When non-conformity becomes the status quo

on Saturday, 18 June 2011. Posted in Blog Archives

Whether I’m reading history or observing my current culture, a certain trend seems to pop its head without fail. It is this: an individual becomes disillusioned with a certain paradigm, set of beliefs or ideology – be it political, religious, philosophical, or whatever else.

 

This individual then distances himself from the people and associations he once called his own, and ventures on a quest to discover a home for himself. He discovers something akin to what Thomas Merton described as follows: ‘Freedom from domination, freedom to live one’s own spiritual life, freedom to seek the highest truth, unabashed by any human pressure or collective demand, the ability to say one’s own “yes” and one’s own “no” and not merely to echo the “yes” and the “no” of state, party, corporation, army, or system.

 

On this journey of discovery the individual inevitably bumps into other people who share his concerns over where they’ve come from and his hunger of a future that can be. Due to man’s inbred tendency for belonging, these once-disenchanted people who have found a new shared interest band together to form their own association, developing orthodoxies unique to themselves. They pride themselves in not being as narrow-minded as they used to be, but often fail to see that their non-conformity has simply resulted in another status quo – distinct with its own pet ideas, hot-debated ideologies and scant disregard for those who dare question their viewpoints.

 

I see something similar evolving in the whole evangelical/emergent divide within the Christian faith. Whilst I am very grateful for the courage of ‘emergents’ to ask questions that needs to be asked, I don’t appreciate the obsession of some that seems content with simply asking questions, as if questions are the new answers. Still, on the other hand, I don’t believe, as so many evangelicals do, that the right answers are in fact the right answer. Our answer is a Person, not simply a set of beliefs.

 

There needs to be a better way forward, one that goes beyond fundamentalist evangelicalism and we-can-never-know-anything emergent church trends. I know I’m generalising, but I do this to make a point. To label is to libel, and it is best if we avoid it as much as possible.

 

So, how to move beyond?

 

I don’t have all the answers, but this is what I would suggest: In order to move forward, never stop moving. It’s as simple as that. Keep walking. Never stop questioning. Continue looking to the One who is both our answer as well as our liberator from our need for all the answers. Most of all, stop trying to make yourself a respectable somebody in the crowd of your own convictions, and stay true to the work that God is doing within you, regardless of the friends you make or lose in the process.

 

In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

 

When a man really gives up trying to make something out of himself – a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman (a so-called clerical somebody), a righteous or unrighteous man,…when in the fullness of tasks, questions, success or ill-hap, experiences and perplexities, a man throws himself into the arms of God…then he wakes with Christ in Gethsemane. That is faith, that is metanoia and it is thus that he becomes a man and a Christian.

Grace Triumphs

on Saturday, 18 June 2011. Posted in Blog Archives

My book review of Jesus, My Father, The CIA and Me...A Memoir: Of Sorts by Ian Cron, posted on amazon.com

 

When a book title includes ‘A Memoir....of Sorts’, then you can’t be too sure about what you will end up getting. Including the word Jesus made me wonder if the book will be one of those preachy types – you know, like sitting through a sermon of a revivalist preacher, the only difference is that you are reading the words instead of having it spat at you. And you can’t leave either, ‘cause you paid for the book. Paying for a book and not reading it is the equivalent of buying an all day pass for an amusement park and then spending the whole day sipping herbal tea at one of those overly expensive coffee shops without ever going on one of the rides.

 

But this book didn’t disappoint, neither was it preachy. Surprising, soothing and soul-searching yes, but definitely not preachy. Cron has an incredible ability to paint pictures with words and then sign the canvas with grace. And this is what I took from the book: the triumph of grace. No matter how dark our past or uncertain our present, grace stoops low enough to reveal the sacredness of any story.

 

And sometimes it takes observing the grace in the life of another to recognize grace in your own. And that’s why this memoir (of sorts) is so powerful: it shows that grace often dwells incognito, in the most unlikely of places, with the most unlikely of people. Who knows, it may have even dwelled with you all along without you ever realizing it?

If you want to remain comfortable, don't read this book

on Saturday, 18 June 2011. Posted in Blog Archives

My book review of Down We Go by Kathy Escobar, posted on amazon.com

 

There was a time in my life when I completely ignored the beatitudes and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. I found them too challenging. Sometimes I would read through the gospel of Matthew, but deliberately skip over chapters 5 to 7. I knew I was choosing what to read and what to ignore, but at least I was honest about it.

