Thursday, December 31, 2009
After much resistance, Mzo relented. Less than two weeks after his arrival in Cape Town, he had realized his need for God and committed his life to Jesus Christ. But the very next day, tragedy struck – Pastor Philip was gunned down in the church by the boyfriend of a young woman he had been counseling. Mzo cried out to God, “Why have you brought me here to see my uncle die?”
He wanted to return to his home in the Eastern Cape (about a day’s drive away), but Philip’s widow convinced him to stay, reasoning that he was the new head of her household. Later that year Mzo began volunteering with Living Hope, which eventually turned into a full-time job as a Life Skill Educator (LSE) in Red Hill. Today Mzo is the LSE team leader in Red Hill, as well as an influential leader in a startup church in Masi.
Working alongside Mzo in Red Hill, I am constantly inspired by his commitment and compassion. He so loves the people of this rural mountainside community that he is preparing to move there. Not content with just spending a couple of hours teaching kids each afternoon, he wants to be there full-time to share God’s love with all the residents. I’m amazed by this sacrifice – he is moving from a proper house with running water to an aluminum shack miles from town – but he doesn’t see it that way. To him it’s simply a means for him to tell people about this Jesus who has completely transformed his life.
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
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 http://www.whyhedied.org/.
Saturday, December 19, 2009
Each carol is preceded by a Scriptural reading, so that the entire Christmas story is presented, from the prophecies of Isaiah to the birth of Jesus. It’s an unashamedly Christian celebration – quite a contrast to the zeitgeist in America, where it’s becoming “offensive” even to wish someone a merry Christmas.
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
Of course, a few dirty jokes don’t automatically make someone an adulterer – but it does offer a peak into their heart. Jesus said “a tree is recognized by its fruit. … For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him” (Matthew 12:33-35).
Even as Tiger has displayed mastery of golf, his mouth has continued to indicate he is hardly a saint. Television microphones have repeatedly picked up Woods’ on-course F-bombs and use of God’s name in vain. I remember debating this issue a few years ago with a fellow golf writer when I worked in that business. I argued that, despite his dominance on the course and polished image off of it, I didn’t consider Tiger the best role model for kids, simply because he couldn’t control his tongue. As it turns out, a foul mouth is not the worst of his failings.
It’s interesting that Tiger is considered not only one of the most physically talented golfers of all time, but also one of the most intelligent. His decision making and mental control have always given him a huge advantage over other players. But clearly his wisdom has not extended to his private life. As King Solomon wrote, “A man who commits adultery lacks judgment; whoever does so destroys himself” (Proverbs 6:32).
What this whole scandal proves, for the umpteenth time, is that no matter how rich and powerful someone is, and no matter how invincible they think they are, they will always – always – be found out when they violate God’s moral law. And there will always be destructive consequences. Again, the words of Solomon prove true: “For the lips of an adulteress drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil; but in the end she is bitter as gall, sharp as a double-edged sword” (Proverbs 5:3-4).
Think Tiger would agree with that?
Saturday, December 12, 2009
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
Sunday, December 6, 2009
Thursday, December 3, 2009
Still, I’m pretty sure some of the things I encounter are not normal to professional educators. For example, there’s a 4-year-old girl at Red Hill named Hope (pronounced “Opie,” just like Sheriff Andy Taylor’s son). Hope is one of the cutest kids you could imagine – and one of the sassiest. On Monday I had to send her home from our after-school club because she was defiantly flashing her middle finger to another kid who had ticked her off. I’ve lost count now, but I know I’m up to double-digits in the number of times I’ve had to eject Hope for the day.
Something that I know is not normal, at least not in America, is the practice of teaching the Bible and praying in public schools. But that’s exactly what I’m allowed to do here each Tuesday in a series of 30-minute life skills classes for K through 3rd-graders. This week I read a book called The Little Tree, which told the Christmas story from the perspective of a tree whose wood was used to build the manger that held the baby Jesus. As I read the story, and as we sang Away in a Manger and other carols afterward, I marveled at a culture that still recognizes God’s standards for raising children. If a teacher tried to do such a thing in the U.S., he or she would be out on the street faster than you could say “ACLU.”
Friday, November 27, 2009
For the second year in a row, I celebrated Thanksgiving Day in South Africa. Since South Africans have no reason to celebrate the first harvest in America, the holiday goes by unnoticed by most people around here. But thanks to Mike and Pam Talley, Living Hope’s volunteer coordinators, all of the American volunteers (along with a few from Canada and Australia) get the day off from work and gather for a traditional feast of turkey with all the fixings.
