Musings on Heroes

Why do we love fantasy so much? I don’t mean cosplay or Star Wars necessarily, fantasy in its broadest definition – something that is not reality. Why do we love the worlds and the heroes of fantasy that writers create? What is it about who we are and what our world is that has birthed this desire to make heroes? Katniss Everdeen, a conflicted teenage girl who becomes the Mockingjay – symbol for the revolution that eventually brings freedom to her world. Or Batman, the vigilante who saves Gotham city time and time again. The Hulk, Captain America, Superman, Spiderman, The Avengers, Thor, Wolverine, The X-men …. and the list goes on. As humans, we seem pretty adept at creating, resurrecting, sustaining and developing heroes. All of the old 2D MG comic book heroes have been resurrected in recent years, sometimes faithfully, others often not and they all have a strong fan following. Plot lines are dissected, critiqued and discussed heatedly and at length online. Are our heroes always perfect? Are they the ideal we strive for? Of course not. In many ways the rest of their non-crime-fighting lives read like something from a really bad soap opera and heroes are frequently making poor decisions in their personal lives. But perhaps this also is part of the charm? Who likes someone who is perfect? Their own perfection highlights our flaws. A hero who occasionally lets their friends down, or alienates the people who love them best is, well, they’re a lot like us. We sympathize. We root for them. Because it’s who we long to be. I know I may sound a little like a super-fan with a strong book/film-hangover, but stay with me a moment …

The physce of ‘hero’ appeals very directly to something that I believe is deep in every man and woman. The desire to be important, to be something other than what we seem. Because lets face it, how we seem is so very, very ordinary. Our lives are dull and mundane and consist of important but often boring things. We must pay the bills, earn a wage, listen to people we’d rather ignore, put up with things we’d rather not, do the dishes, hoover and go to parent-teacher evenings. Heroes do these things, but deep underneath, they have something that no one knows, a secret. This is not their real identity. This is not who they are. Oh, they do these things just like we do, but it’s a cover for the important stuff. Like saving the world, kicking bad-guy butt and generally being awesome. They are significant. Even though their worlds don’t know their identity, they are needed. They are important. Talked about. How many times, at the end of a particularly long day, full of intensely dull meetings, petty squabbles, poorly made decisions, awful traffic, with a house covered in play dough, pet hair and mud, dinner burnt, kids crying, homework assignments that all got returned covered in red ink with large D’s scrawled across the top; how many times do we long to grab a stranger and shout at them, or, whisper to the heavens through tears of frustration: “This isn’t me! This is not who I am! I am NOT this”.

But surely an over-developed desire for significance can’t be at the root of this veritable epidemic of make-believe heroes? Well, it isn’t. If we’re honest we’ll all admit that the world we live in is more than messed up, more than sick, it’s dying. Especially now when the greed of the “one percenters” has driven us into the quagmire of recession: homes repossessed, redundancies, hunger. Fresh wars every year to parade out in the headlines of the world, every year we watch misery and hunger troupe across our screens and every year we think it can’t get worse. In the West people work longer hours for less pay, and in general it has higher rates of depression and suicide … this is just in relatively safe places like America and Europe – [relatively safe because, you know …. Trump, Brexit, terrorism etc etc.]  In Africa there are a plethora of elderly dictators clinging to power, bleeding their countries dry. The ongoing war in South Sudan, the yearly quota of bloodshed from the ‘dark continent’, the whisper of genocide with a side-serving of money-laundering. In South America, the drug trade that has taken thousands of lives will continue to take even more as politicians turn a blind eye.  What about the Middle East where country names alone have become by-words for death, destruction and suffering … Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq? I could go on. And yes, I know, all countries have their problems, all cities have crime. And don’t get me wrong, there is still beauty, hope, joy … all these things. But, the big picture, well, it looks pretty bleak at the end of this year. Despite our best efforts, all we have done, said, marched about, written about, believed in, turned up for – well some days you wonder if its made any difference at all. In summary –  We. Have. Tried. And. We. Have. Failed. To. Make. This. World. A. Better. Place. To. Live.  Between increasing natural disasters and man made ones, this world is more dangerous now than when we first met it. And again, lets be honest, if any of us thinks about these things, even a little, you have to admit, the unknowns are scary. People have different reactions to things, some people cry, some people get mad.

But heroes?

They DO something about it.

They are not impotent.

They see evil and they pick up their weapons and they fight it. Every single hero we read about or watch has a crusade of some kind; some evil that they fight and seek to destroy. And we watch, knowing that we cannot make our world better, so we live through our heroes and cheer them on as they confront the darkness that eats like a cancer at their worlds. And while we do this, our world slowly rots. The temptation is to turn away, shrug, who are we to try fix this? [Besides we aren’t the problem – are we?] Who are we anyway? Boring, mundane people. Not heroes. We have no significance, so what do we do with this green-blue planet of ours that seems so full of pain?

