Thursday, March 24, 2011


When we were younger, the Ryan kids all loved a certain vacation destination: Mendocino.  A rugged county in Northern California, always known for its most beautiful coastline and stunning State Parks.  The steep cliffs meet the crashing waves of the incredible (and mis-named) Pacific Ocean.  It was like my own dramatic Wuthering Heights. When we visited the shore, I was usually overlooking the scape on a large rock with a pen and notebook, while my brothers and sisters looked for shells, observed tide pools or fished with my Dad.  

Mendocino connotes gusts in summer; tastes of camping food; conversations around campfires, and great fun with my family. 

Here, Scottsburg has become my "new Mendocino".  We just got back from 5 days off (together- in a row!!) spent at the small city just South of Durban on the Indian Ocean.  My friend, Debbie invited us to her family's place, and she spent three of our five days there with us.  It never got cool, and in the warmth of the "autumn" days we were dunking ourselves in the pool in the garden or getting in the warm and salty waves of the neighboring beach.  It was wonderful, fresh and absent of cell phones or internet connection.  My laptop stayed in its case.

It's been a long time since I went on vacation in least 25 years.  Then, the thought of appearing on the beach in my swimsuit left me a knock-kneed, self-conscious mess about not being pretty enough, or having enough curves for a swim suit.  I never felt comfortable on the beach, where California girls with baked brown skin and long, blonde hair were around.   I think the poor girl I was back then would be absolutely shocked to see the woman I have become: running around in a swimsuit!! This plump 48-year-old with no business showing herself on any beach!!

Youth is wasted on the young.

My week off was spent without any makeup, my hair pulled back in an unflattering pony tail and me not caring how I looked because it felt so good to be so anonymous...and to relax.  That is, until I saw pictures of myself.  "Who the hell is that woman?" I thought to myself... only to comfort myself  in a loving embrace.  I have wasted too many years believing that I am not pretty, thin or stylish enough and I won't do it to myself anymore.   I am precious, and have as much right to wear my swimsuit on a beach as anyone else.  

Just not a bikini.   

During one night of intense South Coast heat - and in a house with windows for air conditioning , we were flopping on the comfortable couches and watching a movie.  I got up to get another glass of wine, catching a glimpse of myself  in the TV screen.  "Is that me or my mom?" I said aloud.  Mario, playing a game on his ipad, answered without thinking.  "Stop it, Janet," he said. "You are an incredibly beautiful and sexy woman." Thank God I have him.... he always knows just what to say.  Married 24 years this year, he has learned how to switch on the auto-pilot and schmooze his way to a perfect 10 on the scale of good husband support. 

The best part of time away is the time I get with Mario.  We share our rest times, our meals, and (my favorite time) our study time in the  morning.  Under a shade umbrella, outside with good coffee and the Word of God, I can look across the table and see the man I married, and who he has become. He soaks himself in studying the intricacies of the Word of God:  Biblical chapters and reference materials in front of him, he is seldom distracted by sounds or butterflies or geckos.  My orange pen (with which I have a special relationship) is a simple fine point.  My notes are made right in my Bible.  

We both seek His Voice.  

He who is our heavenly father, who is our Great Comfort...our Direction, our reason for living....

In the times of vacation I miss my family, and am reminded of many vacations past.  If I mention them more than ever, it is because this season has been particularly hard being separated from them.  I guess vacations are reminders of family and family times.  

Back in Johannesburg this morning, we are again confronted with reality.  A friend and church leader weakening with sickness and in the hospital.  Japan's quake and its damage affects us all.  Friends taxed and working toward their weekend.... and everyone happy to see us back.  

Happy to be back... very.  Rest is good, but we are called to Africa to be with others and love them in the best way we know how.  Pray,I ask you again, for us to be effective for the Kingdom of God.... and bearers of light.  

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


Gustave Dore's wood engraving of Jonah being "beached"
To repent is to make a "U-turn" - to go back, to change direction.  A U shape implies falling, then returning to the right way.  Repentance is a gift, since most of us don't know when we are on the wrong path.  

The first book I ever read in the Bible was Jonah.  It is a reason I remember well: it was short.  Four chapters, readable and juicy as ripe peach.  

