Sunday, July 3, 2011

Toiletry bag

In January 1997 I went to the Vanderbijlpark (South Africa) city center to buy groceries and to see if I could find a half decent toiletry bag to replace an expensive tan leather bag stolen a year or so ago, when I lived in Israel.  Whilst in town I decided to telephone David, an old business acquaintance, based in Johannesburg, about 45 kilometers north of where I then lodged.

Map of Vanderbijlpark, South Africa
(South of Johannesburg)

I had rented a room in a house and did not feel comfortable using the property owner’s phone so I bought a phone card to call people, on the rare occasions I needed to do so.

Unbeknown to me David and his live-in girlfriend had arranged a "late Christmas" dinner for a select group of friends who could only all gather on that specific evening.  His girlfriend suggested I join them.  Having quickly prayed about the situation, I felt released to go, and accepted her invitation.  They were not Christians.  In fact, David’s girlfriend was involved in the occult.

The end of the month was approaching.  I did not have sufficient cash to pay my rent.  Failing to do so, I risked bringing people’s perception of Christianity in disrepute, especially given my particular walk with God, based on my understanding and application of Scriptural principles.  Towards both ends, I had been praying for the funds to be provided by my Father in heaven.  A day or two in Johannesburg I thought might relieve some of the financial pressure in the interim.[1]

Having returned home, I packed a few possessions: virtually all my clothing, my walkman and all my Christian tapes, along with my bibles.  Included among the few items was a brand new spare pocket sized bible, which I intended giving to the woman God had told me was to be my wife.  It was going to be my first present to her.  Although not expressed as such, I became aware that she had longed to own a pocket-sized bible like mine.  My meagre possessions consisted of four pairs of slacks and a few shirts, all of which I have owned for a few years.

On my way out the house, I informed the landlady that I would be away for a few days.  She requested the telephone number of the people I was going to visit, "in case someone tried to contact you."  No one ever did, and although I thought it unnecessary at first, I somehow relented and gave her the number.

I have not owned a car for years and as I headed out the front door to the location where I could get a minibus-taxi destined for the next town (where I intended boarding a train), I bumped into my landlord, fixing the fence gate.  I explained that I was on my way to visit some friends and that I would see them again in a few days' time.

He amazed me by asking me to hand him the front door keys.  In my forties, I had always been a responsible individual,[2] but the way this person, my brother-in-the-Lord, treated me made me feel as if I was an irresponsible teenager who could not be entrusted with something even as basic as his own keys.

Moreover, he seemed intent on lecturing me on the need to hear and obey the Holy Spirit.  As I took the keys out of my pocket to hand it to him, not knowing what I would do upon my return if they were not at home, he suddenly changed his mind, intimating I should keep it.  The truth, I suspect, was that he was suspicious of me.  Most “respectable” people my age had a job, owned a home or at least a car, and had a family.  I was a bachelor, owned nothing, and to him must have had all the hallmarks of an unfeigned vagabond.  This is how the world often evaluates people like me.[3] 

Through the years, I have become aware that Christians who do not understand, or even attempt to grasp, another’s walk with the Lord are often extremely suspicious of those not fitting their ideological paradigm.[4]  They are forever scrutinising one's actions.  If it even slightly deviates from what they believe to be the truth, they will quickly bring to disrepute one’s authenticity as a servant of God.  Often these actions actually typify a feeble attempt at giving credence to validated ignorance.  Suchlike rarely take God at his word, which in any event they do not truly want to understand or really trust, hoping instead to substantiate their theories of what Christianity represents, or their self-righteous version of it at least, through the observation of the “erroneous” actions of those they distrust.

Crossing a highway, I waited for 30 minutes or so for a minibus-taxi, which then surprisingly detoured through the now world famous Sharpeville Township,[5] to pick up additional passengers, before heading on to the Vereeniging taxi rank.  From there I left for the train station.

The Cornwallis Harris street home, Vanderbijlpark, South Africa
(circled, in which the blogger rented a room)

Google Earth image of Vanderbijlpark, Sharpeville and Vereeniging 

Map of Vanderbijlpark, Sharpeville and  Vereeniging

A black man came up to me and asked where I was heading.  He promptly decided to "accompany" me to the station.  On reflection, it may very well have had something to do with the unfolding of events.

I decided to purchase an inexpensive “third class” ticket, effectively travelling with the poorest of South African society, the way most blacks still do today.  I had just returned from Zambia and wanted to get a sense of this section of the South Africans society, which to my shame, I did not know all that well.[6]  I settled next to a window at the end of the carriage and, whilst waiting for the train to depart, instinctively began to pray, asking the God to protect me.

