A Study in Contrasts

We’re back in the states.  After seven days in South Africa, we spent about twenty-four hours traveling to Michigan.  We got home, unpacked our suitcases, started laundry, and tried to re-acclimate ourselves to our former lives before reality struck this morning.

Several hours later, I’ve already taught three sections of students and interacted with a number of people who wondered, “Well, how was your trip?”  I’m really glad they asked, because as I answered people, I began to learn what impact this trip to South Africa has had on me.

It became rather clear early in the journey that our purpose, or at least my purpose, was to be an observer.  This was a new role for me.  Often I am a leader, presenter, director, and planner.  This past week, I was a follower, listener, observer, and receiver. In this role, I was free to take in South African culture, to hear the stories of a variety of people, to let go of responsibility, and to bear witness to the contrast between my life in the United States and the lives of the people I met in South Africa.

First of all, although I often think I need more, I recognize now how much I have in contrast with many of the people I saw.  For example, I complained at the beginning of my semester because the classroom where I teach didn’t come equipped with dry erase markers or an eraser, even though it did come equipped with a computer, projection, and wifi.  I easily purchased a pack of markers and an eraser for less than $5, a textbook was provided to me, and I am paid a fair salary to teach under 25 students in each of my three classes.  In contrast, my colleagues in South Africa have no internet in their classrooms at all — not even dial-up.  They have a few mostly outdated textbooks, worn posters on the walls, drying up markers, and classrooms crammed with up to 40 students — and that was in a kindergarten class!  And guys, despite the fact that they earn very little, they aren’t complaining.  They are teaching and learning.  The instructors are engaging their students.  The students take pride in their work.

Yes, the contrast was palpable.

It was also evident in the ways that I noticed people interacting with one another. Each time people see each other during the day, they greet one another, “Good morning!  How are you?” Even if they have seen each other several times, they still  formally greet one another before they move on in conversation.  This was a challenge for me!  I am known to jump right in with “Hey, did you get my email?” For a week, I practiced acknowledging the person in front of me instead of the task that he or she could perform for me.  The simple practice of speaking a greeting shifted my perspective.  That, plus the fact that I had no real responsibilities, allowed me to see people and listen more carefully than I am typically apt to do.

In fact, I noticed today, here in Michigan, that I was looking at people in the eyes a bit more, listening a little more intently, worrying a little less about getting to the next task on my list.  I hope it lasts.

The third difference I will note today is the energetic spirit I saw in the people of South Africa — particularly the black South Africans.  Apartheid ended a number of years ago, but the differences and division between whites and blacks could not be more obvious. In one week’s time I noticed that black South Africans have less — less status, less power, less money, and less opportunity than the white South Africans.  Yet they do not seem defeated.  Their spirit propels them to walk great distances along red clay paths — rain or shine — to work and to school.  They sit up tall in their classrooms, raise their hands high, and open their mouths to sing as they work, whether their tasks are menial or meaningful. Rather than seeming angry or sad, they exude joy!  Their worship was filled with dancing, clapping, and even marching! They smiled, laughed, and played with one another — despite their seeming disadvantage.  I was struck by this.  I have not experienced the kind of disadvantage that all of them have experienced.  I have led a life of plenty.  I have not gone one day without food, clothing, or shelter in my fifty years of life.  I have had every opportunity for education, employment, and entertainment that I have ever desired.  Yet I am often discouraged, stressed, and even angry about what I don’t have.

So, you know what’s coming, don’t you?  I opened my Bible study today and turned to the reading in Psalm 37.  (I really can’t make this stuff up.) When I read the words, “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart,” I pictured my new South African  friends smiling, clapping, and dancing — delighting themselves in the Lord.  They are happy and celebrating the fact that they have Him, regardless of the things that they don’t have.

I can learn a lot from these people.  I think I have begun to.

Psalm 37: 23-24

The steps of a man are established by the Lord, when he delights in his way;

though he fall, he shall not be cast headlong.

