catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 10 :: 2005.05.20 — 2005.06.02


The India journals

Note from the author: In the spring of 2003, I traveled to India for an undetermined stay and with undetermined goals. I figured I?d stay until either the money ran out or I got answers to questions I didn?t know upon departing. The money ran out first. I?m still looking for answers; some of the ?conclusions? I came to by the end of the trip have changed. The following are unedited excerpts from the 100 or so pages of notes and letters home I wrote at various points along the way. A ?~? will mark a break in the journal.

5. March, 7:55 AM to 6. March, 9:00 AM, Udyan Express train to Bangalore

*Note: there are things I want to avoid in these updates. One, I do not want to be sentimental. As I read recently, or something akin to it, poverty makes a good story, but not a good neighbor. It?s difficult to discuss such things without sounding trite. I am here to learn, especially to make connections between Hinduism?s caste system and India?s social condition, to understand better the connections between Christianity and America?s social condition. To learn how myopic my faith is. To be still. I have many teaching opportunities, indeed, but I have made it clear to my host that I want to be as quiet as possible. Two, if you ever hear me use the word ?charming,? please feel free to rebuke me. Charming is reserved for crocheting parties and fairy tales. Charming is a demeaning thing to say about a culture?how can you capture depth with such a mono-valent word?

~ 8. March?Bangalore

It is my first Sunday morning in India. ~Just like America, the children in my host?s house held on to the last possible second of morning cartoons before tucking in shirts and heading out for church. On the drive over, I realized that I may actually be getting used to driving conditions in India. The temptation for me is to consider Indian roads disorderly, unorganized, and generally suicidal, but I begin to realize that this is an American critique. Rather than comparing the two and making judgments regarding propriety, I think it?s best to see the beauty in diversity, so to speak. The fact is, for all of the honking and swerving and putting my hands over my eyes, I have yet to see anyone hit anything, including animals, and I have seen no middle fingers shoot out of windows. This is a paradigm that I?m becoming acquainted with and beginning to value for its own terminology?much like, I?m sure, worship in India will become to me.

Bangalore Presbyterian Church, the only Presbyterian church in South India (imagine one Presbyterian church in the state of Texas, and you have an idea), sits in the upstairs of a store-front, renting the property from a fitness organization. The externals, both of the building and the behavior, correspond to much of what I?m familiar with back home: an old lady with glasses plays the piano; the praise song leader is gregarious and sings the chorus too many times; I check my zipper on the way in.~

I found, during the service, that the people at this

church seemed just as apathetic and lethargic as the people in the churches I?ve visited back home?this is a parallel that I didn?t want to discover. Most of the reports that American churches receive of overseas churches are that they are passionate and Spirit-filled and infectious (some of them are, I?m sure, but not all). This makes us, at home, feel apathetic and lethargic and not the way we?re supposed to be. I think, though, that to expect the church in America to look the same as the church in India or South America is to make the same mistake as to expect the church in Bangalore to behave like the church in St. Louis?if they do, maybe that?s okay, but to expect it is to cookie-cut the accidents of worship. The essentials should be universal, but the accidents should be cultural and individual.~

The pastor of the church here says that the main problem is that people don?t see church as a regular thing. The problem in most American churches is that people, both church-goers and non-, do see church as a regular thing. The church is so steeped in clich? and is so predictable that she has lost her ability to shock her neighbors with creativity and goodness.

The idea of caste is so ingrained in the Indian sensibility, that even it, a Hindu concept, one officially outlawed but still practiced, has crept into the church. Many of the potential leaders in the Christian church want to be elders, not for the purpose of serving, but for the purpose of being of a higher ?caste? of Christian leader. This is not my own observation, but that of church leaders here.~

In opposition to Hinduism and Buddhism, however, Christianity offers a unique hope to those whose loved ones have died. Hindus hope that a loved one?s karma carries him/her to a better life next time, one that will likely be separate from his own; Christianity, however, assures the widow that she will both recognize and fellowship with her loved one for eternity. Pastoral visits, and the ability to minister to the grieved biblically, are some of the most important tasks for an Indian pastor. I only hope that their version of seeing loved ones again doesn?t degenerate into the universalistic ?we?ll meet again? mentality that every American seems to feel that he has the right to claim.~

The Christian church here seems largely disconnected from the progressive, younger generation. I wonder who will love them.

