Sunday, January 27, 2013

Baptized and Sent, a sermon


On my first day in India, I sat with Dr. Santosh George as he described his ministry at Cure International, an NGO that seeks to eliminate disability caused by clubfoot throughout the country.  His staff is a group of Christians who pray together twice a week across thousands of miles and multiple offices for one another and their shared ministry. 

They serve ALL people who come seeking their services. And they show the same love, care, honor and respect to each person they meet in the clinic and in follow up visits in villages. It would be impossible for them to officially identify as a faith-based organization, particularly as Christians who are a significant minority in the country, in this religiously diverse culture of India. 

But Santosh makes it very clear to his staff that this is Christian calling, to love God and love others without reservation, to be the hands and feet of Christ curing the lame. 

What I experienced in India was a Christian community more like I imagine the early church. Because of geography, history, sociology…Christians in India are a minority.   
They assume no power.
They have only a small voice. 
They cannot assume any understanding. 

They are attracting the lowest of the castes, the untouchables, because of the hope the Gospel has for the least and the lost.

It is not always safe for Christians to identify as such...it certainly isn’t always easy.  But for this group of people, they choose to emulate Christ every minute of every day – to let that be their center force even if they are not seeking to evangelize and convert.

Santosh challenged us on that first day the way he challenges his young staff of social workers, counselors and health care workers –
“Are you courageous enough to give yourself completely for something closer to the Kingdom of God??”

It was the backdrop of this question that framed my adventures in India…and I pray in frames our conversations together for the coming weeks and months.

Now what does all of this have to do with Baptism?

Our text today is from the Gospel of Mark, the shortest, most pared down of the Gospels. 

It is the story of a strange man named John whose birth was foretold in two Gospels by an angel, whose mother was Mary’s cousin (I guess that makes John and Jesus second cousins), and the story of his Baptizing Jesus shows up in all four gospels. 

It is the beginning of Mark’s gospel
– no Bethlehem,
no star,
no shepherds,
but baptism in the wilderness followed by Jesus heading out to be tempted by Satan. 

It is a story rich with symbols.  John’s mission is framed as a fulfillment of Isaiah 40 – “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.”  The reference to wilderness in these times and places would remind those gathered of God’s deliverance of the Hebrews through the wilderness in the Exodus, or maybe of the ways that the Israelites had rebelled against God and thereby found themselves in exile… 

John is strangely dressed in camel hair and a leather belt – the community of Mark would have made a connection between this description and that of the prophet Elijah in the Hebrew scriptures (2 Kings).  He eats locusts and wild honey, (and no, it isn’t bugs, it would be seeds from the locust tree, probably ground and mixed with pressed dates to make a cake of sorts). A simple diet, an ascetics diet.  A holy man seeking simple holy ways.

John is acting the part of a prophet…talking about the strength of the one who will come after him.  He’s alluding to big changes.  While he is offering a baptism of repentance in water, he promises that what is to come is a baptism with the Holy Spirit.  In the context of their world, the Jews that gathered would have understood this as an allusion to the end times, an apocalypse, a turning upside down of everything they knew and understood, a reordering. 

Mark tells us that as Jesus is baptized by John, just as he’s coming up out of the water, the heavens are torn apart…  That too would have signaled sort of disruption or turning upside down for the gathered Jews.  Clearly what was happening in these moments was not just your average revival tent meeting or preaching on the street corner.  Something big was happening here…not only was there a visible interruption as the heavens are torn open and a dove descends, but then there was a voice from heaven, “you are my son whom I love; in you I find happiness”…in whom I am well pleased.

That’s quite a day on the banks of the Jordan…  No wonder this story found its way into all four gospels…

Why was this baptism so important?

And for that matter, why are we talking about baptism toda, on a day when no one is being baptized?

Let’s take a quick poll.  How many of you were baptized as infants or small children?  How many of you were baptized at an age at which you can actually remember what happened?  Out of curiosity, how many of us have not been baptized or don’t know if we were baptized?

As protestants, and particularly as Methodists, we tend to have experienced baptism at a very young age.
As community,
we sit in the pews and read the liturgy in the hymnal
as babies that perhaps we don’t even know are lovingly sprinkled
or soaked and then held up and named
for all the congregation to see and coo about. 
It is rarer to see a youth or an adult at the font in our churches.  When we do, we do very similar things…we read, we sing, we lay hands, we sprinkle water. 
And then what?

I would venture to say that we see baptism mostly as a liturgical act – something that we mark in worship.  In the Methodist church, baptism is one of two sacraments (the second being communion) and a sacrament is understood as an outward and visible sign of works of Grace that God is doing within and around us.  In other words, our tradition baptizes to mark God’s work, to make a tangible act of what we understand God to be doing in someone’s life.

I would venture to say that many church-going folks see Baptism as an end in itself.  More than once I’ve been in conversations where we reflect on how parents or grandparents feel obligated to get there kids or grandkids “done,” undergoing the act of baptizing children and grand children out of a sense of duty and obligation to make something happen, make something known, give them an identity. 

Is it possible that we’ve let this act become just something that we do?  Something we feel obligated toward without really resting in the why? And without really holding on to what baptism requires of us both as a community that baptizes and as baptized persons?

I need to shake that up a bit.  Baptism was an important act in the life and ministry of Jesus, and it is an experience that we as Christians share with Christ…

Let me say that again, we share our baptism with Christ.

Do we carry that into the world with us each day?  Do we live into our baptism recognizing that we share this with Christ?

I used to work with a pastor who always ended baptisms by intoning words about how, with this act of baptism, “so and so” has taken on a new name, the name of Christian.

But there is a risk of taking on the name “Christian” without taking on a life that reflects Christ.

I hear people reject infant baptism because the child needs to make that decision or because the parents will never bring that child back to the church.  I will tell you that I believe that baptism is not an act for an individual,
it is an act by the community,
for the Kingdom…
and so, when we baptize infants, we take on an added responsibility for that infant and for every infant ever baptized, to pray for, to teach, to lead, to shape community that helps them grow into people who choose life that reflects Christ.
  
I want us to remember today how this brief episode ends in Mark, Matthew and Luke.  Jesus is driven or led into wilderness where he will spend 40 days (biblical code for “a long time”) tempted by Satan.  When he emerges from that time and trial, he will begin the hard work of ministry, teaching, healing, dining with sinners, challenging the social order, cleansing the temple, feeding 5000.  He emerges to teach that the greatest command is to Love God and to Love One Another, and to live a life that exemplifies that.

