Thursday, June 23, 2016

He Who Is Brave Is Free

What if I stop running? 

From myself? From my past? From my brokenness? From the things I spend so much time and energy keeping at bay, in the shadows?

What if I just stopped?

Ripped off the mask and stood with arms outstretched before the waves? As swell after swell came, beating me, knocking me down until I didn't know which way is up?

And then, upon finding the surface again, I embraced it all – the good and the bad. Without judgement or regret. And stood again.

Surely, there are some who would see me— bare, vulnerable, open— and think me insane. They may walk away. They may shout their disapproval. They may even join with the torrent to tear me down.

And how that would hurt.

But wouldn't others look on and see courage? And strength? And dignity? Maybe they would admire from afar. Maybe they would offer encouragement or aid. Maybe they'd stand silently beside, even reach out for my hand. Maybe they'd pull me back on my feet. Maybe I could pull them up, too.

After all, if I were the bystander in this scenario (and haven't I been before?), would I not envy the person facing the waves? Do I not long for her courageous spirit? For her sense of wholeness, self-sufficiency, and worth? Don't I think the scoffers ignorant and undeserving of attention? Would I not tell them to fuck off without a second thought?

So why do I let the fear of them keep me submerged when my waves come? In chains? Afraid? Alone?

What if I stopped holding my head underwater so that the critics may breathe more freely? Do I not have an equal right to be? To be loved? Happy? Free?

Just me?

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Have I Changed?

The pressure to be profound is, well, profoundly amazing.

Every morning I hit snooze on my alarm and wonder if this will be the day. The day that too much steam builds up in my pressure cooker of a mind and the world discovers I'm a fraud. The day someone looks at me and says, "This girl isn't any different than when she left." Or, "Yeah, she's different, but not in a good way." Aside from a new tattoo, a nice tan, and a serious need for a haircut, outwardly I look the same.

And if you ask me if I feel the same or not, I would probably have to tell you that I have no idea. Being aware of and being able to correctly identify my feelings has never been my strong point. What I can tell you I know for sure that I feel is this: I am terrified. As scary as it seems to quit your jobs and move to a foreign country with complete strangers for a few months, coming home is even more intimidating. It feels like a test for a class I've never attended. Because this is where the real hard work happens.

It may be hard to go out of your comfort zone, speak Afrikaans and try to earn the right to a place in someone else's culture, to live your mission, as Experience Mission likes to say. But it's even harder, if you ask me, to live your mission in your comfort zone. Here it's not as glamorous or exciting to dutifully act as I should, to suffer gladly, to speak in love words that bring life, to go the extra mile, to turn the other cheek, to live as if every thought and every action matter.

And so I'm left to wonder, as people ask me all about my trip, waiting expectantly for the profound wisdom I gained during my travels: Have I changed? Or has it just been a change of environment?

The more I think about this, the more I've come to believe that while the change in environment was a catalyst for personal growth and change, it's not dependent on the environment. Because it's a choice. Daily, I get to choose whether I will live as intentionally as I did in South Africa, if I will choose to die to myself, if I will walk in humility or pride. It doesn't matter if I've "changed" or not (what does that really even mean, anyway?), what matters is what I choose to be each day.

Aristotle believed that we are the sum of our actions, so maybe it's not about some monumental life change that's easily visible and tangible. Maybe it's how we chose to think and act and live each day. Maybe it's about hearing people's stories and getting to know them. If anything in this world has changed me, it has been people, not experiences.