I was drawn in by the story: A man who hears God, ignores Him.  He then buys a ticket for an ocean voyage, gets in a boat and hides.  After a few hours, the sea and the sky toss up a storm so violent that it looks like they're all going to die, and the sailors cast lots (throw dice) to see whose fault this is (even heathens have their ways of supernatural experiences).  They find Jonah and tell him they know it's his fault (the lot said so), who admits he's running from God, who they tell him to pray to.  Jonah has another idea: "Throw me into the sea!" 

They do. 

The storm settles and everyone prays to Jonah's God, the all-powerful, who calmed the sea and the storm.  Jonah, in the mean time is swallowed by (my Bible said) a fish.  He makes it to the fish's belly and spends (wait for it....) THREE DAYS there.   He vascilates from feeling sorry for himself and then praying to God for forgiveness.  As the Spirit of God breaks through, Jonah's heart is changed, and he's vomited up on shore.   

The thing God asked Jonah to do was something he was good at: preaching.  God asked him to go to a city called Nineveh and tell them to change the way they were living, or else He wouldn't be their God.  Jonah didn't want to do it for one reason: he knew they would hear and change and God would forgive them.  Since Jonah hated Nineveh (they were easy to hate, apparently), he wanted to see them burn in hell...or earlier.  

Nevertheless, as a servant of God, Jonah makes the hike from the shore where he is vomited and into the big city of Nineveh, where he preaches.  The Bible makes no mention of him being shunned for smelling like fish...but rather, wherever he went people listened.  The "mayor" of the city actually declares a time to go without food and pray as a city to God, who they have forgotten.  Jonah tells them - "Do this or else you'll all burn!!" 

After delivering the message, Jonah heads for high ground and waits for the fire of God to fall and wipe out those terrible, awful Ninevites.  As he waits, he gets hot (there is no shade) but a vine grows quickly and shades him.  Then it withers from fire for for Nineveh, no vine to shade him...and Jonah is mad at God again. God asks him why he's upset about a little vine that died....when he's not even concerned that Nineveh will now live.  Which is more important?? God asks...all of Nineveh, women and children included, or a little shade plant??  Jonah doesn't answer...the book ends with God's question.

I didn't question the story as a young eleven year old.  I just read it.  I thought it was cool that I could read the book in one night.  After all, reading the Bible was about the third most boring thing you could do as an eleven year old, right?  

Now, at 48 and here in South Africa, our pastor is preaching this on Sundays.  It is years after I have been in the place of a Ninevite (a jerk not worthy of saving, who had forgotten about God); and not so long in the place of Jonah (being asked by God to do something I didn't want to do...and then not doing it).  I listen from the front row, seated next to Mario. 

Even today, the story of Jonah has grown.  It has become a personal story to me... one that makes me sure that I do not know the limits of God's mercy...and love.  

I can't imagine the literal reaches of the story.  Written in Hebrew, the book of Jonah says God PREPARED a great fish (Dag Gadol) to swallow him.  Some historians say the words 
Dag Gadol  is one that was used because at the time there was no Hebrew word for "whale".  I find this hard to believe, since the Hebrew language, so high and technical, would be lacking in anything.  

A whale is a mammal and must resurface for air.  With very few exceptions, most whales eat small things, and wouldn't be tempted to swallow a human being thrown over a boat.  Futhermore, most whales don't visit the Mediterranean Sea because of its deep and shallow so close together, but sharks are prevalent.  

If you know sharks, and people are like sharks, they constantly are hungry.  They swallow things they later realize they shouldn't have.  Bodies of whole men have been found in their bellies, but never alive.  

Most sharks are cold-blooded, and live in different waters than most whales.  To maintain their body temperature, they must burn fuel (food) like a furnace.  This process is called "endothermy", and is ...ahem, "costly" to those who are swimming near them.  A few sharks are warm blooded, and surprisingly have to eat even more than their cold blooded cousins.   

Most seas can't support the high-energy carnivores of the sea.  They literally can't produce enough fish to support one shark.   So....sharks are known for eating anything floating (or on its way down).  The Great White Shark (seen in Jaws), undeniably one of the sea's greatest predators, can (and does) feed on virtually anything that swims.   

The food is then moved to its U-shaped stomach (full of very strong acids and enzymes) and begins to dissolve most of what is eaten. The stomach then converts everything in it to an easily absorbed, soupy mush. Indigestible things, (like very large bones) are vomited. 

