Canoes & the upside-down ways of a coming king



Random kayak from

I’ve been thinking about those tiny canoes, dancing in front of giant USS nitro.


It happened at Christmas, in 1971. The USA was bombing women, children, and hospitals in Vietnam. The Quakers wanted to do something about it. But what could one small group of Friends do in the face of an entire army, with bombs and napalm and the economic power of the state? 

They’re so small. Just a handful of people. What could they do?

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And then I wrote a Kindle book.


In just about three weeks, the season of Advent will be upon us. It’s one of my favorite seasons. When I was younger I loved it because I loved Christmas, and any build-up to Christmas was just part of the magic. More recently I’ve loved it because it’s an opportunity to intentionally reflect on some of the big things I believe about God, and what Jesus coming to earth really means for all of us messed up people.

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1. Two part Book summary: The End of Memory by Miroslav Volf

51L9wnCkiiLMy birthday, senior year of college, I missed hearing one of my favorite authors, Miroslav Volf, speaking at Taylor. My loving fiancé attended his talk, and got his most recent book (at the time) autographed for me. This book has been sitting on a shelf in the attic in Minnesota for the past three years, along with every other book in our possession. I just finished it, and since I know most of you won’t have time to read it, I thought I’d save you the trouble and give you a summary–because this book is full of hard stuff for us people who think of ourselves as being for social justice. It’s easy to think of justice in terms of guilty and innocent, oppressed and oppressor. But Volf (like a very kind doctor) makes us sit down and take our medicine. Makes us actually apply our theology to the world around us, and asks us some very hard questions.

I’ll summarize the book in two parts, and then give some reflection on it. WARNING: I’m super summarizing, so I won’t be explaining every concept (especially forgiveness, which Volf has written extensively about elsewhere)—but if something peeks your interest, I’ve titled my sections after the chapters in his book, so you can find them. Also, it’s pretty heavy stuff (and long)– but also worth wading through. Here goes:

Volf frames this book by talking about his own experience of abuse in Yugoslavia, when he was randomly held and questioned for many months. He speaks of the abuse he endured by his interrogator, Captain G, and then asks the question: How should he, as a Christian, remember Captain G? How should he remember the wrongs he has suffered? If he does not want to hate or to disregard Captain G, but walk in the way of Christ, of love and reconciliation (even in his mind), how should he remember?

Elie Wiesel 2008 (wikipedia)

Elie Wiesel 2008 (wikipedia)

He explores some common ideas about memory and social justice. Elie Wiesel is famous for his views on memory. He sees “Never forget the Holocaust,” as moral imperative. To remember keeps the memory of the victims alive, helps them to heal, honors their experience, and serves as a shield from repeating past injustice.

Volf affirms these ideas, but then brings up the flip side—he points out that we shape memories, too. We remember in certain ways—not always truthfully. That in the victim there is the temptation to demonize the perpetrator (he can think of Captain G as utterly evil, when in fact, perhaps Captain G was a good father. People are complicated and contradictory like that). The victim is also tempted to remember herself as entirely innocent. Volf points out that in his memories, he never dwells on his own anger, feelings of vindictiveness, or even self-righteousness he had towards Captain G –rather, he is always right.

Memory can also be used as a weapon—look at how the memories of the Anglo-Boer war were used to stir up Afrikaner nationalism which ushered in apartheid. Look at the genocide in Rwanda between the Hutus and the Tutsis. It’s not enough to remember—we need to remember rightly.


1.We should speak the truth, and practice grace as we remember. As followers of Christ, we are bound to remember the truth of what happened to us, but also the truth of who we are. Volf and Captain G stand together at the foot of the cross, equal sinners. We must resist the temptation to demonize each other. We wrong the other person when we exaggerate their evil. Equally, the perpetrator has an obligation not to minimize their wrong-doing, either. It’s not that the evil must be glossed over; rather, it should be looked square in the face, for what it is—not more, not less.

2. Wounded self, Healed memories:  Memories are folded into our identities, but we choose how we identify ourselves. We can control and shape how we interact with these memories. Volf can see himself primarily as a victim of Captain G, or he can see himself primarily as a valuable human, saved from sin by Christ, who had a terrible experience being interrogated in his youth.

