A GAME OF DOT-TO-DOT

HOW GADGETS LEAVE RURAL CHILDREN VIRTUAL ORPHANS

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Lets play a game of dot-to-dot. Maybe I spend to much time in a preschool but dot-to-dot is the best example I can think of. Everyone who is reading this right now is using some kind of digital gadget. That is your first dot in this game, your gadget. The last dot in this game of dot-to-dots, are the children I work with in rural South Africa. Now lets connect them, the “gadget-dot,” to the children in rural South Africa. Let me say at the outset, I’m not playing this game of dot-to-dots to promote guilt or hand-ringing despair. Instead, I’m trying to counter the idea that if everyone just worked hard enough, they would prosper. I’m trying to promote the idea that we need to think harder about how the world we currently inhabit operates. I’m attempting to bring awareness as to how our lifestyle comforts, may unknowingly, and adversely, affect the lives of children in rural South Africa.

Most of the children I work with have no parents at home. Either their parents have died, or their parents are working in other locations. Either way, the children are being raised by older siblings, grandmothers, aunts, or sadly on their own. In any case, they are being raised as though they are a burden, a nuisance, or unwanted. What has created these horrific circumstances? In a word poverty. But lets delve deeper and explore other dots.

Let me make a single example that demonstrates how gadgets for us, affect the lives of children in the developing world. Lets take a common gadget that we all have become accustom to using on a daily basis, the smartphone. I have one, I’m using it right now. The basic materials that go into my smartphone are mostly plastic and glass, but also several types of precious metals and silica. South Africa’s economy is largely based on the mining of these exact types of basic raw materials.

Mines require an extensive work force and who works in these mines? The fathers of rural children. Men who have received an education in handling a shovel and a pick. They live in onsite hostiles provided to them by multi-national mine companies. They work under long-term contracts that require them to live away from their family homes. They risk their lives working underground for about $800 per month. They must split their income between their own needs and that of their families back home. Most men who work under these conditions return home once a year to see their children, visiting as if a stranger. In some cases, they bring unwanted gifts with them, such as HIV. As a result, the children do not have the presence of their father, nor do they have their mother, who is likely to be working as a domestic worker in a distant suburb. If the mother becomes infected with HIV, she may orphan her children after a period of illness.

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The raw materials that leave South Africa to produce gadgets, smartphones and all sorts of technology, may go to places like China, where smartphones are manufactured with cheap labor, again, causing pain and suffering for families there. Those phones are then shipped around the world, thanks to carefully crafted trade agreements. They are sold to us relatively cheaply, or even given away for free, under contract to network providers. At any rate, profits go to the corporate heads and stock holders, not to those down the supply chain.

This is an example of the hidden cost of inexpensive technology to the developing world. It’s a heart-breaking emotional cost to children. I see it everyday. I see it in the eyes of children who never see their dad. I see it in the hurt that children demonstrate in poems I read. I see it in the angry rebellion of teenagers. I see it in the hopeless voices I hear when I ask about their dreams. I see it in the drug addicted youth who beg in our streets. Cycles of poverty that result in crime, girls exchanging sex for food. It’s all part of a complex system that makes the rich richer, supplies the masses with gadgets, and leaves thousands of children without their mom and dad.

While we live in our own isolated worlds, concerned for our own individual security and safety, we forget the greater impact we have on the world, both socially, economically and environmentally. This completes our game of dot-to-dots. From dot one; Cheap gadget acquired through global shipping channels, trade agreements, cheap Chinese labor, and cheaper raw materials from South Africa, to our final dot, one lonely and lost child growing up without parents. If you would like to assist us in mentoring children in rural South Africa, we are a registered 501c3 in the USA called Road Works. www.roadworks58.org Road Works supports a registered non-profit in South Africa called Zonke Izizwe Association NPO #102-774. I’m currently seeking 50 people who would be willing to donate $36 per month. All donations go to support the staff and programs of Zonke Izizwe Association in KwaMhlanga, South Africa. We run a preschool for 70 children that provides both education and a healthy breakfast and lunch, five days a week. We offer afterschool literacy programs for grade one and two. We also mentor youth in life skills through the arts and spiritual development.

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IMG_0904Road Works brochure 2016

Road Works Brochure

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Thoughts On A Gun/Heart Problem

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Last night a drunk pedestrian was hit by a car and died instantly in front of my house. Since moving to South Africa more than ten years ago, I’ve witnessed death hundreds of times. Pedestrians being hit, car accidents, suicide, community vigilantism, xenophobia, disease, all of them playing a role in my witnessing the passing of human life. You would think that with so much exposure to death, I would become more and more accepting of it. However, in truth, death seems all the more unnatural and shocking to me. I personally have felt the impact of the recent mass-shooting in Oregon. I’m an Oregonian familiar with that part of the country. I grew up in Medford and spent many days at church camps near the Umpqua River. This morning I saw pictures of the nine victims on Facebook and it broke me to think of their lives cut short and the grief each of their family members are now facing. I’ve been reading many posts on Facebook that express the full range of emotions from rage, fear and frustration, to bewilderment and confusion over what the response should be. I too have been pondering what can end these random acts of violence. With all the thoughts I’ve had, several keep festering in my brain and need to come out in written form so I can get some sleep.

