February 26, 2008

Virtue: A Lament

Christians abuse our values a lot. The more educated we get, the less it seems we care about the things we say we care about. Words like humility, servanthood, purity, justice, mercy, compassion, grace ... they're tossed around like so many limp noodles. Nowhere is this more evident than in my own life. I'm not very humble, really, and I don't serve very well. I don't worship with the passion and fervor and dedication I should (or that God deserves), and I certainly don't practice justice and mercy and compassion very well. I want what I want, and even though I know that doing those things would be what God wants, I seem to have this idea that merely talking about those things will suffice. After all, I'm busy, I'm important, I'm in grad school and so of course I must GET IT.

You're probably wondering where this is coming from.

I was in ethics today, not paying much attention, when Dr. Pohl brought out Isaiah 58. It's a passage like any other in style - slightly dry, a bit dated, and written for an audience that lived three thousand years ago. But then we started recontextualizing it, and suddenly it started to bother me a whole lot more. That's the trouble with reading the Bible - you can never be sure that you're not taking it and compartmentalizing it away as irrelevant to you or your society. It's so easy to take an old book like this and make it useless today; we treat it like it's got nothing to say to us. Or at least, I often do. Even if the stories weren't true, even if they were only stories, it still doesn't mean they don't apply. But you have to dig a little, do some cross-cultural translation work.

Isaiah 58 is a passage that talks about fasting. This is not really why I was bothered by it, but I will admit that I haven't fasted - from anything - since I was trying to decide if I should propose to Liz. It's been a long time. But what struck us as a class was how the author basically says that the Israelites aren't much good for their rituals. They do them, and they seem to long for God, but the way in which they practice their faith is lacking. The rituals have become an end in and of themselves.

Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.
Isaiah is telling them that their rituals aren't doing for them what they're supposed to be doing. Instead of uniting them, allowing them to love and learn from God, they are merely divided and bitter, arguing and bickering over the things that don't actually matter to God. They practice their faith for themselves, not because it is true or right or good.

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?

Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter —
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
So writes Isaiah. In practicing the law to the letter, they have missed its spirit; instead of following its principles they have only followed its rules. And the rules have not even been followed that well.

And this is where I find myself on this blustery, rainy, rather ugly february morning. I find myself questioning why we do what we do; why I think what I think if I'm not going to let it translate into action. And of course, how does it translate? Do I drop all I'm doing and like the guy in the story, sell all I have? I think there would be mixed response to that, depending on who you talk to (I'm quite sure my wife and daughter wouldn't be too happy about it). So where does that leave me?

And where does it leave the Church? We have buildings upon buildings, money stuffed where you'd never expect it, but no people in those buildings. I just read an
article that just goes to prove this to anybody who wasn't already convinced. Do we sell all our buildings, give all we have to the poor? Maybe, but again, not everybody is going to be happy with that, nor am I even saying it's the right course of action for everybody. But maybe for some of us.

But we have to start somewhere ...

O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for Thy courts above.

Update on Wisdom

Just an update for all of you who followed our journey through metropolitan Melbourne. We got an email from Mark, the handler that worked with us as we trained our seeing-eye puppy. As it turns out, Wisdom is doing really well:
Wisdom graduated with her client on Friday. She is living/working over in WA [Western Australia]. I have attached a photo of her in harness for you.
And here is that picture. Isn't she amazing!

February 19, 2008

India, Part 4 - Music

Music is, I think, one of the universal languages. It doesn't matter that there are an impressive variety of different styles, genres, and even tonal systems; no matter who you are, you will, on some level, appreciate music in one form or another.

Nowhere was this more true than in India. Indian music was, in its primal form, based off of a 12-tone system, rather than our western system of 8 notes in a scale. If you're not a musician, that means that the same space of sound is divided differently; in Indian music, there are smaller divisions of sound between each note than in western music. However, much of their current music, at least at Bethel, has been highly westernized; guitars, keyboards, and other western instruments are widely used in music along with a lot of percussion (which is, as far as I can tell, the most indigenous part of the music).