Well, perhaps the first step is realizing that there is a blueprint for the typical hero story. And that this blueprint is tied to the core of who we were created to be. The idea that’s hardwired into the hero story and into our hearts – that we are more than we seem, is true.  All that the world sees is a shell, an exterior, but philosophers and doctors alike have known for centuries that our physical self isn’t really the essence of what makes us human. We are immortal beings trapped in mortal bodies. We are more than we seem. Our job titles, relationships and history – these don’t even come close to charting the vast wildernesses of heart and soul. We were never meant to live only in the world of the surface – we were designed for the depths. The Hero that came to save the world from the unlikely place of a dirty Judean stable, knew this.

Truth is, there is a war on for this world and good versus evil doesn’t just exist in fantasy – fantasy is a reflection of reality. But the enemy that we face is so cunning, so sly, so evil, that he has us convinced that this battle isn’t real, there are no absolutes, there is no side, no single person or thing worth fighting for. So instead, we created a fantasy world where good fights evil to explain away this longing inside us. It’s a lie. We live in a war zone where the eternal destiny of souls is at stake. And, what’s more, we are called on to take up arms and fight, by fighting our own natures, opening our arms wide when society tells us to close our doors and hearts to others who are not like us. By seeking truth, loving justice and living humbly. We are called to live like our own hero did, to love the lost and seek those that are thirsty. To lay aside opinions and anger, to choose to respond not out of fear, but out of love. Because, really, the ultimate Hero saw that this world was doomed, and he came, in disguise, on a mission to redeem it. This mission wasn’t glorious or sexy, or cool, it was messy, complex and unexpected. And it all started with a young couple, miles from home in a dirty stable – Hope incarnate, the King of the upside-down kingdom, glory cloaked by human flesh: the rescue mission for earth.

So why do we love heroes so much? Perhaps because whether we acknowledge it or not, the typical hero story resonates deep within us, it strikes a chord of truth.

 

Advertisements
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Hope-Seeds

There has been a long period of silence on this blog …. life intervened. August 2015 – crisis point, the foundations shifted and slowly everything I had known for so long, and held so dear began to change. Now, August 2016, a year later, its time. The after-shocks have ceased and as the dust settles, I have looked back to how it all started. This post is something I wrote right at the start of this journey … I am sharing it, personal as it is, because I have begun to hear more and more stories that sound a lot like mine, I am sharing this in the hope that it brings somebody somewhere some solace in knowing that they are not alone as they live out their own struggle.

August 2015.

I sit and wonder what to pray. How do I pray after my world has fallen apart? What words are there left that can possibly express this depth of sadness, plumb the bottom of the well of pain? What do you do when the unshakeable shakes?

This beautiful mess of country is a hard place to live sometimes. We Zimbabweans are well used to political turmoil and the sound that the economy makes when it crashes. We’ve become jaded as the years have gone on, no matter how cheerful and optimistic the character of the person, I feel it is fair to say that what hope we have left, what shreds of faith cling to our souls, we have not invested them in the government or the economy. Don’t get me wrong, we do not live in state of despair, we carry on life as normal, we marry, grow families, plant crops and hope with the pragmatic hope of the frequently disappointed, that things will get better. One day. No one knows how.

In the meantime we learn how to live off-grid, no, I don’t mean the yuppie idea of growing some veggies in a window box, or recycling … What I mean is learning how to live with the expectation that rubbish will not be collected on time, power cuts will occur with irritating frequency and piped water will disappear for days at a time. So we make a plan. We drill boreholes, buy generators, solar powered panels, water storage tanks ….this becomes a new type of normal. To any Zimbabwean, this is old news, something we’ve been doing for years. But there’s something else that we do, we take the tiny seeds of hope we have left and we plant them in something or someone else.

Without even realizing it, I planted my seeds in an institution. No, that’s too cold, how can I possibly describe a home from home and a second family? A place that forged my teenage self into the woman I am today. The place that I came to broken and bruised from years of bullying, the place that healed those wounds. My school. The place I came back to after years away. The day I walked back in through the familiar gates, under the flowering Jacarandas, I felt that I had truly come home. You may think it’s rather odd to describe a school as a home, to think of investing hope …. in a school? I know that I am biased, I admit it freely, but this place is more than the sum of its parts. I could describe its blend of old and new architecture, the wooden desks and peach-colored doors, the out of date loos and the screech that the junior school swings make every break – but this would barely scratch the surface of what it is. It stands for what is good, what is true. It has moulded generations of young women. It has taught more than information, it has taught knowledge. It has taught conscience, uprightness, veritas.

I thought that it would never change. Come political upsets and economic dives, this place would continue on forever. The squat peach walls would keep out the decay of a crumbling nation. The bell would still faithfully ring at 7.25 am and new generations of students would spend their afternoons dodging teachers and avoiding study. 

