Monday, December 30, 2013

Words Reveal

In the not-so-distant past, I remember an evening of enjoyable post-dinner conversation. Seven of us around the table--missionaries--and the subject followed usual lines. We all worked in Africa, so the stories of accidents, near-misses, and scorn of maintenance were set in vast plains, potholed roads, and humid swamps. It was not so much a competition as a mutual shaking of heads and chuckling at the lives we had chosen and been called to.

But in the African context, stories always turn medical because life is fragile and the miracles of the precarious are most precious. Two missionary nurses were at the table, and though I knew them both, I hadn’t consciously thought about their vocation. I have a amaranthine admiration for this amazing breed of women: their calling awes me. Missionary nurses were models of love and humor throughout my MK childhood in Korea and adult work in Africa. These are the women who make it happen: keeping doctors going and hospitals running and people living . . .

and people laughing.

We did our share of laughing that evening as the setting African sun sent shimmering rays on the dining table. And I heard words that showed me a heart inside I hadn’t seen before.

It was an unremarkable story about the usual petty, rural bureaucrat in a developing country with no concept of medicine, medical education, or helping communities grow. The nurse had been involved in the start-up of a project that had suffered quite a few impediments and not a little greed; this big-fish-in-a-little-pond had met more than his match with our friend. She put him in his place with her degrees and certifications and authorizations until he slunk away with his tail between his legs. No one pushed her around: then, or ever.

I looked to the other nurse, a friend I’d known many more years, and saw pain etched in her face. She, too, had endured being bullied and put-down by people vastly her “inferior” over the years. But she would not have thought of them as such, since she loved them unconditionally. She learned their languages. She wore their cloth wraps. Her children played with theirs.

Suddenly my eyes saw how powerfully our words reveal who we are. 

My close friend, who had also held my hand while I labored with our firstborn, didn’t say much else that evening. She could have wowed us with her current work in a big-city, high-powered, multi-machined, neonatal and pediatric intensive care unit. But her private stories to me are peppered with words like “honored” and “humbled”. The times she has given the Lord credit for her not blundering or a patient not dying cannot be counted. The miracles she has seen, when ineptness--her own or someone else’s--would have been inevitable tragedy, but God . . . are the warp and woof of her words.

And those are two of her favorite words: “but God . . .”

She does not believe herself capable or qualified. She seeks out the Somali patients who are frightened and in cultural confusion, assuring them that she grew up in Africa and is African. She is dumb-founded that her supervisor would ever put her in charge of a shift and admit: “There’s no way I could do it. I just don’t know it all. They could all do it better than I.” But she does it and does it well.

I simply want to say to her: you are my choice at my bedside when I’m giving birth.

And I wonder: what do my words say about me?

Monday, December 23, 2013

As She Lay Dying

Last Friday I heard from my brother that Mom would soon be heading home. It was good sad news. 

Mom, by her own description, was at the gate in the airport with her standby ticket waiting for her boarding pass. Waiting. Dad had boarded and gone on a previous flight. So she waited--for seven years and six days.

This kind of waiting hardly feels productive. More like killing time. And time and life are so precious that it seems a shame to do so. Her life was spent on people and she spent time like she spent money: carefully. But by the end, others were spending on her--but she couldn’t take it in. 

So I walked through the weekend doing what was on my calendar: wrapping Christmas gifts, attending a joyful wedding celebration complete with reception under sun umbrellas on the grass with singing and complimenting and best wishes so thick you could feel them in the breeze. Then we enjoyed a sparse church service on Sunday with manifold lengthy testimonies and a birthday party later in the day with cake and ice cream.

I did all this while she lay dying. She came to mind, but I know her so well. I knew she’d want me to carry on. And what else could I do? I’m on the other side of the world.

There is nothing I would rather have been doing last weekend than sitting by her bed holding her hand, and accompanying her to the end of her marathon. I had that privilege with Dad seven years ago. I held his hand. I heard him breathing more and more slowly. I saw the little heartbeat impulses get farther and farther apart. Then it went flat and he wasn’t there. 

But what an honor to see him through. It is a huge journey and one we truly make alone. Something in me thinks that having family around you would be a lovely thing. Would make it not so intimidating or scary. We do things in community all our lives, but we truly die on our own. 

So thinking of Mom, curled in her fetal position, dense with pain killers and unaware of whether I was holding her hand or not, I grieve that I wasn’t there for me. I am the one who lost out, but it feels like she missed something as well.

I don’t know what it was like when she passed over. And I wonder. Were there familiar faces to greet her, as I imagine it to be? Was Dad there, waiting? Or Uncle Dick? Or others she loved and cared for at the end? Guess I won’t know till it’s my turn and I pass alone into that wonderful place we anticipate vaguely and through a glass darkly.

Meanwhile, as she lay dying, I carried on with life, grateful for a loving mom. She was beset with self-doubt, depression and perfectionism. But she loved to get a good bargain and laugh and play scrabble. Me? I’m not so big on bargains, but I laugh and play scrabble every day.

Oh, and now Mom's home for Christmas with Dad.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Till We Have Forgiveness

Last Sunday I sat in church listening to thirty minutes of testimonies in isiXhosa. Every once in a while I'd recognize a word, or some English would  pop in to tantalize me, then I was left in a flurry of liquid syllables again. During a tearful, heartbroken story, a lovely young woman sobbed, "I realized I had to forgive him over and over again. Once was not forgiveness" and the truth again hit me full force.

