Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Usefulness of Time

If you are a westerner and you come to India under the impression that you are going to serve some form of usefulness, you are bound to be disappointed. It’s not to say that usefulness cannot be attained. Quite the contrary. It’s just that useful has to be redefined, and patiently adhered to.

It struck me to today how much time one spends waiting in India. At least the West would call it waiting. They might call it a frightful list of other names too. They might start by calling it a waste. The question remains, is it a waste to spend an hour waiting because your team for the day hasn’t shown up? Or is it a waste to travel for 2 ½ hours via the bus system when you could reach your destination is less than half the time if you were capable of driving your own vehicle?

If you are a Westerner and your mind is filled with worries of what you won’t accomplish now when you go out, or lists of things you might have been doing with the time instead, then yes, I would say it’s a disturbing loss. But if you are an Indian, or a foreigner trying very hard to become an Indian, then time is never necessarily wasted. It’s time to be, to rest, to notice that you are alive, to be grateful for any number things. Time to observe the teaming mass of life at the bus stop, to notice people, to wonder about their stories, marvel that you are there sitting among them. This morning, I found time to sit barefoot on a bench swinging my feet in the breeze, to read and memorize, to talk to someone you might say wasn’t there, but he was. My team eventually came. We changed our plans, did something different. But we did something. Eventually that always happens around here. But if you are obsessed with missing the plan, then you miss out on the life given by the adventure. Just a thought, anyways.

G.K. Chesterton once said, “An adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is an adventure wrongly considered.” I’ve often wondered in the past two months if this wise man had ever spent any time in India.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


Be still and know that I am God…

Sometimes the wind blows so hard that you have to be still because you can’t manage to do anything else.

Other times the wind moves so subtly you can’t sense it unless you are absolutely still and searching for its presence.

But always, it is there.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


Brokenness may wear many masks.

Designer clothes. Stilettos. Carefully applied eye shadow. One hundred thousand dollar car. Hiring a divorce lawyer for the third time. Plush couches. White picket fence. Unexpected pregnancy. Sleeping pills.


Hovels made from bricks, mud, palm leaves, and tarps; too small to stand up straight. Girls only fourteen becoming brides, mothers. Alcohol. Beatings. Hungry bellies. Black veils. Angry shouting. Neighboring villages that will not speak to each other; one is Hindu, the other Muslim.

But regardless of income, skin color, nationality—brokenness and wounding are the same. The disparaging words of a neighbor still hurt. Alcoholism destroys lives. People are insecure, fearful, aching. Hearts need to be healed, to forgive. Whether I’m talking to a woman on the dirt floor of a slum or thinking back to conversations with those in the lap of suburban luxury, I’m finding that every human heart cries for the same thing, whether they realize what they are crying for or not, and none of us will be satisfied until we find it.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Wind

India is hot. And there is no air conditioning—although I’ve almost forgotten that’s abnormal. The result is that doors and windows are left wide open. In bedrooms, the auditorium, dining hall, vehicles. Buses have no doors, only entrances and exits that never close. The small auto taxis are completely open—only a windshield and canvas roof, sometimes a back.

So we leave our homes, our lives open, and we wait. Anytime the breeze comes we can feel it. We breathe in the air, welcome it, let it kiss us in it’s passing. When we move down the highway it pours over our faces, reverberates in our ears. The wind sustains us through the heat. Brings relief.

I’ve always been able to feel God in the wind. They are both invisible aside from the evidence of their passing, both come with utter gentility and hurricane force.

So when I am hot, tired, lonely, I stand on the roof or at the window and I wait. The wind comes—whispering, moving, gusting. It is a voice reassuring my heart, “I am here. I have not left you.” I let it tickle my skin, play with my hair, watch it move in the palm trees, stand in awe as it makes me feel small.

Like the Indians, I leave my window open, so the wind is free to enter any time it pleases. I don’t want to miss anything it might have to say.


A holiday. No school.
The children come.
A borrowed mat spread over the dirt. A place prepared.