I was wrong.

The walls could not keep out change. And now we wait, on the edge of the storm, unable to determine if it will destroy us or change us for the better. The unshakeable is shaking, and my seeds of hope that I unwittingly planted have been ripped up at the root. Too late to realize that planting hope in a place, even the best of places, was foolish. There is no place in this world that is safe from change and decay. No place that will never disappoint.

You need to understand, this grief I feel, this sadness, it is not for myself, I know I will be alright, I have the gift of youth and the gift of a degree … These things buy me opportunity and a measure of stability. This crushing sadness and slow-burning anger is for the ones we are losing. A blind human resources audit suggests that old teachers are a bad investment and all ‘unqualified’ staff must go, time to let them go, put them out to pasture …. Human resources? What do they know about teaching? What can they know of education? Do they know that these teachers, these ‘old’ teachers, are the anchor of this school? Do they know that these women are a treasure trove of knowledge, compassion, wisdom? What of these nebulously labelled ‘unqualified’ ones – Since when did a piece of paper certify total competency in the act of loving, confronting, coaching, mothering, disciplining real-live students? And if we’re determined to measure the unmeasurable and try to quantify what cannot be quantified, then let’s look at the exam grades their classes achieve. Those speak loudly and clearly. What blindness. So we are set to lose these women, in Zimbabwe today where jobs are as rarer than 24hrs of uninterrupted power, we are to set them loose.

So as I sit quiet, aching, wondering how I pray. And as I sit, I hear that heart-whisper …

Give me your hope.

Come plant those uprooted hope-plants in my holy soil.

I will not disappoint. I will not change.

I am the unchanging and I am worthy of trust.

Trust. That word sits on my knotted up heart. The heart whisper grows louder:

This place that you love, that you serve, this place was mine before it was yours.

Let go.

Fists clenched stiff with the agony of control.

Trust that I am able to work out all things for good.

Trust that I care for the people you care for much more than human heart is capable of.

Heart stills, fists unclench. The sorrow sits lighter in my soul. Kneeling, now I know how to pray – and I write these words, not because I live them every day, no, I write them to hammer them in to my mind and heart, to remind stubborn heart and foolish head – You are my God of peace. You are my joy, my hope. You are able and willing to work through the darkness. You are a God who can be trusted. The storm will come, but the wind and waves still know your name.

Aside | Posted on by | 4 Comments

The Olive Pit

A small, dark, pitted oval

Flesh still clinging stubbornly to miniscule whorls

Unobtrusive, mundane, devoid of life

Revolutionary normality, the possibility of life hidden inside dull wood exterior.

 

Humid afternoon draws on to dusk,

Familiar oranges and flamingo-pinks stain the western sky

A cacophony of hooting rises in discordant glory

Raucous life rejoicing in chaotic exultation on potholed streets

Woodsmoke rises from battered gallon barrels on the curb

An ocean of humanity channeled down dusty courses homeward

 

It lies on the table-top, partnered with a smudged fork

And a bent toothpick.

So much of life lies in the extraordinary ordinary

We have schooled eyes to look but not see,

So focused on the inscrutable future.

But then do the seeds of the future lie dormant in our todays?

Laughter and music float up from the street

Luminous beer glows amber in sweating glasses.

 

Mind turns to other Middle Eastern white-dust pathways

Heavy noon-sun shimmers on stony ground,

Hands remember a cool wrought iron fence

Humanity held back, shuffled by ancient, gnarled wonder of the olive tree.

Thick twisted branches thrown up in divine worship,

as silvery-grey-green leaves susserated in the warm breeze.

These iron-giants have dug roots down deep into the hostile earth,

Staunchly survived the rise and fall of empires,

Thousands of dawns and dusks crown branches set in rope-like knots.

 

Once, they say, a man walked this grove,

aloof stars illumined his winding path

The divinity encased in flesh once knelt by these roots,

Soul-groans poured out onto callous soil,

These silent sentinels stood witness as the God-man embraced deceitful humanity.

 

I hold the small seed in the palm of my hand,

Sharp tip digging in to soft palm,

Was there once another girl, who held such a seed?

Who buried it, giving it over to dark earth that embraces all the dead,

That there might one day be a resurrection?

Unassuming seed dying, transforming, becoming

Always becoming.

 

The clatter of plates collected,

the murmuring tides of conversation,

The dying light of an anonymous day,

the seed,

the god-man,

the death,

the life,

the hope.

