It’s been a year … definitely.

A year ago today I wrote my first blog post and I spent time saying goodbye and finishing my packing. I remember that day vividly but it seems a world away and I guess in some ways it is. This year, I got to see so much and at times understand so little. I could tell stories for hours. People have asked me since I returned home, how have you changed? A tough question and one that I’m not really sure how to answer yet, I think time will let that answer be known… What I do know for sure is through all the ups and downs of an amazing year, repeatedly, it’s been the people. Varied and textured, supportive and a challenge, it’s the people I think about, reflect on and for whom I pray. I hope that has come through my blog.  The idea that people are more than an idea, a culture, neighbors or enemies but we are all humans breathing the same air, drinking the same water and inhabiting the same earth. We might treat life and each other differently but we are all here whether any one person or group likes that or not … we are all here.

Thank you for traveling with me this year and reading and considering my reflections. I write this not because I want to stop thinking or stop blogging but because it’s time to mark time.  In the upcoming weeks and months I may post some more reflections and pictures, maybe under this blog title maybe another, but for now I turn my focus to a new adventure, the adventure of finding a call.  I leave you with some (not all) of the faces that will never leave me. Many blessings to you!

There once was a woman…

…she met Jesus at a well…

I saw that well. I touched its stones and its water. I went to the well to see the place where Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman, in “a Samaritan city called Sychar[1], near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water…” (John 4:5-7)

There are holy sites all over the holy land. Some for the Christians, Jews, Muslims and others, some for multiple faiths, some are more disputed and some seem more certain. Jacob’s Well, some say is considered one of the most authentic sites in the Holy Lands and Jews, Samaritans, Christians and Muslims all associate the well with Jacob.

I saw that well. I touched its stones and its water and more than anywhere else I have been in the Holy Lands I was moved. I stood there in awe of being in the place where Jesus spoke about the water that gives life to an unknowing woman who had just been going about her day and happened across a man that would tell her everything she had ever done and change her faith and her future forever…

People still go regularly to drink the water and see the well, I hope they feel and remember Jesus there too. I hope they touch that well and that the well touches them. Seeing the well made the story (John 4:5-42) more real somehow and my faith in the Jesus, who gave and gives the water of life, refreshed.

Over the well a church has been built repeatedly through the years. The most recent one was completed in 2007. It has a beautiful mosaic in front of the entrance and has been built in the basilica style from Crusader times.

To get to the well you have to take some steps down to the crypt. They ask you to not take pictures but the internet is full of them – so check them out.

I traveled there with a group of lovely people from North America and the Middle East. The Priest in residence was quite a sport as well…

[1] At different biblical times the city was also referred to as Shechem. Today the city is called Nablus.

Focusing on the Holy

What is Holy?

Seems like a good question for Holy Week in the Holy Lands…

Sure there are stories and realities of chaos, disagreement and fundamentalism around business, politics and religion. All you have to do is read a newspaper anywhere in the world to know that. Stories abound that emanate anything but holy.

But to so many, this is the Holy City; Holy City to Jews, Muslims and Christians alike. Different stories and not so different stories run through the beliefs and traditions of these three Abrahamic faiths.

I’ve been in this holy place for six days and despite what could feel rather un-Holy, I appreciate its holiness. There are things you could see and feel anywhere…

A cute kid leading a Palm Sunday procession

Running into a friend – Pastor Ladd

But a lot you can’t. You come to the Holy Lands as a Pilgrim to join in and be part of something larger and longer than yourself. To join in something that through the millennium has been destroyed, rebuilt, forgotten and refortified; to take a step in faith among the faithful and not so faithful, to just be and to walk where literally millions (if not billions) of fellow believers have walked before.

Palm Sunday – walking from the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem

Palm Sunday – walking through the Lion’s gate into the Old City (Jerusalem)

This is the land where my faith, Christianity, as well as others were born. I can’t help but to think of this land somewhat like a parent or maybe better like an aunt or uncle to our faith, it (or they) might be eccentric and hard to understand but it is vital to the fact that we exist, it is full of stories and love and deserving of our attention and respect. Holy Lands – you have two months of my undivided attention.

While I am here I may come up with many unholy thoughts and words … so for now, this Holy Week, I want to focus on what makes this place particular, a testament, a pilgrimage destination and hence, Holy.

Looking up inside the church of The Holy Sepulchre.

Peeking in at the women’s side of the Western (wailing) wall.

A view of the Dome of the Rock.

