Sunday, May 30, 2010

What it means to be loved.

Excerpts from an email sent to a trusted friend today in regard to the situation I wrote about in my last post: “The Face of Injustice.”

2 days later, I'm still angry. But mostly I'm sad. and equally helpless.

The situation I wrote about is deeply personal. It is not just “a man” I wrote about, but a friend. It is difficult because I feel like the whole situation has "moved on" and nothing has been done. I spoke with my friend - the man who has still not been paid - this morning. His boss has "apologized," but still no money has been seen. He says there will be pay tomorrow, we'll see. Poor guy. He can't go anywhere, he literally has nothing and no one.

As with any human situation, there are just so many layers. They have no place to go, and so life goes on. It is such a delicate situation. I want to act on their behalf, but I can't because I know in the end it may very well NOT be better for them. The last thing they need is us making his boss even more angry, pushing him away and reducing chances that they would receive any money. And with xenophobic attacks increasing and threatening to get worse again, they would rather be "safe" here and not paid than being in danger out on the streets of the city. Or freezing in the cold with their 2-year old.

Its difficult when these situations that would make great ethics situations to argue over in a classroom become real-life, and action is so difficult.

Its also difficult when the last two mornings began for them by being yelled at by their boss/landlord. Yesterday her. Today him. Will it ever stop?

Also - I feel sorry for their boss. I have not stopped thinking about this situation, about these people. Though I could easily say a dozen terrible things about him, the reality is I can’t stop thinking about him; I feel so, so sorry for him.

The more I know about this situation and the parties involved, the more this is true. The boss doesn't know how else to treat people. He has learned from his own terrible experiences. He has shared stories of his own life: people have always taken advantage of him, stolen his money, broken his heart, etc. He is lonely. I wonder if he has anyone who really, truly loves and cares for him? The stories I have heard suggest not. They suggest a life of being taken advantage of, being used, abused, and spat upon. If this is what he knows, can we expect him to display different actions?

Don’t get me wrong- I am not excusing him for his actions. He is still responsible. But hearing his story - it helps me to be compassionate, and it breaks my heart for him.

Can you imagine living that life? How can I not feel sorry for him? How can I not see his broken side and also seek to love him as Christ calls us to love, to help to heal the broken, even when it calls us to see beyond a thick black cloud of sin and brokenness?

Music. This is what I do when I am too full of thoughts to function: I listen to music. First, I thought of him when I heard a song called “Either Way” by Guster: “Were you ever kind? Were you always cruel? Who’s ever seen that other side of you? Happened every time, so it must be true: where did you learn its either him or you?”

Seeing both sides of the cycle of brokenness and pain is important to staying grounded in why it is we are called to “love our enemies” - a difficult but foundational part of our call as Christians.

That brings me to point 2 - A prayer that is Scriptural and that we've heard a thousand times, but so honest and realistic and appropriate here - "Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do..." It goes on and describes pain, ways of people hurting others. Yes, I believe deep down inside, the boss knows what he is doing is selfish and wrong. But truly don’t think he is capable of comprehending the extend to which this is true. I dont think he can, because it requires the presence of real love to understand the ways we hurt each other, the depths to which we dig into one another's souls.

So this is where I've been the last couple of days. Silenced but wanting desperately not to be. Yet trying to act in love. It is a difficult, difficult burden to bare, but an essential one, I believe. Central to all I believe, perhaps the most important thing that influences my life and makes me who I am - even if I know I fail at living it out sometimes - is the idea that Christ came in LOVE. As a Christian I am called to LOVE. To LOVE my neighbor as myself. Specifically, Christ calls us to love our enemies...? I read Scripture often that talks about love, it is central to who I believe Christians SHOULD be. Its challenging, though - like this passage (from Luke 6 - Jesus is speaking):

27“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. ... 32“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. ... 36Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Challenging, but I believe this is perhaps the greatest truth of Christianity. or at least it should be. How different would our world be if Christians truly strived to live this out?

The reality is, I don’t LIKE this man! I don’t know that I would have the courage to stand with him, to be the friend to him he so badly needs. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t see beyond my emotions that are tied up. I can see that deep within is a broken, hurting child of God - who is, like me, created in God’s image. I also know that as a woman of faith, I am called to LOVE - and not just those who love me. I know that I cam called to love my neighbor… and not just my neighbors who love me.

