The Newspaper Ritual

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It’s 8:45 am on Sunday morning and Melvin is standing on the corner, his red hat cocked to the side and his arms full of real newspapers. I pull off to the side and roll down the window. “Hey Boss.” he says with the inflection only a coloured man from the Western Cape could utter. “Hey Melvin, how’s it?” I reply in an attempt to sound a little less American than I am. The exchange is nearly automatic. He shoves an enormous edition of The Sunday Times on my dash; simultaneously I hand him a crumpled R50 bill with Nelson Mandela’s face stamped on the front. “Thanks Melvin.” I say. “Dankie Boss.” he replies. I put the car into gear, cranking the manual window winder with one hand as I shove the Volkswagen into second and pull away. I feel alive and more coordinated than I actually am.

This little ritual is the beginning of one of my favorite events of the week – reading the Sunday newspaper.

Some might call me old-school, but I say there is nothing quite like reading a real newspaper. Each Sunday afternoon I settle into my favorite chair, with a cup of dark roast black coffee and the bundle of paper from Melvin. Only part of the newspaper experience is about acquiring information. For me it’s a calming and pleasurable experience that I cherish at the beginning of each week. 

I always start with the front page, carefully folding the gigantic grey paper into a manageable form. The crumpling of the thin newsprint as I tame it in my hands is like a little symphony playing just for me. The crinkling reminds me of my father sitting in his chair reading the Charlotte Observer every evening. That memory is a good one for me. When I think of him sitting there, I feel this assurance and stability that only comes from having a father who works hard, provides and comes home to read the paper every night. As I bring the print closer to my eyes I take in the distinct aroma of newsprint. There’s something visceral and authentic about that scent, produced by the arduous early morning printing and delivery process that certainly requires the efforts of a small army of men and women dedicated to delivering this experience. 

 My eyes scan the lines and feel this freedom to jump around from article to article. When the mood strikes me I do a bit of origami to turn the giant page. I feel like a skilled professional in control of my little world of paper. Learning to read and fold a newspaper should be a rite of passage, a skill passed from generation to generation, like learning to drive or mow the lawn. 

Sometimes I come across a particularly interesting article or picture. I hand it to my wife and say “Look at this.” Sometimes we cut out a piece of the paper and hang it on our refrigerator door for a while. I remember being in the war in the Middle East and receiving the comics in a letter from my Grandmother every single day. She would cut them out and hang them with a paperclip onto a short handwritten note. Lots of people sent me emails with attachments of funny YouTube videos, but there was something very special about those comics from Grandmother. I suppose maybe it was knowing that she read them first, touched them, laughed and took the time to cut out each one. When I read those small cutouts I felt connected to her, to civilization and to the world where people weren’t slaughtering each other. I seriously doubt that an email attachment could bring about that level of sentiment.

In the information age, where thousands of newspaper articles are available  with the click of a mouse, the real newspaper faces extinction. I for one think that this is a real tragedy. I hope this experience is around for my daughter to enjoy one day. If not, I might just have to start an “old school” newspaper. For now I’ll just keep up the ritual with Melvin and company every Sunday.

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Why I Don’t Believe in Changing the World.

This morning as I was scrolling through my daily intake of social media I noticed that the words “world changer” appeared a surprising number of times. 

In most cases, writers used the phrase “world changer” to reference a person’s aspirations to cause an end to some kind of injustice in the world. In most instances the phrase was self-referencing, alluding to the writer’s own aspirations to make an impact on injustice. It seems that only the words “world changer” could possibly suit the magnitude of such beneficent actions.

On the surface it seems that we should all aspire to be world changers. Furthermore, it seems that the general consensus is that such actions worthy of world changing status should be within the easy reach of the common man.

Upon further reflection, it appears that there are several difficulties with world changing aspirations. 

First, the phrase “world changer” implies that the world can indeed be changed either through our efforts or the collective efforts of good-willed people like us. 

We could all probably agree that the world needs to change. For the purposes of conversation let’s say that the “world” is the totality of all humanity on earth, all of our collective actions and the consequences of those actions. Anyone who has lived for any significant amount of time knows that human existence is full of tragedy, injustice, pain and suffering. Who wouldn’t want to see the end of such a reality?

