Thursday, December 24, 2009

Mary, Did You Know?

Greetings from Cape Town this blessed Christmas Eve!

"...and she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn." (Luke 2:7)

As this new year has begun with the reflective season of Advent, we are called not to look back on those things we have struggled with or which have held us back in the year past, but to look forward to the many things our great God has in store for us in the days to come. We have spent these past 4 weeks preparing ourselves for the coming of Christ, our rock and our foundation who came to us in the miraculous, unexpected and incredibly vulnerable state of an infant. I can't help but to wonder what it must have been like that first Christmas as Mary gave birth to the Christ-child. I am reminded of the words to one of my favorite Christmas songs,

    Mary did you know that your baby boy
       would one day walk on water?
    Mary did you know that your baby boy
       would save our sons and daughters?
    Did you know that your baby boy
       has come to make you new?
         This child that you delivered,
            would soon deliver you?

These words remind me of the vulnerability of our God and of the vulnerability we are invited to have through relationship with this newborn baby, our Savior. Just as we wish to have a relationship with, to love on and care for little babies in our communities, I imagine we would also have wanted to care for the tiny baby Jesus. In that way, the birth of Christ as a baby starts to make sense for me in a way it never has before. It is an invitation into relationship with God in the least threatening way possible. God has presented God's self to us in a way that seems impossible and yet irresistible. Quite unlike meeting angels face to face, there is nothing threatening about this child that would cause one to greet Him for the first time with the words, "be not afraid." Instead, the first words spoken by outsiders are words of praise, as the shepherds "made known what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed" (Luke 2:17-18).

In reading the Gospel of Luke's account of the birth of Christ, I am drawn in by the power of these words, one line at a time. I accept the invitation to journey through that night with the one person closest to Jesus, wondering what this night must have been like for Mary. The words catch me every time... when the Shepherds spoke these amazing prophetic words about her newborn son, we are told she "treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart" (Luke 2:19). As she pondered in what I imagine to be joy and amazement, I wonder,

    Mary did you know that your baby boy
       would give sight to a blind man?
    Mary did you know that your baby boy
       would calm the storm with his hand?
    Did you know that your baby boy
       has walked where angels trot?
    When you kiss your baby,
       you kiss the face of God?

So much of why we celebrate the birth of the tiny baby Jesus is because we know these pieces of the story: Jesus grew up and invited us into a more full reality of who He was created to be. He has selflessly offered himself and returned infinitely more love than was poured over him as a child.

This annual night of remembering Christ as an infant is a reminder of the constant invitation for us to continue that relationship. Jesus maintained the purity and innocence of the child we picture on this night, and so in the same way as we fearlessly oddle over and seek relationship with the infant Immanuel, we are invited to enter into a relationship with the same Christ who invites the deaf to hear and the lame to leap.

It is true that for many, Christmas is about sharing gifts and spending time with family. I think we got this right: I believe God truly would want us to commemorate the birth of God's son by giving to and sharing with one another in love. Yet in sharing gifts we must remember that in the Christ child, we were given the greatest gift that could ever be given. We have been offered and invited to share in the gift of relationship and meaning in our lives. Through this relationship, we are loved and offered new life. New life that is remembered on this night, especially through the celebrated life of a new, unexpecting and holy child we long to love and care for, yet who loves and cares for us far more than we will ever know.

    Mary Did you know that your baby boy
       is Lord of all creation?
    Mary did you know that your baby boy
       will one day rule the nations?
    Did you know that your baby boy
       is heavens perfect lamb?
          and this little child you're holding is the great I AM?

May God be with you this Blessed Christmas Season

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Add To The Beauty

Usually when I fail to update often, it is because I dont have words to say or have been so busy I haven’t had time to post them. As of late, it seems to have been the opposite. I’ve had so many things weighing on me and demanding my attention that as they quickly run through my mind I have struggled to capture them for long enough to write them down.

Today, my friend Don posted (via Twitter) this link to a blogger’s sincere review of his new book. Unfortunately, it has not yet been released here in South Africa, so I am yet to read it myself. However, reading reflections like this one does two things for me: 1- make me more anxious to get my own copy, and 2 - make me miss the Ride:Well Tour and the way we somehow came to understand that life is to be lived with a sense of urgency in living a more full life.

This reminded me of the words of what has become one of my anthems. The song is Add To the Beauty by Sara Groves, and as we grow closer to Christmas and move into the new year, this is, I realize, what my heart and soul are crying out for: to Add to the Beauty.

