Category Archives: General Writing

Posts that may be of interest to the general reader, not necessarily with a Christian theme.

Wealth & Poverty: A View from the Shower


How much is enough?  How much is too much? 

Usually the answer we give to the first question is, “Just a little more than I have.”  And the answer to the second is, “However much the people I envy have.”  Will we never be satisfied?

Those of us who have so much in the way of possessions have little or no idea of just how much we take for granted.  I was brought up short yesterday, and was reminded of just how wealthy I am in relation to most people in the world, and even most people in this country.  I was forced to ask the above questions again and to try to answer them more honestly. 

PROTEC Pietermaritzburg Academy runs an educational enrichment programme for high-school students, focusing on Maths, Science, English and Life Orientation.  The overarching aim is to help create more engineers for the South African economy from disadvantaged communities.  Recently the Academy entered seven three-member teams into the regional (KwaZulu-Natal) finals of the national Technology Olympiad.  The task this year was to devise a machine that would, under its own power, drop bottle caps at pre-arranged intervals as it was pulled or propelled along a straight line.  “Horrendously difficult,” one seasoned participating teacher described it.  PROTEC Pietermaritzburg was thrilled when two of its teams made it through to the national finals in Pretoria last month.  It was the only institution in the country to have two teams in the finals, to which only ten teams were invited.  One of the local teams came sixth, an achievement of which the PROTEC family is very proud.

The six team members were asked afterwards what they had enjoyed most about their trip.  For all six it was their first aeroplane flight, first trip to the big cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria, and first-time participation in a national competition, all of which must have been mind-blowing, and all of which were mentioned by the students.  But one of the six said, “It was the first time I have ever had a hot shower.”  And that just stops one in one’s tracks.  Not an aeroplane trip in which we only occasionally indulge, nor any other luxury we also feel privileged to enjoy.  We expect the students to be excited about those things; we are also pretty pleased when such things come our way.  No, this is something we take completely and utterly for granted: convenient, running, hot and cold water; something that is so much part of our lives we no longer think of it as a luxury, as a privilege to enjoy.

Suddenly we are reminded again how incredibly wealthy we are.  Just how much is enough?  How much is too much?

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We Remember


We remember those who lost their lives this day in the United States ten years ago, and those who lost loved ones. Some of my readers will have been very close to the tragedy but all of us were affected in some way. And the consequences of the attacks are still being felt around the world in various ways.

We also salute those who work tirelessly for peace, whether between individuals, communities, tribes, or nations. May we as Christian people live in the world as servants of the Prince of Peace, so that our lives might demonstrate the peace of God, whatever it might cost us; wherever it might take us.

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Stress, Milestones and Pillars of Cloud


This is a view of the main street in Peitermar...
Image via Wikipedia

I have been away from here for far too long.

My colleague was asked how he manages to de-stress from our demanding and rather over-crowded days in Human Resources management.  His answer was easy; he pounds the pavements.  He’s a Comrades Marathon runner (six finishes so far).  And me?  Well, my best method of de-stressing is to write.  You can imagine therefore, since writing hasn’t happened this last month, that things are rather frantic.  But this blog doesn’t usually require parental guidance so I shall refrain from listing the frenzied activities crowding our diaries at the moment.  One good thing, however, is that we have reached a settlement with our recognised union over wages, thus averting a strike that appeared imminent.  Now THAT would have pushed up the stress levels.

In spite of all the fun and games, on 1 July I made it to 15 years working in Human Resources management at the local newspaper. That was celebrated with a gift which helped me buy the laptop I’m using to type this post.  A more important milestone reached on 7 July was Jen and I celebrating 20 years of marriage.  Quite a milestone; it seems more like ten but we won’t ask Jen how long it seems to her.  Dinner at Porcelli’s last night, a wonderful Pacific-rim-cuisine restaurant here in Pietermaritzburg.  John Porcelli is an Aussie who had restaurants in Sydney and elsewhere but has settled here, much to our delight.   And on 21 June my grandson celebrated his first birthday in the rather wobbly city of Christchurch.  Well, to be strictly correct, everyone else celebrated; he simply enjoyed the fuss and the fun things happening around him.