Pictures colored for a story.

A craft.


Women filter into the edges to listen.

In the afternoon, a burning fever.
It breaks within a few hours.
I rise, shower away the sweat, and walk to have tea in an Indian home.
At the end of the day, there has been goodness in every moment.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Rising in the morning, thank you, Abba. Breathing. An opportunity to serve. Thank you. Clean laundry hanging dry on the roof. Faces that smile in recognition. Morning prayers. Jesus, thank you. Gravel crunching beneath my feet. The vehicle arrives. Singing. Two women come to sit with us in the slums. God, fill my heart with gratitude.

An aging woman who’s son beats her and his wife. Hands that reach to touch her. Saris lifted over the head as words murmur from our lips towards heaven. Thank you. To the one who saves, the one who’s heart cries out in anguish. We can do nothing to change a life. You can do everything. Thank you.

Sewing machines that work without electricity. New tailoring students. Heat. Dripping sweat. Rice and curry. Children that come to school, have a chance at a future better than their parents. A headache that won’t go away. A room with a fan to rest. My heart overflows with a grateful theme.

Eyes that want to go to sleep. Paper, pens, drawing picture cards. A chance to tell children stories. A banana. A campus crowded with visitors. Watching a painted sunset from the rooftop. The touch of a friend. I will address my praises to the King.

In season and out of season, for things small and great, for the beautiful and ugly, and especially all things difficult, I will say thank you. I must say thank you. I have the privilege of saying thank you. For the anchoring goodness of God.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Writing 5's

I tutor six to ten children after school every day. For a number of reasons most of the children were not able to come today, only Ajay—a restless four-year-old from the first class who cannot understand English. “Very naughty, that one,” the Indian women will say.

So there Ajay and I sat, at a small, chalk-covered desk, I trying to get him to copy his figures and he trying to avoid or prolong the process by whatever means necessary. He didn’t have a pencil and I only had a mechanical one. He kept pressing too hard. The lead kept breaking. He was impatient, restless. I was trying to make him understand how he was writing the number five wrong. For a language I had my hands, two words I know in Telagu, and four words he knows in English.

After he finished, I planned on taking him to the canteen and buying him a small treat, but I had no way to communicate this to him, to use it as motivation. Come on, Ajay, I inwardly groaned. Just two more rows of numbers. He had no idea what was in my heart. He only saw the figures in front of him and felt the desire to avoid anything hard.

How often am I like Ajay, whining and fussing under a simple task, stubbornly putting my head in my lap to avoid having to pick up the pencil again? Yet God is waiting to unleash the blessings of heaven if only I will finish writing out three more 5’s.

Our language with the divine is limited. There is no way for him to make us comprehend the blessings of pressing through when life is hard. We just have to trust him, to finish the tasks we don’t enjoy because we need to. Because we are still in school. Because writing 5’s is what we’ve been given to do.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The way back from school...

Today, while school was in session, piles of gravel and dirt were dumped on the mud road outside. The intention is for the government to work on improving it tomorrow. By the time school was released, the school bus couldn’t get through, so we had to walk to the bus stop. I hiked up my sari with one hand, grabbed my bag with the other and tromped with the children through the mountains of rain-soaked dirt. My feet were covered in mud when we got to the village, and we were late. The public bus had already gone. The next one would not come for two hours.

The alternative was to take an auto—the equivalent of two benches on three wheels with a windshield for the driver and a tarp for a roof. So thirteen of us piled in—four teachers, two Indian women, and six children clinging to the sides. I sat facing backwards on a plank sandwiched between the driver and passenger bench. One arm clutched my belongings. The other clung to a metal bar overhead, my head tucked into the crook of my arm to avoid bashing it against the ceiling as we traveled jerkily along. I couldn’t see anything of where we were going with the exception of the pavement rushing by, but I could smell the things we passed. Fetid water, roasting corn, herds of buffalo. The rain blew in and pelted against the exposed parts of my back. With every dip in the pocked road, the metal frame of the vehicle dug into my side.

