The sun rose over Pretoria West on August 5, and BK arose wearily. He grabbed his backpack and started walking. East, towards the rising sun. Why he was walking, and why east, he didn't know. He was just delaying things.
The Sunday morning traffic was light as he left the Church Street bridge behind. He'd been sleeping there for a while, because the ditch nearby had running water where one can wash his clothes. Work is hard for anybody to find in South Africa, much less for someone with his record.
Two and a half hours later, he was still walking. East, the sun climbing higher and chasing the overnight chill of late winter. He saw the multi-peaked roof of Menlyn Park Shopping Centre. He had walked twelve kilometers. Walking past Menlyn, he remembered his aunt who'd passed away last year. Back when he stayed with her, she attended a church near Menlyn. Near where he was now. Why not? He'd walk a little further east, to his aunt's old church. He would swallow those pills later that night.
Sitting in Hatfield Christian Church, BK was moved by the pastor's message. The warm rays of hope reaching for his heart, he chose to wait at the altar. Hopefully in the busy altar, someone would be able to speak with him. To pray with him. Could he dare to hope again?
He saw Chandra entertaining one of the pastor's children. All the other leaders were busy in the altar. When the children left, he called out to her.
God left glorious, perfect heaven to come to this sin-wrecked planet and live among violent, hateful people, and to die to pay for our sins. Why? To win something back for Himself: you. You. You are worth the very life of God Himself, according to His own actions.
Do you understand how valuable you are to him?
We prayed with BK. He eagerly surrendered his life to Christ. His posture and disposition shifted noticeably. We invited him for lunch at the church's coffee shop and shared more about Christ's life in us. We offered to connect him with a local rehabilitation ministry that provides housing and meals while offering work and skills training. He asked to speak to them immediately. He interviewed over the phone and arranged to meet with them at Hatfield the next morning.
Walking out to our car, BK said to us, "I feel so light!" When I think of his smile, I think of that sunrise he was walking toward that morning. Towards hope.
The next morning, Chandra was waiting at Hatfield Christian Church when BK arrived, having gathered some possessions from nearby the Church Street bridge and walked all the way back: embracing his opportunity with both hands and a lighter soul.
Will you join us in praying for BK? The journey of discipleship requires the same thing as that initial surrender of salvation: complete cooperation with God as He works in us. Pray that he is not sidetracked, distracted, or discouraged. Pray that he stays the course and enters into everything God has for his future.
We celebrate BK's new life in Christ and his discovery of his value to God.
Do you understand how valuable you are to him?
Update: as of October 2018, we've lost touch with BK. While our hearts are sad to not be connected with him, we trust the Lord to continue what He began in BK's heart, and we continue to pray for him.
We wanted to write a blog post about the suffering we see in the lives of those we get to walk with here in Pretoria. Chandra and I chatted about our thoughts, and I took some notes. I sat down to do some research and attempt to write. I didn't get very far. I wrote down my prayer, and I'm sharing it with you.
I feel out of place--no, presumptuous--to write about anyone's suffering in this beautiful nation.
I haven't experienced this exclusion. I haven't known systemic ostracism and intentional societal marginalisation. I haven't watched loved ones die simply because the resources to care for them were kept from us, even though they are so close by.
So, I'm trying to study on what exactly is a "theology of suffering" so that I can write something with some sort of academic or at least devotional integrity, and I'm distracted by this tenderness.
I can't place it. But it seems as if it's Your tenderness I'm feeling. That You see this suffering. That every marginalised human being's experience, all over this sin-ravaged planet, is not lost on You. You see every violent act in every home. You see every child starving, five miles from a restaurant throwing out uneaten food from the $20 plates of the privileged. And it matters to You.
So, I'm trying to write, but I'm broken. My little article might be seen by about a few dozen people.
Maybe it will inspire them. But what will it change for Xolisa? Or Sephiwe*?
No practical gift or act of service could make it right. We can't fix this.
But we can be present.
I'm so captured by the fact that You see. Thank You that we can at least be present, for at least a few. In our presence, Father, please be present. You're the one who really sees. You're the one we all need.
* these names have been changed
Why I'm still amazed at the Cross
When I survey the wondrous Cross, where my Saviour died...
Jesus paid it all...
It is the most influential event in human history. It is one of the most discussed, studied, reenacted, sung about, and poetically lauded ideas in human literature, its theme of personal mortal sacrifice being echoed countless times. It is the centerpiece of human relationship with the divine.
There's never been anything like the Cross of Christ. There never will be again. It towers over time and eternity, the inescapable emblem of love, sacrifice, wrath, redemption, and victory.