First, I believe there is a profound misunderstanding of what it means to call oneself, Christian. Their is a massive malfunction in American culture that has blended the use of the word American, with the word, Christian. In the case of our response to mass-shootings, some feel it is their constitutional right and therefore a God given right, to own a gun. I’ve even seen pictures on Facebook of people holding a Bible in one hand and a machine gun in the other. That photo alone sums up what I mean by blending the words American and Christian together. While it is true that it is a constitutional right as an American to own a gun, is it also your right as a Christian?

The word Christian means Christ Like. It was first used in describing the early followers of Jesus when they saw such similarities in the actions of Jesus with his followers and they exclaimed, “Those people act like Jesus.” Christ like people or Jesus followers, were cognitive of the radical message of Jesus and it’s implications in how they do life. His message was non-conformist, non-religious, and extreme in it’s stance against the status-quo of his day. While I could site several examples from the life of Jesus, I will bring this one example for the sake of brevity.

Jesus was about to be illegally arrested, face a mock trial and be crucified. Jesus knew what was coming, because the corrupt Jewish elite had colluded with Rome many times before to put down messianic type figures. Crucifixion was the Roman way of curtailing free thinkers. The Biblical account is clear that Jesus willingly handed himself over and wanted no part in a violent defense of himself. During the push and shove of Jesus’ initial arrest, I can imagine Peter grabbing a sword and randomly swinging in a fit of rage. A soldiers ear is loped off and Jesus, in the midst of a volatile situation, involving his personal demise, stopes everything to heal the wounds of his enemy.

We’ve all heard many descriptions of the human response to confrontation called, “fight or flight.” By all scientific accounts this is hardwired into our chemistry in the face of danger, to run or fight. Some have thought of Jesus as some kind of passive sissy who floated around in a white robe, never getting his hands dirty. His response when faced with the armies of Rome, and what was undoubtedly going to be his eventual death, is revealing. Jesus, the second Adam, the new man, the first born of a new creation, was about to demonstrate that he didn’t need to succumb to chemistry. He resisted the human urge to fight his enemies, (while Peter didn’t) nor did he run away. He faced his enemy with composure and assurance and didn’t wavier. His example in that moment has been followed by all great people in history who have resisted evil with courage and conviction in a non-violent manner.

As an American you have a right to own a gun and defend yourself, but don’t confuse that right with being a Christian. When people say in solidarity with the families of the victims, “I’am a Christian,” and then in the same breath propose that we arm ushers in churches, or put armed guards in church parking lots, that doesn’t sound like Jesus. We are not in need of self-defense, we are in need of courage. The kind of courage Jesus taught when he said, “love your enemies,” and the kind of courage he demonstrated when he restored the ear of his enemy.

A second point that has been festering in my mind; Fame has become so desirable in American culture that I fear it has been one of the leading motivators in mass-shootings. The media, reality TV, 24 hour news channels, Youtube and a general dumbing down of our education, has led to this insatiable desire for our 15 minutes of fame. Addressing this problem has implications that need to be explored more deeply by all of us. As has been touched on by many others, this involves mental health issues that our culture keeps sweeping under the carpet. If we turned off or turned down the noise of celebrity-mania in our own hearts, I believe that would be the beginning of a domino effect that could actually lead to thinking for ourselves, rather than being shaped by pop-culture.

A third and more practical point; Slogans don’t tell the whole story. Gun rights activists often hide behind the slogan, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people”. I would like to use an analogy here with cars; “Cars don’t kill people, bad drivers kill people”. Obviously we don’t ban cars, but we do regulate the licensing, insuring and manufacturing of cars, along with police enforcement. I would think a similar licensing process to driving and car ownership would go hand-in-glove with gun ownership and use. This process should involve insurance just as driving a car requires. The problem as I understand it, is not that proper laws are not on the books but that they don’t get enforced. I understand it’s not the gun that acts alone, it needs a shooter, and it’s the shooter who stands responsible, but likewise the shooter needs a gun. Guns and their use need to be strictly regulated. Slogans don’t help when we are dealing with complicated issues.

We all know that regulations do not keep high powered weapons out of the hands of criminals and terrorists. However, it’s becoming more evident that having a countries citizenry more heavily armed is also not the answer. Ultimately, we all agree that this is a heart problem. A problem that can only find change if we all look introspectively and assess what is at the root of our own heart problem. A famous South African athlete’s career came to an end along with the life of his girlfriend when he shot her through a bathroom door four times, allegedly out of fear that someone had broken into his house. As was the case for Oscar Pistorious, fear is what motivates the ownership of multiple high-powered weapons or to carry a concealed weapon. I say courage in the face of conflict, do not run and hide, but likewise, trust your life and the lives of your family members to your creator. You may suffer, but you will not be abandoned. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me,” and if you continue to read… “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” Psalms 23.

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THE PATH TO Freedom IS TRUTH

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Every morning starting at 3:00 am, buses stuffed with passengers start chugging past my house carrying people to work. Looking out my bedroom window at dawn, I see the red tail lights in a continuous stream twinkling towards Pretoria. In the evening, the pattern repeats itself  – this time white head lights reflect through my window.

I drive this same road two or three times a week. Sometimes there is an accident or a broken down bus that blocks the flow of traffic. When that happens, taxis and buses start creating their own lanes. The road is narrow and the shoulder is gravel, but still that narrow strip becomes an extra two lanes filled with rude taxi drivers and constipated buses. Then a lane even develops to the outside, running against the oncoming flow of traffic. It is a free-for-all with every bus and taxi driver fighting for themselves. Private cars like mine are left to withdraw from the turmoil out of self-protection. Because I always stay in the legal lane, the makeshift lanes that emerge on both sides of me converge and hem me in to the point of paralysis.