 

Grounded

We’re halfway through day three in South Africa, and I am not surprised that my body demanded to be ‘grounded’ today.  I mean, we left Ann Arbor less than 90 hours ago and when all we’ve done, you’ll wonder why I didn’t get benched sooner.  I already know the reason why — I have been flying high on adrenaline and intrigue.  I have not stopped being amazed since I got here.  And, you know, I’m not even upset that I’ve been plunked down on a couch for the day.  I am enjoying the time to reflect and process all that we’ve seen and heard.  Want to join me?

For forty-eight hours before we left on this trip, I kept telling people, “I’m a bit anxious about being on a plane for fourteen hours straight.”  I was worried about claustrophobia mostly, but I was also concerned about the wear and tear on my body.  As it turns out, it wasn’t terrible!  We had a little hiccup in Detroit when I made it easily through the security lines only to see that all the machines had shut down just as my husband’s backpack went into the x-ray machine.  Not to worry, within fifteen minutes, someone restored the machine and we were on our way to our gate.

We were also a little concerned that although I had purchased side by side seats for the long leg of the journey our boarding passes had us sitting one behind the other.  We checked with the gate agent in Atlanta, but he said he was unable to help us.  Not to worry, the woman sitting next to me, a nurse on a mission trip, offered her seat to my husband even though she had already wiped it down with disinfectant, unpacked her belongings, and situated herself.

Then, when it was time for take-off and everyone was comfortably seated with their items stowed, the captain informed us of a delay — the baggage compartment wouldn’t lock.  We waited and chatted, wondering if we would have to de-plane and reload before we took off.  Not to worry, the problem was resolved and we were on our way. I will say that flying coach for fourteen hours is a bit cramped and sleeping is difficult; however, we both did sleep for large chunks of time — even without taking the melatonin we packed.  We ate well (they even provided me with all gluten-free trays), we chatted, we read, and we watched three movies each as we crossed the Atlantic.

We arrived in Johannesburg and wondered how we would connect with our friend who was picking us up.  We didn’t think our cell phones would work in South Africa.  We didn’t know how long it would take to get through customs or how long we would wait for our bags.  Once again, not to worry.  We waited in line at customs for what seemed like fifteen minutes; our bags arrived in about that much time, too.  When we exited the secure area, our friend was right there, waiting to buy us bottled water and tea.

We had arrived unscathed in South Africa.

You would think that after twenty-four hours of travel we would have collapsed.  Not at all.  We arrived at our guest house and met our new friends.  This couple, retired teachers/administrators from Texas, have volunteered three months of their time to come alongside the teachers here in Middleburg.  They are observing, evaluating, coaching, and supporting these teachers.  Over glasses of South African red wine, we discovered our shared purpose and kindred spirits.  We chatted late into the evening.

The next morning, (and, yes, we slept that first night — despite our confused body clocks), we made our way to St. Peter Confessional Lutheran Church for its 27th Anniversary Celebration Worship.  I’m pretty sure that this service should have its own dedicated post, but let me summarize here by saying that for three and half hours my eyes were wide and my smile was broad as I witnessed these people singing, dancing, celebrating, and worshiping.

From there, we walked a short distance to the elementary school, which is called St. Peter’s Lutheran College.  At this site, we were ushered to VIP seating inside a tent.  Many people were acknowledged and recognized, we were entertained by a local jazz/brass ensemble, and then we were fed.  I suspect a whole post will be dedicated to the food and beverages we’ve enjoyed, but just know that the red carpet has been rolled out for us — this group of about a dozen Americans who have come to celebrate what God has done and dream about what He has yet to do here.

After the meal, we were entertained by a local group of male dancers and then a group of female dancers.  By this time, I will admit, I was utterly exhausted.  The festivities were wrapping up, so we headed back to our guest house where I decided to lie down for a few minutes.  After a short but intense power nap, I was whisked away to visit our friends, the Bersons.  We enjoyed snacks and more South African wine, played with our soon-to-be five year old “niece”, and were then delivered back to our guest home where we ‘slept the sleep of the dead.’  And that was just day one!

Yesterday, day two, we toured the preschool and the elementary school.  The schools are just several years old and have grown from several dozen students to almost 900 between the two sites.  Classrooms are crammed with bodies and very few resources, yet the children are well-behaved and very attentive to their instructors. Classrooms are continuously being built.

