Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Tick tock... living in the moment

When I arrived here at my placement site in September of last year, I watched clocks and calenders a lot. I counted the days to our first all-volunteer retreat. I counted until Christmas. I counted until July when we would travel home. I thought about that first day back and what it would be like. Especially as I was challenged in the early months, I thought about how long the year would be and what things would be like at the end... would I be SO ready to go? Would I be begging to stay? It was almost impossible for me to imagine.

I also watched clocks a lot because the pace of life seemed so different from what I was used to. Everything moved so much slower. (Little did I know that I was in one of the fastest areas of the country and some of my fellow volunteers were experiencing a MUCH more dramatic slow-down!) Getting used to "Just now" was challenging; waiting for what felt like an eternity for a taxi to fill up or having someone walk away saying "I'll be back just now" and then waiting for up to 30 or 45 minutes took a while to get used to. Coming from a culture of now means NOW and "Time is money" it was culture shock and it took me a long time to acclimate.

Slowly but surely, I have come to love this country's pace. I find myself rarely irritated by having to wait. Sometimes I have moments where I really can't believe how much I've changed. Like when I wait over 2 hours for someone to pick me up, for a taxi to leave or for someone to call me and I don't get the least bit irritated. Now, I was a bit abnormal in this respect before I even came to South Africa... I didn't mind traffic too much (especially on a beautiful day! Roll down the windows and turn up the music!) I also didn't mind lines and the grocery store or post office. It is what it is, right?

But South Africa has taught me patience to the EXTREME. Things happen when they happen. People arrive when they arrive. There's no use in freaking out about having to wait for something, because it will do no good. Better to just take out your book (always have a book with you!) and enjoy the day.

I also don't count the days so much. My family is counting for me now. =) They know exactly how many weeks and days (maybe even hours and minutes!) until I step of the plane. For me though, that day will be SO awesome and yet so sad. I'm very, VERY much looking forward to seeing family and friends who I love dearly and miss tremendously. But coming back to the states means leaving this country that has become my home and the friends here that have become my family. It means leaving a place that has taught me so much about independence and interdependence. It means leaving a life that I love and people that I love even more.

This year has not been a "trip" to Africa. This has been a year of my life in an extraordinary country. I have been challenged, I've learned, I've laughed, I've cried and I've grown so much as a person. So, I'm not counting anymore... at least I'm trying not to. I'm embracing each day as an opportunity to love this life, this place and these people. I hope you are doing the same... wherever you are, whoever you are with and whatever you are doing- love the day, love the moment. Life is too unpredictable to not.

Having July 13th on the horizon as the last day at my site is somewhat scary and foreboding because I know much is going to change when this year ends. But it's also a blessing in a way to know how precious these days here are. And I'm loving each one. Each conversation I have becomes precious. Each moment with my friends is one I enjoy and value. I am loving each day and living as though it is my last... are you?

Monday, May 16, 2011

All while God weeps...

*Disclaimer* I’m fine everyone! Sorry for 2 depressing posts in a row, I promise everything is 100% terrific! =) Just some things I’ve been thinking about recently.

I’ve never really been a big fan of the death penalty. Maybe it was that I saw the movie “The Green Mile” a little too early in my life and the injustice of it all bothered me deeply. Or maybe it’s just because as an excessively philosophical child, I could never wrap my mind around the backwards logic of it all. “You killed someone, so we’re going to kill you to teach everyone that killing is wrong.”

My Dad probably loves me and my siblings more than any father ever loved his child. (Which was embarrassing when we got into highschool and it wasn’t cool to get along with your parents anymore… but he persisted and put up with all of our teenage-ways.) Anyway, I remember him telling my siblings and me that if anybody ever messed with us that he would have no mercy. He would seek the death penalty and if the government failed to deliver, he’d have no problem taking justice into his own hands. Now that’s love.

I recently heard it said that “Anger is the sister of love”. So, when we love someone and their rights are violated, their life is taken from them or they are otherwise damaged, the appropriate response is anger; anger at the situation, anger at the perpetrator and so on. So when my Dad says his anger would rule him if someone were to hurt those he loves, it’s not really an expression of extreme irrationality, but an expression of extreme love.

I watch a lot of Oprah here in South Africa… Not at all something I was expecting would be a part of my life this year, but it is! The other day, she was interviewing a man whose entire family was tortured and killed in their Connecticut home about 4 years ago. He woke up in the hospital as the lone survivor of the incident and had nothing left. Even the home the horrible event had occurred in had been burned. About mid-way through the interview, Oprah clumsily asked about forgiveness and whether or not the man felt the need to forgive the men who did this. The heart-broken man explained that he doesn’t believe the pure essence of evil should be forgiven and that it would be inappropriate to do so. And Oprah replied “I love that answer.”

Sorry Oprah… I don’t love that answer.

In Desmond Tutu’s book “God Has a Dream” he writes of the brutal apartheid system;
“As we listened to accounts of truly monstrous deeds of torture and cruelty, it would have been easy to dismiss the perpetrators as monsters because their deeds were truly monstrous. But we are reminded that God’s love is not cut off from anyone. However diabolical the act, it does not turn the perpetrator into a demon. When we proclaim that someone is subhuman, we not only remove for them the possibility of change and repentance, we also remove from them moral responsibility.” (Page 10-11)

Thus if we refuse to recognize perpetrators of evil as humans… as God’s children who have gone horrifically astray, we release them of their moral responsibility and we release ourselves from the experience of looking at something which is terribly unpleasant and reveals a truth about human nature that we may not want to face. We don’t want to see such evil as being part of us. We don’t want to think that we have the potential to be that.