Several of us - Ryan, Adam, Jill, Ben and myself - went into a local village to participate in their service. It was quite an experience. The whole thing was in Tamil, which made it hard to follow, and the music was mostly percussion (an Indian version of Congas and a Djembe were used with great enthusiam). The word "Alleluia!" was used exhuberantly after almost everything that was said or sung; we had to adire their enthusiasm. Despite the village's rediculously tiny size and relative isolation, the music still felt more western than Indian. The one possible exception I would note is its volume: even in America, we value our ears enough to keep it softer than they. American teenagers get busted for lower volume levels than this church had; the tiny room had four speakers plugged into an amplifier blaring at full power; consequently our ears were ringing a bit when we left. But most of their church service was sung, not spoken, and everyone participated.

Church, in India, is different in other ways as well. For one, chairs are more of an optional arrangement. Instead, the chapel or church is a floor that has been covered by woven mats. One must remove one's shoes before going inside, as a way of showing respect to God. I can't quite tell if this comes out of the Hindu tradition or if it's from Moses'
burning bush experience. Or perhaps it's a contextualization of Hindu culture based on Moses. Either way, upon entering the chapel, the attendee prostrates on the mat in prayer, and then sits down, cross-legged, to await the start of the service. Most of the rest was about the same as any church in America; singing, prayer, a speaker, more singing. Obviously it was in Tamil, or while we were at Bethel, both Tamil and English, but that and the volume were the only major differences.

Music was everywhere. The kids at Bethel were almost always singing, either by themselves or (more likely) in groups. Every time we had a house visit, the kids would sing for us. They loved it on our second day when Adam and I grabbed our guitars and sat outside the dorm, surrounded by school-age girls, and played until our fingers ached and we'd exhausted every song we could think of. It didn't take too long, come to think of it, but the girls kept asking us for more. It was also at this time that Adam got his

We (myself, Adam, Jill, Steph) led chapel music all week. I got up at 5am to do this, and so when I tell you that this was a healing thing for me (to lead music again), it should speak volumes. Despite the fact that I had not had breakfast yet, and despite that my feet were uncomfortable standing without my orthodics, and despite that I was exhausted, God started talking to me there in a way that I hadn't heard for a while. I think I hear God best through music; maybe it's just how He made me, but that's the way I am.

The best part, though, was at the end of the week. I had been trying to communicate all week to the Bible School students - in earnest - how the music had to be their own. Every piece we'd heard of theirs was mostly just a translation of American or European music. Not entirely every piece (Nirmal, one of the students, was quite the musician, and wrote his own stuff sometimes), but most of them, and especially the translated wesley hymns they sang in chapel (incidentally, I like Charles Wesley better in Tamil). On Saturday, after we'd been teaching them music (while trying to emphasize that they should write their own), Nirmal approached Adam and me and asked if we'd like to learn a song in Tamil.

So we did. We spent half an hour, maybe more, transliterating the very vowel-laden Tamil song into something American eyes could read and our mouths pronounce. Then we spent another half-hour learning the music and how to pronounce it all. Let me tell ya - Tamil is easier to sing than it is to speak. It's spoken quite quickly, but when sung, the vowels become amazing platforms for sustained notes. Their sounds echo and ring so well, even in rooms made mostly of concrete and steel. And they do well for harmonizing as well, even if the locals don't really know what that is (unison seems to be the way they sing pretty much everything).

My favorite moment in all this was when Adam and I were running the piece one more time on sunday morning before we were to sing it in chapel. It was our last day, and though we were already feeling a bit nostalgic at the thought of leaving, we were (or at least, I was) more nervous about this song that we didn't really understand (Nirmal had never really given us a translation, only mentioned something about it being about Jesus as the light of the world). As we were rehearsing, Paulin was setting up the projector. We had been working with her all week, both in the chapel and in the Bible school (and she liked to cook). And as we sang, I looked over to see her mouth literally hanging open.

