Friday, February 11, 2011
Wednesday, July 01, 2009
I KNOW WHAT WE BELIEVE IN, BUT WHAT ARE WE DOING?
(One church’s journey out of the land of ideas)
When the sun sets in Theramaidu, Batticaloa, its drop from the sky is so quick that a brief conversation begining in broad daylight concludes in the blackness of night. It was this way for the small group of us seated in resin chairs, discussing the letter of understanding that was about to be signed by the recipients of Free Methodist Tsunami relief housing on the eve of the possession day. The usual leadership faces were there: Dan Sheffield- global ministries coordinator for the FMCiC; Pastor Sritharan Jeyerajah- Tamil Free Methodist Church, Brampton; Pastor Guna- the man hired to simply oversee the project site and who, within a couple months, had grown a church of 80 people meeting in the supply shed; as well as some others whose roles in the process had been integral. Seated quietly in a line, bearing mixed expressions of eager anticipation and cautious hope bordering on disbelief were the four Sri Lankan women who would be symbolically planting trees and receiving prayers of blessing for their newly received homes less than 24 hours later.
After some dialogue about the linguistic nuances of the letter of understanding which would serve as a legal deed until further due process could be attended to, the signing began. As the pastor of just one of the many churches that had joined together in addressing the social need arising from the Indian Ocean Tsunami of December, 2004, I sat smiling in the February heat. What a wonderful thing I was permitted to be part of, if only as a witness.
Funny thing about being a witness. Legally, it often involves signing something.
Completely surprised and honoured by the invitation to place my own signature on the page, I fumbled with the pen, fearing some tragic inky blunder that would result in nullifying the first letter. Sometimes it takes great concentration just to sign one’s own name. However, in this case some confidence came with the realization that this illegible scrawl was really just a symbol- it was a mark made on behalf of every pastor of every Free Methodist church in Canada that had heard the troubling news back in that final week of 2004 and had sensed God’s invitation to help somehow.
This evening's experience would leave me reflective and virtually speechless for hours. How had we found our way here, over five years and half a world away from the churches in Canada that had grappled with a sense of global responsibility amidst the barrage of images and soundbytes that circulated so effortlessly throughout the global village during the week following the disaster?
On December 26, 2004, a tsunami tore across the Indian Ocean, devastating everything on the shorelines of countries in its path... with virtually no warning, the coasts of Thailand, Indonesia and Sri Lanka in particular were lain to waist by two massive waves in a period of about 37 seconds. Thousands upon thousands of lives were lost along with billions of dollars worth of property.
In Canada, I had been slated to preach on the Sunday that followed. I had a nice "New Year's" message about something... the details of it are long gone now. As I was praying, God spoke.
Is this the best we’ve got right now?
Is this the most important thing we have to say?
Do you really want to deliver this message, or
Do you want to actually address the urgent?
I knew what this meant- we all knew what this meant. Pastors all around the world, in our movement and others, were having the same conversation with God. The urgent was the need that existed as a result of this incredible natural disaster. The urgent was something tangible. The urgent was something immediate.
And God moved. Even in the wake of Christmas, or perhaps in the true spirit of it, the people in these churches gave. In our smallish church, a fund was established and over the next while several thousand dollars were given to it. Probably not much in the larger scheme of things, but definitely an active participation in that larger scheme: God’s justice agenda.
It was a great place to start. For me personally, it was my first step out of the land of ideas and into the real world. I think it was an early step for our church as well.
Four months later, God called our church back into the game. I was having breakfast with a friend who engages in global ministries work regularly. He asked me a simple question: 'I know what we believe, but what do we actually do?'
The first answers were predictably programmy. However, with deeper prodding, I was bumped out of the place where I had lived my whole life, presuming that global ministries was someone else's calling. Here, it appeared, was a call from God to get involved. God had packaged it in the words of my friend so that it would get in...
What I heard my friend say was: Until the leaders of our church do something other than Sunday morning, the people of the church will continue to hide behind them.
So, through an intense, multifaceted dialogue involving emails with many different people including both Dan Sheffield and my father, a pile of praying, and some really good late-night coffees, I came to understand that God was inviting an involvement deeper than simply establishing a temporary fund. God was inviting our church into relational engagement. I found myself joining a team headed to Sri Lanka, not sure where I was going, much less why, but knowing that it was of God and that it was to somehow involve our whole church, not just me.
On this initial trip, two intense impressions were made regarding the impact of the Tsunami upon the people of Sri Lanka. The first was how far from the reality of this catastrophe we lived in North America. A young man shared how he had taken work placing bodies washed ashore onto wooden carts, ending up loading his best friend onto one. Another man, a pastor around my age, pressed me with questions I couldn’t answer: “What do I tell the people in my village when they ask Why did God send the Tsunami?” None of my tidy little theological defaults had any hope to offer this hurting people. I was still a well-intentioned outside observer.
The second impression had to do with the need for relief rebuilding. As part of that trip, Pastor Jey, Alan Retzman and I joined Pastor Lazarus, the superintendent of the newly formed mission district of Sri Lanka on a mission to Batticaloa. This city on the east coast of Sri Lanka had been heavily affected by the Tsunami. I had seen pictures of the devastation, taken the previous February by my friend Bob Munshaw who was pastoring the Saskatoon Free Methodist Church at the time. However, the Batticaloa we traveled to in August not only bore great evidence of the natural disaster that had befallen it, but also of the incredible tenacity of its survivors. An older man shared how his grandfather had built his home, his father had been raised in this home and now it fell upon him to rebuild it- and how although many promises had been made by western photographers, so far these bricks were all his own. Kind words and empty promises were of no encouragement here- displaced survivors, having lost everything and everyone they had once held dear were living in tin shanties and refugee tents, enduring temperatures of +40 in the shade. And yet they persevered.