She is caring for a brother who "cannot do anything for himself." I don't know the details, could be AIDS, especially in a township. What a difficult life, I realized, lay behind the exuberant singing, the rhythmic dancing, and the elegant arms waving Sunday after Sunday from this beautiful sister. 

Forgiveness has been a lot on my mind of late because a story closer to home is charred around the edges for the lack of it. A wedding without an aunt who is like a second mother. A family coming together, but missing nearby members. A sister who will not speak to a sister--with hearts of children turned bitter. The phrase, "Love keeps no record of wrongs" keeps repeating itself in my mind. What an impossible description. Who on earth can love, then?

In my own struggles with forgiveness I have walked the steps of anger, blame, resentment and then realized the oft-repeated truth that not forgiving is to become a slave to the one you cannot forgive. But as my beautiful Xhosa friend observed: once is not forgiveness. She had to forgive over and over, as often as her heart brought it up again. Bitterness is an ugly jailor, but the keys are in our own pockets.

Part of the trouble with forgiveness is that we don't understand what it is: it is a holy, wise, and mystical thing. It is not part of our nature. We are much keener on what we call justice than forgiveness. We are born with "it's not fair" in our DNA. But keeping no record of wrongs sounds just, well, wrong. And stupid.

But it is a God-like stupidity. It reaffirms the good in the worst of us. It turns on the grace full blast. It flings mercy all over like confetti. And it feels good. It feels very good. To the giver and the receiver.

"Till We Have Faces" (TWHF) is my most often read Lewis book. Every time I hear Orual's voice, complaining or angry, wistful or broken, I learn something new about us and our condition. Her pathetic attempts at self-justification and insistence on her love for Pysche ring with disquieting familiarity. Her inner problems and her relationship issues are much like our own internal wars to forgive our culpable "others." 

While the themes of life, death, dreams, reality, and vision are preeminent in TWHF, I hear the forgiveness theme in a minor chord: 

“Death opens a door out of a little, dark room (that's all the life we have known before it) into a great, real place where the true sun shines and we shall meet.”

How long do we live in a little dark room of bitterness which cannot forgive, not realizing that there is a great real place where we can meet one another in the light of the True Son?
A place bigger than our own limited perception of right and wrong, fair and unjust--a place more real than what we can see. 

"Holy wisdom is not clear and thin like water, but thick and dark like blood." (TWHF)

Monday, November 25, 2013

A Tribute to my 25 years and counting Guy

This story was written and the end is not yet. One day I hope to write a suitable ending. But what is written is from my heart.

The Blacksmith at the Outpost

He was, in fact, a simple man, unremarkable in all the outer ways. Not overly tall or muscular or handsome, but passable in all respects. But he was a blacksmith, and therefore very strong. His arms seemed to have the tensile strength of the metals he pounded, but kept their lean appearance; bulk was not in his genetic makeup. No matter how much he hammered and beat, shaping metal into exquisite beauty, he had the lanky look of a much younger man.

During his apprenticeship he earned the name which never left him. So much was this new name a part of him that people, even his wife, forgot his given name with time. He was called Horse, and he wore the name with grace. This name was not given for his size, but his strength and dependability. No job was minimized by Horse. No work was too insignificant for him to labor over diligently. Horse’s father had taught him the value of attending to the details, so when tedious and careful work was required, he was often the one chosen.

Therefore, it came as no surprise to some and a total shock to others when Horse was called to work at one of the Empire’s outposts. Those who saw Horse’s potential in craft and training others expected that he would rise quickly in the whirling center of growth and business. Others who recognized the problem-solver and determined craftsman in Horse knew at once he was chosen for a post which would chew up many lesser men and accomplish nothing.

Horse willingly packed his family up and headed for the remote edge of the Empire. An outpost was designated on the maps, but its reality was as yet unconfirmed. Horse was to establish this and build relations with the simple tribal groups, encouraging them to adapt ways which would improve their lives. 

What Horse actually found at the outpost was a ruin, a shell which had never been completed. 

So he applied himself. He worked methodically. He trained the tribal people who were willing to learn. His forge developed a reputation in the area: for quality and integrity. Young men came and went, some learning much, others enough to get by.

The Outpost grew slowly because Horse was more concerned with the building of people than structures. He was also accused of being obsessed with details and “getting it right.” On the rare occasions the District Commissioner would visit, there were questions about the inefficiency of focusing on community rather than getting the job done.

But Horse plodded on, the people responded and learned to love him. Not his manner, which always saw room for improvement and self-discipline. It took years, but they read his heart and trusted him more than they trusted each other. Horse may say hard things, but he always told the Truth.

Then on a late summer day, a message came informing Horse that the Outpost was to be closed. The time for that area of expansion was over. The work, whatever it had been perceived to be, was done.

A marvel of intricate metalwork, the Outpost became a beacon on the frontier. A garden-encircled haven where people flocked for peace. Horse had brought skill mingled with humility, and in the midst of that, the people discovered what they had truly lacked: a sense of purpose and rest in the turbulence of their milieu. The Outpost was as elegant as anything that could be found in the metropolitan areas. Horse’s craftsmanship was consummate, no one disputed.

But the reason for sending him there had been forgotten. The Commissioners had other, more important, places to manage. Horse was told he would be redeployed to a more central location where he could focus on forging metal and reinforcing security from within. Clearly, the tribal groups he had worked among were not ready for what civilization had to offer.

With a broken heart, he packed his family for the return. His tools he distributed among the men who would hopefully, one day, be able to wield them as he had done. The trip back to the capitol was heavy and slow.


