July 31, 2009

How to start a riot

I experienced my scariest moment in India last week. We learned about cultural sensitivity the hard way.

A team from America had just arrived to the home for 10 days. They were sent on a scavenger hunt in the city market in order to overcome their fear of communication and become immersed in the culture. Ben and I took part because we had missed out on this experience when we arrived 7 weeks ago.

After an hour of picking up random cheap items, we had almost finished our list and had to take a picture of all our items. So we spread out everything on top of the newspaper in a local language (one of the scavenger items) and took a picture.

Then I started to notice some people crowding around us. “Oh they are just interested in what we are doing” I thought. So we didn’t pay much attention. Then I noticed that the crowd got tighter. I turned around and was a little uncomfortable at all the staring people surrounding us.

Then we heard her.

A Muslim woman was yelling and pointing her finger at us. We had no idea what she was saying. She got louder and louder and shook her finger down at our items. She was beside herself angry. We were confused. “What’s the problem?” I thought. We tried to figure out what was making her so angry as more and more people crowded around to see all the commotion. She pointed to an item on the newspaper, the pair of chapels (sandals). Thinking that she thought we had stolen it, Ben grabbed the matching sandal in its bag and showed it to her. She was not appeased. We were still confused.

Then we got it.

The paper was a Muslim paper, which meant it had religious symbols on it. We had placed shoes on top of it. It was extremely offensive to her. In India, your feet or shoes are the ultimate sign of disrespect.

We tried to apologize to her, told her we didn’t know it was a Muslim paper, and grabbed our stuff quickly, but she wouldn’t have any of it. She was walking out into the street yelling to people, trying to get others to respond, screaming obscenities about Americans. Most of the men just stared at her, unsure of what to say.

I was pretty terrified. We grabbed our stuff, caught an auto, and left. As we left, the woman began scolding the newspaper stand for selling something Muslim to Americans.

And finally, when we relayed the events to Tammy later that day, she told us how they had to shut down some streets in Mumbai after riots started when someone threw their sandal at a Hindu temple.

Hmmm… won’t be making that mistake again anytime soon.

July 20, 2009


Let me start by saying this entry is rather personal, yet I find this kind of writing, in the posture of listening, therapeutic. Read at your own risk.

Let me also start by saying how I just recently discovered the incredible view from the terrace of the upstairs boys’ home, along with its most spacious dance space. I have decided to make this my frequent visiting area.

God seems to be fond of deserts.

The Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years before crossing into the promised land.
Jesus was led into the desert for 40 days before the start of his ministry of miracles.
God allowed Job to be brought through his own desert, when his whole family was destroyed in an instant.
God allured the adulterer into the desert in Hosea, in order to “speak tenderly to her."

Note the common theme here of being "led" into the desert. They don't just stumble and fall into the desert. The move is purposeful, planned.

For me personally, I would consider the past 2 years a desert. Of course, amazing things have happened within these two years, including my marriage to Ben. But when it comes down to just the raw experience of God and myself, I would have to label this time a desert.

You see, before this time I enjoyed a consistently close, warm relationship with Jesus for 3-4 years. I would talk to him and he would talk back. I would feel and experience his presence. I would receive revelation and life from the Word. Worship was incredible and God’s power was all around. It was so great that when people talked about being "dry," I couldn’t even relate. What's that like? I wondered. In my personal life, I was usually a confident, able person. I thought of myself as social and at ease around others, often offering up comfort to those that were shy or anxious. I was confident of my skills and abilities as I was excelling in most areas of my life (I was probably too confident).

Then, like a thief in the night, I experienced a change in 2007. God felt far away, as if he was no longer available at any moment. I found myself plagued with doubts about my capabilities, which led to fear and anxiety, and a slow regression of my abilities. This often happens with fear. Psychologists call it the "self-fulfilling prophecy." I would simply say that fear paralyzes us… it prevents us from acting... it takes away our motivation through insecurity and the constant nipping of “failure” at our heels. Slowly my talents and abilities began to "freeze," and I developed insecurity. I started experiencing some anxiety in social situations. Sadly, I feel like a different person now than 2 years ago. The real “me” has been struggling to surface.

