Lessons from the Swazi 1000

Its snowing outside and the fire here keeps me warm. Things are so much different this time after returning from Bulembu. I have tried for days to begin to describe my experience and make sense of what happened. But, I am starting to realize that just might not be possible. Pictures, videos, stories – none of them would do justice to recapture in its entirety the Swazi 1000 event. I have had so many people ask me to tell them about it and I just respond saying “It was the experience of a lifetime, something that was a pivot point in changing my life.” Maybe not changes that are immediately visible to everyone, but deep changes within.

It has been years since I have felt and experienced the spirit of the Lord like I did with the 400 South African volunteers. Each night worship filled the air and the passion in the voices was invigorating. There is something so powerful to be unified with so many brothers and sisters who came for nothing more than to serve a community and give everything they had. Their selflessness created an environment which was ripe for the Lord to move in. There were healings among us, miracles right before our eyes and lives forever changed. I know it sounds like your typical summer camp experience, but something was different about this. There was a unifying purpose in the group where everyone became part of a cause and was committed to carrying it forward.

For me, this experience was everything I needed. God knew my heart, He knew where I was at and that I needed an intervention. The months prior to leaving, I had been becoming more and more depressed, lacking passion and motivation. I started to succumb to the hopelessness I saw in the world. Working for Bulembu had reached a point where the fulfillment I once had, was fleeting as it had been nearly 2 years since I saw first hand the difference that is being made. The constant weight on my shoulders trying to seek the Lord’s will whether I should be in Kansas City or Vancouver was wearing me and left me living in a transition. I was exhausted….. of it all.

So I left with high expectations. Expectations that no matter what happened, it was going to be better than what I was living for at the moment. The cry of my heart is that God would interrupt my life and bring me back to the essence of what I feel my calling was all about. I felt I had lost track of it in a lot of ways. It was a painful year for me with unmet hopes, loss and confusion. I felt like I had been spun around, dizzied up and was walking without all my senses and not quite sure where I was going. It was a good place to be in, if I let God enter in.

For me, I sit here gracious beyond comprehension. God interrupted my life in a big way. It had been years since I really had a responsibility of leadership or since I had a team I worked with. As many of you know, the last 2-3 years have been a time of deconstructing and rebuilding for me. Learning a lot about myself in the process. The time was ripe.

One of the last nights there, when all the work projects were finished, I just cried from true joy. I was simply blown away at how the impossible came true. The teams had painted “my community which I love.” They gave their everything for people they hadn’t even met. Bulembu as a community has been through so much. So many broken promises, rejection, failure and they have overcome. But the community is still vulnerable and not trusting. For this many students to give up their time and money to transform lives – it was priceless. When I gave my introduction speech to the team of volunteers I asked them to fall in love with the Bulembu community and relentlessly serve. They did and it touched my heart more than anything has in a long time. On that last night, the thank you never ended. They were so grateful for my leadership, commitment and involvement. But, this was backwards. I was the one who should have been thankful. They showed me again that there is hope and that OUR generation can make a difference.

Today, back here, life seems like nothing has changed. Everything is all still the same and I have all this inside of me – not quite sure what to do with. In the past, I would come back from Bulembu, Swaziland and Africa dangerously passionate to change others. Now, I just keep it inside me and have learned if you haven’t seen it or experienced it – you wouldn’t understand. And that is the way it should be. But there is a reinvigorated passion inside of me that is alive and well. It is a passion to adamantly serve the Lord at all costs. This has always been true in my life, but through pain and hurt can become dormant.

So I enter 2009 with new eyes. I will forever tell the story of when an army of 400 students painted “my town.” But few will know how their strokes of passion changed my life.

A mentor of mine once said “To say God is good, is the most humble statement you can make.” I can say today that God is good, with all conviction of how much he loves each one of us and gives us what we need.

The Third Way…

Today was one of those days that you long for, sometimes wait even months for. It really has been quite some time since I enjoyed an adventure like this. Before I get into the details though, I have to admit, being out here has been more than everything I needed. It is the change of pace, the enjoyment and relaxation of nature and freedom of living with such fewer restrictions that I needed. It is not like what we typically equate with not working and taking a break. That is hardly the case. Rather, it is just a way of life here to take things slower and enjoy simpler things of life. I think in the West, we need a lot more of this.