Friday, September 20, 2013


Spending ten days in community with young, up-and-coming leaders of the township, I have been meditating on leadership in broader terms. Our East Mountain vision is to identify, raise up, and grow the next generation’s leaders for the enrichment of the Body of Christ in Africa.

Leadership is our goal. Shepherding is our theme. The Good Shepherd is our model.

And then our cultures get in the way.

Meditating on biblical shepherds: Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and David--each with strengths and foibles--is a powerful path for understanding what Jesus meant when He told Peter to feed His sheep and care for His lambs.

But we are in the 21st century and the photos of Bedouins that we study seem like something from a time warp. Nobody does that these days? Do they? Really? 

Books abound on leadership--many offering solid principles and perceptive advice. There is so much to tell young leaders of today. We have to be watchful, however, that our pursuit of excellence does not become informed by our milieu, and the cultures we know and value.

Shepherding is light years from coaching and managing and implementing action plans. A shepherd is not guiding a team, he’s caring for a flock. He is not running a department, he’s looking out for the weak ones. He’s not CEO of a corporation, he’s the door to the sheep fold and protector against lions and bears.

Once again, Nelson Mandela’s example comes to mind. He was aware of the magnitude of the burden he carried. The least of those in his care was his concern: and the welfare of his people was his business. He paid a high price to put his flock before himself and his family’s welfare.

Leadership has become a larger-than-life job in the modern world. Leaders are important movers and shakers, women and men of power. Their concerns are the goals and victories of the team, the profits and losses of the company, the inevitable bottom line. Leaders of the world are honing skills, eliminating the weak, streamlining the process, and producing better products to wipe out competitors. Their path is strewn with the bodies of those who served them and wore out or were cast aside.

Against this backdrop, at East Mountain we are trying to infuse the gentleness of the shepherd. He is not counting victorious games or profit margins or acquisitions. He is encouraging the potential, protecting the weak, strengthening the inter-connectedness that makes a flock a healthy flock. He’s guiding, protecting and providing.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

"What is my role?" more thoughts on Mandela

We have heard with joy that Nelson Rolihlahla (Troublemaker) Mandela is home from the hospital. He is still on the life support that he needed in hospital, but he is home. The Lord still has work for him to do. Or we still have more to learn from him.

These past months I have gained much from reading his Long Walk to Freedom. He was an uncanny leader, one from whom all leaders today could take some advice. Yesterday I was struck by his awareness of his role. 

Most leaders reveal by their actions that they believe their role is to lead, to show, to guide, to command, to order, to discipline, to coerce, to rule. They wouldn't put it in so many words, but their actions make their role perception abundantly clear.

Mandela's cell on Robben Island.

During a particularly difficult time on Robben Island Mandela described the political feuding among African National Congress, Pan-African Congress and Black Consciousness Movement. Mandela was the leader of ANC in the prison and a number of ANC members had been brutally beaten by the other groups. It reached the point where a trial was set for the island's administrative court and an outside lawyer was brought in. Mandela was asked to be a character witness for his own members. He was happy to testify for his comrades, but realized that speaking out for them would heighten the bitterness.  He reflects:

"I regarded my role in prison as not just the leader of ANC, but as promoter of unity, an honest broker, a peacemaker, and I was reluctant to take a side in this dispute, even if it was the side of my own organization. If I testified on behalf of the ANC, I would jeopardize my chances of bringing about reconciliation among the different groups. If I preached unity, I must act like a unifier, even at the risk of perhaps alienating some of my own colleagues." (p 580)

More than a decade of imprisonment on a windswept island under brutal conditions with insensitive authorities had helped Mandela perceive his role as leader. But this kind of awareness comes from a place deep inside a person. Other men in the same conditions did not gain this level of understanding. As he commented:

"Prison was a kind of crucible that tested a man's character. Some men, under the pressure of incarceration, showed true mettle, while other revealed themselves as less than they had appeared to be." (p. 539)

One of the outcomes of Mandela knowing his role was the positive results of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission initiated during his presidency. If Mandela had not had the reputation of an honest broker and peacemaker, he could not have asked this of South Africa. But he modeled what he requested.

This leads me to ask myself: am I aware of my true role in the Kingdom of heaven? Am I living out of the resources I have gained in the crucible?

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Three Problems Men Will Never Have

Sunday I had a rare treat: a Zulu preaching in Zulu/Xhosa/English. But the best part was: Mabee is a woman. She was guest at Kayamandi Baptist Church, invited to speak because August 9 is Women’s Day in Africa and August is Women’s Month.

I cannot give you the whole beautiful talk. You just had to be there. But I gleaned a few gems in amidst the bits of Zulu I remember, Xhosa I am learning, and English that she generously sprinkled over top. Mabee pulled three, apparently random, women from the Bible to give some good advice to women of South Africa. All the advice she gave was sound, Biblical and . . . not very surprising. What surprised me was the three women she chose.

She explained up front that, although bad women can be good examples (of what not to do), and their stories were interesting, she had limited time and wanted to focus on her good advice. She chose: a barren woman, a pregnant outside of marriage woman, and a woman who needed serious gynecological intervention.

I marveled as I listened to these stories and Mabee’s envisioning of the hearts of each woman. Did she realize she had chosen women with problems that no man would ever face? The women of the Bible have all sorts of struggles and issues, but these three problems are unique to woman-kind: infertility, out of wedlock pregnancy and menstrual problems.

Hannah, Mary, and the nameless woman, forever called “the woman with the issue of blood.” Their commonalities are few enough, but they are bound by what they have that men don’t have: a womb. Women throughout history identify, personally or communally, with these problems. 