For all of this, I?m excited to better understand the church in India, to continue to understand what worship is supposed to look like and feel like, both in its particulars and its universals.~

Kanyakumari (the southern tip)

Apparently, my host picked the wrong fish in the morning. I?m sick. I spent the afternoon and evening filling my bathing bucket with partially digested rice and bread and curry. Most vomit burns when it comes up, but curry vomit is the worst. There?s nothing like vomiting in an un-air-conditioned room, alone, on the southern tip of India to make you homesick, which is a much better sickness, at least at the time. I had frighteningly vivid dreams between my rounds of bucket-filling. I dreamed that I was sitting on the couch at my childhood home drinking Coke and watching the Dukes of Hazzard, my mother folding clothes. I dreamed that my childhood crush tracked me down in India to tell me that she always had a crush on me. I dreamed things that touched the most familiar, lonely, and longing parts of me. When you?re on your back, in a hot room, alone, vomiting, and you feel like you?re right up against everything, up against your flesh, your longing for something familiar intensifies, and its absence intensifies the loneliness, and the homesickness is almost unbearable. I admitted to myself, during that time, that it?s okay for me to love America. I spend a lot of time trying to think of the things that I don?t like about America, but I need to spend more time listing the beautiful things?it?s okay to love my culture. And I have a new-found respect for single missionaries.~

16. March, Nagercoil, the Church of South India

All the Christians in the town attend here. There are probably 500 people here, the men and women sitting on separate sides like, to my western mind, a junior high retreat. All of the people I?ve asked about this agree that this is a custom that must change, but centuries of doing are not easily undone, especially in an Anglican system where the bishop takes the heat for upsetting whole towns.~

I had no idea what was being said, but when the people stood, I stood, and when the organist played a familiar tune, I sang in English. The Tamil singing was beautiful, something like the singing in the movie The Mission. One song had a refrain that included the word ?Amen,? which I belted out every time it came around. I felt like Mr. Bean in the episode where he mumbles through the Gloria Patri until the ?Hallelujah,? where he sings with great passion. This thought made me laugh. A crow was flying around in the rafters, and I was praying that it wouldn?t number two on me, like some divine judgment on the Westerner.

People yawned and nodded during the service, just like in America. Though it?s obvious, it hit me, meaningfully, for the first time, that there is no pure church anywhere. And, thus, I wondered, what am I hoping to find in India that I haven?t found already? That there is no pure church is good news if you have a realistic, biblical assessment of the church, bad news if you are a cynic who hates the ?hypocrisy? of the church, because a pure church doesn?t exist, and if you are a cynic of the good variety, the kind who is cynical in hopes of finding a better answer, then you won?t, because the church was, is, and always will be full of hypocrites?it?s the only safe place for them. I find that I am guilty of the bad brand of cynicism, criticizing the American church for the sake of lifting myself up rather than hoping to find ways to make it more glorious.

The only English words the pastor said the whole morning: ?Christ forgives sins.? He looked right at me when he said them.~


On my last night in Nagercoil, I was asked to lead a Bible study for the local YMCA chapter, which is still a Christian organization. I was told that I had 45 minutes, which I gladly took advantage of, as I would be required to speak in half-speed. Moments before walking to the meeting, I was told that I would have 20 minutes instead. Try chopping 60% of your well-planned, intricately connected talk, and you end up with a stand-up routine consisting of one pastor entering a bar and no punchline. For someone who places, wrongly, so much of his identity in communicating from the pulpit, it was a rare and much-needed moment of utter humiliation. It only confirmed for me how important indigenous leadership and training is. Of all the problems associated with missionary endeavor, I can think of none worse than insisting on planting your own culture along with the church.~

Most of the guys who come out of there [Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Dehra Dun] have adopted, intentionally or not, a ?Christ Against Culture? mentality, to use Niebuhr?s terminology. They end up with a hostile stance toward pop culture and apologetic issues, which is detrimental both to the church and those outside the church. What they need (we all need) is a better understanding of common grace, of the image of God in man, of the way to treat non-believers with dignity and respect, to affirm the things that are good about them, to engage people on those levels, not as a form of manipulation or agenda-hiding, but as a way to learn to love people different from themselves. This is my constant struggle, and I?m glad to have a chance to learn what that means in another culture, to see, most importantly, how universal those principles are.