We ate lunch, then traveled about an hour to the home of a local naturopath — a doctor who uses nutrition, herbs, and the like to treat maladies.  He is partnering with one of St. Peter’s pastors to build a worship location where people can receive not only physical but spiritual healing.  Right now, about forty people are worshiping in his home/clinic every Sunday while they plan to build a worship site.

The doctor and his wife joined us for dinner and then we began our journey home.  My body was already in distress, but I was drinking in all the details. Over dinner, I heard the stories of a couple from Chicago who are on their third trip to this ministry.  I chatted with my husband and a friend from MI as we sat in the back seat of a van.  When we arrived back at the guest house, we sat up until late again, sipping great South African wine and sharing our observations and our hearts.

My body cried all night long; it wouldn’t let me sleep.  I wasn’t angry or disappointed  but rather apologetic.  “Yes, yes, I know.  I have expected so much of you, haven’t I? Shall we stay home today to rest, reflect, and recover?” A resounding yes could be heard throughout Middleburg.

Most of our group traveled today to another site — a location that wants to build an orphanage.  They will drive a bit, tour the site, eat lunch, then visit another site.  I am sorry to miss these experiences, but I am looking forward to joining the group this evening to hear their stories.

Right now I am drinking in details.  I am filing evidence in folders called ‘juxtaposition’, ‘contentment’, ‘vision’, and ‘commitment.’  I am learning, to be sure, but the fullness of the lessons has not yet been made clear.  I will keep you posted, but right now, I am going to put my feet up and enjoy being grounded.

Psalm 34:8

Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.

Packing bags

A week ago I packed a suitcase with jeans, yoga pants, an MSU T-shirt, and tennis shoes. I was headed to Cincinnati to visit our son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter.  I pictured lots of snuggling and laughing, a glass of wine or two, a Spartan win, and a weekend of refreshment.

I was disappointed on all counts.

We were supposed to leave on Friday morning, but I became ill and had to watch, instead, as my husband left to take the trip on his own. No snuggling, no wine, and I don’t want to discuss what happened to the Spartans.

Granted, I was thankful to have the time to recover. I read an entire book.  I crocheted two scarves.  I laughed quite a bit with my son. I watched an entire season of Call the Midwife.  Yes, it tugged at my heartstrings when my husband sent me photos of our granddaughter, but I knew I was where I needed to be.

This week I’m packing my suitcase again.  It’s a much bigger suitcase for a much bigger trip.  I’ve packed dresses and slacks, gifts and snacks, and all the necessities to carry me through a week in South Africa.  I’ve got to admit that, looking back on how last week turned out, I’m a little anxious.  Just one week ago, I was fully planning on going to Cincinnati, but I didn’t make it.  Today I am fully planning on leaving for South Africa in forty-eight hours. What if I feel this Friday like I felt last Friday?

It could happen.  After all, I didn’t have the flu or a head cold; I had an autoimmune flare. I felt like I’d been hit by a truck while recovering from the flu.  I call it “getting knocked down” because I am literally doing fine one minute, and then I notice that I feel nauseous, my guts are in knots, I have all over body aches, and I can’t do anything but lie in bed.  That’s phase one, which lasts a few hours.  During phase one, I typically am so uncomfortable that I can’t even read or watch Netflix.  I usually fill a tub with warm water, epsom salt, and baking soda, slither in and lie there groaning.  After about an hour in the tub, I can usually move on to phase two.  During phase two, I eat popsicles while reading or watching Netflix. I put an ice pack on my right SI and heated flaxseed pillows across my abdomen to continue the soothing that started in the tub.  This past weekend I moved in and out of phase two for about forty-eight hours.  I got spurts of ambition during which I organized my desk, graded papers, and did laundry, but then I headed back to the couch.

Traveling to South Africa is ambitious. It would be ambitious if I wasn’t teaching and tutoring.  It would be ambitious if I didn’t have an autoimmune disease.  It’s super ambitious because I am teaching and tutoring and I do have an autoimmune disease. Last weekend, while lying on the couch watching the fourth or fifth episode of Call the Midwife, the thought might have crossed my mind — what, are you crazy? Who do you think you are?  Why are you even going on this trip?