Hannah was Mabee’s choice for barrenness. She could have chosen Sarah or Elizabeth, but Hannah was the one who displayed vision and a deep prayer life. Her lack of a child was a burden she carried in daily life alongside a co-wife with children. She would not be comforted by her husband’s preferential treatment or kind words: her desire for a child was her passionate humiliation--and it drove her to God. 

Mary was the unwed mother. She had a choice: the angel came and asked her if she would be the mother of God’s Son. How could she have had an inkling of what that meant--theologically or rationally? She could only have known its social consequences: humiliation and ostracism. She chose humiliation and obedience. The rest is history . . .

While many women can identify with Hannah and Mary in their personal stories, I have no idea how prevalent is the menstrual problem that goes on year in and year out. This sounds like a private hell to me. While the cycle is a normal thing, when it goes haywire, we all know how defeating it can be. It must have been immeasurably worse back in the ages when that proscribed a woman as “unclean.” To have a monthly break from normal interaction with people could be welcome. But twelve years of being unable to touch someone without contamination: Mabee called it “a prison without walls” and I thought it well said.

The womb is the focus of their unity: an empty womb, a womb filled too soon, and a womb that continually shed its lining--unable to fulfill its function. In each of these “malfunctions” the women had options: resignation or vision, despair or hope. In sermons and studies we have walked through the heartfelt choices made by Mary: to blindly trust,  and Hannah: to blindly plead. They had a type of vision in their blindness, a faith that is affirmed in other aspects of their stories. 

But of that enigmatic woman with the issue of blood, we know little more. As Mabee dramatically entered the role, speaking the imagined words of the woman’s heart, and claiming her vision, I realize what a risk that woman took. She was going into a setting from which she was forbidden. She was touching people crowded around her. She was seeking something she did not dare to vocalize. She was expecting healing without asking Jesus for it out loud. Without even getting His attention! She was so sure of His power, that she claimed it by what she did.

This is something I need to meditate on. Her prayers and seeking had been going on for twelve years. How many requests have I prayed steadily for twelve years? What kind of vision do I have? 

So many lessons to learn from her: and my favorite is that Jesus is paying attention even when it seems like He isn’t. He is aware of us sneaking up behind Him to touch His hem.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Response to: "Chivalry vs. Kindness: Which enables rape culture?"

This past week I read a blog that weighed heavily on my heart on two counts. First, I love words. As an amateur philologist I have an ongoing passion for using words creatively and well. Second, I love history. And as someone who has read widely and in some depth the Medieval tradition, I was distressed to encounter such a modern disconnect and misapprehension of the concept of the Chivalric Code.

This remarkable young writer had many good points to make, gave four concrete suggestions for ameliorating our social outlook, and shows that she has a heart for humanity. Rather than develop these constructive elements, she chose to focus on her perception of what chivalry looks like in her world-view and turned it into a straw man argument. She misrepresented the meaning and original world view of chivalry to make it the fall-guy for present day rape culture.

 A young, self-described  “single mother/student/waitress/feminist” wrote an essay entitled: “Chivalry vs. Kindness: which enables rape culture?” in which she tears down the notion of chivalry in general and then proceeds to blame it as a “subtext” for the rape culture. Let’s start with the title. She presents a dichotomy (of two words we often link in our society) and then insinuates that one and not the other enables rape culture. This is ill-founded thinking because it assumes that one of these two (not both or neither) is an enabling element in the rape culture. She gives no basis for the assumption or the false dichotomy.

She is right in her assertion that: “Chivalry is one of the most misused, misunderstood terms today.” Sadly, she is proof of that. She recognizes that it comes of “knightly” origin and refers to the behavior of knights and that over the years it became known as courtesy and politeness to “control the dangerous male nature” and encourage gentle behavior toward women (as the weaker and less aggressive sex). So far we can track with her understanding of how the word has shifted. Then she jumps to a “bunch of white guys lifting heavy stuff and opening doors” which is quite a leap. Here the tone of her language reveals the strong resistance to negative connotations of chivalry and this seems to me to be her true objection. Society has an awareness of the word that she disagrees with and her thesis is that the word and its heritage is part of the problem and generates more of the rape culture than would otherwise be.

She comically notes: “Perpetuating the stereotype of men as beastly, uncontrollably violent monsters that need to tip their hat or bow down in order to tell women they will not rape them is crazy.” Of course it’s crazy. We agree. What we wonder is how the understanding of chivalry has been watered down to that minimalistic notion. Tipping hats and bowing are part of 19th century gallantry and haven’t a direct correlation to the origins of chivalry.

Here she moves into a correlative fallacy (a faulty assumption between two variables that one causes the other): IF chivalry encourages men “to tame their barely controllable violent urges,” THEN it directly correlates with narratives of the rape culture. Without giving a foundation for this presumption, she moves on to explain that this is why feminists are offended by the legacy of chivalry. I.e. something that may or may not be related to chivalry is the basis for some people to object to chivalry. I beg to point out that chivalry is not definable or accurately describable as a mindset for men to tame their violent urges. It is hardly that and it is much more.

For a moment, let’s look at what chivalry is, rather than what a 21st century (nearly ten centuries removed) woman perceives it to be. Briefly: the chivalric code of medieval tradition had three basic tenets. 1. Duties to king and countrymen, to the point of self-sacrifice. 2. Duties to God, being a man of faith. 3. Duties to protect the weak, identified as women, children, and elderly. This does not sound like it has as its primary agenda “patriarchal male privilege and female subordination.”  That those two items existed in the society in which chivalry originated is granted--but they also existed in societies far removed from chivalry. The contrast is that chivalry appears more to be designed to address those as flaws rather than perpetuate them. Strong men using their strength to defend king, faith, and those weaker is not “controlling violent urges.” It seems an attempt to counter those strong men who are not exercising self-control. Notice that protecting women and children is only a third of the whole, but is being redefined as the cause of rape. At the risk of my own weak parallel: blaming chivalry for encouraging the rape culture is like blaming oncology units for causing cancer. They exist because cancer exists, they don’t cause it.