 

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Thoughts on Easter

It seems so fitting somehow that the men who followed you and loved you and learnt from you and emulated you were not there at your death. It was the women instead. The women who had followed you from Galilee who we know so little about. I wish I knew more about them, these women. Who were they? What did they give up, to leave their homes to follow a band of dusty men to wash for, cook for, tend to … but as still seems to be the way with life, no matter how far gender equality and feminism take us towards and more often away from the ideal, women who are there at the beginning of life are also there at its close. The men take up the space in the middle with noise and chaos, but it is the women who ease the coming and the going. And how much more appropriate that it was first to a woman that you made your resurrection, your new birth, known. A woman who with a heart overburdened with sorrow, came through the garden, dew clinging to the hem of her skirt as the tears clung to the lashes of her eyes. I don’t know whether she was old or young, beautiful or plain, thin or comfortable-looking. I don’t know whether life had been kind to her or if she had been bruised by many storms, but I do know that it was to her that the angel spoke those words that echo down through the ages like gentle thunder, strong enough to break a bone, gentle enough to shake a soul to its core – ‘He is not here. He has risen!’

A victory cry; that the God of all creation, who was and is and shall be forever more, had come, and bled and died for his own creation. Shattered, beaten and scorned by his own creatures, shamed by the ones he fashioned and breathed life into. These divine monsters, formed in his image, scarred and mutilated by sin, minds twisted, souls shriveled. Yet he hung on the tree, counting every drop of precious blood that once and forever cancelled the debt that this creation owed Him. The debtor, who knowing this debt could not be cancelled, paid it himself. The God who is forever, died. Voluntarily. But death could not hold him, sin could not sully him. HE. IS. NOT. HERE. HE. IS. RISEN! All the powers of hell, evil far stronger than man can imagine, once and for all defeated. Finally and completely.

The war that was waged for the destiny of these broken creatures that He formed and loved, that the enemy longed so to steal, was over. The captives were freed with the price of one perfect life. And she knelt, trembling with fear. Did she understand? Could she begin to imagine what this meant? She came to care for a broken body and found instead that death had died. That Life, life bigger and stronger and more real than this interlude that we immortal beings walk on this planet, had won. The curse was broken and, I imagine, heaven holding its breathe, waiting like a midwife for the birth, the saints gathered and watching, the angels waiting, let out a mighty shout, a roar that echoes through eternity. HE IS RISEN! History forever rewritten.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

For weary souls who’d rather not celebrate another year

Another year ends. The weight of dreams unachieved, hopes still not realized and promises not kept fall like dry leaves, swirl around my feet. Is this why we end the year in celebration? Balloons, champagne, loud music and the countdown …. Happy new year! We dance and laugh so we do not feel these things. Feel that we were not enough. That we failed, that others let us down and that this year was really like any old year. It whispered by, just as this coming year will. We make resolutions we know we will not keep and we swallow the gospel of positive thinking … try harder, stretch further, do more, be more.

But why is it that we never pause long enough to savor the year that’s gone? Why is it that we look instead at what was not. The things that failed. People who left. The darkest corners of a soul that is less than what we had hoped to make it into 365 days ago. We see only what was not and not what was. Each year brings ugliness and beauty, sadness and joy – instead of looking forward to make resolutions why not look back at what was? Sometimes the weight of resolutions feels like just another way of setting ourselves up to fail. Again. We cannot blot out the big pains and small acts of pettiness but we can search for beauty in their midst. Beauty is a matter of perspective. When I was 14, taking the train from Joburgh to Cape Town, we slowly slipped past a field of plastic shacks and tiny tin-roofed houses, far as the eye could see. Water stood still in puddles, reflecting the iron-grey sky, people turned to watch the train pass, small children watched us with solemn eyes. The ground between the road and the walkway was littered with plastic, rubbish, broken bikes, a small child defecating … I thought to myself that this was the saddest, most hopeless place I had ever seen. The smell of stagnant water and … something … made me gag. Suddenly in the iron-grey clouds parted and a small finger of sunlight fell through, pointing straight to a patch of pinky-red flowers growing in the filth. My mother whispered to me, “beauty is always there, you just have to choose to look for it”.

And this is what I hold tight to. Beauty is there, joy is there, we just have to learn to see it. So as the old year dies, I choose to look back and see the ordinary beauties and blessings: Moments of peace …walking in the rain in the blue of an evening. Traffic is dulled by the hiss and whisper of rain …. The black lace of tree-silhouettes against the fading sunset …. The gentleness of rooibos …. Birds that sing the sun to sleep …. Frogs chasing flying-ants across the lawn … Jane Austen. She makes me feel as if I have come home …. Numerous teas with old friends …. A job that is never predictable or boring …. The joy of friendships that feel like warm hugs …. My sister’s face-creasing, gut-shaking laughter, joy like a cascade of sound, infectious … jet black cats with golden luminescent eyes who chirp in the night corridors …. Apple crumble for breakfast … great big brother hugs that hold on tight … unexpected wisdom in staff meetings … vendors who dance at traffic lights … a girl who has nothing who gave me all of her dog-eared, tattered ZIMSEC papers for my next lot of O-level students … selfless love in unexpected places … grace when I deserve it least.