 

The thing is, I read what Dietrich Bonhoeffer said about these words of Jesus and, whilst I agreed with him wholeheartedly, I simply wasn’t up for the challenge. He said the following: ‘Humanly speaking, we could understand and interpret the Sermon on the Mount in a thousand different ways. Jesus knows only one possibility: simple surrender and obedience, not interpreting it or applying it, but doing and obeying it. That is the only way to hear His word. But again He does not mean that it is to be discussed as an ideal, He means really putting it into practice.’

 

As I was reading about the work that was being done at The Refuge in Kathy Escobar’s Down We Go, I felt the same uneasiness that’s fuelled by my indifference creep into me: here’s a group of people that is actually living the wild ways of Jesus as depicted in the Sermon on the Mount. I’m still trying to come up with an excuse why I can’t do the same as them, but it’s not going too well. If you want to remain comfortable with your life of upward mobility, then please, don’t read this book.

The power of an ordinary life

on Thursday, 02 June 2011. Posted in Blog Archives

The last few months have been hectically busy in my life. I moved to the mountains of Haenertsburg in the beginning of the year, intent on giving more deliberate attention to God’s work within me. But in all honesty things haven't exactly panned out that way. Since moving to my little mountain house some 4 months ago, at least one third of my time has been spent elsewhere: Polokwane, Pretoria, Joburg, Tzaneen, Hong Kong, Beijing and some other random places. I’ve driven about 10 000 kilometres in this time, and did more than twice the distance on planes and trains.

 

It’s ironic how solitude often thrusts us into activity. On a very practical level, it works something like this for me: I spend time on my own, and in my brighter moments I am aware that whilst I am alone I am definitely not lonely. My solitude often gives birth to clear thoughts, and these clear thoughts are often pregnant with great ideas. In all honesty, I seldom have the ability to discern which of these thoughts are inspired and which are not, and so I latch onto most of them: the least any one of these thoughts deserve is my consideration. My busyness of late can be attributed to a sudden rush of worthwhile ideas coming together at the same time.

 

Still, my incessant busyness of late has a very real downside to it. Aside from spending a lot of money on ideas that may end up to be nothing more than castles in the sky, I haven’t found much time to do the thing I love most: spending time with the Word in the presence of words. At one stage I was wondering if this incessant busyness isn’t some kind of trick from the enemy of my soul. After all, if the devil can’t make you bad, he’ll simply make you busy. There’s a very distinct difference between the busyness that stems from anxiety and insecurity and that which comes from responding to the Divine impulses within.

 

Truth be told, I am not convinced that all my busyness of late has been the direct result of me saying yes to the Author of my life. Much of it was simply ideas intersecting with opportunity, and I’m naturally inclined to open the door to such visitors. But I am okay with this, and I am learning to accept that God is too. In the words of Thomas Merton, ‘The spiritual life is first of all a life.’ We cannot bypass the raw material of life with all its distractions and potential pitfalls in our attempt to follow God. God’s music may be orchestrated from another world, but, for the time being at least, you and I have to learn how to make this world our dance floor.

 

Merton continues: ‘If we want to be spiritual, then, let us first of all live our lives. Let us not fear the responsibilities and the inevitable distractions of the work appointed for us by the will of God. Let us embrace reality and thus find ourselves immersed in the life-giving will and wisdom of God, which surrounds us everywhere.’ It seems that dancing with God has as much to do with listening to His music as with accepting the place we find our feet.

A faith that is not for sale

on Tuesday, 24 May 2011. Posted in Blog Archives

Talking about hospitality and letting people into one’s personal space, I want to let you in on something that I’ve been struggling with the last few months.

 

Ever since I started working with the consultants on my debut book about a year ago, it became quite clear to me that if I am going to make it as a well published and well read author, I am going to have to work on selling myself. Publishers, I am told, are looking for confident and influential individuals with a strong following. I for one am naturally disinclined to showcase my strengths, partially because Scripture says that ‘love does not parade itself’ and partially because I believe that deception lurks just around the corner whenever one starts to seek one’s own gain. I am with Paul the apostle on this one: ‘If I must boast, I will boast concerning my weaknesses...for when I am weak, then I am strong.’ As he rightly observes, it’s only fools who feel the need to boast in and commend themselves (see 2 Co. 10:7-12:13).