The “inherent” problem with chivalry, she says, is that it is about one-way kindness. She has no problem with kindness. In fact, she is “all about kindness.” One-way kindness does not lead to healthy relationships. So she is advocating reciprocal kindness. This she sees as in opposition to chivalry (one-way kindness) and will be better received. I applaud her desire for reciprocity. This is where she does get it right. However, chivalry is not about kindness. She herself argues that “kindness and chivalry are not synonyms.” I want to stand and shout “Amen. Who said they were?” Chivalry has never been about something as innocuous as kindness. It was always about loyalty, honor, courage, and morality. The assumption that chivalry can be redefined as kindness or respect reveals a basic misunderstanding of chivalry. It is so much more.

She concludes: “So, is chivalry a part of the rape culture? Chivalry, as it can be taken with all of its historical context and breadth of connotation, can be considered to be a part of rape culture.” With no accusations other than that guys  in the 21st century who pay for the date, open doors, and carry heavy stuff ("acting chivalrously"), she implies they are perpetuating the rape culture. In fact, they are acting gallantly, not chivalrously. However, even gallantry is not the fall guy for the rape culture. 

All that being said, the author has four very excellent suggestions. She calls them “How to be Kind without the rape subtext of chivalry.” These are four admirable, doable goals. 

        1. She wants Kindness all around: men to men and women, women to women and men.
        2. She recommends we commit to genuine acts of kindness; basically, kindness with some ulterior motive is her definition of “chivalrous.”
        3.“Just don’t do it” is her piéce de resistance. Here she decries the pinching, groping, catcalling, whistling that women are subject to day in and day out. This, I believe, is her biggest issue. She thinks that men, in small “opening the doors” gestures are trying to signal that they won’t rape, rob or injure women. She would rather they simply didn’t do the nasty stuff. Perhaps many feminists see these small gestures as such signals, but I suspect the men have no such ideas in their minds. This is one area where, as she puts it, cultural ideologies need to change. Yes, they do.
       4. Communicate. And this one should be self-evident. Her slant, however,  has to do with the concept of chivalry. If you are someone who is offended by the word, then express the offense in an articulate way (as she has). And if you staunchly defend chivalry, explain it in a cohesive, respectful way (as I hope I have). 

In short, as I look at her very valid complaints: groping, pinching, catcalling, (all the crude stuff bully-type guys tend to do in a group), they do not align with the men who open doors and pay for dinner. The likelihood of these two men-types intersecting is very small. The one is known for crudity, the other for “chivalry”. To blame the rape culture on the latter is counter-intuitive for me and I struggle to attribute their “gentleness” to a mentality that denigrates women.

She has some great concepts, and my favorite is how rare it is for what one person intends to be communicated to be received in complete accuracy by another. For this reason, we need to give one another the benefit of the doubt and permission to express our opinions without judgmental or pejorative language.

I would like to add on a divergent thought at this point. Much of my reason for writing this is that it so clearly comes from a protected and powerful world view. We all write from our point of view, but there is the danger of the Mind-projection fallacy which considers the way one sees the world as the way it is in reality. Hmm, Sounds like something we all do from time to time.

In our work here in subsaharan Africa, I have met more girls and women from slum and township background than from anything that would correlate to what an American woman (suburban, urban or rural) would encounter. Most of these women have been routinely subjected to sexual abuse by the very men who are supposed to protect them: fathers, husbands, uncles, cousins. They have grown up in a tradition that has no chivalric code to blame for the rape culture in which they live. Where, then, did it come from? There is something much bigger going on here than a thousand year history of knights on horses going around to protect the weak. She described a “really bad date” as one who pays for everything, compliments her exterior attributes, and allows her no reciprocation. I tried to imagine explaining what a date was to an African girl: a date where the man paid for her and didn’t expect sexual favors. A time where minds might meet and thoughts might be shared.

Rather than focus on chivalry as the root of the issue and argue about telling the “truth” about chivalry, why not focus on the desired change: kindness all ways. Oh, and how about an extra dose of grace for everyone?

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Happy Birthday, Madiba

Two simple herdboys who learned life's lessons out in the fields became great leaders of their nations. One was a poet and musician who wrote the most beloved shepherd poem in history. The other was a lawyer who spent his prime years in prison. They both understood elemental truths of leadership by herding animals.

It's something to meditate on: the two men who came to leadership by service. David and Madiba have many traits in common. Their integrity, courage, grace under attack, forgiveness, and failings. Think on them this day, Madiba's 95th birthday.

If there were something I would wish for Madiba today, it would be that his legacy continues long after he leaves us. He paid a high personal price for his country. He lost out on many family blessings because he put his people first. I believe, in the end, he gained far more--and a farther reaching family of many shades of skin.

Recently Isabel and I visited a museum and viewed an amazing platinum sculpture entitled: Pure Mind--Rare Vision--Eternal Spirit. A Bavarian artist, Tom Rucker, visited Khayelitsha (a township near here) and asked the young people there who their hero was. He expected a rock star or a soccer hero. But they unanimously shouted: Nelson Mandela.