The traffic snarl got me thinking about our world today; never-ending-wars, an ever widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, an imbalance in our global health care system (high-lighted by the Ebola outbreak in West Africa), and environmental issues around climate change. The list goes on. The conflict comes when each of us insists our particular “path” is right and every other “path” is wrong. (Example: the taxi driver model)

I’ve spent the last ten years living in a culture not my own. I actually live in a country with many cultures and thus many worldviews. I live in South Africa, a country still divided along erroneous lines regarding skin color. Because of my experiences I have been confronted with my own worldview many times. It has caused me to ask myself, “What is my worldview?” I’ve tried over the years to submit myself to a Christian worldview, but I sometimes find myself asking, “what does that mean?”

I believe Jesus actually blew apart the idea that everyone should get into a certain cultural box in order to be his follower. A Samaritan woman (Samaritan’s were considered unclean by Jews in Jesus’ day, and being a woman made her descend even further down the social ladder), asked Jesus: “Tell me, why is it that you Jews insist that Jerusalem is the only place to worship while we Samaritans claim it is here at Mount Gerizim?” Jesus answered her with this surprising “out-of-the box” answer. “The time is coming when it will no longer matter whether you worship the Father on this mountain or in Jerusalem” (John 4).

What Jesus said was earth-shaking for both Jews and Samaritans. It ran counter to everything a religious person believed. Jesus went on and told her, “Those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. This water becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within – giving eternal life”. What matters is not the outer location or the trappings of worship but the inner spring from where it comes. When your worship comes with love and integrity, it will bubble-up from within you – organically, beautifully, eternal and life-giving. Jesus calls us not to religion but to freedom and the path to freedom is truth. Truth is not found in a worldview, a belief system a philosophy or a path. Jesus said he was the truth. Experiencing his life within us is experiencing the freedom that his truth promises to bring.

It would be more honest to say that the truth Jesus calls us to is a Kingdom. The message of the Kingdom according to Jesus was; the least shall be the greatest, the blind will see and those who see will be blind, love your enemies, turn the other cheek, give up your shirt, walk the extra mile, do to others as you would want them to do to you, sell all you have and give to the poor, lend to anyone who asks of you, forgive your debtors. Some might complain, “If we adopted this Kingdom worldview, we would be overrun by our enemies. We would lose everything we own. We would become weak. We would be taken advantage. We could possibly even be killed.” Isn’t that what happened to Jesus? Isn’t this what made the message of Jesus so controversial?

Sometimes we make the Christian worldview sound like simple ascent to certain propositions. For example, I believe in the Holy Trinity, but then we turn around and run over our neighbor with hurtful words. This stands in contrast to the Kingdom worldview as I’ve heard Jesus teach it – which promotes courage over injustice, empathetic love,  and laying down our own lives for another. Simply put, love.

The Kingdom Jesus introduced,  welcomes all to a new way of living life, with “love thy neighbor”, as it’s central mantra. This is not mental reasoning – this is emotive, sincere and truthful love that treats everyone the way I would want to be treated. The Kingdom Jesus inaugurated says, “Trade in your worldview of envy, jealousy, and hatred, no matter what the cultural trappings, and explode it! Blow it up! Look beyond the world of man made belief systems. Look inside yourself, because the Kingdom of God is within you. There you will find the truth of Jesus waiting to be born, bringing life into our dead world.

My post was going to end here. But then something happened. I started thinking about why there is a traffic snarl on my little road from Pretoria to this rural village. Back in the sixties and seventies, this area was carved out as a homeland under the former apartheid regime. Thousands of people were placed in this area and were only allowed to go into Pretoria for work. It was required of them to carry a pass, and that pass only allowed them to travel on certain roads, to and from their work place, during certain times. If they went off their normal route, or lingered past a certain time, they were arrested and sent to jail.

Our village, a former apartheid homeland, now is heavily populated, and the route to Pretoria, the only source of economic life, is only accessible by this narrow two lane artery built decades ago. So thousands of people are forced to take public transportation everyday, a one hour trip one way, just to work. The cost of public transportation consumes 50% or more of their income. Therefore, many people who work in Pretoria choose to stay in the city and only come home on weekends or maybe even once a month. It is the friday evening, month end traffic, that creates a traffic snarl that is nightmarish.

So who is the enemy here –– the rude taxi driver who is only trying to get his clients home –– clients who have worked as domestic workers all week, cleaning the homes of rich people, for such a small sum of money they can’t even afford transportation. Mothers and fathers, who only want to get home to see their children that they haven’t seen all week, or maybe even for a month? Or is the enemy the systemic system of injustice that hasn’t improved a road in over forty years, or the economic system that doesn’t allow for a living wage, or the archaic political system that placed thousands of people in the middle of the veld years ago so they couldn’t be seen by the rich elite of Pretoria?

Maybe the taxi drivers are rude. Maybe we could all learn to be a little more patient with each other. But then again, maybe there is a system that needs to be challenged. A system that we are mostly blind to.  A system that pervades our world and blinds us to it’s reality. A system that Jesus asked us to rise up against. A system that Jesus rose up against when he turned over the tables of the money changers. Maybe there is a reason our enemies are our enemies. Maybe there is more to the story then we care to discover. Maybe we are even complicit at times in the system. I’m not trying to put guilt on anyone for being alive on planet earth, just giving some food for thought. Maybe we need to see the world differently, and ask Jesus to open our eyes.

