A Story about Sibu and Sam

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Meet Sibu and Sam.

Sibu and Sam have been friends for as long as they can remember. Sibu’s parents were poor, and Sam’s were rich.
As a teenager, Sibu loved to listen to the stories that his grandfather would tell of his childhood. Sam would often try to lure Sibu out of these conversations. You see, Sam’s grandfather passed away long ago. And besides, he couldn’t really understand how all the time spent listening to old people would be beneficial to his future.

Sam was a very intelligent kid. Sibu not so much. But Sibu was an avid learner. He enjoyed gaining new insights. Sam made sure his marks were good enough so that he could further his studies. He saw school as a bit of a waste.

Sibu’s hard work paid off in the end. He received a bursary, finished his degree and started working his way up in a company. Sam also finished his degree. His father gave him a substantial amount of money to start his own business.

Sibu and Sam are successful. Sam makes a lot of money. But the people who work for his company aren’t really fond of him. They often feel like pawns in the game that Sam is playing. Sibu is a manager at a company. He isn’t earning loads of money. But the people that work with Sibu, love him. They feel like Sibu is imparting his knowledge into his team. Many are eager to learn from him.

How do we define success? Sibu and Sam are both successful, but success shouldn’t always be measured in numbers. For Sam, his success has come at a cost. Sam has built an empire, but he is a lonely man. Sibu may not have all the money in the world, but he is living a rich and meaningful life.
The relationship that Jesus modeled with his disciples reveals to us the good practices of learning, unlearning and relearning.

Go ask any successful leader, and they will tell you that we are never too old, too wise or too busy to learn. All of us need to intentionally tap into the wealth of knowledge, experience and life lessons of the people around us. Without this, we will end up like Sam.

Choose your circle of influence wisely. I have often made the mistake of listening to people that will only say what I want to hear. If your circle of influence always tells you that you are on the right track, and where there is conflict, you are not the one who needs to change, you have a bad circle of influence.

Without the willingness to learn and to listen to others, we have not yet earned the right for people to learn from us, and listen to our stories.

Watch Out for the Comparison Trap!

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I have always been a big rugby fan. I can recall some Saturdays where my brother, my father and I would watch rugby games from 9 in the morning until 9 in the evening (I really wouldn’t recommend this to anyone!).

I loved playing rugby. But I wasn’t too good at it. After a game, the best advice that my family would give me was that I should try to look less like a ballerina when I run with the ball! When I was in the 5th grade, my rugby coach had a peculiar style of motivating his team. After every practice, he would target a different boy with the same line: “You are on thin ice, young man…thin ice…”. It worked like a charm! We won the league that year. All jokes aside, I don’t think our success had anything to do with his motivation or lack thereof. But people who work with people in this way, enforce the notion that we should always compare ourselves with others.

In the networks that I am a part of, I regularly rub shoulders with some pretty awesome people. People who embody the Kingdom of God in beautiful ways. People who have the craziest stories to tell. When I hear the stories that some people tell, sometimes it’s tempting not to start thinking: “You are on thin ice, young man…thin ice…” or “I wish I could be doing what she/he is doing…”

There is such a thin line between being inspired by others, and getting caught in the comparison trap.
Case in point: Ananias and Sapphira (in Acts 5). This husband and wife rubbed shoulders with a community that understood the value of sharing. People were selling some of their stuff and shared with their friends, so that everyone had enough, and no one had too much. Ananias and Sapphira also wanted to find the approval of the people. So they sold a piece of land and pretended to give all the money to their friends. But they kept some. They lost their lives because of this (scary stuff!).

The problem with the comparison trap is this: we focus too much on the things we should be doing (especially the things other people are nailing, but we are not). And we do not care enough about being the kind of person that God is forming us to become, and calling us to be for others.

People who get stuck in the comparison trap, struggle to be open and honest about who they are. If I hide my faults, my doubts and shortcomings at all cost, and only show people my nice (often fake) side, it’s likely that I will coax other people into the same trap. And so the toxic cycle continues.