Why, indeed? I probably won’t be able to fully answer that question until I get back.  That’s usually the way with these things.  We were invited. We’re going.  While my husband has some ‘official business’ while we are there, my role, as far as I can see, is more to be a witness to what is happening and, possibly, to write about it.  That’s my hope, anyway.

But I can’t help but wonder what else I will find in South Africa.  How will this adventure shape my heart? How will it alter my views?  How will it direct my path?  I don’t know, but I want to find out.  So, I’m trusting that God, who provided the opportunity for this trip, will provide the health that I need to get on that plane this Friday.

God is faithful; won’t He do it?

Psalm 89:8

Who is like you, Lord God Almighty?
    You, Lord, are mighty, and your faithfulness surrounds you.

 

Shifting Gears

Once upon a time, a middle-aged woman took a break from work to rest and assess some health issues.  For six months, she barely worked at all.  Instead, she cultivated friendships, attended Bible study, exercised, read, wrote, and rested.  For another six months, she gradually eased back into the working world. Through trial and error she learned what amount of work was enough and what was too much.

Or did she?

I’m entering my third year here at the little house by the river. That first fall I had so much time on my hands!  My house was so clean and uncluttered! I prepared meals fairly regularly. I took time for coffee and lunches with friends. I traveled to see family regularly.  I exercised several days a week.  I started most days with Bible study and blogging.  It was a lovely season.

I’ll admit I was a little bored.

I’m not bored any more.

My new challenge is to offer myself grace when my house is cluttered and in need of a deep cleaning, when my husband and I have to scrounge through the fridge to find leftovers — again, when I turn down one more offer to meet a friend for coffee, when it’s been weeks months since I’ve seen some of my family, when I miss a full week of exercise, or when I’ve failed to make time for daily Bible study and prayer.  Because, honestly, this has become the norm for the moment.

I know it’s just a moment.  I agreed to a heavier course load for a semester — not forever.  We are taking two international trips in the next four months, but then we probably won’t go anywhere again for years!  It’s a season, just like many other seasons we have weathered.  It’s just for a moment, but in the moments, it feels overwhelming.

So, instead of taking time to pause, reflect, and pray, I spend those moments online ordering travel pillows and earplugs.  In place of going to the gym, I fit in an appointment for immunizations.  Rather than meeting friends for coffee, I spend the morning grading papers and preparing for the next class.  When I could take a day trip to visit family, I find myself on the couch recovering from another hectic week.

It’s a season, I tell myself. Yet life is made up of seasons, is it not?  Do I wait for the next season, when I’ll presumably have more time, to fit in the disciplines and pleasures I love so well?  Or do I adapt so that I can taste them even in this season?

Yes, that was a rhetorical question.

I’m in the sixth week of this semester.  So far — yes, it’s Tuesday — I’ve managed to start my week off with worship, connections at church, a completed stack, time with my husband, a couple of prepared meals, an hour of Pilates, a physical therapy session, and, this morning, an hour of Bible study, reflection, prayer, and blogging.  Ahhhh. Now, see, isn’t that lovely?  Why don’t I keep this rhythm every day? Every week?

Well, because I am human.  I am bound to be buried in the to-dos very shortly.  After all, I am not only planning for tomorrow’s classes and grading yesterday’s papers, I am also preparing my students for the fact that I will be gone for a week.  As if that weren’t enough, I’ve also planned to see seven private students this week and travel to see our granddaughter this weekend.

As my husband would say, “Every bit of it is good stuff!” I love being in the classroom!  I love reading student writing! Watching students learn is what feeds me!  And, certainly, squishing that little granddaughter is second to no other activity in my life!

Yet, I remind myself, if I want to be able to do all of the stuff that I love, I must take time to oxygenate myself first. I can’t be an effective wife, mother, friend, or teacher, if I let myself get completely depleted.  And that’s what happens when I neglect my personal disciplines and my social interactions.  Let’s be honest — the messy house isn’t gonna kill anyone. And, truly, there’s enough cereal and chunky soup in the kitchen; no one is going to starve.

I’m learning, guys.  Something has to give.  If I want to teach more and — gasp — travel, I’ve got to shift my expectations of myself.  In the past, I’ve sacrificed self-care in order to maintain an orderly house and the appearance that all is well.  What I’m learning is that being truly well is less about appearances and more about my daily disciplines and meaningful connections.