So. Where does this leave me? Thinking about how my emotions are one thing, but I believe love is something entirely apart from that. I am grateful it is. Can you imagine if love rested solely on emotions? I think people letting love rest only in our emotions is a source of so much conflict and heartache in the world.

I desire to move beyond that.

But I don’t know how.

I'm still praying for guidance. I'm still praying for wisdom to know which action to take. Praying that I remember that every great action requires great risk. I am willing to take risk, but this is more difficult when that great risk is also someone else's. I cannot make that decision of risk for them, and we cannot be sure any action I take would be for the greater good.

This does not mean that I must take no action. There must be balance somewhere. I am praying for a clear vision of what the “third way” might be. For now, I remain in hopeful prayer. I remain hopeful because of the hope I am able to share. Because I am told by my friend that the trust we share as he has come to me offers him hope. Because I am able to be a source of light in the darkness. Because I know that in Christ there is hope for all things, and for all people, and because tonight, I am choosing to look for the good in all people - even in the very ones who have persecuted us. It is not easy. No one said it would be. But Christ is my strength, my hope, my redeemer. Christ is the strong rock and foundation on which I stand.

That is what brings me hope.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Face of Injustice

Today has been a very, very difficult day.

Shortly after our work day ended I entered into a difficult conversation. A man who lives nearby had entered into a struggle with his boss, also the owner of the land on which he and his family live. I will spare the long, complicated, difficult struggle he shared. What I will share is the basic, difficult facts: he and his wife live and work on this property. They earn their keep by working on the property. She works in the house twice/week (she has another job) and he maintains the whole (big!) property in conjunction to their house, including a full garden, feeding the animals, taking care of the yard, functioning as a full time security guard, etc - he works 7 days a week. In exchange, he should be receiving a humble monthly stipend on which they can live, feed their small family, etc.

The problem has been boiling up for a while, but today a line was crossed. Today, this man went to his boss and asked for his salary. He hasn’t been paid in two months, and he can’t wait any longer. His family, like any, has needs - and needs cost money. A seemingly reasonable request, this conversation turned into him getting yelled at, which turned into him being fired and told to leave the property immediately. While witnesses (neighbors, etc) will attest to his consistent hard work day in and day out, his boss insists that this is not the case. His boss even went as far as to say that while at his own place of employment, he watches the property with a pair of binoculars to see if anyone is outside working, and he therefore refuses to pay based on not seeing him while spying…

The result of this conversation led to my friend being asked to leave without any pay from the last few months. Not just to quit working, but to leave the property altogether. Told (dared?) to take what belongings he can carry and move one, then. Obviously, he is angry and scared. He desperately needs this salary promised to him. Obviously, as winter comes in, he needs a shelter to sleep in, a place his family (including a young daughter) can call home.

There are so many layers to this story, if only I could get into it… but in the end, I come to one question: how can this situation be understood as anything but slavery.

I can’t believe I’m typing these words. I can’t believe this situation is so real. Or so personal. Or right in front of my face.

This family has been working for their landowner for two years. She works for free, in exchange for rent and utilities. He works seven days a week, and most of the time (not all) he gets paid a very, very humble salary their family struggles to live on. He reports that he rarely gets the full promised stipend, but often gets paid "slowly, slowly." Now imagine that this already humble salary hasn’t been paid - at all - in months. So he’s working full time for free. and being told what? That at least he has a place to stay.

Come to think of it, slaves even got food to eat. It may not have been much, it may not have been great, but at least they weren’t typically expected to go hungry altogether.

The thing is, I’m not even sure if this man is even in the country legally. I didn’t ask. If he’s not, he can’t go to the police. If he is, the police may not help him anyway. This is a small town. People are friends here. Friends help their friends, even at the cost of such great injustice.

What can I do? How can I help? How can this injustice exist so openly in my own backyard?

I am so angry. I am so sad. I am so frustrated. I am confused and bitter and I have so many questions. I hardly know where to begin.