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How I Married a Zulu Princess

A Zulu Princess

A Zulu Princess

I nervously paced trying to calm myself. I was sweating profusely in a strangers house in the middle of a quiet South African village. It was a still, hot summer day, earthquake weather according to Californians. The next few hours would determine the rest of my life, and I prayed for a good outcome. This was the day of my wedding. I was about to marry a Zulu princess – a South African from Kwa Zulu Natal named, Nomadlozi Victoria Dhlamini.

The name Nomadlozi means – “We honour the ancestors”. Her mother had given birth to Victoria in a car. They were on their way to the hospital while Victoria was forcing her way into the world – feet first. Victoria breathed her first breath in the back seat of that car. Victoria was her mothers’ fifth child, but her first child born breech. Instead of continuing on to the hospital they turned around and went back home. Exhausted from the delivery, Victoria’s mother nearly passed away at home. However, with time, she managed to fully recover. Victoria was a beautiful healthy baby girl, so they called her Nomadlozi – “we honour the ancestors”.

Victoria not only came into the world feet first, she seemed to come into my life feet first as well. For several years we only knew each other casually through work. We didn’t even work at the same place but our lives crossed paths because of our mutual work related to HIV patients. Victoria was volunteering at a local government clinic doing HIV health and prevention talks. This is where our paths crossed because I often brought HIV patients into the clinic for treatment.

Several years went by and my life fell apart, I was trying to pick up the pieces in a foreign country. Due to a divorce, I lost my job as an HIV home-based coordinator. Much of my support had vanished. With my self-confidence shattered, I wasn’t exactly a fun guy to be around. Victoria came in with her bubbly self-confidence and I was taken in by her quirky ways. Our friendship eventually turned to a more serious relationship which brought me to this hot day in January, in a strangers home, awaiting my fate. Would I be married that day or not?

You might ask yourself, “Why the question mark?” In many African cultures, marriage is a negotiated agreement between two families. A negotiation between her extended family and mine. Typically a negotiation involving uncles, cows and money. Since my family was half a world away, I asked my Xhosa pastor friend from Pretoria, Pastor Thando, to come and represent me. As I waited in that hot, neighbor’s living room, he was down the road in Victoria’s home, negotiating the ‘lobola’, or the bride price. I paced while waiting for a phone call telling me I could come and collect my bride. All of this probably sounds pretty strange, maybe even offensive. After all, how can you ‘pay’ for a bride in the twenty-first century.

I was also offended by the idea of paying a ‘bride price’. I’d heard of many horror stories; how some families tried to take advantage of ‘love’ for the sake of ‘money’; trying to make the negotiation process difficult only to extract as much money as possible out of the proposed grooms family. In more traditional days the dowry was paid strictly with cows. Cattle raising is an African tradition and most families raised cows. Cows naturally multiply with time and thus wealth is built. With enough time, a boy would become a man and their would be enough cows to negotiate his would-be bride. The exchange of cattle was an organic way of bringing and binding two families together through that exchange. This was a sacred act, with spiritual connections and ramifications. The ‘lobola’ process was the binding of two families together forever.

Since I am not a farmer and have no cows roaming around my back yard, I needed to go cow shopping. Victoria’s elder sister had mercy on me and graciously took me to a cattle farm near our village. In the African bush, with the farmer driving us around, I searched for the perfect cow. The farmer spotted a group grazing lazily and I thought to myself, “Great, this will be easy”. I didn’t realize that the cows needed to be two very specific cows. One a bull, who was not to big, and one a female, a virgin. Yikes, this was getting complicated. It was at that point I realized the cows represented us as a couple. The farmer took us to another location and finally there they were, little Randy cow (white) and little Victoria cow (brown with a reddish beautiful shinny coat). Victoria’s sister negotiated the final price and the deal was done with a hand-shake. I thought to myself, “This wasn’t so bad”.

Randy cow

Randy cow

Victoria cow

Victoria cow

Two weeks later, I showed up early in the morning at the agreed time to collect my cows, but no farmer was in sight, let alone the cows. The farmer forgot our appointment and never round up the two cows as he agreed. Was this going to blow my chances at marriage? What kind of a son-in-law would I make if I couldn’t even get the cows there on time? My stomach was in a knot, sitting in the sun, awaiting the farmers arrival.

Finally, he arrived with his team of farm hands. I thought they would just simply go get the two cows I purchased. I guess that makes me a city-slicker because it was a lot more complicated then that. They had to go round up ALL the cows, which took several hours. After that, more then a hundred cows passed through the shoot before we found our two small, young but not too young cows, Randy and Victoria. Finally, we had our two cows loaded into the trailer, but by now it was high-noon.

Upon arrival at Victoria’s family home, the two cows were brought to the gate, which sits on the edge of the bush in a small village. I couldn’t be seen, so I stood at a distance down the little dirt road. “Would they accept my cows or not,” I wondered? It was now the middle of the afternoon, the hottest part of the day. Word came back to me that they would only accept them at sunset, so we sat with the cows until the sun was nearly down. Finally, they were led into the yard with a welcoming song and tied to a tree for the night.

The next morning, I was suppose to arrive with my negotiating team by sunrise. As with the cows, my team didn’t come as expected. I ended up driving in the opposite direction, half way to Pretoria, and found them hitch-hiking by the side of the road. Transportation problems made them late. My car was now packed with gifts for my potential brides family, my negotiating team, and myself, but it was well past sunrise.