Volf says, “Christians believe, however, that neither what we do nor what we suffer defines us at the deepest level. Though the way we think of and treat ourselves…does shape our identity, no human being can make or unmake us. Instead of being defined by how humans relate to us, we are defined by how God relates to us…we are defined by God, not by wrongdoers’ evil deeds and their echo in our memory…they may live in us, but they not longer occupy us; they may cause pain, but they no longer exhaustively define us. We are more than what we have suffered, and that is the reason we can do something with our memory of it…” (p80).

3. Frameworks of Memories. Volf also says, then, when we remember, rather than being shaped by a victim/perpetrator narrative, as Christians we should wrap our memories around a sacred narrative. The Jews were to wrap their identity around the Exodus story, and we are to wrap ours around the Passion: the death and resurrection of Christ.

The crossing of the Read Sea, Sistine Chapel (wikipedia)

The crossing of the Red Sea, Sistine Chapel (wikipedia)

Exodus: Every year, Jews were to remember Passover, but remember God’s gracious deliverance rather than re-hashing the oppression of the Egyptians. Focusing on the Egyptians could have led to xenophobia, but instead, there are many commands in the law to “welcome the stranger and alien, because remember you were foreigners in Egypt”. Israel’s national identity was built around God’s gracious deliverance, and that was the kind of people they were to be. It’s not a memory of past wrongs suffered, but a memory of God’s deliverance from past sufferings. Israel is to be on the side of those downtrodden, remembering God is the one who will one day bring justice to all. We are able to remember rightly, and not distort or villainize the perpetrator when we are confident that an omnipotent and faithful God will deliver us.

Passion. Volf says,

“For those who see the world in strictly simple moral terms, with clearly divided camps of the righteous, deserving vindication, and wrongdoers, deserving punishment—any talk of grace and reconciliation seems sentimental, even immoral. .. for Christ’s passion embodies the core conviction that, under certain conditions, the affirmed claims of justice should not count against the offender.if the salvation of the world, not justice, matters the most, it is also understandable that a lover of humanity would embrace the grace of the Passion—and suffer under the scandal of justice both unmistakably affirmed and unequivocally transcended” (p. 111).

Paul’s account of the passion in Romans 5:17 scandalously affirms love for not just the victims, but also the perpetrators. While we were still powerless and trapped in sin, Christ died for the ungodly. Christ reconciled us to God through his death, but the Passion memory also “anticipates the formation of a reconciled community even out of deadly enemies” (p.119).


Michelangelo’s “The Deposition”- shows Nicodemus helping Jesus down from the cross

The memory of the Passion does three things:

  1. The Passion memory teaches us to extend unconditional grace (for this is what we have been shown).
  2. It teaches us we must affirm as valid the claims of justice as well. “The extension of unconditional grace does not disregard the demands of justice; rather, grace recognizes those demands as valid…forgivers forgo the punishment of person who deserve it and release them from their bonds of guilt…” (p.121)
  3. It hopes for communion—we forgive the offender, and hope for communion with them as well.

Because our identity springs from being beloved of God, notwithstanding our sin, we don’t have to frame ourselves as perpetually innocent and the wrongdoer as perpetually evil. We are free to be truthful. We are able to oppose wrongdoing with grace:

…that is remember wrongdoing so as to condemn it and so as to be able to work for just relations between the wrongdoer and the wronged…The wrongdoing is remembered as a condemnable injustice committed against a person, who, in his own way, is also condemnably unjust…it wards of the dangerous tendency toward self-care at the expense of others…brings healing in community and with wrongdoers, not at their expense.” (p.125).

I figure that’s enough to chew on! Part Two later this week.

Which part of all of that struck you as new or interesting?

Healed beggars and other delightfully compelling acts of God that people can’t ignore.