Milestones such as these help remind us of our roots and of our journey.  We celebrate the journey and remember people and places along the way.  We remind each other of what it has taken to get here and encourage each other for what lies ahead.  The danger of course, one that Israel faced in the desert, is that we remember the past with rose-coloured spectacles and wish ourselves back to a distant time and a different place; we become dissatisfied with who we are, where we are, and who we are with.  “If only…” becomes our watchword; the Promised Land is a threat rather than a gift, and Egypt is where we want to be.

I may not have an Egypt I want to go back to but I don’t find myself marching into the future with confident strides either.  A pillar of cloud as a guide during the day and a pillar of fire in the night sounds like a pretty good deal (Exodus 13:21).  I feel pretty sure that I would wait patiently or march forward in confident faith if it were only that easy.  But the fact that the Israelites struggled, even with those advantages, makes me realise that things are never quite that simple.  Is that really God’s fire, or is it Moses messing up the braai (barbecue) again?  Are you sure that’s God’s cloud telling us to move on?  Perhaps it’s just the early morning mist?

Meanwhile I write.  This is where I can (sometimes) distinguish the mist from the cloud and the fire of God from the braai.

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Chilling in the Midlands with Job


Saddle & Trout ViewJen and I spent the weekend about sixty kilometres up the road from Pietermaritzburg further into the KwaZulu-Natal midlands. We were just beyond the town of Mooi River at a place called Midlands Saddle and Trout. As its name implies, guests are able to enjoy the pleasures of trout fishing and horse riding. It is in a part of the country that contains a number of race horse stud farms, and marks the northern end of an arts and crafts, accommodation, cuisine, sport, and recreation route called the Midlands Meander. For Jen and me, however, recreation involves reading, walking (not too much, I’m afraid), a good coffee shop or two, and (for me) some writing on the side. Having taken Monday off we were able to “chill” a little more than we would normally be able to do.

The weather played its part in the chilling process. It would generally be colder up here than it is lower down in Pietermaritzburg, but our weekend turned out to be the coldest of the year so far, pretty well all over the country.

I have a bedside clock, which we brought with us, that shows the temperature. At home, on a very cold night, it’s been going down to 17 degrees Celsius (63 degrees Farenheit), but usually hovers around 19 or, with the heater on, 20 degrees. On our first night here it dived down to 11 degrees (52 F) in the bedroom. And that was with a heater on. Admittedly it’s a pathetic postage stamp-sized panel heater fixed to the wall, which makes absolutely no difference to the comfort of the occupants. But there was plenty of hot water and the resort is very generous with blankets but our noses were frozen, and going to the bathroom in the middle of the night was a mission—tiled floors not helping at all.

The fireOn the other hand, there is a very good fireplace in the lounge, with an excellent chimney, and a supply of wood, but I’m no boy scout. I used firelighters on our first night, which were very effective but left the cottage reeking of paraffin. On Sunday night I tried again with dried grass, twigs and newspapers. The twigs were in short supply, however, and the wood had been chopped into very large chunks; once the grass (which wasn’t quite as dry as I thought) and the paper were gone the wood was barely singed. As you can see, while Jen and I love to get away from it all into the country, we still require four strong walls around us with creature comforts inside them.

Such wimpish behaviour contrasts dramatically with our current daily readings from the book of Job. Job of course was used to the best of the best. Luxury came naturally to him and his family. His sons appear to have spent their time flitting from party to party. Suddenly he had nothing and he was left sitting in the trash heap scraping his sores. His wife had given up on him. “Why don’t you curse God and die?” she said to him. How’s that for comfort from your wife? But Job would have none of it.

“You are talking nonsense,” he told her. “When God sends us something good, we welcome it. How can we complain when he sends us trouble?”

Job, we are told, suffered through no fault of his own. The Psalmist (Psalm 38) was in the same predicament, but he knew that he was there because of his own failure:

“…I am in great pain;
my whole body is diseased because of my sins.
I’m drowning in the flood of my sins;
they are a burden too heavy to bear.
Because I have been foolish,
My sores stink and rot.”

Both Job and the Psalmist found hope in open and honest conversation with God. They told God bluntly what they were experiencing; they expressed their fears and their despair.