In a sense, a shark swallowing Jonah is less hard to believe than Jonah being kept alive in its belly for three days.  Even if you get into the complicated (and mathematical) argument of Hebrew days not being 24 hour days (Esther 4:16 ; 5:1), a shark usually likes or dislikes its food within a 24 hour process.  Jonah, by all accounts,  was in there longer.  

The thought of Jonah actually repenting in an acid-filled stomach where not much oxygen is... is not palatable, shall we say?  I would rather see him, like Gipetto and Pinocchio, in a vast cave inside of a whale. BUT...this is reality.

It makes me laugh...a belly- laugh.  If it were not so familiar, I'd say it was impossible: someone so recently "repentant" turning quickly into a person demanding the hell-fire and brimstone to wipe out the people who were running from God.   Jonah forgets, as I do, that he was just as guilty not so long ago.   It is a sin, or condition, of people who walk closely with God...and it warns me to be careful. 

Our Father,who is capable of more mercy than we could ever dream, has a way of redeeming everything.  He got Jonah's attention while he was burned by acids inside of a belly, and then had the fish vomit him up.  He sent a smelly prophet to a big city, who preached nothing but damnation, and the whole city changed.  

It is easy to repent when you realize you are lost without Him stepping in and making things right.  

It is true...and I believe it.  

Sunday, March 6, 2011


The LORD says, "I love justice and I hate oppression and crime. I will faithfully reward my people And make an eternal covenant with them. They will be famous among the nations; Everyone who sees them will know That they are a people whom I have blessed."   (Isaiah 61:8-9)

Lourens, Chris and Lele, taken on a trip in 2007

Last Tuesday night, one of my best friends here, Portia, had a murder/robbery occur next door to her.

A gang of robbers, armed with guns and knives, broke into a dwelling that was attached to a "spaza shop"(a small market in a township neighborhood).  After taking money and everything of value, the gang began to leave, until one of them tried to rape the 14 year old daughter.  One of the robbers yelled "Get off of her!  That's not what we came here to do!"  In the argument, the would-be rapist was shot by his fellow thief, and killed.  The rest made off, and came back with a stolen truck to collect the valuables they left behind.  Instead of meeting the awaiting victims, they met a band of police, who quickly arrested them.  

The story is unusual.  I heard it the next day (Wednesday) at my ladies' prayer meeting.  One of the members, Trish, told the story as I listened.  Apparently she heard from her employee (and my friend) Lele.  I marveled at the story, but wondered why I hadn't heard before Trish (kind of a 12 year-old reaction).  I left prayer and called Portia who told me the same story.  I asked if she was okay.  She said that God had not only protected them, but He had "kept the boys asleep" during the shooting and later commotion with the police.  I asked her if she wanted to stay the night.  She politely refused, and said she'd call me later.  

The next day (Thursday) the school where she works was robbed by two armed gunmen.  They made off with a great deal of cash, but were apprehended on the highway going to Soweto.  Again, a traumatic event, but again, God's intervention.   I asked her if she wanted to stay the night; this time she said  "Maybe tomorrow." 

The next day (Friday) Portia's private transport to work was shot at and a window was broken.  Again, no one was hurt.  She didn't want to come over that night, but asked if I could pick her up the following day.  I agreed.  

On Saturday, after a meeting with Dumisani and Monica, then another with the City Ministry Group leaders in Diepsloot, I took Portia and the boys home and made dinner.  Our meal nearly ready, Mario answered a phone call and went outside.  

We were nearly ready to eat, but could see that the phone call was important.  Mario came in from the patio and said, "Lele, Lourens and Chris have been arrested." I thought I heard wrong.  Our golden boys, our adopted "sons" here in South Africa, the church leaders who spoke several different languages and all worked in well-paying professions....could not possibly have been arrested.  

I choked on my drink.  "WHAT??!!" I asked, almost at the same time Portia rang out the same question.  

"That was Chris, and there's a bunch of racket in the background and he says he's being beaten by the police." I couldn't believe it.  Questions flooded my head, and made their way quickly out of my mouth: "Where are they?" "What do you mean, beaten by the police?" "What are we going to do?"  Mario was getting his shoes on.  He answered one by one.