Add To the Beauty
We come with beautiful secrets
We come with purposes written on our hearts, written on our souls
We come to every new morning
With possibilities only we can hold, that only we can hold

Redemption comes in strange places, small spaces
Calling out the best of who we are

And I want to add to the beauty
To tell a better story
I want to shine with the light
That's burning up inside

It comes in small inspirations
It brings redemption to life and work
To our lives and our work

It comes in loving community
It comes in helping a soul find it's worth

Redemption comes in strange places, small spaces
Calling out the best of who we are

And I want to add to the beauty
To tell a better story
I want to shine with the light
That's burning up inside

This is grace, an invitation to be beautiful
This is grace, an invitation

Redemption comes in strange places, small spaces
Calling out our best

And I want to add to the beauty
To tell a better story
I want to shine with the light
That's burning up inside

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Occassions to Celebrate

The past few weekend have been eventful and full of time to spend with the Ilunga family, as we are invited/expected to be at family events. It has been a great way to get to know them better - the girls but perhaps especially Mama and Papa while outside of work-related events.

The first of these family weekend events was the weekend we returned from the Congo. In true Ilunga style, we received a text message at 3 telling us to be ready to be picked up at 5. That's it. We didn't know why, or where we were going. We did call to find out if we should eat supper first, to which we received a surprised "of course not! We're going out to eat!" haha, ok... good to know, right?

The purpose for this particular outing was to celebrate Debbie's 17th birthday! One more year as a minor... and she made sure we knew it! We - the 5 Ilunga girls, Mama & Papa, Clifford, Vixa, Rachel, Hannah & I - gathered for some much-needed laughs over our celebratory dinner, complete with singing a few rounds of Happy Birthday to implement proper amounts of embarrassment for the birthday girl!

On our way out, we did manage to stop for a family photo. Too bad the pretty blue wall behind us doesn't look so pretty with the flash ruining the sweet lighting. But you get the idea. :)

Our next outing was the following Friday, for which we gathered for yet another Ilunga family birthday - this time, Judy was turning 19! Again meeting up at the Waterfront for dinner, we added more people to our group and did our best to sing, take photos, etc. A quality bonding activity with the family, we are definitely starting to see different sides of them - esp Mama Tembo - and I love it! It also helped piece together where "innocent" little Nissia gets all her spunk from! haha


For the third weekend in a row, we spent a day this past weekend at another family function, this time at a wedding Mama and Papa were hosting (as the godparents of the groom). The ceremony was beautiful and provided an eventful and full day of events, beginning early (not until 10am for us) with preparations and continuing on an "African time" schedule. Following the ceremony, we (the entire wedding party, which we somehow became a part of and Hannah became the official photographer for) made our way around town for photos. We stopped at the city garden, where this group photo was taken, then moved to Milnerton beach, where a few of us managed to go play in the water while the photos were being shot. Eventually we made it back to the Ilunga home, where the entire party gathered to eat lunch and do that thing we are oh-so-very good at these days: wait. Nearly everyone changed to eat so they wouldn't spill on the fancy attire, only to begin with hair, make-up and new outfits for the reception. As usual, this took a bit longer than anticipated, and we arrived at the reception just over two hours late. The guests are clearly used to this routine, though, as when we entered about 15 minutes before the couple, everyone seemed content as could be just hanging out in the reception hall.

The arrival of the couple meant a meal was soon to follow, followed by lots of dancing and photo opportunities (Hannah did a great job!). The party got one so late and everyone had such a good time cutting the cake was nearly forgotten! Seriously. It was so late when it was finally cut they decided not to bother serving it, and shortly thereafter the couple left, encouraging the guests to do so soon thereafter. A great time was had by all, but the time we left, we were definitely exhausted and thankful to be going home. We did manage to get one quick picture of the 3 of us in our "reception dresses" on our way out the door, though. A definite shout-out must be had to the Ilunga girls, once again, for letting us go through their closets (per request of Mama Tembo). All 3 of us started in clothing we'd taken the previous week. Then in the afternoon we unexpectedly changed into eveningwear... again, courtesy (not that it was always a choice) of the Ilunga closets. They're pretty stylish girls, huh?

This has been a lot of excitement in a little bit of time, especially since we spent today at a town meeting in Atlantis! (hopefully more on that later) With the youth Stay Awake Friday (read: lock-in only everyone seriously stays awake all night) and another wedding on Saturday (that we are not anticipating making after being up all night, if we can help it), to say we are tired would be an understatement. Its that good kind of tired, though. The kind that keeps me alive and remembering what we are living for. That every day is a new day, that every moment presents a new opportunity for adventure, that there are countless ways to enjoy life through love, laughter, and joy.