But it is one thing to acknowledge the existence of such a world. It is quite another to think for a moment that we can do anything about it. The idea that enough of us doing enough good can either expel injustice and evil from the world for good or cancel the ill-effects of such injustice, is completely ludicrous. Anyone who thinks for a moment that their actions either individual or collective, pack sufficient power to right the wrongs of the world has either seriously underestimated the pervasive root of evil or has seriously overestimated their own influence.

This type of attitude is particularly prevalent in the western mindset of the millennial generation who seem to have been led to believe by well meaning parents and teachers that they have a great deal to offer to “the world” despite their woeful lack of experience and knowledge. Such a mindset is destructive, because at best, such aspirations will inevitably lead to disillusionment as well meaning recent graduates come into contact with the reality of a world so completely evil that they cannot even begin to understand the causes of its’ problems much less fix them. 

Second, the concept of living as a “world changer” implies that the good a person does ought to be recognizable at a global scale or even recognized at all. Again, on the surface this seems so right. After all bigger is better right? 

The trouble with this line of thinking is that it is much easier to address the evil and injustice of “the world” and totally ignore our own evil desires and personally destructive choices. It is entirely possible for an unkind, unloving person to serve in a position of power where they give their life to end some kind of injustice, all the while sowing seeds of hatred in the hearts of their own children and those closest to them. While this “world changer” fights for a better world “out there” the world that they are in the best position to influence becomes a place where no one actually wants to live.

The designation “world” removes the closeness of the trouble with the human condition. The person identifying as a “world changer” is tempted to see the “world” as a terrible place that needs to change, but their own marriage, family, company, and neighborhood are too small to deserve their attention. 

Don’t get me wrong. The world is full of terrible wrongs that must be righted. And without question, we ought to be involved in doing good. But I find the term “world changer” to be an unhelpful designation for mere mortals like me. The narrative that informs my life tells the story of a God who so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son to live a life that I could not live and to die a death I could not die to pay a price for my rebellion that I could not pay. In this story, the world does indeed change. But it doesn’t change through the efforts of men. It changes when the God who created it all, comes and rules it again. Until then let us not get caught up in changing the world. Instead let’s just focus on recklessly loving people as God first loved us. 

 

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A Real Letter

 

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Yesterday I came home and there was a real paper letter waiting for me on the kitchen counter. My name and address was handwritten with a sharpie marker next to three big stamps from China.

I’ll admit that it felt something like Christmas morning when I was eight.

The curiosity about its’ origins and what news it might contain raced through my mind as I said to my wife, “Hey a letter for me!”. She smiled and said, “Open it silly.”.  I ripped open the end with my bare hands (we don’t get enough mail to own a real letter opener) like a bear tearing into a can of tuna.

I pulled out a single white page covered in neat straight rows of handwritten letters. My heart felt a little lighter as my eyes scanned the words. It was a letter from my friend Aaron. He was writing for no particular reason at all. He just wanted to say hello “in person”.

As I re-read my friend’s letter again this morning, I realized how much I like getting mail. I also realized how significantly different a real letter is from an email or Facebook message.

There is something about a real, handwritten letter that communicates far more than the words themselves convey. Maybe it’s the realization that someone took the time to think of me; had the courage to write with an actual pen whose words cannot be deleted; knew my address; and made the effort to hand carry the message to a post box.

Whatever it is, I really like getting a real letter in the mail. I felt joy and connection to a person thousands of miles away. In any case, my friend’s letter has inspired me.

I think I’ll go write a letter.

The Significance of Story

We become characters in the stories we tell ourselves. This is the power of narrative.

The most powerful story ever told, the one that tells us who we really are, who God really is and where everything in the world is going, is the story of Jesus. We call this story the Gospel.

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Unfortunately most of us choose to give less worthy stories greater authority in our lives. Why?

When I think about this question for myself I conclude that essentially I am an unintentional advocate for unworthy stories. I gravitate towards those narratives that are the easiest to hear and resonate with the most shallow aspect of my desires.