And so, shouldn’t that be the message of our baptism –
not that we become Christian
but that we are sent out from that very moment,
with the help of our families and our church community around the world to try to walk in Christ’s footsteps,
to love God and one another with all of our heart and soul and purpose
so that the Kingdom of Heaven draws close? The Kingdom of heaven isn’t a miraculous act…it is the act of our hard work and radical love and sacrifice.

Too often we wear the title Christian like a name badge…letting the word tell people who we are rather than letting our actions and our attitudes and our priorities do that.

We live in a time and a place where we draw too much from the labels we are given and we give one another…Democrat, Republican, Liberal, Conservative, Lower, Middle, Upper class. Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jew, Atheist… Redeemed.  Church-going. Religious. Baptized. Saved. 

Those labels don’t really tell us much about the person sitting next to us.  What tells us something is our interactions, our relationships, the story we share, the love and grace we give one another.  How we face wilderness and temptation, how we heal and minister and teach without taking credit, without claiming privilege, without demanding anything, even conversion, in return.

Santosh and his staff at Cure International are risking it all to move their country toward a place where the lame can walk.  And they ask nothing in return.

The good news of the gospel is not that you are saved…the good news of the gospel is that the low shall be made high, the lame shall walk, the blind shall see, and the poor in spirit will inherit the kingdom of God.  The good news of the gospel is that the power structures are turned upside down by radical inclusiveness and love.

You are a child of God.  Beloved.  Born with a purpose to bring about the very Kingdom of God…to help the low be made high, the lame walk, the blind see, and the poor in spirit inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.  Go out in the wilderness and fight the temptation that shows up daily.  Proclaim good news.

For this you were baptized…

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Jet lag, a cold, or spiritual and emotional exhaustion...

"How was India!?"

It is no exaggeration to say that asking this question is like asking, "How was childbirth?" There is no short, concise, worthy answer. The answer is a dialogue and the answer is still taking shape.

Maybe that is why I laid down at 7 pm on Saturday, and short of a couple ceremonial relocations to end a nap, be in the unconscious presence of family on the couch, or actually brush my teeth and crawl into the covers, I stayed asleep until nearly 7 am.

I can't figure out whether this is jet lag, my body fighting a bit of a respiratory bug after a very close, long, dry plane trip, or a kind of spiritual and emotional exhaustion from having emptied myself of expectation and then being filled to the brim by hospitality steeped in reality with more than a dash grace and disruption of my worldview. And quite possibly, it is a powerful combination of all three.

One of our more disturbing debriefing conversations on the last day in Delhi was with Paul and Ashley. Someone highlighted the way that modern American society's focus on the family as central draws us away from true, functional community (and therefore perhaps the ability to bring about Kingdom). This issue has been a challenge to my own call to ministry. When I stare at the requirements of itineracy for Elders in the United Methodist Church, I find myself faced with a choice about the family I have had for longer than I have recognized my call. And at a more esoteric level, I find myself staring down the sense of spiritual awakening I encountered in my theological life explosion of 2006 and at nearly every family dinner sense when I weigh the desires of my family against a vision of Kingdom. That dynamic interrupts debates about vacation, grades, household budget, homework, cars, health care, you name it. I have struggled for nearly 7 years to balance conversations in my life so that my kids understand that they are just one part of a complicated organism. The things Matt and I do and say to this end is only one very small part of the messages they receive about their importance in the cosmos. I think in some ways naming our smallness is some of life's most complicated work.

And so, when you ask, "How was India," know that my brain is grappling with meta-questions too complicated for quick response. And I am seeking dialogue partners. I am trying not to let my solver, administrator, operationalizing brain kick into concise answer gear. And I think that is part of the exhaustion.

Namaste.



Friday, January 18, 2013

A cup of chai at home...

I did my very best to stay awake until something of a normal time, and then to sleep until another humane hour. I bypassed rising at 1 and 3 am. 5 am was the very best I could do. Not bad after 26 hours of transit time and a 10.5 hour time difference. (how about that half hour!?!?) It will be a day of reentry, unpacking, laundry, pictures, stories, and gifts, sifting through emails, preparing for church and seminary work.

But first, a cup of chai, a blissful reminder of all of the complex things I saw and felt in India and of all of the beautiful hospitality offered and received by beautiful, generous, loving, open hearts in India. My view of tea and hospitality will never be the same. In fact I am searching for ways to include tea hospitality in my ministry. How is it that we can slow down enough to be fully present to those we encounter? To hear, learn and enjoy the other in our midst as the reflection of our common God's creative genius and Kingdom...tea seems to be an ingredient to me.

While in India, I shared tea over hotel breakfasts where it was served by local staff who kept us wrapped in creature comfort. I shared tea with various leaders who are doing justice, seeking mercy and walking humbly with God who bears many names. Special thanks here to Santosh George and his wife Atula and son, Phillip and Kojari Peacock and their twins, Paul Divakar and his staff who plied us with hot tea and hot food as our jet-lagged bodies absorbed the record-breaking chill on our first night in Delhi. I shared tea in a Muslim village outside of Delhi with tribal leaders and veiled women, and with Hindu women learning leadership in a village outside of Kolkata. I shared tea with fellow students of theology preparing to serve as missionaries and pastors. I shared tea with families whose children were born with club foot who are finding hope in a cure that will eliminate their child's disability and stigma. I shared tea with Swami Agnivesh who exuded peace and openness to the world from his very pores. I shared tea with social workers, with an artist who opened her home and gallery to us on the auspicious occasion of the Indian new year, with an interfaith group of leaders seeking peace through dialogue, with our travel agents family... And with a marvelous group of new friends from WTS. That's a lot of tea.

And I hope it is only the beginning of sharing life over tea.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Winding Down - last hours in India

Tuesday was mostly a travel day, getting from Kolkata to Delhi, where we then had a nice driving tour of the diplomatic quarter, a very fast visit to Gandhi Smirta, the place where Ghandi was martyred, tea with a womanist artist who did amazing sculpture and painting, ending with dinner in the family home of our local travel agent, Jose. (BTW, if you are considering a trip to India, let me set you up with Jose..,he was amazing!) this was probably the best meal we had the whole trip, prepared with love. I continue to be amazed by the practices of hospitality, and aspire to pay this forward upon return home. I am thinking my office might become the site for tea hospitality.

Wednesday was a day for meeting with Paul and Ashley for a debrief on our experiences. Then we split up in groups for the balance of the day of free exploration in Delhi. Our hotel in Delhi was intended to be a taste of Indian opulence. We were in a 5 star hotel, tasteful and sleekly modern. Our drivers took a group of us back to the Gandhi memorial and the on to Connaught Place for some crazy street shopping for last minute gifts. I need to do a whole post on the experience of shopping on the street in India...gives marketing savvy a whole new definition.