The teachers looked at me and said, “For you, this is an experience, yah? You will have to remember this day.”

Once we reached a more traveled highway closer to the city, we switched from auto to bus. Then, as I separated from the teachers, it was back to auto for the last leg. I had been two and a half hours since leaving the school.

I will remember. It is everything about India that I love. Ebb and flow. Graceful jolting. The improvisational rhythm of life. We’ll all get there… eventually.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Child-like trust

The children here sleep anywhere. Crammed with seven people into a three-wheeled auto taxi or sprawled in their mother’s lap on the bus, head cocked at a curious angle, mouth agape. The bus rocks, sways, jerks to a stop. They are oblivious. The streets are noisy, the bus crammed with people. The driver sounds the horn to clear a path through the streets; it is deafening. Still they sleep on. I find it amazing, this ability to sleep anywhere, anyhow. Sometimes I am jealous.

Children are so trusting. Sometimes I try to rest on the bus. I close my eyes and let my head drop forward. But with the next stop, the next large sway or jerk, my eyes jump to the window again. Where is the bus going now, I wonder. What obstacle do we face? Why are we tilting so far to the side?

But the children, they sleep. The swaying, jolting, shaking—it is of no account when they are tucked into their mother’s arms.

Unless you become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven…

I watch the children pressed into their mothers’ laps and I ask God to make me like them. It’s not that I want to be oblivious to the traveling of the bus, but I want my heart to continue resting and trusting when I feel it rock from side to side over unexpected dips in the road. I don’t want my heart to be impatient when I feel the vehicle jolt to a stop in a traffic jam before I’ve arrived where I want to be. I want to live with the assurance that no matter how bumpy the journey, there are hands that hold me, will carry me through, will whisper, keep resting. I know where we are going.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Cultural Insight #1

Indians are very blunt. If something is brown, they are not going to call it blue or green or even gray. They are very attentive to cultural manners, but they never speak please or thank you. So until you adjust to the change, requests sound like commands.

Take rest.
Have lunch.

My second week here I caught a cold. One of the women I interact with every day, in the morning she first said, “you are looking very dull today.” I think it’s their way of saying, “Are you sick? Should you go back to bed?”

India is wrecking havoc with my face. Every single one of my pores seems to be gradually joining the clog-fest. I don’t know if it’s the dust, or the sweat, or the food, or some other unknown factor, but here I am looking like a teenager again in the throes of pubescent acne despite the fact that I wash my face now three times a day. It’s okay. My vanity has gotten over it… almost. But it must be very obvious. The Indians are more concerned than I am. The first conversation of my morning went as follows:

“Good morning.” [this is me]
“Good morning. How are you?” [this is an Indian woman]
“Fine. How are you?”
“Good.” Pause. “Didi, (this means older sister and is used for respect) what is wrong with your face?”
Then I have to run through my store of English words to try to explain acne so they will understand. I’m not sure they do. Sometimes the same person will question me on more than one occasion. Or they offer suggestions.

In general, I think Americans are missing some of the graceful, cultural discretion and dignity of the Indians, so I’m not suggesting we adopt this method of communication. But it is refreshing here to know that no one is hiding things back. No one is afraid to ask me about what is plainly written on my face. Indians don’t avoid the elephant in the room. They ride it.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Familiar Tracks

I feel at home in India when I am seated in the middle of a slum with children in my lap.

Or when I come and they run up with glowing faces, barely wrapping their small arms around my waist and squeezing for all their worth. “Teacher, teacher,” they say.

These moments remind me that it was worth it come. They carry me through hours of loneliness, waves of culture shock, my frustrations, irritations, doubts. They anchor my heart.

My month anniversary of being in this place and came and went sometime last week. In the slums, I’ve worked my way into being a regular part of their world. There’s a familiarity to the huts, the muddy spots in the road, the garbage heaps, the clotheslines of dripping saris, the bumps in the stone floor, the grandmother who greets me with covered head, folded hands, and a gentle nod. Welcome, she says in a language I can hear in my head but do not know how to spell.

