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Monday, June 28, 2010

The Life & Times of Louis & Amber - Keeping Ben Busy

The following letter is from Ben Stangl, my cousin who is here for the summer.  He summarizes the last few weeks very well, so I've gotten his permission to publish his letter to family and friends here on my blog...

Greetings from South Africa, Weeks 1-3

For those of you not familiar with the details of why I am here, this is a brief description of the work I am involved in. Restoring Hope International (RHI), is an organization focused on breaking the destructive cycle of AIDS in South Africa, specifically in the Welkom area. What is their approach? RHI field staff and qualified South African house mothers will raise abandoned and orphaned children in safe, family home environments. The necessities of clothing, food, and shelter are not the only things provided, but also moral training on godly living and which may result in an aids-free portion of the next generation of responsible South African citizens. I am here with Brian and Lois Niehoff and my cousin Louis and his wife, Amber O’Tool working on the construction of Restoring Hope Village where the children’s homes will be and the Niehoffs and O’Tools will be living.

I am now almost a third through the eleven week visit here, and as with most events in life, it goes without saying that the time has flown by! During my trip over, I tried to stay awake as much as possible in order to sleep the evening I arrived. That really did the trick against jet lag, and I dragged myself out of bed the very first morning to begin my contribution at RHI’s property. Since then I have been worked hard enough to continue to sleep well (which comes as no surprise to the family), but the second night I did wake up with a start. It seems it was lunch time back in the US according to my stomach!

As I mentioned, the work here as been labor intensive, fairly steady, and almost exclusively the construction of a fence/wall around the property. The fence consists of 220 lb slotted posts which sit a meter apart for six, 50 lb slabs to be stacked between. Everything is made with concrete, which is also how the posts are secured in the ground and slabs are secured in the post slots. This poses a significant daily workout for me after a year of sitting in classes! However, Amber’s good cooking has kept me at a steady 80 kg.

The construction of a fence around the property of even institutions in the US would not come as a surprise. But here, there is a bigger picture to be seen. Let me take a step back…

The city of Welkom at its peak production in the 80’s produced %15 of the world’s gold! The low income labor that flocked to Welkom for the jobs in the mines live in Thabong, a township outside of Welkom.  Since then, most of the mines have drastically reduced production or closed altogether and have left many unemployed South Africans (as opposed to the white population of Afrikaners).

Townships consist of low to no income housing with dirt roads and small brick houses or tin shacks. Sometimes a yard will have both, as the families, broken as they may be, live so close that the lines between, for example, brother and cousin are often blurred. The Welkom township residents are now left in a worse state of unemployment than other townships because the employment opportunity that attracted them there in the first place was not sustainable.

RHI has employed two young men, DJ and Brilliant, ages 23 and 19, respectively, who live in Thabong. Their wage is a customary 50 Rand per day, under $7. To give some perspective, chap stick runs about 5R and they must spend 12R for daily transportation. These guys were part of a Bible study Louie led during their senior year in high school last year. Now that college is on semester break, many of the other guys have been back and helped out various days. I had the opportunity to attend the one Bible study that they have had since Louie has returned, and their topics included sanctification and the difficulty we all have in ‘doing the good that we would’ instead of the ‘evil which we would not’ as Paul puts it in Romans 7:19. 

The conversations at work also reflect their growth as new believers. For example, what about tithing? Can you imagine trying to sustain yourself if %10 of your income could only buy chap stick? After transportation, a tithe, and keeping your lips moist, you’ve spent just under %50 of your income!

So, all this to say that the poverty that pervades South Africa can lead to the behavior that Agur anticipated in requesting that he be fed with food convenient for him “lest he be poor, and steal.” (Proverbs 30 :9)
Back to the fence…

The wall is just high enough that I can’t see over it, but of course, Louie can! This leaves no view of the facilities that will be maintained within to the casual passers-by. This is security measure number one. Number two is the metal, padlocked pedestrian gates and automatic car gates. Security measure number three includes bars on the windows and the doors that must be unlocked before you may even reach the final deadbolt. The final, yet most important security measure turns out to be man’s best friend, yet somehow the South African’s worst nightmare! Louie has a German Shepherd and Brian has two other dogs.

These security measures I have just described are what you expect to find- everywhere. Or shall I say everywhere but in the townships. When you live in poverty, you do not posses enough things worth stealing, and the little that you do, must be carried with you at all times. In town however, people may go so far as to have razor wire or electricity ran around the top of the walls, and the motorcycle dealer even releases snakes (some sort of constrictor) onto the show floor after hours!

For us, when we were constructing the fence, we could only get enough supplies delivered that we could install in one day. Concrete supplies are not valuable once they have been installed! However, copper is and other metal is. The land surrounding the property used to have street lights, until they were cut down and taken to salvage!