My team was punished at the gate and not allowed in the yard for being late. This was not a serious offense though and after 30 minutes of waiting they were welcomed inside. Once they gathered in the living room, my team laid down a small sum of money to “open the mouth” of Victoria’s family. They began to talk and introduce themselves. Victoria’s family asked many questions, “What kind of a person is Randy?” “Who are my family members?” “Who were my negotiators?” “Why should Victoria be given in marriage to me?” Finally, the  cash price was settled on and the dowry paid on the spot. Meanwhile, I continued to sit unwittingly in the neighbors house not knowing what was happening or how things were progressing.

The family brought three girls into the living room where the negotiators were sitting. One of the girls being Victoria and the other two her sisters. With their heads covered, my team was suppose to identify the girl they had come for. My team selected Victoria’s sister by mistake. Aghhh, things were not going well for me. Fortunately, through prior back room negotiations, all matters were settled before I ever arrived. These proceedings were all part of a long tradition and were being played out like they had been for hundreds of years. After all the theatrics, I got the phone call from my team, “Come and meet your new extended family”. I was overjoyed and relieved.

Being welcomed at the family gate

Being welcomed at the family gate

I was escorted inside and welcomed with the distinctive cries of female ululation. It was a party atmosphere with all of Victoria’s family gathered around me, welcoming me home with hugs. The unique thing about this moment was not only that I was getting married, but it was also my first time to set foot into their house. I was about to meet Victoria’s father for the first time in my life.

When Victoria and I were dating, I had to leave Victoria at the corner and not allow myself to be seen by her family. It was not that we were sneaking around, it was out of respect for her family that I couldn’t be seen. I had waited for three years to meet her father and now the moment had finally arrived. I was led into the family sitting room which was packed with people. The ladies were seated down on the floor, the men in chairs, and I took center stage along with my gifts of blankets, coats, hats, and grass matts. They gathered around and I gave out my gifts one by one, each time receiving welcoming hugs, laughter, and shouts of joy. Finally, I came to the gift for her father, a winter coat, hat and walking stick. He jumped up out of his seat with a spring, laughter, and a smile as big as Victoria Falls. He embraced me as his son.

This moment was filled with anticipation because I never thought I would meet Victoria’s father. A year earlier he had been in a terrible car accident and had sustained a life threatening head injury. He was in a coma for several months. They considered pulling his life support at one point. When he came out of the coma, he couldn’t remember much, not even his own language. With time, he fully recovered his speech, coordination, and was now greeting me with open arms. I choked back tears of happiness to finally meet him.

Meeting Victoria's father for the first time

Meeting Victoria’s father for the first time

I was now part of the Dhlamini family and Victoria was part of mine, joined together by a process of negotiations over two cows. I later realized, it wan’t the gifts, or the cows, or the money that made the union – it was the process that cemented us together as a family. The anticipation of knowing each other, of hearing stories about each other, of awaiting the day to finally meet each other; It somehow made the actual day one filled with great joy and excitement.

My mother-in-law has watched those two cows and cared for them like her own children. Typically the cows would be slaughtered, but Victoria’s mother is a vegetarian. A rather unusual thing for a Zulu who typically loves to eat meat. Later, Victoria and I gave birth to our first child, Peaceful Isabella. Those two cows formed their own union and gave birth to a calf a few weeks after Peaceful was born. Now Victoria’s mother is watching after three cows and we are looking after Peaceful. We are bound together by a journey, a process, a road that wasn’t easy, but has been well worth it all.

The bride and groom

The bride and groom

 

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Are You Infected and Connected (or safe and isolated)?

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I see the world differently now. My eyes are open, I am awake, and I see with new eyes. Living in a rural South African community since 2005 has transformed me. I have been a witness to the deaths of hundreds of people who fell victim to a virus while doing home-based care. Their deaths came after long battles with tuberculosis, phenomena or meningitis. In the process they were stigmatized, isolated and left alone to die. Their deaths have left an indelible impression on me. The virus takes your life slowly and often leaves you stigmatized, and lonely in the process. So what has a deadly microscopic virus taught me? Read on.

For five years I was the coordinator of a home-based care project for HIV patients. On one occasion I was called to assist a family and found the matriarch of the home sick and dying. She was not only sick but blind as well. Her family decided the best way to care for her was to put her alone in an outbuilding next to the family home. The room they left her in was empty, without furniture or a bed to trip over. They brought her food and water twice a day and left it on a plate, on the floor, for her to grope for. Isolated, abandoned, and ostracized, all because of a virus – a virus that is sexually transmitted. And there in lies the demon – a virus that is sexually transmitted. The shame, the isolation, and stigma, all come from how the virus is transmitted.

The manner in which HIV is transmitted has opened my eyes to a powerful but potentially dangerous truth – we are all connected to one another. We get stuck on the moral issue of the sex part, which makes us blind to a wonderful fact; We all crave connection. God made us this way and the virus proves it. Before you become angry with me please hear me out.

I now mentor teenagers and one of the games we play is with a ball of string. I gather them in a circle and we take that ball of string and toss it back and forth across the circle until we all have a hold of that string. The string is criss crossed, back and forth, in a web like pattern that becomes quit complicated. Then, we stand with tension on the string and I ask someone to pluck their strand of the string. When they do the whole web vibrates. I ask another to pluck their piece of the string and again, the entire web shakes. It is a simple lesson that demonstrates our connection with one another.