It’s nice to enjoy a taste of home during such a uniquely American holiday. We even had football – the Talleys had recorded Monday night’s game between the Titans and the Texans – and after-dinner naps. Like all of my colleagues here, I miss home at times, but I’m thankful for the opportunity to serve God in Cape Town. A few other things I’m grateful for are:
• God’s love and grace
• My mother
• My friends, both American and South African
• The prayers, encouragement and financial support of friends, relatives and my church family back home
• Ample clothing, food and shelter
• The fact that I am thousands of miles away from the commercial madness of after-Thanksgiving sales
Pastor John Thomas, chairman of Living Hope, spoke of how 10 years ago this week, the seed was planted for the ministry to begin. John had attended a meeting of local pastors, where he received information on the local HIV rate that moved him to begin seeking to help and share the Gospel of Christ with those infected. He also spoke of how five years ago, on this very day, the 22-bed Health Care Centre was officially opened. And he spoke of how the Living Hope umbrella has expanded to include a homeless ministry, Living Grace, and an economic empowerment ministry, Living Way.
Considering that 2009 has been a particularly challenging year for Living Hope – most notable was the loss of more than $300,000 in funding from the American government – it was really inspiring to hear the organization collectively proclaim, “God is good, all the time,” regardless of the circumstances.
Saturday, November 21, 2009
Craig, now 22, grew up in Capricorn, a township on the outskirts of Cape Town. When he was 15, Craig was walking down the street a block from his house when he was mistaken by gangsters for someone they had a vendetta on. Nine bullet wounds later, Craig was in the hospital, where he remained for nearly three years (“exactly 1,000 days,” he calculated when he was finally released).
Craig is one of the sweetest, most gentle souls I’ve ever met. He still lives at home and is able to generate some income by making greeting cards at Living Grace, a day center for the homeless and destitute. He figures if he had never been shot, he likely would have ended up in gangster life himself. When I asked if he had forgiven the guys who shot him, he said – without hesitation – yes.
When Craig was in the hospital, he said he looked around and saw many people in worse shape than he was, and he determined to be thankful for what he still had, including the use of his hands. Had he not been injured, he says, “I never would have met all the people at Living Grace. I never would have met you.”
Wow. Talk about putting things in perspective and appreciating what you have.
Totsi doesn’t always get the love he deserves. When I arrived in July, he had a scar behind his neck where someone had stabbed him. Occasionally I’ll catch one of the kids kicking or smacking him, no doubt because that’s what they’ve learned from the adults. I love animals, so Totsi knows he’s found a friend in me, and I always encourage the kids to be his friend too.
It occurs to me that Totsi is representative of the people of Red Hill. He’s a little rough around the edges, but he has so much potential for love and faithfulness if he’s just given a little love himself. Like Totsi, the Red Hill residents endure a hard life. They are mired in poverty and other social ills. Some of them aren’t always easy to love, but that’s what they’re crying out for. A lot of Christ-followers are working in Red Hill to offer it to them – because that’s what Jesus would do and it’s by His presence that they’ll be transformed.
Please don’t misunderstand – I’m not calling the people of Red Hill dogs. I’m simply observing that they are among the least, the last and the lost that Christ gave His life for. It’s often those people who are in the best position to humbly receive His life-changing love. “But many who are first will be last,” Jesus said, “and many who are last will be first.”
As Paul told the believers at Corinth: “Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before Him” (1 Corinthians 1:26-29).
The reality is there are too many people and too few jobs, which results in throngs of day laborers waiting by the road each day, beggars at stop lights, and rampant crime. Despite the problems, however, Masi is a vibrant and colorful community, especially in the late afternoon when I make my way through there. Music blares from homes and businesses. The aroma of sheep heads and stomachs, and who-knows-what-else cooking on makeshift grills, fills the air. Pedestrians choke the streets, oblivious to passing traffic (including the mini-bus taxis, which rarely slow down for anyone).
When it comes to vehicle-pedestrian interactions, I’ve tried to adopt the attitude that this is their home, not mine, and if the culture dictates that it’s OK to walk in the street, I’ll just go with the flow. Mzo encourages me to use the horn, or “hooter,” as it’s known in South Africa. “It’s the only way you will get anywhere,” he says. “It’s the only language my people know.” But to me it’s just another part of the diverse culture that makes Cape Town so interesting.
Friday, November 13, 2009
LCC sent a team of 13 to Cape Town, where they have partnered with Living Hope to serve the Red Hill community in all sorts of ways, including health tests, meals, home visits, prayer, and men’s and women’s games and crafts.