For a long time, I fought this desert. I cried, got angry at God, tried to push through it with prayer as if I could change its length by sheer will (or maybe I could somehow twist the arm of God to show a little mercy), and tried to figure out what I had done wrong to make this happen. Why did He feel so far away and how could I bring him back?

Then today, on the upstairs boys terrace, it finally hit me.

I can’t make the desert go away, I can’t fight it (well I can, but it sure is tiring), and I can’t even blame God for it. I can only embrace it.

I think that's what Jesus did.

And this got me thinking more about deserts. I mean, what is their purpose really? We hear lots of sermons on the "desert" and pushing through it, maintaining discipline, etc. But I wanted something more, something personal, and I wanted it from Him.

In Deuteronomy, it says he led the Israelites “all the way into the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart” and to “teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord."

So... what exactly is in my heart, God? Do I live on everything you provide for me (the bread) or on you alone?

In Hosea, God says “I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak tenderly to her.”

In Psalm 66, it says that he “brought us into prison and laid burdens on our backs. He let men ride over our heads and we went through fire and water.”

Matthew says that “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days and nights to be tempted by the devil.”

So I realized I am in good company. Even Jesus was led into the desert. This is not the end of the story, however. The story never ends with the desert.

Later, Deuteronomy says “For the Lord is bringing you into a good land- a land with streams and pools of water... where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing.”

Hosea follows with “Then I will give her back her vineyards, and will make the Valley of Trouble a door of hope. She will sing as in the days of her youth.”

Psalm 66 ends with “But you brought us into a place of abundance…Praise be to God, who has not rejected my prayer or withheld his love from me!”

Jesus came out of the desert and began the most incredible ministry of all time, followed by the saving of the world.

And finally, Revelation says “to him who overcomes, I give the right to sit with me on my throne.”

The Psalmist got it right. God doesn’t withhold his love from us. Who are we to think that just because we can’t experience his love right now, that he is withholding it from us? Jesus cannot be anything other than who he is. It is we who must struggle through our flesh, doubts, and resistance. In the end, we must die. In embracing our desert, we die. It is only then that we are able to live.

Job says that “he wounds, but he also binds up; he injures, but his hands also heal.” After Job lost his entire family and all of his own dignity, it says that God gave him twice as much as before and blessed the latter part of his life more than the first. These blessings, however weren’t why Job embraced his desert. It was because of who He was.

And so I have unashamedly decided to embrace my desert. I no longer will rack my brain for revelation about why, I will no longer condemn myself or God for its existence. I’m not sure how long it will last… months? Years? Maybe a turn is right around the corner. No matter, that is not my concern.

Today I simply danced. I danced to God, I “danced upon injustice” for this country, this city, the people, but mostly for myself. I stopped thinking and I simply offered what I had to Jesus…myself. It may not be enough to please those around me, but it’s enough for him.

I will embrace the desert with my God… I will embrace whatever he brings my way, keeping my eyes fixed on the only thing worth looking at, Him. Not his felt presence, not his revelation, not his power, not his voice, not even his promises, though he has so many wonderful ones for us in the desert. Just Him. He is no less himself because of my current circumstances. He was, is, and always will be Himself.

I Am.

And THAT is enough for me.

July 19, 2009

Saree Experience

I thought I would blog about my experience wearing my first saree.

First off, Periamma (houseparent) takes me to a local shop to buy one... there is a lot of talking in Tamil, a man pulling down 100 boxes of fabric from the shelves, arguments over prices, people holding colored fabric up to my face while bluntly referring to me as “so thin” (which I'm not sure is a compliment) and pointing out colors that do not look good on my skin... until three fabrics are finally picked out and paid for (about $7, half the original quote thanks to a seasoned Periamma), and I am left scratching my head wondering what are the two other pieces of fabric I bought.

A few days later Arul (another houseparent) takes me to a tailor (who also doesn't speak English). He measures all parts of my torso... women unashamedly ask me “How much?” when they see the fabric I brought with me... and the tailor asks me how long I want the sleeves. Um... well how long are sleeves supposed to be? I pick a random place on my upper arm and indicate the length. Then Arul gives me the receipt, tells me it will be ready on Monday (but be sure to drop by on Sunday to remind him to have it ready), and we walk home, stopping at a miscellaneous shop for a saree pin... at which Arul hands me a piece of bubble gum and puts some jasmine flowers in my hair.