Also yesterday, I decided to visit City Market, the busy, colorful, nasal violation of Bangalore. There are basically three purchasing options: shirts and socks, suspicious electronic equipment, and insect-tenements, which they call fruit stands. If you have watched National Geographic specials on Indian bazaars and general city life, this is what you have seen. It was absolutely astonishing. Unfortunately, my cavalier attitude toward traveling, wherein I get excited at the prospect of getting lost, wherein I assume nothing bad could happen to me, almost got me into trouble. It has become apparent to me that my dearth of clue-tracking, mystery-solving skills disqualifies me from riding in the Mystery Machine with Scooby and the gang (which is unfortunate only as it would disqualify me from flirting with Velma). I should have been suspicious at the millions of glass fragments paving the streets; at the man in an off-center, back alley waving his finger at me and yelling ?no city market, no city market?; at the noticeable lack of westerners in the area (I looked like a grain of salt in a pepper shaker). This morning, reading the paper, I saw the headline: ?Riots Rock City Market.? Apparently, after noon prayers, local Muslims began rioting, protesting the war, burning George Bush in effigy. Jinkies.

I wondered this morning what I would have done had I been in the thick of things. If Muslims started spitting toward me or throwing rocks at me or something worse, how would I have reacted? My idealistic, unrealistic side says that I would have felt only sorrow, regret, and pity over the hatred of the Muslims and the wrongdoings of both Christians and Americans, that I would have spread out my arms, stammered ?I love you,? and taken the blows. The realistic side of me, however, admits that I would have probably been angry and resentful, as well?who knows how the Spirit works in such moments? I do not know what to think of the war, and I do justice to no one involved by offering an either/or answer to the situation. War, religion, individual souls are too complex, glorious, and polluted to offer a good or bad label. The ability to love a person who calls me his enemy is not within me?I do not, as Coupland writes in Life After God, have it in me to love. It must come from somewhere, someone else.~

Last week, after another round of cricket with the boys, I met a guy named Nisar. We stood on a pile of dirt near a busy intersection and talked for an hour, well past sundown. His English was surprisingly good, even if he talked more rapidly than most auctioneers. Actually, the pace was refreshing, closer to my actual speech than most. Still, it?s labor to listen, to strain my eyes and ears to make out individual words, often recognizing them a sentence later before I can incorporate them into the discussion. That?s what?s so difficult about conversing in India, in any non-native speaking context, I think. And I realize again how carelessly and selfishly I listen to most people much of the time. Listening, being quick and careful to hear, is so easy to forget when the words, their cadence, their tone, are so familiar. The parallel with the way I read Scripture, hear sermons, and pray is painfully clear. Here is one of the lessons I?ve been looking for. And this obviously difficult, obviously obvious listening is the reason, Nisar says, that he wants to keep talking. It was painful to hear him tell me that I?m the first American he?s ever had the desire to talk to, because the ones he has met all have their attentions and ears turned self-ward. I can think of nothing more hospitable than asking someone, who has nothing physically apparent to offer, a question, and actually taking the time to listen to his answer, listen well enough to produce new questions in response.

Nisar and I have spent much time together, talking, riding the bus, eating. He?s 26, an avid reader, a graduate of business school, unemployed. While he looks for work to be able to take care of his brothers and father, who is grieving from his wife?s recent death, he spends his time meeting with me. Of all that has happened to me thus far, this is the first time I have felt honored (though I have been honored and haven?t listened well enough to realize it). We?ve covered everything from books to sex to religion. We?ve had wonderful discussions about the nature of man (what it means to be human), the nature of God (whether He loves all the same), the nature of religion, the nature of nature. He asked what I thought about different religions, whether we?re not all seeking the same God, and will God take that into account? As creatures created for worship, this is an important question. Rather than lay on him a big theological answer, which I?m prone to do, I began asking questions in return, and we got to the point where we were able to talk beneficially about universalism, the role of sincerity and whether it?s enough for God, about the classic ?walking up the same mountain? illustration. In response to the illustration, I asked if he were asking this question, as well, which he affirmed, and I asked him what he was certain he could assume about the question. The only certainty, he said, is that he?s asking the question. The uncertainty, he admitted, with refreshing honesty, is that the only way to have such knowledge is to be above the mountain looking down on the converging paths, and to do so would imply being ?above? humanity?in essence, divine himself. I left the question there, and praised God for the opportunity to talk about important things, real questions, to answer to a God who is sovereign, so that I don?t have to try and force answers down someone?s throat when the silences between discourse beg for time to think.