Poitu varam is tamil for 'go and return again soon.' My friend Pastor Lazarus said this to me as I got into a van one night in Colombo, and was simply saying 'We'll see you tomorrow'. However, these words came to mean much more to me concerning the hope of one day returning to this place with others, ready to be used of God here in whatever way God ordained.
Over the weeks and months that followed, it became clear that a missional-partnership of sorts had been birthed between the work being done in Sri Lanka and my local church. Interest in the work taking place in Sri Lanka and the need to be met there grew almost immediately. Our lead pastor, Steve Lougheed joined Alan Retzman and Benedict Gomez in February 2006, while a team for that summer was being drawn together and prepared. There was much dialogue about the state of things in Sri Lanka and how the relief moneys given by the people in Canada should be best used. Alan, Dan, Pastor Jey, Ben, and others were in constant dialogue with the leaders of the mission district of Sri Lanka to discern the FMCiC’s ongoing role.
The Ampara district is south of Batticaloa and was even more heavily affected by the disaster. Among Pastor Jey and others, a dream began to grow to build a city of God with more than a hundred houses and a community centre/church in the Ampara region using Free Methodist funds. The idea was that the Sri Lankan government would donate land and all of the moneys raised in Canada would go to constructing houses for the displaced. Without the cost of land, more houses could be built- it was a great plan. Plans were drawn up for housing while contacts and negotiations were made with the government to secure suitable land upon which to begin the project.
In August of 2006, I was able to return to Batticaloa as part of our larger trip. With me was my friend Matt Larson who was interning at our church. In the year that had passed since I had been there, much had changed. Much rebuilding had already taken place, certainly, but the presence of the army had also increased. There was, after all, a civil war going on which had to be factored into all of our plans. It was strange how, on my run through the streets every morning, I would be greeted cheerfully by both Sinhalese soldiers and Tamil shopkeepers who were otherwise locked in a staredown with each other. It appeared as though God was willing to use our otherness in a meaningful way to accomplish his will for those on both sides of this conflict.
It was especially apparent on the Batticaloa and Ampara portion of this trip how the very hand of God seemed to be extended over all that we participated in. Due to the escalating violence, particularly in the eastern and northern regions, all NGO’s (Non-Government-Organizations) had been told to leave the country. Yet because we were church, we were free to move to and fro, gaining access to areas that were closed to all others. Around us, incidents were on the rise, with a bridge being taken out by insurgents up the road from us one day or violence in the street ten minutes behind us the next. We experienced only freedom and safe passage, however, as we scouted land, met with government officials and sought further insight into what God intended to do through the FMCiC in this country. Matt was being challenged daily in his personal and ministry journeys in ways that would become increasingly apparent over the coming months, even years. We prayed daily prayers of thanksgiving for the mercies seen in the day coming to an end and those unseen for the day ahead. It was a trip of wonders.
What was not wonderful, however, was how arduous the process to secure suitable land for development became. Some of the options that were inspected held promise while others, lacking fresh water or access to electricity, clearly held none. Even more frustrating was the sense that we probably wouldn’t actually get the go-ahead to develop in a suitable area before the war ended or Jesus returned. This golden gleam of the city of God dream was being increasingly inhibited by red tape- while in the meantime there were still so many people sweating it out in refugee tents and living conditions that were deplorable. Leaving Ampara, we joined the rest of our team (comprised of members from Northview in Regina and Wesley Chapel in Scarborough) for the work that we were slated to do together. There was still a nagging sense that the tsunami housing project was very tentative and in all of this, it was very difficult to be patient and faithful. With our western minds and western worldviews, the challenge was to serve within the existing systems and structures rather than to start trying to supercede them in a flourish of well-intentioned ethnocentricity.
Upon returning home, the team from Regina, consisting of Matt and myself, along with Rick and Jaylynne Fox (formerly of Saskatoon Free Methodist and having experienced a stirring within their hearts upon hearing of Sri Lanka a couple years earlier from their pastor at the time, Bob Munshaw) shared their respective stories and impressions readily, accepting opportunities to speak at churches and camps throughout the year that followed. The missional partnership of our local church with the movement in Sri Lanka had continued to deepen with more of our people connecting with the churches there. The people in the seats back home actually knew where Sri Lanka was, and were growing accustomed to sights, stories, faces and names from the trips taken thus far. There was, however, always an awkward pause whenever team members were asked about tsunami relief. In our small way, we had participated in the raising of funds and awareness, yet felt a little lost as to what progress we could actually report. It was a time of diplomacy and faith-stretching.
Sometime during that second trip, the idea for Encounter Sri Lanka, a denominational global ministries experience for young adults was conceived. The guinea pigs of the ESL pilot in August ‘07 would be my family, along with two others from our church who had expressed interest and one from Wesley Chapel. Also from Wesley Chapel would be Sheryl Murray and Onika Brown, two educators who had been part of the team in 2006 and were returning to provide pedagogical training to Sri Lankan Christian education leaders. Of inestimable value to the project as interpreters were Ben Gomez and Jackie Jeyerajah- Pastor Jey's daughter.