We know that we are made for something significant. That’s the energy behind our quest. We desperately want to know how to become “somebody” in the world. We thirst to know how to find happiness and peace.

We also watch a lot of television. The stories that stream into our consciousness tell all kinds of things about success and happiness and peace. These stories tell us that if we are smarter, have more money and have more power then we can buy things that make us comfortable, that people will respect us, and we will have the kind of life that we always dreamed of.

When we allow ourselves to be exposed to these kinds of narratives we are drawn in because in some way we imagine ourselves in the story. We identify with a particular character with a particular set of difficulties, dreams or personality.

Here’s the hard truth.

These characters are not real people and the stories they tell are incomplete. These popular narratives are sometimes even dangerous because they lay out a false version of reality where we (or the character that represents us) are the center of a small universe. In this universe we get what we want, we are comfortable and powerful and all of our problems get worked out in 60 minutes or less.

The story that informs every other story, the story of Jesus, points us to a different way. Jesus says that the only way you can find meaning is to recognize that you are not the center of the universe. He says things like, if you want to be first you have to be last. He says that true happiness comes from recognizing your own weakness. He says that if you pursue him with all of your heart, with every ounce of your energy then the rest of your story will line up the way that it is supposed to.

Here’s the amazing truth.

You are valuable. God made you with his own hands. He rescued you by sending His own Son to die in your place. This is the story that tells you who you are. This is the story that you should tell yourself when you get up in the morning and when you go to bed at night. May we become the characters in God’s story that He designed us to be.

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The First Decision Matters

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Blessed is the man 

who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, 

nor stands in the way of sinners, 

nor sits in the seat of scoffers; 

but his delight is in the law of the Lord, 

and on his law he meditates day and night. 

He is like a tree 

planted by streams of water 

that yields its fruit in its season, 

and its leaf does not wither. 

In all that he does, he prospers. 

The wicked are not so, 

but are like chaff that the wind drives away. 

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, 

nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; 

for the Lord knows the way of the righteous, 

but the way of the wicked will perish. 

 

Psalm 1 (English Standard Version)

I have mastered the art of unintentional thinking. I am to blame but I am not without co-conspirators. I quite naturally think of the the things that come most easily into my consciousness and since my natural predisposition is to avoid pain and to seek pleasure I gravitate towards the pleasurable input that is most readily available. On my own I have plenty of thoughts that satisfy the need for pleasure but I am also aided by the world of mass media that floods my senses with things to desire in a nearly constant stream of visual imagery. These images so shape my thoughts and often at an unconscious level. I naturally want things that I see especially when they seem to provide pleasure.

In my natural state the gates of my mind are wide open. I suppose this could be a definition of the “open mind” which has so captured the imagination of our post-modern culture. The values and attitudes of popular culture stream unabated through the gates and join my own thoughts to create a swirling whirlwind of undisciplined, pleasure seeking thought. I think this is my rendition of the first few verses of Psalm 1. Walking in the way of the counsel of the wicked begins when the ideas and images of the wicked enter the mind. The mind takes these thoughts under advisement and determines their value. The undisciplined mind lacks a framework for evaluating all of these images. Consequently, the mind follows the natural path and images turn into ideas and ideas into action.

The ironic thing is that all of these images turned ideas turned action never fully satisfy the way that you imagine they will. In some ways the natural desire to seek pleasure over pain is right headed but simply does not go far enough. The pleasure offered by my own ideas and by those piped in from the amalgamation of the ideas of other undisciplined thinkers (we call this the mass media) never follow through on their promises. 

There is a greater pleasure.

The source of this pleasure logically comes from the one who created me and who created pleasure in the first place.

I think this is what the Psalmist was talking about when he says that the man who delights in the law of the Lord, who meditates on it day and night, experiences blessing, which simply translated means happiness.

Why is this?

Because the one thing that brings long lasting, deeply satisfying pleasure is to think about the things that bring the most life. According to the Psalmist this is the “law of the Lord”. 

 What is the “law” and why does it bring pleasure?

 In the ancient Hebrew texts, the law is the instructions that the God of Issac, Abraham and Jacob gave to his people after he rescued them from slavery in Egypt. In the book of Deuteronomy Moses receives this law from God and then delivers it to the people saying over and over again, “be careful to obey the law” so that “you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you shall possess.” 

