Monday, July 1, 2013

Here is our God

A voice says, "Cry out."
And I said, "What shall I cry?"
You who bring good tidings to Zion,
Go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good tidings to Jerusalem,
Lift up your voice with a shout,
Lift it up, do not be afraid;
Say to the towns of Judah,
"Here is your God!"
- Isaiah 40

I have lived in Umphumulo for 10 months. For 10 months, this place and
the people in it have been my daily life. For 10 months, I have been
falling in love with this community. For 10 months, my soul has been
stretched by the relationships that have embraced me here. For 10
months, I have been blessed beyond measure.

And now, in one week, I will leave.

I am overwhelmed, to say the least. I am terrified and excited and
exhausted and inspired and confused and content and nervous and
hopeful and so incredibly thankful. There's so much to say, so much I
need to express to the people all over the world who have been a part
of this life-giving year. It's like there's a voice urging me to "Cry
out!" And my over-full mind just doesn't know how to say it all. What
words could possibly convey the vibrancy, the graciousness, the utter
fullness of a year like this? What language could hold my gratitude?
"What shall I cry?"

Amidst all the confusion, there is one truth that has rooted me: The
people of Umphumulo have become my family. It is normal in the Zulu
language to call everyone by familiar names: baba (father), mama
(mother), sisi (sister), mfowethu (brother). I have always loved this
beautiful practice, but now I understand the deeper reality behind the
words. Nowhere else have I experienced a conception of family as vast
and inclusive as I have in Umphumulo. I truly do have mothers and
fathers and sisters and brothers here. I have love and grace abounding
here. And it is not because of anything I have done to deserve it. It
is because my family and neighbors in Umphumulo have allowed me to
bear witness to their lives in all their beautiful and perplexing and
mundane and glorious fullness. People like Sbo have been honest and
vulnerable. People like Mvoto have the courage to cry and laugh and
welcome me to be a part of it. People like Baba Mabaso have the grace
to call me, with all my imperfections, by the names of brother and
son. And by choosing to live alongside me every day, these people have
given me the most precious gift they could offer: the gift of their
stories.

For a brief time, our stories have intersected. Just as Ma Mabaso and
Sno and Zamadelwa and Nzuzo are now a part of my story, our time
together has become part of their unique stories as well. Despite all
the barriers that threaten to separate us, we have walked together.
And it is in the walking that our stories weave in and out of one
another, transforming our difference into commonality.

The brief thread that has woven me into the fabric of Umphumulo is
turning out to be stronger than I ever expected. I am heartbroken to
think about leaving. I am terrified to discover what my story will
look like without the interweaving of Sma and Akabongwe and Baba Nzama
and so many others. What will I do with a year of beautiful and
sorrowful and transformative stories? Since I can't walk the same road
as this community forever, since our roads diverge in one short week,
I have a choice. I can keep this precious cargo to myself and mourn
the briefness of a year. Or I can be open with the transformation I've
received, open myself up enough to let these stories trickle out into
every day.

I pray that I will choose the latter, that I will be genuine enough to
live out the stories that have already become a part of who Kaleb is.
My love for these people makes that the only honest choice.

And perhaps it is here that I find the most genuine answer to the
overflowing gratitude in my heart. "What shall I cry?" I shall cry out
the stories of this community, the stories that have woven us together
and that give me the hope I desperately need. They are stories of
strength in the face of challenge, acceptance in spite of differences,
and grace that unites all of us as sisters and brothers who yearn
together for reconciliation in our world. It is these stories that
give language to this year. And it is by holding these stories with
care and passing them on with hope that I can best express my deep
gratitude.

Amidst the overwhelming flood of goodbyes, perhaps what I am called to
do is just what the messenger in Isaiah needed to do. To lift up my
voice, to refuse to remain silent, to pass on the story, to live out
the gratitude, to be transformed by the welcome. To face my deep fear
with a shout of the assurance, "Here is your God!" Because, after all,
it is in the stories of Umphumulo that I have most clearly encountered
God this year. Here, in their joys and sorrows and fears and hopes.
Here, in the hands that have accepted me. Here, in the grace that has
overlooked difference. Here, in the people who are no longer strangers
but family. Here, in my family in the U.S. and all around the world
who have upheld me. Here, in your own sacred stories as well…and the
stories of your neighbors. Here, in the journey we share as sisters
and brothers. Here is your God.