There is more, but air travel has gifted me with a nutty headache. More later...

Namaste.



Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Monday - the balance of the day

On Monday we walked from our hotel to Bishop's College for chapel and to sit in on Phillip Peacock's lecture with second year students. He used three songs to develop a contextual understanding of the trinity. Understanding the Trinity as a monotheistic concept in a majority polytheistic society seems to present some challenges.

From there we headed to a large mall food court for lunch and quick shopping. Pantaloons, an Indian retailer was having a huge sale. There clothes were slightly more western than you see in the street markets, and the colors, fabrics, and prices were fantastic. So let the record show that if I move to India one day, I am shopping at Anohki and Pantaloons. :). Lunch was a cup of Madagascar chocolate gelato. Holy cow.

From the mall we made the long and winding drive to the village (see post entitled Once in a lifetime).

After returning from the village, we freshened up at the hotel and headed out to the Floatel, a hotel that floats on the Ganges, where we enjoyed a fantastic dinner.

Last event - a quick drive through one of Kolkata's red light districts where girls and women waited on the corners. The sex trade is not an open store front operation here as in Amsterdam or Nevada. It's more subtle, with brothels unmarked but known. Prostitution is legal here, but operating a brothel and pimping are not (that may not be 100% accurate...one of the things I need to sort through upon return). It certainly doesn't hamper this work from happening. In districts like this,Netherlands NGO Sanlaap does its work to liberate and empower under-aged girls and those who want out of the abusive trade.

It was time for a foot wash (key after any long day in India) brushed teeth, and sleep. Wednesday is a day of travel.

Namaste.



Once in a lifetime...

On Monday afternoon from Kolkata we headed out to a village further south to visit a community served by a mission of the Church of North India.

The city gave way quickly to a more rural setting. As the high rises disappeared, the roads narrowed. Bicycles began to outnumber motorized vehicles. Roadside shops became smaller, simpler and less diverse. The mix of colors and fabrics became more dissonant. Eventually we wound our convoy of mini-vans and SUVs past a fragrant fish market, around a bend in the road and into a maze of ponds, rice paddies, and rough "roads." The trees become tropical - palms of all shapes and sizes, some heavy with bananas and coconut. As the vegetation grew denser, the roads were narrower, and finally we parked the cars to head down bricked paths too narrow for anything on more than 2 wheels.

In a complicated network of ponds and canals, there were canoes - some built, others hollowed from some sort of tree. There were some bamboo homes built on stilts along the water, along with small enclaves of mud and thatch huts. Every now and then we would pass a tree or wall dotted with small, consistently shaped cow patties drying for fuel. Children and adults hovered at the edges, smiling and returning our greetings and waves. Clearly the sight of a trail of white and black Americans was as unusual to them as their villages and canoes and clothes and faces were to us.

We entered the village passing between two lines of beautiful Hindu women with gorgeous, excited smiles. The greeted with a haunting sound with small conch-type shells. Each of us was marked on the forehead by a rosebud dipped in sandlewood paste. We were invited to sit on benches and chairs. Once we gathered, we were formally welcomed by a translator, and the women sat on the ground across from us. They had used their writing skills to make a welcome sign, and we were each presented a rose and given a paper sack (made from newspaper) full of crisped rice puffs and some sort of spicy fried vegetable snack (Sathi suggested we not eat the fried item, but we are getting brave. They were hot, tender, spicy, good!) and tea (of course, tea). 20% of this community lives blow the minimum income standard, calculated by how much it costs to provide a minimum number of calories per person in a family. Their generosity was overwhelming. We also were asked to sign their community minutes book used for community meetings.

The women in the community have been helped to develop their own leadership and literacy skills. They operate a micro-finance program. They were sharp, and one was clearly a natural leader, taking charge as the group's voice when we asked questions. We asked about their dreams for work children (they want them to be self-sufficient). They asked us about where we had been in India. They knew Barack Obama would be inaugurated soon. They shared that they buy their saris in Kolkata. Next to the area we were meeting in, a bamboo aviary housed about 50 blue, green, and yellow parakeets which they breed and sell, a business started with funding through the micro-finance program. The women manage the loan program within the community, receiving proposals, making decisions, collecting payments and hearing the challenges of those who might be struggling to pay the loans back. We asked about family dynamics, and they forthrightly shared that they practice family planning (families typically have 2 or 3 children), educate all of their young children in schools (fewer girls go to high school because it is 8 km away - a transportation challenge), and determine whether men or women lead the household based on skill and ability. The men of the village are raising fish in several ponds. These fish are then harvested and sold at market. We were then treated to some dance by youth of the church nearby.

We left the women, shaking their hands and waving at their babies to walk a little more to see the fish ponds. Along the way we also saw the local "corner store," several different grades of housing from thatch and bamboo to brick and brightly painted stucco, the pump run by a generator, power lines strung amidst the palms and homes, a variety of bikes and children, a makeshift Kali altar, goats and cows, cell phones, and many, many, many curious stares and smiles.

There was a simplicity here that was breathtaking. While the technology and infrastructure seemed primitive, the societal structure seemed balanced, healthy, respectful, nurturing and strong. Again I find myself marveling at what technology might rob from a society in terms of community sharing, interdependence and relationships.

The ride back was tough - like re-entering the real world after a week of vacation.... And it was somewhat hair-raising, winding our way out of the rural area in darkness on unlit roads with lots of pedestrians, bikes and scooters. I was exhausted by the scope of life here....the first evening I've felt dead tired with the day not yet over.

More about the rest of the day in another post. Currently on a plane en route to Delhi on Tuesday afternoon.

Namaste.















Sunday, January 13, 2013

Sunday in Kolkata

There is something about this place that has captured my heart differently than Delhi. Perhaps it is the pace - less big city. Perhaps it is the people. We've had far more time in close relationship with people here in less formal settings. And we've encountered family and friends of Sathi with which there was an immediate sense of hospitality. I find myself not just missing specific people like Matt, Brook, Emma and Paige, but also just missing a level of intimacy. At the same time, there are new bonds forming with people on the trip. In my conversation on Saturday with Sathi about community, he challenged my desire to sometimes be the introvert...how are we giving ourselves in community if we are not willing to share ourselves. I have to spend time with that. How do we love one another in ways that expand community while maintaining healthy boundaries and balance?