So when Tammy announced to everyone that the children and staff were invited to a wedding of a member of the church, Molly suggested I wear my saree. Heck, why not? When else would I wear it? I want to be a part of the culture... simple things like adapting your dress and communication style certainly helps, right? (side note: I would really love to take part in more cultural activities, but we haven't yet figured out how to do that, considering our semi-isolated location (which is really a blessing for the home) and flip-flopped schedule of mornings free (which otherwise I tend to like).

So the day of the wedding Arul comes to help me put on this big piece of fabric that I have no idea what to do with. Well, at least I can put on the tailored top, I thought, and had it on before she came in. After some serious laughter, Arul pointed out that I had, in fact, put the top on backwards... the hooks go in the front. In the front? I thought. No way! I was a little skeptical... then she showed me her top and how the fabric was draped over the hooks so you couldn't tell… I was finally convinced. After about 1o minutes and lots of pinning, I was wearing finally wearing a saree. I felt more than a little self-conscious. Periamma told me I should start wearing sarees all the time now like they do, because they were “fitting for me”… hmm... I don't know if I'm at that point yet, but I have to admit, they are comfortable, feminine, and modest. Props to Indian women for knowing how to wear fabric. Please come to America to teach a society plagued by casualness how to dress!

Here are a couple pictures of my saree experience.

Arul, Periamma, and Shantu

July 4, 2009

Shortly After Midnight

Shortly after midnight, I realized what was the highlight of yesterday. Fridays are our day off, and I convinced Lisa to visit the city center by bus rather than taxi for reasons of economy, observation, and cultural identification. The sexes seem to be kept separate whenever possible in India, and buses are no exception. Ladies in the front, men to the rear. I sacrificed my male dignity in order to be Lisa's closest travel companion near the front, only to be given the boot midway through the ride by an elderly woman who simply stated "Lady's seat" and motioned for my removal.

Kindly people notified us of our proper point of disembarkation: "Indian Express." We quickly traversed three lanes of standstill traffic and followed the masses toward the nearest intersection. Along the way, Lisa noticed a beggar with an abnormally large leg and tried in vain to bring him to my attention. My eyes and mind were elsewhere - on the traffic, Lisa, Lisa's purse, and a bus stop somewhere in hiding. After reaching the intersection, I reconsidered Lisa's suggestion of taking an auto (taxi) instead of another bus and doubled back.

Again Lisa spotted the beggar and asked me, the treasurer of the day, for some change to give him. She handed him 10 rupees, the equivalent of 25 US cents, which is considered a healthy gift. I am ashamed to say, except for Lisa, I would have given half that amount, if anything. Even worse, I barely glanced at the man out of suspicion he would ask me as well for a donation. I looked long enough, not to see him as a human being, but to make a medical diagnosis of his physical ailment, what looked to be elephantitis of the leg. His bloated right leg, like a well-fed python, gruesomely snaked back and forth along the ground before burying itself in his shoe.

In my search of an auto that would offer me an escape from my own guilt, I tried to block out the beggar’s pleadings. Then Lisa mentioned that the beggar was trying to tell us something, not asking for more money as I had expected. When I moved closer and gave the man my attention, I realized he was telling us how to catch our next bus.

I thanked him and, clothed in shame, quickly guided Lisa in the direction the man had pointed. Oh, how I wish I had spared at least a few minutes to converse with the man and offer to pray with him. He had been so eager to help us and had been so happy, when we expressed our gratitude to him. This man, I am sure, sits on a dirty sidewalk every day and at knee-level begs people for the scraps from the wallets. Every day he asks for help, and he obviously wants to reciprocate in some way. We blessed him simply by receiving his help and following his instructions. That one interaction was the highlight of my day, and possibly his too. God is so intentional, so relationally complex, so loving, so good. I look forward to more God-ordained appointments and the opportunity to share His love. I long to encounter that man again, to give him a hug and get to know him. I may have missed my opportunity with that man, but God is the gracious God of second chances. There are so many others waiting to be noticed and loved.