Later that day, Nisar took me to a friend?s house to watch the cricket final. The house was a ten by ten foot room above a mechanic shop, ten guys sardined on the couch and the floor, eating, drinking, smoking, betting on batsmen. I hadn?t stepped two bare feet into the room before they were pulling up a chair for me and handing me a plate full of food. So much hospitality. India lost the match, but the five hours were joyous and generous, and I am grateful. Do pray for my meetings with Nisar, for ears to hear, for respectful questions, for a discerning heart, for Nisar?s heart. Nisar?s a Muslim, though mostly nominal, and I?m thrilled to learn from him. Also, do pray for him to find a job and work toward a passport, which he?s eager to do.~

I see many foreign things during my daily travels, one of which is expected and still-shocking squalor. You?ve probably noticed my failure to speak much of it in the updates. Among other reasons, when people, especially missionaries, write home about squalor, as I?ve read from missionaries before, the effect (on me, at least) is that it somehow obliges people to listen to your moralizing: how it changes one?s perspective on life. Because I tend to be ungracious, I sometimes wonder if these people don?t look for squalor, thinking that it?s the only way that a trip to a third-world country could possibly change them. I realize, as you do, that poverty of any kind is awful, grievous, and sobering, and, thus, not to be taken lightly, but I know this without being in it myself. I look into my own heart and see it. I look at the incarnation, and I begin to understand it. While affirming the seriousness of physical poverty, and at risk of sounding crass, I feel that I have so much squalor of my own to deal with that I can?t speak meaningfully about others? poverty, at least not more than you already know or surmise. It?s too much for me to handle. This is why we have a Savior.~

I tapped the driver on the shoulder and asked, ?You sure this is the way home?? He smiled and nodded his head, the way that Indians nod their head. The Indian-head nod is, to an American, a complete mystery. It?s not like a tennis-spectator nod; it?s more like a loose metronome, or a bobble-head doll, and it can mean anything from ?of course? to ?maybe? to ?no? to ?you sucker.? This is especially appalling when you?re preaching, as I found myself last Sunday. When I said that ?Jesus has a special love for the hopeless,? I realized that he must have been loving me especially at that moment, as I couldn?t tell from the head-nods whether people were ?Amen-ing? or misunderstanding or ready to throw me out the window and hurl rocks at my skull. Having to listen to myself while I preach is good for me. Eliminating gerunds and participial phrases on-the-spot forces me to make sure that I am communicating?no, to communicate?the Gospel in a lucid?scratch that, clear?way rather than to communicate to the people that I know the good English.

In the morning paper yesterday, I read the daily account of yet another Romeo-and-Juliet suicide, wherein two lovers were forbidden by their families to marry outside of their arrangement. Whenever I talk to locals, I try to get their take on arranged marriages, and I have been trying to sort through the issue myself for some time now. There are no easy answers, as arranged marriages seem to be an issue of adiaphora, one of those things that the Bible neither condemns nor commands. Certainly, the examples of marriage that you read in Scripture, especially the Old Testament, are arranged, but these are descriptive rather than prescriptive, as the incidents described took place in a culture where arranged marriages were the norm, much like India. Increasingly, however, arranged marriages are being rejected by the younger generations, and the older generations are correspondingly disturbed, and I don?t have an easy answer why.

Statistically, I need look no further than my own circle of friends to see where the Western style of marriage so often leads. But I read about and talk to many Indian families and see where arranged marriages so often lead. Though the divorce rate here is infinitesimal, this doesn?t necessarily reflect on the quality of the marriages. To divorce in India entails cultural shame that is largely absent in America. And the word ?arranged? itself, to me a cold word, often shows up in the marriages, where compatibility and companionship appear more arranged and methodical than heart-felt and passionate. The only thing I can rely on to help me think through the issue is the old maxim: ?Abuse does not negate proper use.? Just because 50% of American marriages end up in divorce doesn?t mean the ?system? is bad. Just because Indian marriages appear to me more mechanical than American marriages, likewise, doesn?t indicate a bad ?system.? For now, I suppose I must accept the fact that when it comes to marriage, or anything else in the adiaphora category, I must be quick to respect and meditate patiently on thousands of generations of tradition, slow to criticize with my 28 years of American tradition. I refuse to accept something based simply on tradition, and I must allow biblical principles to be the ultimate rubric, but I must not condemn an institution based on its ill-effects. For my part, I cannot imagine being in an arranged marriage, but, on the other hand, I can hardly imagine choosing one person to spend the rest of my life with, either. So, I suppose I?ll have another beer.