HEALED BEGGARSI’m still thinking about that shriveled, old, beggar. That moment when Peter stretched out his hand, helped the man to his feet, and the thin, crooked legs became strong and the twisted angles straightened, and even though the man was still as thin as a rail, he gasped with astonishment and slowly, shakily at first took a few steps, then laughed, and took a few more steps, then gave a little hop, then laughed some more.

And a crowd started to gather. And murmurs rushed through them, like the rustling of leaves, “Is that him? Isn’t that the beggar? Can he really walk? Is that him?” And the beggar shouts, “Yes, it’s me!” And he runs, and laughs again, still so astonished that it’s really his own legs holding him up. “I’m healed!” he calls out, and then he repeats himself, jumping on each word for emphasis. “I! (Jump) Am! (Jump) Healed!” (Jump, jump, jump!) And then he sees Peter and John over by Solomon’s colonnade, and rushes over to them, now eye level (now no longer looking up at them) and he gives them a huge sweaty, smelly hug, and starts blubbering with joy and won’t let go.


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Subverting the empire with prayer and other whispers of hope

These past few months, I’ve been spending less time in Sweetwaters/Mpumuza and more time in the comfy suburb of Hilton… and it’s been making me quite bitter. For some reason, it’s easier for me to hang on to hope in Sweetwaters. There’s poverty, there’s suffering, there are things that make me want to cry, but you can see the Kingdom pushing through. The fieldworkers are there every day loving those kids, there are stories of changes, and even when it’s two steps forward one step back, there’s this feeling that you’re going somewhere. A feeling that God is here and things will change.

But I’ve been hanging out more in the world of Hilton (due to scaling back my hours at iThemba to work on my masters), which is just as sick and just as in need of redemption, but here it’s been hard to hang on to hope. It wasn’t bad at first. I was all fired up, ready to be a part of building bridges, ready to intercede, ready to see God change… well… everything.

And then it was the lead up to the elections, and whitefear was choking people’s conversations, and everyone was still thinking about how to protect their own interests, moaning about the government and longing for the good-old-days, and tightening the bubble closer around themselves.

And the stuff I was reading for my masters showed story after story of how verbally white South Africa has said yes to democracy and unity and reconciliation, but actually is still trapped by fear and prejudice and is even passing that along to their children. I went on holiday to the coast and the very kind Christian people who were letting us stay in their self-catering accommodation made racist comments. Then I read a report that proved that over 1/3rd of the time, black South Africans will be refused holiday accommodation on the KZN  coast, simply because they are black. And then all my readings were full of people throwing around big words like ‘transformation’ and ‘hegemony’ but after a while, they started to sound like they were just that—words—being used to publish papers, not to actually change anything.

And even the Christian community was stifling me with how dedicated it was to same-ness. How dedicated it was to being stuck in a rut, and being okay with that. How blind it is to how someone from another income bracket, another culture, another race, another family type, another sexual orientation might feel in their group. And I realized how entrenched all these things are, how stubborn, how deeply, deeply rooted. In Sweetwaters, I don’t have to have awkward conversations where someone assumes I agree with their view about how badly the blacks are running the country (usually veiled in nicer language than that, of course). What do you do in that moment? Sometimes I say nothing because I’m scared to rock the boat and I don’t want to offend them. But sometimes I say nothing because I literally do not know what to say—how can you let comments like that slide, but how can you address it when this poor person clearly just wanted to make small talk, and deconstructing the racism actually embedded in their comment will probably get nowhere. (And then sometimes I do say something, but come off holier-than-thou and alienate people even more, which is just completely the wrong way to engage people and I just make everything worse).

And so slowly paralysis set in. And prayers trickled off.

It wasn’t prayers for revival anymore. It wasn’t prayers that this insulated, inward-looking community would become a radical out-ward focusing light to their neighbours. It was just the occasional, “Oh Lord, help!” (And often in the form of  a sarcastic muttering under the breath after something I heard or experienced). I was Elijah saying, “Enough of this, God. Just take my life and get it over with. That would be much easier than this. I’ve been working my heart out for you, and your people don’t give a rip and now they’re even trying to kill me.” (Okay, okay, it wasn’t that bad. But it feels like it sometimes).

