Tag Archives: friendship

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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