Friday, April 29, 2011

The Luther Rose

In a world dominated by symbolism, I thought it would be appropriate to look more closely at the Luther Rose, the iconic symbol for Lutherans all across the world.  It is a symbol that unifies and solidifies Lutherans in their faith. 

Here in South Africa, many ELCSA members have a Luther Rose sticker on their car windows, proudly displaying their religion.  On my parish’s program for the Easter weekend, they included a letter written by Martin Luther which explained his reasoning behind his symbol.  Luther beautifully articulates his seal’s detailed meaning and provides the foundations for his theology in his response below:

Grace and peace in Christ, Honored dear Sir and Friend:
Since you wish to know whether my seal has come out correctly, I will tell you how I originally planned my coat-of-arms as a symbol of my theology.
There is first to be a cross, black and placed in a heart, which should be of its natural color [red], to remind me that it is faith in the Crucified that saves us.  A person can only become righteous when he believes with his whole heart.  Even though it is a black cross, which mortifies and which also should hurt us, it leaves the heart in its natural color and does not ruin nature; that is, the cross does not kill but keeps man alive. For the just man lives by faith, but by faith in the Crucified One.

This heart should be set in the midst of a white rose, to show that such faith yields joy, peace and comfort such as the world cannot give.  That is why the rose is white and not red, for white is the color of spirits and angels.

This rose is to be placed on a field of heavenly blue, because such spiritual joy and faith are a beginning of heavenly joys to come, which are even now possessed by faith and understood in hope, although they are not yet evident to the outward eye.

And, encircling this field is a ring of gold, to signify that this bliss of heaven endures forever, and is more precious than all earthly pleasures and possessions, even as gold is the most precious of metals.

May Christ, our dear Lord, be with your spirit until it attains to that life.


Now, who doesn’t want to be Lutheran after reading that!?  I continue to be proud of my church and its history, present workings, and vision for the future.  After reading Luther’s letter, I can only smile and embrace his theology once more.

Monday, April 25, 2011

A Southern (Hemisphere) Easter

It was a cold, windy, and misty Palm Sunday.  The other volunteers and I were not dressed for the weather, but at least we packed some hard boiled eggs to hold us over until the end of the service.  My start of Holy Week began in Soweto, South Africa’s most famous township and the epicenter of the Anti-Apartheid struggle.  As we processed through the streets of Soweto with our palms, I had one of those “awesome moments.”  Here I was, singing hymns in seTswana, processing with hundreds of South Africans in the place where the struggle for freedom hit a turning point in the 1970s.  After walking a few blocks, the cold weather didn’t faze me any longer as I was taking it all in.  We then had a Palm Sunday service to remember, including three confirmations, eight baptisms and Holy Communion.  Four and half hours later, the service was over.  It was such a blessing to worship alongside our brothers and sisters in Christ, and it was a great start to Holy Week.

My home parish, Bloemfontein South, held a church service every night of Holy Week.  I could really feel the energy and excitement building as we approached the weekend.  I had always been told that Holy Week and Easter was the biggest Christian holiday in South Africa, even bigger than Christmas.  And I became a witness to it. 

As there were a lot of similarities between the liturgies and scripture, there were also differences that I have never experienced before.  Our Good Friday service began at 10am on Friday.  This was the first time I have gone to a Good Friday service in the morning.  And as I went to the service, I was anticipating the usual somber, silent and grieving themes of a Good Friday service back home.  But I was astonished to see people sing hymns with energy and praise.  There were smiles and dancing in the pews and aisles.  I sat there dumbfounded, not sure what to make of it all.  I am used to a service in silence, with the lights dimmed and people grieving.  But instead I was faced with people who were in celebration. 

After a three hour service, we broke for lunch and returned for a ‘seven stages of the cross’ type service.  There were seven readings accompanied by two to three preachers for each passage.  The readers ranged from children in Sunday school to elders in the church.  There was so much passion in their preaching, and the resonating “amens” from the congregants was constant.  After another three hours or so, we finished our Good Friday service.  As I was trying to make sense of the service, I explained to some people how my usual Good Friday services are and asked them to explain theirs.  One person stated, “We understand that Christ died today, and it is sad and we do grieve.  However, we want to celebrate the gift of life, and for God sending his only Son to save us.  Because of Jesus’ death, we are able to be here and worship.  This is something to celebrate.”  Like many things I’ve experienced in the Southern Hemisphere, my thoughts were flipped upside down.  I had never thought about it that way, and have always carried the North American mentality of extreme grief and sadness during one’s death.  There is still an emphasis placed on reflection, but rather than on one day, the entire Lenten period is a time of extreme personal reflection.  The service played to the way funerals are in South Africa, in which there is more celebration of the person’s life than of the sadness of their passing.  Now seeing this side, I was extremely excited for Easter Sunday.

And I wasn’t disappointed.  Easter Sunday was a joyous celebration and our church was filled to capacity.  There were numerous hymns and choruses sang celebrating the resurrection of Jesus and our being saved.  Hands were flung into the air praising God, and everyone was smiling and happy.  For the first time in my life, I could truly sense the meaning of Easter and feel God’s presence and grace.  The strength of the Holy Spirit on Easter Sunday was powerful, and the service was a perfect culmination of a Lenten period that will always remain with me.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Do A Little With A Lot Of Love

“We can do no great things, just small things with great love.  It is not how much you do, but how much love you put into doing it.”  Mother Teresa

This quote might just be the best quote to sum up my experience in South Africa.  I came to South Africa as someone with the mindset of, “I am going to do so many great, big things.  I’m going to change the world!”  Well I quickly learned that I was not in South Africa to ‘change the world,’ but rather to be formed and informed in ways I never could have predicted.  I have realized that doing some little things with a bit of love have actually done more than any big things could.  I’ve learned that while walking, greeting someone in their native language with a smile on my face can make someone’s day.  I try to go out of my way to greet people as they pass, and although they are often surprised, I can see how happy it has made them.  And over the course of the last seven months, I have witnessed some amazing people do amazing things.  These amazing things often took the form of little gestures, which may even go unnoticed at some points.  But for me, as an active learner, I realized that no matter how small or insignificant something may seem it can be filled with so much love that it makes a large impact. 

The last several months have given me the opportunity to get to know Peter and Petro Howe, my supervisors at Tshepo.  They have quickly become like family to me, and I can now say I have two sets of adoptive parents in South Africa!  I will often get an SMS, (or text message,) just asking how I am doing.  They ask questions, and have given me medicine when I was sick and food when I was hungry.  And although these may seem trivial, they are so important to me as I continue to live in a country far from my own.  I also see their continual love in their work.  Petro is the manager of the Tshepo Day Care Center, which provides 154 children two meals a day, clean and fully stocked classrooms, and a safe environment to play in.  The amount of work piled on her plate could discourage her from her work, but each day she tirelessly works for the betterment of the care center.  She does all of the food shopping for the care center, conducts fundraising and makes sure all of the staff are taken care of.  I often see her love for the children of the care center when we first arrive each morning.  She gets out of her car and says, “Dumelang bana!”  or “Hello children!”  And all of the children respond with “Mama! Mama!”  The children clearly reciprocate the love she showers them with.  She takes a genuine interest in the staff and the lives of everyone she knows.  Her husband Pete is someone of great love as well.  You can get a sense of who Peter is when he answers his phone when a local moruti, (pastor) calls to discuss their ministry.  He shares a jovial dialogue and will always make that extra phone call to make it work.  During the last week or two, he has been contacting bus companies nonstop about Tshepo’s upcoming Sea Trip.  He is constantly on the move, and is constantly caring for others.

“We can do no great things, just small things with great love.  It is not how much you do, but how much love you put into doing it.” 

I am a lucky guy because the love is all around me, as I am living in a loving home with caring family members.  My host mother is one of the hardest working people I’ve ever met.  It’s not rare for her to get home after work, around 6pm, cook dinner, and then continue working on her laptop.  And there are often times that she is doing something for the prayer women’s league and church as well.  She spends hours after church in meetings and helping assist in ministries in the church.  And my host father is constantly doing things for his two congregations.  But it is the little things he does that many people won’t see on Sundays that go a long way.  He has picked me and fellow volunteers up late at night from the taxi rink down town.  He has driven people to the bus station who have needed rides.  He will always make a plan and go out of his way to accommodate people when they are in a tough spot.  He does all of this for nothing. 

“We can do no great things, just small things with great love.  It is not how much you do, but how much love you put into doing it.” 

Since last January I have had the opportunity to attend weekly prayer meetings with members from my parish.  Every Wednesday evening, we will gather at a member’s house and sing hymns and discuss scripture.  Most of the time these meetings are in Sesotho, however I tend to catch enough to understand here and there.  Each and every week I am amazed by the generosity of the host.  The hosts make room for ten or more people every week in their homes and always accommodate.  And after we close, we are always served cool drink and some kind of pastry, cake or sweet.  This may not seem like a big deal, but I think it takes a lot for someone to welcome a large group of people into their home, especially people they might not even know!  And each week, the hosts put a lot into the meetings.  It serves as a great way for people to gather and spend time together.  The fellowship is wonderful, and there are always smiles and laughter after the meetings.

“We can do no great things, just small things with great love.  It is not how much you do, but how much love you put into doing it.” 

We should not forget that without love, South Africa could be a very different country than it is today.  Madiba, (Nelson Mandela,) and the other leaders during the transition from Apartheid had love in their hearts.  There was love for their enemies, for the poor, for the marginalized, and for South Africans.  This is a country where little gestures with great love happen every day.  I don’t see little acts of kindness as being small insignificant acts.  I see them as small things with great love, and I think as Americans we can learn a lot from this. 

We should never forget the power of love.  We should never underestimate love.  We should never let love disappear from our daily acts.  Our current society of political polarization, economic injustice, and war suggests we have forgotten what love really means.  But I have seen that there is hope when I witness the daily acts I see each day by people who really know how to love. 

The Apostle Paul poetically describes love in his first letter to the Corinthians when he writes:

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice its wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”  1 Corinthians 13: 4-7.

Let us not stray far from Paul’s definition of love, and let us remember that it is not how much we do, but how much love we put into doing it. 

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A Hero Lost

I am utterly and incredibly shocked.  I am deeply and greatly saddened.  I am devastated, and my soul feels an extreme feeling of loss. 

On April 4, 2011, one of my heroes, John Adler, passed away.  I continuously shake my head in disbelief whenever I think about it.  How could this happen? 

It has been difficult trying to come to grips with the reality of the situation.  And I have struggled during these few days.  I cannot be with family and friends who share the same tears of loss for John.  This has been difficult.

John Adler was a long time New Jersey Senator and the former U.S. Representative for New Jerseys third Congressional district.  I had the privilege to intern on his congressional campaign in 2008.  I became John’s driver, and accompanied him to any and every event he attended in the district during the summer.  We spent countless hours together, mostly on the road.  We rocked out to classic rock, playing the air guitar and air drums.  We listened to Howard Stern and laughed at the downright ridiculousness of the program.   We ate many meals on the road, and had lots of Wawa hoagies.  I learned more about politics, integrity, and life behind the wheel of my car that summer than I had during all my years at school.

I stayed in touch with John after his election, and despite his new position of power, John was still John.   I would occasionally send him an email saying hi, and I’d always get a response wishing all the best for me.  I’ll never forget the time I saw John on C-SPAN as the acting Speaker of the House during a session.  I sent him an email telling him I saw him on TV and, of course, John responded from his blackberry, (which I could see him doing on TV,) to tell me how much fun he was having.  That was John.  He loved life. 

I can say that I matured more during my time as John’s intern than I have in any other experience in my life.  I am who I am today because of John.  His wisdom and subtle genius helped guide me and I looked up to him as someone to emulate.  I enjoyed interning in his congressional office in 2009 and continued to learn so much about not only politics, but also myself.

Something that John did indirectly was create lifelong friendships amongst people who never knew each other before working for him.  Today, I have some incredible friendships with people I got to know while interning for John.  These are people I talk to on a regular basis, go out for a drink with, share experiences with and consider very close friends.  These are people I’d do anything for and I am so thankful for their friendship, and it wouldn’t be possible without John.  He will live on in the many friendships I’ve made with some of the most special people in my life. 

Through certain experiences in my life, I have come to the realization that everything does not happen for a reason.  There are some things in life that cannot be explained and where there are no good reasons for why they occurred.  I do not believe that God uses the pain, suffering and deaths of others to “teach us a lesson.”  I refuse to believe in a God that would do such a thing.  And that is what makes something like this so difficult.  There is no explanation for why such a great man was taken away so early in life.  The incredible loss is soul wrenching, and no matter what we do we will not be able to understand it.  This is part of life. 

I weep as I write these words, because John was simply a great man.  John was my hero.  He wasn’t just my hero for being such a hard working, self-made success.  He wasn’t just my hero for being a tremendous public servant and for taking a genuine interest in people’s issues.  He wasn’t just my hero for being an honest and fair politician.  He wasn’t just my hero because he had a deep love for his country, his constituents, and his staff.   He was my hero for being a wonderful father.  He was my hero for being a loving husband.  He was my hero because he had an unrivaled love of life.  He was my hero because he was hilarious and loved to make anyone laugh.  He was my hero because he gave me a chance.  He was my hero because he was my friend. 

The pain of losing John will never go away, but neither will the fond memories I have of his service to others.  My soul is filled with melancholy for his wife and their four boys, and I pray that the grace of God will bring them some kind of peace during this time.  I am especially upset that I cannot be home right now and am thousands of miles away from my family and friends who are mourning John’s passing.  But I am blessed with the peace of knowing that perhaps, now more than ever, I am closer to John than I’ve ever been before. 

I love you John, thank you.