All of these things and more. They are ordinary, but never mundane, these are the everyday beauties that have lit my days. Sometimes we need to look back at where we have been in order to see the road ahead more clearly. It is only when we do this that we can whisper deep to our souls, thus far the Lord has bought us. The year ahead may be unclear, uncertain but we remember the long old path we’ve already walked. We remember God’s faithfulness and so with this we can look ahead with hope.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The issue of melanin

Being white and being Zimbabwean was problematic when I left home to go to university. Every child accepts their reality as normal and ordinary and so it came as quite a surprise when people who I met in the UK asked me ridiculous things like “your English is so good, how did you learn it?”, “so do you live in (long pause) houses?!” and of course, insultingly, “you can’t possibly be Zimbabwean, you’re white” (perhaps they thought we didn’t have mirrors in Zimbabwe?)

Perhaps, understandably, you are wondering how I could possibly grow up being racially unaware in a country like Zimbabwe where there is still so much suspicion and hatred between the races. Simply, I was blessed with a liberal family, a racially diverse church and a school where the only thing that mattered was your loyalty to the school itself. I was taught to be racially unaware. The school that I attended was unique in many ways, it was a strictly “no-politics zone” and it genuinely did not matter whose father was rich and whose was poor, what colour you were or what religion you were … all that mattered was that you belonged to the school, with all the pride and regulations that came with it! This gave us the freedom to choose friends based on who people were rather than what they looked like and these choices became a part of who we were growing up to be.

However as the dark clouds of politics began hovering over the horizon in the twilight of my childhood, I began to feel uncomfortable and scared by the newspaper headlines. Headlines like “Whites told to go home” made me question well, everything. I did not understand. Where was my “home” meant to be? For the first time I began to feel guilty for the way I looked, for who I was. It seemed that I was unwanted, bad, guilty by association. I began to notice how the soldiers stationed outside some of the official buildings in town sometimes called out names, most of the time I didn’t understand, but the look in their eyes was easy to translate, faces twisted with hatred and disgust. As I walked around our neighborhood, the comments from combi drivers, hurled like trash out of open windows floated down to clutter the littered verges of my heart. I had been taught and had understood the injustices, the evils, the cruelties of slavery and colonialism, the ongoing inequalities that had resulted from this history and now I began to internalize that by being white in Africa, in the minds of many I was implicitly linked to these atrocities. I was white. No denying it. I was Zimbabwean – but was I? Could I belong to a nation that did not want me? If I was not Zimbabwean then who was I?

Fast forward several years …. In 2011 I moved back to Zimbabwe, no longer a teen, now a woman, with a suitcase full of dreams and hopes. I started teaching and quickly fell in love with the profession and with the moody, ridiculous, hilarious, heart-wrenching teenage girls that I taught. Teaching literature means that you have a license to tackle the difficult, prickly topics of life and so of course race came up. Being true to my liberal upbringing and lefty-liberal education I dealt with it in a suitably objective and detached way, acknowledging wrongs and speaking of history, the past, times long gone. However, living in Zimbabwe, back in this beautiful and broken country that was both my past and my present, race refused to stay in the neat, academic box I had built for it. Its ugly tentacles crept into everyday life. I began to see society with new adult eyes and began to notice small things that, when put together, made up a distorted and twisted picture of the way that society – no, lets not hide behind fanciness, we, functioned when it came to issues of melanin.

The school that I teach at has a racially mixed staff and most of the students cover the milk to dark chocolate end of the colour spectrum. I was initially confused when well-meaning people would ask “What is School X like now? I hear its changed”, “How do you deal with the …. (awkward pause) culture change in School X?” Confusion quickly turned to anger when I realized that what they were asking is how I could teach in a largely black school. How dare they? How could they possibly think that this was an issue? This was compounded when I spoke to some parents (of both African and Caucasian persuasion) about where they would be sending their children for high school, they told me that their children would go where white children went because a school with white children was a cultured, wealthier, classier institution. At the same time, I began to notice that certain areas of the city were devoid of people of colour (unless they were waiting tables) and friends who dated across the colour barrier were often criticized or shunned outright.

Then, finally, there came the proverbial drop of water that burst the dam …. I was working with a group of underprivileged girls, many had suffered horrific trauma in their lives, they had lived through things that I cannot begin to imagine or articulate with any justice … we sat in the weak sun of an early winters morning, warming our backs, one girl shyly touched my hair, her friend joined her, then another asked if she could touch my skin, I agreed, curious about where this was going. I asked no questions. Finally one of them said “I wish I had your hair. I want your skin.” My indignation was high, who had told these girls that white skin was better? More beautiful? Then, suddenly, the implications of what she had said hit me. I could not speak past the lump in my throat. She wanted my skin because of what it stood for, because of the benefits that it had bought me. Because she was poor and black she had suffered terribly. Because I was white, well-educated and well-connected I was protected. White privilege. Race is inextricably intertwined with class, wealth and status, most especially in Africa.

