Saturday, December 27, 2008

Lessons Learned

I’d like to say thanks again to everyone who helped make my short-term mission trip to South Africa possible, through financial support, prayer and encouragement. Also, a special shout-out to Crescent Resources for letting me take a leave-of-absence, and to those at Palmetto Bluff who stepped up to help with my work while I was away.

As expected, I learned a lot during my time in Cape Town. Here’s an at-a-glance look at a few of those lessons, some spiritual, some practical and some just random:

· African children are some of the most joyful youngsters I’ve ever met. Just smile at one and they’re your friend for life.
· Africans – children and adult alike – have some of the most beautiful singing voices I’ve ever heard.
· In many instances, people with fewer material possessions display a greater dependence on God.
· Summer can become winter overnight in Cape Town.
· God will equip me for any task He calls me to – including, and especially, those that I am ill-suited for by my own abilities.
· We Americans do not “need” nearly as much as we think we do.
· “Live one day at a time” is a good approach. Tomorrow indeed has enough trouble of its own, so no need to worry about it today.
· Poverty + desperation = high crime rates in southern Africa. When the local police station is protected by an independent security company, you realize you need to watch your back.
· "Good deeds" are no good at all unless they're accompanied by love and compassion.
· Eighteen hours on a jetliner is a long time.
· If I have made a difference in just one person’s life, then the effort has been worthwhile.
· Grilled zebra does not taste good, no matter how you marinate it.
· Regardless of what people think of the Iraq War and other aspects of George W. Bush’s presidency, he is responsible for untold lives saved – more than 10 million have been positively affected by the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) in Africa and other locations abroad.
· The Bible is right – it really is more blessed to give than receive.
· Finally – and this is not a new revelation for me, but I believe it now more than ever – nothing in this life matters without God as the foundation. Not money, not clothes or shelter, not family and friends, not career, not accomplishments, not good deeds. “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?” (Luke 9:25). We’re only passing through this life, but the next one lasts forever. Are you absolutely sure if your eternal future is secure? It’s wise to find out. Check out for details.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Singing Praises

Living Hope Christmas Party
Masiphumelele Baptist Church, Cape Town, South Africa

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Scattered Thoughts from a South African Odyssey

Spending nine weeks in Cape Town, South Africa has been the experience of a lifetime. Cape Town and the Cape Peninsula comprise one of the most breathtakingly beautiful places I’ve ever seen. And the people have been so interesting to get to know. The mix of cultures and languages – black, white and coloured people; English, Afrikaans and nine different native tongues – is fascinating.

As I head home tomorrow, I’ll take with me countless memories. It’s going to take a while to process it all. I’ve seen some harsh things. The effect of sin in our fallen world, the evil that man is capable of, is extremely disheartening. For reasons that I don’t always understand, God allows the consequences of man’s selfish will to be carried out. But I’ve also seen much evidence of His faithfulness, His love and His healing hand in people’s lives. Jesus Himself promised, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart, I have overcome the world” (John 10:10).

Unlike in America, where so much of life adheres to a schedule and a “normal” way of doing things, life in South Africa is less organized, less regimented, more random. So for my last post from Cape Town, in the spirit of randomness, I offer a few memories, a variety of images that stand out in my mind from the past two months. I’ll be home soon, but part of me will remain here in Africa, so stay tuned – influenced by insights from both sides of the sea, I expect to continue blogging on a variety of topics.

HOMELESS PEOPLE singing their hearts out to God. Granted, some of them come to the morning and afternoon devotions just so they can be first in line for the food, but some of them genuinely worship God and depend on Him for their every need, even when they don’t know where they’ll be sleeping that night.

SHEEP HEADS displayed on a sheet of plywood in Red Hill. As mentioned in a previous blog, “smileys” are a local delicacy whereby the heads are fried and eaten – eyes, brains and all. As someone commented in response to that blog, “Ewe.” I’m not sure whether the pun was intentional.

EDUCATORS WITH A PASSION for teaching the ways of God to the young people of this area. Though they’re not always formally trained, Living Hope’s Life Skill Educators have a heart for the children and a zest for life that flows through to them. The middle photo here shows Shagmie and Vernil, two of the LSEs in Capricorn Township.