But God quietly whispers to Elijah in the midst of his anger and bitterness, he whispers gently that he’s not alone (in fact, there are 7000 others who love God, too), and there is still work to do.

And I’ve heard God’s whispers lately (when I’ve stopped ranting enough to hear them).

I heard him whisper in the all-Hilton church prayer meeting before the elections, where the body of Christ came together and prayed not for ourselves, and for our lives to be comfortable, but for justice, and widows and orphans, and hungry people, and servant-leadership.

I heard him whisper in our church small group, as we’ve been discussing Generous Justice, by Tim Keller, and how our small group and church and our individual lives can express the generous grace and justice of God.

I heard him in a woman who came up to me after church one day and said, “When you sing, I can see that you really are worshipping. Thank you. It moves me to worship him, too.”

I heard him when our small group pitched in to sponsor a child for iThemba kids camp.

I heard him in the burn ward of the hospital.

I heard him most loudly in this statement, made by the leader at the all church prayer meeting:

Prayer is a subversive activity. By gathering to pray, we’re making a statement. We’re saying we believe we have a God who can change things. We’re not okay with the way things are, and we’re subverting the empire by coming before the true King and saying, “Your will be done.”

And the Holy Spirit slapped me upside the head and said,

You don’t believe this anymore. You whiney Elijah, thinking you’re the only one left. You think this all depends on you. You think I’m sitting back and doing nothing. You think I don’t have power to change anything. You’re wrong. Join me, Steph. Get praying real prayers again, prayers that believe you’re talking to the one with ultimate power. Stop whining and subvert the empire with me.

This is MY people,

this is MY church,

and the gates of Hell

(and materialism, and self-centeredness, and prejudice and fear)

will NOT prevail against it. 


So, what do you all do to rekindle your hope? What encourages you when hope runs dry?



At the beautiful gate


Getting balloon animals ready! Also, funny hats. The normal kids ward has a great play area we could use.

Getting balloon animals ready! Also, funny hats. The normal kids ward has a great play area we could use.

Honestly, the first time we went, I thought, “Oh Lord, anywhere but the burn ward.” I do not enjoy even mild descriptions of anything related to my body. I like that it keeps working. In fact, I loved all the abstract theory of things in biology class. But please don’t go into any details about things like bones and blood and tissue or show me how things work with an actual body.

So when our church Bible study decided to visit government hospitals with Zanini Bantwana on Sundays, I was quite glad that we’d be playing games and telling stories to the more active “social cases” who are stuck in hospital for a long time because their home situation might not be conducive for their full recovery.

But when you arrive at a government hospital, you cross a threshold into a world where you don’t have much control. It’s a world where a child might come in to hospital for a procedure, and end up staying for months (or a year!) because of complications, or because their family can’t help them convalesce. It’s a world where major public holidays like Christmas mean staff probably won’t show up—so if you’re sick, too bad, stay home until holidays are over. It’s a world where you might be completely separated from your family—because they live an hour away, and to visit you daily costs too much (and they can’t afford to miss work).

Hospitals are already scary places at the best of times. Aside from the anxiety around the fact that your body isn’t working right, there’s alien metal things, and shiny tile floors that are decidedly un-home-like, and then doctors who probably don’t speak your language (and if they do, you don’t understand their medical jargon anyway) and fluids and needles and things are stuck into you… and at the worst of times, you’re going through this all alone. And then, if you start feeling even a little bit better, it’s impossibly boring. There are no toys, no games, sometimes a TV set on WWE wrestling for the adults to watch. Not a fun place.

That’s why what Zanini Bantwana does is so cool. Their staff team visits children in the hospitals every day, bringing games and toys, just sitting and holding the hands of children who are too weak or in too much pain to play, praying for the kids, and as their name means in isiZulu, (come children), welcoming children towards Jesus. The Jesus who will be with them when life is unpredictable, when their family is far away, or when they feel alone.