So today Andrew, Jon and myself went on a 40 Kilometer, 4 hour motorbike journey through the wilderness. I have really never been on a dirt bike. There really isn’t too much of a comparison between this and my motorcycle. Just totally different. So when we started, I was a bit nervous how I would handle the ride and was certain I was bound for a fall.

We went through valleys, streams, grass, dirt paths, woods and even a small rural community. I don’t even think the pictures do justice for how beautiful our views really were. What started the whole journey though is Jon and I wanted to find a path to a road we could see on a distant mountain. He has spent months looking for the connecting road and just cant find it. Today was no different. We did find a nice field of marijuana though. As we journeyed on, going deeper and deeper into the valley, constantly going downhill, the more I realized, we are going to either go back up that way or find a way out of there. I am glad it was the latter. When we came to the bottom of the valley, there was a beautiful stream. Never mind it was the stream that runs through Bulembu probably 15 Kilometers back and solves our sewage problems (that will be taken care of in less than a month). Regardless, Jon and I were so hot, we had to go for a quick skinny dip. Good thing we were far enough out, we didn’t expect any visitors from the village unless they were fetching their weed. The water was so refreshing, maybe too refreshing.

By the time we got back home, I was exhausted. But the whole day just made me realize how amazing it really is out here. And I don’t think this is just because of some isolated event. It is just the way of life out here. Sometimes I wonder if I am not really South African inside. Which makes me think, this whole decision I have of moving back to Kansas City, what if I am focusing on the wrong move? Well, it was just a thought, but, maybe for another day, but one I pray is coming soon.

First Impressions

Sometimes it is not a bad thing to be at a loss for words. I am in complete shock at how much Bulembu has changed. It was only 2 years ago that I lived here and since then the place has had such a makeover. I remember the early mornings here where we used to have to plug into the fax machine and hope there was a dial tone for internet. We didn’t have cell phones since we were too deep into the mountains and out of range. So communication was very limited among other staff in the community unless you saw them walking or driving. Things moved considerably slow but yet we all seemed to work long, long days.

Now the time feels like it is buzzing with life, vehicles, workers, new projects, tourists, etc. The town is actually being maintained where grass is being cut, overgrown forests being cut down and infrastructure constantly getting better. Our office now has wireless, with nearly 20 staff using laptops. It is amazing.

When I first started with Bulembu it was more the less a means to an end. I didn’t believe that we would ever be able to accomplish what we set out to do. But I figured it was worth trying. I have changed. Today, I am a believer. However, what hasn’t changed is that I still think this is an impossible project. Its magnitude and scope is tremendous. But I like the impossible. It leaves room for God. Already when I look over the last two years, I can see where God has been intricate. The “God Stories” are what keep us going. Without those, I think I would have lost motivation and hope months ago.

The other day the Swazi 1000 leadership team was here and we were diligently planning for the event which is only in a few weeks. As I sat around the meeting, I just couldn’t help from letting my mind venture into the past of what Bulembu used to be like years ago when we first began. I am really blown away by how far it has come. I thought about the thousands of people that have been out here and that have heard the story of hope and been inspired. The fact that we can host this massive group of students for work projects and effectively collaborate to impact the community is stunning.

But more than anything, I still suggest this is the impossible project. God really is going to have to continue to guide us and bless us. With economic hard time coming, there is no doubt that even in Bulembu finances will constrict. Either way, I am learning that it is o about the journey than it is where we really end up. I am sure the end will look much different than what we think it will be from this vantage point. But it is the journey that will refine us, our faith and make us men and women of transformation.

I wish my words could even do a small amount of justice to describing Bulembu to anyone. Without seeing it and experiencing it in person, it is truly hard to imagine.

Africa will be Africa

In all honesty, it has been so good setting foot in Africa again. It has actually been much too long. It is amazing how I feel so comfortable with “it being in my skin.”