Followers of Jesus are not supposed to be in the comparing business. We are in the business of inspiration. If our story, with all the cracks and bumps and bruises, serve to inspire people, then we can be grateful for that.

What happens when our Rules in Life starts weighing heavier than our Rule of Life?

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The world is mourning the loss of a legend. Most of us can recall a few movie scenes where Robin Williams captured our imagination.

But you don’t have to search very far to find some blogger or organization who felt the need to use his death as a reminder that Robin Williams is going straight to hell because of his suicide. It’s so unfortunate.

I have a rule of thumb for the way I view difficult issues: if I can’t speak out of my experience with real people, I’ll rather keep my beliefs to myself.

Many people who believe that people who commit suicide are going to hell, have never shared life with someone who is suffering from depression. Often, Christians who fight the hardest against homosexuality are people who have no relationship with a person who has been struggling with her/his sexuality for so many years.

We often do really well at figuring out the rights and wrongs of this world. And once we have determined the rules that we live by, come hell or high water, we will not seek to understand other people’s views or experiences.

I don’t think that we can really have a meaningful influence in the lives of people if we don’t make an intentional effort to try and climb into their skins. We will never be able to understand fully, but we can at least try.

It’s so easy to call the beggar on the street corner a lazy person. You see, once I’ve distinguished the flaw in his character, I have no responsibility to do anything other than calling him lazy.

A few weeks ago, many people in South Africa were talking about the students from Pretoria who dressed up as domestic workers for a 21st birthday. Some people were enraged, and called it outright racism. Others were laughing it off and saying that people will do anything to call everything racism these days.

Jonathan Jansen, rector at the University of the Free State, had the following to say on Facebook about the #Blackface issue: “I applaud the UP Management for taking a strong stand on blackface episode. The sad thing is that these kids probably wonder what all the fuss is about.”

I cannot agree more with Prof. Jansen. I am just a bit disillusioned after the whole incident. I don’t think many people’s minds have been changed. I hoped that people would have been given the opportunity to really listen to the views of people whose opinions differ from their own. That is the beauty of dialogue. Without true dialogue, we will never really help each other to climb into the skins of people whose ideas and ideologies differ so much from our own.

When our rules of life weigh heavier than the rule of life that we choose (the way we do life), we lose the ability make a connection with the lives of people.

A story about a lesson learnt from a security guard

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The other evening, I went to a place in the inner city of Pretoria with some of my friends, called Crossroads Coffee House. They have been involved with the homeless in the inner city for many years. I had a conversation with a man who was so grateful for a volunteer at Crossroads, who helped him to sort out his identification documents. But there was one particular conversation that really made me think about the attitude we sometimes have when it comes to our mission as God’s people.

I met a man who does security work. It just so happened that he was doing security work at a shopping mall in the community where I am staying. The first thing that bothered me, was the fact that this guy had a job, but he was still so poor that he came for a meal at a shelter. The other thing that I couldn’t stop thinking about, was the fact that I have probably walked past this guy many times before, but we had our first conversation in a liminal space.

Our visit to Crossroads exposed my own blind spot when it comes to God’s mission. I realized that I often function in outreach mode. When I was in outreach mode, only then was I willing to have a conversation with a security guard. When I’m functioning in the “real world”, not so much.

When we go on short-term mission trips, I am willing to go anywhere (mainly because I’m not driving around in my own car, I don’t have my wallet with me and I have a cheap phone with me). When I’m in the “real world”, I reason that responsible people should hang out in spaces where we are relatively safe.

A friend of mine was talking about intentionality the other evening. I was confronted with my own life, and the fact that I don’t always think about the world that I live in and the things I do in this world. I might have a desire to be a friend of outcasts, the poor and unimportant people in society, but if I pray that God will miraculously send these people to my doorstep, I might be praying for a very long time.