I have come to the end of my journey here, and I'm realizing that all
along I have been constantly seeking and forever arriving at the most
amazing yet most simple destination: home. It is a destination that is
both miraculous and beautifully normal. I find myself amazed and yet
not surprised at all. After all, what is more natural than feeling at
home with your family? But what is more amazing than finding a family
halfway around the world?

Here is my home. Here is my family. Here is our God.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Sometimes

Sometimes forest fires rage and destroy hundreds of homes.
Sometimes relationships bend under the weight of misunderstanding.
Sometimes even your best intentions don't seem to be enough.
Sometimes you have to face the reality of saying goodbye to people who
you can't imagine living without.
Sometimes the brokenness of this world leaves you overwhelmed with
guilt and helplessness.
Sometimes it all feels like too much to take in.

And sometimes you run into an old friend on the road.
Sometimes grandmothers send notes just to say how much they love you.
Sometimes the little girl sitting next to you on the taxi smiles
beautifully for the whole ride.
Sometimes your neighbor knocks on the door to invite you over to share
a warm meal.
Sometimes a loved one calls to tell you she misses you.
And sometimes, at the end of the day, all you can do is make pancakes
with your friends and laugh in spite of yourself.

Sometimes it is the simplest moments that make the most painful
moments bearable. Sometimes it is the smallest kindness that sparks
hope amidst the brokenness.

Today, I am thankful for the people who give me hope, people like Sma,
Angie, Carolyn, Ayanda, Gretta, Mbali, Ziphe, Nontando, Inhle and so
many more.


"At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from
another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of
those who have lighted the flame within us." -Albert Schweitzer

"Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly,
now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to
complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it." –The
Talmud

Sunday, April 21, 2013

I am a failure at prayer

There. I said it. I admit it. The secret is out.

To be honest, my on-and-off relationship with prayer is nothing new.
But I bring it up now because it's especially hard to sweep under the
rug here in Umphumulo.

Because as it turns out, praying is a pretty popular thing to do in
this community. There are two sets of morning prayers every day at the
primary school where I volunteer…as teachers and again as a whole
school. We have a prayer service every morning at the church centre
where I live. We sing countless prayers during church on Sunday
mornings. And I can't tell you how many time I've been at the Mabaso
family's house… and suddenly eight lovely church ladies show up
unannounced, sing and dance their way into the living room, and start
an impromptu hour-long prayer service. Prayer—in many and various
forms—simply happens a lot.

One of my favorite Zulu Lutheran practices is when everyone in the
room prays out loud at the same time. It's usually a powerful moment
to be a part of that cacophony of supplication. But there are also
plenty of times when I simply don't have words to pray. Which sounds
strange, because obviously there are plenty of things/people I could
be praying for at any given time. The real struggle is not what to
pray about, but how to do it authentically, how to fit the deepest
yearnings, sorrows, and thanksgivings of my life into words that feel
genuine.

And for a host of reasons, those most inexpressible parts of myself
have been yearning for a voice more and more. The life of this
community has stirred my spirit, has helped me see the ways in which
my most fervent hopes are intertwined with the lives of our brothers
and sisters in South Africa. It has opened my eyes to see even more of
our world's brokenness and fullness, opened my heart to yearn to
express both cries for justice and songs of thanksgiving. It's
transformative. It's beautiful. But gosh, it makes finding adequate
words feel impossible. And it sometimes makes me feel like a failure
at prayer.

But then there are these moments…these simple, mundane chunks of time
that come out of nowhere, knock me off my intellectual high horse, and
leave me silent in the face of the everyday holiness around me. A walk
through the tall grass, a greeting from a stranger, a smile from a
child, a starry sky. I have no words for moments like these, and yet
they are the closest thing to real prayer I think I've ever felt.