“DONKEY MAN,” the shabby bearded guy who looks like an Old West prospector, riding his donkey on the sidewalk while pulling another donkey along behind. This takes place along a crowded road surrounded by pedestrians from the nearby black township of Masiphumelele. It’s one of the more random and odd sights I’ve seen.

TABLE MOUNTAIN, the 3,500-foot-tall mass of rock that looms over Cape Town and draws tourists from all over the world to ride its cableway to the top. I’ve ridden the cable car a few times, but my most enduring memory is a two-hour hike up in blazing heat. It was one of those “character-building” experiences that made the soaring views all the more worthwhile.

THE RESILIENT PEOPLE who live in the townships and informal settlements. In Red Hill, a shantytown that’s scattered along the side of a mountain overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, the terrain is rough and rocky, but residents are persistent in planting vegetable and flower gardens. These gardens are flourishing, bringing life and color to a landscape blighted by fire and litter. The bottom photo here shows David and John, brothers and neighbors who share a garden that wouldn’t be out of place in Cape Town’s Kirstenbosch, the national botanical garden.

SIZWE, THE SECURITY GUARD who watches the public beach parking lot next to the house I’ve been living in. My housemates and I give him water sometimes. One day he asked me if I could “organize a sandwich” for him – as if it were an event that required careful planning. I didn’t have any sandwich materials at the time, but I did organize him a bag of sweet tarts.

THE BOOMSLANG, a cave reached by a long climb up into the mountains above the seaside town of Fish Hoek. When I set out for the Boomslang on a foggy Saturday morning, I knew I was going to be visiting a cave. However, I didn’t realize I would be crawling on my hands and knees, then on my belly, to get through it. Fortunately I’m not claustrophobic.

DRIVING ON THE WRONG SIDE of the road. After being a passenger for nearly two months, I decided to “hire” a car, as they say here, and transport myself around the Cape for a weekend. Sitting on the right side of the car, driving on the left side of the highway and shifting with the left hand requires a shift in thinking, too.

BEST BEETLE, the not-so-aptly named rental company that specializes in beaten-down, ’60s- and ’70s-era Volkswagens. Two of my co-workers, Ryan and Jess, have lime-green Beetles, both relics with an assortment of “character quirks.”

SOME OF THE MOST ADORABLE and sweestest children I’ve ever met in my life. And also, admittedly, some of the rowdiest. Kids emulate what they see at home, which unfortunately means fighting, swearing and a general lack of respect in many instances. But there are plenty of children who are being raised properly. One of my favorite families is that of Pastor Kennedy, the youth minister at River of Life Church in Red Hill. Kennedy’s kids, Joanne, Eldrich and Jeremiah are pictured with me in the top photo here. A few days ago, when it was announced that I would be going home soon, Joanne (who might be the cutest kid EVER) asked me to step outside so we could talk. “I don’t have anything to give you,” she said, “but I want to tell you something: Thank you.” Then she hugged me. And then my heart melted.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Christmas in Summer

With South Africa located in the Southern Hemisphere and summer occurring in December, there’s never talk of a white Christmas here. But the Christmas spirit is still evident, perhaps even more so because it doesn’t seem to be as diluted by all the commercial nonsense as it is in America.

Last night I enjoyed a tremendous Christmas experience at Kirstenbosch, South Africa’s national botanical garden. Situated on the flank of Table Mountain just outside Cape Town, Kirstenbosch is stunningly scenic. The local Rotary Club has been holding “Carols at Kirstenbosch” all weekend at an amphitheatre that sits on a grassy slope with a sheer mountainside as the backdrop. The temperature was blazing hot yesterday, but it had cooled to jacket weather by the time the singing began. Hundreds of people packed the lawn, picnicking in the early evening hours and then singing by candelight (and a brilliant full moon) during 90 minutes of traditional carols.

Besides the incredible surroundings, what struck me was the way the event was presented as exactly what it claimed to be – a Christmas program. Scripture passages, both Old and New Testament, were read between each song. At the end, a local pastor detailed the true meaning of Christmas and all the implications that came with that amazing event in human history. This all took place at a public, non-church gathering, on a national landmark, with a message that was clearly and unapologetically presented – that is, no watering it down in an effort to accommodate those who might be “offended.” Coming from a culture where we have national debates on whether “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” is more acceptable, I found it refreshing just to enjoy the season without all the distractions.