Someone giving himself to save others is a universally appealing idea. It runs like a golden thread through literature in every age and every culture—perhaps because we're made in His image, and the ethic of laying one's life down for others appeals to some shred of His character, still latent in us after the Fall.
The magic of Easter first captured me as a young child, attending a Southern Baptist church with my mother.
All these years later, I still tear up "when I survey the wondrous Cross". I'm listening to a song called, "It Took a Lamb" as I write here in a coffee shop in Pretoria, and I'm barely keeping myself together.
Honestly, I'm still shattered. Overcome. Overwhelmed. Awed. Flattened.
It simply never gets old.
Why am I still amazed by the Cross?
It's so personal.
Really. If I were the only human, Jesus would have come to earth and died to pay for my sin.
Just. For. Me.
This is historical fact: the Son of the living God came to earth and lived a smashingly successful and unprecedented blameless life. Right in His prime, He allowed a political and religious conflict to sweep Him into a public execution--which was His intention the entire time. It's why He came!
Think for just a minute what it cost Him to even come down here (yes, Christmas still gets to me, too). Then to remain focused and undistracted by the success and popularity of His ministry of teaching and miracles. He didn't come to build a ministry. He came with one thing in mind: you.
What a Savior!
It's so devastating.
I like it when my team wins. I really like it when my team wins big.
I'm a lifetime Houston Astros fan (still drunk from the 2017 World Series!!). I remember the first time my team (finally) won a playoff game. It was 2004. We were playing the Braves--those Braves that knocked us out three times in previous years. I hated the Braves.
Game 1, 2004 NLDS. I listened to most of the game in my truck, running errands for work. This was no 2-1 or 1-0 nailbiter. They destroyed those Braves. 9 to 3. It was so awesome. I was screaming in my truck. That game was amazing!
At the Cross, Jesus completely ended sin's authority in our lives. In satisfying the requirements of God's wrath, He not only enabled our escape from its consequences, but then He placed back in our hands all authority on the earth over sin and the powers of hell.
Then, to top it off, He rose from the dead, and shared his victory over death and the grave with us, too.
There's no bloodier battleground than the Cross, and there's no champion bigger than Christ.
What a Savior!
It's so all-encompassing.
I remember singing in that Southern Baptist church:
Jesus paid all!
Revelation 13 describes Christ as the Lamb who was "slain from the foundation of the world." The Cross is actually an eternal event: although we have a specific point in our historical timeline where it "happened", there is an eternal aspect in which God made His decision and laid down His life before He created the universe (in much the same way he chose you and me for Himself before creation, see Ephesians 1:4).
What does that mean? Before you or I ever made one choice for wrong or right, Jesus paid for our sin. All of it. My sin. Yours. Hendrick Verwoerd's sin. Ted Bundy's sin. Adolf Hitler's sin. All of it. Every. Sin. In human history.
So that for any one of us who wants to reconcile with our Father who created us and chose us, all that is required is to acknowledge what He did and surrender to Him as Lord. Jesus paid it all.
Isn't it amazing enough that He paid for all our sins against Him? But He didn't stop there.
In Paul's letters, several times he points out that in Christ there are no more divisions. No more Jew and Gentile. No more male and female. No more slave and free.
In one of these passages, where he is specifically discussing Jew and Gentile, Paul says this:
For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall...
He Himself is our peace! What has He done?
He has paid for all our sins against one another! Individuals have hurt one another. Whole people groups in our past and recent history have committed evil, violence, and unspeakable atrocities against other people groups. How can anyone ever pay for that? Can we punish anyone enough to make up for what happened? Who can make it right?
Jesus. Paid. It ALL! He has paid the price! Because of Him, we can come to the Cross, all of us on this big beautiful planet, and we can be one. He Himself is our peace!
What a Savior!
I'll never get over it. Jesus is my hero. The Cross is the most amazing event in history.
Unmatched. Unequaled. Boundless. Deep.
We run out of words to describe the love of God. His love is the superlative to end all superlatives, and the more we encounter it, the more we grasp for a picture that can begin to do it justice.
Several thousand years ago, the psalmist wrote, "...your love is better than life." Over the intervening centuries, hundreds of songwriters have grappled with the limits of their languages to capture the immeasurable, inexplicable love of God.
The crescendo continues in the 20th century. Kathy Troccoli famously released a song called, "Stubborn Love." David Meece tried to capture the great lengths of God's love with "We Are the Reason." Chris Bowater, one of the fathers of modern worship in the United Kingdom, wrote, "Oh, the deep, deep, love of Jesus! Vast, unmeasured, boundless, free. Rolling like a mighty ocean in its fullness over me."