Today I arrived into Jo-burg and decided to bus up to Nellspruit the closest South African city. Once there, I was picked up by ANdrew and Tracey. We chose to stay in South Africa for the night before driving back. Our B and B has an amazing view overlooking the whole city and the weather is just gorgeous. It was truly amazing to watch the sun set.

What really struck me though is the things that I used to hate, but realized how much i miss them. For instance during dinner all he lights went out….. in the entire mall. this is common during a rain storm, but back at home you would never have to eat dinner lit by the power of your cell phone.

When I got back tonight there was a security guard outside my door, standing protection. It was awkward at first, but just part of the small things which are so different, but really not much at all.

Change, I am eager to see all the chan whcih has happened in th elast 2 years. It will be so encouraging.

Interview with Comment Magazine

I recently had the privilege of being interviewed for Comment Magazine. There was one question in particular that really struck me though. “How would you explain what you do to a nine year old child?” What I loved about that question is that it forced me to think about the fundamentals and strip away the normal stump speech words. Actually, the whole interview asked unique questions, but still drew out valuable information regarding Bulembu.

Here is the link: http://www.cardus.ca/comment/article/697/

The Space Between….

For starters, it is never good to blog at 2 AM when you are about to travel to a new city, which you havent even seen a map or list of atractions for. However, the novelty of this situation fits perfectly for the thoughts on my mind which I am eager to put pen to paper to.

For some that know me, you understand when I say that for the last 3 months I have been living in a Vortex. What I mean by that, is i feel I am living in this space… betwee…. one season and another creating this long lasting transition. I feel I am just coming out of one season, just waiting for the next to begin. I dont know what the following year holds for me or where I will be living. It is the most uncomfortable place I have been in a long time and I simply wish that the days of comfort would return.

For weeks now I have been counting down the days to be able to return to Bulembu and be part of the Swazi 1000, which is an event we are hosting in Bulembu which will see nearly 1,000 student volunteers descend upon Bulembu. It is going to be life changing for many, to say the least. However, just when i didnt expect God to “interrupt” my life, here in Ottawa, he did.

Although I planned to go to my first NHL game tonight, I missed the bus, couldnt get scalped tickets and found myself sadly stumbling into a corner bar to just.. be an average Joe. It was then the most irononic set of events began.

I picked a place at the bar next to a construction worker with long hair, full beard and seeming like everything of the “heartland”. We slowly started talking. When asked why i was in Ottawa, apparently it was my vague and general answers that gave him the impression I was a “politician.” Then he thought I was a bussinessman. Within an hour of our conversation, he started preaching to me about his agnostic beliefs and the sense of Karma. For a second, I began to think that this was the perfect time to “witness” then remembered that i dont even know what that means anymore. In the end, I took the role of the prosecutor asking him that if he believed in Karma so much, why isnt he living it out. The common question that I feel as a Christian I usually get. This quetsion, led us to an intenses conversation about faith, that I never thought I would have. I ended up telling him all about my testimony, my Father’s testimony and my faith. What hit the most though was that he said for once, he felt like he met someone who genuinely care, wanted to get to know him and wasnt someone “ramming” Christianity down his throat. I told him that he is more than welcome to be an agnostic. I am so confident that my God is real, God would interrupt his life at some point in time and show him the reality that our God lives in. He seemed to smile and welcome the idea of this.
Then at 12 AM I return to a friend’s house (who is currently in Quebec) and his roommate asks me to go get a quick beer. I figured, with teh way this night is going… absolutely. We had an amazing conversation. One that I felt I havent had in years, and I know it wasnt the grasshopper pale ale.

This sums up the last 4 months of my life. Why have i not felt like i have been making connections and been living in this…. Vortex? It is beacuse I dont create spaces. I have been so inundated with work from Bulembu and Vantage, I have not allowed for teh free moments of life to just take me. It is in these moments that the essence of who we are really shines through. Tonight was a perfect example of this. I just went with the flow, created a space (away from work and email and things to do) , and was just organically led.

I reallize how over teh last 3 months I have not allowed for any “spaces” in my life. I have been so busy I have not taken this as a priority. It is certainly going to change though.
See I believe that we can create an agenda all that we want, but we all know that it is in the “spaces” that real lasting things happnen. I have been immensly challenged in this way to create more “spaces” for God to interrup my life.