Friday, December 12, 2008

His Way or the Highway?

Christians often are criticized for the viewpoint that their belief system is superior to others. “Narrow-minded,” “unloving” and “bigoted” are some of the charges tossed at followers of Jesus Christ.

Of course, some people agree with certain teachings of Christ, like loving your enemies and caring for the poor. Some say, “Jesus was a great moral teacher,” or “Jesus was a prophet.” Some just say, “It doesn't matter what you believe, as long as you believe.” And some say it's all a big fairy tale.

But here’s the thing: Christianity, as defined by its founder, is narrow-minded. Jesus Himself said He is the only way to God. As recorded in John’s eyewitness account, Jesus’ own words were, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John14:6). Man’s relationship with God – broken by sin – needed to mended, and God made it possible, sending His sinless son to take the punishment by being crucified on a cross.

Many charge that holding to such a position doesn't show love to people of other belief systems. But it's possible to respect others while not agreeing with their beliefs (as opposed to, say, radical Islam, whose followers want to eliminate all opposition). For Christians to say a contrary system is equally valid would not only defy their leader (and thus be hypocritical), it is actually unloving if what Jesus said is really true. Because I believe that it is, I am compelled by the love of God to share his message of salvation, in both word and deed. Remaining silent and letting friends, neighbors and relatives die and spend an eternity separated from God because I don't want to "offend" them with the truth – that’s not love at all.

“Well how do you know it’s true?” people ask. I know because the history books say Jesus was crucified, laid in a grave and three days later walked out of that grave. No other religious leader can make that claim. There are many gods and many dead spiritual leaders, but there’s only one living God. Jesus is either who He said He is – the son of God and Lord of everything, which He proved by conquering death – or He was a liar or a crazy man.

If either of the latter is the case, then none of His words are worth heeding. Even Paul, one of Christ's most passionate followers, said of his Lord, “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. … If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men” (1 Corinthians 15:13-14, 19).

But the resurrection is recorded history. John described himself as “the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true” (John 21:24). Matthew was another follower and eyewitness of Christ. Mark and Luke both wrote t heir accounts within a few decades of Jesus’ time on earth. Paul, who wrote 12 of the New Testament books, personally saw and heard from the resurrected Jesus. We don’t question other recorded historical events through the years, even though we weren’t there to see them ourselves; why should we doubt the resurrection?

Ultimately the issue comes down to a matter of faith: Do you or do you not believe that Jesus is the Son of God, was crucified for your sins, and was resurrected from the dead? For those who personally receive that free gift of salvation – by asking Christ to forgive them and be Lord of their lives – He promised eternal life on the other side of this temporary earthly existence.

For a lot of people who are reading this, I’m probably preaching to the choir. But if you’re not part of the choir and you want to celebrate the true meaning of Christmas – a relationship with Jesus Emmanuel, “God with us" – I encourage you to investigate and act on the claims of Christianity. For more information, check out and

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Bad Dream

Working in children’s ministry brings a lot of comical moments, whether it’s in South Africa, South Carolina or anyplace else. Two days ago, we threw a Christmas party on the beach for the kids of Red Hill. It was a great idea except for one thing – the wind was blowing about 30 mph and gusting up to 40, which meant the usual chaos was ratcheted up to a whole new level. Ever try holding a potato sack race while being sandblasted? The kids didn’t seem to care, though – they had a great time.

Well, most of them did, anyway. We let them wade into the ocean (it’s too cold and rough to actually swim), which meant most of the boys simply stripped to their underwear rather than wear swimsuits. It seems one boy left his clothes on the back of a jeep and the owner drove away while he was swimming. The little guy was inconsolable when he figured out what had happened! Fortunately, he had a towel and he finally cheered up before the party ended. It reminded me of the old “Oh no, I’m out in public and I have no clothes on” dream – but for this poor fella, it came true.