A man boarded our coach attempting “selling” beverages to passengers.  No one bought anything.  The train slowly filled up and we soon sped off.

Other than occasionally unobtrusively observing my fellow commuters, I was pretty much occupied with my own thoughts, when, suddenly, a man stood in front of me asking me for a cigarette.  I said I did not have any.  Before I knew it, another black man joined him. 

It soon became apparent my expensive lambskin leather bag was in their sights (purchased years before, when I had been in business and travelled regularly).  As if in slow motion, I watched the one man attempting unzipping it, then deciding against it, electing to take the whole bag instead.  The other man wanted to know where I hid my "gun.”  Then proceeding patting me down, searching for one.

Suddenly, as if he was in complete control of my life, he simply stuck his hands into my pockets, turned them inside out, concurrently retrieving whatever it contained: a few peppermints, whatever little cash I had left—and the house keys.  Staring at the items in the palm of his hand, I thought, “My landlord’s concerns are going to be realised—and I will never hear the end of the loss of his keys.”

Surprisingly, he then handed them back to me, but took the rest.  When the train halted at Meyerton, the first stop on route to Johannesburg, the looters exited the train.  Looking at them approaching the sliding door, I noticed the “beverage salesman.”  He aimed at me with his forefinger, his thumb stuck in the air, as if it represented a gun pointed directly at me.  Fictitiously he then "fired a shot," as if to say "I got you," winked at me, and got off the train with the rest of his gang.  It instantly became clear to me that I had been a target of an organised syndicate.  They specialised in robbing people on the first section of this route, having had the opportunity to selectively scrutinize and entrap their unsuspecting victims prior to their departure.

Back in motion, the remaining commuters caused an unbelievable ruckus.  People who previously quietly minded their own business now all of a sudden spoke to one another in their respective African languages.  It was surreal.  I was the subject matter but might just as well not have been there.  No one said a word to me.  This properly reflected a completely segregated South African society.  When asked they, as suspected, informed me that gangs had been robbing them for years along this route.  No one had bothered to warn me beforehand.  For reasons of their own, probably oppressive fear over a protracted period, they were conditioned to tolerate criminal behaviour.

For the remainder of the journey I sat wondering why this had happened to me, especially since I felt God had released me to visit my friends in Johannesburg.  Today I regret not having, under the circumstances, preached the gospel to them!

The train eventually stopped at Germiston station, if I recall correctly.  All the occupants disembarked.  No one got on.  There I sat all on my own for a while before it slowly dawned on me that the train had reached its destination.  I was miles away from mine. 

From nowhere a black woman approached me.  Unable to speak one another’s language, she motioned at me to follow her.  I did so.  She rapidly walked down a subway.  On the other side, she motioned for me to climb the stairs up onto another platform, and promptly disappeared.  Black commuters inundated the platform, awaiting the first available incoming train.  When it arrived they quickly filled the coaches.  Instinctively, I joined them.  Sitting squeezed in like sardines, watching all their faces, I truly hoped it was heading for Johannesburg.

Sitting there, yet again contemplating it all, He suddenly said, “I am going to pay your rent.”  I found it ironical, having lost virtually all I own, but grateful, knowing this indeed would be the case.  I had no idea how.[7]

Arriving at Johannesburg I walked to a police office.  I had in my possession an empty coke can, belonging to one of the criminals (which he had used to drink water from and had left behind on the scene of the attack).  I wanted it finger printed, hoping to identify its owner.  The man on duty referred me to their main police office.  There an apathetic police force confronted me.  Even though I was their only "client," no one seemed interested in assisting me.  The man eventually taking down my statement wanted to know why I was not upset.  I told him that God is in charge of my life, that nothing adverse can ever happen to me, of which He is not aware.  Upon hearing this, another officer took a temporary interest in me but, after asking a few inconsequential questions, summarily dismissed me as if I was a piece of chewing gum that had lost its flavour, no longer satisfying his taste buds.  All his colleagues were lounging about, watching television.  It dawned upon me that this was the new South Africa, revealing exactly the same disregard for people, and an approach to life, I had first witnessed a few months prior in a Zambian charge office.

The friends I went to see, I discovered, were not listed in the telephone directory.  I was stuck.  I had no cash and no means to inform David, as arranged, that I had arrived at the train station.  Standing there wondering how to solve my dilemma, I suddenly remembered that my landlady requested his telephone number.  