The focus of the ESL’07 trip was upon the programming offered, not tsunami relief. Pastor Jey stayed behind as he often did, while the ESL team headed back to Canada. He was still hard at work exploring options to see relief plans come to fruition. During this time, it had become apparent to Pastor Jey and others that as long as we were waiting for land to be handed over by the government of Sri Lanka, the project would be in limbo. Negotiations had begun for the purchase of land suitable to build houses and a community centre on. In the time that had passed since the disaster, economics had changed and the price of usable land in the tsunami-affected areas had skyrocketed, largely due to demand by NGO’s and churches seeking property to develop with relief housing. To purchase land now would be to drastically reduce the amount of houses we could afford to erect, but at least the project would once again move more tangibly forward. The Theramaidu land just outside of Batticaloa was purchased and Pastor Jey and Dan got to work securing Sri Lankan architects, contractors and skilled workers to construct ten houses, with plans for a church, community centre and market to follow. The land purchased was at the centre of a relief housing community that had been built by Samaritan’s Purse and World Vision donations. There would be many neighbours.
Back in Regina, we were dealing with some changes of our own. Having gone through a time of transition, we were settling into a new rhythm as I moved into the lead pastor role and tried to figure it all out. However, there was something else going on. In my global ministries involvements of the previous three summers, I had diligently sought answers from God as to whether this or that trip was mine to take and in each case I had received the green light. I never wanted to just presume that involvement in Sri Lanka was a given and in the summer of 2008, God tested me on this one. He simply said ‘No.’
It was the first time that I received this word but it was so clear and so different in articulation and feeling from the previous GO-codes, that I knew the only faithful response was obedience. Part of the challenge was to sort out whether this was our church’s gig, or just something that the pastor was passionate about. See, on my other trips, I was serving under the auspices of another’s leadership, and was therefore a delegate. Somehow, it felt different with my new role in the church, and I didn’t want to be guilty of conveniently making my interests and the interests of the church coincide. Regardless of what your leadership role, submission to someone is a necessary and meaningful form of accountability. Everyone answers to someone.
I shared my conviction with our board and we dialogued at length over how involvement across the ocean was in keeping with our core values and was an expression of our collective mission as a church. In the end, our board decided that the preexisting relationship between this little church and the exciting work that God was doing in Sri Lanka should continue into this new era.
One of the things that came up was the possibility of my taking a trip in February ‘09, and this being a springboard for a plan to send an ESL team the following August. There were still young people from the church coming forward, expressing giftings and desire conducive to this kind of service. And so it came to be that I would be participating in the February trip, while my friend Matt would return to Sri Lanka August with his wife and a full ESL team.
To our delight, we learned that the first of the houses being constructed at Theramaidu would be ready to be turned over to their owners- people who would, by that time, have been displaced and waiting over four years for a dwelling. The selection process had been conducted at arm’s length, with applications being made to and considered by a third party. Of the recipients, seven of the nine were families headed by women who had been widowed or otherwise abandoned during the catastrophe. There was tremendous satisfaction in sharing this with people outside of the church who had questions about our involvement in this tiny country that seemed to be increasingly in the news. Likewise, the response of nonchurched people to the project, the selection process and the ultimate recipients was incredibly positive. It was as if those we knew drew inspiration to live more generously from news of the project. In many ways, I believe this excitement had to do with the fact that this was a justice initiative being carried out by a church, rather than an NGO. The church was doing what people felt the church should be doing.
My friend’s words from four years earlier played as backstory in the assent evident on people’s faces as they heard us share of the work: “I know what we believe in, but what are we doing?”
And so I found myself representing both people I knew and people I didn’t know, seated in a resin chair on the other side of the world on a hot and humid night in February, 2009, fumbling with a pen.
The day had been inspiring. Moving through the Theramaidu relief housing project, it was easy to note the electricity in the air. Many of the houses were bustling with the final preparations for the handing over of keys the final day- a bit of sweat equity provided by the recipients. Floors and walls were being washed down, yards were being landscaped, one household was working to put in a cement walkway- two boys shoveling, two women carrying buckets of cement and a man from the community doing the trowling. I had never seen people dressed so well and smiling so broadly while loading cement in +40 temperatures. I believe in our part of the world this is called ‘pride of ownership.’
We met the families and interviewed a few of them. All the while, Pastor Guna translated, demonstrating a gift for language. He shared story after story with us of the people in this community, the hardships they had endured, and how the common feeling among them was that they had waited hopefully, thinking they had been passed by, only to receive what was, in their view, the best houses in the area.
The houses really were special. Because great attention had been paid to the details of living in eastern Sri Lanka by the Sri Lankan architects that had been hired to develop the plans, the dwellings were positioned according to the regular wind currents with great ventilation for air flow and high ceilings which allowed the heat to be swept by the wind up out of the living space. Each house had a veranda because those designing them had noted that the newly erected relief houses in the area almost all featured ‘after market’ verandas that had been added on by their owners. The houses were also slightly larger than the others in the area, allowing for multiple-family dwelling. The fact that they were painted bright green was probably just a matter of aesthetic preference.
Pastor Guna had been brought in fresh out of Bible school to oversee the project site. I had already heard rich stories about this man from Wade Fitzpatrick, pastor of the Moose Jaw church after his own trip in August of 2008. Our friend Guna was clearly a pastor, not a security guard. Within very little time he was providing pastoral care for the people in the surrounding community, and had set up a thriving church in the utility shed. During the week he had established a school, teaching English to the people of the area, and had been harassed by some who felt that his presence as an on-site spiritual father in the community was somehow in violation of an unspoken turf agreement. He had endured malicious rumours of gross misbehaviour and a conversion agenda, as well as physical threats to his person. Yet, he had persevered and the depth of his character was such that those whom he served had eventually stepped up to defend him as their pastor and friend.
We enjoyed some rich fellowship together on the evening of the signing and then left the project site, knowing that the following day would be an exciting one.