This morning, I woke up thinking about Revelation, specifically the section near the end where John describes the new earth as being inhabited by the leaders and people of every culture, who will bring with them the best of their culture to serve as furniture and art and radio stations and flowers and soft drinks. This realization makes me look at my surroundings differently, wondering what will make it in, what will be thrown in the cosmic trash compactor. I?m fairly certain that t-shirts with witty sayings on them won?t be included. Like the shirt I saw this morning: ?I?m not stupid. I?m a Bachelor.? I?m a big fan of double entendre, but only to a point. When people say that the West is influencing a place like India, that young Indians want to be like Americans, this is the kind of thing they mean. To my dismay, Western influence on India means things like Top-gun sunglasses, awful music (Cher, Damn Yankees, Bryan Adams, Britney Spears), Hallmark cards, and fanny-packs. It takes a lot of pride-swallowing to admit to an Indian that I?m from America. I try to explain to them that Kevin Bacon is not our best actor, but I just get that head-bobble.

As a result of the last few days? experiences and meditations, I have focused my thoughts to the relatively simple topic of eternity. In trying to imagine the new earth of Revelation, I wonder which parts of Indian culture will be present. I wonder if the American culture that is present in India will be counted as American or Indian, and I wonder who gets to choose: God or teenage Indians. Lord, I don?t ask for much, but please, please, don?t delegate this one.~

It?s hard to judge an entire culture based on a few months? traveling, when the most you can hope to see is its outer-garments, the bright colors and frayed hems and smiles. How does one get to know the real culture, the tucks and sags, the culture in its tighty-whities?~

15. April, fresh from the roadways

A lot has been happening to my body the last week. This sounds strangely like one of my early teenage diary entries. Let me re-phrase that. My experiences this week, and the grid through which I view them, seem to have a markedly corporeal aspect to them. Whether things happening to me or outside of me, my thoughts keep turning to the body.

On the way home from the garage, I stopped outside a liquor store to take a picture. As I was packing up my camera, two men came running out of the store to greet me. One of the men was carrying something in his hand. I was hoping for a fifth of scotch, but it was his left sandal. He asked me for my good (first) name and said, ?You from America, no??

?Yes, I?m from America, no.?

?No, yes, or yes you are no America


And so on for a few minutes until we established residency. He asked me if I support Bush in the war, and I started into a lecture on just war, etc., when he interrupted me: ?You American, you must support Bush like me. See, I no American, no, and I support your Bush.? As he finished, he held up his sandal, yelled ?Saddam,? spit on it, and started whacking it on the ground. He started pointing to my feet, but, fortunately, I had on shoes with a double-knot so that even he could see how inconvenient it would be for me to support Bush at the moment. The other man turned to me and said, ?You from America, no?? But before I could start the ?Who?s on first? spiel with him, he continued, ?Yes, from America, no, and I support Bush, too, no.? He started grabbing for his sandal, but I stopped him and said, ?I could really use some scotch, no.?

?Yes,? he said, ?we drink to your Bush, no.?

?Drink to my Bush, yes no, let us,? after which a third man, fully shod, fortunately, came to our little coalition, grabbed the camera, and took a picture of me with my two new friends. If only all such pro- or anti-war gatherings could be held outside liquor stores, I think everything would be better.

After the scotch, I decided to take a rickshaw home. Rickshaw drivers, like many Americans, advertise their beliefs with stickers, though in India, the stickers usually adorn the windshield?not the best place if you ask me. On my driver?s windshield was this prayer: ?My hands in yours, Lord Jesus, as I drive this vehicle. Let me be concerned for the safety of others as well as my own. Amen.? ?Now here,? I thought, ?is some real, down-to-earth, bodily spirituality. No nebulous prayers for world peace, but an immediate, tangible, localized plea for a safe ride home.? I was comforted by the sticker, but I wondered, halfway home, as we almost skewered a dog, if he shouldn?t pencil animals into the prayer, as well. There?s nothing too mundane for the Christian to consider or pray about. This is in considerable contrast to the ?prayers? of the pantheistic religions, whose chants and meditations, ultimately, have no real object or goal besides an impersonal, inexplicable melding into something out there. I find a safe ride home more compelling than an ?experience? when a bus is approaching my taxi head-on.

