01 May 2011

A Letter for Easter

I wrote this letter to my home congregation in Pennsylvania for the Easter Season.

Easter greetings from Durban!

My Easter holiday season has been absolutely wonderful so far. I attribute this in part to the fact that I have been 100% healthy the past few days and on the go ever since.

My Easter observance started when the Durban Central Parish Easter Rally started on Thursday evening. We had a Holy Communion service with a foot-washing ceremony included. Jesus provided a model of leadership based on being a servant to others. The foot-washing ceremony served as a powerful reminder to me of what my whole year in South Africa is all about.

Good Friday started off bright and early waiting for the taxi at 5:30am. The taxi didn't end up leaving until 6:45, but I got to the Ecumenical Good Friday service at the ICC just in time to hear the sermon. The most powerful part of the service was the procession through town to the city hall following the cross. I don't know how many thousands of people were marching through town with us, but it was certainly a unique and powerful experience for me.

Later on during the day, we had a service on the seven words of Jesus. Each congregation had one member reflect on one of the seven words for 10-15 min. The reflection that stuck with me the most was the one on "It is finished." The speaker cast it in the light of Jesus' work on Earth being finished. He then asked us to reflect on whether we have been true to God, become who we are supposed to be, and accomplished all that God has laid out for us during our time on Earth. If Jesus came today, would we be ready to go with him? Or would we have regrets of things we wish we had gotten to?

Easter Saturday began at noon for me and went straight through until 9am Easter Sunday. Now, this time wasn't all just one big church service. Most of Saturday afternoon and early evening was devoted to other, supporting activities. We had a time slot specifically dedicated to allowing groups to sing songs for the parish. During this time period, I offered a rendition of the Lord's Prayer. We also had a spirited debated on whether to classify social media as a blessing, or a curse. Now, my understanding was limited to the portions that were spoken in English (rather than isiZulu) and gauging the crowd's reaction to points made, but I gathered that both sides were making strong points. In the early evening, we watched a movie called The Cross and the Switchblade. The film was based on a true story about a small-town Pennsylvania preacher who went to New York City in the 1970's to work with gangs. The movie was a powerful reminder that love can always overcome hate and violence.

The serious praise and worship started around 10PM on Saturday. My favorite part of this time period happened at midnight. We started outside of the church in the grass near the road. We lit candles and proceeded to follow the cross back into the church bringing the light back. What followed was 30-45 min of pure exuberance as we sang chorus after chorus and everyone was dancing ecstatically. I wish I had had a video camera to record the pure joy of the moment. We had a long revival afterwards until about 5am. For those unfamiliar with what a revival is, it is essentially a period of time of singing choruses (short, repetative songs sung by the assembly for a few minutes each, usually including specific dances that go with them), with 5-10 minute testimonials or mini-sermons on various biblical texts given by various people within the assembly.

The main Easter Sunday service started at 5:30am. The service included the installation of members of one of the leagues of the church, IMbokodo.  The service was beautiful in many ways. The traditional Zulu service components made the service musically and spiritually beautiful. The sunrise gradually brightening the sanctuary made the service visually beautiful as well.

Overall, my Easter observance was long and exhausting, but worth absolutely every second! I was reinvigorated and felt the most alive I have felt in a long time. I have also had a chance to reflect upon what Easter is all about.

In Jesus' time, the Jewish authorities were obsessed with following a strict religious code. They felt that self-righteous adherence to this strict code would justify them and help to save them. Instead, they were missing the point of God's Law, which was to love one another and God as much as ourselves. Indeed, by trying to empower themselves for their own justification, they created a system which was oppressing others and going against the point of God's Love. Furthermore, no matter how hard they tried to justify themselves, they would always fall short.

Jesus' death and resurrection has provided a solution for the problems created with the self-righteous, self-justification system. We no longer have to worry about falling short of God's grace. Since nothing we do is ever going to be good enough to achieve salvation by ourselves, we are liberated from our bondage to our attempts at justification. Instead, we are empowered to love boldly without having to worry about whether our actions violate some strict religious code. Through grace, God has taken back the power of the Law which has always been love. I am grateful everyday for this wonderful gift God has granted us.

This Easter season is the perfect opportunity for us to take advantage of the freedom to love boldly. We should ask ourselves a few questions. How am I loving boldly? Is there any act of love I have the opportunity to pursue, but have been too afraid to do? What in my life is keeping me from loving others? God has granted us a gift; we should use it.

Peace be with you always!

04 March 2011

Lessons Learned Teaching Bible Stories in a Creche

One of the tasks I've recently taken on in the creche where I work is to teach weekly Bible stories to the children. I've never tried to teach Bible stories to a single child before, let alone 45 children at a time, so I've learned a lot of valuable lessons during my first few weeks of teaching Bible stories.