Beyond that, they brought a considerable amount of clothing and shoes for a homeless shelter, medical supplies and cash for a health care center, and money for one of my Living Hope colleagues to build a living space in Red Hill, so that he can spend more time with these people whom he is so passionate about serving and helping.
The team is the face of LCC in Cape Town, but countless others back home are part of the effort as well. They have held up this team in prayer, raised and contributed money, and donated clothing and supplies. As LCC mission pastor Joe Friesen said, people here have touched by people back home who may never see each other until they meet in heaven.
I’m blessed to be here so that I do get to see the impact: out-of-work and hungry people being strengthened by encouraging words and prayer; 50-plus women packed into a tiny church, smiling, laughing and crying as they celebrate the truth of God’s love for them; a dirt-poor couple being surprised by a visit to sing Happy Birthday and present a cake to the husband.
It’s cool to be part of a church that fosters such an attitude of selfless service and Christ-like love – and to see it on display halfway around the world. Like a pebble tossed into a pond, these acts of love create a ripple effect that I’m confident will last long after this team goes home next week.
This week a 19-year-old girl showed up at one of our after-school programs in Red Hill. I had met this young woman once before, but otherwise had never seen her, so I asked a local pastor what her story was.
He said she was recently dumped by a boyfriend and had attempted to end her life with a drug overdose. She comes from a broken home, so a family in Red Hill has taken her in and is caring for her as if she were their own daughter. (A remarkable story in itself, considering that most people in Red Hill are so poor they can barely feed their own families.)
Sadly, this girl is not alone in her pursuit of fruitless relationships. Ingrained in the culture here is a system in which men, using what little money they have, provide food and clothing to young ladies (and older ones, too) in exchange for sex. The consequences are predictable, yet still shocking. Besides the emotional train wrecks, there are devastating physical effects. Because these guys often have multiple partners, and any one of them could have HIV, the disease spreads like wildfire. And there are many unplanned pregnancies that result in children who have no chance of growing up with a responsible father.
Working in such a culture always feels like an uphill battle, so I have to break it down into a mentality of “one day, one step, at a time,” praying and trusting that God will have His way and bring transformation to people’s hearts and ultimately the entire community.
And I do see Him at work. On Tuesday at our weekly “Teen Club” – where we teach that fulfillment is found not in boyfriends and girlfriends, but only in the living God who loves us with an everlasting love – we had a solid turnout of nearly 20 kids. Some days they’re less attentive than others, but on this day they were tuned in to our guest speaker, 23-year-old Morgan Eddington from LowCountry Community Church. Morgan shared a brutally honest message about his life before and after he met Jesus as his savior, and how he and his fiancé have pledged abstinence until they are married in two years. The room was quiet and the kids were clearly affected by the seriousness of the subject matter.
Morgan has been a huge asset to the LCC team all week, but even if God brought him to Cape Town only to share this one message, he did his job and he did it well.
Friday, November 6, 2009
I knew all this when I arrived here and I see it in the headlines every day. I try to be vigilant, to watch my back wherever I go, but I often wondered if I would make it an entire year without being victimized. I didn’t.
Yesterday my laptop was stolen. From a homeless center. While I was in the next room teaching a Bible study. My car was vandalized a few years ago, and just like back then, I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. The interesting thing is, the Bible study was on Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, and in particular His instruction to turn the other cheek and love our enemies.
I was trying hard to do that, but I must confess: I was (to quote Larry the Cable Guy) “madder than a one-legged waitress at the IHOP.” Like Linus’s security blanket, my laptop was familiar and comfortable and it went everywhere with me. It’s not that I’m into high-tech gadgetry – it’s just that it was the storehouse for a lot of work and photos and music that were dear to me. Fortunately I had run a backup to an external drive in September, so I won’t lose too much information.
Really, the most painful part of all this is the circumstances under which it happened. I’m 99 percent sure I know who did it, a guy who had been coming to the shelter for the past week or so. He was helping out in the kitchen and seemed like a nice enough guy, but he was also extremely quiet and no one really knew much about him. In hindsight, I think he had been watching me work on Thursday morning, which meant he saw me put the laptop in my backpack and store the pack under a desk and behind a chair. The thief only took the laptop, so whoever took it knew exactly where to look for it.
On the positive side, a lot of the other homeless and “street people” at the shelter were livid and have rallied around me. One guy even vowed that I would see the thief again, "when he’s in the hospital.” (I had to remind this fellow about the loving-your-enemy thing we had just discussed.)
The bigger issue here is the same thing that’s at the heart of every crime and conflict, the source of all the bad news we hear about on a daily basis. It’s the age-old attitude of “me first.” Somebody wants something for themselves, because self is who every one of us naturally seeks to serve. It’s simply played out in various ways through every individual, some worse than in others.