Thus inspired, Rucker returned to Germany and began an eight-month project of laser welding to honor the man who inspired such devotion.

Nelson Mandela: Pure Mind--Rare Vision--Eternal Spirit

A labor of love: countless platinum filaments welded (with a laser under a microscope) with over 1.8 million laser spot welds. Madiba smiles at us and his black diamond eyes, set in black rhodium crinkle characteristically. 

side view of Mandela sculpture

This man evokes gratitude and appreciation in every part of the earth. His strength and grace have changed the lives of his countrymen and foreigners alike.

Madiba, I hope your example is not forgotten. I pray your sacrifice is remembered in future generations, even when the sculpture is dust. May the work of your hands be established in this country and not forgotten. And your gentle herding appreciated:

A leader. . .is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.
--Nelson Mandela

Tuesday, July 16, 2013


I found out something about myself this past weekend: I don't like retracing my steps. 
I don't want to turn around and go the way I came; I want to keep going forward.

seeking the Contour Path

Isabel and I were fulfilling one of her summer goals: the three-hour hike on the Contour Path (on Table Mountain) between Newland's Forest and the King's Blockhouse. We had a map, good shoes, directions, water and wind breakers. We were ready.

At first the map was easy to follow and we encountered quite a few other hikers and some picnickers. We knew we had to find the Woodcutter's Path then cut uphill to locate the Contour Path which promised vistas of the bay and scenery unparalleled. To our surprise, the map was sketchy in places and the directions were not straightforward. As we started to wonder about one turn off we'd taken, we heard voices on a lower path and headed back to ask them. Short, quick, they were seasoned hikers and assured us the Woodcutter's Path was just up that very trail. 

We found it and felt rather jubilant. Our Frodo and Sam combo felt good. We enjoyed the trees, the rocks, the multiple streams to "ford" and glimpses of the view to come. The Woodcutter's Path went very far, indeed, and when we reached a rutted road, we realized we had missed an ascending path (three, actually) which would have taken us to the Contour Path. There was no access to the Contour Path from our location and we'd either have to accept the road or retrace our steps. I was pushing for a cross-country attempt. But Isabel was the map-keeper and navigator. We had to go back.

That's when I learned about me. How I dislike retreating. Going back. Undoing something that hasn't been well done. I'd much rather head on, push through, not "give up." But this wasn't an option. If we wanted to accomplish our goal, we'd have to go back. That's when Isabel reminded me of Lewis' observation:

"If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man. We have all seen this while doing arithmetic. When I have started a sum the wrong way, the sooner I admit this and go back and start over again, the faster I shall get on. There is nothing progressive about being pigheaded and refusing to admit a mistake."

We turned around and kept our eyes peeled for the missed trails. Three times we imagined trails and started uphill, only to have the trail disappear, and three times we had to retreat to the Woodcutter. I was beginning to feel like Sam when he remarked that things looked familiar, and Frodo observed: "we've been here before, we're going in circles." Now the truth dawned, despite our maps and preparations, we did not know the way. 

But eventually, the trail appeared and we realized that we'd missed it in our joy at seeing a sign for "Woodcutter's Path". While rejoicing that we'd found the first part, we missed the turn-off to the second part. Then the going got rough as we ascended steeply.

Great was our rejoicing when we finally attained the Contour Path. But it would not have been ours if we had not turned back. 

"there is nothing progressive about being pig-headed and refusing to admit a mistake"
C. S. Lewis

Monday, July 8, 2013

Do we need another book on what's wrong with Africa?

Robert Guest's book, The Shackled Continent: Africa's past, present and future, (2004) is another of the many books I have felt compelled to read in search of a word of hope for this place I have lived and come to love. And like the other authors, his prognosis is for a long, hard-won recovery: no quick fixes, no magic cures. 

Refreshingly, he does not place the entire blame for the conditions on colonialism or foreign aid. He recognizes that doing so is likely to be counter-productive: "Much of Africa is seized by the uniquely disempowering notion that foreigners are to blame for most past and present ills." If the blame falls outside it follows that the solution is also outside, but Guest warns: "Railing against outsiders may be cathartic, but it does not achieve much."

Guest's work feels like a compilation of good ideas piggy-backed on haunting stories. 
In ten pithy chapters, Guest summarizes the ills and causes of the African milieu. He plunges into "Vampire State" describing Mugabe's reign of terror over Zimbabwe. Although Mugabe began much as a "Man of the People" reminiscent of Chinua Achebe's book, his story has deteriorated more dramatically. The vampire chapter concludes with an explanation of the man-made famine, (quoting the organizing secretary of the ruling party): "We would be better off with only six million people, with our own people who support the liberation struggle. We don't want those extra people." (Zimbabwe's population was 12 million at that time.)

Mugabe is merely a representative of a cohort of despots who have pillaged their countries in the name of liberation and seem to have gotten away with it. From this low point of "freedom" stories, Guest moves on to "Digging Diamonds, Digging Graves". The gruesome blood diamond films and exposés are such a part of our awareness that the expression no longer needs explanation. That this chilling disregard for human life falls on the heels of not wanting "those extra people" should come as no surprise to us.

Then in three well-storied, hard-hitting chapters, Guest attacks communalism, fatalism and tribalism. "No Title," "Sex and Death" and "The Son of a Snake is a Snake" describe elements of African culture which, unbalanced, create precarious situations which can be manipulated by outsiders or clever insiders. Guest's genius is in capturing the ideas in memorable stories. "No Title" addresses the problem of lack of private property which John Hollaway addresses in "All Poor Together." While "Sex and Death" deals with the short term solution of prostitution to avoid starving at the risk of contracting AIDS. Such fatalism  is foreign to Westerners, thus it is confounding to anyone attempting to "help."