God provides a way for me to experience life.

But this way requires some discipline on my part too. Real pleasure comes from intentional thinking about life giving ideas. Life giving ideas don’t come from my own mind and they don’t come from the minds of other people. Real life giving ideas come from the one who created life and invites me into a deep relationship with himself.

This kind of intentional thinking requires that I know the right things to think about. These things are written in the ancient scriptures where the Creator God reveals life giving information about himself and about the world he made. Knowing this information is not enough. To experience the deep pleasure and happiness that God has for me I have to intentionally think and reflect on what God says about himself, the world and me. I have to do this when I feel like it and when I do not. This is what the Psalmist means by “meditate day and night”. Meditating is intentionally turning my thoughts away from the things that are easier to think about and willfully focusing on the images and ideas described in the Scriptures. 

I find that my first opportunity to choose fleeting pleasure over lasting pleasure comes first thing in the morning. I use my iPhone for an alarm clock and my natural first thought is to check my email. Why? I think it’s because I’m hoping for some kind of news on email that will provide a “temporary fix”. The exhilaration of a problem that only I can fix or some piece of news that will bring joy or excitement draws me in. 

Then a few weeks ago I had a kind of awakening. I realized that I could choose something else in that first decision of the day. I decided to start my day thinking about Jesus and visualizing some of the stories talked about in the Scriptures. I decided to start the day praying and thanking God for another day of breath, asking for God’s help in the things that I have to face in the day.

In this little experiment I discovered that I feel calmer, more likely to be kind to my wife and patient with my daughter. When I began my day on the internet the pleasure lasted for minutes and then was usually followed by hours of anxiety. When I begin my day thinking about Jesus and talking to him I find that the pleasure, the peace, the sense of smallness and joy lasts throughout the day.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a kind of pleasure that I have to fight for everyday. Sometimes I win and sometimes I lose but I’m fighting for the kind of life that Jesus died for me to have. May you also reject the easy thoughts and embrace the way of Jesus today.

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King Julian’s Prayer

This morning I woke up thinking about my daughter. She is six years old. I am on a work trip away from home and when my mind is at ease it goes where my thoughts are the most untroubled, plain and joyful. In the fogginess of morning drifting into consciousness I felt a smile on my face as I thought of her.

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The thought was specific, especially for someone like me who rarely remembers my dreams. I imagined her repeating a line from one of her favorite movies, “Madagascar 3”. There is a scene where King Julian, king of the lemurs, falls madly in love with Sonja, a circus bear from Russia. After a brief romance, Julian passionately recounts his love for Sonja and inadvertently conveys a profound truth about life. He says, “Sonja, I don’t want to be king anymore. I was so caught up in who you was and who I was, but all that really matters is what we smell like together.” Now my quotation lacks the hilarious accent and inflection that Madeline gives it when she goes around quoting this line. My first thought this morning was of her saying this and my response which is always deep laughter. It was a good way to start the day.

Julian’s words are funny, both in the movie and when my daughter repeats them. They are also powerful and convicting. You know the truth is, that line is a beautiful prayer.

Sonja, I don’t want to be king anymore. I was so caught up in who you was and who I was, but all that really matters is what we smell like together.

I often catch myself wanting to be king. I want to be in charge of my life. I want to run things and manipulate the world around me so that I can be powerful or comfortable or relevant. In my mind I am often the center of the world. That’s why I get upset when I am mistreated or situations fail to work out the way I plan.

 But being king is exhausting. Ultimately, being king will kill me. This is where Julian’s line becomes a prayer for me. “Lord, I don’t want to be king anymore.” What an excellent thing to say to my Father in Heaven. He is the King. He is in control. As I pray that line from Madagascar 3, I feel the burden of building my own fiefdom melt away from my soul. I feel this amazing freedom to let go. I realize that I am not built to manipulate my world and that power, comfort and relevance are not objectives that bring me life. Instead they bring a slow, painful death. I don’t want to be king.