Some of the awesome ZB staff who visit on a daily basis

So, when we entered the unpredictable world of the hospital, we found out there weren’t any social cases, so we’d go to the next ward with the most children, and that day, it was the burn ward. And I didn’t realize how joy and life and fun there could be in the burn ward, how balloon animals and a chance to strum a guitar for themselves could bring so many smiles (note: balloons+whitepeople hair= static electricity and major laughs). Sure, there were some funny hospitally smells coming from the bandaged hands and feet and in some cases whole bodies. There were children under tents, with just their faces sticking out. Last week there was a girl who was badly burned all over her body just crying because of pain, and her mom who was visiting her that day had to walk away, because she felt so bad there was nothing she could do. But that same girl  was also so brave that she got out of bed and made her way down to the end of the ward where children were gathering for songs and a Bible story (her feet were the only part of her body not burned). Sometimes there were missing limbs. Sometimes you would meet the mother, and see that her whole body was also completely scarred from massive burns. Mostly burns that happen because we live in a country where some people don’t have adequate electricity, and depend on gas heaters, paraffin stoves, unsteady portable gas burners, or candles and fires for light, heat, and cooking, and it’s much more likely for accidents to happen. And now that it is winter, there will be more and more burn cases.

See the kind of weirdos I have to go to Bible study with? (One of these people is wearing a wig. Which one?!) :)

See the kind of weirdos I have to go to Bible study with? (One of these people is wearing a wig. Which one?!) 🙂

But there was also hope. The comforting (and heartbreaking thing) is that these kids are just that—kids. I had a twenty minute game of peek-a-boo with a two year old confined to her bed with burns the other day. And we were both in hysterics the whole time. (I love it when people think I’m funny!). We flew paper airplanes and made puzzles. We blew bubbles and bounced balloons around the ward. David paced up and down playing guitar, or trombone, and letting the kids play, too. (Another one of my memories from a previous week, when we were not in the burn unit, but the general pediatric ward, was a pencil thin child who wanted to strm the guitar. And when I brought it over, he wasn’t satisfied to strum, but sat up so I could put the strap over his shoulder and he could hold it himself. He concentrated on strumming, and when his consentration was interrupted by a balloon popping at the other end of the ward, he looked at me, rolled his huge eyes, gave me a knowing look and shook his head “Kids these days. What’s with them? Can’t get a moments peace in this ward,” his face said. So much spunk!)

“Visiting these kids is not about investing in the future leaders of South Africa,” Alan said the first time he chatted to our group. “It’s not work that’s going to have any huge impact on the world as we know it. It won’t change the course of South African history. It’s not anything big, or glamorous. But by being with those children, by loving them, by visiting them, you’re making a profound theological statement. You are affirming the image of God in them. You are saying they are special, and that God loves them. “

The sermon this Sunday was about the lame man at the Beautiful Gate. What a funny contrast: the lame beggar, dirty and disheveled—noticed, but not acknowledged—laying at the Beautiful Gate. And everyone’s rushing in to pray, and the irritating call of “alms! alms!” is so normal that no one hears it anymore. But here is the Kingdom: Peter and John stop. (The disciples of Jesus have learned a thing or two after spending three years with him). “Look at us,” Peter says, and the beggar stops his hum-drum whining and eagerly looks up, expecting a few pennies.

“I don’t have silver or gold,” Peter says. The beggar’s face drops.

“But what I do have, I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.” And he stretched out his hand (Jesus did that a lot, too. Touching beggars, the people nobody else would think of touching), and helped the man up. And his ankles straightened, and his legs grew strong, and he was healed!

And I think sometimes that I am like Peter and John, that I’ve hung around Jesus enough that I actually  notice someone that society isn’t acknowledging, and somehow Jesus Christ of Nazareth lets me be a part of some exciting, upside-down, better than you ever could have imagined Kingdom work.

But then sometimes, (and this, I think, is how it really is) I’m the beggar sitting outside beautiful gate, doing what I do every day, not expecting much.

And then I meet Jesus in disguise

in the burn ward of the hospital,

and I get something unexpectedly better than anything I could have imagined.

If you want to learn more about Zanini Bantwana, and the amazing work they do, they have a website/blog and a Facebook page. If you want to learn about an initiative to help improve burn care in South Africa, visit here.