Thursday, October 28, 2010

When needs are overwhelming...

Today I’m tired—mentally more than physically.

It’s easy to allow the needs of India to become overwhelming. For that matter it’s easy to allow needs anywhere to become overwhelming. At every turn the world is filled with broken people. Yet India flaunts her brokenness more openly than the West—beggars sleeping on the streets, children that don’t go to school, families that can’t get enough to eat, temples at every corner that steal the devotion of millions and leave them empty-handed. It would be easy for any secular human to feel natural compassion for the needs of India. Discerning the additional spiritual needs makes the tug upon my heart so much more intense.

There’s a fine balance to walk between feeling compelled to pick up all the burdens of India it is possible for me to carry and the opposite, which is steeling my heart with indifference.

This week I’ve fallen on the side of carrying too much. I haven’t had a day off in nearly three weeks because I go the slums four days a week, the schools two days a week, and I lead worship on Sundays. Plus there are always smaller tasks that crop up into my evenings—piano lessons, drawing flashcards, preparing for kid’s clubs. If each of my leaders had their way I would be giving more time than I already am.

It’s hard to say no for several reasons. One, Indians can be very blunt and simply tell you what they want you to do rather than asking (and I haven’t mastered the art of navigating the culture and being just as blunt in return). Two, my time grows short and I want to offer everything I can while I am still here. Three, I came to serve in whatever manner would be helpful. Yet now it is hard to discern between what God has laid before me to do and what people are asking me to do.

If I could craft my own ideal of how to spend my time, I’m not sure exactly what it would be, but I know it is not what I am doing now. Yet, God’s ideal is a far cry from my ideal. The places he has laid for my feet to walk these past months have taught me priceless lessons that are worth every moment of inconvenience and frustration.

So this weekend I’m going to do the only thing I know to do. I’m going to shut up the protesting voice of responsibility inside my head and take a day off. I’m going to rest and ask God to realign my heart with his. Abba, come and be my shepherd because I know when my heart is heavy I’m carrying burdens I’m not meant to carry. Show me each place in the next five weeks where my feet are ordained to walk, and may I not take one step to the side.

“Indeed the Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its produce. Righteousness will go before Him and will make His footsteps into a way.” Psalm 85:12-13

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Ratio of Time

Living in India requires creativity and patience.

Everything takes time. Shopping. Going to school. Communication. Getting a group of people inside the same room. Arranging a social visit. Preparation… for anything.

If you want something you have to make it. There are no craft shops, so arts and crafts class comes from whatever I can dig out of piles of things randomly discarded by foreigners here and there. The teachers make all of the posters, flash cards, and illustrations for their students by hand. I don’t have a printer so paper and pen have become my companions.

Illustrations for telling a story: 3-4 hours
Hearts to glue on a coloring page: 1 ½ hours
Beginner piano music for a child: 4 hours traveling downtown and back from a bookshop that didn’t carry what I needed plus 1 hour copying songs by hand from what I could find online
ABC flashcards: 5 hours

Very little is wasted. Paper scraps become confetti for pasting. Pencil shavings bloom into flower petals. Fabric scraps are blackboard erasers, tailoring lesson handkerchiefs, or quilted bags. Toilet paper rolls are converted into vases. Thin layers of Styrofoam-like paper from packaging turns into rose petals. There is potential everywhere.

It also leaves me busy because I always underestimate the amount of time it will take to finish preparing for my next music lesson, kid’s club, or craft project. Sometimes I am tired or frustrated. While I am kneeling on the floor coloring with crayons, I wonder whether four hours of drawing is worth the ten minutes of telling the story in the slum. But then I remind myself that no servant is greater than his master. This is why I came—to serve—whatever that looked like. Well, some days it looks like crayons and pencil shavings and hours on a bus. Father, may I complete each task with joy.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Contentment Revisited

The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want…

Simple words. We’ve read them so many times we think we know them. Already your mind may be scanning over them to these sentences following, hoping to find something more profound, or at least something new. But truth in its simplicity is profound, and the longer I stay in India the more I realize how hard such truths are to apply. My mind may race ahead in comprehension, searching for some new theology or proverb to unravel, but my flesh lags behind, dying slowly, proving that I will not rise above the need for kindergarten-like truths of Scripture any time soon.

One brother recently challenged me with the reverse statement of this well-read Psalm. It has left me with whole realms of application yet to be explored:

I shall not want if the Lord is my shepherd. Translation: If I am wanting, then I am not living with the Lord as my shepherd.