 

One of the questions the consultants asked me as I prepped the book is this: ‘Why are you the best qualified person to write this book?’ They weren’t too satisfied with my initial answer: ‘Does the fact that I have already written it make any difference?’ They also asked me to make a list of books with whom my book will compete, leaving me with the impression that I must do my utmost best to secure a piece of the resourceful Christian pie at other people’s expense.

 

I don’t want to sound cynical. I get their point, I really do. Whether or not I like it, the Christian world with its religious goods and services (books, music, experts etc.) have become a very lucrative and competitive market. In a certain sense it’s unavoidable – we are in this world after all. Furthermore, my book wouldn’t have been half as polished and organised had it not been for their input on other issues.

 

Still, the idea of selling myself makes me incredibly uneasy. Maybe it’s my temperament or personality, I don’t know, but whichever way I reason in my head I just cannot seem to make my conscience easy with the idea. In any case, as the recent rapture hype proves, just because something is marketed effectively doesn’t make it true. I guess the inverse is also true: just because something doesn’t sell doesn’t mean it is insignificant.

 

All this leaves me in a conundrum of sorts. On the one hand, I don’t want to sell myself and my ideas, but, on the other hand, I don’t want to keep these to myself. My friend Shaun, whom I’ve let into this struggle a few weeks ago, says that I am not selling Jesus (or myself for that matter), but simply putting my ideas in a format that is accessible to the people around me. He says that I must remain true to myself on the one hand, but respect the reality and processes of the industry on the other. I tend to agree with him, but it doesn’t make it any easier or the tension less real. Your advice and prayers would be appreciated.

Embracing our pilgrim identity: Part 3 (Final)

on Friday, 20 May 2011. Posted in Blog Archives

I’ve been slacking in regards to my blogging lately, so to those of you who follow these posts, sorry. The last few months have just been very hectic, and writing is a luxury that I haven’t made time for of late.

 

Excuses aside, let me pick up where we left of a fortnight or so ago: Jesus’ invitation to be in the world, not of it. It seems especially relevant now seeing that there is a slight chance that the world may end tomorrow. Each era seems to produce a handful of Jesus-minded people that are very intent on trading this world for the sweet by and by.

 

To a certain extent I get this mindset, I really do. The world is a crazy place. Denial and escapism are very tempting alternatives to facing up to the hard realities of life. Still, as a follower of Jesus, I am called to participate in God’s ongoing redemption in this world. This, of course, cannot happen when I either deny the world’s need for redemption or when I am unwilling to get my hands dirty. To be the salt of this earth I need to both acknowledge the fact that the world needs salting and accept my role in this equation.

 

There are many ways in which Christians set out to salt the world so to speak. Today I want to write about one of them: hospitality. Strangely enough, it was Farida who once again made me aware on this reality when I spent some time with her in Beijing. I am going to tell you one more story from my time in China before I fast forward to the here and now, so just bear with me if you are tired of my China stories already.

 

As it turned out, Farida was a real includer, a people’s person of note. Sometime after dropping me off at the apartment she arranged for me, she bumped into another Russian traveller who happened to be in Beijing at that moment. In typical Farida fashion, she befriended him and helped him get accommodation as well.

 

To celebrate her new friends, she decided to take us out to a Russian nightclub for the evening. I wasn’t really in the mood for it seeing that I was tired from my long train ride, but I knew better than to offend a woman on a mission, so I decided to tag along. Before long, some of Farida’s lady friends joined us at the table. They also spoke Russian, seeing that they were from Uzbekistan. What’s more, these ladies were very friendly....like in, really friendly. It didn’t take me long to figure out that it wasn’t my charm that kept the conversation going: they were call-girls (hookers, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the euphemism), and I was a potential client. What did take long, though, was convincing them that I wasn’t interested.