Possession day was as beautiful day as any. Each of the houses had been decorated lavishly with bright colourful banners, welcoming streamers and such. Each had a ribbon across the doorway which would be ceremonially cut. As part of the celebration, there would be a prayer of blessing for the household, a snack served to the first guests, a family portrait taken and, of course, the planting of the first tree in the yard. Although there had been many dignitaries invited to participate in the day, unfortunately very few were able to attend and participate. However, many from the community, of course, were. In particular, those receiving homes were on hand to celebrate with their new neighbours.
As we would see the following day, many were already attending Pastor Guna’s church together and were faith brothers and sisters. There was a rich sense of community- more like communitas actually.
One of the girls I recognized as having been loading cement on the day before, turned to me, beaming amidst all that was taking place, and articulated her perspective succinctly:
That our little church could be part of God’s Big Happy here was the culmination of over five years’ travel on this road out of the land of ideas.
Thursday, August 03, 2006
a new circle
poitu varam indeed!
Tuesday, February 21, 2006
months later, i sit in my office on a snowy day, still thinking about my other home.
much going on
much to tell
much to treasure.
just days after i had returned to canada, a friend of mine walked into the church carrying a simple keyboard instrument. she went to the office of the pastor of youth and said 'i no longer play this- can you find a use for it?' just the day before, i had been sharing with my colleague the story of jesuthas' keyboard being taken by the tsunami...
the children banded together in the months that followed my trip to raise money for a place where mohamed and his congregation could meet together as one group (as opposed to doing church in his taxi.) they raised enough money for one and a half months' rent.
these two responses were already taking place before we even had a plan. pretty cool.
and today, exactly six months after my last day there, my best friend leaves for sri lanka. because he is lead pastor of our church, his visit carries with it great significance for this congregation at this time.
much has taken place in the last six months, as we have continued to further explore what a missional partnership can be. there are budget moneys in place to become further involved missionally in both our immediate community and our global village. in response to a series of modules on involvement in the global church, there are plans underway to send a team of four to serve at the kabool lanka pastors' retreat this coming august. there is even ginger beer being sold at the church coffee bar sundays after service!
as a church-planting church, the desire is in our congregational dna to see new churches be raised up by the hand of God. the news of the free methodist movement taking place in sri lanka was both challenging and affirming- it rewired our whole concept of how God might want to use us in his greater work... planting a church in canada or resourcing a church plant in sri lanka- what is the difference really? even my own sons have both expressed an interest in going to be part of what God is doing there, in addition to their service here in the local church.
so my pastor and friend takes with him a keyboard and some photographs of smiling kids holding up a happy gilmore cheque. more importantly, he takes the love of a bunch of people that have been waiting for years to become involved in something bigger than a church bubble into the next chapter, bearing witness to the love of Jesus to the ends of the earth the way we read in the eighth verse of acts 1.
so play the game of existence to the end of the beginning (lennon/mccartney)
Monday, February 06, 2006
final, for now
having been up late writing what would no doubt be the first of many letters/epistles to lazarus and mohamed, i found the alarm's intrusion to some decent REM sleep at 4:30 a bit on the early side. still, it had been very easy for me to get up and go the whole time we were in sri lanka... hopefully the same would be said about morning in canada after this big flight!
at the airport, colleen and i ended up separated from dan, al, eustace and sylvia (ben and ruby stayed back to continue the work at the ministry centre for a couple more weeks). walking together and checking bags together, we were asked whether we were 'together' or not. we both found it kinda funny that, just because we were both mildly fair-haired, blue-eyed north american-looking travellers of comparable age, we were probably together. i guess more couples travel than i thought.
anyway, they wouldn't allow me to take my dolkie as carry on- i was quite fearful about that. however, it was beyond anything that i could control, so i entrusted its care to God and the good people of sri lankan airways.
always amazing how something has to be beyond our control before we can give it up.
we almost did not make the plane, as customs and security seemed to take forever. all i could think of was possibly being required to spend more time in sri lanka while we sorted out the details... perhaps having to spend another day and leave the following morning. (although it would be a little spooky without dan and al, ben and ruby were still here so i was not far from new familiarity. as it turned out, there was, of course, nothing to worry about- ah whatever... due process exists to protect us all.
what with lengthy flights and time zone changes and lengthy lay-overs and the like, the 'day' that began with getting out of bed at 4:30 a.m. sri lanka time on august 22nd would end at getting back into bed for a nap at 4:30 p.m. saskatchewan time on august 23rd... but would be a full 48-hour day by the clock.
yet sitting on sri lankan airways, flight 505 above the arabian sea, reflecting rather than projecting, i kept thinking i heard jey's cell phone going off.
no such luck.
i must not bite the hand that feeds.
the west lovingly sent me out...
to the west i must lovingly return-
poitu varam, version 1.2, completed online 020606
Sunday, August 21, 2005
i was on the phone with mrs jollybeggar and the boys (who were visiting the in-laws while i was away- why should i have all the fun, right?) when ben and dan got back.
the guys had with them my beautiful new dholki. this instrument was no souvenir- it was real: a thing of beauty. however, the surprise came with a bag that ben handed me, his eyes twinkling. i assured him that it wasn't mine and he, of course, assured me that it was. inside was a salvar, bought for mrs jollybeggar by mrs lazarus, and a sarong for me!
i don't care which language- there are no words to describe my feelings in response to this kindness. i wrote the lazarus family a letter, but i'm afraid that it was incapable of speaking the full truth, for this was too profound- in any event, i tried to say thank you.
the guys in the topaz showed me how to play the dholki and wrap the sarong and i rushed up to my room to lose the shorts underneath.
amazingly cool, i can understand why these things are worn by men and women all over the world. i don't think i'll be preaching in it, though... i'll leave that to danglin' dan.