So if you truly want to know about these last few months don't ask me about what I did, ask me about who I met. If you ask me what I did, I might not know what to say, and the answer will probably fall flat. But if you ask me about who I met, I think you'll see that it was not just a change of environment because the people we love change our hearts and it is only once our hearts are changed that our actions follow suit. You see, life isn't about amassing profundities, although the pressure to do so is intense – it's about people, plain and simple.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Goodness in the Land of the Living

"Surely there is not a righteous man on the earth who does good and never sins" - Ecclesiastes 7:20

I often find myself disenchanted with life, on the verge of completely giving up hope. Between my depression and some of my life experiences, it is hard for me not to see the worst in people and to be wholly cynical. Trusting others is a struggle at best for me, even my very best friends describe having candid conversations about my life as, "pulling teeth." I have seen so much brokenness, hurt, and what seems like pure evil in this world that it is difficult for me to see the good. Partially, I think I am afraid to see the good because then it will hurt more when everything comes crashing down around me.

As I shared a bit in an earlier post, I came to South Africa desperately searching for a renewal of hope and purpose, and honestly I wasn't sure that God would show up. And I'm not sure why I thought that South Africa, a country known for its brokenness and corruption, would be the place to go searching for hope and healing.

So I have spent much of my time here wrestling with what it means to live a hope-filled, Kingdom-focused life in a world that is anything but. And while I cannot say that I no longer struggle with feeling disenchanted, I can say that I have seen things and met people in my time here who have rekindled my hope in humanity. I have seen goodness survive and even thrive in the midst of broken communities. 

I met a young Afrikaner teacher at one of the schools we spoke at who was effervescent with her passion and hope for her students. She told me about children in grade R (think kindergarten) who are addicted to tik (crystal meth), and children who struggle to learn because they were born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. She told me about the high drop-out rates of young girls who become pregnant and a culture that perpetuates cyclical low self-esteem and fatalism.

Yet, in my conversation with her, I found that she is from one of the wealthiest communities in the Western Province and has a phenomenal education. So what brought her to this small farming community where she is surrounded by a very real threat to her safety and where many people have no hope for a better future? It was her first teaching job, but she's already been there four years and has no plans to leave, she told me. She believes in the work she's doing and the kids she teaches. Rather than running from the brokenness around her and hiding away from the painful realities of this world, she is running full-force into its midst. If I have seen anything that exemplifies the goodness of the Kingdom, it is this attitude, this passion, this willingness to run toward the brokenness and to live among it.

Psalm 27:13 says, "I believe I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living!" The Kingdom of God is at hand, though it is not fully present. It is found, not in wholeness, but inside of the pain that is part of the human condition. I don't have to wait for the new heavens and the new earth to see the goodness of the Lord or the presence of His Kingdom -- it is already here, waiting for me to look at it through a different window, in a different light, with open eyes and an open heart.

So maybe I wasn't so far off base by seeking hope in the midst of the brokenness of South Africa after all. 

Friday, September 25, 2015

Each One Teach One

A few months ago, I posted this picture on my Instagram.

It's a passage from the book Carry On, Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton. When I read those words, I felt both convicted and encouraged, known and energized. My beautiful friend Nora suggested the  book to me, and I appreciate these words now more than ever.

Dancing is a huge part of South African culture. Even that might be an understatement. There are 11 official languages in South Africa, and those are only the "official" ones. There is a rich diversity among the people I've met: Zulu, Sesotho, Xhosa, Sepedi, and Tsonga just to name a few. Each tribe has its own culture, but dancing seems to be uniform among them. It unites even the most dissimilar people.

Now, I can waltz and do some swing, etc., but I would not call myself a dancer by any stretch of the imagination. So I find myself in new country, living with people I barely know, trying to learn a new language, and in the midst of all this, I have to make a decision. Will I cling tightly to my comfort zone or dance with abandon? Will I risk looking like a fool or saying the wrong thing or will I refuse to speak anything but English or say nothing at all? Will I deprive the world of a gift I may have to share because I'm afraid or will I be bold and courageous?

If I have learned anything these past few weeks, it's that everyone, and I mean everyone, has something to offer that will enrich the world and the people around them. My class has given me their joy. The after-care kids have given me the gift of dance (even if it's not pretty on my part). My team leader has given me her compassion and a new perspective. My friend Mandi has given me hope through her vulnerability and honesty. The teacher I work with has given me patience and friendship. My host family has given me a home in every sense of the word.

