Sunday, August 26, 2012

Portrait of the Artist as a Young God of Wealth (Part 2)

After spending a while in Uluberia and Calcutta, I realized that I had not arrived in another country, but another planet.  

Moments after my arrival at the compound and I mentioned my need to go to the bathroom, I was motioned to a small room with a hole in the floor.  I wasn’t sure what to do with that hole, and the bricks on either side didn’t seem to help in sitting on it.  Most people there spoke some version of English, except for my roommate who only spoke Nepali (being from Nepal, I guess that would make sense).  Everyone there ate enormous helpings of rice with some amounts of either dal or curry,3 neither of which I found palatable.  Okay, in reality, it was just about impossible for me to eat. But I soon learned how because I found that if I refused to eat such powerful substances my diet would consist exclusively of rice of such a quantity that were it water I would have drowned.  Desperate for Western food, I scourged Calcutta for months, eating spaghetti that tasted like Chinese food and a “cheeseburger” that consisted of a half-inch slab of strange-tasting cheese between two slices of bread.4 

            I remember sitting on a public concrete seat once, with my feet on the seat.  An older gentleman yelled at me in English with a noble Hindi accent, “Why do you put your feet on the place where people sit?  You would not do this in your own home!”  Out of politeness, I didn’t mention that, yes, indeed, I would.

            I learned that I was different and that no matter how much I fit in, I would always be different. I learned that going down the street I would always be followed by children running after me yelling, “OK, OK!”  I learned how to haggle with the rickshaw drivers and that, no matter how fair or generous I was, because I was American they would always assume that I was always cheating them.  I learned that the warm buns in the morning were delicious, especially because of the pieces of fruit they placed in them, but you needed to watch out for the black crunchy ones (because they were flies).  I learned that bulk rice had to be picked through so the white stones that were used to weigh down the merchandise could be removed.  I learned that it was very difficult to wash jeans with a bar of soap and a rock. 

            And I learned that no matter how secure you thought you were, there was always someone to steal from you.  I was pretty security-conscious.  I recognized that I probably wouldn’t know if I was pickpocketed, so I would put my cash, travelers’ cheques, passport and other items in different pockets in my jacket. The room I was given at first was really secure because there were bars on the window.  (Really, the only downside of the room is the strong smell of wet cow manure from the patties that were placed on the back of the wall for them to dry for later use as charcoal.)  One day, returning to my room, I found that the bars of the room had been bent back just far enough for a skinny four year old to squeeze through.  And that my jacket and boots were stolen.   To replace these, I spent more time in Calcutta, dealing with the various bureaucratic institutions of India, from police stations to banks to embassies.  Because of one of the lessons I refused to learn—paying bribes to have your work go through faster—I spent a lot of time bouncing from office to office.

            But a huge part of my experience was dealing with the beggars and poor of Calcutta.  After spending a bit of time there (outside the airport), it is impossible not to notice the poor.  For one thing, if you go there as a Westerner, you can almost see the dollar signs roll up in their eyes like in a cartoon.  Once they see you, they won’t let you go. I had one woman follow me for a half mile, yelling something incoherent (in a language I couldn’t understand—whoda thunk?), then stand outside the place I was eating for a half hour, only to yell at me again when I stepped outside.  As a beggar, she was “making her own luck” I suppose.   And, as an unjust judge of old,5 I finally gave her something just to get some peace.  Don’t be fooled, extortion works.

            But the beggars weren’t the only sign of poverty.  Millions people daily washed themselves and their clothes in public at the water pumps.  Of the twelve million people in the city at the time, a million of them lived on the street.  And millions of others only had running water in their homes for a couple hours every other day. Thousands would scour the already picked through piles of garbage on the street. You could see about twenty people climbing on these mounds as big as a small house, reduced considerably by the hundreds of eyes and hands that have already scoured it.  Poverty and homelessness wasn’t just “an issue” in Calcutta, rather it was a slap in the face insisting upon attention from every person who lived and visited the city. 