 Like Julian, I am also so caught up in who I am. In many ways I am enamored with myself. I view most situations from my perspective rarely stepping back to perceive circumstances from the King’s point of view. But like being king, being caught up in myself is deadly too. Actually it is a boring way to live. I am so limited in my view and my ability to see what is real.

The next part of Julian’s spiel is my favorite. I have a hyperactive olfactory sense. I smell things a mile away and it drives my wife crazy. Julian says, “All that really matters is what we smell like together.” The truth is I stink. The Scriptures say that my sin and rebellion is like a horrendous stench rising up to heaven. On my own I cannot please God or offer him anything.

The beautiful thing about the Gospel is that my detestable, putrid smell is washed over by the incredibly sweet aroma of Jesus’ sacrifice. The smell that rises from the cross where Jesus died in my place is pleasing to God. When my life is absorbed by Jesus’ life “what we smell like together” has nothing to do with me and everything to do with Jesus. He is the faithful one. He is the only one who lived rightly and pleased God. In the end all that really matters “is what we smell like together.”

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The Ruck

“Ruck up men.”, the beady eyed Ranger Instructor bellowed. The air was crisp, the mood tense as I slung the hundred pound green pack over my head and slid my arms into the web straps. The pack creaked as the weight settled onto my back. Shock waves of pain shot down my arms as the straps dug into my shoulders. This was just a taste of the discomfort to come.

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It was the year 2000 and I was a Ranger Student in the second of three phases at the U.S. Army’s Ranger school, a 61 day experience designed to teach leadership and small unit tactics. This was the Mountain Phase, and along with the thirty other men in 2nd platoon I “rucked up” or put on my very large Army issue backpack to begin the first of many patrols in the mountainous terrain of Dahlonega in Northern Georgia.

A patrol is the military’s term for a long, miserable walk in the woods. The Army has a way of transforming any enjoyable experience into a nightmare. This little jaunt in the forest was no exception. We climbed the intensely steep mountains all day and most of the night. To avoid detection, hiking on trails and talking was strictly forbidden. I still have a scar on my left hand from the thorns that ripped into my skin that day as we clawed our way through the underbrush. Each group of 9 men, called a squad, was responsible for carrying a collective amount of equipment, weapons and supplies to the “objective”, a point in the woods where we fought a simulated battle with another group of soldiers pretending to be enemy combatants. Each Soldier hauled his own food, water, extra clothes and other provisions. Additionally, the squad distributed the shared equipment, like machine guns, extra ammunition and medical supplies. Survival meant working together. Mission success depended upon the entire group of men and equipment arriving to the objective, ready to fight.

After weeks of long walks like this I learned lots of important lessons about walking in the woods but one stands out.

Never carry more or less than you need. 

In life, as in patrolling, we mustn’t carry more than we need for our journey. Things have a way of weighing people down. Despite what the world will tell you it is entirely possible to have too much.

I recently shared a meal with a very rich man. He has everything in the way of material possessions and yet he is a lonely person. His wealth causes him to be suspicious of everyone. He has many servants and few friends. He has lots of money and no one to spend it on. His is a miserable existence. His rucksack is too heavy.

I also know people who don’t have enough. In the poorer communities near our house I meet people who struggle to provide the basic necessities for survival. Their rucksack is too light.

If my wealthy friend and my poor friends were in a Ranger squad the answer would be simple. Those with heavy packs would let those with lighter packs carry some of the load. There would be this intense focus on the mission, on arriving to the objective together. There would be an innate understanding that the stuff in our rucks is there to help us accomplish our mission. The equipment has no value unless it is used for it’s intended purpose.

But somehow in the church we miss this simple lesson. Some of us strain and buckle under the weight of our money and possessions while others struggle to scrape together the basic necessities to survive.

Why?

I think it’s because we lose sight of our mission.

We are a people on the narrow road, sojourning towards the new heaven and the new earth. This is our reality, yet we often live as a people who have no where to go.  We are a missional people, called to move together, follow our Jesus and invite others to join us.