I live in South Africa. The history of Apartheid is not distant here. The reality of Apartheid is not forgotten and has certainly not gone away. I know many great white people who have contributed to the greater good of South Africa on behalf of justice even when it cost them something. Today, I am trying to remember these people, because otherwise, it would be really easy to be angry and bitter toward my own race as I watch a wealthy white man treat a black man this way because - it seems - he can. (and yet he CAN'T!)

This is not the end. I am sure I will post more. I hope this story will bring a good ending, an ending of wrongs made right, and ending of injustices coming to bring justice. An ending that gives evidence to God’s grace and love and faithfulness. I know all of these things are present, and I look forward to the day I can bring forth these messages. To the day I can tell you all about how God was with us through it all.

Until that day, I pray for all modern-day slaves all over the world. I have been told they’re out there. I’ve heard stories and read statistics. About a month ago I told my roommate it has become a new(?) interest of mine, something I have been reading and praying a lot about. Something I feel God calling me to learn more about. I want to learn more and get involved.

Now I’m involved, and I don't know where to turn. Now I’m learning through first-hand experience and I miss my "safe" news articles. Wanting to help feels very different when its third-party. But then… Jesus was never a third-party to those he came to help. If I am called to be the hands and feet of Christ as a missionary in South Africa, I pray for God’s guidance and strength and courage and knowledge in the days that come. I pray I can use my voice for a greater good. I know that had I not been in that exact place at that exact time tonight, even this story would not have been heard. This man would not have been able to share with us, or to walk away from the conversation as he did, telling us, “now I have hope. Thank you."

Thank you, friend, for being strong, courageous and honest, and for letting me be a part of your story.

Thank you, reader, for reading through my unfiltered blog post as I try to make sense of senselessness, to find the grace amidst chaos, and seek ways to bring hope to the abused, forgotten, or neglected.

Pray for us all.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Sound of Music

Tonight I was blessed with the opportunity to spend the evening supporting one of the incredible young people in my life. Nissia, the youngest of Mama Tembo’s five daughters, is a joyful, lovable ball of energy, and more than once “dramatic” (in the good sense) is a word I have used to describe her.

Nissia came home in February excited that her school was holding auditions for a musical she had never heard of, “The Sound of Music.” Excited, Hannah, Rachel and I immediately began to sing our favorite songs from this classic musical. We laughed, sang, even wrote out words to songs so we could teach her before her call-back. Every time we turned around, Nissia was practicing!

Her hard work paid off. Nissia was cast as one of the children, and her joy and excitement could not have hit a higher level (even for Nissia - and that’s really saying something!). We immediately promised we would see her when performance time came.

I’m not sure where time has gone since then (its almost June!), but the time finally arrived. Tonight, we filled our car and made our way to her beautiful school. To be honest, I was REALLY nervous for her - like a proud mother! To no one’s surprise, though, she did AMAZING, and the show was great! I am so proud of her, and so happy to have been able to be a part of this big night for her - her first time in a theatre production!

During intermission, the guest of honor, “grandfather of South African Theatre” John Kain was introduced. During his short speech, he noted that he has enjoyed watching the audience and proud parents almost more than the students. He too questioned who was more nervous… parents? or students? I laughed as I realized that for the first time, I felt like the proud mother.

It is good to be here. To support her like my child, or like a kid sister; to be a family. It is good that though we have struggled together and independently through a great deal, on night’s like tonight we get to come together and celebrate accomplishments too.

It is good to be family.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Following an Example

I am sitting in a session of Synod at which we are discussing same-sex relationships, and I am silently crying inside right now.

It is so difficult. It was appreciated that both sides were given an opportunity to be heard.  First to be heard was the side that was the “sympathetic and embracing” position. The persons presenting were asked to be neutral and not state which side they agreed with, but to present neutrally. One person to present each side. The first person alluded to the fact that they were not pleased to present the pro-side, but was faithful to this request of neutrality. He read off of a powerpoint with a few side comments to explain. Overall, it was a factual, honest, unemotional argument.

Then comes the second argument. That which is against. It began with the speaker stating, “I do not agree! and I am prepared to tell you why.” Obviously, a different beginning, as his argument was emotionally charged and sought to engage the synod in a different manner. He deconstructed church policies, reading through a list that include statements such as, “seek to be well-informed,” and proclaiming, “I do not agree!”