            For me, though, while I was there, the poverty didn’t stir up wells of compassion that were full to the brim. Poverty was just a problem that I had to deal with quickly, and ignore just as quickly so I could get on with my business, whatever that business happened to be.  Dealing with poverty wasn’t a religious deed or dealing with my pangs of guilt—it was a matter of getting it out of my face so I could deal with my real life.  Every time I entered Howrah Station (the main train station of Calcutta) I was constantly tempted to take a handful of almost worthless coins and pitch them behind me so that the group of child beggars would just get out of my way and stop touching me, stop staring at me with puppy-dog eyes that quickly turn to knowing glances after money was given. 

            This isn’t to say I didn’t feel pity at all.  That emotion, though rarely experienced, did creep up on me as I heard the Dickensian plight of many of these child beggars:  These children were often kidnapped from other cities in India from their parents, to other towns, and young enough that they could not find their way home on their own.  They were forced by their captors to beg on the streets, for the cute and pitiable make much money.  Should they not bring in enough money that day, they are beaten and not given food.  If the children are not wise enough to run away on their own, and their captors realize that they aren’t making as much money as they “should”, then an arm or a leg would be hacked off, in the hopes to make them more “pitiable”.  After they are old and ugly enough to not even make enough for themselves to live on, then they are thrown out of their captor’s house, and they beg on their own—too crippled to work, too ignorant to do anything else but beg.

            This was told to me to let me know that I shouldn’t give to the child beggars, because the money just goes to these super villains.  But does this mean I shouldn’t give to the children?  Does this mean they should be beaten each night and starved?  I said that I just give them money to get them out of my way.  My tutor explained the situation to me again, as if I didn’t understand what the money was going to.  No, I understood.  What he didn’t understand is the difference between us: he was Indian, and not especially wealthy.  He was ignorable.  I, however, with my white-white hands and blonde hair and blue jeans and French hat—I was the epitome of wealth.  These beggars would rarely see such an ideal stereotype of Western wealth.  There I was, the god of Rich Boys, incarnated and walking among them and they were damned if I and the financial salvation I represented just walked by them and ignored their plight. 

            By the end of the first three months there, my wealth was drained—I had nothing left.  Not giving to beggars, mostly, but giving gifts to those of moderate wealth who were my friends at the compound.  Giving myself restaurant food, when cheaper food was available.  Attempting to gain the passport and money I had lost. 

            Eventually I traveled to BangladeshEast Bengal—and learned of their poverty, although I saw little of it.  The poverty there wasn’t urban as much as rural, and I stayed mostly in the cities, praying, evangelizing, learning about Islam.  We returned to Calcutta and I assisted in an evangelistic campaign.  But I mostly had time to think.  I thought of much, of the spiritual need of those around me.  But I also couldn’t forget the beggars.  For some reason, they stuck in my head.  They still stick in my head, today.

            At the time, as part of my young aspirations, I fancied myself a poet/songwriter.  My songs stunk, of course, and I think I suspected this, for I almost never showed them to anyone.  I had done enough reading of Emily Dickenson and T.S. Eliot to know what real poetry sounded like, and I didn’t have the muse’s gift.  But just before I left Calcutta, I wrote a song trying to voice what that beggar woman yelling at me was saying:

            Don’t turn your eyes from me, don’t turn away
            I see the wealth you hide within, share it I pray.
            You don’t have to squeeze my hand—you know I am poor.
            I only want a little, I don’t ask you for more.
            My clothes tattered, my flesh torn, flies fill my face.
            You reason I’m unworthy of you—but I need your grace.
            Your wealth abounds and begs release, please heal my sore
            Your pockets full, yet sown with greed—do you need it more?

            Don’t give me pictures from your cameras, movies nor magazines.
            You have the life that I need to live.  Give me bread, don’t give me jeans.
            You turn away from my sadness, but what would Jesus do?
            Would he give me dust and say “go away”, or heal me and say “be true”?

Through a customs error (on my part) I ended up spending a week in Delhi that I did not expect.  This allowed me with ample time to meditate on my experiences as a young man in India.  I thought about wanting to go home, about the differences between home and India, about the warmth and friendship I had experienced.  And I thought about the beggars and garbage-pickers in Calcutta.  In the Delhi airport, I met a man with a slight Southern accent and a large ten-gallon hat, who felt that it was his right to inform me of how idiotic he felt India was, from how they went to the bathroom, to how the people smelled.  I was disgusted and found another seat.

I arrived back home the day after Christmas, after spending my Christmas on three planes.  I was glad to come back the day after “present-day” for I don’t think I could have faced the orgy of wrapping paper and present-lust.  I received some few presents—clothes, and some cash.  But I realized I wouldn’t receive much, for my gift was going to India.  But I don’t think my parents realized what such a gift would mean.  It wasn’t just a toy that one plays with a couple days and then casts away.  Rather, my experience in India was a rough jewel that required much polishing and scraping to discover the wealth that was truly underneath it. 

            Being Christmas, the tree was up and trimmed beautifully and huge plates of leftover food was available, as well as candy dished filled with peanut M&Ms (as a treat I would occasionally purchase myself a bar of Cadbury chocolate in Howrah Station).  I remembered the years of Christmas’ I had received enormous amounts of gifts, and most of these gifts had been trashed or wasted or ignored.  I remembered my extended family and their gorging of food and the fact that the majority of excess weight gained was due just to overeating.  That night, as laid on my bed a foot off of the ground, with a padded comforter over me, I turned my well trained righteous prig eye on myself.  Remembering the beggars and the garbage-pickers.  And I wept.

            Not only that night did I mourn.  It took me almost two years to process what I had learned in India.  As a corollary to my lessons learned in India, were the more important classes of the mind I partook after I returned to the States.  In the syllabus: Privilege 101.  I am rich and there is nothing I can do to stop that now.  Even if I gave away all I had, I could gain just as much and more just by being who I am—an educated white American male.  Next semester: Justice 103.  The majority of the world is poor and is suffering in ways I cannot imagine or experience. This is a blight on the world and it is getting worse each passing day. Theology of Justice 204.  God loves the poor and wants to see their needs met. 

            Having passed these classes with high marks, I realized that there was a huge disconnect.  God’s desire for justice and the world around us.  Why, I cried in my prayers.  Why?  WHY?

1. Balaam’s story is found in Numbers 22-24.  Samson’s story is found in Judges 14-16 and Jonah’s story is found—surprisingly enough—in the book of Jonah.

2. YWAM (pronounced like a question word followed by the 80s pop band) is still around, working all over the world.  And it isn’t only for youth—many retired folks do work through YWAM.  If you want to experience God’s power through provision and a different culture, I still recommend them (in any continent outside of North America—the cultural assumptions strangle one in North America.)

3. Dal is a lentil soup that one pours over rice.  Usually it’s pretty bland, unless you get some in Bangladesh.  Curry is, theoretically, any kind of stew.  However, in Bengal—East or West— you would be hard pressed to find a mild curry.  I would think that fire-breathing dragons go to Bengal to get charged up.

4. Meaning that the menus declared them to be “spaghetti” and a “cheeseburger.”  I would have labeled them “sweet and sour noodles” and “a big cheese sandwich”.  So much for truth in advertising.

5. Luke 18:1-7.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young God of Wealth (Part 1)

Can God really speak to us today?  Well, why not?  If He spoke to Jacob (the thief with two wives), Balaam (the greedy false prophet), Samson (who couldn’t keep his pants on when a pretty Philistine girl walked by), Jonah (the rebellious run away), then I’m sure he could speak to people today.1  God hasn’t suddenly become silent.  Nor has He disappeared into an unsearchable void.

            The problem with God speaking isn’t a theological one, but a personal and social one.  If you begin telling people that God is speaking to you, then you are crazy.  You make such a statement in a clinical setting, such as a hospital waiting room and you get free room and board for a while.  At least until the commitment hearing is over.  So, nowadays, people still hear God as much as they used to.  But they don’t talk about it as much.  I’m about to break that rule. Sorry if that offends you, but… well, actually I’m not sorry at all.  Live with it.

            Given the theological assumptions of our first paragraph above, as a young Christian I just expected that God would speak to me.  Perhaps that was arrogance on my part, assuming that God would WANT to speak to me, but, hey, I was a teenager.  (Yes, God made the world, but it revolves around ME.)  Anyway, I knew that if I asked God something, he would answer.  So I knew that I was going to participate in missions—cross-cultural ministry in a country not my own.  So I contacted a youth missions group called Youth With A Mission2 (aka YWAM, the organization my friend and I wanted to join when we were sixteen) and said, “Where are you located?”  They sent me a list of all of their bases, all over the world.

            So I looked them over and told God—“God, I’m going to one of these places.  I’ve chosen either Cyprus, India or Hong Kong.  Which one of these do you want me to go to?”  I’m sure that God remembered that I was only nineteen and so he didn’t project me into space in millions of unconnected particles.  God, quite politely, (probably sniggering behind his omnipotent hand) answered, “India.”  So it was decided, I thought.  I’m going to India

            Of course, I had no money to do this or any experience of travelling solo outside of Southern California, but my ignorant arrogance knew no bounds.  (I haven’t really changed much in this regard, although I consider myself to be marginally less ignorant.)  I sent an application to Madras, India, and they wrote me back to send it to Calcutta, for they weren’t accepting foreigners.  So I sent it to Calcutta so that I might be accepted to their six month discipleship school beginning in July.  Meanwhile, I got a passport and asked for funds.  Between my church and my father—who, amazingly, and perhaps naively, offered to pay for my airfare to Calcutta—my expenses were taken care of. 

            I was fully confident that I would be accepted by the school.  As July loomed closer, however, my brick wall of assurance began to crack.  By the end of June, the holes of doubt were large enough to drive a herd of elephants through it.  By July 1, the first day of the school in India, I had almost put it out of my mind.  Of course, that was the day my letter of acceptance arrived. 

            I spent about a half hour pacing, attempting to make a decision—I was actually rebuilding my wall of confidence, bricks, mortar and all.  By the next day, my mother in tears, I was on a flight to San Francisco to obtain an Indian visa at the Embassy there (they told me it would take a week, but I sat in their office for a full working day and they gave me the visa just to get rid of me), and in less than five days after the letter arrived, I sat in Bangkok, Thailand.  The telegram I had sent the folks in Calcutta said that I would arrive on Saturday.  But the Calcutta airport was flooded, so I stayed overnight in a plush hotel (at the airline’s expense!) and slept away my jet lag.  The next day I arrived in Dum Dum Airport (yes, that’s really the name of the airport in Calcutta—and they didn’t have a single lollipop!) and waltzed through immigration and customs only to find no one waiting for me. 

            Well, I figured, maybe they didn’t know when the flight was going to arrive, since it was late.  No problem, I will find them.  The only address I had was “Mission Compound, Uluberia, West Bengal”.  No problem, I just walked up to a taxi and asked, “Can you get me to Uluberia?”  He looked at me questioningly, and I repeated “Uluberia” about twenty more times and then he understood.  “OK.  Yes.  OK.”  He directed me to put my luggage into the taxi then turned around to confer with the other taxi drivers for about fifteen minutes.  After some hand waving and writing of notes, I realized that my chosen taxi driver had no idea where Uluberia was.  But it looked like he was getting directions.  And sure enough, after about two and a half hours, ten close calls with buses coming from the opposite direction, driving into a dark, mostly deserted town, asking for directions, we arrived. 

            The mission compound was closed.  The tall metal gate was locked and the taxi driver pounded on it.  The night guard told us the compound was closed.  I said they were expecting me (I hoped) and the guard went in to check.  About ten minutes later, I hear a male voice call out in American English, “Are you Steve Kimes?”  After spending the minutes trying to discern how I and my luggage were going to spend the night leaning on the gate, I said in relief that I was.  “We were just praying for you.  We just received your telegram tonight.  We thought you were lost in Calcutta.”  I said “No problem.  I took a taxi.”  “A taxi!” he exclaimed.  “No one’s taken a taxi from Calcutta to Uluberia before!”  I always seem to be first to do certain things.  Oh well, I just shrug off the shock of others.

(Continued in Part II...)

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Walking in Promises

Looking at, understanding and praying for God’s promises are all fine and dandy, but the true life of the servant of God is that of faith.  What is faith?  Faith is knowing that God is both strong enough and kind enough to make his promises come true.  Faith is not necessarily understanding the limitations of the promises, but knowing that they are truth.  Faith is seeing one’s future, as promised by God, and so letting it effect one’s present.

Faith is not just a matter of intellectual assent only.  To acknowledge God and his promises is not faith.  To proclaim the confession is not the life God desires us to live.  All of sanctification and all of the life of discipleship can be summarized as living out the knowledge that the promises will be fulfilled.

On the streets are many who are landless, homeless, jobless.  This is not how they prefer to live, but there are no opportunities for them to live any differently.  Sometimes they despair, sometimes they laugh, sometimes they get drunk, sometimes they pray.  After so many years on the street it is easy to look at the situation and to determine that it will never change.  That we might as well allow despair and drunkenness to win, to forget about the sufferings of this life.

God made the promise that those who remain in Him, who depend on Him for His salvation, will gain the land.  This means that we need not pursue land ourselves, even as Abraham did not.  We need not have a regular profession, a regular livelihood—because it is to come.  If we have a livelihood, that is all well and good, but our lives need not depend on it.  For our true livelihood is to come.  We need not give into despair or fruitless anger. God will provide

There are many who are jobless and who live hand to mouth.  They don’t know where the money for groceries or bills will come.  They are riddled with guilt for not providing for their families or even themselves as they ought.  They don’t know what to do, where to go.  They try to get a job, but there just isn’t one to be had.  In the meantime, their friends, more and more, see them as a burden, a nagging reminder that there is poverty and people who just “can’t get their act together.”  Perhaps they should just curl up and die, because no one will support them, help them in their need.

God made the promise that He would give food, clothing and all necessities to those who seek God’s kingdom before these mundane items.  The life of faith, then, is to not worry about food, clothing, paying bills and such, but to simply seek God and to do as He wills.  This is not a sacrifice, but a blessing, for it is a life free from the constraints of normal life that everyone else around us is bound by.  We can live in a way of assurance that God will provide.

God made the promise that we who have His Spirit will be given the opportunity to live in a holy manner, true to God.  This does not mean we do not on occasion fail, but that the path in which we are headed is God’s path.  We must confess our sins, but most of all, in our work for sanctification, we know that the strength is there.  We need not fret about how we will overcome sin.  God will provide.

God made the promise that the oppressors will be conquered and those who take advantage of the poor will be set aside.  We who are vulnerable need deliverance from these oppressors, for they demand all we have for the sake of their extravagant lifestyles.  God has promised, we will be delivered, although God will also do all He can to deliver their souls, as well.  God will provide.

God has made the promise that there would be justice, peace on earth in His own terms, not based on a compromise between wealthy governments.  That the poor would rule.  That there would be healing for all, without doctor’s mistakes and financial limitations.  That there will be a community that cares for each other, not rejecting or hating a single member of the community.

God will provide. 

At one point, Jesus asked, “But when the Son of Man comes, will there be faith on the earth?”  He was just talking about those who sought after justice from God and was trusting that such justice can only be found through Him.  Such believe takes place in action.

Trusting God is praying to God, even when the promise isn’t received.

Trusting God is living for God, even when we don’t have the strength to do it.

Trusting God is apologizing to God, and making it right when we screw up.

Trusting God is rejoicing in God, in the midst of horrors, because God’s promise is that the horrors won’t last forever.

Trusting God is contentment in God, because He will sustain us until the promise is completed.

As Mad As Heaven

            God’s promises often create the kind of response described in the last post.  Who could believe in such ridiculous propositions?  God’s promises are so outlandish, so out of this world, so supernatural that no one who understood how the world “really” works would believe in them. This was as true in the first century as it is today.  People believe in luck, but they also know that you have to create your own luck, more often than not.  That’s what politics is all about.  Making one’s own luck through the manipulation of power, using whatever means necessary—armies, economies, the influential, populace. 

            But the promises of God are about God making His own luck.  And recognizing that although you can’t see Him, God has more resources than anyone else.  God doesn’t just have a normal army, he has an army of supermen, powerful warriors just one of which could halt a thousand.55  God doesn’t just have one economy amidst many—He is in control over all the economies of the world and can manipulate them to do just as He pleases.56  He can drop a hint to a few, but he can also change the hearts of kings, presidents and generals.  His words have changed whole peoples, and changes the course of history.57  He can influence whole populations and change the direction of armies.  Anyone he wants taken out, He can have them killed, legally and cleanly.  This is the heart of faith in God—that He has greater power than the powerful and greater influence than the influential.  This is the basis of believing in God’s promises, as outlandish as they are.

Jesus believed in these promises more than anyone else in his day.  We know this, because he acted on them.  He was like Elijah—standing at the top of a mountain in front of a cynical group that he had gathered together to observe the fire of God.  If God had decided to take a vacation right then, Elijah’d look like an idiot.58

I have a friend of mine who declared to everyone he knew that God was going to raise him up to heaven in the midst of a busy city.  On the appointed day, he stood there, hands raised to heaven.  Nothing happened.  He thought he was great before God, but he ended up jus looking foolish.  We were all embarrassed for him.  Even so, Jesus proposed that the man he had just pronounced forgiveness for could truly be demonstrated forgiven if he walked on legs he hadn’t used for years.  He told a crowd of mockers that the girl wasn’t dead, just asleep.  He told the disciples to feed five thousand folks with a couple fish and a few small loaves of bread.59  Jesus was always just one non-miracle away from looking like an idiot.

But he had no qualms in walking into that place, again and again.  Why?  Because he truly believed that the promises of God were ready to be fulfilled.  Not just some promise that he himself would be exalted—yes, he believed in that, but he didn’t rely on that promise before the proper time.60  Instead, he tested God’s promises again and again. 

He commanded demons to go—and they went.  And so God’s promise that people would be freed from oppression was fulfilled. 

He laid hands on the sick—and they were healed.  And so God’s promise that He would heal the sick was fulfilled. 

He told the blind to wash their eyes—and they could see.  And so God’s promise—delayed for five centuries—was fulfilled.

 Jesus started passing out bread in the wilderness—and multitudes were fed.  And so God’s promise of abundantly providing food was fulfilled. 

 Jesus believed the kingdom was coming, and he had proven that it had already arrived in one sense.  However he had one problem—many of God’s promises still hadn’t happened yet.  God had promised justice for the poor—but the poor and disenfranchised were still rejected.  God had promised that the lowly would establish God’s kingdom—but it hadn’t happened yet.  God promised that God’s kingdom would fill the earth—no word of it yet.  God had promised that his people would be filled with the Spirit—no indication.  God had promised a people whose hearts would be focused on God—that certainly wasn’t around. 

Jesus was ticked off about it.  Why hadn’t God’s promises been fulfilled?  What was he waiting for?  Then Jesus looked around.  It turns out that no one else was really thinking that these promises would be fulfilled.  Sure, you get the occasional crackpot holding a sign saying “Judgement is Nigh” like John the Baptist.  But almost all of those who called themselves God’s people were living their everyday lives as if they had to create their own luck, instead of depending on God’s luck.  That’s not the anawim—the anawim live by faith.  They depend on God’s resources, not their own.

So that was the problem.  God couldn’t fulfill the promises because the people who were to receive the promises didn’t exist.  Well, that was it, Jesus thought.  Jesus was as mad as heaven and he just wasn’t going to take it anymore.61  From here on out, he would work to create the anawim.

55. See, for example, II Kings 6:15-18 or II Chronicles 20:20-24.
56. Psalm 24:1; Psalm 50:10-12.
57. Isaiah 40:13-17, 21-25.
58. Check out I Kings 18.  Think of how that story would have ended if there had NOT been fire.
59. Mark 2:1-12; Mark 5:35-42; Mark 6:35-43.
60. John 7:2-9.
61. If you don’t believe heaven can be mad, check out some select passages from Revelation—e.g. 6:9-17.