I love the story of Jesus’ encounter with the blind man named Bartimaeus in the Gospel of Mark. Jesus and his followers are on a journey to Jerusalem. Bartimaeus is one of many spectators sitting along the side of the road. As Jesus passes by, the blind man calls out to Jesus, “Son of David have mercy on me!” The disciples and the crowd try to shut him up. They are embarrassed because he is making a scene. Suddenly, Jesus stops. He turns to face the blind beggar and tells him to come. Without a second hesitation, Bartimaeus leaps up, leaving his cloak behind and runs to meet Jesus who heals him. The thing that really gets me about this story is that Bartimaeus leaves his only possession, a cloak, behind. He follows Jesus with nothing. He is a man on a journey.

I am inspired by my memories of Ranger patrols to live as one on a mission. My prayer is that Jesus would cause me to thirst for him so that I see my life properly as one on the narrow road. I pray that he gives me the wisdom and the courage to pack appropriately.

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New

When I was a child my parents bought our first new car. I was five or six years old. I do not remember much about the event except for the smell. It was that fresh aroma of virgin carpet, metal and molded plastic that cannot ever be replicated. It is a scent that refuses to return regardless of the most valiant effort to scrub the coffee and fast food stains out of the carpet. It is yours to experience for a brief time until you ruin it by subjecting the newness to real life. Mundane habit and activity will transform what is new and wonderful into something old and smelly in a shorter amount of time than you think possible.

I long to live in a world where everything is new. I’m 35 and when I look in the mirror I’m often dissatisfied. I want to be 25 again. So I join the gym and work feverishly to regain what the years and my habits have stolen. Of course even in my most disciplined years, all the striving never results in a cure.

Sometimes I wish my relationships were new. I have this longing to return to the pristine beginning when every conversation is exciting and encouraging. I dream of a time before the wear and tear of life exposed the deep flaws in my personality. If you stick with any relationship long enough the facade of a person will fade away and you will be left with a real person with all of their strangeness and smelliness. I’m grateful for a wife that has seen the real me and chooses to love me anyway. Commitment like that is a rare and beautiful thing.

The truth is that we were made to long for what is new. Our thirst for bodies without sickness and relationships without turmoil is a God-given craving. It is a deep longing that can only be satisfied by God himself. Our own efforts to make ourselves or others new are futile and exhausting. The temptation is to think that we long for something that we once had and lost. This is a lie. The truth is that we never had what we longed for. Our longing is not for something we can recover from our past but rather something that we can experience in part in the present and fully in the future.

One of my favorite stories about our quest for newness is the account of Jesus and Lazarus. Jesus arrives at Lazarus’ home four days after he died. He finds Lazarus’ family and friends weeping uncontrollably. Jesus is filled with compassion and weeps with his friends. Then he does the unthinkable. Jesus tells them to roll away the stone sealing Lazarus’ grave. Martha, Lazarus’ sister responds in horror saying, “Lord by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” Martha knows that death brings irreversible decay of the body. She knows that any human effort to reverse these effects is futile. She is repulsed by the idea of smelling her brother’s decaying flesh.

Undeterred, Jesus moves towards the smell. He prays and tells Lazarus to “Come out!” and he does. In an instant the dead, decaying flesh is transformed into a living body. The wild reality is that this restoration was still only a hint of the newness to come. Lazarus eventually died again. The Scriptures tell us that those who call Jesus Lord should expect new bodies that will never suffer from sickness or death, a new heaven and a new earth where Jesus reigns and God’s people live in peace with one another. The new earth will be free from tragedy and chaos. It will be the world we long for and we will be the people we long to be. This is our hope.

As I think about all of my longings for new things I am gripped by this story. I am reminded that I cannot experience the scent of new life that I long for by cleaning myself or others up. Instead, I beg that Jesus would move toward my smelly life and into my smelly world and that he would make me into a new creation.

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The Braai Fire Communion

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One of my favorite traditions in South African culture is the building of a good braai fire. For those not familiar with the term, a braai is “a structure on which a fire can be made for the outdoor grilling of meat”. In the United States, especially in the South we might call this a grill or a barbecue. I prefer to call it a braai because although I just learned the term last year, it just sounds more significant.

As a man there is something inspirational about a structure that is made to hold fiery pieces of wood. The fact that it is also described as a place for the “grilling of meat” is an added bonus.