As we stand in the glow of the Easter season and hear the message that Christ has risen. As we sing “Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?” and hear that death has been conquered, are we not conflicted? Are we not confused when we turn on our TVs and see people celebrating death? Not celebrating life. Not celebrating the conquering power of the cross… but celebrating death.

Last week, the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death hit me like a ton of bricks. At the time, I was cut off from regular communication with the outside world. I was in a very rural area of Kwa-Zulu Natal, the Southeast province of South Africa, when a fellow American friend I was with got a call from someone in the states telling us that Bin Laden had been killed… and Americans were in the streets celebrating. From that moment on, we received a barrage of questions from South Africans about why Americans were celebrating. We didn’t know what to say.

I won’t celebrate death. Osama Bin Laden acted in ways that make my stomach turn and my heart sink. To know that one man could create such destruction and could perpetuate such evil is heart-breaking. However, our God is a God of reconciliation and of peace. A God of unity and of love. Our God loves each one of us because we are His own children. I believe that God wept when Bin Laden masterminded plots that killed thousands of innocent people. But I also believe that He wept when Bin Laden, His child, was killed. And now the cycle of hate continues and at least 80 more lives have been lost in Pakistan in an attempt to avenge the death of Bin Laden. When will it end? (

My Dad would kill for those he loves. But if the situation was such that one of his children killed the other, would he still seek the death penalty for the perpetrating child? One child who he loves so dearly has taken the life of the other who he loved equally as much. He would weep. He would find himself horribly conflicted and in an unnaturally terrible position. This is the state that God finds Himself in. His children are killing each other. They are celebrating the death of their brother. They are dancing in the streets in victory. All while God weeps.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Tears and dancing

I stand in a sea of South Africans. We are singing. Men have lined up in front of us and about 10 of them have picked up shovels working their way through a pile of dirt about 6 feet high. The orange sand is slowly filling the large rectangular hole in the ground at their feet. As I stare at the pile slowly diminishing, I start to cry. It’s an eerie scene as our sea of people merges with a sea just to our left… fellow mourners, also singing and watching men from their group fill another 6 foot deep hole just 2 graves away. The men are shoveling with such force and fury that I can’t help but see the anger that they must be feeling. Some men have to be forced to relinquish their shovels so another man in the group can take his turn. In just 10 or 15 minutes, both graves are filled and the excess dirt is piled in a mound over where the coffin lays 6 feet under.

When both graves are filled, the singing is stopped. One pastor speaks to both groups in a language I can’t understand. Then, our group has a spokesman who says some final words about the deceased… again addressing both groups. The other group does the same- their spokesman also talking to the entire crowd. Finally, a pastor gives the benediction to all assembled “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen.” And we all depart.

I’ve never seen a graveside service like this. In my experiences in the states, it’s usually a very private time. Not everyone who went to the funeral would go to the graveside… it seems like a more private time for family and friends. The family is front and center and usually has front row seats. Also, if there is another funeral going on in the cemetery, it’s usually at least several rows away and the family is given their own personal bubble. I also know people who don’t like seeing the casket being lowered into the ground at the end of the service because it’s so physically final.

However, in this case, the first order of business was the burial. Mourners were the ones filling the grave. The family was set back from the grave and probably could see very little of what was happening. We combined with the group next to us and as we left, there was a row of open graves waiting to be filled later that day.

How have I lived here in South Africa for so long without experiencing a funeral? Perhaps I have been fortunate. Death is a significant part of life here… something that is experienced often. Additionally, I suspect that because of the anti-apartheid struggle and the HIV/Aids pandemic, the death of young people is also a rather familiar and frequent occurrence.

Perhaps it was a fortunate thing that I was able to live here for so long without attending a funeral. However, I felt I was at a huge disadvantage on Good Friday when I experienced what felt like a huge dose of culture shock as people danced and sang in celebration on a day that has always felt like the ultimate funeral to me. I have memories of Good Friday being somber, mournful, dark and quiet. However, as I went to church for the entire day on Good Friday, it was a day of celebration! People were dancing in the aisles of the church, singing, playing instruments and to me it just didn’t feel right!

After attending this funeral over the weekend, I understand a little better what was happening on Good Friday. At the funeral itself, there was a lot of dancing and singing and it was far less depressing than funerals I’ve been to in the states. The man who died was rather young and left a large family. Yet people were there to celebrate his life and rejoice in God’s promises for making us whole despite the brokenness and injustice of this world.

Why these differences? Why do we as Americans cry so much at our funerals? Why don’t we like seeing the grave being filled? Why do we like our graveside experience to be so private and closed off? Perhaps it is because death is such a significant part of life in this culture and people are less afraid of it. Perhaps it is because the entire culture is more focused on community and death is understood as being a part of our human condition.

I’m not sure what it is exactly. All I know is that as tears fell from my eyes at the grave of a man I had never met, I looked around me and saw the sea of South Africans dancing and singing… this man’s friends, family and co-workers. I saw a range of emotions; joy, anger, numbness. But above all else, I saw a community. Some were strangers, some friends, and some would never see each other again. But all were united in the understanding that death affects us all and is part of our experience as humans. And in response to that reality, we stood among the graves dancing together.