Several weeks later the topic was raised in one of my lessons and I decided to speak openly about the idea of white privilege. I was stunned by the response I got. My students were excited, engaged and in some cases, even emotional. We went way over time in that lesson, and I don’t regret one minute of it. By engaging in an open conversation I had legitimized the injustices they had seen, I made it ok to talk about it. The conversation moved from perceptions of beauty to self-image to accepting and celebrating culture and tradition instead of shunning it as backward. I don’t know what they took away individually from that lesson, but I hope that I gave them the courage to address wrongs and speak about them freely, I hope that they saw that all white people are not the same, I hope they saw that injustice is never right regardless of the colour of the perpetrator or the victim, I hope they learned that stereotypes are misleading, I hope they learned to critically listen to the many and varied voices that speak into their lives. I hope that they learned to treat others with grace.

Where does one finish a post like this? I’m not sure. I don’t think there can ever be a succinct, punchy ending. No, this issue is too painful, too messy, too present to have a conclusion just yet. What do we do about this? What is my responsibility in the face of the simultaneous condemnation and, in some quarters, secret sycophantic worship of all things European? To be honest I don’t have one answer. Perhaps the most important thing is to sidestep the defensive guilt that is so easy to fall into after such a revelation. To realize that no one is labeling you as evil by association just by pointing out that white privilege exits. We need to realize that when the dialogue about race is polarized into the categories of “angry militant people of colour” and “laid back, forward-thinking Caucasian citizens of the world”, we ALL lose. To see that this viewpoint undermines those who are seeking to address a legitimate problem.

Maybe by speaking openly, honestly in non-politicized dialogue we can learn to ask better questions. To be unafraid in calling out injustices on either side of the colour bar and in those conversations when other white people begin to speak of “them”, call them out, ask innocently, naively, who “they” are? When people speak of “cultural differences” ask if they mean race. (Its amazing how quickly this kills conversations.) When you are reduced to the lack of pigmentation in your skin, to respond with grace, to see the history of hurt that lies in the heart of the speaker, to realize that at the bottom of hate, there always lies hurt and fear. To realize that with your response you can begin to rewrite history, you can begin to change the melanin-stigmatism that so many people see through – black and white. I do not have the answers, but maybe this is a good place to start?

Posted in Uncategorized | 27 Comments

The Starfish Throwers …

Recently living and working in Zimbabwe has made me start thinking about life and all the expectations I had when I arrived back home. I’m in my fourth year of teaching and despite LOVING my job, LOVING my life here, well, I’m weary – and in case you think about I’m about to embark on a first-world whinge stay with me a moment, its about something deeper than the externals …..

I am tired of waking every morning and trying to “be the change you want to see” …. I am weary of working in the imperfect, corrupt system that is Zimbabwe …. I am bone-shatteringly soul weary of the big eyes and open hands that greet me at every intersection, of hearing about the abuse that one of my students suffers at home but being unable to do anything about it because there are no social services to call and so I send her home, back into her situation because …. Well, because this country is broken and however hard I try, I cannot fix it.

I am all cried out from seeing the injustice, the cruelty, the greed, the sheer inhumanity that man is capable of. My soul feels bruised from the daily inhumanities that those I love suffer. My life is comfortable, but theirs is a battle. And that hurts. Survival is a battle in a system that seems forever rigged so that the voiceless will never be given the right to speak. And this makes it worse. I do not even share in their pain, I only witness it.

I am standing with the weary ones whose arms are tired from trying to turn the tide and the question that is knocking around inside my brain is “what do you do when the idealism has gone?” Four years ago I arrived with an energy and enthusiasm, like a modern Nehemiah to rebuild the broken walls of my beautiful Zimbabwe. Now, here I am kneeling in the ruins, hands bloodied and God, how long? How long do we have to work on this wall? How long must we bear witness to the destruction of a land and a people that I love?

I arrived back home at the same time as one of my closest friends, we were both eager wall-builders, fresh out of university and full to the brim with the shiny new theories we’d learnt and so we set to work. Her field is different to mine, but the aim was always the same – rebuild the wall. I had tea with her this week and I reminded her about the starfish story that we sometimes told each other when our spirits were flagging in the past ….. I’m sure you know it, its done the rounds on the inspirational speaking circuit, just as a reminder:

Once upon a time, there was an old man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach every morning before he began his work. Early one morning, he was walking along the shore after a big storm had passed and found the vast beach littered with starfish as far as the eye could see, stretching in both directions.

Off in the distance, the old man noticed a small boy approaching.  As the boy walked, he paused every so often and as he grew closer, the man could see that he was occasionally bending down to pick up an object and throw it into the sea.  The boy came closer still and the man called out, “Good morning!  May I ask what it is that you are doing?”

The young boy paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean. The tide has washed them up onto the beach and they can’t return to the sea by themselves,” the youth replied. “When the sun gets high, they will die, unless I throw them back into the water.”