i keep going through the pictures in my digital camera- never since the boys were born have i looked at some pictures again and again, incapable of keeping the smile inside. there is simply joy in this recollection.
we waited up and spoke together of many things; dan, al, ben and i. colleen and ruby had gone to jennifer's house with mohamed in the afternoon, and then went on to mohamed and ivon's house in the evening. i felt quite jealous of this (for i had really wanted to go to both homes myself upon our return- it just hadn't worked out that way) but i knew that there is no place for jealousy in love. i will just have to visit their home next time i come.
interesting how easy it is to say 'next time i come' compared to how difficult it was to initially commit to going. the first cut is the deepest.
to my pleasant surprise, mohamed (w/ ivon) drove ruby and colleen back to the hotel in the auto rather than sending them with a driver... it took nearly two hours, but was no doubt an experience that colleen will never forget! we talked and laughed and took pictures of each other, putting off the inevitable separation that would have to take place in the same way that teenagers seem to say goodbye about fifty times at the end of camp.
both mohamed and ivon were experiencing God's healing- in his throat and head and in her feet. this was great to see. not only was mohamed experiencing God's grace and mercy in physical healing, but he had been approved by the free methodist church in sri lanka's board of administration to go ahead and find a place within a specific monthly budget. eustace and dan and ben had gone with mohamed earlier in the day to look at three possible new sites for mohamed's church. this was all exciting, for it meant that he would be able to have one church service together with his people, rather than constant visitations which can be so much more tiring.
God continues to provide in response to faithfulness.
eventually all of the stalling was done and our friends got back into their three-out-of-four-speed, three wheel auto and started out on the two-hour journey home. this poitu varam was as difficult as the one with lazarus that morning (which at this point, because of the fullness of the day, felt like a week earlier.)
i went to bed not knowing when i would spend the night in this country again, and wondering why time seems to move so fast when you are happiest. i eventually dropped off to sleep as mohamed and ivon drove home and my wife and sons ate lunch on the other side of the world.
interesting note: i am (in real time, this being the end of january, 2006, as i post these final journal entries) stalling in the same way even now. i know that i am just about done transcribing these written accounts and it is kinda bothering me... it's as if leaving the final entry unwritten will somehow delay closure to a splendid chapter of my life that i can never reopen.
recently i viewed a will smith movie called 'hitch.' there is this scene in it where one of the characters, a guy named albert, has had his heart broken for the first time. he confesses something odd that feels familiar to my sri lankan experience somehow: he says that he doesn't want to move past the pain or the sense of loss because (now i'm probably putting words into his mouth here) these feelings legitimize the love that he has experienced.
i have said many times that i was only in the country for ten days, but that this was long enough to fall in love. drippy or not, that's what happened.
i sit here typing late on a saturday night, knowing that my friends in sri lanka are worshiping together right now.
upon arriving back in negombo, al and i decided to hit the ocean for awhile. we knew that the others wouldn't be returning until much later in the afternoon.
repeat shot: up by that boat where the beach curves a bit is where al went 'swimming.'
the waves were huge and al went at them hard, wearing a mask and snorkel (but no flippers) and looking- well- picture it and draw your own conclusions. i stayed close to where i had set down my camera and my coveted norwex towel, but had to do so intentionally because of the natural pull of the water up the beach (north, i think)... this made sense to me in that when the tsunami hit the east side of the island with its full force, the currents took the effects in a clockwise direction down around the southernmost part and then back up the west side. al appeared to be having a good time splashing around, letting the surf carry him away. eventually he got too far and swam in to shore and then hung out on the beach.
at least that’s how it looked to me.
however, the thing with al is that, no matter what you do with him, you always seem to come out of it with a story to tell. it’s just the way he is. i think it has to do with his basic human authenticity or something. i mean, this is one of the only people i’ve ever met who bears absolutely no pretense. it is really refreshing to be afforded the privilege of calling someone like that ‘friend.’ there is safety and peace in some relationships that strengthens a person rather than drawing from them. knowing al is like that.
anyway, what actually happened was al got a real scare out in the surf. the harder he swam, the more he seemed to be pulled out to sea. he panicked and expended an incredible amount of energy trying to swim against the waves that seemed to be more interested in being one with him than he was with them.
once he got to shore, he sat gasping for at least a half-an-hour before getting up and making his way unsteadily back to the hotel, where he showered with his glasses on and passed out for at least two hours. for al, it really put a cloud into the sky of an otherwise perfect day, as he found himself projecting his feelings of fear and helplessness onto the women and children killed in the tsunami. the image of all those saris drifting in and out with the tides long after the disaster, each one representing a woman or a girl, had haunted his imagination and engaged his empathy. on the beach gasping, weeping and nearly puking, he had been reliving an experience for real that had only been his to imagine for the past eight months. he was quite upset.
sleeping motionless on his bed for so long, the hard water drops eventually becoming dry circles on the lenses of the glasses he still wore as he lay on his back, al was kinda making me nervous... all I could think of was ‘what if he made it back to the room and then had a heart attack?’
apparently al wasn’t the only one whose imagination was working overtime.
on the road we had been talking a lot about how we discern what God is calling us to do. as i hung out in the sri lankan sun drinking rich ceylon tea with loads of cream, i thought of many such things- finally stopping from the intense 'go' that had characterized the trip's long, full days.
it's kind of simple, really. you sense a call to missions; you ask God where; God sends you somewhere through an incredible course of events and 'coincidences' that you interpret as his doing, thus gaining some heavenly perspective; and you fall in love.
i'm sure i'd feel the same no matter where i went. the point is that i came here in response to a moving of God, and was invited (as opposed to being simply allowed) to participate in it. to now say 'well i'm not sure if sri lanka is the place; perhaps i should try brazil' or something would be absurd, in my view. God knew i would love wherever i went, so he sent me here.