I realize, in thinking about it later, that it?s both difficult and unkind to characterize Buddhists and Hindus as I find myself wanting to do. It?s easy both to be tricked by and to trick myself with word games here. Strictly speaking, the label ?pantheism? isn?t an adequate one, because the root ?theism? implies personality. With an impersonal beginning and an impersonal goal (to eliminate personal desire, or to merge into the ultimate ?life force? or ?energy?), there?s nothing theistic about pantheism. Rather than dismissing all pantheists on this semantic ground, however, I observe them and their worship, and I am forced to conclude that they have staked their personality firmly into the impersonal swirl of their religion. No matter where I walk in Bangalore, or any Indian town, for that matter, I?m confronted with temples and shrines. Sometimes they?re monumental, elaborate, and awe-inspiring; sometimes they?re niches hammered out of brick walls, filled with pictures, flowers, flames. The pantheistic deities, tangible forms of the impersonal, are adorned with flowers, scents, tears, drafts of incense. People throng to street corners and holes in the wall to worship, and at every point, they are investing their person into worship. From the colorful clothes they wear to their smeared foreheads to the way they smell, their worship is a personal, bodily thing. It is at this point that I grieve for them: they are acting out, rightly, as creatures created for worship, but as creatures created to worship an actual object, a personal object, to see them attempting to deny who they are (and failing wonderfully) by worshiping something impersonal is confusing and sad.

I see such colorful, personal worship, and I am confused and sad for the church, as well. Of all people, we should be the last to worship in such impersonal buildings, with such generic passion, with nothing to distinguish us from the business adjacent to us in the strip mall. It makes me inspect my own view of worship, and I?m forced to ask myself if I?m bringing my personality with me on Sundays, or just my Bible and my words.

Ultimately, Christianity is a personal faith, rooted in a personal object. Having faith, by itself, is no more efficacious than having marital love by itself. The value of faith lies in its object, as with marital love. Ask a Christian about the object of his worship, and he should respond by saying that he worships the one who calls himself ?I AM.? Ask the pantheist about the object of his worship, and he must respond by saying that he worships ?IT IS.? The difference means everything, and should result in everything?s looking different, but it isn?t always so clear cut. I, for one, rather than being quick to short-circuit the pantheist?s semantic games, do well to remember the personal, even the bodily, side of worship, to question my own integrity first. From there, let me and the pantheist go for a glass of scotch, and let us talk about God as our bellies grow warm.

1. May, to Avalanche to lead retreat for college students

In the evening, we changed clothes, and I was able to comfortably wear a long-sleeved shirt for the first time in two months. It was glorious. We sat around a fire, and I gave the second lesson, on taking seriously the cost and conclusions of calling yourself a Christian. After the lesson, I asked them how many of them had ever taken the time, either before becoming a Christian or after, to honestly count the cost of following Christ. 90% of them said that they had never considered it. I was shocked. Upon later reflection, I wondered why. I might expect something like this in America, though I don?t think people would own up so readily. Maybe they?re just being more honest. Or maybe I thought that because they live in a place where the Gospel is hard-won that their faith would also be hard-won. I just assumed that the church in foreign lands was more committed than the American church. That there are no nominal or unthinking Christians in mission-type places. Turns out that the heart, and sin, do their business irrespective of geography. All said and done, though I was a bit dis-heartened by their answer, I was genuinely encouraged by their honesty. At least it?s a workable starting point.

The second day of camp went well, and the lessons, on the difficulties of following Christ, on dealing with doubts, suffering, anger, seemed to be well-received. Many of the campers wanted to talk with me throughout the day, and I was both honored and encouraged by their openness. One of the guys, whose family is Hindu, said that after he told his parents about his conversion, they asked him in all sincerity to commit suicide so as not to dishonor the family name. And I was attempting to teach them about the cost of being a Christian. It?s all very humbling.