Jesus turned that thinking on its head and said God’s design for living is “God first, others first.” As Matthew recorded it, “Jesus replied, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22: 37-39).
In the wake of such a disheartening turn of events, I pray that my actions will match my profession to believe this.
But rather than move to discontinue the Life Skills education program in 2010, the Living Hope trustees have decided that everyone throughout the organization will take a pay cut so that the LSE staff can indeed continue with their vital work. The thinking is that Living Hope is a family, and when one part of the family suffers, everyone suffers and rallies to help those most affected.
Still, to keep Life Skills alive even with the across-the-board pay cut, more outside funding is needed. To learn the background behind this shortfall, please see my blog entitled “At a Crossroads,” located at http://ps121trekker.blogspot.com/2009/08/at-crossroads.html. For more details on becoming a partner in this venture, see http://www.livinghope.co.za.
Saturday, October 31, 2009
Pat is a sweet, caring, God-fearing woman from Asheville, North Carolina. She's given nearly four years of her retirement years serving with Living Hope. When I came to Cape Town the first time, in September 2007, Pat was the volunteer coordinator. We had spent the previous six months emailing about details of my church’s impending mission trip. When I finally arrived, I felt like I had known her all my life. I remember her introducing me to a South African friend of hers at church one Sunday and the woman looked at Pat and said, “He talks funny like you!”
Indeed, Pat has a great Southern accent, which is just one of the many hospitable attributes that make the rest of us volunteers feel at home. Pat is now the executive assistant to Living Hope’s general manager, but she believes her calling is also to serve as mother to the volunteers, particularly the younger ones (and me – this wonderful woman has even offered to iron my clothes, a task I loathe with every fiber of my being).
So Mama Pat opens her home to us with a standing invitation to drop in anytime. She offers counsel, prayer, and whatever other comfort and encouragement is necessary. She’s currently leading a Thursday night Bible study, which is a great blessing to us because of her knowledge of God’s Word and her graceful way of communicating it. And did I mention she irons my clothes?
I greatly miss my dear mother back home – as I’m sure my fellow volunteers do with their own families – so I’m grateful for this very special lady we call Mama Pat.
In the foreground of the above photo, multimillion-dollar estates – complete with pools, tennis courts and horse stables – grace the village of Noordhoek. Not more than a mile or so across the wetlands is the township of Masiphumelele (it’s the dense cluster of homes just beyond the water in the far left of the photo). Masi is home to some 25,000 to 30,000 people crammed into tiny brick homes and aluminum shacks.
Viewing this scene from the top of 2,400-foot Noordhoek Peak, I was reminded of something I posted on this blog when I was here a year ago. I’m posting it again, because it certainly still applies:
Cape Town is a land of juxtaposition. A homeless center next to a stunning seascape. A shantytown on a mountaintop. People in despair alongside people with hope.
There’s so much that’s hard to look upon. A homeless family (parents with two kids) showed up Thursday too late for lunch. Not a scrap of prepared food was left, but “Auntie Joan,” the dear woman who helps run the Living Grace homeless center, managed to find some bread and rice to send them away with. In Red Hill, we learned that a man hanged himself last week, leaving a family behind. Another family had recently adopted a child when the adoptive mother suddenly died of an asthma attack.
It’s easy to become discouraged. But we also meet people like Craig, a 21-year-old who was caught in the crossfire of a gunfight six years ago and is in a wheelchair for life. He has a home nearby, but he comes to Living Grace every day to help out. He has a sweet spirit and an ever-present smile and the love of God in his heart. He could easily be angry at God, but he’s not.
Steven Curtis Chapman has a song called Yours. Substitute Cape Town for some of the places mentioned and you have a picture of the suffering in this part of the world, and the comfort we try to take in knowing God is still in control:
I walk the streets of London
And notice in the faces passing by
Something that makes me stop and listen
My heart grows heavy with the cry
Where is the hope for London?