District 6

District 6 is a museum in Cape Town, South Africa. It’s a museum to tell a particular story of an area once inhabited by people of a mostly “non-European” background who were slowly, systemically and for the most part forcibly removed from their homes and their land. It’s a museum that in its particularity shows a face of apartheid; its horror and disrespect, its insanity and its reality.

District 6 was the sixth district of Cape Town. The museum’s website explains:

“In 1966 it was declared a white area under the Group Areas Act of 1950, and by 1982, the life of the community was over. 60 000 people were forcibly removed to barren outlying areas aptly known as the Cape Flats, and their houses in District Six were flattened by bulldozers.”[1]

Here is a headline of one then-current day paper. You might not be able to make out the first line of the article, it reads, “The bulldozers eat like a cancer into the life of District Six. Everyday new patches of raw earth appear like open wounds. People watch in silent groups as the tangible links with their memories disappear before their eyes.”[2]

One street pre-1966, notice the church at the end of the street for a point of reference…Same street post 1982It was a large area of town…

Yes, that’s a Langston Hughes quote on the map, “Hold fast to dreams for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.”

The museum does a great job of giving dignity and showing life. The government of apartheid must have been able to shield itself from the humanity that was alive and well in District 6. It was not a romantic perfect place, the museum points that out too, but it was a place. A place of real humans that live, breath, love and bleed every day… What is it that grows in the collective mind that gets us to believe that another group of people are less than us? Or do not even think of the other? What is happening in our hearts when we can turn away from the cries of babies, of families and of the generations? What is this? Hate, fear, ignorance, greed, faith…? What is it?

This didn’t and doesn’t just happen in South Africa. It happens over and over again, in so many states, nations and times. Maybe the systems and the methods aren’t exactly the same but the separation, disrespect and insanity are.

[2] Display at the District 6 Museum in Cape Town, SA.

One affects another

I can’t even tell you how many things I couldn’t see when I first got here in India. Then over time my eyes began to adjust to the environment, I began to see new things. Similar to taking a different route home from work or walking somewhere instead of driving, the view changes and details begin to emerge; you begin to see what has been staring you in the face all along.

I needed it pointed out, but now I see it everywhere, the ugly rather unsettling face…

And once you see it you see it everywhere. In construction lots,

In front of the Dealership

This face is to ward off the evil eye. It looks evil and ugly; and I guess that is sort of the point, it disrupts the evil, envious or overly doting gaze that causes bad things to happen… or so it is thought.

Some will call it superstition, but I think that there is some truth lurking in the evil eye at least within the widely held Indian understanding…

And that truth being that we do often look at things and people with envy, jealousy and even malice.  With that envy, jealousy and malice; love, hope and peace don’t come easily. My envy and jealousy can easily disrupt my own peace. The evil eye, it is believed, sends that negative energy to the object of envy resulting in misfortune and illness for the object. So many people do many things to protect themselves from the affects of the evil eye.

Some use a more artistic rendering of an eye looking back at you…

And others use a simple black dot on the forehead or cheek of a child

Whatever the mode of dealing with the evil eye, it all points to a real acknowledgement that we can be jealous and that when we operate out of that mindset, people can be affected.

I’m not a fan of the evil eye but I love the willingness to acknowledge that we are human and our lives affect one another.

Monkeys love Orange Soda

Who knew???

I made it to Agra, home of the world’s most beautiful building, the Taj Mahal. It was everything I was told it would be, awe-inspiring, worn, and packed with tourists and touts… But I was there, SEEING THE TAJ MAHAL!!!! Doing what absolutely everyone else does when they come to visit, taking a ridiculous number of pictures … the whole palace, part of the palace, me with the whole palace, me with part of the palace, with this light, with lots of people,  oh look the haze is starting to clear up … no less than 100 pictures later, I share with you this one.

But believe it or not there is more to see in Agra than the famed testament to love… there’s the Itimad-ud-Daulah which is referred to as the Baby Taj. Obviously it is much smaller but it is also easier to see. It’s a quiet respite after the noise and the crowds of the Taj and the city of Agra.

There’s also the Agra Fort, which is somewhat a kin to the more well-known Red Fort in Delhi and gorgeous all the same.

But even with all the beauty, the scary monkeys still stole the show. Shamelessly putting their personalities on full display for all us tourists to see …

The mother instinct seems present in all species … but so does a feisty spirited nature…

We were walking into the Agra Fort, there was one of those subtle disturbances … an audible gasp was heard and the crowd parted ,,, out through the opening came sprinting none other than a monkey clinching the freshly stolen orange soda bottle from an unsuspecting tourist …

He found an open area of cement planted himself down and instantly became the tour’s highlight as we turned our back to the fort and put all eyes on him…

Disquieting Similarities

I’ve been having some incredible adventures here in India and I’ve also had some introspective times, reading and reflecting. The shear diversity and difference of experiences here keep me thinking and contrasting life in the United States with life in India. Some of those comparisons have been trite, some leave me baffled, some make me laugh and others simply break my heart.