Last Friday, my team and I were able to spend some time at the disability center in Olievenhoutbosch after we finished up at the school. When we arrived, I saw a familiar face and went over to say hello. My friend Ntombi and another lady were making jewelry out of beads. The work they do is incredible and intricate. They told me they were each learning a new pattern, teaching each other and learning from each other. They even let me try.

 Ntombi told me,
"I am teaching her, and she is teaching me. We all have something to share."

Ntombi and her friend are both confined to wheelchairs in a society that has a very low view of the disabled and therefore very few amenities for them. The roads are mostly dirt and uneven, and work nearly impossible to find. Yet here she was, smiling, beautiful, and full of joy. I couldn't help but wonder what it would be like if our roles were reversed. I don't think I'd have the faith to live with such joy and to find a purpose if I were in Ntombi's position. And if she let her worries and her fears keep her at bay, the world would be missing her gifts. I would be missing a friend, know fewer words and phrases in different languages, and not be able to make a bracelet out of beads. My life would be less full. I would be less whole.

So often I put up walls rather than sharing something that could help someone else. So often I don't take risks because I'm terrified of being hurt again. So often I don't share what I write because it's never "good enough." And in doing this, I fail to love the world to the best of my abilities, not honouring God's gifting in my life.

As Glennon writes,
"Dancing sober is what I try to do every day . . . I just try to be myself -- messy, clumsy, crutchless. Dancing sober is just honest, passionate living."

In his book The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis writes concerning friendship something I think we all should take to heart:

"Friendship arises out of mere companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden). The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, 'What? You too? I thought I was the only one.'"

We are made for community, and there is more that unites us than we may think. If you need me, I'll be here, dancing like a fool because it makes the kids laugh. I'll be shopping with my host mom and we'll dance in the streets because it makes her happy. I'll work on taking down my walls because I could be depriving someone else of comfort and solidarity. I'll be dancing sober.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Brokenness in the Kingdom

In our training before we started working here in South Africa, we talked a lot about poverty. Simply put, poverty is not merely a lack of material things, although this is how we commonly view it; rather, poverty is nothing more than brokenness, and it can affect even those of us with the most "wealth" according to our society's standards. When we think of poverty this way, we begin to realize that we are all wealthy in ways we may not realize, but poor in ways we might not have considered. And this should unite us, but it is so often something that separates us. We create The Other. The people we'd rather not love, rather not be around, rather not exist if we're being completely honest. Maybe we think we're better than The Other, superior in some way, or maybe we think they deserve to be where they are or that they are responsible for their own suffering. 

And in doing so, we likely compound their brokenness. And our own.

I struggle with the amount of brokenness I have seen and continue to see in this world. I know there is an "already/not yet" factor at play, so it makes sense for there to be some suffering in the world still, but why so much? Why does brokenness seem to increase every day if the Kingdom is already here in some way? I can understand suffering for our faith, but why is there so much suffering that seems to be just for the sake of suffering? In Matthew 4:17 Jesus declared that the kingdom of heaven was at hand. Shouldn't more of that kingdom be present today? 

Luke 17: 21-22 says, "Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, 'The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed,  nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you,'" (ESV). 

 So I got to thinking, what if the Kingdom isn't found only in that which has already been restored, but in brokenness? Les Miserables is one of my favourite books of all times, and in it Hugo writes, "The pupil dilates in night, and at last finds day in it, even as the soul dilates in misfortune, and at last finds God in it."

I think, perhaps, it's possible that I've been thinking about God's Kingdom in the wrong way. 

So as I am confronted by brokenness, whether it be my own, that of my teammates, of the children I teach and the people I serve, in the U.S. or abroad, in The Other or in my friends and family, maybe instead of being frustrated or discouraged by it, I can recognize the presence of the Kingdom, albeit incomplete. And if the Kingdom is found in the midst of brokenness, it changes how I relate to brokenness, in all its forms. It changes everything.