 

This was just one of the many weird and wonderful experiences I had as I entered Farida’s world for a few days. People who know says that your attention span don’t allow me to write about the tea rooms, the street shops, the Buddhist temples, the Great Wall and the French bakery for the time being, so I will leave it at that. What I do want to point out, though, is how Farida let me enter into her world unashamedly and without reserve, regardless of how foreign or even disturbing at times I found it to be. In doing so, she was being hospitable in the truest sense of the word.

 

Hospitality is a word that is often lost in our individualistic cultures, partly because it is a word that demands us to let people into our personal space without us controlling or determining their actions within this space. Impersonal or forced hospitality are contradictions in terms. Henri Nouwen, in his book Reaching Out, describes hospitality as follows:

 

‘Hospitality means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines. It is not to lead our neighbor into a corner where there are no alternatives left, but to open a wide spectrum of options for choice and commitment. It is not an educated intimidation with good books, good stories and good works, but the liberation of fearful hearts so that words can find roots and bear ample fruit...The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness, not a fearful emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and discover themselves as created free; free to sing their own songs, speak their own languages, dance their own dances; free also to leave and follow their own vocations. Hospitality is not a subtle invitation to adopt the life style of the host, but the gift of a chance for the guest to find his own.’

 

In a world where our church cultures are often imposing, demanding and geared towards conformity, we would be well advised to learn from the example of Farida and the words of Nouwen. Which brings me back to the rapture which some believe will happen tomorrow. I don’t know about you, but I am taking my chances and saying that the rapture will most probably not happen in the next 48 hours. If I am right, then I will have these words as a witness. And if I am wrong, well, either you or I or both of us won’t be here to read the evidence (unless there’s internet in the afterlife).

 

Still, my predictions are that a lot of folks who heeded the words of Harold Camping and the likes will wake up confused, angry and hurt on Sunday morning. The rest of us who didn’t get carried away by the woo-ha and fanfare will have one of two choices when this happens: we can either ridicule these people with a superior ‘I-told-you-so’ attitude, or we can extend hospitality to them so that they may enter into a safe place for grace and truth to heal their broken hearts and confused thoughts. One of these options, I think it is safe to say, will bring honour to Jesus’ prayer: ‘Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’

Embracing our pilgrim identity: Part 2

on Thursday, 05 May 2011. Posted in Blog Archives

After more than a day on the train, we eventually pulled into Beijing West train station. Farida and I got off and walked to where her husband, whose name I still can’t pronounce to this day, was waiting for us. After exchanging a few pleasantries via Farida (he speaks English almost as good as I speak Chinese), we walked to where his car was park.

 

This was kind of the do or die moment for me. I was still not convinced that I should trust these strangers, but after sizing up her aged husband I felt comfortable with taking my chances. As we were driving in his car, I was making short notes on my Blackberry about the roads we were driving on and the landmarks we were passing – just in case in needed to make a run for it or text somebody about my whereabouts. After about 15 minutes on the road we pulled up next to a Russian restaurant. ‘Now we eat, yes?’ Farida said as we got out of the car. Which, of course, if you translate that means: ‘Now I drink beer.’

 

When we finished our meal, we drove to the apartment that she had arranged for me. It was ideally suited in a relatively Western part of the city, at a fraction of the price of the nearby hotels. We were greeted at the apartment by the landlord: a twenty-something Mongolian whose coffee coloured skin was hiding somewhere under all his tattoos. He reminded me about somebody out of a Bruce Lee movie, but I thought it best not to tell him that. After a quick tour of the apartment I gave him the rent and he gave me the keys, and not long after that Farida and her husband went home too.

 

Sitting in the silence of what would be my home for the next few days, I reflected back on my mini adventure thus far. Where would I have been at that moment if I never decided to get onto the train, or if I kept my mouth shut and never introduced myself to Farida, nor taken her up on her offer to help me find accommodation? It dawned on me that the risks I took were inseparable from the rewards I enjoyed.