I try to have a typical lesson follow a general outline. The first thing I try to do is a very short review of the story we did the previous week. Then I tell the story for the current week. As I'm telling the story, I try to gauge how well the children are following along by asking questions periodically throughout the storytelling. Finally, I have the children do two pieces of handwork/craft. The first piece is usually part of a longer term project. The second piece usually relates to the story of the week. I started with the creation story and have been working my way somewhat chronologically through the Bible. The most recent story was the giving of the Ten Commandments.

Hopefully, by now, the general idea of what I've been doing is clear and I can move on to the lessons I've learned while teaching Bible stories to children in the creche.

Lesson 1: It is ok to not read a story word for word. When I first started reading stories to the children at the creche, I stuck to the printed story word-for-word and wondered why the children did not seem quite as engaged as when Sandra would read a story to them. After observing Sandra more, I realized that she often would paraphrase the stories and would adapt the stories to fit the situation as much as possible. So, I decided to follow Sandra's good example and have tried to become much freer with my storytelling and less constrained to the printed word. I've noticed a considerable improvement in the children's engagement with my stories and consider this lesson well learned.

Lesson 2: Make sure the moral of the story is clear. This may seem like an obvious thing, but when I first started telling stories to the children, I did not bother to emphasize the morals of the stories. The children liked my stories, but they did not seem to retain the stories much past the day of telling. One week, I unintentionally slipped in a quick moral recap at the end of the story. The next week, I was shocked at how much better the children seemed to recall the story. I was forced to conclude that making the moral of the story clear enabled the children to retain the story for a much longer time. Since that week, I've been making the moral clear. So far, it seems to be working to help with retention of the stories.

Lesson 3: Keep it brief. I suppose this lesson is a combination of common sense and experience. Common sense would seem to dictate that the shorter and more to the point a story is, the more the children will enjoy the story. Common sense has been backed up by my experiences. I've noticed that the children seem to have an attention span of about 10 minutes. Any longer than that and they have to be really engaged in order to pay attention. This means that the window for the entirety of my lesson (excluding handwork) is about 5-10 minutes. When choosing the stories for each week, I have to weigh the main points and decide what parts of the story, if any, should be skipped in order to maintain brevity. I am still experimenting with my target time, but I also try to get a feel for how the children are reacting to my story and adjust accordingly.

Lesson 4: Planning is key. Before beginning my Bible story lessons for the creche, I never really appreciated all of the planning that goes into each lesson. I have had various amounts of preparation for my lessons so far, and my best lessons have been the ones I have prepared for the most. This may seem like a simple thing, but it still took me a while to learn. I missed one day of planning for my most recent lesson due to illness. Let's just say that lesson was probably the least successful of my lessons so far. Maybe with time I'll need less preparation for lessons, but at this stage, preparation is probably the biggest single factor determining the success of a lesson for me.

Lesson 5: Find ways to involve the children in the lesson. As much as children may enjoy being read to, I've discovered that finding ways to actually involve the children makes the lesson both more enjoyable and more memorable. The first time I involved the children directly in the lesson (other than to ask questions) was during my lesson on the crossing of the Red Sea by the Israelites to escape Egypt. I filled a bowl with water and had some of the children try to separate the water into two parts using their hands. Of course the children were unable to accomplish this feat; this served to emphasis the miracle of God's creation of the path through the Red Sea for the Israelites. I noticed the children were much more engaged with the story since they had something tangible to relate it to. Since this lesson, I have had much more success when I have incorporated direct involvement of the children into the lesson.

I have learned many other lessons while teaching Bible stories at the creche. Mostly the lessons have come about through trial and error and learning to go with the flow. The lessons I have learned in the creche have also helped me in life. I look forward to learning more as the year continues.

03 February 2011

Pledge of Non-violence

With the recent celebration of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the United States, it seems appropriate to reflect on standards of non-violence in general. Recently, Rev. Dr. J Ludemann preached a sermon in which he brought to our attention the Parish Pledge of Nonviolence which has been circulated by the Families Against Violence Advocacy Network. The pledge has seven points which are inspired by Dr. King's non-violent civil rights movement. The seven points of the pledge coincide with my understanding of how to have my faith inform my daily life. So, I want to take some time to explore each of the seven points and how they relate to living out my faith.

