Heaven Now

May 1, 2010

Late last year I read Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell, for the first time, and there were certain points he touched on in this book that really stood out to me and resonated with my spirit. One of the main things that stood out is when Rob spoke about the concept of bringing heaven to earth. I have often found Christians focus so much on the afterlife, whether heaven or hell, they miss out on what is happening in this life, also not taking responsibility to see true change come in the world we live (due to its “impermanence”). So as we Christians barricade ourselves in our comfortable Christian boxes, protecting ourselves from being “tainted by the evil things of the world” and waiting for the day Jesus rides in to save us, many people outside those Christian-bomb-shelter walls are living in pain, suffering, poverty, injustice, inequality, and a literal hell on earth. Rob says,

“When we choose God’s vision of who we are, we are living as God made us to live. We are living in the flow of how we are going to live forever. This is the life of heaven, here and now. And as we live this life, in harmony with God’s intentions for us, the life of heaven becomes more and more present in our lives. Heaven comes to earth. This is why Jesus taught his disciples to pray, ‘May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ There is this place, this realm, heaven, where things are as God desires them to be. As we live this way, heaven comes here. To this place, this world, the one we’re living in.

Now if there is a life of heaven, and we can choose it, then there’s also another way. A way of living out of sync with how God created us to live. The word for this is hell: a way, a place, a realm absent of how God desires things to be. We can bring heaven to earth; we can bring hell to earth. For Jesus, heaven and hell were present realities. Ways of living we can enter into here and now. He talked very little of the life beyond this one because he understood that the life beyond this one is a continuation of the kinds of choices we make here and now. For Jesus, the question wasn’t, how do I get into heaven? but how do I bring heaven here?

…What’s disturbing then is when people talk more about hell after this life than they do about hell here and now. As a Christian, I want to do what I can to resist hell coming to earth. Poverty, injustice, suffering – they are all hells on earth, and as Christians we oppose them with all our energies. Jesus told us to.”

I like this idea! And what I have seen, through reading about him, is Jesus is less interested in people getting condemned for the things we, and the religious leaders of his time, often perceive as “sin”, and more interested in how we are treating each other, and even more specifically how we are treating those less fortunate than us. You can read in Matthew 25 where Jesus speaks about judgment day, and the criteria with which people were judged were not the usual “murder, stealing, divorce, abortion, homosexuality” and the lot people often rant about. Jesus judged them on how they treated hungry people, homeless people, people in prison, the sick, and he went as far to say that if anyone does something for one of these people who are in need, they have done it to him, but if a person leads a life in which they neglect to look after those less fortunate, then they have in fact neglected Jesus himself.

I recently got invited to fly up to Rustenburg to speak to the youth group of Assembly of God, and in some of the schools in the area. As soon I found out the kind folks up there wanted me to come back up and spend some time with their youth, I began wondering what I might speak on this year. Last year they invited me up for the first time and I spoke in several schools in the area and then in a couple of youth services in the week. It was an amazing time. I enjoyed meeting the youth of the church, schools, and those who live on the streets of Rustenburg; but I felt a special connection to the guys on the streets (maybe for obvious reasons).

A few weeks before going to Rustenburg, when meditating on an appropriate topic for the Friday night youth meeting, I felt the concept of Heaven on Earth impressed on my heart. The ideas and concepts grew further in my heart and mind as my trip to Rustenburg grew closer. I got here Wednesday and have had an amazing time hanging out with the kind people up here. To my pleasure, I have gotten several opportunities to also hang out with the guys I met last year, and some new faces, who live on the streets. On Thursday Leseng, one of the youth I had lengthy conversations with last time I was here, said, “Obama (Did I forget to mention they call me Obama?), you know winter is coming and it is getting cold. I don’t have a jacket,” and another chimed in, pointing to his feet, “Yeah, and I don’t have shoes.”

I told them I didn’t have anything for them just yet, but that I was going to a youth service on Friday night and I would share their plight there. They were happy with that idea. So last night at the youth service I spoke on the concept of bring heaven on earth; ushering it in, in the hell that many people find themselves in. Many of the youth from the streets had also come to the service and they seemed to agree with what I was saying on a deeper level than most. In the end of my talk, instead of an alter call, I shared the predicament of Leseng and the others, and gave the youth the opportunity to bring heaven to that situation, right then and right there; I called for them to take off their shoes, socks, shirts, hoodies, jackets, scarves, caps, and yes, even pants, because many of them played soccer before youth and had an extra pair, and bring them to the front of the church.

I told them to only do it if they wanted to. And sure enough, little by little, the youth began bringing their items of clothing to the front, and the pile grew and grew. Some of the youth from the streets watched in utter disbelief. I watched in absolute amazement as the pile of, mostly name brand, offering grow and grow. How wonderful! After the service, when the shoeless youth cleared the room, some of the guys from the streets got a chance to have their pick at, not just what they needed, but what they wanted. They looked like little kids on Christmas morning.