Of late, songwriters are more overwhelmed than ever. "Heaven meets earth like a sloppy, wet kiss, and my heart turns violently inside of my chest," cries John Mark McMillan. Chris Tomlin, trying to capture the boundless power and volume of God's love, writes, "Your love is like a waterfall, running wild and free!" Cory Asbury is beside himself experiencing God's love: "Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God! How it chases me down, fights til I'm found, leaves the ninety-nine!"
What is it about this love that captivates us so?
I could go on forever, but here are three things, for me.
Paul prayed for the Ephesian believers that they "may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge..." I pray that you experience His love in deeper ways than ever before. Go ahead: surrender to His indescribable, reckless love. Let it wash over you and embrace you. It's okay to be beside yourself. He has that affect on us.
What is it about God's love that captivates you?
Last Sunday a beautiful multi-racial congregation were worshiping together in Pretoria, South Africa, when the worship pastor stood to facilitate communion.
Joining the congregation that day were about 50 children from Berakah Education Foundation in Mamelodi, and a few of the parents (see video and photos below). Everyone in attendance was invited to partake in communion. But I wasn’t sure if the parents or staff from Berakah understood what was happening (possible cultural and linguistic barriers). As I explained to them how Jesus paid the price to take our punishment for our sins and how communion helped us to remember this act of love, one of the parents asked an unexpected question.
"Is this free?"
I was taken aback. I couldn’t fathom someone thinking that she had to pay for the communion elements. But then I became disturbed by the trap of false religion that held this beautiful woman back from experiencing the depths of the grace of God – His unmerited favor, unearned and undeserved love.
The question and the look on her face said, "Is this really for me?"
My immediate answer to the asked and unasked questions was a resounding, "Yes! His finished work is for all of us! Yes! You are qualified! Yes, He has paid it all! Yes, it is free!"
The bigger question
Does everyone know? How could it be possible that someone can attend church over and over and not know that Jesus paid it all--that it cost Him everything and us nothing, that we can neither pay for it nor earn it, and so He has given it to us freely? Oh, what a Savior! I wonder how many people are in our own circles of friendship, sitting right beside us, not knowing. Trapped by false religion--whether it's Western performance or Eastern mysticism or African traditionalism--into trying to earn something that is already paid for and given. Free.
Do we live like it ourselves? Do we affirm with our heads what Jesus did on the cross, but live as though we have to earn it? Do we share what He's freely given with those around us?
Is it really for me? Is it really for everyone around me?
Yes, it is!
Berakah kids visit Hatfield Christian Church, sing on stage
Then it occurred to me: I'd like to be so unavoidably connected to my Father in heaven, that His name and His reputation follow me around everywhere I go. Do I remind people of Him?
"If my people, who are called by my name," He says. He says it several times in the Old Testament.
Called by His name. May our lives be worthy of it. May His character shine through, and His name be glorified.
He's worth being named after.
The local church here in Pretoria is currently busy with a theme called Faith for Tough Times.
One of the first things I thought when I saw the phrase "faith for tough times" is that perhaps one of the greatest, and most important, acts of faith during tough times is to avoid closing oneself off from God and from others.
Maybe it's related to the whole "fight, flight, or freeze" thing. But often, when hard things come, we humans close off. We close off relationships when someone hurts us. We stop investing in organizations, family, or church when we a group or leader fails us. We stop tithing or giving offerings in times of broad economic or personal financial crisis.
It's natural, and intuitive. But I'd like to suggest that it's counterproductive.
A dear friend of mine said something crazy to me in 1993. He'd just been betrayed, profoundly and painfully, by one of his closest associates. The individual had quietly conspired with about a third of my friend's contacts, luring them away to start a competing venture. It was a costly, difficult, and painful time. As the dust was beginning to settle, we were chatting late one night in a parking lot and I asked him what he was going to do.
"I'm going to trust again. Eventually, I'm going to get burned again. But, Mike, I'd rather get burned a hundred times and still love people than close myself off."
I've never forgotten this. I was pretty young in 1993 (and pretty stupid, but that's another story for another day...), and I've always been grateful to have heard this message of forgiveness, trust, and living richly before I ever went through anything difficult myself. What a response! It's easy to be cynical. It doesn't take a lot of courage to believe the worst in others.
But this: this took courage. My friend wasn't planning (or advocating) blind trust in folks with proven poor character. He was resolving to continue to build relationships, allow others to share in his life's work and passion, and to continue to live richly towards others, even when at times he gets "burned".
Counter-intuitive. Counter-cultural. Brave.