What is it that we should ever NOT seek to be informed about? Seeking information, compassion or understanding does not mean one should have to change their minds, even. But how dare we condemn anyone without first having compassion for them? Did Jesus not do the same thing? Yes! In the Hebrew Bible it says that one who commits adultery should be stoned to death. Does Jesus not forgive the woman who is caught in adultery, saying, “let he who has no sin, cast the first stone”?

This is a message of compassion, forgiveness, love and kindness - how does this example of Christ escape us for “these people”?

As a church, we seek to follow Christ. Yes, it is true that Christ condemned sins. But in doing so, he never excluded or exiled sinners. He invited them to follow him. He welcomed them. He said that ALL are welcome at the table. He went out of his way to help both those understood to be sinners, and the faithful who believed. More often than not, these people were the same: Doesn’t he say that it is the sick who need a doctor? If we acknowledge we need Jesus, we acknowledge we are all sinners. Therefore we must make our way to a place where we do not condemn one another, where we do not judge who is sinning where or when, or whose sin is “greater” than another.

As a (global) church, we must not lose sight of our primary call. We are called to live faithfully into the example Christ has set before us. When it comes to the tax collector, the lepers, or the adulterers, for a few among many, how is it that we see and wish to share Jesus’ compassion and love and inclusion of these persons, and yet we consistently fail to share Jesus’ compassion and love and inclusion for others? Today, the issue at hand is homosexuality. Not long ago, it was women in the church. Not long before that, it was slavery.

How do we discern?

We do not have to have a solution. We do not have to all agree. But we do have to keep following Jesus. We do have to follow the path of Jesus which has been set before us: a path of compassion. A path of kindness, forgiveness, and love. A path of welcoming inclusion. No one said following Jesus would be easy. Inviting, welcoming and learning from those with whom we disagree will never be easy. Nor was it easy for Jews to welcome gentiles. Nor was it easy for anyone to walk away when Jesus said, “let he who has no sin, cast the first stone.” As times changed, it was not easy for Bishops to recant their public statements that slavery is discussed clearly in Scripture and should not be condemned. This journey is not an easy one. In fact, Jesus promised it wouldn’t be. My hope is neither that it would be easy, nor that a decision would be made to tear the church apart. Rather, my hope is that we might continue journeying together on issues which are most controversial, and as we do so, may we practice the mercy, love, and compassion Jesus has first shown us.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Change in Perspective

It has been quite some time since I have written. A lot has happened since then. Namely, I have been blessed by three weeks of hosting guests. On the 25th of April, my older sister Alicia arrived in Johannesburg, and stayed for two weeks, through the 8th of May. On the 4th of May, my friend and fellow ’09 Ride:Well Tour teammate Cody arrived, and he also stayed for two weeks, through the 17th of May. Needless to say, the past month has flown by.

Many reflections have come from this time. It was incredible and strange and difficult all at the same time to have them here. Obviously, there is a comfort from having people from “home” in a place on the other side of the world (which I now call “home”). There were also challenges. This place is different from where we are used to being together. Context, culture, people, circumstances, etc. - all of these things have shifted. It was exciting and new for my guests; they came enthusiastic to learn about and experience this new place. What I did not anticipate was how I might experience my life differently with an added lens of friends/family by my side.

Teaching someone about my life here is very different when I am not just sharing stories, but inviting them to see for themselves. Some of the sharing was difficult. It involved cultural and historical understandings of the land in which I live. Discussions about Apartheid and race and culture. Some of the sharing was lighter and more “fun” - introducing friends, colleagues, and my “family” here, sharing food and local traditions, visiting places I love. Then there were the other things, the small things that made us laugh together - the ways my accent has changed, the language I have adapted, the music we listen to, driving on the left side of the road.

Over the past month, I have been reflecting for the first time on different types of culture shock. when I think of culture shock I have always thought that I would be the one needing to move to a new place to experience it. I have realized through this experience that home comes to me, the same types of “culture shock” can apply. Not to the same extreme, of course, but in a whole new way: how do I balance my new life and changed self, with the old, expected self friends are coming to see and visit?

These are some of the issues and questions I have been mulling over. My hope is that more will come on these topics in the next few days as I seek time to write further reflections.