You whisper and my heart begins to soar
As I'm reminded that every street in London in Yours
I walk the dirt roads of Uganda
I see the scars that war has left behind
Hope like the sun is fading
They're waiting for a cure no one can find
And I hear children's voices singing
Of a God who heals and rescues and restores
And I'm reminded that every child in Africa is Yours
And its all Yours, God, Yours, God
Everything is Yours
From the stars in the sky
To the depths of the ocean floor
And its all Yours, God, Yours, God
Everything is Yours
You're the Maker and Keeper
Father and Ruler of everything
It's all Yours
And I walk the sidewalks of Nashville
Like Singapore, Manila and Shanghai
I rush by the beggar's hand and the wealthy man
And everywhere I look I realize
That just like the streets of London
For every man and woman, boy and girl
All of creation
This is our Father's world
And its all Yours, God, Yours, God
Everything is Yours
From the stars in the sky
To the depths of the ocean floor
And its all Yours, God, Yours, God
Everything is Yours
You're the Maker and Keeper
Father and Ruler of everything
It's all Yours
Sunday, October 25, 2009
“It’s just not right,” the clerk said as I paid for my drink. “Excuse me?” I replied. “It’s not right,” she said. “Whites and non-whites should not marry.”
Habana, you see, is coloured – that is, he's a native South African of mixed heritage – and his new wife is white. And that clearly did not sit well with the white store attendant.
I’m not naïve enough to think everyone has moved past such prejudices. Even among my own circle of friends, I know certain individuals who would agree with this woman. But it’s still troubling to encounter such blatant racism face to face.
On Friday night I attended a dance performance at Ocean View, a township of several thousand coloured people. As I watched the performers – from elementary school-age children all the way up to young adults – I was greatly impressed by their considerable talent and happy to know they are getting opportunities to develop it. I was also saddened to think about all the parents and grandparents who lived under Apartheid rule and, rather than being encouraged to develop their talents, were essentially told, “You’re no good and you’ll never amount to anything.”
Yesterday I got another view of South Africa's Apartheid past, thanks to a visit to Cape Town's District Six Museum. District Six had been a neighborhood of freed slaves, merchants, artisans and immigrants, but early in the 20th century they began to be removed under white rule. In 1966 the neighborhood was declared a “White Group Area” and the real demolition began, with homes and businesses being bulldozed. By 1982 more than 60,000 people had been forcibly removed from this once-vibrant community, and sent to outlying areas with far less desirable living conditions.
And it was all because they had different-colored skin and were considered “inferior.” Today it seems inconceivable that people behaved so despicably. Yet we all know that racism still exists and is far from being eradicated. I don’t know what the solution is, but I do know this: God made every one of us in His image and He did not intend for anyone to feel superior over another because of his or her skin color.
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Christopher has a vision problem and does not see well. His girlfriend, Laverne, went everywhere with him and was his “eyes” on the street. Tragically, Laverne was walking somewhere last Friday evening and was struck and killed by a drunk driver. She and Christopher had been at Living Grace for lunch just that afternoon. It’s been a shock to everyone there this week.
The good news is that recently Laverne had come forward during the morning devotion at Living Grace and prayed to receive Jesus as her Savior. So she’s in His presence right now, free of the pain of this world and rejoicing in her eternal life.
To us who remain, her sudden death is a sobering reminder of the fleeting nature of this life. We think, “It can’t happen to me.” But it can, and it will, one way or the other. Physical death is inevitable and we don’t know the hour when it’s coming.
Jesus told the story of a rich man who decided he would build bigger barns to store his crops. “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years,” the man told himself. “Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”
God’s response: “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” (Luke 12:19-20)
Please join me in praying for Christopher as he copes with the pain of losing someone so close to him. And if you don’t know Jesus as your Savior – please don’t delay the decision to ask him into your heart and forgive your sins.
Sunday, October 18, 2009
The world is hungry for the spiritual fulfillment and eternal life that only Jesus can provide. The guest speaker at this morning’s worship service, Willie Crew of the World Missions Centre in Pretoria, South Africa, told an amazing story of two missionaries who were traveling through Iran with a carload of Bibles. Negotiating a treacherous mountain road, their steering locked up and they screeched to a halt before tumbling down a cliff.
As they were assessing the situation, a Iranian man showed up and asked, “Where are the books?” They figured they were really in trouble now – you just don’t bring Bibles into such a hard-line Islamic country. But the man starting telling a story of how Jesus appeared to him in a dream the night before. The Lord told him, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6) and the man instantly converted from Islam to Christ-follower. Then, he said, Jesus told him to go down the mountain the next day and he would be given Bibles to bring back and share with his village.
This event cannot be explained as mere coincidence. The living God wants lost people to know Him and He is using His people to make that happen. Mission work is not just for a special few with some unique calling. It’s for anyone who calls Christ their Lord and Savior and it’s to be done everywhere – locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. God is “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9), and people need to know how to do that.
They chose a buffet lunch. At first this puzzled me a bit, but once I was there, I understood. It seems all-you-can-eat buffets are not common in South Africa. (Even free refills on coffee and soda are rare.) So when we visited the restaurant (located in some far-flung suburb of Cape Town), my South African co-workers took full advantage.