The old man replied, “But there must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference.”

The boy bent down, picked up yet another starfish and threw it as far as he could into the ocean. Then he turned, smiled and said, “It made a difference to that one!”

So we’d say to each other, “we’re the starfish throwers, we may not save them all but we can make a difference to one” … but what happens when the starfish throwers realize that the big storm that threw these myriad starfish-souls onto the beach was not a one-off event? What happens when the starfish-throwers realize that the ocean current is set in such a way that starfish will ALWAYS be beached? What then? And over tea and tears we realized that perhaps what the Nehemiah’s, the would be game-changers, change-makers, starfish-throwers must realize is that what God has asked them to live is a glorious and dreadful calling – perhaps the part of the story they left out was that the young boy returned day after day to the beach and as he threw each tiny starfish life back into the ocean, he wept for the thousands he’d never reach and he kept walking, dawn till dusk, exhaustion making each step a small victory. He wept and prayed to the God that is the God of the storm and the God of the starfish, he prayed that God would still the storm, knowing full well that it may not happen in his lifetime. Trusting with each tiny starfish-soul in his hands that this one would be saved. Perhaps also, it is the weariness that comes from viewing a sin-filled world and so often my only response to it is to clench my fists and like a child, shout that this isn’t fair. Its not fair.

So when the idealism has worn off and the shiny glow that comes with trying your best to make a positive change in the world around you begins to dim, perhaps what we are called to is to stand witness, to look into the face of pain, of hunger, of suffering and to say to each of them “I see you” – to do the best you can to heal and love and provide, knowing it won’t ever be enough and to build all of this on the painful, hope-filled knowledge that this story isn’t over yet. The ending hasn’t been written. The God of storms and the God of the starfish holds the pen and he writes the tale and while we live out the daily struggle there is still hope because ITS. NOT. OVER. And having done all, we stand.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

For Gran

On Sundays I often think about my grandmother. Its been some time since she died on a golden Sunday afternoon, but 3pm almost always makes me stop to think and I’ve often thought about this – this setting of pen to paper, how to tell the story that is my grandmother, how to explain in the wake of tides of emotion that her life was the bedrock that my childhood happiness was built on?

My grandmother was a fierce woman, with black eyebrows that flared over the thin red slash of her lipstick. She was never a woman of halves, passionate anger or gales of laughter – these were the forces that drove her. To me, she was larger than the universe and wiser than time itself. She knew the answer to every general knowledge question I ever got given and she told the most bewitching stories. As a small child, freshly bathed, hair slicked back, I would sit and listen to her stories of riding her horse through Fern Gully, adventures in an enchanted place called “the outback”. Her most famous attribute was of course her cooking, if her stories were bewitching, her food was simply magical. While she cooked up impossibly fancy feasts for the Merchant Bank, she also seemed to have an instinctual knowledge of what small children wanted most – mini hamburgers and thin fries, all of which we’d eat on a brown rug in front of her TV.

It was one of the things I will remember most about Gran – she loved us passionately, she fed us the most amazing meals and then, as children most desire, she left us to our own devices and we would roam through her dusty garden, balancing on rocks that, in our minds, were the backs of Hippos as we crossed the mighty Zambezi. We would go exploring through the long grass of next door and come back with tiny treasures of fluffy pink bunny grass and sparkling quartz – all to be exhibited proudly, the spoils of war! Gran was passionate about us, her grandchildren, she once bought us back some Merchant Bank caps branded MBCA – which she told us stood for Most Beautiful Children’s Association. I believed her long after I was old enough to know better.

My grandmother was a rebel long before it was popular to be one. She was strong enough to stand a lonely and sad childhood, strong enough to survive being ripped away from those she loved and transplanted in a strange country, strong enough to marry the man she loved in the face of her fathers anger, strong enough to give birth to, love and discipline three daughters, strong enough to live for three years when the doctor gave her three months. She was a fighter. But her strength never made her oblivious to the weak, she was always on the side of the underdog, she rooted for those who no one else supported.

She was with me through my life, the one constant in the ever-changing. In many ways, as her life was her gift of love to us, lived out in large meals and meandering conversations on the verandah, her death was a gift too. It pulled us, from all corners of the globe, back to the hill. We sat vigil, talking, eating, crying, laughing. Then, whilst we slept, exhausted by the waiting, you slipped away. No dramatics, no fireworks. As the air cooled and the golden sun began to cast its thick, honeyed light through the branches of the msasa tree, you went home. Weeks later as we sat again in your bedroom, sorting through draws I found a stack of paper …. all the cards I had ever sent you. Childishly drawn ones, terrible poems, funny pictures of cats, you kept them all. You kept them all. You lived your life expansively and though you are gone, you live on in our hearts and memories. She is in every pot of Lena’s mustard, she is in the changing of the msasa’s and the magic of dusk. She will live on in the stories I will tell my children one day, about their wild, headstrong great-grandmother who lived in the magic outback and came over the waters to Africa.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

The frost

Why are you back?