Chris, Lele and Lourens, all under 30, were travelling in a car together and were stopped by the police.  They were being searched and one of them asked why they were stopped, or what they were being searched for.  The policemen said "That's it..." and arrested them.  They took them to the Florida Police station (well known for corruption and misdeeds) and beat them, either on the way, or while they were there.  Mario, fueled and ready to go, kissed me on the way out the door, leaving me with meat still frying on the stove.  He was going to pick up Dumisani and would come home with the boys.  
Mario and I hosting our first Christmas in South Africa (2008)
 with Lourens in blue, Chris in white and Lele in black.
It was 2006 when we made a trial move to Johannesburg.  Among the many people we had a connection with were the three amazing guys about the same age as our own sons, all from Diepsloot: Lele Radebe, Lourens Malatjie, and Chris Malanthwa.  They were "brothers from another mother", or covenant friends, and they fit into our hearts quickly.  

They loved us, quickly warming to us enough to call me "mom".  Equally, they respected Mario as a leader and trusted him as a friend.  Before long I referred to them as "the boys" like I used to our own sons... until someone corrected me. 

 "You shouldn't call them 'the boys', since it's a derogatory term here for a man-servant that belongs to you." The country's climate, still recovering from Apartheid, didn't make allowances for ignorant American party-crashers.  I was horrified and quickly apologized to them.  They all laughed, saying that  I was exempt from this, since they well knew my heart.  "We are your boys, mom," Lourens said, "and you are our mother."

So, fast forward four years...and it's yesterday.  I stood, frozen in my own kitchen, with Portia beside me in the same state.  It didn't take long for me to see that Mario was on a mission and Portia and I would be on another: to pray!  We began, praying right through dinner, after singing and praying, then later, after a movie, praying some more.  

Mario sent word from the police station that our friends had indeed been detained and it looked hopeless to bring them home that night.  There was no way to arrange bail, no way to get a straight answer, no way to see them, since it was after dark.  What was wonderful, however, was that everyone else close to them was on the case like we were.  Joanna, Lourens' employer, had arranged for our mutual friend (and member of Parliament), Greg to meet them there at the jail.  He brought along a ward councilman, and both worked with the police to find a resolve that would satisfy us all.  

To get answers was the most challenging.  No one seemed to know why they were arrested, other than the charge of "interference with duties of a police officer".  No one could tell them if they were okay, until the team of guys there  made it clear that the boys had been beaten .... and by the police.  As this was investigated, the captain came out, asking questions of Mario, Dumi, Greg, and the councilor.  They asked again to see the boys, but clearly understood that this would not happen.  The captain offered to go see them, and make sure "they were okay".

Mario said she came back later, saying that she had seen them and they were alright (they didn't or couldn't know how accurate this was).  She also said that one of them said they were beaten by the police and that she would launch an official investigation in the morning.  She was adamant; telling them to come back then.  

The Junction eldership has been a part of a movement in South Africa called "Nation Building".  It works by partnering with those in Justice, education and government to build a social responsibility network among the most influential in our country.  The team strives to further the justice and freedoms and rights of every individual in South Africa, specifically for the poor and unrepresented.  

Craig, our lead elder, the founder of Nation Building, South Africa, was keenly aware and interested in the progress of the fate of the boys, and as Mario and Dumi and Greg left the station, he asked to be further updated in the morning,as they went back.  

Church in the morning.  Portia and I made preparations to go to the service with Darrel and Eby as Mario prepared to go to the jail.  His car had a pesky service light blinking, but he decided to take it anyway.  

It died in our driveway. 

So, he left with my Volvo and I made arrangements for Kim (our neighbor) to take us to church.  

The first service began with prayer for the guys, led by Jim, a leader in the Justice Department.  Lots of questions about the guys came our way, and we scthced the story as well as we could.  People didn't seem surprised.  Corruption in the Police Department was part of South Africa.  

Soon Mario messaged me to tell me he would see me soon, at the second service, the one translated into Zulu.  I asked him if he was coming with the guys.  His answer was no, but before my heart could sink, I read the encouraging message: "I got to see them, to touch them.  I couldn't hug them, but they're okay."  Tears came into my eyes.   He said a lot had happened, and Jo and Gladys were going to take over the vigil at the jail.  