This morning I was met by a student named Manesha who took me to church with him. Students at Bishops College are assigned different churches each year during their 4 years of study. The church we attended was part of CNI (Church of North India), but was a Wesleyan church historically. The various Protestant reform denominations in India have merged to form a single denominational structure, Anglican in nature, while largely preserving some denominational character within each local congregation. Essentially, these churches chose to focus on their common call as the body of Christ rather than there differences. It feels in some way like the opposite of what is happening in the US, at least as it pertains to the United Methodist tensions and broader denominational differences, particularly around social issues like gay marriage. The worship followed a liturgy from CNI's book of worship. The entire service was in English. They used a 1954 printing of the 1933 Methodist Hymnal. A lay speaker preached a sermon on baptism...it was difficult to follow, but illustrated the cultural mixing of christianity, hindu culture and Indian history. The priest told me afterward that he was baptist, which made teaching on baptism complicated in the Wesleyan setting where infant baptism was the norm. After worship, the organist grabbed me, played the US National Anthem for me over the sound system in the sanctuary, and showed me the memorial plaque placed in the sanctuary by American GIs in gratitude for the opportunity to worship in the community during World War II. I enjoyed a cup of tea before heading to St. Paul's Cathedral for lunch with Manesha and the other students from Wesley and our Bishop's College hosts. The two priests serving the cathedral gave us a tour and then shared their "golden goose," a community hall that they lease for special events, significantly supplementing the congregations budget.

Lunch was "Indian Continental," cream of chicken soup, salad, braised chicken, rice, fried fish and custard. An interesting piece of colonial holdover, methinks. Neal and I sat with three male students from the college. When I asked about their favorite area of study, one shared his love for Old Testament. He's writing his thesis on deutero-Isaiah. Earlier in the week, Sathi had suggested that the Hebrew scripture was not particularly authoritative in the Indian-Christian context. Manesha agreed with Sathi's suggestion that the Veda probably carried more weight as the culture's foundational story. This society is so many millennia old - they have their own creation narrative. This has me thinking about our US culture. We are so young and we have in many ways adopted (co-opted?) the Judeo-Christian tradition in mainline Protestant and catholic Christianity. We lack in many ways a foundational narrative that links our society to our interpretation of the gospels. Maybe I am assuming too much by using "we" here, but I think it is largely true. This falls again into the category of things I want to rest with, explore and ponder. And as we enter a more global context, do we need a geographic cultural link? And do Native American Christians root their interpretation of the gospel in a Native American foundational story?

(This is one of those days when my head is swimming in these kinds of questions, and all of this is further complicated by typing this as the evening call to prayer is blaring from several nearby mosques in a dissonant, haunting way. Praise God.)

After lunch we had free time, and Megan, Laura Martin and I paired up with Rev. Fr. James Gomez to walk around Victoria Gardens. Sunday is e day most have off here and the park was teaming with families seeking green space. We had a couple hours of fantastic dialogue and cultural exchange. He asked about culture shock, and I was able to name my awareness of how different things are while at the time, much is the same.

Tonight is another dinner out in the town. Tomorrow is another full day.

God is good.

Namaste.

Saturday in Kolkata

The pace seems to be catching up with us all. Saturday had some down time. Our morning started with a trip to another NGO, preceded by a brisk walk about a neighborhood. We stopped at a grocery store and bought cookies and tea and spices. Amazing what $10 will buy in spices and tea here. Sanlaap is a non-profit that offers advocacy and services for girls and children that are victims of human trafficking. In this society, there are so many societal practices that oppress women...and they are deeply embedded - poverty, lack of safe public transportation, child- and arranged marriage. I keep finding myself drawn to these issues of how women can be empowered within a completely different cultural framework in a way that honors the cultures rich and varying religious and social traditions.

Sanlaap is in the process of opening a storefront in which will sell goods made by victims of trafficking in fair trade. Very cool. Our group really cleaned them out of inventory -- possibly not a welcome thing.

From there we hit Jimmy's Kitchen, a Chinese restaurant with Indian flair. The meal was ok...spicy pork was fabulously spicy. I think we have hit the place of being overwhelmed by food.

After stopping back a the hotel to freshen up, we headed to Bishop's College to join the students there for the opening chapel for the new term. One new adventure was added to the list...14 of us piled onto a public bus for the quick trip to The campus. Wild and fun. There were about 75 students present at chapel. Milk tea was served with biscuits prior to the service. The liturgy was a covenant service from the Church of North India's book of worship. Cedric Johnson, a professor accompanying us on this trip preached. Songs were sung in English and Hindi. After worship, we joined the students in their dining room for a simple dinner. This was our first utensil-free dining experience. Not any easy task...especially because someone had made perfectly fluffy, non-sticky rice. The students who are single live in dormitories and eat every meal together. I had an interesting conversation with Sathi about community and the differences between what happens at Wesley and what happens at Bishops College. These students eat, study, worship and pray together 6 days a week. It is difficult to imagine how a similar dynamic might be accomplished with a mix of full- and part-time, resident and non-resident students.

After dinner we did a quick tour if campus and then joined the Peacock family for dessert in their flat on campus. There we were joined by Phillip's parents. His mother Hilda Peacock is a renowned educational administrator who lives out her call by being radically inclusive in the school she serves. Although she retired once, she's taken a post-retirement role in a school which serves both the very rich and a class of Anglo-Indian children otherwise rejected by the local society. Dessert was either mango ice cream or the same lovely yogurt we had at Kewpie's. I may be addicted to this creamy, tangy, rich concoction.

While some headed out to find a night club, I had the good fortune of coming back a little early to FaceTime with the girls. It was good to see their faces after more than a week. This adventure is unbelievable and it is hard to be away.

Sunday will be a day of worshipping Once again with local churches.

Namaste.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Friday in Kolkata

I am afraid I am hitting an overload wall...

After a very social dinner Thursday, I slept until 8:15 Friday morning. It was wonderful. Breakfast was tea and toast because lunch was to be huge. We started the morning by walking right next door (thus the hotel name - Hotel Heaven) to the Mother House where Mother Theresa lived here in Kolkata until her death in 1997. I didn't know much of the details of Mother Theresa's ministry, and was surprised by the emotional impact of visiting this place. Her room has been preserved and can be viewed. The sisters still operate out of this location, and they milled about in their distinctive white saris. A novice did laundry in the courtyard. life hummed along. the poor were received as were the tourists. There is space dedicated to her tomb and a very simple exhibit that tells her life story and describes her ministry to the poor. I definitely want to read more. I spent a few moments in silence at her tomb and left petitions for daily mass. It is amazing to consider the impact of her ministry and the overwhelming simplicity of her own life.