now the task is to capitalize upon the relationship that already exists between myself and my church family back home, and the newly formed relationship with the church in sri lanka- introducing the people back home to the movement taking place among the churches here.
there seem to be basically three levels of partnership (or rather, expressions of missional partnership) each one more personal than the last:
- one- nonspecific giving
- two- specific giving
- three- specific sending.
the third is the most exciting because it engages more people both in the stewardship of their cash and/or their talents. plan?
eustace and sylvia and i talked about these things on the walk we took upon their return.
eustace was a great example of the third level, having been sent by his church to perform a specific task on this trip. his work here being done, he would return home... i had a sneaky suspicion that he'd be back, though. he had caught the bug- you could see it not only in his approach to this place and his work here, but also in the relationships cultivated.
we strolled down the streets of this town, all aware that this would be the last time... for awhile.
yep, this is a repeat as well. my camera was so full that i had no space left to take fresh pictures by the end. on our walk, eustace, sylvia and i headed in this direction and walked for about a half hour, then turned around and came back...
as the sun went down, the beach lit up. sunday night. apparently it's this way every week... six days shall you toil. people were everywhere; playing cricket, flying kites, parasurfing, eating sri lankan doughnuts- it was a gala evening comparable to that famous painting by georges seurat... only in the dark.
i spoke with chris again and listened as he and an engineer from england discussed surfing. i honoured the commitment made earlier in the week to buy the cricket shirts from she-har... overall, the evening felt like a whole lotta poitu varam.
the road less travelled
around lunchtime, i realized that it had already been a full day since the batticaloan luncheon grenade had gone off the day before. still hadn't heard if anyone had claimed responsibility... it would be hard to say what had wreaked more havoc on this place- the tsunami or the civil war... both had contributed to the arrested development of this beautiful place.
you could tell that almost everything that existed there had been quite progressive when it was built, but also that that was a long time ago. now it was a land of stark contrasts.
even breathing here is a rich experience: at any given time you can be ambushed by air so thick and rich and heavy that you can hardly take it in- sometimes it's good rich, other times it's just heavy rich. i remember saying how i couldn't wait to taste the air here... little did i realized it was going to be quite so literal.
midride, we stopped in a lush, shaded roadside attraction for some coconuts.
the guy serving us was pretty amazing with his mini machete. however, al tried to joke with him about being careful to not cut his fingers off or something and spent nearly five minutes trying to explain the joke. priceless.
interesting the things you'll notice driving through a city... one day i spied a kid with an amazing black and gold john lennon t-shirt; today it was that smiling buddha on the hill again- by day you can see that buddha is flanked by radio towers that were not visible at night... so much for mystical unions- even buddha rides the airwaves in search of a common vibration that will unite us all.
jollybeggar and the whistling driver
i was sitting eating my coconut when i happened to glance over onto a side table where i spied some doughnuts... (mmm- don't bother... sri lankan doughnuts look like cake numnums, but they don't taste any good. i had one the night before in batticaloa and was disappointed to discover no sweetness whatsoever- just more spice and heat.)
it's like the clubhouse sandwich i had a couple days earlier while listening to the cars chattering in the streets of kandy- pure tasteless garbage. they do eastern well, but the western stuff falls short... had to wonder if that's how sri lankans and other asians feel about the canadian or american versions of their quisine.
on the road, al and i were talking about music and somehow dylan and the travelling wilburies came up... he said (as if to 'stump' me with a little-known band) 'have you heard of the flying willoughbies?'
we saw many more soldiers on the road from batticaloa than the road to it. along with the regular military outposts with their manned gun turrets and the checkpoints with stern-faced young men holding semi-automatic weapons,
there were trucks full of soldiers and large groups of soldiers walking along the road side poking around with long contraptions that looked like those things you use to scoop your golf ball out of a water trap. however, these soldiers were not looking for golf balls or empty ginger beer bottles, they were combing the roadsides for mines that may have been placed there in the darkness of the night before.
there was not a lot of traffic- the military activity tends to discourage travel, which is probably the idea...
still, lorries full of straw, bicycles laden with sticks and carts with fresh new bricks were met regularly on their way towards tsunami-affected cities and towns.
our driver had taken to whistling- no discernable tune really, just whistling. the whistling stopped momentarily as we watched a bus come around a corner, passing an auto at high speed only to wildly swerve to miss the oncoming vehicle which was just ahead of us... careening back into it's own lane caused a major sway which was then corrected to swing the thing the other way. i thought for sure she was gonna roll, full of passengers and all... but it didn't, and our driver resumed his whistling- business as usual.
sundry sunday observations
it's always hard to believe that you've come to the last day of an experience. this one (the last full day in sri lanka) began with an alarm at 5:30 a.m.
mark twain and brent butt? nope, my friends lazarus and jey... notice the cell phone?
al and i got up, showered etc in time for leaving at 6:00. stepping out of the room, we were met in the dark by a rather weary-looking lazarus and jey who had gotten themselves up to see us off. turned out that they were going to propositioning some land for relief development today, so it would be down to al and me on the road back to negombo.
the smallest things touch my heart and lazarus is very good at those kinds of things.
he let me know that they had picked up a dolkie for me, so i thanked him far too much and then paid the man (300 rupees for the drum and 500 more for the taxi...)
strangely, he enquired as to how 'big' my wife is... my first, western humour response was something like 'no bigger than your wife!' but i suppressed the urge to deliver it, as the cultural differences between easy 'kibbitzing' gauche familiarity/disrespect might very well spoil everything that had been developing between us. i chose the socially safer route, responded earnestly in bit phrases and gesticulations. still, who knows what he was thinking? i had mentioned that i was interested in buying some cool sri lankan shirt or other for mrs jollybegger...