For a long time now we have thought of ourselves as individuals, with our own personal identities. We therefore face life with a “survivor of the fittest” mentality. Our competitive nature, our hunger to acquire, to out-do our neighbor, or even to just survive, often puts us at odd with one another. We see ourselves as having boarders that define where I end and you begin. Even our language supports this notion of separation with our pronouns of “I” and “you”, or “us” and “them”. This identity goes deep into our soul and we feel that urge to control others, to conquer, to stand tall, and become “someone” over and against “another”. All of this betrays the true nature of the world God has created.

One of the laws God used in forming the universe; Everything lives in relationship with another.

We are learning everyday that in truth, all of life is intricately woven together in stings of connection. This is no longer an esoteric fabrication but is increasingly proven science. It was once thought that the atom was the smallest individual building block of life. The atom stood alone as a solid particle like a billiard ball. We now know that the atom is just a shell that contains another world of vast space and vibrating particles, that contain a vast world of quarks that relate to one another and mysteriously form life. These individual particles only become unique when they bond with other particles. Quarks bond to form neutrons and protons, which form the nucleus of an atom, which then bonds with other atoms to form molecules. There is even a theory that says these vibrating particles are connected in strings that form a fabric that make up space and time. Today we know that matter cannot exist without these connections and interactions. There is nothing that is truly independent of another.

We therefore, as human beings, find this great need for connection with one another. I believe it is one of the laws God used in forming the universe; Everything lives in relationship with another. We deeply desire to be known, to be understood, to be shown empathy, and to be accepted for who we are. In this craving for connection we often allow that hunger to take us into acts of sexual intimacy. If you take away the hot button issue of “sex”, out of the equation, HIV simply reveals that we all crave intimacy. Henri Nouewen put it like this,

“The HIV/AIDS epidemic is probably one of the most telling symptoms of our contemporary brokenness. There, love and death cling to each other in a violent embrace. Young people, desperate to find intimacy and communion, risk their very lives for it.”

Craving connection and intimacy is not a moral issue, it’s a human need. HIV simply is the litmus test that reveals the chain of connection that is there. I’ve often heard it said, “If people would just stay faithful to one partner, there wouldn’t be this problem.” Tell that to a women who has been faithful to her husband but still ends up in the grave. Tell that to the young girl who got gang rapped on her way to school. Tell that to the child born with the virus. There are many ways the virus spreads through many social situations. My only point is not related in anyway to a moral issue but is related to the fact that we are all connected. With HIV, the connection unfortunately has a very negative consequence.

We are connected as revealed through a tiny virus. We can now see it in a new virus called Ebola. Ebola and HIV are not moral issues. They are just a virus that need a human host to multiply in. Once they enter the human body and multiply, we pass them on in a web of connection with others. Our attempts at trying to stop the spread of the virus is revealing of just how connected we are. I’ve been amazed at hearing news reports that start, “We are tracking 20 people believed to have been in contact with said host”, and end with, “We are now tracking more than 100 people.” What about those 80 or so people who weren’t originally being tracked? How many people were they in contact with? Oh no! This is becoming very complicated, isn’t it. This is the web of connection we live in everyday. The virus only reveals what we believed was not a reality. The virus reveals we are not isolated individuals at all.

So what is my point, you might be asking? If a hundred or so years ago a tiny virus entered a human host, what would you expect as a result? Did you know that to date, HIV has killed more than 25 million people globally, and another 34 million people are currently living with the virus. In total that’s nearly 60 million people. Those are just the individuals – what of their partners, their children, their extended families? The number of people affected is unimaginable. There is no way to really understand the numbers. A stone drops, a ripple forms, a wave moves out from the epicenter. The point of my writing is not about the massive numbers because my point is that we are ALL connected and therefore we are ALL affected. If one tiny virus enters a human host it will infect some, but all will be affected in some way.

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Now to the good news. What if we could take the negative example of the spread of a deadly virus, but then woke up to the reality that our “loving” actions could potentially impact one another in a very similar but positive way. HIV and Ebola happen to have a horrible impact on human life but imagine what love could do – spreading, engaging, impacting, rippling out in all directions, in a wave of compassion, forgiveness, and empathy. What if we began to infect each other with acts of love? What if we saw ourselves as hosts of “love” that have the potential to “go viral”? We often feel overcome in our world and don’t know what we can do really to make any positive impact. We feel like giving into a sense of apathy that paralyzes us from doing anything. I like to look at the historical spread of HIV and realize that empirically, small acts can amount to huge outcomes.

It is the hope that I cling to that my small acts of compassion, when added to other small acts compassion, in connection with millions of us around the world, can add up to a moment of global transformation. I believe in the silent majority. We are the people around the world who want peace, who desire change, but who are calm, quiet, who go about life engaged in life with work and family. You feel you can do nothing. But your wrong! Wake up to the reality that you have the power of a virus living inside you. The virus of love. Spread it, act on it, infect others with it, let it spring up from within you and spill out. Contaminate your world with this virus. Before you know it, together, when we combine our acts of compassion and love, we will all wake up to a new reality. A new Kingdom will come to Earth, as it is in Heaven.