Having contacted her and then my friends, the policeman who had taken my statement escorted me to the place I had arranged to meet them.  He did not seem to want to leave me.  My testimony of my walk with God, I knew, had somehow touched him.

Arriving at David’s residence, he introduced me to their friends, sitting beside the swimming pool.  I did not know any of them.  Later, during dinner, I learnt one of them was educated in boarding schools.  His parents worked as missionaries in Zambia, primitively living among those they had hoped to reach with the good news of the gospel.  He had deeply resented his upbringing and turned agnostic.

After breakfast the next morning, David excused himself and disappeared.  When he returned, he handed me a toiletry bag, containing all the necessities he deemed essential: a toothbrush, toothpaste, a razor, blades, eau de cologne, etc.  I later saw all the items he dad purchased, including the bag, at a Clicks store, selling such utilities.  He’s an extremely wealthy man, having made on excess of R 50.0 million[8] on the sale of two businesses, and lived in one of the most affluent suburbs of Johannesburg, but I was very happy to have received a plastic toiletry bag, which I knew came from the hand of God Himself—as replacement of the bag stolen in Israel.[9]

The Toiletry bag

Along with the bag, David also gave me R 500.00—precisely the amount I needed to pay my rent—just as God had said He would do.[10]

Having spent a few days with my friends and the woman God had told me to marry, I returned “home.”  Having out of necessity bought a pair of slacks in Johannesburg I now had less than the amount required for my rent.  None of it made sense!  Without options and without sharing any of the above with my landlord, I asked if I could pay him for two weeks in advance, instead of the full month.  He agreed.

Before the next payment became due, God divinely moved me to another dwelling.  How this happened is an altogether different account of the goodness and mercy of my heavenly Father and His mysterious ways, who knows one’s needs—and meets them all—as one walks out one’s destiny in Him.[11]

It never ceases to amaze me how clearly one can observe God's hand, even in the midst of a seemingly disastrous situation, whilst some brothers- or sisters-in-the-Lord, who deem their Christian philosophy superior, never experiences God like this and are, for the most part, oblivious of His dealings with others.

My landlord knew about the looting.  I have informed his sweet second wife of the fact.  He subsequently took it upon himself to inform me that we are supposed to use our god-given intellect,[12] thus implying that I was a stupid and deceived believer, but I would not have traded the events I had experienced for anything on the face of the earth.

The man who had staged the robbery was a lowlife, living a desperate life of petty crime.  He thought he was savvy, but in reality totally oblivious to his wretched condition before God and man, blind to his sinful condition, and in desperate need for the wonderful, gracious Saviour of us all.

Noticing him, casually leaning against the front of the coach before him also getting off the train to survey what had been stolen I, in turn, pointed my finger at him and said in my innermost being: “Get him God.  He desperately needs Your saving grace.”  He heard me.  One day, perhaps only in eternity, I will learn how He responded.

My “old man”[13] would have placed detectives on the trail of all the perpetrators and, having tracked them down, would probably have dealt with them decisively in terms I do not even want to contemplate.  I have come a long way and, at His own discretion, in His own way, He had made me aware of it.
Even though I knew it from other Scriptural accounts, I had once again spectacularly experienced God's divine hand on my life.  That in itself is more precious to me than all the material goods money could ever hope to buy or far worse, all he erroneous Christian theories flowing from man's self-righteous concept of who God is and what it means to be a Christian.

There was, however, something far more important at stake, the significance of which, I only understood later.

I had no idea God was going to send me to some of the poorest nations on the face of the earth in the years that lay ahead [14]—nations, which Satan had ravaged for decades, through all the evil he could muster.  Unless I was being dealt with at the core of my being, being clothed with Christ, I could never serve Him under such circumstances, something which a bless me Christianity, believing and preaching a prosperity gospel, rooted in a western cultural mindset, but unsubstantiated by the overall volume of Scripture, do not begin to understand or appreciate.

One cannot reach or serve the desperate through self-righteous actions and one cannot truly trust and follow Him under those circumstances unless He leads one into tough situations where one learns that He is completely trustworthy and just in all His actions and in pursuit of what is on His mind.