From there we turned again to contrasts and went shopping at a higher end shop that caters to more western tastes. They had beautiful silks and cottons but I managed to walk away. I struggle with what to bring back from this adventure. Here, looking at the beautiful colors and styles, it is easy to get swept up in wanting "that" look. At the same time, I know I probably won't wear these clothes at home. Then there is the matter of being surrounded by poverty. But we headed to a mall next. Like a real mall. With some stores we would see in the states, others that were new to us. At Sathi's recommendation, I did some shopping in a store called Anokhi - I would describe it as Ann Taylor for India minus the high prices - beautiful coordinating collections of cotton, silk and wool with both traditional and westernized styles.

Then came lunch at Kewpie's, a restaurant known for its Bengali cuisine. The owner, a woman, is a well-known food writer in India. She greeted us and told us a bit about our meal. We were then overwhelmed by about 15 different small plates, from vegetarian to fish and prawns, to mutton. It was splendid. Dessert was a yogurt concoction that was wonderful. Everything was served in clay dishes which are disposable...they go in the landfill and decompose. Their production provides work for people, and they have minimal environmental impact - an interesting functional symbiosis that rejects technology and profit margin in favor of a greater good. Small plates were the order...tastes versus mass consumption. Oh...and the meal is designed to enhance digestion in the cultural understanding, so we started with a mango drink which was redolent with cumin or coriander, slightly salty and tangy. Not everyone's taste, but I enjoyed the small serving. It would make a fantastic cocktail. Actually, there are a lot of beverages here that would make great cocktails. Perhaps more about that in a later post.

After lunch we headed to an NGO named Swayam that did advocacy and services around violence against women and girls. The director, a woman named Anu, was charismatic and articulate. We asked about her background and her faith and what sustained her. She doesn't profess to be a believer in any tradition; her sense is strongly rooted in treating people well. She said she was pretty sure that if there is a higher power, whatever it is named, that power will probably be pleased that she served others. I am pondering the energy we put into being Christian versus being Christ-like. Here in India we are meeting people committed to serving the full range if humanity out of a strong sense that the world is a better place when we all serve those in need. I know this, I believe this, and it seems critical to discern the religiosity that sometimes gets in the way.

Next stop was supposed to be the Kali Temple. However January 14 is a big Hindi holiday, and crowds build as the holiday approaches. The place was NUTS. It is the only place that has felt unsafe to this point. They do animal sacrifices in the evenings, and people were queued up outside in mazes of bamboo fencing. There were people offering to assure us safe and quick entry. There were armed guards at the temple grounded entrances. Vendors sold icons, sweets, beads, bangles, various altar pieces. The crowd was loud and pushy. We decided to bypass the line and head to one more spot -New Market, a local bazaar. This was another unique experience - hustlers hustling, spices next to fabric next to housewares next to technology next to cosmetics. Oh...and rats. Are rats also revered? We've seen an amazing number of animals in the streets - cows, goats, dogs, cats, pigs...rats in the market were a first.

It was a full day. We are safe and well.

Namaste.



Thursday, January 10, 2013

Thursday in Kolkata

Continuing the theme of simplicity, breakfast at the hotel includes 2 choices - eggs or an Indian dish. Today it was a wonderful fried flatbread with a local stew with potatoes, chick peas, tomatoes, greens and very distinctive chile seasoning. The chai was thick with full fat milk and the spices were less complex than some we've had. It was delicious.

We headed out for a visit to Dakshineshwar, the place where Hindu Saint Ramakrishna received enlightenment. The site included a school, a museum, several temples and attractive grounds. This qualifies as one of those places I have seen while in India that requires more research and learning when I return. The site sits on the Ganges, and so many were washing at the riverside or collecting water to take home. We had several Hindi families stop members if our group for pictures with the white folks. Curiosity works all ways.

We stopped on the way back to the bus for a fresh coconut. We've had a few folks sick, and we could all use the potassium, I am sure. A touristy pursuit, but fun. Each coconut was about $.40 and the vendor hacked off the top with a few well placed hacks of the machete and dropped in a straw. I am sure the locals were amused by our antics while we sipped.

We drove through some very cool spots getting there and departing. Kolkata is older and looks more like the movie and story book version of India, in part due to its colonial history. The plant life here is tropical and lush. There are small bodies of water (ponds at best) with communities clustered around. Woman washed laundry at water's edge. Some are choked with water hyacinth. Slowly the shanties and tents gave way to businesses and manufacturing, then high rise office buildings, then gated developments. We visited Sathi's brother-in-law, Dr. Mammen Chandry and his wife Anu in their very nice home. It was a sharp contrast to the crowding and poverty we've seen. Lunch was served - a fantastic mix of North and South Indian dishes. My favorite was a simple preparation of eggplant from North India. It was sliced in rounds, dredged in turmeric and salt, then lightly pan-fried in oil. Anu layered them in a pie plate to serve...simple and wonderful served at room temperature.

We left with Dr. Chandry to visit the Tata Cancer Center, where he is the director. We toured the state of the art facility which provides comprehensive treatment for patients of all ages. Tata is a family name. The family runs a vast multi-national corporation that funds a trust. The hospital receives significant funds from the trust. Unlike the hospital we visited in Delhi, this facility had an electronic records system, wide, bright hallways, two floors of private suites with balconies and amazing views, diagnostic and treatment technology, and plenty of staff (actually, they are just overcoming a nursing shortage and bringing another unit online next month). We walked through open units of children and adults. They offer palliative care as well, and seem to have good supports in place for families and staff. They have an aggressive and exciting master plan for further expansion. St. Jude's provides housing for 15 families off site.

We are ending the evening with a light show at Victoria Gardens. We are en route and stuck in traffic as I type. More as the days unfold.

Namaste.









Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Wednesday - Travel to Kolkata and reflections on Enough and Receiving

Wednesday dawned sunny and warmer again. It would seem the cold snap might be waning in Delhi. We shared breakfast at the hotel and spent time in prayer and debriefing then headed to the airport for an IndiGo flight to Kolkata. Getting to and through the airport was a lesson in cultural understandings of systems and efficiency. People are accustomed to crowds, no personal space and pushing, although the shuffle seems to be without malice and emotional energy. Very odd. The flight left late and we went through lines for ticketing, security, a bus to the plane, and then to get on the plane. They boarded passengers from both ends, regardless of row number, resulting in a comical traffic jam mid-cabin.

It was dusk in Kolkata when we arrived. Traffic in Delhi prepared us only minimally for the chaos of the streets of Kolkata. The taxis and buses are older (with character), and buses are stuffed full to overflowing. This paired with the way vehicles pass made me expect to see someone lose a head along the way.

