Monday, July 7, 2008

A Lesson in Perspective

I do not enjoy cold weather. Even though I was born and raised in Wisconsin, endured countless frigid days on the “frozen tundra”, and experienced great amounts of snow and ice, I simply do not like cold weather. I do not like it at all. When someone asks why I dislike the cold even though I spent so many years within it, I simply respond, “…it’s like being a professional boxer. Even though you get punched in the face for many years, you never really learn to enjoy it.”

After several years of tropical conditions in Guyana, I am now faced with a drop in temperatures for the first time since the winter of 2004 (...in South Africa, the coldest months are June and July). While it will not get anywhere near as cold as a Wisconsin winter (thank God for that!), it will certainly be much cooler than what I have grown accustomed to over the past years. And so, while our initial months here in South Africa were quite warm, lately the sun is not quite as hot, the nights are longer, and our first South African winter is now upon us. Waking in the morning seems a bit more difficult, staying underneath the warm bed covers feels increasingly appealing, and finding motivation to take our morning jog is getting to be quite a challenge.

A few weeks ago I received a perfect example of how much I despise cold weather. It was a Saturday night, and because I would be waking early for worship the next morning, I tried my best to get to sleep early. However, even though I lay in bed at an early hour, regardless of my repeated efforts, I simply could not fall asleep. It was too cold! Like the majority of homes here in South Africa, ours does not have central heating or a fireplace, so we are forced to use numerous blankets, fleece pants, sweatshirts, and a few space heaters. And so, after a few hours of laying awake in bed, I eventually left the room, sat by the television under my multitude of layers, and I thought about how miserable I was in the cold. “Woe is me”, I thought! “Woe is me!” As you can imagine, when it was finally time to leave the house for worship on Sunday morning, I was not exactly “alive with the Spirit”. It was a cold and raining start to the day. I had barely slept. The short jog and warm shower did not seem to help. I felt dead.

And then, within a few short minutes, it happened. Although I had spent most of the night in my personal “pity party”, during our ride to worship I was given a healthy dose of reality, and a much needed drink of perspective.

As Kristen and I drove to Imbali Lutheran Church, we passed the thousands of tin shacks that line the rural township streets surrounding Pietermaritzburg. We could not help but notice the crowd of people who, dressed in their “Sunday’s best”, walked to their respective congregations in the rain and cold. While Kristen and I were protected from the elements in our vehicle, the greater majority of others were not. As we had spent our Saturday night in a well constructed home that shielded most of winter’s burdens, those whom we saw marching their congregations had not been so fortunate. To say the least, I was reminded of how blessed I am, I was convicted in my lack of appreciation, and most of all, I was disturbed and angered by how unjust it is that so many have to live in such terrible conditions. And of course, that Sunday morning I quietly wondered to myself, would I, and ordained Lutheran pastor, be so committed to walk to church in the cold and rain? Would I go and give thanks to God if I were spending each night in a cold and wet tin shack? Yes indeed, a challenging dose of perspective is what I needed that Sunday morning. A challenging does of perspective is exactly what I received. And amazingly, all this happened before we arrived for worship.

Once we arrived in the sanctuary and found places to sit, my Sunday morning “lesson in perspective” not only continued, but it intensified. Although the weather was cold and raining, and even though most people had to walk significant distances through terrible weather on little sleep and not enough food, the worship service at Imbali was as Spirit-filled as ever. It was amazing! Cold, wet, tired, and hungry South African Lutheran Christians of all ages filled the worship space to capacity. As is the case every Sunday, they were singing like angels, dancing like birds, and smiling as if each and every one of them had all the blessings one could ever hope for. Kristen and I were totally humbled by the experience, we were reminded of what it means to give thanks to God, and shown an example of faith in the life to come, but also hope for something better in the life to be lived here and now. I have attended many worship services in my young life, but I cannot think of one that was more inspiring. I have little clue as to what the preacher said that morning (…my Zulu language training has a long way to go!), but God certainly spoke through the amazing and resilient faithfulness of the people in the pews.

Through the people of Imbali, I was reminded that while there are many here in South Africa who are financially impoverished and lack many of the daily necessities and opportunities I often take for granted (…and I believe there is much that we – from a powerful nation – can do to reduce global poverty and bring increased balance to the power structures in our world), there are many here in South Africa who are spiritually wealthy, and I believe there is much that we – from what many would label a “spiritually impoverished” nation – can do to learn. By stepping outside of our comfort zones and walking alongside those whom live in situations much different from what we have always known, not only do we allow ourselves to be exposed to the needs and desires of others, and not only are we urged to assist in any way we can, but we are also reminded of the many needs and desires which we hold inside our own hearts and minds, and we are reminded of the need to receive assistance from others.

As Kristen and I continue to reflect upon the Global Mission of the E.L.C.A., our role in South Africa, and the meaning of what it is to “accompany” our various new friends in this place, we remember that we all are impoverished in some way, and it is through the transformation of relationships around the world that God “balances the scale” and lifts us all out of our various forms of poverty. Whether it is financial poverty, spiritual, physical, or mental, Jesus calls us to help set the poor free. However, while sometimes “the poor” are those around us, at other times “the poor” are what we see in the mirror. Thankfully, as God’s love is shown through accompaniment, we may acknowledge the poverty around us and within us, seek to defeat it, and ultimately, be set free.

Thank you for the ongoing love and support.

With peace and love,

Brian Konkol