[1] Awaiting God’s response had always been tension filled to me.  I have since sought His face to tension free await His answer and have largely succeeded in doing so.  However, one can never be totally free from it as He might, for reasons of His own—normally for our good—decide not to answer us, or respond in a totally unexpected way, which usually is the case.
[2] Although there may always be the risk of self-justification or inflating one’s self-perception or -importance, I should perhaps mention here, with no ulterior motives whatsoever, that I have had a reasonably successful corporate career in one of South Africa’s major financial institutions.  My position had overall responsibility for the staff of the nationwide branch network, generating approximately half of the organisational revenue.  I had resigned my employment in order to pursue of my own ideology and objectives, via several successful business, which I started from scratch and operated for a number of years, prior to re-evaluating my life in the light of Christ, as revealed in Scripture, which, in turn, led to an altogether life altering change.
[3] I suspect this was also how Jesus was being evaluated!  He was not a “respectable” member of Jewish society, and although hard to ignore, was suspiciously viewed by most in authority as a troublemaker.  In referring to the “giants of faith,” Scripture declares of some: “They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented— 38 of whom the world was not worthy.  They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth. 39 And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, 40 God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us.” (He 11.37-40, Emphasis mine.)  This is not something most believers I know aspire to emulate!
[4] “We live in a modern world,” some wanted me to comprehend, implying God’s ways had somehow changed and that I am delusional in (even attempting) walking out what had been assigned to me in Christ.
[5] World famous because of the massacre that took place there on 21 March 1960, when 69 people were killed (including 8 women and 10 children), and over 180 injured (including 31 women and 19 children).  This was a key event in the apartheid struggle, eventually leading to the rightful liberation of many South African blacks.  Read more about it in the following Time Magazine article.  Although living near it, it was, in practical terms, light years removed from my lily-white world.
 [6] Raised in a white culture, I was completely unfamiliar with black South Africa's society and their aspirations.  The circumstances under which I predominantly interacted with other cultures were in a work related setting.  Unfortunately, this is still true for most South African whites (and blacks).
[7] One never does.  He is a creative Being, purposeful and full of surprises.  In every encounter with Him, one learns something new about a variety of issues He wants one to come to grips with.
[8] In 1995 monetary terms.
[9] The Judeo-Christian God is not a cheapskate—but reveals the human heart, i.e. how people view themselves relative to others: “And He [Jesus] said, “What comes out of a man, that defiles a man. 21 For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, 22 thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within and defile a man. (Mk 7.20-23, Emphasis mine )
[10] There are diversities of [spiritual] gifts, but the same Spirit. 5 There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord. 6 And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works all in all. 7 But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit [of all:] 8 for to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge [as in this case] through the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healings by the same Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another [different] kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills,”[10] with And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”  (Ro 8.25, NIV, Emphasis mine, in both instances.)  The “logical” mind, devoid of godly insight, says He can provide but will not continually sustain—unless it is on a basis we can comprehend and endorse in terms of our lifestyle.  I recall a brother-in-the-Lord (for the first time) “offering” his last cash to God at a church service, asking him to restore in tenfold.  During lunch, later that same day, he received a phone call informing him that a relative who has died has willed him precisely tenfold the amount placed in the offering plate.  (It was not much, but I had to remind him what he had asked had been provided by Him.  He did not initially perceive it as God’s answer to his request.)  When I afterward shared this with a believer (whose son was a missionary in India) she summarily dismissed it as an inconsequential, once-off incident, that he would quickly spend it and be back to square one.  My brother-in-the-Lord, on the other hand, learned a valuable lesson that day and began trusting Him for far more from then on and eventually came to trust Him completely.  The same incident left them both with vastly differing perceptions and insight of the God the one purported to serve and the other actually did.
[11] For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,” says the Lord. 9  “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts. (Is 55.8-9) with “For after all these [aforementioned] things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. (Mt 6.32-33, Emphasis and annotation mine)
[12] An argument often used by Christians as ideological justification for their worldview.
[13] The un-regenerated man.  In this respect please refer to the following texts: “Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”    4 Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”  5 Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” (Jn 3.3-6) with For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be [in the likeness of His] resurrection, 6 knowing this, that our old man was crucified with [Him], that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. 7 For he who has died has been freed from sin.” (Ro 6.5-7) with This I say, therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind, 18 having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart; 19 who, being past feeling, have given themselves over to lewdness, to work all uncleanness with greediness.  20 But you have not so learned Christ, 21 if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught by Him, as the truth is in Jesus: 22 that you put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, 23 and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, 24 and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ep 4.22-24) with “… you have put off the old man with his deeds, 10 and have put on the new [man] who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him …” (Co 3.9-10)
[14] Via various prophesises received since this incident.

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