As a child, I sang a song in Sunday School that went something like this, “It only takes a spark to get a fire going.” The other day I accidentally started a grass fire in front of my house. In no time the wind carried that fire across my little plot toward my neighbor. I quickly ran in front of the fire to try and cut a fire break to save my neighbors shack from burning down. Fortunately, I was successful, minus a few cuts, bruises and a slightly melted pair of shoes. We can no longer live in a world where we act as though we are independent souls, whose actions only impact our own environment. My actions connect to everyone. A virus is deadly but love is life giving. It only takes a spark.

There is an imbalance in our world today and that imbalance makes it possible for the “haves” to falsely think they can survive through isolation.

We now live in fear of a new virus, Ebola. We want to isolate the source (in this case West Africa) in fear for our own lives. We want to create a “fire break” through separation. When we act in this way we fail to see that everything is connected. We fail to see that if we don’t assist in their time of need it will indeed come to us. We cannot isolate ourselves, there is a connection we have that is built into the world we live in. It was put there by our creator.

There is an imbalance in our world today and that imbalance makes it possible for the “haves” to falsely think they can survive through isolation. The “haves” want to cut a fire break around themselves to keep out the “have not’s”. That is never going to work. I live in a country (South Africa) where the stability of a delicate social balance is about to collapse, because the “have’s” thought they could live in isolation from the “have not’s”. The imbalance I see demonstrated in South Africa in microcosm exists in macro on a global scale. We are connected, and we will reap what we sow, and if we think we can isolate ourselves, we are wrong. That is not the way God created us, it’s not the way life works, and it’s not the way the universe works. Jesus put it like this,

“A branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. Apart from me you can do nothing. This is my command: Love each other.” John 15

“I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one – as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And May they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.” John 17

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Becoming A Child – Out Of The Box

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Out of the box thinking – a phrase we hear kicked around a lot but I wonder how often we really engage in it. It seems to be a phrase that’s been hijacked by the corporate world, in an effort to turn more profits. I strive to be a free thinker, an open minded person, but I frequently find myself following the same rabbit trails in my head. It’s difficult to truly think outside the box when you have yet to recognize the box you live in. That is the basic dilemma of out of the box thinking. How do you think outside of something that is unidentified? The first step then is to acknowledge that the box is even there.

For some, the box is even a non-reality. Therefore, thinking outside that reality becomes an impossibility. They make the wrong assumption that everyone shares their point of view so they see no box. Take for example the movie, The Truman Show, starring Jim Carrey. The protagonist, Truman, is born and raised in a fake world created by a producer for a reality TV show. Truman, has no idea he is living his life in front of a TV audience, and believes the world created for him is his very real life. One day, he begins to suspect something is not right and longs for something more. The movies epiphany  moment comes, when the bow of the sail boat he tries to escape in literally slams into a cement wall. Bam! The wall being the fake sky that is the edge of the shows production set. He is suddenly confronted with the choice of, moving beyond the box of his world, or retreat back into familiarity and safety. The movie begs us to ask the question, “If we want to think outside the box – what is the nature of the box I live in?

Most of the time we are never confronted with our own self-created realities until we either experience suffering or are confronted with somebody else’s box.

This sounds simple enough to do but it’s horribly challenging. It’s like trying to describe something your so familiar with that you’re actually blind to it. You are trying to express a reality you have always known but have nothing to contrast it with. For example, how would a fish know that water is “wet”, unless they knew the contrasting sensation of “dry” air. The box happens to be the womb of our lives. The place where we have been nurtured and developed. The place we call home. It is our own comfort zone, where patterns are familiar and questions rarely pop-up. This home, comfort zone or womb, is our box. Inside our box we have developed ways of solving problems, we find comfort in the certainty of our belief systems and have made assumptions about the nature of our relationships. Since this box becomes our security, we hang on to it with white knuckles, fearing to ever let it go.

Over time, the box we have woven around ourselves, becomes an invisible container. We fail to see the box we have created, even though it is an ever present “invisible” reality. We fail to acknowledge that we are protected on all sides by the walls of our box. These walls keep potentially dangerous realities “out” while trapping us “in” the safety of our own mental habits. Most of the time we are never confronted with our own self-created realities until we either experience suffering or are confronted with somebody else’s box.

By suffering, I mean we experience a personal loss and come face to face with the disappointing reality that our box has failed to explain our suffering. The second way we suddenly face the true nature of our box is by suddenly being dropped into the world of someone else’s box. What I’am speaking of is another culture. The unfamiliarity of the new world we have been dropped into, suddenly sheds light on the four walls of our own point-of-view.

Unlike some, I have had the fortunate experience of being exposed to several different cultures in my lifetime. That exposure has shaken me on more than one occasion out of my comfortable box. Without that exposure, I’m certain I would never have realized there was such a thing as my own personal “box”.

I began to wonder about the reality of the systems I had previously bought into.

My first real out of the box experience came while living in the suburbs of Tokyo. There I was confronted with the reality that I indeed lived in a box made up of my sheltered, white, evangelical Christian, naive, shades of grey, driven world. Since then, I have spent the last ten years living in a rural South Africa village. In South Africa I was again confronted with the confining box of my world. I was a white, educated Christian, and therefore superior (so I assumed). Therefore, I had all the solutions to the problems of poverty and AIDS. I was blind to the poverty of my own box and failed to see the riches of the new box I was living in, until one day it all came crashing down.