Frank, wearing a brand new, name-brand hoodie and a new pair of shoes, approached me with teary eyes and said, “Eish! This was good Obama! Miracles happened here tonight!”

“Indeed they did Frankie! Indeed they did.”


McDonalds Redemption

February 27, 2010

Mohammad had the day off work on Thursday because of a doctor’s appointment so when he was finished he just ran around with me on some errands I had to do. One stop was in Claremont, which happens to be an area where Mohammad lived on the streets for a portion of his childhood. He explained to me the glue was cheaper in Claremont and there were less kids there than in the Central Business District of town and that is why he and his friends made the exodus from Cape Town to Claremont. I parked my project’s old beat-up truck in an open space and we hopped out, immediately met by a parking attendant.

She wanted payment straight away, telling me it was 3 Rand for thirty minutes and 6 Rand for an hour. I told her I didn’t know how long I would be and she said I could pay a little now and the rest later. I didn’t like the idea of having to pay twice and after a little bit of bargaining I convinced her that I would pay on return. As we walked away Mohammad complained about these new “formalized” parking attendants, “I don’t like them. What do they know about parking cars, huh? You have to pay them and they don’t even help guide you into your spot! When we used to park cars at least we treated the customers better.” My sentiments exactly.

It was lunchtime so Mohammad and I popped in to McDonalds for some food. Waiting in line Mohammad spoke nostalgically, “Yho! This was the spot back in the day! How many times did I eat people’s leftovers or get good stuff out of those bins,” he said pointing to a rubbish bin just outside the McDonalds windows. “I would collect a bunch of leftover chips from all the containers I found and put them all in one and sit at the table and eat them like I was a customer!” He shook his head and laughed at the homeless child version of himself, almost as if he was watching a mental movie of himself and could even taste the stale fries with that wonderful rubbish bin aftertaste.  We ordered, sat and ate.

At the end of the meal I gathered the empty burger containers, cups, wadded up napkins and other scraps and put them on the tray. Just as I stood and began to pick up the tray Mohammad stopped me, putting his hand on it, “Wait!” he said with a strange sort of excitement. “I want to do this!” It didn’t hit me at that moment why he was so adamant about disposing of our rubbish, but I could tell by his tone it was something he really, really wanted to do. I let him. He lifted the tray, and as he did his shoulders lifted as well. He walked proudly over to the rubbish bin, pushed back the swinging trap door, and let the contents of the tray slide slowly into the bin. He held the empty tray up and spun around with the biggest smile. I had never seen someone throw something away with such joy, and I had no idea why he was so elated but I couldn’t help but feel extremely happy, if not very confused.

As we walked out of McDonalds he strutted as though he had morphed into the Shaft himself! “I used to dig other people’s rubbish out of these bins! Now I am putting my own rubbish in there!” He gave me a side hug as he spoke, “Things are different! Things are changing!”

I returned his side hug, “Yeah buddy they are! And you are! That’s what you call redemption.”

He raised one eyebrow, “Redemption? What’s that?”

“It’s like…when something bad turns into something good. Like if someone throws away a used Coke can, but then someone else comes, takes it and turns it into a piece of art, like that stuff at Green Market.”

His eyes lit up, “Ok! Or like, I used to walk down this very same street, with no shoes, no home and using drugs, and now I am walking down it with these nice clothes, a place to stay, a job, and I am not on drugs?”

I patted him on the back, “Exactly like that!”

He nodded in agreement with a flood of thoughts running through his head, “I am redemptioned!”

I chuckled, “Indeed you are! Now,” I handed him 6 Rand, “you can pay the parking attendant to make it all complete. It will be the full redemption package.”

He took the 6 Rand but protested, “But these people don’t even do their work properly.”

I agreed with him, “Yeah, but this isn’t really about them. It’s about us…you.”

He looked at me, and strongly approved, “Redemption!”

I laughed. We got in the truck and a different parking attendant to the first finally appeared. Mohammad held out the money as she said, “That will be 9 Rand.”

“But we weren’t even here for an hour,” I said.

The lady then began shouting, cursing me in the name of God, and telling me I am “jeopardizing” her job. It was a scene out of a crazy movie. I refused to be overcharged. She refused to be nice. I tried to just agree to disagree with the lady but she disagreed to disagree so I just drove away with her holding my 6 Rand, cursing me in the name of God. I guess the “full redemption package” doesn’t always come easy. I couldn’t believe the nerve of that lady. My adrenaline was pumping and I felt aggressive. I wanted to go back and rip my 6 Rand out of her hand and shout at her…But then I had to remind myself of my own words…it’s not really about them. It’s about us. It’s about me.