I saw another side of South Africa yesterday by taking a tour of Robben Island. This is the site of the maximum security facility where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years as a political prisoner. (Pictured is Mandela’s cell in Block B.) Robben Island is located less than 8 miles offshore from Cape Town. The iconic Table Mountain is in view from much of the island. From beyond the prison’s courtyard, from beyond the limestone quarry where Mandela and his fellow prisoners labored, the mountain’s flat top looms, symbolizing freedom and lofty heights for the men who were unjustly detained here for so many years.

Yet even today, nearly two decades after the end of apartheid, many people are still imprisoned in Cape Town – by poverty, by substance addiction, by disease, by a litany of other ills. Many still don’t have proper homes. Children live on the streets. (For a look at the plight of Cape Town’s “street kids,” check out Ryan Dalton’s blog at Local and national government has come a long way, but it’s far from perfect. Corruption and selfishness are still in vogue.

But really, isn’t that the case everywhere? Selfishness manifests itself in many ways and at many levels of intensity, but at our core, every one of us is looking out for Number 1. And so we too are imprisoned! We are slaves to the many gods we serve – money, “stuff,” good times, careers, adrenaline, the list goes on and on – all in the interest of making ourselves “happy.”

Jesus Christ is the only god who can bring fulfillment, because He’s more than just a god, He is the God. As Christmas approaches, we love to get stuff, and to spend time with family and friends, and to roast chestnuts over an open fire, and yes, to give stuff, too. And all those things are great! But the real reason for the season is the birth of Jesus, the Son of God who came to live a sinless life and die as a sacrifice for selfish man – to free us from the prison of our sin and separation from God the Father. Jesus is your free pass from prison. Are you still in chains?

Sunday, December 7, 2008


Who has measured the waters in the hollow of His hand, and marked off the heavens by the span, and calculated the dust of the earth by the measure, and weighed the mountains in a balance, and the hills in a pair of scales? (Isaiah 40:12)

Shout joyfully to God, all the earth; sing the glory of His name; make His praise glorious. Say to God, “How awesome are Your works!” (Psalm 66:1-3)

Friday, December 5, 2008

Feliz Navidad

This has been a festive week for Living Hope. With the help of a mission team from Extreme Response (an Atlanta-based aid organization), LH threw a dozen Christmas parties and served more than 2,000 clients, children and staff members. It was all a blast, but the children’s parties were especially fun. The staff from each township was allowed to plan their own party, and each location (Masiphumelele, Ocean View and Capricorn) responded by treating their kids to a really special time. Clowns, bouncy houses, waterslides, popcorn machines, hot dogs, burgers and much more – these kids don’t often get to enjoy such things in their day-to-day lives. There were many highlights, including the sight of native South African kids singing and dancing to Feliz Navidad. Monday brings two final parties, for the Living Grace clients and the Red Hill kids club, both groups I’ve focused on for the past two months. I love working with Living Hope because they make an impact in so many ways across so large a metro area.

Monday, December 1, 2008

365 Days of Activism

16 Days of Activism, the international campaign against gender violence, began last week. Coinciding with the 16 days in Cape Town is an initiative by Ryan Dalton, a Tennessee transplant who maintains that activism against violence is not just a 16-day event but a 365-days-a-year lifestyle. Ryan came to Cape Town eight years ago to minister to “street children,” those countless sad cases of kids who don’t have homes for one reason or another. Since the 16 Days began on November 25, Ryan has literally been living on the streets of Cape Town's city centre, where he's raising awareness for the children while putting himself in their shoes and learning first-hand what their 24/7 lives are like. You can check out his journey at, and if you're on Facebook, type "365 days of activism" in the search field for a group page.

World AIDS Day

Today is World AIDS Day. Being in one of the most affected areas in the world – an estimated 1 out of 5 South Africans is HIV-positive – casts the event in a whole new light for me. I just read an article in which the “experts” are starting to question whether AIDS is really the problem it’s made out to be, and whether resources might be better used toward other problems. From what I’ve seen and heard about HIV and AIDS in Cape Town – e.g., people afraid to get tested because of the social stigma; sex among pre-teens because they have nothing better to do – I’d say the problem is everything it’s made out to be and more. Fortunately, Capetonians are fighting back. (The photo is from a parade today in Ocean View Township.) I pray that the support they need will continue - from the incoming U.S. administration and others with the means to give.