Later that night, which was the last night, we spent time around the fire drinking Milo (something close to hot chocolate), laughing, doing impersonations, etc. I put together a brief skit about the pastor and assistant pastor, and though I didn?t think it was really that funny, they were in stitches. In fact, they were in stitches the whole night, and the jokes didn?t really seem that funny to me. I was sitting on a bench with Robbie, a northern Irish guy who was volunteering at the camp (he said things like ?ah, mebbe? and ?I?m shottered,? so I knew he was really Irish). I asked him if he thought the jokes were funny, and he agreed with me that they weren?t. We began talking about what it would be like if these were American or Irish youth groups, and we were sure that there wouldn?t be as much laughter, that a lot of the kids would refuse to join in the fun for no good reason, that people would have their feelings hurt, etc. We came to the conclusion, simultaneously, that the main difference between this group and ours back home is the presence/lack of cynicism. I thought back over the last two months in India, and I could honestly say that I hadn?t detected a trace of cynicism in all my encounters. It?s really startling when I think about it. I hadn?t heard one sarcastic remark, one snide retort, etc. Here is one of the understandings I had been seeking: I am a slave to cynicism. The church, in large-part, hasn?t separated herself from her culture?s cynicism. With the surge of Western influence in India, I hope that America?s cynicism is a long-time coming to the Indian church.!

5. May, Bangalore

Today, I had lunch with one of the guys from the camp, who wanted to meet separately with me to talk about some of his problems with Christianity. We had lunch and talked for a few hours, and he said it was helpful to him; it was certainly encouraging to me, though not light fare. A few years ago, his father saw his mother in line at the movies. He later accused her of being out with another man, and he forced her to prove her innocence. At his request, she did so by lighting her face on fire. What can you say to this? He blames almost all of his family?s problems on the demands and customs of Indian culture. Both of us recognize the good things about India, but we were able to discuss the fact that while we are to honor culture, we are not to worship it, despite the consequences?one of the costs of being a Christian. Such discussions make me think more about issues like arranged marriages, traditions regarding family honor, etc. I tend to restrain myself by saying that I?m not an Indian and I don?t understand. I?m beginning to think, though, that in situations like this, it doesn?t matter whether I?m Indian or South African or Djiboutian?some things are clearly un-human, and I don?t need to feel bad about criticizing them just because I don?t live here. The hard part, though, is that I don?t live here, so there?s not much I can do about it. What to do? I don?t know.~

6. May, last day in Bangalore

So I start my journey home today, which means that this is my last chance at the computer. My flight out of Bombay doesn?t look so good (I?m flying standby), so I?m not sure when I?ll actually be home, but I don?t think I?ll have another chance to write before I arrive. I considered writing one more update from home, after I?ve had a few days on trains and planes to think about the last two months. But I decided that mostly I?m gonna sleep, watch movies, and eat peanuts. Also, I don?t think that a few days will produce any significant deep thoughts. So, for the sake of some sort of finality, I?ve borrowed a few deep thoughts from the esteemed philosopher Jack Handey in order to frame some sort of parting shot.

Before you criticize someone, walk a mile in their shoes. That way, you’ll be a mile from them, and you’ll have their shoes.

I had some idea why I was making this trip to India, though I couldn?t know what would actually happen. For the sake, simply, of better understanding another part of the church to which I belong, the trip has been valuable. Though it?s not necessary to visit India to be able to speak meaningfully about the church in India, it sure does help, and besides losing weight (17 pounds for me, now), you?re sure to get something out of it.

The people in the village were real poor, so none of the children had any toys. But this one little boy had gotten an old enema bag and filled it with rocks, and he would go around and whap the other children across the face with it. Man, I think my heart almost broke. Later the boy came up and offered to give me the toy. This was too much! I reached out my hand, but then he ran away. I chased him down and took the enema bag. He cried a little, but that’s the way of these people.

I bet one legend that keeps recurring throughout history, in every culture, is the story of Popeye.

Again, as an American, there are things I can?t fully understand and speak meaningfully about, but there are some things, the enema bags of a culture, that I can legitimately evaluate regardless of my own background. This keeps us from excusing our lack of global-consciousness and willingness to minister outside our boundaries simply because we haven?t been outside America.