We arrived at Hotel Heaven, our home way away from home for the next 6 nights. Our hotel in Dehli was clean and efficient with soft beds, multiple pillows, a blow dryer, tile floors, wifi in rooms, and housekeeping staff always present. The hotel in Kolkata is simpler, and it's interesting to watch people's reaction to less. It further prods the question about our expectations as market driven consumers. The hot water is on a switch in the bathroom. The beds don't have a top sheet. There is no box of tissues in the room. The max temperature seems to be about 21 c on the thermostat. The bathroom is humble... And somehow that makes us uncomfortable.

And so I am aware that our reaction to such different circumstances is driven by expectation. I am blessed with wonder-roomie Rebecca and she has a terminally sunny disposition and world travel experience so we are processing all of this as gift together. I commented during our debrief time yesterday that I was enjoying receiving what showed up rather than seeking out specific things. It has kept stress, disappointment and negative energy to a minimum. Praise God.

Off to see Kolkata!

Namaste.

Cure International, Barbecue Nation, and an afternoon with the locals -Tuesday

A after a long and intense day on Monday, Tuesday dawned clearer and warmer. We had a later start, loaded into cars and headed to the offices of Cure International. Cure International is the organization run by our Delhi host Santosh George with his wife Atula. Cure International uses a non-invasive technique that involves casting and corrective shoes to reverse the impact of club foot in children. Their long-term goal is to eliminate disability caused by club foot in India. While they hold Christian values of love and hospitality at the core of their work, they operate as a medical non-profit, in partnership with the government. We visited their clinic in the hospital on the first day in Delhi; today's visit was in the offices where families were meeting with counselor. We met in small groups with three families each. The children were beautiful, the stories difficult - one mother had left her husband when he refused to seek treatment for her son. She now lived with her mother and her 1 year old son. Another young mother's husband had died recently due to a reaction to drugs he was taking for an infection. Her husband's brother brought her and her 18 month old daughter to receive treatment. The third mother was there with a sister-in-law and her 1 year old son. All of them were hopeful about their children's future, imagining careers as engineers and doctors. The two with the most difficult circumstances smiled from ear to ear. We asked about the treatment, their life at home, their financial situation, their educational background, their age, their fears. Every question was welcome.

It is important I think here to shed some light on Santosh's leadership and vision for the Kingdom of God. Santosh expresses great appreciation for the historic mission work of the global church within India. He also has a beautiful vision for kingdom. It would not be acceptable for Cure to be a religious organization. However they seek to operate out of their Christian values to serve people from all backgrounds, thereby sharing the love of Christ. There is a strong sense among the Christians we've met that all of these various faith traditions serve the same God and have central tenets about love and service. The kingdom will include all of God's children from various walks. We can't build kingdom without this interfaith work and understanding. All of the India Cure offices stop for prayers together at noon on Tuesday. Santosh shared that their way of working in the hospitals and systems has caused people to ask why they are "different" and are appreciative of the answer about their faith-based nature.

Our lunch was at a local restaurant called Barbecue Nation. The tables had grills that set down in the center and for starters, we were served skewers of fish, chicken, shrimp, veggies and pineapple as well as a series of small bites - roasted corn, these fantastic roasted potatoes, cheese. All of this was followed by a buffet. Nutty quantities of food in a nation with little to spare it would seem. It was all excellent...the grilled meats especially.

We spent the afternoon with a driver and one of the counselors from the clinic - a young woman named Sangita. She was quiet and not confident with her English, but once when everyone else piled out of the car to get money, she turned to me to tell me I had a beautiful smile....this launched us into a lively conversation about the safety of women and the state of penalties for crime. She took us to the Lotus Temple, the Indian national B'hai temple. It was a beautiful and peaceful, set atop a high spot away from the crush of people and streets and crumbling buildings. Then we hit a bazaar where various states' artisans were represented. I had a fantastic conversation with an artisan from Kashmir whose family wove and embroideries fine fabrics. He had beautiful genuine pashmina shawls, dyed and natural, with stunning hand work. He was a skilled salesman too. The fabrics here from various states are stunning, and their diversity creates such an amazing array of saris. I could come home with suitcases full of textiles (I won't, but I could!).

We packed up that night to spend Wednesday debriefing and traveling to our next destination, Kolkata.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The village

I am going to get this typed quickly and will reflect more as time and travel allow.

On Monday we left the Tajmahal and drove about 3 hours (time has no meaning here...) to a small village where we were received as guests. The village was home to one of the families being treated for club foot. We had no background knowledge of the village upon arrival. We were greeted around a fire by some very old men and one younger man who was in western clothing. The village was Muslim, and we were told that 95% of the boys and about 2% of the girls receive education. We were welcomed into a home, we were fed around the fire where the Imam greeted us, and we visited the mustard fields that the community tended.

The people were beautiful and the children were so curious and engaging. I have lots of pictures but they are on the camera. We sang for them until we were told on behalf of the Imam that singing was not welcome. (Oops). The girls and boys marry at 14 or so, and the adolescent girls were veiled around men. I was able to linger behind in the home we visited so that the women would remove their veils and interact. It was amazing.

This was a world so far from our own...so far from even the starkest urban situations we have seen. Lots of questions we have about how disruptive our visit was. The young man engaged in conversation with Sathi. He clearly had a skewed and limited view of American Christians (much like our skewed and limited view of most tribal cultures -- especially Islamic ones). He said 85% of Americans are born out of wedlock... We tried to clarify that a bit. They didn't educate their girls because it was not good for them to be "modern"

It is all so fascinating and compelling. As we were back in the bus pulling away, a group of adolescent girls hung back, peeking through their veils. I caught their attention and put my own scarf over my head...but they gestured for me to take it off as they smiled and waved. I don't know what to do with this, and so for now, I hold it precious. There is so much more and time is running out.

"The Taj"

The weather in India has been unseasonably cool. We came hoping for 60 degree days, but a record cold snap here has kept temps in the upper 40s at best. The chill settles into me by the end of the day. Along with cold air, winter in India is beset with "fog" as the locals call it. We would call it smog I think. In many ways, our trip to the Tajmahal was marked by this odd weather.

We had a local guide for our visit to Agra. He told us the story of the Tajmahal, a monument of love built by the king for his third wife. The iconic structure you see in post cards is only one part of the complex that includes a red sandstone gate complex, a formal courtyard, a guest house and mosque. The complex is all rendered in the red sandstone, except, of course for the brilliant Tajmahal. I will tell you that based on our visit and info from the guide, the picture you have seen of the stunning white building that nearly glows were taken in the blistering months of June or July when the daytime temps hover around 120. On Monday, it was about 40, windy and very foggy. I didn't take pictures on the iPad so I won't post until I am back in the states.