Many are the books condemning Western aid to Africa, and Guest's book is definitely in that category, though using a broader brush to paint a panorama. All African fail-stories are not the direct result of poorly implemented aid. But the tradition of Michael Maren (The Road to Hell) and Dambisa Moyo (Dead Aid) are upheld. While Maren's target is the insincerity of the aid business and their preoccupation with image, Guest points out the reality that even sincere attempts are fraught with danger. This kind of fix-it charity, throwing money at problems and not recognizing the brokenness out of which springs the "poverty" is toxic. His chapter "Fair Aid, Free Trade" addresses some possible solutions which donor countries have not considered, possibly because the price is too high, and charity is easier.

The final three chapters wrap up corruption, leap-frogging technology, and the hope of South Africa. Guest lays an array of success and failure illustrations designed to make us think. In pithy conclusions, he reminds us that we are not doomed to fail: "The lesson from Morogoro and Rufiji is that simple ideas rigorously applied, can yield dramatic results."

And this seems to be his "One Step at a Time" conclusion. There is plenty of hope for Africa, the richly endowed, colorful continent which at times is overshadowed by the pall of disparity and injustice. Keep it simple. Do it slowly.

Wise words--in simplicity is our strength. And haste is the enemy of perfection.

Monday, July 1, 2013


As he approaches the end of a most amazing life-marathon, Nelson Mandela assumes larger-than-life proportions. He is grandfather to a nation; a nation that looks to his hospital room, waits for news, and holds its collective breath. Mandela is a giant in a century of giants. He dwarfs the newsmakers and politicians, heads of state and celebrities. And he started the process from a prison cell, society's bottom rung. He lived the truth that hanging in there does make all the difference:
“The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”Accustomed to falling, Mandela taught us how to get up again.

These days, as he comes down the home stretch, I am reading his amazing autobiography (Long Walk to Freedom) and am impressed by the wisdom, grace, and humility of this man.

He says:
“I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.” 

Our visit to Robben Island, his prison for 18 years of 27 years, was a pilgrimage for me of deep significance. Madiba, affectionately called by his clan name, is the prisoner most remembered of all the men incarcerated there. Everyone is familiar with his number, 466/64. The 466th prisoner admitted in 1964. The photos of the narrow cell with the stool, tin plate and cup, and bucket are familiar. His notoriety and later, fame, have lasted after other names faded. 

What makes Madiba so loved and so mourned, in anticipation of our collective loss? This question will occupy my heart thoughts for some time to come. Reading his books will help as well as talking with people whose lives were affected by his work, his dedication, and his leadership. But I suspect the way we feel about him has more to do with the character of the man. His deep humility and the grace he gave others so generously.

As I looked at the smallness of his cell, the thinness of his mat, the dents in his plate and cup, the humiliation of a bucket for his necessities, it struck me that those things were all outside of him. Very possibly he felt freedom even behind the bars and razor wire. He understood the prison of the mind that kept his captors imprisoned, and he resisted the urge to sink to demeaning others. Freedom is an internal thing, a reality he determined to live, and in so doing he taught a variegated nation that:

“. . . to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

Mandela, feel free to linger as you overlook the vista of your life; your long walk is nearly over. You arrived at Freedom some time back and have been so gently trying to show us all that Freedom's door is wide open and all we have to do to enter is let go of what keeps us locked within ourselves--

In 17 days Madiba will turn 95.  His condition is critical, but he has accomplished so much else in his life journey, that whether he makes this milestone or not will not matter.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Robben Island: imprisoned

A choppy, hour-long boat ride out of Cape Town brought us to the small island invisible from the mainland: Robben Island, Seal Island in Dutch, describing its original inhabitants. But people long ago decided that a remote, inhospitable, barren islet was just what was needed for those things that needed doing in isolated, inaccessible places. 

Knowing the outline of the history did not prepare me for the emotional encounter of the physical place. The rocks, the endless quarry, the sand and stunted trees, the relentless wind and the cold. It was significant to see Robben Island in winter. In summer, it  might have seemed delightful--a getaway, an escape. But people didn’t escape to there, and we learned of none who escaped from there.

First, it was used by the early Dutch to incarcerate difficult chieftains. As time went on, and population grew, the lepers became a conundrum, so it was used as a leper colony. We saw the leper women’s church, an Anglican relic; the leper men’s church had been torn down. In odd bureaucratic rationale, male and female lepers were held separately, to prevent children being born with leprosy. In fact, 46 children were born on the island (despite the segregation) and all of them were taken from their mothers and given to people on the mainland. Now only a graveyard marks the memory of the thousands of lepers who lived out their lives on this piece of rock because of others’ fears.

Much later the island became a prison for criminals, housing a small town for the guards’ families as well as prison buildings. 

The final denouement of Robben Island was the inclusion of political criminals during the period of South African history (roughly 1950-1990) known as the apartheid era. The political criminals lived in maximum security built for/by them from the slate quarried on the island. The buildings are stark and cold, the rooms small, the facilities barren. 

I saw the small cell that was Mandela’s “home” for 18 of his 27 years of captivity. It held a sleeping mat, a stool, a tin plate and tin cup, and a bucket. When he lived there, the windows did not have glass. I shivered in my layers of clothing. 

Nelson Mandela is lying in intensive care now, suffering from lung issues brought on by the conditions he and his fellows endured on Robben Island. We stood in the courtyard where the prisoners sat on the ground and broke stone with hammers. We rode in tourist buses to see the quarry where the men hacked the stone with pick axes. And we heard about their indomitable spirit. The spirit of hope that caused them to educate one another, learning letters written in quarry sand, and inspire one another--to never give up until South Africa was a country for all colors.

Many thoughts pierced deeply into my heart that day on Robben Island. But the forgiveness of the prisoners was the one that affected me most of all. As former inmate Mbatha described the conditions, the food, the treatment, he brought the reality of his seven years on Robben Island into full view. But he harbored no bitterness. As a guide at this world heritage site, he works alongside former guards. He admitted it was not easy at first, but he has learned to forgive.

Perhaps it was Mandela’s model which taught him. Mandela, whose choice to let go of vengeance and focus on healing has set a beautiful tone for the new South Africa. Mbatha is a joyful person, a delightful guide, and a living touchstone: we are not defined by what we are capable of, we are defined by our choices.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Thoughts on Korea: land of the morning calm

I grew up in Inchon, Korea. Not a very catchy factoid. I lived across the road from one of the longest tides in the world on the Yellow Sea. We were on the west coast of Korea and the sun sinking into the waves is part of my ethos, my nature. Korea is part of me, a part I've come to appreciate with renewed force this weekend.

Last Friday we met a Korean couple, and Sam (obviously not his Korean name) was also an Inchonite. He treated me like a long-lost sister. As Phil and I enjoyed a delightful lunch with Sam and Sarah and we heard their heart for Africa, something else came through. Something else that reminded me why I LOVE Koreans so much.

There we are, doing what Koreans do: recording the event for posterity! (Sam is the photographer.)

Koreans are one people. They are not a hodgepodge of ethnicities like Americans, many European countries or any number of African countries. They are not Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, or any other -ese. They are Korean. Their history is long and singular. They have certain characteristics that help describe them. One of my favorites is: "When Chinese go to a new place, they open a restaurant; when Koreans go to a new place, they start a church."

Their identity as Koreans is a lesson we as Christians need to learn. Koreans are brothers. They look out for each other. They help each other get started. They can be relied upon when the other ethnicities in a community fail. There is a kinship among Koreans that helps me perceive what Jesus meant when He said, "That all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you." (John 17:21)

This may sound strange because I'm talking about a country divided. Whenever I meet someone new who finds out I grew up in Korea, I invariably get a rather silly question: "North or South?" If they knew their history just a little, they'd have a clue. Korea has been divided for longer than I've been alive. They have been two countries; but they are one people. The rest of the world may have forgotten that. The rest of the world may consider the North the "enemy" and the South the "friend." But the Koreans know they are brothers.

My heart was deeply touched as Sam told me about a plan I hadn't heard of. The South Korean church has a burden for her North Korean brothers. The DMZ (demilitarized zone) along the 38th parallel is a barrier they know will come down one day. As surely as the Berlin Wall fell, that hateful "no man's land" will be gone.

And when it does, oh, when it does . . .

The South Koreans will be ready. The Korean churches are united in their vision (not their styles of worship, denominations, rituals or doctrines)--their vision--they are going to succor their northern brethren. The instant the DMZ is open, people from various churches already have been assigned to their northern location. They will pick up, lock, stock, and barrel, and uproot their lives for their brothers. They will go there, live there, minister there, and be salt and light. My goodness, EVERYONE will know they are brothers by the way they love one another. Every Korean church has a part of the big plan. The united Koreas will be healed by their church.

Doesn't it just make you wish you'd been born Korean? They are the second largest sender of missionaries in the world. And that after only half a century of peace and recovery from war. They understand:

How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity. Psalm 133:1

We all live with some kinds of demilitarized zones around us: our hearts just don't get unity. The enemy uses everything at his disposal to divide us from one another. 

Let's take a page from the book of our Korean brothers and be deliberate about LOVE.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Anene: let's look up to God

I have no idea how quickly graphic, gruesome news stories spread from Africa to North America. I imagine the story of the young Indian woman assaulted to death in a bus created quite a sensation. 

Just about 200 kilometers from where we live, another young girl was attacked earlier this month. She was only 17. Her name was Anene Booysen. Anene means "let's look up to God."

I sincerely hope she did look to Him in her final hours. Better not to dwell on the sordid details in this blog. Sensationalizing things does not bring resolution or make a difference. In fact, I wonder what the media does accomplish most of the time--besides selling more newspapers or getting more clicks on the internet.

Anene was a young, coloured teen. She lived with a foster mom. She was out late at night, but she did not "have it coming." Her death has been politicized. At her funeral so many governmental organizations "spoke" that her family didn't have an opportunity. 

There are many problems in this world and in this lovely land. But the deepest one is the problem of the heart. And so far, it has not been addressed. Anene was violated and killed by young men who knew her. Such "friends" should have been her protectors against strangers, but they vented their own brokenness upon her weakness. Their choices started long before they went for her.

Dag Hammarskjöld wrote:

You cannot play with the animal in you without becoming wholly animal, play with falsehood without forfeiting your right to truth, play with cruelty without losing your sensitivity of mind. He who wants to keep his garden tidy, doesn't reserve a plot for weeds.

Those young men didn't suddenly become vicious and pathological. They were not born that way. Something in them and in their environment brought the poison out into the light of day. South Africa mourns. South Africans carry placards against hate crimes against women and children. South Africa watches helplessly.

Protesting the results of playing with cruelty and falsehood while not addressing the root is a futile activity. We need to start weeding the gardens of the heart now.

That is why I am so glad to be here and working to get to the heart of the matter.