I doubled over laughing. I only wish I had a picture of her face, because as it turns out, the song we were singing was her favorite song, and not only were we singing it, but she could actually understand us. Though later, when I asked about our accent, she said (wobbing her head as only an Indian can do) "eh, it was ok."

(to be continued ...)

February 7, 2008

India, Part 3 - Some Background

The Bethel Agricultural Fellowship is made up of a bunch of different pieces. First off, there's the baby home. Indian culture is steeped in the Hindu religion. The only way a Hindu mother can make it to their equivalent of heaven is to bear a son for her husband, and, for the husband, that son must be the one to burn his funeral pyre. You might say the system is designed to dehumanize women, and this is exactly what happens. Female infantacide, as we learned from Dr. Pari (the director of Bethel, who has finished his PhD with a dissertation on the subject), is widely practiced despite its illegality; since families cannot afford to raise many children (80% live on less than $2 USD per day, while 40% live on less than $1 USD per day), the ones they DO raise need to be important, and there's nothing more important to the devout Hindu than immortality. And so, despite the laws in effect and the periodic efforts by government police forces to catch people "in the act," as it were, the rate of female infanticide grows. Bethel, in an effort to save as many as they can, take whichever babies are brought to them and raise them as their own family. Many of the students at Bethel live there year-round because they were once orphans brought up in the baby home and now have nowhere to go. The problem, of course, is physical contact; babies need a lot of human contact, and the staff at Bethel are often overwhelmed with the number of children in need of attention. When we had free time, many of our team would go over and simply hold and play with the infants.

Next is the matriculation school, the Indian equivalent of a Kindergarden-12th Grade School all rolled into one building. The orphans are not the only students who attend - many others attend from surrounding villages - but they do make up a sizeable portion. It is here that much of the team spent their time. Richard and Karen Bates were along on the trip for this very reason; they had brought supplies along to do crafts with the school kids, a different one each day, and they needed our help to keep the kids in order.

It is also these children that we saw so often around the compound. When they weren't in school, they were playing out in the yards around their houses, two of which (the girls' houses) were right next to our dorm. They took a particular interest in Adam, who has shoulder-length blonde hair, a goatee, and is fairly tall. Apparently, this was enough that they started calling him Donny, after a famous Indian Cricket player that (to be honest) looks nothing like him. I know this because they were quite happy to supply us with several pictures of Donny they had saved from newspapers. It took until the middle of our time there that they began calling him Adam again; they had started to get to know him and in a culture where to know a name is to know a person, it was only fitting that they do so. But Ryan and I (mostly Ryan) wrote a song in honor of Adam:

Oh Donny, oh Donny, Oh Donny, we love you
Oh Donny, oh Donny, Oh Donny, we love you
Your hair is golden like the sun, is golden like the sun, is golden like the sun.
The girls go crazy over you, go crazy over you, go crazy over you (your eyes are blue)
Oh Donny, oh Donny, Oh Donny, we love you
Oh Donny, oh Donny, Oh Donny, we love you
Your dancing, it makes us smile, it makes us smile, it makes us smile
You hit the cricket ball like a man, you hit it like a man, you hit it like a man (your arms are tan)
Oh Donny, oh Donny, Oh Donny, we love you
Oh Donny, oh Donny, Oh Donny, we love you
Your hair, it demands another verse, demands another verse, demands another verse
Your hair, it demands another verse, demands another verse, demands another verse
Oh Donny, oh Donny, Oh Donny, we love you
Oh Donny, oh Donny, Oh Donny, we love you

Adam rather enjoyed it, although he did turn a bit red after Benjamin decided to teach it to the girls after lunch one afternoon.