 

As all this was playing out, I was constantly meditating in my heart about what it means to be a pilgrim in this earth. As strangers and pilgrims on the earth we are merely travelling through this world on the way to our true homeland (see Hebrews 11:13-16). Our pilgrim identity is one of the foremost oddities we are called to celebrate as followers of God in the way of Jesus, yet sadly this is also often lost as we become too concerned about our own comfort and security. You see, pilgrimage implies a few things. For starters, it implies the willingness to constantly let go of what is safe and familiar to us in order to make room for new adventures. It also demands that we see ourselves not merely as settlers on this earth trying to make our lives as secure as possible, but as sojourners who have been sent into this world with a different way of life than those who are simply living for the here and now. Here’s how Henri Nouwen describes this way of life in his book Life of the Beloved:

 

‘Think of yourself as having been sent into the world…a way of seeing that you were loved before the world began…a perception of yourself that calls for a true leap of faith! As long as you live in the world, yielding to its enormous pressures to prove to yourself and to others that you are somebody and knowing from the beginning that you will lose in the end, your life can be scarcely more than a long struggle for survival. If, however, you really want to live in the world, you cannot look to the world itself as the source of that life. The world and its strategies may help you to survive for a long time, but they cannot help you live because the world is not the source even of its own life, let alone yours.’

 

This way of living as a sent individual has little to do with where we find ourselves at present and almost everything to do with how we see ourselves. Jesus said it like this: ‘You are in this world, but you are not of it.’ In fact, He prayed for us not to be taken out of this world, but simply for us to be kept ‘from the evil one’ (see John 17:15-19). In the next post I will explore this relationship in greater depth.

Embracing our pilgrim identity: Part 1

on Tuesday, 03 May 2011. Posted in Blog Archives

During my recent trip to China, a few days unexpectedly opened up in which I didn’t have to be in the province in which I did most of my business. The trip to China itself was something of a last minute thing and the time leading up to it very busy, so I hadn’t really considered what I would do with myself if I had some time to kill.

 

Being a sucker for wanderlust, I narrowed my options down to either Tibet or Beijing. I wanted to do the trip by train so as to get a good feel for the landscape as well as the culture. Generally speaking, Westerners don’t really use the trains, preferring to fly instead. A train journey from Guangzhou (the city I was based in) to Beijing takes anything between 22 to 28 hours. The train to Tibet takes about twice as long. With only so much time at my disposal, I decided to go to Beijing.

 

With the help of my Chinese agent, I booked a train ticket to Beijing and a three hour flight back five days later. My agent, who hopes to make some money off me in the near future seeing that he works strictly on commission, was not to keen on the idea of me travelling alone in a country where, as I mentioned in the previous blog post, I was clearly a foreigner. I was a bit apprehensive myself, and although I have done similar things quite a number of times before in Europe and other places, the big difference was that I didn’t speak the language nor was it probable that I would meet someone who could speak English. But after considering the alternative – that of staying in the hotel for 5 days watching B-grade Chinese karate movies – I thought to myself: ‘What the heck, I’m here now.’

 

Fast forward a day or two to where I find myself on a train full of Chinese people. After a while I got used to the stares, and after yet another while I started to stare back at the people staring at me. My wandering eyes eventually fell on a girl who, wonder above wonder, was not Chinese. I eventually introduced myself with the words: ‘Do you speak English?’, to which she replied in her distinctive Russian accent: ‘A little. We go drink beer, yes?’ And that’s how I met Farida.

 

Farida is a 29 year old Russian woman who has been married to a Chinese dude almost twice her age for the last 10 years. They live in Beijing, and she was returning home after a two month visit to a friend who lives in the province I was based in during my time in China. Considering the age difference between her husband and her, as well as the fact that the primary reason she was returning home was not because she missed her man but because she ran out of money, I couldn’t help but wonder if they met through russianbrides.com or something similar. I never got round to asking her though. And she wasn’t kidding about the fact that she was thirsty either. By the time I finished my second beer she had polished about five or six of them, with maybe half a packet of cigarettes to go with it, and she was still as sober as a nun. That’s understandable I suppose, seeing that Russian children are generally weaned on vodka, so they have quite a strong tolerance to alcohol.

 

As we talked for hours on end, Farida told me that she would help me find accommodation in Beijing and show me around for the few days I would spend there. I had kind off agreed to hook up with some friends of my Chinese agent at the train station in order to find accommodation, but my new Russian friend assured me that I was a safe hands. ‘I find nice place for you. You no worry!’ she would say with her loud, boisterous voice. It’s not always a good idea to trust a Russian, but after sleeping on it I felt at peace about it all and decided to take her up on her offer. The next few blogs will tell of some of my experiences that resulted from this decision.