The buffet opened at noon and closed at 3:00, and we stayed the entire time. Steak, chicken, calamari, pastas, salads, local African cuisine, desserts – it was all there and it was all consumed. Some people failed to pace themselves and ate so much they were miserable afterwards. The Americans in the group noted that back home, you might go to such a place, have a few plates and then leave – mission accomplished. But our friends here made an event of it, and it was fun to witness and experience. And we’ll never look at a buffet the same way again.
Sunday, October 11, 2009
Skeptics say that to believe in God and the Bible is to believe a fairy tale. I say it’s ludicrous to believe that the wonders of the natural world came into existence on their own. The Bible itself says, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Psalm 14:1).
Thursday, October 8, 2009
One of my favorite Scriptures says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Contrary to what the world says, weakness isn’t always a bad thing. When we are weak we are driven to seek God and rely on Him for strength. And that deepens our fellowship with Him and allows Him to make His greatness known.
I have no doubt that God speaks to us through other people. On this particular day, Mzo and I were introduced to a friend of a friend who asked if we could give him a ride to a nearby township. This guy turned out to be a pastor and he had heard of our work in Red Hill. As we pulled up to the house where he was going, he had an unexpected word for us: He said, “You guys need to keep praying and depending on God. You're about to see Him do great things in Red Hill.” Then, citing John the Baptist, he added: “Remember, He must become greater; you must become less” (John 3:30).
This encounter was clearly a confirmation of our prayers earlier that day.
Saturday, October 3, 2009
The actual Bible lessons focused on the disciple Peter and his relationship with Jesus – leaving his job as a fisherman to follow Christ, walking on water, denying he knew the Lord after His arrest, witnessing His resurrection, and ultimately becoming an influential evangelist and church leader. Each day at our club in Red Hill, “Peter” (yours truly dressed in robe and headcloth) would show up and deliver a monologue based on that day’s story. Considering that I have no acting ability whatsoever, this was yet more evidence that with God all things are possible.
We hosted between 100 and 130 kids each day (about twice what we have during our normal after-school program), so it was a busy week, to say the least. Worship music and certain teaching segments were held in the local Apostolic Faith Mission church (pictured), but because of the numbers, we had to rotate kids to outdoor sites for crafts and additional teaching. This challenge was complicated by the fact that a steady wind of 30-35 mph blew throughout much of the week.
In typical South African fashion, the whole endeavor was barely controlled chaos. But that’s part of the fun, and as always seems to happen, things worked out fine in the end. The kids had a great time, ate well (600-plus sandwiches and at least twice that many apples, oranges and bananas) and learned what it means to be a committed Christ-follower.
On Wednesday our volunteer coordinator, Mike, came to visit the Red Hill club. When I told him I was playing the role of Peter, he said by the end of the week I would be “petered out.” And indeed I was.
Singing “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Explaing how Jesus cooked fish and bread for Peter and some of the other disciples.
Saturday, September 26, 2009
But they didn’t have names like Aviwe, Aphiwe and Athembe; Basanda, Bayanda, Bhongo, Buhle and Bonisile; or Sinethemba, Siyathemba, Sikholise, Siphokule and Sikelelwa. (Try saying that just one time fast.) I’ve been here for nearly three months and my head still spins when trying to figure out who’s present and who’s not among 80-plus children.
Complicating matters even more is that many of them go by more than one name. There’s Magusha, who’s also called Nkosikona. There’s Brian, which is easy enough, except that I just found out most of the kids know him as Boetie. And there’s Denzel, who’s known as Pinky to his friends. (I asked him why one day. “Because I was pink when I was a baby,” he said.)
As challenging as the job is, it helps me get to know the kids better each week. And I don't worry too much, because God knows every one of their names. And He loves them all.
I love the chorus: She loves the broken ones / The ones that need a little patching up / She sees the diamond in the rough / And makes it shine like new / It really doesn’t take that much / A willing heart and a tender touch / If everybody loved like she does / There’d be a lot less broken ones
I see broken people every day and I see ministries like Living Hope reaching out with God’s love to heal those people. It’s not because anyone is trying to earn their way into God’s Kingdom. (That would be impossible.) It’s simply out of gratitude for what God has already done. He loved a broken world so much that He sent His only Son to die as the perfect sacrifice to fix it. Anyone who has personally received that love should be compelled to pass it on. 1 John 4:11 says, “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”
The Talleys song says the same: If you call her an angel / She’ll be quick to say to you / She’s just doing what the One who died for her would do
He loves the broken ones / The ones that need a little patching up / He sees the diamond in the rough / And makes it shine like new / It really doesn’t take that much / A willing heart and a tender touch / If everybody loved like He does / There’d be a lot less broken ones
Saturday, September 19, 2009
Living Hope hosted a tournament for some 200 children and youth from the various communities that we serve. The photo above shows me with some of the Red Hill “Red Giants,” prior to a game in the 7-and-under age division. As pre-game talks go, this one won’t rank up there with “Win One for the Gipper;” it was more like, “You’re on the same team, so don’t fight with each other; when the whistle blows, stop kicking the ball; and don’t touch the ball with your hands.”