The author Barbara Brown Taylor writes about prayer in a way that
makes sense to me in this chapter of my life: "Prayer is more than
saying set prayers at set times. Prayer…is waking up to the presence
of God no matter where I am or what I'm doing. When I am fully alert
to whatever or whoever is right in front of me; when I am electrically
aware of the tremendous gift of being alive; when I am able to give
myself wholly to the moment I am in, then I am in prayer. Prayer is
happening, and it is not necessarily something that I am doing. God is
happening, and I am lucky enough to know that I am in The Midst."

I am not in control. I am not the one making it happen. My only task
is to yield. And to be thankful. Theme of my year.

So while it can still feel awkward when I'm the only one not talking
during the everyone-pray-at-the-same-time prayers, I'm learning to be
okay with not having words. I'm learning to be okay with admitting
that the fullness of my brokenness is just too much for flimsy words
to hold. I'm learning to be okay with praying in the language of a
setting sun, a hug from a fourth grader, a feeling of exhausted
frustration, a long walk with no destination, and a hopeful silence.

And I'm learning to be grateful for those who are teaching me these
lessons, for my Umphumulo brothers and sisters and moms and dads and
grannies and friends and random acquaintances and strangers on the
road.

Whatever form (or lack of form) your prayers may take right
now…however it is that your prayers happen…however you find yourself
in The Midst… I invite you to join me in prayers for a world which
desperately yearns for peace and reconciliation. And I also invite you
to join me in prayers of gratitude for those who bring hope amidst the
brokenness. Especially on my heart now is the group of young adults
preparing to embark on their own YAGM journeys during the coming year
and a half. Today they find out in which countries they will serve.
This group of compassionate young people fills my wordless prayers
with hope.

Monday, April 1, 2013

A thought...

I am broken. I am imperfect. I am not enough.
I want so desperately to be a part of this community.
I yearn to live in solidarity, to glimpse the true life
But I cannot walk in their shoes without taking off my own.
I cannot fill my heart with the joys and sorrows of this world
Without first being emptied
Of the preconceptions, expectations, and need to control.
And it is the emptying that is leaving me weary.
Because at the end of the day I am who I was raised to be
And no amount of effort or yearning
or pull-up-myself-by-my-bootstraps determination will change that.
I'm not even sure I really want to change that.
And yet every single moment holds the potential
Not to utterly transform
But to mold
The soft clay of my identity
If I only choose to remain open.
No, I don't even have the strength to make that decision on my own.
If only I fall—over and over and over
Into the grace that sees this dusty clay
And the clay of every human life
And says that it is good.
Not good enough
But simply and forever and undeservingly and gracefully good.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Gratitude

A recent conversation at Umphumulo Hospital:

Doctor: What are you doing here?
Me: I'm a volunteer with the Lutheran Church. I stay at the church
centre up the hill. I'll be here for about a year total.
Doctor: Oh. And where are you from?
Me: The United States.
Doctor: What a sacrifice!

I left the hospital that day with a pit in my stomach. And I'm not
talking about the stomach bug that was the reason for my visit.
Sacrifice?! A good intention on the doctor's part, but that word
caught me off guard big time.

Yes, there are naturally sacrifices associated with spending a year
living in another country. Like being away from my family and friends
in the United States for a really long time.

Or living without Snickers bars for 11 months. Rough life. Ha.

But seriously. As my gut reaction to the doctor's comment reminded me,
I would never choose the world "sacrifice" to define my life in South
Africa. So if anyone out there was considering feeling sorry for me or
commending me for making such a big sacrifice…I appreciate the
kindness, but please channel your emotions into a sentiment that
better fits the situation.

Like gratitude. Because at the end of the day—no mater how confusing
or frustrating or exhausting it may be—the opportunity to live as a
member of this community is an overwhelming privilege. To have the
support of so many wonderful people in the United States is an
overwhelming privilege. To be molded by an increasingly expansive
vision of church and family and faith is an overwhelming privilege. To
be invited into spaces of deep heartbreak and deep joy within the
lives of my neighbors here is an overwhelming privilege. To become a
neighbor, a brother, and a son in Umphumulo is an overwhelming
privilege. To wake up each day to a God and a community who
relentlessly love me even when I feel unlovable is an overwhelming
privilege. And to realize that I did absolutely nothing to earn any of
these privileges…that's grace, my friends.