Braai is a complex word that can ambidextrously serve as a noun or a verb. You could say something like “Let’s build a fire on the braai.” or “Let’s braai.” Either way you are in for a good time.

In my experience the building of fire is a multi-purpose activity. It is one of the few diversions that passes for food preparation and entertainment. When we moved to South Africa last year my wife was pleased to discover that men regularly take over cooking duties when raw meat is involved. She did not protest when I invested a significant amount of money in all kinds of “braai accessories” to ensure that I fit into our new culture.

In the United States, “grilling” or “barbecuing” is a culinary activity normally reserved for weekends or holidays, not so in South Africa. Here, we braai whenever the mood strikes us. Meat cooked on an open flame? Yes, please.

The braai as a vehicle for entertainment is also quite noteworthy. My neighbor here in Stellenbosch once told me that “People will try to tell you that the national sport is rugby. It’s not. It’s one man telling another how to braai properly.” I have found this truth to be self-evident. I have witnessed and participated in many great debates about the proper way to stack wood, whether it is permissible to use a fire-starter brick, or how to determine when the coals are ready.

Whenever two men are together and there is “a structure on which a fire can be made for the outdoor grilling of meat” you can be sure that the men will not communicate until a fire is built. This is free advice for women out there. Men need an activity to facilitate talking. If you want to talk to a man suggest that he burn a pile of wood first. That’s why I think the braai is a perfect wedding gift.

The braai is good for my spiritual life too. One of my favorite places to connect with the Lord and with other people is around the fire. There is a calming and focusing quality to the activity of building and nurturing a fire. It provides enough activity to allow for pauses and silences that are needed for good conversation, but not too much distraction to draw attention away from people or from God. On a cool night a fire also causes people to draw close to the warmth it provides, softening the barriers of personal space, and moving people towards people. 

I look forward to building a fire tonight. In doing so I’ll make dinner, serve my wife, relax and hopefully have some great conversations too.

 

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Running Buddies

On most weekday mornings when I’m not traveling I workout at our local gym. This ritual is a holdover from my Army days when morning physical training was part and parcel of the military lifestyle. Don’t get me wrong, I no longer rise at 5 am or run with a reflective belt. Instead, I’m content to move at a snail’s pace on the treadmill with my shirt-tail out while taking in a podcast or two. I miss the camaraderie of the Army morning routine but not the sore back that comes from running 5 days a week.

As my feet pounded the rubber surface I found myself reminiscing about younger running days. I found that most of my memories were purged of the pain and dread that comes with 5 mile compulsory runs. What remained were thoughts of people who suffered along with me. I thought of a particular fall day at West Point. I was 19 years old and decided to run the Marine Corps Marathon. The Academy required that any cadet who signed up for the marathon complete a 20 mile run as part of their training regimen.

Somehow I missed the organized 20 mile run with all the other participants. In typical Gabe Smith fashion I waited until the very last-minute before coming up with a plan to complete the requirement. I waited so long that it was nearly dark on the last day available to finish the 20 miles. My only option was to run on post from the cadet barracks to Thayer gate, a distance of 2 miles round trip. I needed to run that 2 mile loop 10 times.

I suited up in my preferred running attire, the classic yellow cadet rain jacket and black shorts. I was never known for my sense of fashion. At the last-minute I sent an email to some of my friends and told them what I was doing. As it turned out, this was the best decision I made all day.

Under the light of a setting sun I began the first 2 mile trip. When I returned to the starting point for trip number two, my friend Kevin was waiting for me. He ran the next two miles with me, encouraging me and distracting me from my pain. When we returned to the starting point my friend Joe was waiting. He ran the next two miles. Every 2 miles a new friend showed up to run with me.

I planned to run alone and even though I didn’t ask for their help, my friends knew me well enough to know that I needed their company. One of the things that the Lord is teaching me at this stage of life is that I’m not made to run alone. I’m made for community. Today I remember my Army buddies and I’m grateful for them. I’m also infused with a new sense of gratitude for the people who will encourage and do life with me today.

Lord, thank you for friends who run with me.

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