It feels a bit like coming home. I can call the children by name. They ask for me when I am gone.

I knew the next time I went overseas I wanted to be able to stay a long time. Four months is not really a long time, but it’s longer than two weeks. I’m so glad I waited. A short-term team came with us this morning. They had a great program for the kids. They enjoyed themselves; I could see it in their faces. They were a blessing to all of us. But I’m glad I wasn’t leaving with them, that I was the one left standing still after the waves of goodbye faded from view.

India is gifting me moments and feelings I’m not sure I can describe. They are moments that only come with time, with being known, of sensing this is my place. They are cavernous ruts worn in the road. They are children’s eyes that sparkle with recognition, women that care enough at my coming to continually express their concern regarding my unwedded state, being present to notice when there is change.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

When the person looking down says, No

I wanted something this week. It was something I couldn’t have when I first arrived in India, but I thought, surely with time it will come. But Sunday I walked straight into the wall of reality and smacked my head. No. I could not have it. Could not even discuss having it. Culture shock tripped me up and left me lying on the ground staring at a dark and brooding sky.

I was angry. Upset. I succumbed to tears alone in my room, trying to hug myself while I nursed my bruises and wishing for home. For the next forty hours I tried to fight with God.

It’s silly to fight with God. Futile. Let me put it bluntly—stupid. I always chide myself once I’m on the other side. What complaint do I have that can withstand his goodness? Can I dare to know what I should be given or withheld? Do I know better than God?

Agreement with God, I think, is the essence of this journey of faith. Agreement about everything—sin, truth, direction. Period. If my heart were quicker to agree with God, I might be spared countless hours of heartache and restlessness. Yet somehow my will stubbornly clings to its right to buck and protest—at least for a few hours or days.

This morning on the bus I finished wrestling with God. At least for now… I wish I could promise otherwise. I was reading Jeremiah’s story over the stubbornness of his people and the misery their stupidity brought upon their heads. Not me, oh Lord. Please. Forgive me. My quarrel with God is really so small when you hold it up to other things. “If this is how you mean for me to serve,” I tell him, “then let me serve well. With joy. With gratitude.

I walked into devotion and they were singing:
Perfect submission
All is at rest
I with my Savior am happy and blest.

Amen, Abba. Amen.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

When the red carpet rolls...

India invites me to be free. But sometimes I feel smothered by the people I’m staying with. They are so attentive, so protective.

At the school they wait on my every perceived need, even the ones I don’t have. They follow me around asking if I’ve eaten, serving me tea, making special food, sitting me in the manager’s office. They will not let me stand, will not let me sit on the ground so that I’m forced to steal the teachers’ chairs. I’d really rather sit on the floor with the children like I do in the slums—but I can’t.

I’m also not supposed to leave where I stay when I am alone. So every outing must be planned. The streets beckon, but I stay inside. The mornings I go to the school, an auto takes me to the bus stop. The driver will not leave me, but waits until the bus comes which the teachers are on. I finally convince them to let me take another bus to meet up with the teachers instead. It’s not far. I have a cell phone. I’ll be fine. But then they won’t let me walk the half-mile to the bus stop alone. So I’m back to the auto and they are back to being inconvenienced.

I believe a fragment of my frustrations is justified. I came to serve. In my mind that means sitting in the dirt rather than taking the seat of honor. It doesn’t mean being waited on. But yesterday I heard God nudging at my heart. Pride, he said.

This monster hides itself so subtly within my heart. I should never be shocked to find him lurking in another buried niche, but somehow I always am. “What, you?” I say. “You can’t be here. I got rid of you before.” He only laughs. Until I let God dig him out yelling and screaming the entire way.

This time my pride values independence. I like not having to rely on others. I want to go alone. I don’t want all the attention. I don’t want to cause inconvenience. It might look like humility. But it’s pride wearing a mask. The only way to kill it is to submit to the authority and desires of my Indian hosts. So I stifle a scream with an upturned gaze. God teach me to die yet another way.