There is a hospital at Bethel as well, and an attached nursing school. It's not pretty; by Western standards, it would barely qualify as a cheap motel. But out in the middle of the nowhere that Bethel finds itself, it is the best that can be hoped for. Fortunately it is staffed by some amazing doctors, a dentist (who happens to be the sister-in-law of an Asbury student), and a number of nurses. Dr. Keith Alexander, an ENT (Ear, Nose, and Throat Surgeon), volunteered his time at the hospital while we were in India. I think they appreciated his help quite a bit, but also the many supplies that he had brought with him.

Then there's the chapel. But that's for another day.

(to be continued ...)

February 5, 2008

India, Part 2 - Culture Shock

There were a number of things about our arrival in Bangalore and the subsequent drive to the school that shocked me more than I, at the time, was willing to admit. Upon our arrival, however, the thing that did not shock me was that British Airways lost one of Richard's bags. That the rest of us made it with ours all in one piece is, I suppose, modestly shocking, but since that's the job of an airline, it barely deserves an honorable mention.

Upon retrieving our bags, we all waited in a big clump for Richard to fill out the appropriate forms. I noticed a bathroom, and after asking Steph to guard my stuff, I ran in to put my contacts in; I didn't want to miss any of the trip out to Salem because I couldn't see anything. But as I started putting them in - wash my fingers in some saline (don't use the tap water!), remove contact from case, insert - I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, a guy staring at me.

It was to be a pattern the rest of our trip.

That's what Indians do when white people go past them - they stare. I say this in the most loving way possible, because they don't see white people as often as you might think. We in the west have it pretty cozy, and while we might think that we have racial troubles, India barely even has "diversity" (and what diversity it has is along religious lines rather than racial). As far as the eye can see, dark skin, dark hair, dark eyes. And I really do mean "as far as the eye can see" - India is the size of Texas but has a population around 1.1 billion and growing. So to see a patch of white skin is a bit shocking, never mind the occasional blonde or redhead. Anyway, he stared at me as I put in my contacts, and as I finished, though I was completely wierded out by this, I turned to him and said "better than glasses" and walked out of the restroom.

Seriously. I don't know what I was thinking.

It was along the drive that I began making generalizations about the environment around me. For one, I was shocked at the sheer amount of rubble laying everywhere. Nearly the entire route out of the city was under construction of some form or another, and looked like it had been that way for many, many years. Housing lots sat, useless, heaped with piles of old bricks and garbage. Once we were out of the city, it wasn't a whole lot better; even along country roadsides, there were plenty of brick piles, stone piles, and endless fields of garbage in and around the rocks and shrubbery.

I think that was the hardest part - the garbage. The way Indians took care (or didn't) of their chunk of dirt was disheartening, enough to make any staunch environmentalist from the west keel over in shock. If that wasn't bad enough, those that did want to dispose of their garbage in a manner not involving kinetic motion did so by burning it in large piles, the dark smoke lazily drifting across the countryside. I think most of us suffered, if only mildly (though some hard a lot of trouble), from allergies due to this smoke through the trip. I mean, I'm upset that our apartment complex doesn't have recycling bins available, but this was way above and beyond.

But on the bright side, it did make for some spectacular sunsets.

There was one day when I got a chance to see that sunset from above the treetops. There's a place we called the "watchtower," though it was actually a five-story apartment tower around a staircase, which was the tallest thing around, and the only building that rose above the level of the surrounding trees. It just so happened to have an observation deck at the top, accessable by four flights of stiars and two ladders. Dr. Martyn and I had walked up to the top on our way back from delivering Dr. Keith and some supplies to the hospital several days earlier, and tonight I'd decided to gather a few of the team and we all got up there together to watch the sun go down.

It was absolutely beautiful. While the pictures taken by our cameras that night may look nice, they were nothing in comparison to actually being there. I stick to my statement from last post about the country looking better from above; the garbage fires had all burned out for the evening, the birds had settled down (and so it was fairly quiet), a cool breeze was stirring the moderately humid air, and all was well. The sun sank into the horizon, and as dusk settled over the treetops, we made the trek down the stairs and headed back to our dorms to get some sleep; we had to get up early again for chapel in the morning.

(to be continued ...)