After a slow start, the Red Giants ended up making the championship game. We led 1-0 at halftime, but our opponent, Ocean View, tied it in the second half and sent the game to a tiebreaker on free kicks. With Red Hill players from the other age divisions excitedly looking on, our goalkeeper, Aviwe, stopped the final kick, and the older boys carried him off the field on their shoulders, just like on TV. And I jumped about as high as my aching legs would take me after an 11-hour workday.
Each championship team from the four age groups got a team trophy, and every player got either a gold medal for first place, silver for second, or a certificate for third and fourth. But winning was certainly not the event’s main focus. Most importantly, every child heard the message of eternal life through Jesus Christ (by a representative of Upward Sports, the sponsoring organization). Fittingly, a brief rain shower during the Gospel presentation left a stunning rainbow over the mountains behind the field.
It was a great day for the kids, and for Living Hope. For more images, see below.
Thursday, September 17, 2009
Monday, September 14, 2009
The most illustrative point I’ve heard on this subject is to consider the way of a child. Do we have to teach them to be selfish? To say “mine”? To pitch a fit when they don’t get what they want? Of course not. It comes naturally.
Jeremiah 17:9 says “the human heart is deceitful above all things.” That’s what God sees – the heart. Even if we say and do all the right things, we still harbor selfish and hurtful thoughts. Jesus said those thoughts condemn us just as much as our actions do (e.g., see His discussion of adultery in Matthew 5:27-28).
Because God is perfect, a human stained by sin cannot enter His presence. That’s why Jesus came down to earth, lived a perfect life and died on a cross. His sacrificial death is the payment for sin for anyone who will personally receive Him as Savior and Lord of their life. That’s how a person gets to heaven – not by their own merits, but by Christ’s alone.
It’s not enough to do your best to live a good life; to go to church on (most) Sundays; even to agree intellectually that Jesus is the Savior of mankind. A personal relationship with Christ is required. That means to invite Him into your heart and commit to live obediently to Him. When that happens, a person is born again (John 3:3) into a new life.
If you haven’t taken this step, please don’t delay it. It’s a life-or-death matter. For more information on how to have a personal relationship with God, see http://www.whyhedied.org/.
Saturday, September 12, 2009
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
Supervising the street-cleaning crew is Peter, a man who brings considerable life and character to Living Grace. He’s there for breakfast every morning, and for lunch at noon, and he always sits in the same chair. If a newcomer happens to beat him to it, he’ll give a gentle nudge and nod for them to find another seat. He has an infectious laugh and he sings boldly, if a bit off-key. Whenever I give the breakfast or lunchtime devotional, Peter is always good for a few hearty proclamations of “amen,” which is a tremendous encouragement to me.
Peter doesn’t have much in the way of material possessions, but he’s got a strong relationship with God, a big heart and a loving spirit. That, in my view, makes him rich beyond measure.
Sunday, September 6, 2009
Today I saw a display of honest, unfettered, authentic worship to God inside this church. It’s called River of Life and it’s located in the Red Hill informal settlement. Living Hope runs an after-school Children’s Club in the building each Tuesday and Thursday, but I had never attended a worship service there until this morning.
What a powerful experience it was. There was singing. There was dancing in the aisles. People were falling down (no kidding). God’s Word was preached with conviction. Three hours later, I emerged feeling full of the Spirit and ready for a new week of work in what can be extremely challenging conditions.
River of Life is different than any other church I’ve ever been in, which goes to show that there’s no single “right” way to worship as long as Jesus Christ is the center of attention. As Jesus Himself said, “The true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks” (John 4:23).
And to quote an old Tom T. Hall song – because you can apply a good country song to just about any situation – about a barn that was converted into a house of worship: “Comfort came second and Jesus came first / That’s why they called it a church.”
Last Tuesday Awonke came up to me and said, “Close your eyes and hold out your hands.” That, of course, is a loaded statement, especially coming from a child. But I complied. When I opened my eyes, what I found was the flower “arrangement” you see pictured here.