it was funny last night (is 'funny' the right word?) when we were talking. he said how at first he didn't understand my speaking at all and how now it's easy... i've been thinking the same thing.
lazarus gave me a package of photos and we embraced beyond ceremony.
he has become a dear friend and i will deeply miss his smile.
the drive moved along uneventfully for a couple of hours. in times like these i would often scroll through the faces and places locked in the memory of my digital camera. i don't believe that there has ever been a time in my life where i've been so incapalbe of withholding a smile as i was upon looking through the shots taken. even upon returning home i would find myself smiling foolishly to myself at a mental image of lazarus or mohamed or isac or jay... or pretty much anyone i encountered on the trip.
we saw many peacocks in the wild, but upon seeing four of them draggin through a pile of garbage, somehow that sense of pride seemed to fade. real life and face-to-face experience will do that with just about anyone. still, whne these magnificent birds spread their wings to fly out of your way, it was something incredible to behold.
eating in or driving through the city- any city- there was the constant chattering of automobiles comparably to the sounds of the birds in the treas at dusk with countless voices and topics of conversation, as if these creatures can only think verbally- some horns greet each other, some acknowledge others' points of view, some communicate a sense of urgency or restlessness, but none swear at each other like roadrage-ridden north america.
on sunday mornings (and others) one could hear sri lankan gospel radio... rather than actually broadcast, the churches simply pointed their speakers out into the street so that neighbours and passersby heard what was taking place inside God's house. even robert's little housechurch of about twenty-five people had this sound system thing going on.
the more time you spend here, the more you become aware of the basic cultural distinctives... i can now understand why lazarus wants an amplifier and microphones for the ministry centre. the muslims travel around blasting their prayers thorugh loudspeakers three times a day- the christians amplify worship services; the hindus place shrines to peleal (the elephant guy with all the additional arms) and the catholics place similar shrines on corners depicting stations of the cross or mary holding the Christ.
interesting how, in wartime, one's own weaponry and tactics are deployed by the enemy.
Saturday, August 20, 2005
pastoral ministry in 3D
august 20: saturday: day 11 (part 3)
at robert's church, the worship time was great- jesuthas and his younger brother alternated between playing bongos and tambourines; he and his sister traded off in the leading of the worship singing. a friend played guitar with a delay effect that was a bit distracting for me, but understandably 'contemporary' for the group there assembled. the worship leaders faced the front rather than facing the crowd- cool.
there was much sharing of personal faith experiences, particularly the epiphanies that were still registering as a result of the tsunami in december. there were stories of new personal visions and callings, healings and celebrations of the grace of God amidst life as experienced in tsunami-affected batticaloa.
there was nowhere near the same spiritual battling going on as the week prior in colombo... more accurately, it appeared as though the spiritual battles taking place here were manifesting themselves in different ways. in a different place, on different terrain within different circumstances, different strategies are employed. the people had been hit with such an incredible natural disaster in the tsunami that it was as if God had put out his hand and said:
okay, only the following demons can go through: disease, despair and discouragement. that's it. the rest of you are going to have to busy yourselves with something else for awhile.
this was, of course, simply my observation.whatever the case, joining together with some twenty-five other believers in the same room that had, just a couple hours earlier, housed our wonderful meal and fellowship time with robert and his family was a rich experience.
afterwards we enjoyed some humble tea and delicious bananas before heading to the hotel.
jesuthas presented me with a plaque from the front of their church, bearing exodus 33.14 in tamil. i gave him the hemp necklace (made by my son poet) that he had admired earlier in the week at kabool lanka. in truth, i had planned on giving it to him on this day anyway, i just needed to find an expressed reason to do so.
we spoke of many things, including music. it was quite interesting to me to note the many instruments that jesuthas played. heart-breaking was his remark 'i used to play keyboard as well until tsunami took my keyboard away.'
there were many more warm poitu varam's and at least one canadian in the van played tap-the-window games with the children outside and swore to himself that he would be back.
on the way to our hotel, we stopped but no one was really hungry so we just picked up a sri lankan dough-nut and burrito to go...
i didn't like the burrito thing, so i gave half of it to the kid manning the hotel (who didn't seem to mind, but didn't seem too interested either.)
the room, nowhere near as horrid as i had feared from the stories i had heard at the travel doctor before leaving canada, was clean but simple- like a dorm at camp. al and i sat up talking about leadership stuff until about to fall asleep... so it even felt like camp except without the bugs! there was one lone mosquito which i killed early on in the evening, making the room safe for those of us who were fearfully and faithfully taking our malaria meds.
al spoke of how the guys' cell phones were driving him nuts.
of unwelcome tennants and welcoming homeowners
as we drove across a bridge, my attention was drawn to some functional distinctives: many of the bridges here were multi-purpose: a causeway for vehicles, bicycles and trains. lazarus looked up from his near-sleep and said 'like salvation- one bridge.'
jey explains why this is obviously a cobra den, not an anthill...
all along the sides of the road we saw cobra dens...
there were apparently a LOT of cobras here.
the cobra does not build its own den. it lets a certain rather tasty, however industrious, type of ant do it... then it eats all the ants and moves in. you can tell the difference between a cobra den and a basic ant hill by the size of the holes...
jey told me that ancient hindus would build little prayer shelters around and over the den of a cobra and then worship it from a spot safely outside. reminiscent of the hebrews' 'holy of holies.' therein resides the glory of a dangerous God.