My motorcycle Diary

The other morning I had to get up at 5:30 and drive into Vancouver for a early morning meeting. The thing I love the most about those early mornings on the bike is the fresh crisp touch to the morning. However, this morning in particular was clouded with fog which didn’t make for an easy ride. By the time I got to the Portman bridge on the Highway I couldn’t see anymore than 10 feet in front of me. As frightening as this was to be crossing one of the biggest bridges in Vancouver at 100 Kmh without seeing, I rode ahead with such confidence. It was then it struck me that this was such a clear parallel for where I am at in life right now. I have no idea what is in front of me and where I am going. I feel lost in the spiral of so many unknowns, the kind of place we usually describe as a free fall. But the mystery, the paradox that really intrigues me is that in that place, I feel so much confidence. As fast as everything in this world is moving and in my life, I just keep going ahead.

The more I thought about my metaphor to life, I explored how the whole situation hangs together. What I mean by that is what compels me to continue to drive 100kmh when I cant see ahead of me? It is trust. I trust that the car in front of me will not slam on their brakes. If they did, lets just hope for the best. So how does that relate to life?

I think our trust in God is critical for holding the unknowns together.

I have never been in a place in life like this clouded with so many paths, so many unknowns, so many transitions and so far away from…. just being me (for instance, the last time I blogged was in March). But the paradox is, which is actually shattering another one of my traditional Christian boxes, just because I am in this place in life, it doesn’t me that my trust or my faith is to be lost. If anything, I must admit it has been heightened. I couldn’t even begin to describe the amount of faith it took to cross that bridge in such dense fog! The unknowns; there were just so many – just like there are so many in my life right now.

So I feel I just continue ahead, not blinking to fear, but confidently riding in trust. This is right, this is good.

“And, of course, when you discover something like that and it’s like discovering a tooth with a missing filling. You have to probe it, work around it, push on it, think about it, not because it’s enjoyable but because it’s on your mind and it won’t get off your mind… Not to deliberately irritate him, but because the irritation seems symptomatic of something deeper, something under the surface that isn’t immediately apparent.” – Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I am ok…. If you are ok!

Will you just be ok…..

Ever since I was a little kid, I can recall memories where the most important thing in life to me was that those around me were “ok”. When my family would get in fights or my parents would start to disagree, as if it were yesterday, I can still recall the feelings and emotions I would go through burdening their troubles. My entire emotional package would unwrap according to their status. Essentially “I was only ok, if they were ok”. This wasn’t just for my family though, it expanded to many of those who were close to me. I have such a heart to serve, love and live with compassion for others, it had crossed the boundary of healthiness and encroached a place which was no longer strengthening who I was to be. I began to live for the happiness of others. Too often I would give of myself just to make others happy and satisfied. Although I didn’t pledge ungratefulness to them, unconsciously I began to resent them for that which I gave. But I would not return void. What I received from the exchange was a sense of feeling like I was a knight in shining armor. I was the self-abasing giver. It wasn’t a true gift though, it was a move to make me feel ok.

Fifteen years later, I was no different. In the first serious relationship of my life I thought I would ride into it on my high horse finding a girl who needed rescuing and me being a prince who needed a cause. The results could be nothing more than disastrous. But this is what began my addiction. It was a coping mechanism for me. I needed to save others, to rescue them so that I would be ok. There was nothing selfless about my giving, it was still all about me.

I thought that since then I had learned. I thought that I had recognized this and had changed. I have tried so hard in the last year to not save those around me –it is not my job or my responsibility. I have tried to rather just listen, to be. Largely to my credit I feel I have been able to hold this balance.

However, I have realized that our past always lingers. Do we ever fully embrace a new behavior? How often do we have to go back and focus on that same old behavioral goal time and time again, even when we thought we conquered it? Do we ever really shed our old skin and mature into our new walk? It is always in the most trying times, the points of stress and those situations where we are most unknown that we resort to our comfort zone. For me, I can see how I have retreated to the same old adage of mine – “If you are ok, I am ok”. To some counselors, this is called an addiction.