Throughout our visit, we had an ongoing dialogue about whether society has lost an ability to be creative. This complex of engineering and artistic marvels was built in the 17th century. And so we wondered whether people had the creativity and skill to do such things today.

In case you haven't seen the Taj in close-up shots, it is inlaid with beautiful semi-precious stones. It houses the third wife's tomb as well as the emperor itself. The echo in the chamber was amazing. The Taj is nestled up against a broad stretch of river...I can imagine that it must be stunning in the summer sun.

The Taj is closed on Friday so that the local community can worship in the mosque. Outside the gates we were once again mobbed by men hawking souvenirs. You can't drive near the complex and so the entrance road was full of tuk tuks (small battery operated carts), horse carts and one camel cart.

The ride home was eventful....more on that in the next post.

Namaste.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Sunday - Worship & Trek to Agra

The days are so long!

On Sunday we attended worship with a Christian community that Santosh has "planted" in New Delhi. We arrived ahead of the local folks. We sang some awaiting there arrival. When everyone arrived, we had a short service of word and table. Both Hindi and English hymns were sung. Santosh shared a really helpful perspective at the end of the worship as we began fellowship time. We are illiterate in Hindi -- not the Indians illiterate in English. Very helpful reframing, especially in the context of worship. I pulled the iPad out to take some pictures. The fun part was the ability to show the children the photos as they were taken. The girls were curious but reserved. The boys- not reserved. I gave it to two boys who were probably 12. They didn't need any instruction...clearly technology is something of a universal language. The little girls noticed my painted toes during worship - one saw them, poked another who poked another. Suddenly the Word was not so important. One little girl had a fantastic set of anklets on and was pleased I had noticed. Girl talk is also universal.

We then hopped back on the bus for the long drive to Agra. Much of the trip was on a very wide toll road, complete with rest areas with restaurants. Lunch at the rest area included hot spicy samosas and a type of flat bread with vegetables. in contrast to our American sodas, the fountain drinks were very small. Even the machine-made chai was wonderful! The countryside was planted in small plots, many the plots were various heights because they seem to harvest layers of clay for bricks. There would be stacks from 10 brick kilns visible at any time. Camels, donkeys and oxen worked in the fields. Geordie explained that these farms relied on bonded labor. Round grass huts or low brick buildings served as homes.

Agra sits on a large river and is an ancient city. The guide said that the city might be as much as 5000 years old. We toured Agra Fort, a beautiful set of fortified castles built by mogul kings. The area produces a red stone that carves well, and so the architectural details were intricate and beautiful. This area also specializes in white marble inlaid with semi-precious stones including lapis. There were parts of the castle adorned with flowers and vines. There was a summer residence with a water central cooling system and a winter residence with central heat -- both built 500 years ago. It was sunset getting cold fast. Upon exiting the fort we were overrun by men and boys hawking souvenirs. They were aggressive--pushy and close.

We then stopped at a state run crafts store where we bought silk, wool, and local marble. With some rupees spent, it was time to find our hotel -- a warm haven after a chilly day of sightseeing. The highlight of the evening was a spontaneous soirée with surprise musical talent in our midst. Good times. Sleep beckoned. On Monday, the Tajmahal!

Namaste.







Sunday, January 6, 2013

Day 2

There is so much crammed into these days. It's hard to know where to begin. I have drive time en route to Agra later today, so I will try do do more reflecting and less reporting in those posts.

Yesterday was focused on interfaith exploration. We began the day traveling to the offices of Swami Agnivesh, an activist and former secretary of education in the Indian state of Harayana. The drive there was the usual adventure, and then we arrived at a police road block at a site reserved for public protest. Since the horrific rape and subsequent death of a young medical student in December, citizens have been actively demonstrating, and the protest square was ramping up with protests and media for a busy Saturday. We unloaded and walked through the protests. We spoke a bit with people and the media. One man shared with us his affection for President Obama. He couldn't really articulate why... Just a healthy enthusiasm for his reelection. In the center of the square, they were performing burial rituals for the young woman, complete with an effigy. As I understand it, there are specific Hindu burial rituals. The young woman was hastily cremated and there is local suspicion of some cover-up and manipulation of the story. The protesters were providing the appropriate fire rituals in the square. They are calling for the death penalty for those involved. It is an emotional time.

We visited the Swami and learned some of his teaching. He is very concerned that religions are idolatrous and keep us from doing and being the people we should. He shared a bit about his meditation process. I was most compelled by his assertion that God is in every cell of our bodies. When we are aware of that, revere that, honor that, how can we not live differently. Honoring the totality of physical experience, I want to rave just a bit about the chai served at his office! I am committed to exploring the art of good chai moving forward. I will wax poetic in a later post. The Swami was a beautiful man with a gentle soul and a sweet spirit. At the same time, I imagine him to be a skilled negotiator and activist. In the seminary world, we often talk about public theology, a way of referencing how we live our beliefs in the totality of our lives, shaping our engagement in policy, economy, education. In India, those skilled at this call themselves activists.

Then we moved on to a Sikh temple called Gurudwara Banglasahib. On this particular day, they were celebrating an anniversary of something ( details escape me here) and so it was a very busy place as the faithful came to pray. We left our shoes (and socks) behind, covered our heads appropriately, and entered. We started walking through a foot bath (it is cold here!). The outside of the temple was decorated with arrangements of red roses, white carnations and palm fronds. Inside, a leader read from the holy book while the faithful sat and listened, prayed and made offerings. As we departed, we were offered a special food, a mixture of flour, water, sugar...a gift received not unlike communion host with both hands. The person who provided our orientation indicated the importance of hospitality and a recognition of our common humanity. Anyone receives this hospitality without question. Beyond the observance then of ritual, the temple also serves 20,000 meals to the community each day, completely free of charge. Because it was a celebration day, they expected to serve twice that number. We entered a large hall, were seated in long rows on rugs with the bare floor in front of us. Another group was seated facing us. We were given a metal tray and servers came along with buckets of food. There is a clear expectation that no food should be wasted so you kind of had to be on your toes to not be over-served. The meal included a lentil dish, rice, roti (bread), and a nut based sweet which was like a peanut butter ball crossed with Halvah. We were given a spoon. No one ate until the facing rows were all served. Then we ate together. The gentleman across from us was generous in providing good social cues about when and how to eat. Then we were quickly finished and hustled away so the hall could be prepared for the next seating. I would guess the were feeding 500 in about 15 minutes. The entire operation was volunteer driven. We then toured their kitchen, an amazing operation with huge pots, a prep area where the peeled and chopped mounds of potatoes and onions, a fascinating assembly line of women kneading and shaping roti. They had a machine that cooked and moved the roti like tortilla machines in some tex-mex restaurants.

