Friday, June 24, 2011

Rwanda, Caanan, and Chamblee

We are sending some of our best friends, Jonathan and Kelly Nolte, off to Rwanda in the next few weeks, so tonight we gathered to watch a movie about the genocide that happened there called Beyond the Gates. As you can imagine, it wasn't a very cheery movie. In fact, during the first hour, I was thinking, why doesn't God just blow this world up and start over?

One of the main characters in the film is a Catholic priest. As a horde of Hutus are about to rape and butcher their Tutsi neighbors, a young man asks the priest where God is.

"He's right here, suffering with these people" the priest replies, declining a ride that would take him from the massacre to safety.

That line rattled around in my head for a while. Not in the "it reminded me of a nice idea that I forgot" kind of way, but because it didn't sit well with me. At some point, I have to wonder how much it really hurts him, because he could stop it if he wanted to.

Rwanda isn't the only place that makes me feel this way. I see irreperable scars in my neighborhood. Kids get abused, raped, and abandoned. They build defenses against love. I do some writing for a nonprofit that works with women who are victims of sex trafficking, short-term marriages, slavery, starvation, neglect, and destitution. At some point, if it really bothers God all that much, why doesn't he just stop the awful stuff from happening?

I thought about Rwanda, then I thought about how the Canaanites probably felt when the Israelites came in with divine orders to wipe out every man, woman, child,and cow . Then I thought about friends who died young, and all the scars that their leaving formed in my heart, and I thought that there had to be something about God to be learned, if I was to believe in him at all.

Since it is all we have, human life seems to us the thing of highest value. But, based on biblical tales and the chaos I see around me, it's not the most important thing to God. He seems very little concerned with our comfort or individual survival.

I believe in a God who mourns with those who suffer. Who hates violence. Who grieves when we grieve. But all this has me thinking that the suffering is worthwhile to God because he has a higher value somewhere.

I'm going to propose my little view, which is that God does indeed hurt, but that he values a relational connection, he values the redemptive narrative, and he values the human struggle more than he values the mere fact of human life, and especially more than he values our neat little ethical systems.

So to survive where I live, where suffering abounds and lives are cut short all the time, I have to believe that the God who presides is telling us a story far bigger than our own lives, and he asks me to worship as he unfolds it before me.

This is going to sound weird coming from a guy who believes that Jesus wants us to care about physical needs and poverty (which I do believe, quite fervently), but I don't think God is out to cure every ailment and alleviate every pain.

If we learn anything from suffering, it's that God's priorities and ours are different. We have a choice. We can accept his values and move further into worship, or we can seek safety and avoid the pain that comes with knowing a God who can bear the weight of our suffering for the sake of something higher, which we can't quite grasp in our current state.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

A Flood of Blessings

You can tell how busy I am by the frequency of my posts on this blog.

I recently started a new job as a marketing and communications specialist for She is Safe, a nonprofit serving women in the toughest places on Earth. During my first week at that job, my sister called with the news that her small group wanted to install new flooring in our apartment. Ruthie and I had been praying for new flooring for a while, so we jumped at the opportunity.

In addition to that, a short story I recently wrote for Red Rock Review, a literary journal in Nevada, was noticed by someone who I would hope would notice it, prompting me to launch into editing and expansion of a novel I had been picking away at for a while.

As all these good things crashed into my life, a typo by GEICO resulted in the suspension of my driver's license, leaving me dependent upon the grace of Ruthie to get around.

On Thursday, as I hauled scraps of carpet from our disheveled apartment to a rented UHAUL, I saw some of the high school guys who had written and peed on our door, and I asked them if they knew why a police cruiser was parked nearby. They shrugged, we started talking, and the conversation moved to their soccer team, which they asked me to coach.

So now, I have a new job, a new floor, a new opportunity with the guys in the neighborhood, a chance at getting my weird little novel in front of some helpful readers, and no wheels.

The complicated, unprecedented levels of blessing and difficulty often overwhelm me, but I know that these opportunities come to me from a gracious hand, and I trust that hand to move the story forward in a good direction.