Lately I often find myself getting gut rut over knowing a loved one of mine is not ok. I so badly want to do everything in my power to rescue them – to give them comfort. I will give of myself time and time again just so that they are ok – because then, I will sleep at night. It drives me to comfort those I love.

Is there hope? Of course there is. I have to remember, I am not God, nor is it my job that others reach any form of nirvana. I am simply a human who has enough shit of my own to deal with. But, I can pray… I can enmesh others with prayer and simply love them. There is a trust in God that is needed, rather than relying on our own abilities. If we believe that God is good, why do we sometimes push so hard to do it on our own?

I have no problem admitting that I have an addiction…….an addiction to making others realize they are ok. This is not where God wants me to be though. I honestly believe that prayer is the only way to overcome our behavioral skeletons.
How can one save, when they need to be saved? God I need your deliverance….

Something Human

How does change take place? What brings transformation? Change is inevitable. We are always changing. However, it is the great leaps that are more than something human. I have really come to believe that God is the author of great change, of transformation. But how do we get to that soft place to be molded? What can we do to position ourselves to allow God to move in our lives to breed deep, great change?

It was unusually warm out last night, but yet the cold, brisk breeze reminded me I was still in winter. No thawing has been needed, but still a dark winter. I walked down the hill on Main St. heading toward Terminal to meet….. my friend. Although the buzz of cars was seen with my eyes, there was a silence, that dark winter silence inside which made the world seem so irrelevant to me. I felt freedom in each breathe and each step. When you can walk and act in confidence regarding your surroundings and situations – the big, big buildings, but yet you know how enormous you are; that is freedom.

I met my friend, waiting for me outside of McDonalds on a bench, just like he said he would. I hadn’t seen him in months, but he never changes anyway. Living on the streets his whole life, it has always been the same. Since the day I met the “Musicman” commanding that organ in the towering chapel of that Catholic church – he has always been the Musicman. Purple glasses, long beard, never shakes a hand or gives a hug, packs his jacket with everything he owns and certainly never opens up his closeted life.

However, this time was different. Why did he approach me and give me a hug? In seven years of occasionally getting together, I had never felt his desire for physical connection. With no shaded glasses, I could see his soft brown eyes. His beard was trimmed and he talked softer this time. I must not have said more than 100 words in our hour together. When we talked about relationships, love, connection and I asked him if he had ever been in love – he told me his story. His story of pain, of loss and desire – but here he is, never married. I could see the love in his heart as he talked. What situations and choices make us who we are? Is there a connection?

My perplexity caused me to finally blurt out – “What happened to you? Why are you a new man? What caused this change?” I think it had been happening for years now, but I never realized it like this. It is not an impulsive, one-off, conversation he was experiencing. No this is deep change which things are made to last of.

“Jamie, going to church and getting my priorities right makes all the difference.” That is it, that is all he answered with. There was no need for explanation – we both understood through the silence. Although he still collects bottles, and migrates for any temporary work, even at his old age – he is changed. Probably his longest standing committed friend, I pray that God had used me anytime in the last 7 years to have played even a small part in his change. All the times we (my parents and I) opened our house for him to bathe, for him to cook, for him to find refuge from the streets – I pray those moments build hope inside.

Why do we give so little of ourselves for the Lord to use? Sometimes we have an encounter, when we least expect it and it just turns us upside down conquering our little perspective of what really matters. Lives, that is what really matters.

I want what this homeless man had found, the hope and belief to change.

Good, Good End

My words couldn’t express my state any better than the lyrics below….

You can leave right now
You can ring a bell
You can tell ‘em you think I ain’t doin’ too well
But when I stood like you
I eventually fell
So you can leave right now
Go on and ring your bell

I’m amazed by life
And it’s amazed by me
We’re a strange old pair- me and eternity
It don’t make good sense
It ain’t easy to see
But I’m amazed by life
And it’s amazed by me

It’s a long hard road
With a good, good end
And if I keep on walking on past the crooked bend
I will meet my Maker
I will meet my Friend
It’s a long hard road
With a good, good end