Robbing the Nameless – A Story of Homelessness

September 9, 2009

I was sound asleep. By that point I had gotten used to the thin layer of cardboard serving as a mattress in between my sore body and the cold concrete. My closed sleeping eyes had grown accustomed to the street lights that never go out, illuminating us street dwellers as we slept. My response to the rats crawling all over me in my sleep, inspecting, sniffing, burrowing in my pants, had become more subconscious, as I had learned to kick them off without fully waking. The sounds of the city played as a lullaby, gently serenading me deeper into wonderful REM sleep, instead of keeping me awake. At that point, there was very little that could wake me.

I felt my back pack, doubling as my pillow, shift beneath my head. It moved out from under my head, simultaneously to the sound of the front zipper of the bag screaming a warning that the bag is being invaded. That was enough to drag me out of La La Land. I quickly popped my head out from under the blanket. A large, dark silhouette of a person stood over me, holding my bag. My eyes began to adjust to the bright street light.

“Wat maak jy?!” my raspy voice pierced the night air.

Pila stood over me in shock; embarrassed, confused, exposed, and remorseful. He quickly pushed the bag back beside my head. The tone of his voice showed bewilderment and repentance,

“Ryan?! I didn’t know it was you!”

You see, Pila had just gotten out of jail that afternoon. He was not aware that I was spending the 16 Days of Activism sleeping on the streets, and even less aware that I was spending it in the area where he sleeps, and apparently steals from other sleeping street people. As a matter of fact, I was probably the last person he expected to see under that blanket. But that brief, late night interaction with Pila taught me quite a number of lessons; and more deep and impacting lessons, than the obvious one that there is not this magical camaraderie which stops people living on the streets from stealing from each other, therefore forcing them to turn all their attention to the general public.

I learned a lesson about humanity. I realized the dark evil and injustice we allow ourselves to get up to when we see others as nameless, anonymous figures, rather than personal, individual people with names, characteristics, and qualities we grow to know and love. When Pila first approached me that night, he merely saw my blanket covered figure, namelessly lying on a bag, the bag being his next means to his next end. It was easy for him to violate and steal from the unidentified shape. But as soon as my face was exposed, and the anonymous form was given a name, it made the sinister act Pila was committing much more difficult for him.

I had known Pila for the past nine years. He had gotten to know me, appreciate me, respect me, and even a like me; a like possibly bordering a love that a brother would have for another brother. And I for him. Pila knew the dark, blanket covered figures were his friends, comrades, family, and brothers, but seeing them only as dark, blanket covered figures made it easier to take from them. Once the figure is given a name, the task becomes difficult, if not impossible.

Most crimes committed are those of the anonymous nature. And as I sit here at my computer and type, and you sit at yours and read, we may sit with a certain self righteousness, thinking we are somehow better than “those” that go out and steal from others, and even steal from us. Meanwhile, though we may have never robbed someone of their cell phone, gold chain, car or other belongings, we are also perpetrators of crimes against a nameless humanity.

Because, like Pila did with my blanket covered figure, we also allow others  to remain nameless shapes, so our shady acts towards them do not sting so much; sting, not to them, but to us. Keeping people in anonymity is self protection. We do it with whole groupings of people; people we feel are “beneath us” for whatever reason. We pass them up, glare at them, speak down at them, hold back our humanness, and don’t allow ourselves to see theirs. We keep them anonymous because it is easier to treat a nameless person that way.

We may not steal their stuff, but we rob them. We rob them of dignity, basic human interaction, kindness, love, respect, and contact. We treat them bad, and they may treat us bad in return, which we feel then further justifies our treatment of them. And we can continue on, robbing the nameless figures of our lives, like Pila did, or we can uncover their blanket covered heads, get to know them, and they us, leading to a better quality of interaction for both parties. I know how I want to live, and I am thankful to Pila for the lesson and reminder.

originally posted on Moral Fibre

Day 282: 1 September – Two Worlds

September 1, 2009

Today I was on my way to one of the projects I work at, walking back from lunch.

A young man, carrying a black plastic bag of clanking glass, and another plastic bag of unknown items, walked up beside me. He was dirty, beyond the usual “unkept dirty”; dirt was literally caked on his face. His long nails had thick black dirt under them, his clothes look like they had been on and not washed for months, he smelled like a mixture of body odor, horse and mildew, and he had the look of desperation.

I didn’t recognize him as he walked beside me and asked me for five rand. I said I do not have five rand. He asked me for any change I may have. I told him I had none. He asked for a cigarette. I told him I don’t smoke. He gave up his efforts to try and get something from me and surrendered to small talk.

“You go to the soup kitchen much anymore?”