Now that the property is secured, it is ready for the arrival of the container and we can also feel more comfortable that our next construction project will not be tampered with.


Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Life & Times of Louis & Amber - Warmth in Winter

Winter in South Africa is nothing like winter in the US. At night it will get into the low 40's, or even the upper 30's, but during the day it almost always gets up into the 60's - basically it is like a nice October day in Iow. After this past winter that doesn't sound all that bad. However, houses here have no central heating. In fact, building codes require that every room have two vents that are permanently open to the outside, making rooms impossible to heat at all. And that is just for the "proper" houses. Many of the people in the ghettos live in nothing more than tin shacks, insulated by stuffing old newspaper into any cracks. You can imagine how cold it is to wake up in the morning to 38 degrees outside and 45 degrees inside. I've developed the habit of setting out my clothes next to the bed, and then in the morning dressing before getting out from under the covers. On the bright side, you can leave the milk out for hours without worrying that it will spoil. Some of you may know that there is a knitting club that meets at the Carroll Library. During out time in the US we were able to tell them about our work with the orphans of South Africa. They took on a project of making warm items for the kids here. Most of those items should be arriving next week with the container we shipped, and there will be many happy faces to receive hats, scarves, and blankets. A few of the fleece blankets came over in our suitcases when we arrived May 12th. We were able to pass those out to some of the children in our area who had need of them. I've attached a picture of a young girl named Kate. Our family has grown quite close to her older brother and several cousins. You can see that Kate was thrilled to wrap up and snuggle with her new prize. She wanted us to thank the people who made it and sent it over for her - so To the Carroll Ladies Knitting Club: Thank you from Kate Jakuja.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Life & Times of Louis & Amber - Return to Bible Study

On Saturday we were able to hold our first official Bible Study with the Thabong boys since our return.  I say “official” because throughout the construction of the fence, we’ve had several great opportunities to have spiritual discussions with DJ, Brilliant, and recently JT. 
This past week all the schools finished the latest school term, giving the learners a month off of school because of the World Cup.  Usually the winter break only lasts two weeks.  This holiday opportunity gave all the guys a chance to return from their respective institutions of higher learning.
Prior to our departure in September we had been going through a study book called Won by One.  It covers all the major doctrines in a very brief 3 pages each.  It is great because it gave us a launching point on each topic, but then allowed for the boys to ask questions at the points where God was working on them specifically at that time.  While we were gone most of the guys continued their studies, even after they left town for university in January.  In fact, Sam, Alex, Lucas and Makhasi all attend the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein and they were able to continue the study there with other students.
While we were gone we heard from time to time that a question would arise that they needed clarification on.  So we took this opportunity with the return of our study to bring any questions that they may have.  I was amazed and encouraged by the depth of some of the questions.  In particular, it seemed that several of them centered around the topic of Sanctification.
Sanctification can be defined as separation from sin.  There was a bit of confusion however in the different aspects of sanctification.  You see, the Bible teaches that once an individual trusts Christ as the only payment for sin many things happen.  For instance, they are now Justified – meaning made righteous before God.  They are Regenerated – meaning given new life, or being born again.  They are Indwelt – meaning the Holy Spirit now lives within them to comfort, encourage, and convict.  The boys have clearly begun to experience many of the effects of their salvation, and it is thrilling to hear them discuss these things.
In our discussion on Saturday we covered the three aspects of our sanctification.  First, God is able to save us penalty of sin.  Romans 6:23 says “The payment of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  So at the moment of salvation an individual never needs to fear their eternal destiny because the penalty has been removed and eternal life has been given in its place.  Second, God saves us from the power of sin.  Romans 6:14 says “For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace.”  Prior to salvation we are slaves to sin, to serve ourselves unquestioningly.  Now we have the choice whom we will serve.  Third, we will one day experience salvation from the very presence of sin.  I Thess 5:23 says “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Christians have the blessed hope that not only will we have eternal life with the God of the universe, but we will be created anew without the limitations, pain and suffering caused by the curse of sin.
This teaching prompted a couple other questions.  Brilliant asked what you say to people who claim that salvation by grace means you can do whatever you want.  JT asked why some days things seem to be going so well spiritually, you are close to God and you feel that He is working in your life, then you fall back into the same old sin and feel as if you have failed.  Without getting into a couple different sermons on these topics, we were able to find some verses that gave the answers to these very questions.  Romans 5 & 6 talk about our appropriate response to the freedom we have in Christ.  Romans 7 speaks of the internal battle that confronts anyone who would choose to live for Christ.  And Paul says in 7:24-25 “Oh, disgusting man that I am!  Who can deliver me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!...”
I personally found these questions personally both convicting and encouraging.  Convicting because these guys often show more spiritual perception and growth than I do.  Encouraging because these questions are further evidence of a truly regenerated heart.  I told them that every Christian should be struggling with the same feelings.  If you aren’t wondering why you battle with sin, it means that you’ve likely never been saved to begin with.
All in all, the 3.5 hours seemed like 5 minutes.  I can’t begin to express to you how awesome it is to be around guys who, in the midst of a culture of depraved behavior, desire to live for God and have a testimony for Him.  It makes me wonder if I would have the same passion they do if I were faced with the same challenges.  Praise God for His grace in our lives!

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Life & Times of Louis & Amber - The Chameleon Named Jolla

When we started our blog, it was with the intention of keeping a personal diary, while giving everyone back home a glimpse into the daily life of a missionary.  Right now, for Amber especially, we are adjusting back into life as a "normal family" after all the time on the road in the US.  Part of that includes transitioning our children.  Meredith in particular has grown to the point where she believes she is smarter than her parents and always seems to have a better idea than what she is told.

Recently we had a family adventure with a new pet.  We wanted to recount this story for everyone back home.  It also turned out to be a great teaching experience for our daughter.  I composed this story to both inform our readers of this event in our lives, as well as teach Meredith some important truths.  Hope you enjoy...

The Chameleon Named Jolla
Once upon a time there was a small chameleon.  He was no bigger than your pinkie finger.  He was very young, and therefore had not yet attained the wisdom that all chameleons are famous for.

One day young chameleon decided that he needed an exciting adventure.  Life as a simple lizard was much too boring, and he wanted to see what the wide world had to offer.  Even though he had been warned to stay away from any biped creature, for they posed a great danger, he disregarded this warning.  It seemed that those who walk with two legs got to have all the fun, what with all the zooming around in their fancy automobiles.  So our chameleon decided to join them for an adventure of his own.

One day, he made his way to the big white bakkie (pickup truck).  There were several humans placing large, heavy pieces of concrete fence in this truck.  Young chameleon thought to himself “I am cold-blooded, and concrete fences are just the ticket to warm me right up every morning.”  Being a clever creature, as all chameleons are, he put two and two together and knew that those heavy pieces of fence would one day become an actual fence that he could warm himself on.  And he said to himself “How foolish must my parents be to think that humans are dangerous to small creatures.  I will show them that I know more than they do.”

Chameleon waited for just the right moment.  When no one was looking, and after he had checked that the coast was clear of all birds, rodents, and other reptiles that might make a delicious snack out of such a tasty chameleon morsel, he darted from his home.  That is to say, he darted as much as a chameleon can dart, his genus not being renowned for fleetness of foot.  Having made it safely to the automobile in question, our friend shimmied on up, using the tire treads for traction.  And it turns out that he was just in the nick of time to join the large people in their travel.  He felt the engine rumble, a grind of the gears, and then they were off.  As they left the gate, he thumbed his nose at all those who had warned him against such close proximity to human-creatures, chameleons being one of the few within the animal kingdom to possess opposable thumbs – at least of a sort.

Chameleon soon learned that while these automobiles move very quickly, for a small lizard the speed is magnified so that things whiz by faster than his independently rotating eyes could focus.  All he remembered is that the ride was so bumpy it was all he could do to hang on with his opposable thumb and finger appendage.

Finally, mercifully, the automobile came to a halt.  And much to the chameleon’s surprise and delight, he could see in the foreground a concrete fence, the very same fence that he would soon use to sun himself.  Lost in his reverie, he barely noticed that the humans were taking the sections of cement from the truck and placing them next to the empty fence posts to be set.  Soon they would be moving the very slab upon which he now sat.  Quickly, the chameleon decided to make a run for it.  Unfortunately, his feet would not move as quickly as his mind, and after moving out from his shelter, he must expose himself to the view of the humans.

Alas, there was a small human present - Two of them in fact.  He had been warned about small humans.  They, with their insatiable curiosity, were the worst kind of humans to encounter.  And with horror he heard the larger of the two squeal in delight as she spotted him moving.  With speed greater than he could have imagined she snatched him off his post.  “Ouch” he said as she held him tightly between thumb and fingers.  He opened his mouth as wide as he could hoping to scare off this young girl – he had heard that they got frightened of creatures from the reptilian division of the animal kingdom more easily than their brothers…but not this girl.  This girl, he was to learn her name was Meredith, was different than any other human creature he might encounter.  She was neither easily scared, nor repulsed by his scales, beady eyes, or tail.  In fact, she was fascinated.
For what seemed like an eternity she held him, carrying him around like the trophy she thought he was.  She brought him close to that smaller human, but chameleon only saw him wail and run for the cover of his mother.  Chameleon quickly deduced that he didn’t trust his older sister very much – and with good reason in chameleon’s humble opinion.  Finally, she was commanded to find a nice receptacle to hold him, and after some searching a small jar was found.