Jesus had a thing for moving in spaces where his contemporaries were not comfortable going. He didn’t do this because he wanted to be called the rebel of society; he moved where the need was.

I have once again been confronted with how God’s mission finds embodiment in my life. Are we going where the Spirit is working, or are we moving where we have become used to moving?

Mandela Day and the Ten to One Principle

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Infatuation is a funny thing. I can still vividly remember the girl I had a crush on when I was about 10 years old. In my 10 year old head, she was the most amazing person roaming the earth! I soaked in every word that she said, and I believed that she was the smartest person on earth. I could stare at her for days without end. But there was a catch: she enjoyed the attention, but I knew that she didn’t feel the same about me. That didn’t keep me from pursuing her, though.

That’s the thing with love, and life in general. You have to expose your heart to enjoy the fruits of being able to give love, generosity, mercy. And we will never have the security that what we give, will be received and accepted in honesty and gratitude.

Maybe some of these stories ring a bell: Man knocks on your door, says he is hungry. You give him something to eat, he throws the food away. Woman says her husband is gravely ill (and for some reason they are always from Limpopo!). She needs to go back ASAP. You give her R 150 for transport. Tomorrow you find her still asking for the same R 150. Man tells you about his 6-month old baby that is starving. Two years later, his baby is still 6 months old!

When it comes to giving and trying to make a difference in the lives of people who seem to be in desperate need of support, I like to remind people of the ten to one principle. I have spoken to far too many people who exposed their heart by trying to help, but felt that they were cheated in the process.

What is the definition of ten to one? It means that something is very likely to happen, or very likely not to happen. This is a very important principle when it comes to helping people: the ten to one principle says that if a total stranger knocks on your doorstep, it is very likely that whatever story they are telling you is not the truth.

When it comes to infatuation, as you grow older, you realize that it is worthwhile to get to know a person before you spill the beans about your feelings. Or you learn that you don’t trust someone who promises you the sun, moon and the stars before you get to know their character. If we want to help people, for me, the same principle applies: in most cases, we can only really start helping if we get to know who the person is that we are helping.

The most important lesson that I have learnt about the ten to one principle, is not to give up. If a 16-year old says that she will never love again because she got hurt in a relationship, any adult would tell her that she will eventually learn to expose herself to loving again. The same applies for giving. If I keep a clenched fist because of a person who abused my trust, I am going to live a sad life. Once again, the ten to one principle helps me with this: of the ten people that I try to support, only one might turn out positively. But that one good story should be enough for us to keep on living with an open heart and open hands.

Today is Mandela Day. Thousands of South Africans are going to give 67 minutes of their time to make South Africa a better place, in honour of the legacy of Nelson Mandela. The great thing about this day, is the fact that many corporate companies are supporting existing organizations who make a difference in their communities. That is smart giving. The bad thing about today, is the fact that of these thousands of people, many will ten to one only give some of their time and money next year, at the next Mandela Day.

Followers of Jesus don’t have the ‘luxury’ of choosing if we want to give. We are called to a lifestyle of self-giving. We do, however, have the responsibility to choose when and how we need to give. And even though people might sometimes abuse our trust, may we choose to stand up and give again and again. May we also learn to give wisely, and not to soothe our conscience.

Does African Time serve any purpose other than frustration?

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I am always a fan of a good buffet lunch. When I was a young boy, we had a monthly family date where we enjoyed a Sunday buffet lunch at a small hotel in town. We normally counted the days leading up to those meals! After eating way too much, we ended off our day with an afternoon nap. When I woke up from that nap, I always had the feeling that life couldn’t get any better!

When my wife told me that a local NGO was hosting a buffet lunch for a fundraiser, it didn’t take much to convince me to go. The programme was supposed to start at 13:00, but we eventually started at about 13:45. When the master of ceremonies eventually started speaking, he mentioned that starting late was imbedded in the culture of the community.