Hang in there with me folks, I’m shifting gears and trying to enjoy the journey.

I Timothy 4:8

 

 

Can you keep it all straight?

Do you want to know how God works?  I am going to try to give you a glimpse at the way he weaves the stories of his people together.

Picture this:

  • In the 1980s I went to college with a guy named Randy who would later go to the Seminary.  At the Seminary he would meet a man named Mandla Khumalo; both would become pastors — one serving in Michigan, one serving in South Africa. Randy and his wife, Jen, would found a mission outreach to Muslims in the Detroit area and then begin a church near Ann Arbor.  Mandla and his wife, Lindiwe, would plant a church and later a school in South Africa.  
  •  Before Randy and Mandla even met, Mandla was invited,through connections that I’m quite sure I don’t fully understand, to a mission festival in Arlington Heights, IL where he met Pastor David Maier and his wife Pat. Pastor Maier encouraged Mandla to go to Concordia Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana.  There, Mandla met Randy.  In 1989, Manda  founded St. Peter Confessional Church in Middleburg, South Africa. When St. Peter’s first church building was finished, he invited Pastor Maier to South Africa to dedicate it.
  • In the 1980s I met my husband, John.  We served in Lutheran schools and  congregations before heading to Seminary in 2004.  There, we became involved with a missional church — Crave Coffeehouse.  While serving there, we met a young couple, Drew and Lindsey, who were also on a missional path.
  • Drew and Lindsey met in Guatamala in 2006.  Lindsey was doing long-term mission work there, as a nurse.  Drew was there as a short-term missionary. They fell in love; they got married.  They moved to St. Louis, MO where Drew went to the Seminary and Lindsey completed her studies and became a nurse practitioner.  They also welcomed their first child, who John baptized. They worshipped and served with us at Crave until John was called to Concordia Ann Arbor.
  • At Concordia Ann Arbor, John became friends with Dave Maier.  They became partners in mission as their goals and paths often overlapped. One day, John invited Drew to come to Michigan to meet Dave.  The three couldn’t believe how much they had in common — how much vision they shared.
  •  When I moved to Michigan, I was introduced to Pat Maier who quickly became a dear and close friend (remember this?). Pat and Dave often worshiped at Randy and Jen’s church; John and I worshiped there often, too!  We three couples shared a Christmas Eve and a Maundy Thursday. In fact, we were joined by Drew and Lindsey for a Mother’s Day right before Drew and Lindsey moved to South Africa to serve with Pastor Khumalo.
  • Are you getting all this?
  • You see, right before that Mother’s Day, Dave and Pat, Randy, Drew, and a few others traveled to Middleburg, South Africa to explore possibilities for further collaboration between the Michigan District, St. Peter, and Concordia University.  While there, Drew, who has a business background, saw both the need for his expertise and for Lindsey’s medical knowledge.  Several conversations and some fundraising later, and they were packing their bags and moving.
  • The following fall, Randy took a position at Concordia as the Director of Campus Ministries.  Last summer, he took several students to South Africa so that they could complete internships at the school that Pastor Khumalo founded, as part of St. Peter’s now extensive ministries, in 2006.
  • Drew and Lindsey have visited us two more times at Concordia to share with the students here, to foster partnerships, and to renew our friendship. Last March, Dave and Pat, Randy and Jen, Drew and Lindsey, and John and I all shared dinner again.
  • And guys, guess what?  Two weeks from today, John and I will be in Middleburg, South Africa to help Pastor Khumalo and Lindiwe and Drew and Lindsey celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of St. Peter!  And, while we are there, we are expecting Lindsey to give birth to their second child, who John might have the opportunity to baptize!
  • It is beyond my comprehension — all of it.  I can’t keep the details of my own life straight, but God has orchestrated the lives of all of us — all of us — into a beautiful cohesive story that expresses his love for all people.  Nothing we have done has made us worthy of this honor — in fact, many things I have done should exclude me from these privileges.  Nevertheless, God is gracious to include us in His story.  He makes His story our story.

I can’t wait to share with you the next few pages of this chapter.

Psalm 107:2

Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story— those he redeemed from the hand of the foe