The memories of my family outings are still a source of strength to me. I remember we’d all pile into the car—I forget what kind it was—and drive and drive. I’m not sure where we’d go, but I think there were some trees there. The smell of something was strong in the air as we played whatever sport we played. I remember a bigger, older guy we called “Dad.” We’d eat some stuff, or not, and then I think we went home. I guess some things never leave you.

If you ever teach a yodeling class, probably the hardest thing is to keep the students from just trying to yodel right off. You see, we build to that.
Who knows what of this trip will remain with me. I have most of the same questions I had when I left for India, and I can?t be sure that I?ll answer any of those questions anytime soon. But I have begun adding new words to my vocabulary, and even though I don?t know what this trip will mean to me, I know that I?m building to something, and for me, who so easily falls into apathy and un-thinking, that?s an encouraging thing.

Consider the daffodil. And while you’re doing that, I’ll be over here, looking through your stuff.

If you ever reach total enlightenment while drinking beer, I bet you could shoot beer out of you nose.

I have much thinking left to do regarding Eastern thinking, philosophy, spirituality. What I can say for sure, though, is that despite all of its other-wordliness, esoteria, etc., no matter how hard they try to escape, adherents of Eastern religions simply cannot escape the real world in which they live, breathe, cry. Few of the people I?ve met here have found consistency in such thinking; when they?re hungry, they look for food rather than denying the hunger as a spiritual deficiency. Truly, some are consistent, and I respect them for that, and it?s a challenge to the inconsistency of Christians. But abuse does not negate proper use, and the difference is that Christianity, and only Christianity, has answers for the physical-ness, the earthi-ness, of our daily lives. I will continue to try and understand and respect those who hold to eastern thought-patterns, but I do so in an attempt to help us both understand the logical conclusions of denying the skin we live in.

As the light changed from red to green to yellow and back to red again, I sat there thinking about life. Was it nothing more than a bunch of honking and yelling? Sometimes it seemed that way.

In one of my early updates, I discussed the phenomenon of driving in India. I came to the conclusion then that America?s driving conditions weren?t better than India?s; rather, they?re just different. After more thinking, however, I have concluded that America?s driving conditions actually are much better, and it?s okay for me to criticize a culture in some regards. My tendency is to veer away from criticizing others because of my litany of problems. But just because my culture and I have problems doesn?t mean that I am dis-allowed from making criticisms. I must be patient, thoughtful, and compassionate in my criticism, but I have the right and the obligation to be critically thoughtful, still. Otherwise, I allow myself to fall into a gutless relativism.

If you’re robbing a bank and you’re pants fall down, I think it’s okay to laugh and to let the hostages laugh too, because, come on, life is funny.

I hope that someday we will be able to put away our fears and prejudices and just laugh at people.

Amid the heaviness of attempting to think through serious issues, I continue to learn the proper place of not taking myself too seriously. Despite all the real sadness and real poverty, there is real room for laughter, and without the willingness to take myself less seriously than I should, my life would be a dull sermon.

If I ever get real rich, I hope I’m not real mean to poor people, like I am now.

I?m coming home largely the same person as the one who left home. Doing ?missionary? work doesn?t change your fundamental make-up. There?s nothing more spiritual about doing something outside of your familiar context. The church loves to throw around the saying that we should ?get outside our comfort zones.? I think this is a good warning against apathy, but I?m afraid that when people hear this they think that they can only grow and become more thoughtful if they leave home or apply themselves to something that they consider spectacular or global. For my part, such thinking is a result of a misunderstanding of the ?common,? the ?mundane.? So often, I think that the only way that I can be ?special? or get people to love me is to do something ?special,? which I wrongly interpret as doing the unexpected, the un-done, the exotic. When I do this, I disrespect the normal places in which I have been placed, the normal, beautiful people who surround me. My circle of friends in St. Louis, the streets where I walk, the tea that I drink, though everyday phenomena, are far too beautiful to insult with such thinking.

You know what would make a good story? Something about a clown who makes people happy, but inside he’s real sad. Also, he has severe diarrhea.

I can still recall old Mister Barnslow getting out every morning and nailing a fresh load of tadpoles to the old board of his. Then he’d spin it round and round, like a wheel of fortune, and no matter where it stopped he’d yell out, “Tadpoles! Tadpoles is a winner!” We all thought he was crazy. But then we had some growing up to do.

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