Don’t assume I went to Japan and South Africa blind. I had much cross-cultural training. I knew about worldviews, and had done linguistic studies. I had studied cultural anthropology and knew the traps I should avoid. Nevertheless, that dumb box of my world still trapped me and kept me from seeing things as they are. I was not only confronted by an African point-of-view, but at the same time suffered a deep personal loss. While living and working in a village overcome by HIV, I experienced the demise of my marriage. The suffering I experienced during the breakdown of my marriage while living in a culture not my own, caused me to face the weakness of my own box. My box being the orthodox evangelical Christian worldview I grew up with.

In the end I had to let go of much of what had always been so familiar to me. Thinking out of the box became more like jumping out of the box, head first into the abyss. I began to question everything I ever knew. I began to wonder about the reality of the systems I had previously bought into. What I had been taught and what I experienced no longer were compatible. I began a process of letting go. This letting go process which started in 2009, has led me down a path that continues to this day. I’m still in the midst of unraveling the trappings of the old box and finding passion and pleasure in weaving a new picture.

As adults we can sit and debate the attributes of an ocean wave, or in more child like fashion, we can go surfing.

Through this journey, the life of Jesus has taken on new meaning to me. Previously, it was His death and resurrection that took center stage in my life. Now, with an out of the box perspective, I have discovered Jesus anew. He is more human, more courageous, and more passionate about the “truth” setting us free, than I had previously thought. “Free”, as in out of the box – free. “Free”,  as in religion – free. “Free”, as in let go of your preconceived ideas – free.

Jesus said if you are going to understand His Kingdom you must become like a child. I always took this in some kind of moral sense because the box I grew up in was all about personal sin. That box said, “I was a sinner and that made me a bad person”. To enter God’s kingdom, I needed to repent of my past deeds. I reasoned that becoming like a child meant regaining my innocence. When I read the words of Jesus, “become like a child”, it seemed more like a moral issue to me.

Now that my box has been ripped to shreds, I have started looking at the words of Jesus from another point-of-view. I think becoming like a child could also mean accessing the world without presumption or assumption. Becoming a child is not strictly about innocence but is also about a spirit of playfulness, exuberance and adventure. It’s about a raw desire to experience anything new through play. This in contrast to the adult need to debate and reason points of belief and theology. For example, as adults we can sit and debate the attributes of an ocean wave, or in more child like fashion, we can go surfing. Becoming like a child, for me, has become more about going surfing, and enjoying the experience.

From this perspective, repent takes on new meaning. Repent would mean to let go of the adult framework which constantly wants to debate, reason and theorize, and trade that in for going “outside” to play. Repent means tear up your old box, let it go, and go experience the world God has made through the eyes of a child. Repent means to trade in the box of religion, man made systems or beliefs, structures and constructs of thought that trap us in mental loops; trade that box in for life, for freedom to experience play, to make mistakes, to allow God to flow through our lives in connection with the world around us.

The world doesn’t like out of the box thinking.

In the past those who challenged traditional systems of thought faced disgrace, often labelled as heretics or worse, traitors. Yet, it is the courage of such people who have forged hard sought freedoms for us in our day. I have just been reading about a Spanish doctor named Michael Servetus who was burned at the stake in 1553 for being an out of the box thinker. His sin was to write a book that declared God to be one, with Jesus and the Holy Spirit as incarnations of that one God. HIs aim was to be more inclusive of Jews and Muslims who have always held a strong view that God is one. His denial of what was then considered orthodox trinitarian doctrine, along with his disbelief in infant baptism, cost him his life. Slowly roasted alive, burned at the stake, he died with his book chained to his feet. The reformation hero, John Calvin, was the one who hotly debated his views and had him tried as a heretic. The world doesn’t like out of the box thinking.

Some of the most closed off countries in the world today are also the most brutal. Look for example at the extreme example of North Korea. How about the current peaceful protests taking place in Hong Kong which are met with the heavy hand of the Peoples Republic of China. We could also take movements, such as the radical Islamic groups, who are rising up with extreme brutality towards those who take a different view from their own fundamentalism. Thinking out of the box can get you killed in any number of situations in our world today. Which brings us to the issue of religion, which always seems to carry the baggage of conformity as a requirement. Do not think for yourself, do not ask questions, do not question authority, do not speak your own mind, mistrust yourself and put your life into other peoples hands.

Jesus came into that time and place in history and said, “No more!” – and he healed.

Jesus didn’t seem to follow the mindset of allowing religion to create a box for him. He actually stood courageously tall when it came to stepping out of the religious box of his day. I have come to believe that the miraculous healing’s of Jesus were not about “healing” at all. Neither were they about demonstrating his supernatural power, nor as an indication of his divine authority as the Son of God. I believe he healed to demonstrate out of the box living. He could have healed any day of the week but he specifically choose to heal on the Sabbath. A day that the religious box of Jesus’ day twisted into a day of conformity and control. A day, that over time had turned into a heavy weight around the necks of Jews. A day that was no longer a day of freedom but a day of slavery. Slavery to a box. Jesus came into that time and place in history and said, “No more!” – and he healed. In doing so, he was in essence sticking his neck courageously out to be chopped off.

Jesus was the classic out of the box thinker who turned the world of His day on it’s head. His out of the box thinking was met with a heavy hand. He was upsetting the fine balance of religion and politics, of power and control, of corruption and elitism. He was serving notice to every Jew of his time, and to all of us, that there was a new King and a new Kingdom. Repent – get out of your box, your entrapment, your slavery, your mind-set, and experience life. Experience freedom, experience a new Kingdom, a Kingdom that is “within” you, a Kingdom that will replace your small “box” with wide open LOVE.

 

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