Before long, Mario came into church and began to jump in as if the events of the last week were normal.  We were updating the congregation about the guys, but also made room for Portia's testimonies of faith, of protection.  Cynthia and Michael testified of healings. Bessie testified of prosperity and change.  I could feel the encouragement we all needed...and then Mario preached.  It was amazing.  It fired the whole church to believe for the incredible, the unexpected.  

We came home and ate.  Soon, an sms from Jo: "The boys are about to be released." came through.  

Then another: "There has been trouble getting case numbers."  "There has been theft of some of their property".  There were, Jo relayed, issues of the police using condescending and manipulative tactics to get the boys scared of laying a case against the arresting officers.  All for the sake of "justice"...a corrupt department trying to cover its own tail.  

BUT...the boys were being released.  Jim insisted they be examined by a private doctor.  He offered to cover the cost.  Jo sms'ed that we should meet all of them at Life 4-ways hospital...the same hospital that Mario had his stones removed...kidney stones, that is.  

We drove to the hospital, first picking up the church 4x4 to fill in for our car, still lame and defunct in our driveway.  We made our way there, and came in, seeing a table filled with friends:  Lele, Lourens, Chris, Jo, Gladys, Jim and another young man, Sipho (the fourth man in the arrest).  They were diligently retelling their story to Jim, where details unfolded of abuse of power, of friendship and of injuries they had sustained.  Upon seeing us, the boys, tired but relieved, smiled and hugged us. 

I expected to cry, to fall apart.  Instead, I was so happy to see them as themselves that I just returned their smiles.  Chris and Lele, the ones who had reported being beaten, were making preparations to have an examination.  Lorens and his friend, Sipho, continued to sit with us and tell us the whole story.  

Tomorrow is the court arraignment.  Instead of leaving early for our scheduled vacation, Mario will take the boys to court in Roodeport, a local court in Northern Joburg.  

Tonight, my blog is long and disjointed, but I type as a woman satisfied.  Not with the injustice of attacks on my friends, but in the justice of our mutual Father, who will be the boys chief defender and chief cornerstone.  He saw them through the fiery furnace of the jail, He can see them through the days ahead...and this case against them will fall, crashing with the usual sound that justice makes: 

A whisper of satisfaction.

Breakfast before World Cup - 2010.   Eby and Darrel in yellow,
Portia in Orange, Chris in blue jersey with stripes.

Friday, March 4, 2011


The AMPAS statuette that is called "Oscar"

For most of my life I have been watching movies.

For half of my life I have paid attention to the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences' Awards, also known as The Academy Awards, aka "The Oscars".  The trivia about the statue's name is that Academy's secretary, unimpressed by the design, said it resembled her Uncle Oscar.  The leading diva in those days, Bette Davis, was married to a man named Oscar, so upon receiving hers, she named him Oscar, after her husband.  Largely disputed who named the nude statue, it remains an example of how Hollywood can't agree on even the simplest issues surrounding the statue.  

Still, the night that the statues are handed out in Hollywood has had a  history of fun, food and sharing stories in my life.  The talk that day has been of who should win, who WILL win, and who our personal pick is.  The buzzing is second to only the program: where for the last twenty years has been accompanied by a party. 

Certain movies take me back to places in my life where I have been, some pleasant; some painful.  Their lines, actors, direction, cinematography and scores can conjure up emotion in me immediately reminding me of another period:
Sleeping Beauty: (I was 5) A yellow station wagon at the drive-in movies, where the three fairies descended in coordinating pastel sparkles and captivated me beyond my world;

Sound of Music: (10) My first trip to a walk-in theater where tears were hidden by darkness.  I was Maria;
The Hiding Place: (13) a school field trip that changed my life and called me to live beyond the normal, and be outrageous...for God;

Young Frankenstein: (13)seeing it with my parents and seeing them laugh made me love Mel Brooks (the first director I ever noticed for directing);
Kramer vs. Kramer: (16) a date movie I picked with a less-appreciating boyfriend who said the movie was boring and lacked flavor, Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman were the most amazing pictures of people.  I forgot they were acting....

Ghostbusters (21) I laughed so hard my boyfriend abandoned me at the movie theater... we later broke up.  I remember the day for the movie lines -- which were incredibly quotable and repeatable.

Amadeus (22) the first film of epic proportions that began my extreme love and appreciation for every facet of movie making....