I often find myself a little lost in the understood hierarchies and patriarchies of the land. And if I am completely honest, I find myself a little mad at times too. Oh the hearts and hurts that people (mostly women but some men too) have shared.

God heal the brokenness in all of us. Grant us redemption and resurrection that we may use what others intended for evil to your good purposes.

It seems that in every unfavorable reality of any given society there are authors, though often few, who are willing to tell their stories. Authors who are willing to lay their souls and even bodies bare to reveal, with dignity and integrity, that which has little of either.

I recently read a book called Joothan: A Dalit’s Life by Omprakash Valmiki.

I recommend it. It is not an uplifting book, it is not an easy book but it is one brave author’s account of his life as a Dalit man. The Dalit people, as they are sometimes called, were previously called untouchables, people considered lower than any other caste and to a certain extent lower than human. It is a recent story, (published in 2003 but recalling a childhood of the 50’s and 60’s and an adulthood beyond) and all the while I was reading it I was reminded of an American book written about the 50’s in America, Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin…

Have you read that one? Another one I recommend and again not because it is easy or uplifting. Horrible historical and current realities repeatedly have echoes in other contexts, cultures and times. The faces and the presentation might be different but the spirit of hate and division holds a disquieting similarity.

Forgive us God for we are not always the people you would have us be.

Knowing in Mysore

“My what?” “Mysore, Mysore, you have to go to Mysore.” “OooooOk.”

My Lonely Planet South India guidebook does point out the Mysore Palace as one of the top 10 South India highlights … So why not? Mysore it is.

There are a number of architectural draws in Mysore; the Mysore Palace by day or night,

the Sri Chamundeswari Temple on top of Chamundi Hill,St Philomen’a Cathedral or even the Art Gallery. I saw them all, they were beautiful but I was drawn to the people around them much more… The grandness of architecture, though I appreciate its beauty and even brilliance, always begs me to ask; so I understand the history of the people who lived here or worked here, what about the people who built it? What are their stories? What would they say to this monument, this church, this temple? Did it define their lives, enhance it? Or did it alter it or consume it?

Those stories are often difficult to find, they are lost in the vagueness of someone else’s history, somewhere beyond what we might wonder and what we’ll never know.  The people visiting these places along with me and those currently making a living in their shadow seem less of a mystery. I might wonder about them but I also know with some confidence that…

…this father-son team make some awesome street food.

…this couple is in love.

…these school kids are just as lost as any school kids on a field trip, this trip just happens to be to the temple.

…everyone gets bored at work. (Hindu Priest standing outside the Temple)

…if you stand some were long enough with a camera pointed at you, someone will ask if they can have their picture “snapped” with you…

Peaceful and Seeking

I asked some of the staff here at the Quo Vadis if it was quieter or at least less busy in the village today and yesterday. It seemed less noisy to me… They looked a bit puzzled by my question and stayed silent for a short while, then one replied, “maybe your mind is now calm.”

Then it was my turn to be silent.

No one has ever said that to me… but maybe my mind is now calm and adapting to this place; largely because of where I am staying and the wonderful hospitality and education I am being given.

I’ve mentioned before that I am staying at the Quo Vadis Interfaith Dialogue Center. It is a pleasant peaceful place in a large village (pop. approx. 200,000) of honking horns, mooing cows, barking dogs, firecrackers, PA broadcasts, motorcycles, buses and auto rickshaws. The village with its Ashrams, Temple and Mountain draw many tourists from India and the west. The Quo Vadis is a place where western travelers seem to stumble upon. They come for a good meal, some study in the library, and even some direction or a little conversation. I am fascinated by these visitors, these spiritual seekers and spiritual tourists. Some afternoons and even early evenings I just sit myself down where everyone enters Quo Vadis. If I sit alone, I will meet someone. Spiritual seekers usually and often ex-Christians, some with a vehement opposition to the church and others with a general openness to all things spiritual and the wisdom of all faiths.

I can’t help but wonder as I talk and meet them, how many of their stories match the stories of the vast numbers who have left our western churches over the last decades … what’s interesting to me is how many of these now seekers where either born Christian or called themselves Christian at one time. They struggle with the church and the institution, they have not given up on God.