As she placed him in the container, she said, “I will call him Jolla.”  Chameleon thought to himself “Oh, great!  I’ve been told that once you get a name, you’re in big trouble.  That means they’re going to keep you.”  Little did chameleon know that he had been bestowed with a name of great honor.  You see, this little girl had quite an active imagination.  Within her imaginary realm she had two friends, both of whom live in California.  Her friends were named Alli and Jolla.  “Alli” had already joined the realm of the tangible and real, the name being given to the teddy bear made by Meredith and her aunt Rosina.  Now “Jolla” was to join the material world in the form of young chameleon.

Jolla was placed in another automobile, although by this time he was beginning to learn that he should have trusted his elders.  His adventure was turning out to be more than he could have bargained for.  And it certainly wasn’t as fun and exciting as he had dreamed it would be.  With great apprehension he began to evaluate how the events of life had turned against him.

When this car ride concluded, Jolla found himself being transported past a beautiful garden into a nice but modest home.  He longed to be free to explore that garden, looking for delicious ants, insects, and beetles upon which he so loved to dine.  He knew that given the opportunity, he could disappear into the foliage quicker than you can say “I should have listened to my parents” what with chameleons being the masters of disguise.

After entering the house, Jolla soon found himself grasped again, although this time not quite as tightly.   Soon he was placed inside his new home.  It smelled oddly of peanut butter.  How does a chameleon know what peanut butter smells like?  Chameleons are second only in the animal kingdom to the famed owl when it comes to creature intelligence.

Jolla, while not especially liking his new home, decided to make the most of things.  But his optimistic attitude began to fade as his hunger grew.  He knew that humans liked to eat things such as peanut butter, but were a bit disgusted by his standard fare.  So where was a lizard to get a bite to eat?  He tummy began to growl.

Eventually, the sun set and Jolla settled in for the night.  Early the next morning a shaking of his container awakened him.  “What is happening?” he wondered to himself.  Soon the lid was opened and there was his nemesis, Meredith beaming down at him.  She wanted to hold and play with him ever so much, and since he hadn’t had time to warm himself there was little he could do.  Fortunately, Meredith’s mother told her to put the container on a sunny patch of patio so Jolla could enjoy the benefits of South African sunlight.  As Jolla began to warm, his mind turned back to another discomfort – his empty belly.

As he was contemplating his predicament, he saw another small container lifted above his own.  “What unfortunate creature would now be joining him?” Jolla wondered.  He didn’t have to wait long for that mystery to be solved.  Immediately 18 tiny roaches tumbled out of this container into his home.  “Oh, great” Jolla thought.  “Now not only does my home smell of peanut butter, but it is infested with roaches.”  If only humans knew that chameleons were just as disgusted by roaches as they were.  But Jolla had himself a small chuckle when he thought of these ignorant humans actually spending money to purchase a cockroach, when the same person would also spend money to be rid of them should the need arise.  “I’m sure that human will be much chagrined and embarrassed about buying roaches.”  And on this point Jolla couldn’t have been more correct.
It took the humans three days to learn that chameleons, at least ones named Jolla, don’t eat roaches, no matter what size they might be.  At least they were kind enough to spray him with water twice a day.  If he were free Jolla would be drinking every night through the dew falling on him.  It was nice that these humans weren’t ignorant enough to try putting water in a dish for him – so they weren’t completely worthless after all.

During those three days, filled with frequent visits and inspections from Meredith – in fact, even little Drake and their friend Liam warmed up to him – Jolla often remembered the words of his parents.  Oh, how wise they had been to warn him about humans, and especially to warn him about small humans.  Jolla determined that he had learned his lesson.  From now on, he would trust that those older and wiser than he knew what they were talking about.  He would listen to them and obey, even when he thought they were crazy or mean.

And that would have been that, except after those three days Jolla found himself grasped again and carried out of the house and toward that beautiful garden he had seen at the beginning of his incarceration.  He heard Meredith say “Jolla, we love you, and that is why we are letting you go.  We want what is best for those we love, not just what we think is best for ourselves.”  And soon he was placed on a branch of a beautiful flowering bush.  Jolla couldn’t believe his good fortune.  It didn’t seem true that he could be free.  And on further contemplation, he thought that three days in a peanut butter bucket is a small price to pay to learn such a valuable lesson – the lesson that parents are much smarter than their children and so their children should obey.  And with that, Jolla darted away to feast upon the delicious critters living in that garden paradise.  At least, he darted away as much as a chameleon can dart.

The Moral of the Story:  Children should obey their parents without thinking that they have a better idea.