How many times in a day do I pause to grumble or complain, to wish something was different? The truth is I have no unfulfilled needs. God has given, so there is no lack. Yet in my flesh, I may perceive lingering needs; I may step out of agreement with God and accuse the truth of being a lie. I will not say so openly, but somewhere deep inside the doubt will be entertained; my actions will reveal the innermost thoughts of my soul. I doubt God, therefore I grumble.

My dissatisfaction is not a clue that God has failed to provide, rather that I have failed to place myself under submission to my shepherd. Will I believe him when he tells me my needs? Will I trust him when what I call a need he redefines as a want? Will I relinquish my thoughts in exchange for his?

The green pastures and quiet waters of my shepherd are filled to overflowing with goodness and beauty and grace, but they look much different than what this blind, dumb sheep often expects to find. Abba, teach me of the hidden treasures of contentment, the beauty of denying myself, the glory of discipleship that says none but you my Lord.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Paper Hearts

Scissors in hand.
Paper snippets.

Hours of cutting little hearts.

Black hearts. Red hearts.
Children with colors.


Paste on my fingers.

Above it all a prayer for dirty hearts to be clean.

Stoniness to soften.
Thank you.

Monday, October 18, 2010


The noise was overwhelming. Bodies pressed together, pushing, reaching, nearly wrenching the box from the man’s hands. The children and even the mothers clamored so ardently over a box of broken toys, pieces of this and that discarded and thrown together to be given away. They yelled and fought as over buried treasure, as if their lives might depend upon it.

How different would my life be like, I wondered, if I clamored after more valuable things as determinedly as these children fought for little plastic treasures of junk? Do I come to God this desperately? Do I fight, no matter the jostling crowd of the world, to receive my fill of what is good: lessons of faith, forgiveness, humility, contentment. He won’t give me the remnants of his grace; he will fill my hands until it is impossible to carry more. At first I wanted to reprimand the children, convince them to hang back and wait patiently. But then, I thought perhaps this is part of what it means to have the faith of a child, to not stand back in politeness while God is offering so much more than discarded playthings. Perhaps clamoring is in order.

Feverish Grace

Every time I push myself too hard, string too many things together without leaving time for rest, fever comes. There are no other symptoms, only the ache of my body and the burning of my head as I lay down in the sweltering afternoon. It is as if my body has soaked up too much heat from the strain of the Indian sun and refuses to relinquish its burning until I pause long enough to cool down. Within a few hours of rest, several glasses of water, I am fine. I ask for grace and dive into another day. I am birthed, fed, rested, sustained by something beyond me.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Traveling Post #4

Despite my struggles with culture in Jaipur, I will concede that one morning we went to see a palace surrounded by a fort that was beautiful.

After the long tour, we asked our guide if it was possible to climb the wall surrounding the fort. He said it was allowed, but not advised. Ha. The adventuress in me said, something not advised? Perfect. I’m going. [Mother and all other concerned individuals with parental instincts, please keep in mind that our guide is used to speaking to his idea of pampered foreigners and the only thing in danger was our comfort more than our safety.] He told us we would want to change our clothes, go back to the hotel and rest first, then come back. Nonsense. Pay another 600 rupees for a taxi and change into another pair of shoes which none of us had? We were headed to the wall. Our guide’s look of disbelief was priceless. He told us women didn’t usually do this sort of thing. Well, we said. We are usual women.

If you are trying to envision this wall, think Great Wall of China in miniature form, except walls only surround the staircase on one side instead of both. The large stone steps are twice normal size. Half way up you are exhausted, stopping every twenty steps to catch your breath, slightly light-headed. But you don’t quit. With every step the view flourishes with beauty and you will not be robbed of reaching the uppermost watch-tower.

When I reached the top the first thing I did was collapse onto my back and not move for at least several minutes. The second was to settle into a nice perch and just be still for a while. It was the highest view of India I’ve seen so far. Several villages and/or cities were laid out on the valley floors below, a couple of mountainous hills added variety to the landscape.

All the clamor of Jaipur was far below. The wind was blowing, dancing in my hair. I love India, I remember. It was worth the climb.

Traveling Post #3

Jaipur clamors for my attention in a way that Mumbai did not. In Mumbai everyone is hurrying, but focused, determined to carry about their own business for the day. As a foreigner in Jaipur, everyone’s business seems to be concerned with soliciting mine. The bazaar merchants are loud, clamoring, even flirtatious—anything to get you to buy their wares. The irony is as soon as they attack it makes me want to move on. You can’t trust anyone, especially the auto drivers. They all have a hidden agenda. At the train station we called the hotel and waited for them to send their personal auto. If you hire one on the street they will take you to whatever hotel has enlisted their services regardless of where you say you want to go.