If you are a praying person, please keep us in your prayers. We are caught in a flood of blessings, trying to breathe, love and pray while God's story swirls around and over us.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

A Temple to Foreign Gods (dispatches from the trek, pt 3)

Do not trust the gods of the air of Kathmandu.

The thought flashes through my head as our taxi speeds toward Pashupati temple. Jeremy sits beside me, and we watch the city slide by in lurid color, its shacks bearing the stamps of Coca-Cola and Pepsi on bold, hand-painted plywood signs.

Street kids run through alleys bearing paper bags, which they place over their mouths and breathe deeply when their play slows. Western wear and saris dance and weave across sidewalks, shoes and sandals stir the dust of the streets, and we climb the last hill before the temple.

As we hop out of the cab, I see skeletal cows, rooting through piles of garbage like stray dogs.

Don't trust the hamburgers either, I think.

My friend Jeremy, clad in jeans and a soccer jersey, leads the way to the temple complex. He has lived in Kathmandu for a short time, and arranged this trip for me. Since we have one day in the city before beginning our trek to Mount Everest, he wants me to see this temple and get an idea of what kind of power rules this city.

"The kingdom is in us," I say as we approach the guard shack, where westerners are required to purchase tickets before entering. The statement is meant to identify conviction, but it's really a question, the central question of my journey from the outskirts of Atlanta to the base of the world's tallest mountain. I want to know if this kingdom that defines my life to is a real power. I need to know that it moves through cultures and across oceans, and into the temples of foreign gods.

Two weeks before leaving Atlanta, I visited a Hindu temple to open a conversation. After describing the various statues and telling me their stories, emphasizing the commonalities between his faith and mine, the priest took my hand, held it, and pointed to a string of Christmas lights that lined the ceiling tiles. "Many lights, one electric," he told me. I looked at the lights. "Many lights, one power," he said. I held his hand for a moment, watched a wealthy Indian couple approach the gods, then quietly left the room.

Now we walk past boxes filled with powdered dyes, oranges and yellows and reds, for some ceremonial purpose I don't understand. We mill past stalls, past shadus, the holy men with long beards, robes, round bellies, and painted faces. Jeremy tells me not to take photos of them lest they pursue us for money.

Ahead, I see a group of tourists standing on the concrete riverbank, cameras in hand, snapping photos. I turn to see their subject, and on the other side of the river are small gazebos with rectangular fires crackling and scorching. Near to the fires rest human forms, under fabric shrouds. In clusters standing by walls beyond the pyres stand Nepalis, milling around, chatting, watching the flames. Their dead are burning before us, and their possessions, now poisoned by mortality, are hurled into the grimy river below.

I gape at the shrouded bodies, feeling a tension over the ceremony before us. I come from a land where death is hidden from society's eyes, tucked away in nursing homes, and sanitized in funerals. Here it is, final, grotesque, and public.

A body goes onto the lumber. Men in tank tops uncover a face, light the head on fire, and the next funeral begins.

We mill on through the complex, where we see dozens of shrines, each with a phallic sculpture at its center. Explicit carvings outside the shrines depict horrific gods presiding over complex orgies. Nepalis mill around us, some seeking profit from the tourists, some seeking favor from the spirits, some to give themselves to worship of the gods.

Several buildings say, "Hindus only" on the outside, barring westerners from seeing inside. I ask Jeremy what goes on behind these walls. He shrugs and tells me we're in a fertility temple, so one can imagine, but he hasn't been inside.

We find a long set of stairs climbing up to a hill overlooking the city, and begin to walk. Here, moving away from the vivid altars to mortality and sexuality, I try to process what I am seeing. I am an alien here, so I am bound to feel confused by the native forms of worship, but there is a seething force in the air which troubles me.

This is my first day in Nepal, so I pass the sights quietly, waiting to understand, hoping that in the mess and mystery of this journey, as it runs through this complex, the city of Kathmandu, and the great mountains beyond, the kingdom of Christ will take on skin and offer hope. For the moment, it remains hidden in my heart, a small alien light in a noisy temple to local gods.