His question made me look at him properly. He recognized me from my 16 day time on the streets, more than 26o days ago. His question was nonjudgmental, in the sense that he did not look at how I am dressed now, and how I was then, and base a conclusion of why I would or wouldn’t go to a soup kitchen on those judgments. I felt embarrassed for not having paid more attention to him in the first place.

“Nah, I haven’t been there in a long time.”

He quickly said he also doesn’t make it there much anymore. He said he was on his way to change those glass bottles because he was starving and he hadn’t eaten all day. And then it hit me. When he approached me, I thought he just saw me as a “whitey”, or a guy to “get something from”, but he had seen me as a “comrade”, someone who had eaten meals with him at the soup kitchen, someone who had to scrape to get by, a fellow “survivor”. We continued to walk and spoke until we went our separate ways.

That short, seemingly insignificant, interaction caused me to think about things.

About what a different life it is to literally have to hustle, scrape, beg, and search for basic survival. How the place we are in in life is relative and also a matter of perspective, not only of self but of others. How we as humans can adapt to pretty much any situation and become comfortable in that. Today, this was the thought that was the most revealing, devastating and wonderful for me. I am again comfortable in not having to scrape for very basic survival, and that world, which I lived in for a brief moment in time, seems again very foreign and far off to me.


originally posted on http://www.365daysofactivism.blogspot.com/

Day 271: 21 August – Nothing for the Cock

August 21, 2009

I was driving today, and just thinking.

It all kind of started when I pulled up to a red light and stopped. It seems red lights have been used a lot in my life lately to provoke thought. So there is this older man who stands and begs at that red light every day. I mean, e v e r y, s i n g l e, d a y!

Though he is a little bit kooky, he does not seem to be an alcoholic or drug addict; the fear many people have of beggars. Nope, this man just seems to be your average, semi deranged, but usually friendly old man.

He strolled up to my window and held his funny looking, clear-yellow-tinted-plastic cup, looking something like a cup one would be given for a urine sample, in my face.

“Nothing for the cock?!”

“Cock” being an old British word, used as a “term of informal address to a man”.

I smiled at him and did the awkward, sideways-nod-and-wink maneuver, to say “No, I have nothing for the cock today, apart from this smile and wink”. Though I know the Cock is familiar with the response-to-beggars protocol and sign language, his request did not stop there.

“Young man, no small change to get me in the night shelter tonight?”

I said, “No, sorry sir. Not today.”

“Nothing? Ok, young man.” He then looked up to the bus driver, sitting next to me at traffic and pointed at me, “What you didn’t know is he is the piano man!”, playing an invisible piano located on top of my car as he walked to the next vehicle.

Though I am getting a bit sidetracked in the minor details of the story, it was at that moment, pulling away from the intersection, that the self proclaimed Cock got my mind a working. I mean, he is there every day. Some days he seems a little irritable, but for the most part, he is pretty friendly, and carries on conversation, even if it doesn’t always make sense. He is not one of those hostile beggars that shouts and raves and goes on if you do not want to give something.

But he is out there every day, in the same place, trying to get money just to live in the night shelter. He stands all day and tries to get money just for basic needs, basic survival. It made me wonder if the Cock enjoys being out there at that intersection every day, or if it is a task he finds no joy in. If standing out there is just a means to an end, and nothing more.

Like a miserable man, in an uncomfortable suite, sitting from nine to five in a small office cubical, hating every second that goes by.

Then my mind just went.

Some people work, and hard, their whole lives, at jobs they do not really enjoy, just for basic survival. Their lives become one big means to an end, until THE end. I started to wonder how many people in the world are so busy working hard to survive that they don’t really ever get a chance just to “live”. I think about where I come from, where the emphasis on success is based on how hard you work, how much education you get, how much “stuff” you acquire, and so on.

People spend the first 18 years of their lives getting educations they might not really enjoy, just to continue on and do 2 to 12 more years of education they may or may not enjoy, just to continue on to work a job they may not enjoy, the rest of their lives, for stuff; and some not even for “stuff”, but only for basic survival.

Some people seem to live to work. Others work to live. But I wonder how much “living” actually goes on.

On any given day…

What is the ratio of moments enjoyed to moments not enjoyed?

How often do we laugh?

Do we take time to really taste the food we eat? I mean, really TASTE it; not just swallow it.

Do we take pleasure in the sights that surround us each and every day?

Do we enjoy each others’ company?

Are we here to merely survive? Or are we here for a much greater purpose?

Some may say, “We can’t all go off and have fun everyday! Someone has to do the work around here!” And though that may be true in some way, I guess I just wish that every “someone” would find that “something” that really makes them feel alive. And that “something” would be connected to their livelihood, and therefore they are allowed to truly LIVE and not just “get by”, in a way that the means is just as fun and important as the end.

I don’t know about the Cock. I don’t know about you. I am evaluating my own life.