I took a decision that night in that parking lot, and I'd like to invite you to join me in the decision. The decision?
I will live richly towards others, regardless of what offenses are committed against me.
I've chosen to love and trust the people God's allowed me to have in my life. I don't "check the wind" to determine whether or not to love and invest in others. As another friend of mine says, "I love you, and there's nothing you can do about it!"
The Message paraphrase of 2 Corinthians 6 paints a beautiful picture of living richly towards others, in good times and in tough times. Check it out:
People are watching us as we stay at our post, alertly, unswervingly . . . in hard times, tough times, bad times; when we’re beaten up, jailed, and mobbed; working hard, working late, working without eating; with pure heart, clear head, steady hand; in gentleness, holiness, and honest love; when we’re telling the truth, and when God’s showing his power; when we’re doing our best setting things right; when we’re praised, and when we’re blamed; slandered, and honored; true to our word, though distrusted; ignored by the world, but recognized by God; terrifically alive, though rumored to be dead; beaten within an inch of our lives, but refusing to die; immersed in tears, yet always filled with deep joy; living on handouts, yet enriching many; having nothing, having it all.
He's described a few good times and a lot of hard times. Now, dig his response:
Dear, dear Corinthians, I can’t tell you how much I long for you to enter this wide-open, spacious life. We didn’t fence you in. The smallness you feel comes from within you. Your lives aren’t small, but you’re living them in a small way. I’m speaking as plainly as I can and with great affection. Open up your lives. Live openly and expansively!
Christ's life inside of us is so magnificently, expansively, great! He is greater than every offense, every betrayal, every economic downturn, every "you-name-it"!
And that's why--He's why--my family and I have decided to always live richly towards God and towards others. Won't you join us?
This week I was invited by South African Worship Academy and Year of Your Life to host a joint class day. The group was a beautifully diverse gathering of Sotho, Zulu, Afrikaner, South African English, Venda, and South Korean, and the goal of the day was to worship together and to explore Psalm 139 and how it relates to worship.
As I write this note to you, Chandra is hosting Divorce Care for Kids at a local school. DC4K has also attracted a diverse group of students who are handling the trauma they've experienced in their own unique ways.
Both groups of students, the young adults on Wednesday and the primary school children today, are discovering the same beautiful, profound reality: God knows us. And, not like you might know engines or I might know computers--He knows us. Intimately. Tenderly. Deeply. Entirely.
He knows the joys and the pains we have experienced on our journey. He knows our strengths; He knows our weaknesses. He knows what's amazing about us; He knows what's ugly about us.
And He embraces, even celebrates, all of it.
Here in South Africa, a noted Christian leader recently hosted an incredible prayer meeting (over 1 million in attendance!). What a testimony of unity and care for the nation.
A lot of debate was sparked, however, when the leader called for prayers for South Africa to become a "Christian nation" with a "Christian government." There is indeed a need for healthy, conscientious engagement on the subject of how God intends for the Church to relate with the state.
But I want to suggest that there are some much more fundamental questions that we should maybe engage first.
The prophet Micah once exhorted God's people by saying, "And what does God expect of you, but to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8)
Before we move to reform governments or systems, we must reform ourselves.
Love mercy. If you want to see someone get this wrong, ride in the car with me. No one knows how to drive properly, except me. I've prayed prayers of repentance and am trusting the Holy Spirit to work His fruit of patience and gentleness in me! But do we always love mercy, or do want people to get what's coming to them? One of the many Texas colloquialisms I grew up with was, "You made your bed; now you can lie in it." Is that how we view those who have fallen on hard times due to poor choices? Or those whose lifestyle choices don't align with our worldview? I'm asking myself this question: Do I love mercy, or do I only want mercy?
If we are not doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God--if we are not living with honesty and integrity while loving and serving the community around us--we cannot call for a reform of government.
We still need to reform ourselves.
Sawubona. A greeting we learned within days of arriving in South Africa five years ago. But we never knew the Zulu word meant something more than, "hello".
It means, I see you.
A few months ago, Chandra was in the dark maze of government offices in downtown Pretoria, helping a newly widowed teacher with paperwork. While there, they saw a European lady sitting alone. Her South African husband of many years had recently died, and here she was alone in strange dark offices having to submit paperwork.
Except she wasn't alone, because Chandra saw her. She and the teacher, grieving her own loss, were able to embrace this lady and pray with her. It was God saying, "I see you."
The thrill of our lives is being His eyes and His hands in this beautiful nation. We are so grateful. We pray God's richest blessings for you as you are His eyes and hands everywhere you go in 2017!