We departed and had a harrowing drive into Old Delhi. Traffic was intense with many more ricks haws, bicycles and ox carts on the roads.our destination was a mosque, Jamia Masjid. The structure was vast. 400 years old. Because we arrived just as a call to prayer began, we had to wait to enter (the sign said women were not permitted during prayer times or 30 minutes prior to sunset. Again shoeless with heads covered, we walked around. We didn't get much cultural orientation at this particular site. The central courtyard wad probably three stories above street level with a central pol where one woman cleaned her feet, arms, face, and then rinsed her mouth (in that order) while pigeons shared the pool nearby. The main worship area was built with really large intricately cut stone. Looking out from the edges of the structure was a great bird's eye view in four directions. We watched a group of men cooking below. The road surrounded the mosque like a traffic circle. As we left, we could see the range of merchants set up outside- a block do stalls selling different kinds of dates, another block of auto parts, another area of fishing nets. Similar vendors clumped together. The mosque created a centralized community where religion and commerce intermingled.

Our last stop was the Indian Islamic Cultural Center where we were received as guests in an interfaith dialogue with faith leaders. As an American, it seemed strange to participate in an interfaith dialogue without Jewish representation, but there is no active Jewish community in India. The juxtaposition of social class at this event against the places we had seen up to this point was intense. These were privileged, educated people and it was evident in their dress, their social conventions, their dialogue, their concerns. The fabrics were opulent. The shoes were immaculate. The conversation was strategic and broad. We then shared a beautiful buffet of rich food, lots of ghee, lots of cheese, rich sauces and complex spices. A different experience after the simple fare of the Sikh temple. There is more space for reflection about the contrasts, but that will happen over time.

Namaste.





Friday, January 4, 2013

Around the World

(posted on Saturday)

It's 11:25 pm in New Delhi on January 3. I am still in the air over Pakistan. The process of getting to this point in the journey has been an adventure in itself, and we are not there yet. The leg from Heathrow to Delhi is full of new faces, languages, modes of dress. Already as a team of students we are learning to care for and watch out for one another. We have shepherded on another through security and gate changes. I endured a very personal pat-down in London. I marvel on these flights at how meal service doesn't correspond with any logical timing based on either departure or destination location. We've had "words" with seat-dwellers who have spent the flight ricocheting off our seat backs. I have been amazed by quick camaraderie and respect and enjoy the age dynamic.

The photo below is of on hand in a series of many in a sculpture at customs...amazing, but at 2 am my camera skills were sketchy at best.

India...a first look

We arrived in Delhi, got our bags, changed money and were met by our driver Jose. The airport was large and clean and mostly empty in the middle of the night. Jose greeted us with flowers and with bottled water and a bus. Delhi greeted us with fog...lots of it. The fog photographed like snow. Everyone had told me I would notice the change in odor when I got to India. It smelled like fog...I don't know how to describe it. I remember in my childhood a dense fog that had an odor...somewhere between acrid and dryer sheets. I know that sounds odd... But that's it. We were mobbed outside the airport by men aggressively offering (insisting) to handle our luggage and then working for tips. Unfortunately as tourists we had just changed money and had no tip-sized denominations. One man literally overtook me and one of my bags-aggressive salespeople!

The roads were mostly quiet in the wee hours of the morning. We drove through winding main roads beside delivery trucks, past military establishments, past shuttered stalls in local markets, past piles of rubble-as I they sweep the streets into piles every quarter mile or so. The air was white with fog and in the bright streetlights, the trees were white with dust. Even at this hour (now about 2:30 am local time)' the vehicles on the road "chatted" with various horn beeps. I noticed some sidewalks overtaken by makeshift and not-so-makeshift tents and shacks, typically clustered in small communities, sometimes with a fire or a sales stall outside. Once in a while we would pass a fire with folks huddled around it.

It was good to arrive at our home for the coming days, the New Tulip Inn. Clean, chilly, with comfortable beds and pillows, sleep called. But just for three hours...because day one was just a short sunrise away.

Day One

Friday dawned a new day -day one in India.

Plenty of lovely hot water with great pressure...so good to wash away the previous day of travel!

Our day began with breakfast and prayer and a greeting from the hotel general and desk managers. We met in the morning with a wonderful man named Ashley whom Sathi had met at a conference a week or so earlier. His work is in literature and gender studies and he is an advocate for gay rights in India. Fascinating. I have been struck, both in my reading to prepare and in the first glimpses of life here by how young we are as an American society, and how ancient India is. The notions of class and caste that undergird this place are rooted in millennia of social, political, economic and educational structures. Ashley's work is deeply focused lifting identity politics, moving beyond defining people by the labels we as society use to organize the varied data of life before us. In a lot of ways, this became the framework for my day - and possibly for the time here. How is it that we can operate in societies that accommodate our individuality rather than seeking to check and prioritize a series of boxes that characterize us and our needs, abilities and privileges?

Ashley also talked about being politically Christian - a valuable term that needs set beside the language of rationality and faith. How can one adopt a stance that respects the principles of Christianity- love, justice, mercy, radical inclusiveness - without any expectation or reliance upon some personal experience of Christ. This is the best paraphrase I can do in my semi-sleep deprived place. We raised the question then, is it possible to be politically gay? A fascinating topic for consideration...that despite our own experience of sexuality, we could adopt and live with an ethos that recognizes gender differences as highly individual and not a dichotomy that describes value, worth, ability.

Herein lies a pondering for the trip. Can we in small faith communities shed our affection for labels and polarity to be radically loving?

And that was all before lunch. In the afternoon we visited a massive hospital. I was struck by the masses of people lingering everywhere...waiting. Waiting for care, for a loved one, for hope, for drugs, for answers. There is more humanity per square inch than my entitled personal space expectations can handle. And the conditions in the hospital seemed bleak. Unclean, poorly lit, crowded with bad access. Narrow halls. Stairways. People waiting everywhere.

How much of our space and cleanliness are truly necessary in our American lives? I want to hold onto this for some later thinking. It made me wonder how much out pride and compulsive excess wastes resources that could be building Kingdom.

And therein lies the final theme I will share for this post. What does it mean for us to help people move toward Kingdom and away from salvation as the focus of why we gather as Christians. My brain is grappling to put it all together, but it is the question that keeps showing up.