You get the picture (no pun intended).  The films weave themselves in and out of memories of my life... and are lasting testaments of time.  A good film can make us punctuate our lives with it.  It serves as a marker, a historical landmark of where we were.

I think the reason I have grown in my love of film is that so many others, no matter what their education, economic status or religious affiliation share my love and enthusiasm of the medium.  I also have an uncanny ability to memorize movie lines without even trying, I think because down is the writing that I appreciate the most.

Some of you have known me so long that you can play the movie-line game with me.  Quote a movie line that we've both seen and I can (usually) tell you where its from.  It's not a precious talent, just a fun one.

Living here in South Africa, we are slower to get the Hollywood releases. No one really plays the movie-line game with me.  I don't know which films are showing in America, unless I watch American news shows.   The last film I have seen in the cinema here was "A Serious Man" by the Coens, and I just found out they directed and produced the new True we'll see it soon.

I thought I'd miss the lifestyle knowing all about newly-released films and who made them more than I do... Cultures here are much different; values are very different.   It is difficult to explain, but you can't miss what is not heavily valued, unless it is sacred to you.

What I do miss is hearing my friends opinions about the newest flicks... and I really had a lot.  I miss Matt and Shannon hosting us for the Oscars with our private ballots... and Patrick and I playing "six degrees" before church.  I miss comparing films with Vince (also an oficianado) and Alicia (who can quote a funny movie line better than I can).

I miss going to the movies to be alone to see, Like Mia Farrow in The Purple Rose of Cairo, a world outside of my own, an escape for two hours that will stay with me all day.  I miss seeing films with Mario, and our friends... sharing a passionate look at the world , like with Hotel Rwanda; laughing it up (and almost wetting my pants) with them,like Meet the Parents, and seeing the super-quotables that have almost a peanut butter quality of guilt and protein at the same time...and can stick to you for years, like The Royal Tenenbaums.

This last week the Oscars aired one day after it did in the States, and a local movie channel showed it.   Mario taped it while I was at book club.

The whole thing was amazing.  I loved the dual hosts (Anne Hathaway reminds me of my friend, Nicole, and James Franco reminds me of my brother, Steve).  They were pretty hilarious...but not as good as Billy Crystal.

On any night.

Last year I was dismayed about the more than 5 nominees for Best made it even harder to choose.  What would we do at Matt and Shannon's???
Can you imagine how the limited releases are released here? "What the hell is The Hurt Locker?" I said to Mario the day after the awards last year.  I still haven't seen it.  Mario has.

This year I was more used to the idea of more films being nominated for "Best Picture".  Even though I haven't seen ANY film that was nominated, the awards were enjoyable.  Why? Because... because... because....

I love movies.  I love actors.  I love screenwriters.  I appreciate the medium and it is easy to appreciate the ones who make it.

The trailers for each release are available on youtube, and just recently I have watched a few.  The trailer for  The King's Speech made me well up with tears (not just because of its stellar cast or its incredible premise) but the writing and the score seemed beautifully coordinated. The Black Swan trailer is gorgeous and horrific at the same time, which, I understand is the world of the prima ballerina in the film.

Want to know a family secret?? (Lean closer to your screen while I whisper) Mario can't play the movie-line game...unless he quotes True Grit...the old True Grit.  How's the new one??

First-run movies have taken a back seat in my life... and it is surprising on Academy Awards Night.  Still, it is a life-change here I am required to accept.  I have stepped into a culture and a world that isn't as escape-oriented and that doesn't champion film the way Americans do.  I expected withdrawal, but instead, I found I can manage without the newest films here.  I can also get less upset by the Academy's choice for picture/actor/actress than I used to.

So, last Monday Mario and I watched the Awards he had the commercials and enjoyed ourselves.  There was no special candy (our family Academy Awards parties came with the privilege of our kids picking a large package of their favorite candy from the store, even Alicia, who has type 1 diabetes); there was no popcorn (my mom used to make Jiffy-pop...we had microwave bags with Butter!); no vibrating cushions (in Matt and Shannon's old house I sat on the floor and propped myself up against the most comfortable pillow-chair with a "magic massage" option) and no other friends.

Just me and my only American friend best friend, watching a pre-recorded show with a bottle of slow red wine and sharing our feelings about all I've written here.

It was a good night.

 An escape.

I loved it.