There were so many foreigners. I couldn’t help staring at their bare white legs and small tops without scarves; it’s so strange to my eyes. They were tourists. Never before had I felt so self-conscious of my white skin. I often sat and watched them drink their beer and smoke in the restaurants trying to imagine their stories, what would motivate them to come to this dusty, arid climate. And I often thought they couldn’t possibly understand the pulsing heart of the India I’ve come to love. For that, someone would need to take them out of the hotel and beyond the gates of a palace tourist attraction.

I struggled in Jaipur. I think it was because I saw a foretaste of what it will be like to return to Western culture, a preliminary pang of reverse culture shock. The city held a contrast of two lifestyles that I’m still not sure how to navigate between.

Paul wrote that he had learned the secret of being content in any and every circumstance. He knew how get along with humble means and also how to live in prosperity. It strikes me that once you have learned the first, the second becomes more difficult.

India has been instilling in me a bit of aversion towards abundance. There are so many things I find I don’t need, don’t even want when the riches of God’s presence can be my portion. Yet even in this God is revealing layers of pride in my heart. Will you fill your heart with gratitude in scarcity, he asks, but refuse to thank me when I give you abundance?

Perhaps it is well that I am facing these questions now, so once the next three months are past and I begin to turn my face towards home, just maybe I’ll be more prepared to face the drastic change.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Traveling Post #2

Mumbai smells of fresh cut rose petals, fish, human waste baking in the sun, curry and banana leaves, salt sea air, spices, a hint of mint or cilantro, and fresh rain turned to fetid water all rolled into one. In the train station, on the bus, walking to the market, her scent curls into my nostrils like the perfume of an alluring woman, finger out-stretched, beckoning. I can only stay for a few days, enough for a whiff, a taste, a mere brush of skin against skin, but it is enough to know that something deep within is awakened, will long to return.

Mumbai is a city of life stacked upon life. Humanity in one of its rawest forms. The metropolis stretches endlessly along the horizon, each view holding contrasting tiers of existence. High-rise buildings, highway overpasses, luxurious apartments to modest flats—and at their feet sprawl the slums, tents of tarp and tin erected in any available crevice.

They cram up against the roadside until their front stoops become the street itself, women and children perched in the doorways conversing and playing between their beds and the traffic. The huts grow along the walls between the railways and the apartments like overgrown ivy. On the outskirts where they claim wider expanses, the shacks are stacked on top of one another like blocks of legos haphazardly arranged by the fingers of a child not yet two.

The streets between them are narrow. Small canals run through the alleyways. Women come with brooms, sweeping away the waste of things that have already been reused.

From the doorway of the train as I hold onto the hand pole and lean out into the night of the city, I feel her, watch her. The wind whips at my hair, makes my dupatta dance vigorously behind me; it pours over my face and speaks intensely to my heart in a way that is not quite a whisper, not quite a shout. My soul dances on the edge of a mystery, across the heads of the teeming masses of people in my glimpses of the night streets. Selfishly I ask God to bring me back to this country, this city.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Traveling Post #1

The train, in its passing, echoes likes throbbing bass tones of a sub-woofer. As the doors between compartments open and close, the rattle and clack of the wheels against the track filters through. After a few hours, the rocking and swaying becomes familiar so that I stir awake in the still silences of the stations. The motion is that of a child being rocked, though not perhaps in a steady cradle. I picture an infant tucked into a sling or onto a mother’s back as she hikes across the country. With every boulder to climb or dip to step down into I am knocked gently against her chest in a way that says, yes, you are still being carried.

Back from traveling

My apologies for the lack of blog posts over the last ten days. I’ve been traveling across India, seeing a couple more cities, and widening my understanding of this country I’ve come to love. This required my estrangement from this thing called the internet we are so dependant upon. But I’m back, with lots of journal entries to feed a series of posts from my travels.

Each city had a distinct feel, unique from where I’ve been staying. I traveled with three others. We took the train to Mumbai and then to Jaipur; however, because of the lack of a direct train we flew back from Jaipur. As we landed and collected our baggage from the same carousel I used upon my arrival two months ago, my mind was carried back in time remembering that day and how different it felt. There was awe, bewilderment, uncertainty; I didn’t know what I was doing or where I was going. Now, in their own way, much of the same feelings are there, yet they are engulfed in a film of familiarity that is a welcome relief. As the taxi neared my room I had the feeling of one who has been on a journey for a long time and coming to the last mile before home.