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  They have a few mostly outdated textbooks, worn posters on the walls, drying up markers, and classrooms crammed with up to 40 students — and that was in a kindergarten class!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.


Mix Tape

Yesterday I met with a student to work on a writing assignment for a 200-level English class at a Big Ten university in my town.  The assignment requires the student to, in seven pages, validate his reasons for wanting to have a particular album or playlist if he were to find himself stranded on a deserted island.  His paper, the assignment states, must have threads, or themes, that reveal why the music choices are significant to him.

(First of all, seven pages?  Seriously?  Who wants to read all that?  The instructor must have graduate student minions to do the reading for him.  All I can think is seven times twenty-six (the number of students in my class this semester) — that is a lot of pages to read and respond to!! Anyway, I digress.)

So, I was thinking after I left this student yesterday, what music would I want with me if I were to be stranded on a desert island. I don’t know how I could limit the music I would need to one album or play list, but I am going to do my best here.  In the process, we will see what kinds of threads, or themes appear.  Ok?  Let’s play!

Category 1: Music from classic guys: Billy Joel, Phil Collins, Stevie Wonder, Elton John. I mean, …. ok, I just paused my writing to turn Pandora to my Elton John station…what’s playing?  “Don’t Let the Sun go Down on Me!” Can’t you see me jamming out to this on my own island, playing my air piano, and crying out to God, “Don’t let the sun go on me…” Yeah, I’ll admit, I don’t know many more of the words, but I’ll be alone on an island; I can sing whatever  words I want!  The music of these guys — Billy, Phil, Stevie, Elton — makes me so stinking happy!  I won’t be able to be depressed; I’ll be too busy performing my own concerts at full volume!

Category 2: Some female pipes: Christina Aguilera, Aretha Franklin, Crystal Lewis, Kim Massie, Alicia Keyes.  Since I’m performing concerts, I might as well channel my inner diva and belt out some soulful tunes.  I mean, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” “Ain’t No Other Man,” “People Get Ready Jesus is Coming,” Mm–mm–mm.  I’m holding my palm frond microphone, closing my eyes, and sainging. 

Category 3:  Queen. Yes.  They get their own category.  Clicked my Pandora, and what started playing? “Don’t Stop Me Now!” This is my jam!!!!  “…two hundred degrees, that’s why they call me Mr. Fahrenheit! I’m traveling at the speed of light!” I’m picturing me singing this and dancing through the jungle on my island, picking bananas, and laughing as loudly as I can.  I think I’m going to like island living.

Category 4: Crowder and company.  David Crowder has a way shifting my jam to worship.  In one little click I went from being the master of my own universe to remembering that “You Make Everything Glorious.”  I’m sitting on my beach, looking out at the crashing waves, drinking in the sunshine, arms in the air, worshiping with abandon, “…from glory to glory, You are glorious!…and I am Yours!”

Category 5: Fernando Ortega. Crowder paved the way for Ortega’s even more worshipful and reflective acoustic sounds.  As I sit on the beach, the sun starts to set on the horizon. I hear “I need thee every hour…” and I realize all of a sudden that the concert and the dancing are over for the day. The darkness is falling and I am utterly alone.  I needed Him all day, but in the darkness, I am painfully of aware of that need.  So, I let the music continue to play and I hear the words from my youth, “…just as I am without one plea…I come, I come.” I dare to harmonize with Fernando, because, I mean, no one’s listening.  If I am flat, who will know? who will care? And as, in my mind, our voices blend, the words sink into my soul and I feel the presence of God. I am not alone.

And that’s my thread, isn’t it? That although I would be the only person on my deserted island, I wouldn’t actually be, you know, deserted. I would be in the company of Greatness and I would celebrate that, ponder that, and be thankful for that.

Thanks for the help, ladies and gentlemen, you make a great mixtape.




A video is circulating on Facebook that shows a young man sitting quietly at  baseball game when Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” begins to blast from the speakers.  The music pulls him out of his seat and he is transformed into an exuberant happiness machine — moving among those seated around him, touching them and hugging them.  The people are not troubled by this, as you might expect.  The music has transformed them, too — they are touched by the young man’s happiness and willing to be part of his experience.

Music transforms us. 

I’ve always loved riding in the car with my daughter.  Something about moving along the highway, windows down and radio blaring, frees her from her stresses.  She sings loudly and passionately with everything from  Queen to Billy Joel to Young the Giant to David Crowder to The Black Keys.  For a while, she kept a cowboy hat in the back seat so that she could pop it on her head when she drove to signify this freedom from life’s troubles and pure abandonment to the music.

Music frees us. 

This morning at Bible study, one of our ladies came in weeping as she announced that a close friend has just a short time to live.  Many shared their condolences.  Later, as we closed our time together, we had a corporate prayer as we always do.  Women took turns lifting their praises, thanks, concerns, and requests.  The time was winding to a close when the woman whose friend is dying said, “forgive me, a song just came to me.”  She began to sing and several around the table hummed along, joining her in worship.

Music consoles us. 

Also at Bible study this morning was a woman whose husband left his life with Alzheimer’s last week to start his life in Heaven.  She was beaming when she entered the room.  She had labored with him for five hard years and was so relieved that his battle was over. She pulled a folded paper from her purse that she had found this morning in her husband’s Bible — it noted the date and time when he had accepted Jesus as his Savior.  She said, “Isn’t that wonderful?!”  She asked us if we would join her tomorrow at her husband’s funeral.  “Won’t it be fun?!”  she exclaimed.

I knew what she was talking about because she attended the funeral for my dear friend just a few weeks ago.  I happened to catch her out of the corner of my eye as the praise music played.  I knew that at the time her husband was at home with hospice workers, but I wouldn’t have been able to tell you that from looking at her.  As she sang the songs, her hands were raised and her smile was wide.  I know she is looking forward to experiencing that again tomorrow.

Music transports us. 

Yesterday morning I attended a chapel service commemorating Veteran’s Day.  A few dozen veterans, some from World War II, some from Korea and Vietnam, some from the Gulf Wars, and some just starting their service, were seated near the front of the huge sanctuary.  The choir sang “O, Beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain…”  As they sang verse after verse, I began to hear the voices of those seated around me –men and women in uniforms, jackets, and vests, denoting their service — began to sing along.  At first it was quiet, but it built, unashamedly — that song of unity.

Music unites us. 

It’s a gift, isn’t it.  We don’t need it, surely.  It’s an unnecessary blessing that breathes life into us, refreshes us, and inspires us.  Thank you, God, for music.

Psalm 96:1

Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth.

Sing to the Lord, praise his name; proclaim his salvation day after day.