And so no matter how overwhelmed or confused or frustrated I may be at
times, I pray that the emotion that rises to the top of the jumble is
one of overwhelming gratitude. For this place. For this time. For this
family. For this global church. And for the grace that binds our
gratitude together.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Kuyashisa Kakhulu (It's Really Hot)

Today in Umphumulo, the temperature hit a whopping 104 F. According to
my neighbor Sifiso, that's the hottest it's been here in a very long
time. It really hit me when I realized that it was literally 120
degrees warmer here than it was in Minnesota last week. As we say in
isiZulu, "Kuyashisa kakhulu. Kakhulu." It's hot. Really hot.

And as luck would have it, this afternoon I found myself walking to
Umphumulo Primary School during the hottest part of the day. Uphill
the whole way. In the sun. Yeesh.

As pretty much any of my college friends will tell you, I have a bad
habit of walking too fast. Four years of having classes on opposite
sides of campus allowed me to perfect the cross-campus-dash.
Unfortunately, the habit stuck, and I still tend to walk about twice
as fast as a normal human being.

Today broke that habit pretty fast. The walk to the primary school
from where I stay is tough on a day with reasonable temperatures. But
in 104 degree heat, it was brutal. All of a sudden, my typical pace
seemed pretty unreasonable.

And so I walked. Very, very slowly. And I paused in the rare spots of
shade to wipe away the sweat. And I walked some more. Very slowly. I
had the time to savor the shade. I kept my eyes up. I noticed things I
didn't notice before. I walked (slowly!) with a mother and daughter. I
had a conversation I wouldn't have had if I were moving faster. We
talked about how it was hot and how we were tired. But we made it. It
wasn't that bad after all.

This evening, when it finally cooled down enough for my brain to
function normally, I realized that there's probably a life lesson or
two tucked away in that trek up the hill. Here's one that speaks to me
in this particular "season" of my YAGM year:

Sometimes the conditions can be tough. Sometimes I feel like I'm
walking uphill the whole way. Sometimes the destination seems distant
and the journey intense. Sometimes it would be easier to just stay
inside out of the heat. Sometimes the circumstances make even normal
tasks seem more difficult.

Sometimes I'm tempted to react to these circumstances by moving
quickly, by pulling up those Midwestern bootstraps, fixing my eyes on
the road, and plowing through.

But sometimes it's better to walk slowly in the heat. To feel the
fullness of the challenge. To appreciate the moments of rest. To take
time to notice the details. To savor time with companions. To admit to
one another that the way is difficult. To admire the strength of the
other. And to share in the vulnerability of the walk.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Why I Don't Use the Word "Busy"

I have made a conscious effort since I came to South Africa to avoid
using the word "busy." Why? Well, for one, I think I used that word so
much during my four years of college that I've already maxed out my
lifetime quota. Typical interaction: "How are you, Kaleb?" "Oh, I'm
doing pretty well, but I'm just really busy." In college, being busy
became a comfortable part of my daily life, something that I was proud
of, something that maybe even started to define me.

I sometimes think about what my lifestyle was like eight months ago
during my last semester of college, and then I look at my daily
schedule here in Umphumulo (or total lack thereof, as it were), and I
just laugh. Just for kicks, I pulled up my calendar for the month of
May 2012, and I'm pretty sure I had every single hour of my life
blocked out…classes, study sessions, meetings, rehearsals, review
sessions, pre-graduation arrangements, etc. I even had to schedule in
times to sit down and talk to specific friends, because I knew it
wouldn't happen otherwise. Looks pretty unpleasant from the
perspective of Umphumulo.