These are the kinds of moments I am living for. I have embarked on this crazy adventure. I have moved to South Africa because I believe God has called me to live and work and pray and serve.... and learn. Each day (like these) that I have to live more fully into the community I have been welcomed into here, I know I am being shaped. Sometimes, it feels like pinning and prodding. Most of the time, it feels like love shared between friends and family. That's how it feels today, and I realize I must have the best "job" in the world: I would rather be no other place in the world than right here, right now. That, friends, is an incredible feeling, and I praise God for it! and I praise God for you - my supporters and prayer warriors and friends and family who have helped support me and bring me to this place. Really, truly, from the bottom of my heart, I want to thank you for being a part of this journey with me.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

World Cup Final Draw was AYOBA!

It has finally begun. The 2010 FIFA World Cup events, hosted this year for the first time by an African country, have begun in Cape Town. The world is preparing for it, and it is a great joy to watch first-hand the ways in which the World Cup has become such a great uniter among the excited fans throughout South Africa in particular.

As they well should be, South Africans are proud. The are excited. Sure, at some level the whole world (minus most of the USA, *sigh*) is excited for this great uniting sports competition, but they are REALLY excited. I mean... they are so excited they don't even have words to describe it, so new ones are created! Seriously. The World Cup and all things good around it can only be described by one undefinable word created for just this purpose: "AYOBA!"

So when I realized that the kick-off event for the World Cup - the Final Draw - would be taking place in Cape Town, two thoughts occured to me. One: it is going to be packed and chaotic downtown, and no one in their right mind would want to brave that crowd when they could watch from home and probably have a better idea at what's going on. Two: I wonder if my roommates would want to go with me, and if we could talk Clifford or Vixa into driving us.

Fortunately, we didn't have to ask: Clifford decided we should go and asked if he could take us. check!

So he did... and ten miutes after we arrived and had begun making our way through the crowd, we departed, planning to use technology as the only means to actually meet up again in these masses. We were there a bit early to make sure we'd be able to get in, and it was already PACKED! Its kind of hard to tell in this picture, taken shortly after we arrived, but we were pretty excited to actually be in Long Street for the World Cup Final Draw!

Fortunately, our thinking was right: we later found out they blocked the streets off and wouldn't let any more people in when it got over capacity at around 120,000 people. The last (unofficial) number I heard was that there were close to 150,000... but numbers don't really matter when it gets that high anyway. Basically, for as far as we could see in any direction, we could only see thousands of people. It was kind of intense and really awesome.

We obviously started all the way in the back, where the huge mass of people was pretty intimidating. By the time the draw started at 7 we had discovered how to avoide the ridiculous masses and found a hole in the crowd next to some great folks who were there for the festivities, but who (like us) really wanted to actually watch the draw. It was a perfect match as we battled to hear and would reveal results to each other as they were read. Pretty good draws, too: South Africa will play in opening game against Mexico! Uruguay and France are the other two teams making up Group A, while the USA will open group C matches against England with Algeria and Slovenia making up the other half of our group. Basically, that means we (USA) got a GREAT draw, and have an incredible chance of making it to the top 16! We got some funny looks for being so excited about this, but hey, what can I say? There are at least a few soccer fans in the US...

Following the draw, we slowly we made our way forward through the crowd; by the time our evening came to a close, we were about 10 rows from the front. Definitely an adventure, it was the perfect place to enjoy live music, meet lots of new and interesting people, and of course do the one thing we'd been wanting to go out for since we arrived: dance. So, here we were, mid-dance party, waiting for the final musicians of the evening to come on stage.

To our great (and pleasant) surprise in this giant crowd, we actually ran into a number of people we know, namely members of the Kalenga familiy or people we knew through SHADE/Woodstock Church that we didn't even realize were there. It was a great addition to the night, somehow making this city we live in feel a bit more like home.

We eventually closed the night with as much laughter and celebration as we started with, finally meeting up with Clifford, Sandra and Vixa. We were all exhausted but running on adrenaline, but clearly I seemed to have a bit more, as Vixa decided I should carry him up a hill. I talk big and had already smoothly made reference to how I of course could do it, the strength of a woman to carry a man or something of that sort. Fortunately, on this one I hadn't bitten off too much more than I could chew, and after stopping for pictures to remember the event by, it gave us all the more reasons to laugh together.

All in all, Dec 4, 2009 proved to be a memorable night, and as one of the posters on Long Street said, I am glad to be able to say, "I was there" the night it all began in Cape Town. It only makes me all the more excited about all that is to come with the World Cup only 6 months away!