It really is the little things that make life so special. That flower, resting in a dirty discarded milk bottle, is one of the most thoughtful gifts I’ve ever received. And what Awonke didn’t know was that I was moving into a new flat the day she gave it to me. I couldn’t have asked for a better housewarming gift.
Sunday, August 30, 2009
Obama has keep PEPFAR in place, but as of October 1, Living Hope will no longer benefit from its $300,000-plus annual contribution. Why? One word: Abstinence. Living Hope teaches sexual abstinence as the only guaranteed way to avoid sexually transmitted HIV. And that’s a position the current administration says it cannot support.
Impoverished South African children live in an environment where men have multiple sexual partners, and where women often give their bodies to these men in exchange for food. These kids see adults with no motivation to work and no hope outside of a 40-ounce bottle of beer. They see fathers and boyfriends beating their mothers. There’s a very real battle of good versus evil. If groups like Living Hope disappear, then evil gets the upper hand and thousands of kids suffer.
If Living Hope doesn’t secure replacement funds for the Life Skills operation very soon, the children it serves will no longer hear about values like responsibility, love, respect, integrity and service. They’ll no longer enjoy a daily snack like vegetable soup and fruit (often the best meal they get all day). They’ll no longer have an outlet to sing, dance, play sports and escape what is, for many, a difficult home life. And they’ll no longer hear about a loving God who can transform their lives for eternity.
It’s a long-standing debate, the question of abstinence versus “safe” sex. Abstinence proponents are accused of ignoring reality – i.e., “The kids are going to do it anyway …” But God’s laws continue to stand regardless of whether man agrees. Throughout the Bible, it’s clear that God intended sex only for the boundaries of a marriage relationship. When those boundaries are broken, serious consequences occur.
In a men’s Bible study I attended earlier this year, the question was posed, “How would the world be different if there were no sex outside of marriage?” The picture that results is startling. Think about it – there would be:
- fewer broken relationships
- no adultery
- fewer unplanned pregnancies
- fewer abortions
- lower STD rates, including HIV and AIDS
- and as one wise guy pointed out, country singers would be hurting for subject matter
Living Hope will not compromise its abstinence message, even at the cost of losing thousands of dollars in funding. If God wants this program to continue – and everyone involved here believes He does – then He will provide the means for it to happen.
If you would like to be part of the solution, go to www.livinghope.co.za for more information.
Thursday, August 27, 2009
The lesson this week was on Nehemiah and the Israelites working together to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. Save the Planet was an opportunity for the kids to apply the teamwork lesson, as well as the mandate, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men” (Colossians 3:23).
Clearly, litter is a universal practice, so hopefully the effort set an example to the adults in the community as well.
Sunday, August 23, 2009
Such was the case at Red Hill last week. Attendance had been down at the Children’s Clubs, so on Wednesday we decided to do something special by showing a movie, complete with popcorn. The film was Facing the Giants, the David-vs-Goliath story of a high school football team that overcomes its stronger opponents when it starts trusting and playing for God.
On a day when we typically might have 40 to 50 children, 75 came to see the movie. They paid attention from start to finish. They cheered during the scene where students pray and give their hearts to God. And at the end, when the undersized kicker makes a state championship-winning field goal, they let out a roar that could be heard throughout the community.
That a low-budget movie produced by a church in small-town Georgia (Albany’s Sherwood Baptist) can captivate a group of attention-deficit kids in a South African shantytown – this can only be the work of God. I wanted to shout “Go Dawgs” at UGA coach Mark Richt’s cameo appearance in the film. But the more appropriate cheer for the day would be, “Go God.”
There’s a great lesson woven throughout the movie. By the end, I realized it was as much for me as it was for the kids: Give your very best effort, do it for God, and trust Him to do the rest.
I want to say a special thank-you to 3-year-old Addison Powell for her prayers. Last spring Addy’s parents, Willy and Janet, graciously allowed me to stay in their bonus room when renters moved into my own house. Now that I’m in South Africa, Willy says I may be the most prayed-for person in the world. In a recent email, he wrote: “Before Addy goes to bed – naps and at night – she always asks to pray for Mr. Al. Considering she makes multiple trips into and out of her room before going to sleep, each with a prayer for you, you ought to be covered.”
How’s that for an encouraging word? Thanks also to Delaney Powell (Addy’s older sister), Hannah and Madison Taylor, and Maggie Faciszewski, all youngsters of great faith who I know are praying for me. I love you all (and anyone else that I haven't mentioned here)! Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as there. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Mark 10:14-15).