Because today when I woke up, I knew only one thing about my day. I
knew I would be going to Nyamazane Primary School. And that's it. No
schedule. No plan. Just a beautifully unknown, unforeseeable,
surprising 17 hours of life. And that's not just today. That's every
day.

And now it's 11:00 pm, and even though there was no plan, even though
my day was by no means busy, I am totally exhausted. Because
today—like most days here—was not busy, but it was incredibly full.
Let me show you what I mean:

At 6:45 this morning, I left the church centre to go with Mama Mabaso
to Nyamazane. Today was the first day of school for the entire
province, so excitement was in the air. We stopped at her house just
long enough to admire Mvoto's new high school uniform and to pick up
1.5-year-old Akabongwe, who was sporting a tiny new backpack for her
first day at the crèche (preschool). After putting the backpack on
Akabongwe's back and watching her giggle and tip over backwards about
four times, Ma decided it was time to go. We dropped Akabongwe at the
crèche, and a lifetime of first-day-of-school memories flooded into my
mind as I watched her and Ma say goodbye to each other through the
tears. (Sound familiar, mom?)

Fortunately, the emotional goodbye was followed by lots of happy
reunions with the Nyamazane teachers, a fantastic group of people who
I genuinely missed during the holiday break. After plenty of hugs and
stories of Christmas celebrations, we gathered to sing and pray like
we do every morning at school. And then began perhaps one of the most
fascinating logistical processes I've ever witnessed. Imagine the
sorting hat from Harry Potter times about 27 intensity. Herds of
slightly confused students getting rapidly distributed into classrooms
based on grade and gender. I felt overwhelmed, but the teachers
obviously had it under control because within ten minutes the
schoolyard went from chaos to total order. Magic, no doubt.

Right away, our Grade 4 class dove into a math lesson, intermixed with
my comical attempts to create a roster of the students' names. It's
hard enough for me to pronounce some Zulu names, but you should have
seen me trying to spell 30 of them correctly and in alphabetical
order. Ha. Once we collectively cleared that hurdle, it was smooth
sailing for the rest of the day. We organized a cupboard. We counted
by tens. We weeded the garden. And I learned the Zulu names for the
months of the year from a few brilliantly patient fifth graders.

Once school was over and anxious mommy was reunited with Akabongwe, we
headed back home. We ate a snack with Mvoto and Siwe (girls I consider
my sisters here), shared stories from our first day at school, and
participated in our daily ritual of listening to Mvoto and my favorite
Rihanna song (the slightly annoying one about diamonds in the sky). At
one point, Siwe and I strolled to the tuck shop to buy airtime and
talk about life. Mvoto and I climbed onto the roof to try and fix the
TV satellite. Ma and I planned out our next culinary endeavor (pizza).
Mvoto and I drank tea. I typed a document with Baba. Baba drove me
back to the church centre. I chatted with Sbo (and drank more tea).
And here I am. What a day. Not busy, but full.

So what's the point? Eight months ago, I was so caught up in being
"busy" that my busyness began to define who I was. Every day was about
getting through the list, making it to the meetings, accomplishing the
tasks. Life was stressful, and life was exhausting. Today was also
exhausting, but in a totally different way. I had no schedule, no
plan, no list. And yet every moment was full. Lack of schedule does
not mean lack of time well spent. In fact, I would argue that this
totally un-busy day involved more meaningfully spent time than some of
my busiest days during college.

I'm not sure there's a profound take-home message to this reflection.
But I do know that my un-busy life in Umphumulo is reshaping the way I
think about time well spent. When the schedule went out the door, all
of a sudden it made room for things that I would say matter far more
than the to-do list: conversations, cups of tea, tears, walks around
the neighborhood, bad (but catchy) pop music, jokes, stories, meals,
breaths.

I don't use the word "busy" to describe my life anymore, and I think
I'd like to keep it that way. I'm sure that I won't be able to escape
the schedule and to-do list forever, but I now know that busyness does
not define me. It is the conversations, the shared time, the common
space, and the relationships that make me who I am, that fill my days
with meaning. And with that in mind, as I look back on this
beautifully un-busy day, I'm feeling pretty blessed.