A Bizarre Trend

I came across this quote on my friend Lisa’s new blog today, and I while I have heard it several times before, I think it fits incredibly well with my last post.
The bizarre trend in mountaineers is not the risk they take, but the large degree to which they value life. They are not crazy because they don't dare, they're crazy because they do. These people tend to enjoy life to the fullest, laugh the hardest, travel the most, and work the least.  ~Lisa Morgan.
While I am definitely not a mountaneer, I do resonate deeply with these words and like to think that I do my best to live in accordance with this philosophy. I think the best part might even be "work the least" because for me, it doesn't mean I become lazy or cease to have gainful employment. It just means that I have been blessed to find meaningful work that does not in fact feel like I am working most of the time.

That being said, I hope if this ever ceases to be true in my life, my good friends who have taken these journeys of life with me will not be afraid to challenge and push me into a ridiculous-sounding new adventure.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Its good to be in a City

I grew up in a small town. I graduated from high school with a class that was at the time the biggest class in the short history of the school district: 67. I grew up going to events or games in town knowing and expecting that while there, I would run into several people I knew. On many accounts, this was good and healthy: there were no secrets, and for a teenager, that was good because it kept me out of trouble. They say, “its not against the rules unless you get caught.” I grew up knowing that in a town like mine, I would definitely get caught.

One of the things I was looking for as I moved away from home was a shift in culture, life experiences, and adventure. Eventually, that is what led me to brave moving to a big city by myself. Chicago and the community I entered into amidst the 6 million people in the area quickly befriended me, and after 3 short years, I believe part of me will always call Chicago my city and my home.

Living in a city made the shift to Cape Town both a natural one, and a difficult one. I miss the public transit systems and opportunities to get on the train without a destination in mind. On days like that I knew that in an hours time I could move from the young, student-dominated neighborhood I lived in and into the downtown area where there was always something going on, if only I knew the right places to look. I miss the live music, the masses of people sharing in excitement at big events, the opportunities to be involved on social justice issues across the board. I miss the sports and living just a 25-minute train ride from Wrigley Field, home of my favorite baseball team, the Chicago Cubs. I loved that if I wanted something to do on any given night in Chicago, it could be found.

Living in Cape Town in an area far from the downtown area has presented challenges. We are far removed from any action of the city. We live in a really quiet (read: also very safe) neighborhood, and since Vixa and Clifford live across the road, we’ve been strongly discouraged from venturing out on public buses or in those infamous white taxis. At this point, we still haven’t learned how to navigate them, and the biggest hesitation pending doing so is that we are leaving in a few weeks time, so by the time we learn it, we’ll have to learn in a new city all over again.

This isn’t to say there aren’t things going on in Cape Town. Quite the contrary: and fortunately, proper confidence has finally been placed in us to “allow” for exploring to take place. Mama Tembo still gets pretty nervous about any adventures we embark on, but at least now she realizes these adventures are of our own accord and she needn’t worry so much about taking responsibility with the “what-ifs.” If you know me at all, you know I only get frustrated with the “what-if” questions, and if you propose such a question, I am most likely to respond with something along the lines of, “but what-if we don’t… and we never live life…”

One such simple, not life-altering what-if (and the actual intended purpose of this post) came up over this past weekend. Every year, Cape Town holds a big lights festival downtown on Adderly Street, where each block is decorated with lights according to a theme. This big event draws a huge crowd with tens of thousands of people gathering for the live music and the official first turning on of lights in the city. Following the lights turning on there are fireworks, a parade, and lots of celebrating. With a crowd like this, there are lots of “what-if” questions - its easy to be pick-pocketed, for example.

Aware of risks involved, Rachel and I decided to go (Hannah was already out with friends elsewhere), and what we discovered was that of course it was no different from any of the many events I had attended back home. Lots of people providing lots of entertainment to watch if nothing else, and I may go as far as to say it was safer than most other small events, as there were police EVERYWHERE!

(please note my favorite display. Cycling was the only sport aside from soccer (a given with the upcoming World Cup!) created in lights. AWESOME. And yes- they were in motion!)

All of this is to say, We had a really great time and enjoyed an opportunity to get back into a crowd and just be amidst people again. We’re even talking now about returning to downtown next week for the World Cup Final Draw, where there will likely be ten times as many people in about the same amount of space. This isn’t just any event, though: its the official start of South Africa hosting the 2010 World Cup! Exciting times, indeed, and I cant seem to come up with a good reason to miss it. I’m sure Mama Tembo will have some waiting for us, though, so we’ll see. :)