convinced the organizers that the whole family could attend; normally you can only bring two or three guests. But I’m pretty convinced they made a plan! 

There is a Southern African principle that I think is crucial to the wellbeing of communities, but also to us as persons. It is called Ubuntu. Ubuntu is a Nguni Bantu term, which literally means “human-ness.”

Ubuntu says: ‘I am a person, because you are a person. And because you are, I can also be.’

I have come to realize that in my own life, but also those surrounding me, we often find it difficult to live the concept of dependence: I need you and you need me.

It’s almost as if we find ourselves more and more in competitiveness. In some or other way, everything is a race, and we are most certainly not running with each other. I may smile at you, but I am definitely not running with you. I am running this race for myself.

We might be surprised how much we can learn from each other if we start walking alongside each other. But we are too busy for that. Time is money, time is precious, and time stands still for nobody. But time without being aware of the people around me, isn’t worth much.

I have realized that I find it difficult to be genuinely happy for other people’s joys and success. My first reaction, is to question whether I have what they have. It’s sad, really.

For the next forty days, I am trying to reflect on the violent society that I am a part of, and even sometimes a contributor in. I am reflecting on the prayer traditionally ascribed to St. Francis of Assissi: Lord make me an instrument of peace. For the whole prayer, click here.

A part of the prayer goes:

‘O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek:

To be consoled as to console;

To be understood as to understand;

To be loved as to love.’ 

 

I think that is the mystery of peace, and the mystery of ubuntu.

I can only be a peaceful person, when I realize that peace is not found when I focus on myself. I can only live ubuntu, when I recognize the beauty of those surrounding me.  

When the Head Connects with the Heart

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We all know the feeling… when you walk into an interview and you know that it’s going to be a roasting. Or when you get a first glance at the test, and you know that you should have forgotten about the sports on TV the night before. It’s never a great feeling!

I have spoken to many couples before they get married. Many of them can explain in the finest detail how the flowers will be arranged for their special day, how the children will be entertained, and what spices will be put on the chicken.

And then I ask the simple question: “What have you guys done as a couple for marriage preparation?”

Silence.

Some of them probably think: “Haven’t you listened when we explained the whole reception?!” Others say that they know each other so well that they don’t need marriage preparation.

In life, one of the most important things that we should consider, is the amount of preparation that we put into things. Equally important is the approach that we use to prepare. I can prepare for something for months, but if I don’t prepare wisely, I will have wasted a lot of time.

For example: I can be convinced that I should be investing some of my time into a teenager who needs support. That is a great idea. But the fact that I have a great idea, doesn’t mean that it will have a great outcome. Ideas like these need to be executed, and for that we need to prepare properly.

The thing with wise preparation is, it helps us to figure out the nitty-gritty detail of what we are planning to do. How will I invest my time? How much? When? And as I flesh out the details of what I want to do, a whole other set of questions might pop up that I have not even considered, like: Why do I want to do this? Do I even know what a teenager needs? What if my investment in time leads me to the conclusion that I need to make a financial investment?

You see, we started with an idea. Stuff of the mind. As the preparation started taking flesh, we were confronted with our intention behind the idea. And that is where the magic happens; when the stuff of our minds get aligned with the stuff of our hearts, which leads to the stuff of our hands and feet and lips.

Many Christians all over the world are participating in the season of Lent. Lent is the forty days before Easter. The reason behind Lent, is that followers of Jesus take the time to prepare for Easter. Preparation questions our intention, which leads to action. In this time of preparation, many people focus on the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Of course, followers of Jesus are free to prepare and question their intentions as much as they like, whenever they like! But this time of communal focus helps many.    

I have come to the realization that I need to make the stuff of my head connect with my heart more. And for that to happen, I have to keep on questioning whether the stuff of my hands and feet are intentional actions.    

When Ice Cream Blows Your Top

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I saw a man complaining at McDonald’s yesterday that his ice cream was melting too quickly. No jokes. The poor manager had to endure about forty minutes of pointless blabber, because this man believed that she needed to hear his disappointment with how quickly ice cream melts. It’s funny when we stop and consider the things we sometimes focus our attention on, and how we can get so tense about things.

In South Africa, most of us try to avoid a home affairs office at all cost. I was privileged enough to visit one at the end of the month…big mistake! Or was it?

I haven’t seen so many old people together in a while. Why most of the people in the queues had grey heads, I’m not sure. But it was really odd. Usually, when there is an elderly in a queue, you make sure that she/he gets a chair, or is helped first. So, what do you do when there is a whole bunch of them?!       

If you want to spend most of your life dealing with disgruntled people, all of them adamant that their case deserves your serious attention, you should consider working at home affairs. I wouldn’t be surprised if a home affairs employee receives danger pay!

One thing that I try to do when I know I’ll be standing in a queue, is to take a book along. By the way, I’m busy reading Donald Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. Great book. But this time, it was as though my eyes couldn’t focus on my book. I began wondering about all the grey heads around me. Can you imagine how fascinating it would be if all these people started turning around, and asking each other questions, like: ‘Why are you here? Where are you from?’

I could compose a pretty fascinating journal if I took the time to write down all the stories that were caught up in that room. The lady on my left realized after seven years of being a widow, that her husband’s identity had been hijacked by someone, and that person has been receiving his state pension for the last seven years. The couple on my right were going to get married. They could hardly contain their excitement. With a simple question, like “Why are you here?” I almost felt like I was treading on holy ground. On my left, I could share in a woman’s helplessness; on my right, I felt like a guest at a wedding ceremony.

We can so easily get caught up in the trivial things in life: deadlines, quarrels, budgets. These things often numb our senses to truly experience what surrounds us: smells, tastes, faces with stories to tell. Instead of becoming caught up in trivialities, I want to be drawn into stories.

When the disciples were surrounded by about 15 000 hungry mouths, Jesus considered a creative alternative: “How about we feed them?”

We are often offered creative alternatives to the ‘stuckness’ of our lives. We might be pleasantly surprised if we explore them.