The first point of the pledge is “To Respect Self and Others”. The pledge clarifies this point by specifying that it means “to respect myself, to affirm others and to avoid uncaring criticism, hateful words, physical attacks and self-destructive behavior.” Working in the creche provides an opportunity to gauge how well this pledge point is being followed. Since children tend to reflect the atmosphere they are in, their behavior is a barometer for how well this portion of the pledge is being followed. When the children are surrounded by mutual respect and positive affirmations of their accomplishments, the children tend to show respect to one another more and they have a positive self-respect. On the other hand, when children are exposed to unkind criticism, hate speech, and physical violence, their behavior tends to deteriorate as they begin to mimic these actions. I can tell how well I am following this point of the non-violence pledge (and by extension acting on my faith) by how the children respond to me in the creche.

The second point of the pledge is “To Communicate Better”. The pledge specifies that this means “to share my feelings honestly, to look for safe ways to express my anger, and to work at solving problems peacefully.” Part of respect for others is being able to be open about our feelings and open to others sharing their feelings with us. We should be able to express our anger without hurting others with our words and actions. I saw a good example of the safe expression of anger during the student strike which coincided with the public servant strike when I first arrived in Durban in September. The students were gathered on the lawn in the middle of campus singing and dancing various protest songs. I had actually stumbled upon them without realizing what was happening at first. After a few songs, the group just dispersed and went their separate ways. The singing and dancing helped release their anger without causing harm to others. After seeing this, I was reminded how much music can serve in an emotionally uplifting role for me as well.

The third point of the pledge is “To Listen”. This means I am “to listen carefully to one another, especially those who disagree with me, and to consider others' feelings and needs rather than insist on having my own way.” Listening is a critical component of communication. In theory, this should be a fairly easy task too as all it requires is to use our ears and not our mouths. Yet, how many times in arguments do we find ourselves thinking of what to say next rather than actually trying to see where the other person is coming from. I readily admit that properly listening can be one of the hardest things for me to do sometimes. Yet, listening is important in order to strengthen our relationships with one another. As I improve my listening skills, my ability to follow through with the pledge is strengthen.

The fourth point of the pledge is “To Forgive”. More specifically, I am “to apologize and make amends when I have hurt another, to forgive others, and to keep from holding grudges.” Forgiveness is a gift that we should not keep to ourselves. When asked how often we should forgive others, Jesus' response implies that we should not be keeping score in that matter. If we are counting the number of times we are forgiving others, than we miss the healing aspect that forgiveness brings to those who grant it. When we forgive others, we are freeing ourselves from the cycle of hate that leads to never-ending conflict. Seventeen years ago, South Africa held its first truly free and democratic elections after years of unjust apartheid. When searching for a way forward after decades of strife, South Africa chose to route of forgiveness offered through the Truth and Reconcilliation Commission headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The TRC offers a prime example for how we can incorporate forgiveness into our lives.

The fifth point of the pledge is “To Respect Nature”. I am “to treat the environment and all living things with respect and care.” Living in a city for the past 5 months, I have experienced first hand the impact that humans can have on the environment. With so many people living close together, the negative effects we have on the environment become amplified to a point where it becomes blatantly obvious. There is no questioning the need for respecting nature when the isolated parks and green spaces inside a city offer such a peaceful refuge. Apart from all of the scientific, moral, and theological arguments for why we should treat nature with respect, this practical application alone should be enough to encourage respect of nature.

The sixth point of the pledge is “To Recreate Nonviolently”. The pledge clarifies that this means “to promote athletic and recreational activities that encourage cooperation and to avoid social activities that make violence look exciting, funny or acceptable.” Why must everything we do have “winners” and “losers”? Sure, it is great feeling when we are a “winner”, but if there are “winners” then there typically are “losers” as well. Fear of being a “loser” sometimes creates a win-at-all-costs attitude. Such a self-centered attitude rarely encourages love, which is the base of my faith.

The final point of the pledge is “To Be Courageous”. The pledge encourages me “to challenge violence in all its forms whenever I encounter it, whether at home, at work, in the church, or in the community, and to stand with others who are treated unfairly.” This last step is the most challenging one because it forces us to step outside of ourselves. Even if we master all six of the previous points in this pledge of non-violence, our pledge serves little purpose if we keep it to ourselves. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” One basis of this assertion likely comes from Jesus' admonition that whatever we do to the “least of these” we do to Jesus. This is a way of reminding us that we are all connected as Children of God. Thus anything negative that happens to one, negatively impacts all. So if we witness violence and do not challenge it, we might as well have participated in the act itself since we are negatively impacted as a result of the violence.

Discovering this pledge of non-violence has served to bolster my attempts to live my faith out on a daily basis. I encourage everyone to read the pledge and consider signing it as I have.

*There are multiple versions of the pledge which can be found at http://www.ipj-ppj.org/Pledge%20of%20Nonviolence/Parish.htm
The quotes in this post are taken from the Parish Pledge.

*Edited 5/21/2016 to replace the link for the pledge with an active link