Your memory banished to the darkest, dustiest depths of my soul

Resurfaced.

Summoned by wood smoke on the cool evening air.

You are reborn

In the gold of the sunset clouds as they birth the darkness of night.

I see you

Walking down the street, your name rises to frozen lips.

You turn. It is not you.

Tears, unbidden, gather and, forbidden, do not fall.

 

Why won’t you leave?

As blowsy summer gives way to the chill of autumn, so leave me to my winter;

Frozen –

As you are in time, young and carefree. How you would have laughed at me,

Locked in silence

As if I too am pressed down by the weight of earth that blankets you in a warm embrace.

Too serious

Unable to let life’s ocean bear you away and forgive time’s deceit

But yet,

Winter is not so bad. There is beauty too in the frost.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Faith that wears dusty sandals

I wonder what would happen if we could all say what we wanted to say? Without fear of what others would think, without the constant tension in our souls, as we balance on a precipice between what we want people to think of us and the person who we really are. Pause a minute to let that settle on your heart …. whisper it, The Real Me. No masks, no hiding, no smoke, no mirrors. What would happen if we put aside our fears, laid down our defenses and spoke from our souls? I mean really spoke from deep down, filled our lungs full to bursting point with bravery and sang our own song instead of trying to mimic everyone else’s?

It seems the world is so busy promoting individuality that we all become homogenous in our uniqueness. In other words, despite the media, the stars, the reality-TV wanna-be’s, who champion individuality, its business-as-usual and who we are is STILL only acceptable if we fit certain standards, live by certain set social norms. This world is only comfortable if it can label you like a museum exhibit and stick you on display in a glass case that will freeze you in time. In a world filled to the brim with broken and overflowing with dissatisfaction and emptiness, its so seldom that we meet brave souls who live without scar tissue standing in the way of feeling and experience the world as it really is. To some extent we all, (to borrow a phrase from my mama), “see the world through our bruises” – that is, reality becomes distorted.

So, I’m a Christian. Yes, I know, its ok you can go ahead and say it. I know the connotations, the bad experiences, the injustices, the small mindedness, the evil acts, the hatred and sometimes the downright plain old weirdness attached to that word. Christian. And I want to say that if you think you know me based on the label … you’re wrong. I’m not perfect (so far from it that the idea is laughable) and nor will I ever pretend that I have my life together with everything sorted out; I frequently do not. I am not preachy and nor do I think that I have a one-size-fits-all cure for the ills of the world. So that’s what I DON’T believe.

What do I believe?

Why do I believe?

Its pretty simple, the Jesus that I met on the pages of the New Testament changed me and the way I view the world. Forever. The God-man who was born into poverty, in a stable full of animals in a city that wasn’t his own. A God-man who walked this dusty, pain-darkened earth and talked to real people. LOVED real people. CHOSE real people. Chose the least, the lesser, the despised, the broken. He walked with prostitutes, the disabled, the poor, women, children, social outcasts and the very God of the universe whose hands molded the earth, breathed life into being, chose to reveal himself to the least and the lesser.

And in keeping with that theme …. He chose me.

Given this, given that the church is meant to be a reflection of an earthly-work-in-progress of the God we worship, why is it that in our churches that there is such an epidemic of image-conscious cool Christians? Since when was it ever part of our faith to worry about the externals, to care about our images and to airbrush our public profiles? Why do we laugh at those who don’t fit in, who choose to be different? Since when did the God-man we follow choose the cool, the clean, the well-off …. So why have these things begun to taint how we view people? The church should be a place where the broken and the bruised of the world come together to meet and love to share the healing and wholeness that comes when we let our brokenness show, because as Henri Nouwen said so eloquently, “it is only in our own brokenness that we can be relevant to the fragmentation of others”. The church should be a place where its ok to be different, to be truly unique. Far, far too often the church becomes an extension of high school … the cool kids and the outsiders, the in-group and the losers. Remember the God-man who spoke to the in-crowd about whitewashing exteriors and leaving the interiors full of rotting corpses, the whitewashed tombs are still here today …. They just wear skinny jeans instead of robes.

No more. Faith is either real or its not, there are no half measures … so as for me, if my people have hurt you, forgive me, forgive us. Please forgive us. Because isn’t the truth that we are ALL a little broken somewhere? We are, none of us, perfect. None of us. And if we have the courage to show each other our cracks, our bruises, shine daylight into the dark cupboards of our hearts where shame dwells, dispel our fear, in doing so we leave room for healing. We leave room for the future. We leave room for a relationship with the God-man who came looking for the broken and the lost, who came seeking the sinners and the imperfect. And when we find Him we may find the courage to sing our own songs.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment