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February 23, 2014

death and a coconut

When I enter the living room, it smells like death. There's weathered, papery, yellow skin and eyes that betray what no one wants to say: this man is dying.

Die he did. The next time I see his wife, it is at the temple. She's wearing white (the traditional funeral colour) and is somber. We sit cross-legged on the floor, me and a temple full of local people. The funeral director doubles as a musician, and they play a tabla and other instruments. People sing from hymnals, and when there is a break between songs people come and go, pausing before they leave for a small bow to the gods. But what distracts me the most are the coconuts.

Coconuts and pineapples are spread on a table, to be offered to the gods at the front of the temple. Each coconut is topped with some sort of sweet, and specially arranged. All I can think is, "What do coconuts have to do with dying? With souls and life and death?"

These questions distract me until I see my dear friend at the front of the temple, nearest to the multiple deities. The girl with red nail polish, a ready laugh, a sweet smile and five hundred scooter-accident scars from vivacious living. The girl who tickles me and can always round up a crowd for a party. But today she's different, sober, dressed in white, and holds a gift for the god. She has a white strip of cloth around her face, to keep her breath from defiling god. She seems to me a world away from the girl I knew before this moment.

We sit in the temple for nearly an hour, and I'm left alone with my thoughts, because I can't understand the local language and only catch pieces via translation. And ultimately, I can only think one thing: if I'm right, they're all wrong. This whole temple full. This whole neighbourhood full. Almost this whole city full. 

The thought is staggering. 

The musician/religious leader is talking: "Between ages 25 and 50 is your real life. That's the time when you need to do good karma. Do good. Do good." 

When she has the chance, my friend tells us with quiet joy: Grandpa did good. He went fresh. He was clean. Just before he died, he asked to do a worship service to the god. And, she adds with extra zeal, his soul left through his eyes. Our mutual friend fills in some blanks for me: It's one of the best ways to go. If his eyes were open when he died, it's a good sign.

But inside, I know it's a resounding gong, a clanging cymbal, the stuff of earth:

Birdseed for pigeons.
Water and washing.
Open eyes.
Good deeds.

This is earthly, flighty, featherweight.
We need something heavenly, enduring, eternal.

Coconuts may feed a physical body. Water may wash a physical body.
But what can feed and cleanse our spirits?

I wouldn't trust a coconut. 

A certain gravitas comes across me again as I type these sentences. And I told God, help me write this, because people should know. Because, if we're right, they're all wrong. It's simple logic. 

If we believe that, every one of us should be acting. 
If we don't believe that, then are we pretending to believe the rest?

If there's only one way, there's only one way.
If there are more ways,
then "we are of all people most to be pitied."
Because we're giving up "houses, or brothers, or sisters, or mother, or father, or children, or land" for this one way, one truth, one life.

There are millions of people believing in the power of a coconut, a bit of water, a fast, open eyes, a stack of good deeds done during middle age. If you read this, you can't say you didn't know. I don't like to be pushy, but this I will push: what are you doing about it? I push it with myself too: what am I doing about it?

We live in a new part of the city, and they in the old. Sometimes I wonder, how do we bridge the gap? Their roots in this culture are deep. They're offering pineapples to deities in the way their forefathers did, but have 3G in their back pockets. Tradition, family and roots call them loudly, but so does the internet, the bigger outside world, and new conversations.

Watching the world go by from the back of my friend's scooter, I am dodging cows and tucking in my limbs. She shows me a roadside vendor selling wooden stretchers used for cremation. Next, she indicates a man with a fortune-telling parrot. I wonder: how do we start to have new conversations? I try to love and ask good questions, even on the back of a weaving scooter, because I believe that real Love calls loudly, louder than roots or traditions or old stories. And real Love is what everyone is ultimately looking for.

We keep asking questions, keep opening conversations.
until they hear, death will be appeased with a coconut. 
And I don't know about you, but I wouldn't trust a coconut.

 "I hold the keys of Hades and of death..." 
"I am the door."
"Knock, and it will be opened to you." 

But "how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?"

Photo credits to my friends M+C.

February 20, 2014

accidental reflections

There's a two-dollar, two-hour tour offered daily in our city. The walking tour begins just above a colourful temple, when morning prayers are commencing. A projector hums and invariably the guide clicks to a slide with an illustration of a man on a horse. "Sir noticed that near the river, rabbits chased dogs and scared them away. He thought, 'What brave rabbits live here!' And so, he built a city here." Between the guide's thick accent and the din of the bells and chanting below, the story of the founding of our city is a bit difficult to understand. But so begins the tour, which weaves through a few of the 1,600 temples that inhabit the older portion of our city.

If the rabbits used to dominate the dogs here, there must have been a coup d'├ętat, because today dogs scurry around every corner, not rabbits. They come in every size and they tear into garbage cans, ravaging for food. My walk between home and work is a bit a chaotic some days, with thick traffic and swarthy men on mopeds and endless honking and yes, street dogs.

Yesterday evening, as I left work, my sandals collecting sand, my body dodging onlookers and vehicles, one sentence escaped my mind and drifted into His sky: Thank you, God, for this beautiful city. (Sometimes what I pray surprises even me.) I wondered how I could look at that chaos and dirt and think of beauty.

A friend visited recently, and he saw many dirty streets and stray dogs and poor children. My local friends were constantly asking him, "So, what do you think of our country?" He could not speak for the country, but he could speak for our city, and he commented on the delicious meals he had here. But depending on who was asking, sometimes he'd mention how surprised he was at the garbage he sees nearly everywhere here. It clutters and piles and pollutes. It shocked him a little.

As someone who grew up in a third-world city, living in a dirty city again is not so distressing for me. To be honest, I hardly notice it, unless I step in it or smell a stench. But it was interesting to see my city through his eyes: truly, our city is not beautiful, especially to first-world visitors. There are swathes that are nice, if they're gated, guarded and groomed. But in general, the sides of the streets are piles of dust with scarlet trails of spittle. Compacted against the would-be curbs are flyers, food, and feces. The gutters are open or non-existent. Shanty-towns crowd what were open fields. Government housing blocks remind me of a concentration camp: grey with narrow, dank hallways separating one-room dwellings and the omnipresent garbage crunching in the cracks and corners. This is our city. 

And yet I still said, Thank you, God, for this beautiful city.

What makes this city beautiful is that it is full of bearers of the image of true Deity. Most are without a true knowledge of Him, so they reflect Him accidentally. Like a carver's woodwork would bear his trademark grooves by no choice of its own, the people of my city prove the Word true without even meaning to. In their living they bear testimony to the Living One (for "in Him we live and move and have our being").

How do they reflect Him?

They reflect His creativity,
with their patterns, textures, carvings and designs.

They reflect His generosity, 
when they give meals, time and gifts, over and over again.    

They reflect His artistry,
in their dancing, singing, painting and drawing.

They reflect His authenticity,
when offering a fair price after seeing white skin.

They reflect His joy,
with their propensity for parties and affinity for bright colours.

They reflect His relational nature,
when they long for relationship, thrive in relationship, and bring vigour to relationships.

Anyone who has lived abroad, indeed anyone who has lived, must admit that it is people that make a place. The Yukon is stunning, but it's better with a friend to talk to over salmon chowder. Long walks in dusty alleys where anything from dried dung to sheep heads to roosters are for sale...are more fascinating when they are walked with a friend. People (not dogs, litter or pollution) ultimately make a place, beautiful or otherwise. People who reflect—in fallen, less-than-glorious ways—the beautiful image of God.

In this city morning prayers go up from over 1,600 temples. It would be hard to find a local who denies there is a god. But who is He? What is His name? How does He want to be worshiped?

This is my morning prayer, if you will: that the accidental reflections of His beauty that I see here would give way to intentional, redeemed reflections—that are found in right relationship with the true Deity. He is beautiful. Amen.