Job cried out:

“I wish I had died in my mother’s womb
or died the moment I was born.
Why did my mother hold me on her knees?
Why did she feed me at her breast?
If I had died then, I would be at rest now,
sleeping like the kings and rulers who rebuilt ancient palaces.”

And the Psalmist:

“O Lord, don’t punish me in your anger!
You have wounded me with your arrows;
you have struck me down.”

And later,

“Do not abandon me, O Lord;
do not stay away, my God!
Help me now, O Lord my saviour!”

Nowadays we tend to rant to anyone and everyone who will listen: to our friends, our families, and to perfect strangers in supermarket queues. Our neighbours for the weekend, whose living/dining room shared a wall with ours, spent a good part of the weekend shouting at the television. It was set to the sports channels and the referee, the teams, the horses, whomever, drew their ire. We complain to anyone but God; anyone but the one who really listens; the only one who can take the worst the world can throw at us and turn it into victory and healing—isn’t that what he did on the cross? What would he do with our pain if we would let him?

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Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics


I’m not so sure about those people at WordPress who look after our blogs and make our lives easy and fun.  Did I say “fun”?

A part-time blogger like me spends more time than he’d care to admit, checking on his vital statistics.  No not those ones; the amazing graphs and detail provided by WordPress of people who visit (and, we like to think, read) our blogs.  We can tell where you come from and which pages are read.  But, of course, we don’t know who you are or who reads what.  Your personal details don’t show up anywhere (this isn’t Facebook after all).

Of course, I know, we should just be writing for the sheer joy of it, whether or not anyone reads what we write.  And we do, we do.  But, still, it’s very difficult to leave the stats alone when they are so easy to find.  Just one more look before….  Did they like that one?  I haven’t written for a few days; have they stopped coming?

Last night I sneaked a peak before going to bed.  What a shock I received.  FOUR HUNDRED views!  Ten times my normal traffic.  What happened?  What grabbed everyone’s attention and why?  Did they like the “Squiggles on a page”?  Surely I wasn’t Freshly Pressed again?  But the number of views on individual pages didn’t add up.  Then I moved the mouse over the graph with the 400 on it.  A little window, which usually shows the date and the number of views, popped up.  This time it read, “April Fools – 40 views”.

Well done WordPress, I guess.  I have to confess, I did have a good laugh, sort of.  But the rapid transition from ecstatic to…well, suffice to say, I’m going to have to call my therapist; there’s work to do.

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Squiggles on a Page: The Magic of Reading


Child-readingThere is a magical moment that occurs around the middle of the year, every year, in a grade one class. I have been married to a first grade teacher for 20 years and the thrill of that moment enchants me every year. It’s the moment that squiggles on a page suddenly, out of the blue, morph into words, phrases and sentences. The gates are open, and the child tumbles through into the world of reading and writing.

Last year it happened rather late. Sometime in August (the South African school year begins in January) Jen said to me, “Last week it all clicked into place for most of the children.” Perhaps it was the hype around the 2010 Soccer World Cup, which created a five-week winter holiday. Whatever the reason, Jen thought that the children were more restless, less able to concentrate.

It is impossible for someone who has been reading for 50 years to imagine, let alone remember, what it was like not to be able to read; not to be able to make sense of the squiggles. The Greek alphabet and a Greek New Testament when I was at university were, I guess, a similar challenge. But I had mental tools and written language experience by then to guide me through what was, well, Greek to me. For a child, the slate is clean; there are no links, no associations; only the frustration of knowing there is something there but not being able to find it. It must be something like looking at one of those busy patterns and waiting for a face or picture to emerge. I’ve seen crowds standing outside shop windows staring at those pictures. I confess; I’ve joined the crowds to no avail. Nothing has ever emerged for me. I stand there like a grade one child staring at squiggles, longing for a teacher to make it work for me.

Of course reading and writing skills are subjects of a vast treasure of sociological and developmental research beyond my ken. My wife would be able to tell me something of how it works, but I am content simply to watch from the sidelines, captivated by the enchantment of it all.

ReadingManiacsFor some children it’s an easy transition; others struggle. Some have their own difficulties to overcome; others have external pressures but, in each one, God’s creative grace is at work. Hush, be still; a miracle is about to happen.

 

Related posts:
Odds ‘N Ends  “Mom I know LOTS of words”

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