This cultural phenomenon is widely known as African time.
African time is the opposite of Western time. Western life is very much clock-bound, where life in many African countries seem to be more relaxed and not filled with too rigorous schedules.
In South Africa, we have a pretty solid mix of African- and Western time. This often leads to a lot of frustration. In a working environment, if the majority of people attending a meeting make sure that they are on time, the one or two people who are not too worried about punctuality can really break your speed.
Some people have explained that African time should not be seen as laziness or carelessness. Rather, we should try to understand that some people tend to manage more than one thing at a time, while others focus on working in a more strict sequence.

I think there are some things that all of us can learn from African time. But there might be a myth or two that needs to be debunked.
For those of us (like myself) who often find African time a source of frustration, maybe we should expose our own view of time first. I have turned down many potential conversations, phone calls or meals with people that could have served a significant and meaningful purpose. My excuse has always been that I don’t have time, or that I was on my way to a meeting (let’s be honest, many meetings are not that important or constructive anyway!). If a friend or colleague were a few minutes late for our appointment or even cancelled our appointment, because they were having a meaningful and important conversation, I really wouldn’t mind. In that sense, I think all Africans should embrace African time.

But I have also learnt a valuable lesson from people of different cultures who place a valuable price tag on punctuality: people who make a habit of being late are not late because of their busyness or because they were in the midst of a life-saving commitment.

When I was still studying, I was late for almost every class that I attended; until one lecturer made the remark that being late for a commitment conveys an unspoken message. The latecomer sees her/himself as superior, compared to the rest of the people who went through the trouble to be punctual. That has shaped my view of punctuality tremendously. People who choose to be late for no specific reason, should not be allowed to blame it on African time.

May we not become so busy that we lose track of the important things in life. May we also not waste other people’s time. Somewhere in the middle, is where I think African time serves a good purpose.

Making Friends with Monsters

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There’s a new monster in town.

Newspapers in South Africa have introduced us to this newest specimen from Springs. According to reports, in a house infested with rats and lice, this man had been abusing and torturing his wife and children. And they weren’t allowed to leave their house.

It really is a sad story. No human being (children especially) should be on the receiving end of such terrible abuse.

I find it fascinating how the media hands out labels, and we are too happy to accept them.

When children are brought up in a destructive environment, we have pity on them. But when that child grows up and embodies what they have been exposed to, we are comfortable with labelling them as monsters, whores and thieves.

It’s almost like the dragon in Shrek. At first glance, Shrek and Donkey is up against a monster that has no regard for their lives. And then Donkey realizes that the monster is a she who craves love and attention. She is so desperate for it, that she goes looking for it in an ass!

Can I introduce you to another monster? He roamed the earth about 2000 years ago. Followers of Jesus were terrified of him. His name was Saul.

This fanatic Jew would do whatever it took to stop the people of the way (as Jesus’ followers were called then) in their tracks. When Saul was still a young man, he stood by when Stephen, the first martyr of the Christendom, was stoned.

And then Jesus chose to use this monster. His heart was transformed by Jesus. Saul became Paul, and he was one of the most influential instruments that God used in the history of the Kingdom of God.

I think we put labels (like monster) around people’s necks, because then our fears are justified. You see, if there are monsters around, and if they are out to get us, we have every right to isolate ourselves from the rest of the world. We have every right to cover our children in cotton wool and help them to be on the lookout for the monsters lurking.

We live lives that are often driven by our fears. We play out scenes in our head of what could possibly happen, and then we carry those fears around wherever we go; almost like a shadow. I imagine how my boss would criticize me, and I imagine how I would put him in his place. When my wife doesn’t answer her phone when it gets late, I imagine how she is in a back alley with a bunch of ‘monsters’. This kind of thinking hosts false fear, and it is toxic.

Before we start looking for the monsters around us, let us become aware of the shadows that we choose to drag along with us.