upon arriving at batticaloa, we came immediately to robert's house and church. his first words to us were 'you're two hours late...' which put al off a bit, not because it was true but because it flew in the face of his sri lanka math/time theory.
however, robert and his wife then extended a touching kindness: they drew water from their own well and presented it to us to wash our hands in- refusing to let us share a bucket, it was one fresh bucket per man- then robert proceeded to pour out al's bucket over his feet when his hands were done. this took me back to Jesus' washing of the disciples' feet and the model of servanthood that Jesus, the master, provided for us, the servants.
the meal was amazing and robert hovered over us, repouring sprite every time we would take a sip.
everyone continued to make a big deal about my eating with my hand. i went to eat my salad with a fork and happened to glance over at lazarus, who gave me an encouraging frown and head shake as if to say come on, you're not really gonna us a fork are you? i realized my folly, for if anything is easy to eat with your hand, it's gotta be salad!
to the hand-eating business, my reply was always the same:
now that i've learned how to eat, i guess i better learn how to speak next
standing out in robert's sunny front yard with his four amazing kids
interesting. it occurs to me while talking to jesuthas that he may very well be studying to become a driver because he is interested in hauling the living, not the dead. i believe that God will call him to be a pastor- perhaps like mohamed with his taxi- in time.
we visited the tsunami-affected area and struck up a conversation with a home owner named xavier who was busy rebuilding his house. he'd had a lot of westerners taking his picture, making empty promises. however, he was willing to share his story nonetheless.
his family is alive today because he had taken them to church in another district that fateful morning. he is alive today because he saw the wave coming over and through the village across the bay, got on his motorcycle and made a break for it.
yet how many thousand others in this country did not experience the same deliverence of God?
al told me of long pieces of fabric hanging from trees and floating among the debris- even when he came in february, two months after the disaster- these were the saris of women caught in the wave... amidst the apparent flotsam and jetsum left on the shores after entire islands were 'shipwrecked' you would see items like a single child's shoe half buried in the sand; things bearing testimony to the mortal battle that had taken place between man and nature, calling into question whether man could ever really have dominion over the awesomeness of a physical domain as great as this planet.
we are caretakers- gardeners at best- subject to the physically causal forces of gravity, motion, and seismic activity. makes one feel quite small, actually...
this elderly man sits reading the paper outside of what was once a sturdy home...
as we drove along 'the strip,' al took some really powerful pictures. he had been here before, six months earlier, and had fired off many shots of rubble and destruction. his motivation and resulting subjects were different this time: essentially what al seemed to be chronicling was the rebuilding effort and the apparent price of survival as etched into the deep wrinkles of the faces of those left behind to shoulder its burden.
xavier tells his story while his hired help picks up around the place.
xavier put it well:
(although the exact words are gone, their meaning remains, haunting me with integrity, purpose and sentimentally stubborn resolve)
my grandfather built this house, my father was raised in this house, he raised me in this house- this house is mine to rebuild.
(for more reflections upon xavier's story go to
everything informs everything else
still on call, these guys were at work when we checked in the night before, and now here they were at 8:30 a.m. showing no signs of being 'relieved' by the dayshift guys. i encountered this often... i think the sri lankans clone themselves.
we awakened to discover that the generator was down and there was no power. still, it was such a nice place that it didn't matter. by the time al got into the shower, though, the power and the hot water were both up and running.
jey later described a dance that he did in the shower. the telling left us all a bit creeped out because the image of this big, bald, sri lanken buddha/ brent butt lookalike dancing naked in the shower stall of a resort hotel just wasn't working and wouldn't leave.
i saw westerners coming and going with their white socks and their polo shirts and that am i ever going to get some service around here? look on their pink faces. in time, they all climbed onto their luxurious tour bus and pulled out for another adventure- the order of the day was a safari encounter with some elephants. this fancy resort had been built for them so that they would feel at home in a strange and distant land. eventually i would put my negative feelings in the right place, but at the time i was condescendingly annoyed with their complaints about the cold water and all that.
(growth is the result of having embraced change, and i would grow out of my own little snot-nosed presumptions about people and places in time- every new experience brings with it its own wisdom. these personal attitude adjustments were mine to accept in response to a curious reverse culture-shock that is, apparently, quite common for newbie missionaries. the thing is, it doesn't matter how many books (or blogs, for that matter) are written to prepare others for transcultural experiences... ultimately one's greatest growth will be registered as a direct result of the experience itself: that's where the most exciting change and challenges are encountered. it was that way for me, anyway.
i think that it all comes down to one's willingness to embrace the change and be embraced by it- being reshaped by the encounter.)
although we left in good time, we couldn't help but do a bit of sightseeing, as this area was rich in sights to see. twelve monkeys (no, not the terry gilliam film) played by the side of the road, cobra dens and elephants in the wild were all part of the first ten minutes.
most interesting was this crazy stone formation that looked like a huge fist thrust upwards towards the sky through the earth's crust. it was, in fact, a spot chosen by an ancient king (kashuba) as a place of refuge from his enemies (reminiscent of the stories we read of david in his fugitive years.)
for some sense of proportion: i think that the cluster of little tiny things standing upright by the tree is a group of people... and maybe an ox or buffalo or something.
eventually kashuba had developed the area, making it into his place of royal residence, complete with an interior spa already built in by God and a bricked-in moat built by his hired (?) hands.
lazarus, al and jey stand by the coffer.
we came upon this huge standing buddha beside a very picturesque bay that lazarus said was a 'traditional place.' (interesting- the use of 'traditional' rather than 'sacred.')
this buddha reminded me of a seated one that we had seen the night before upon a hill outside of another town, bright lights ensuring that the people could plainly see buddha smiling down upon them from anywhere in town... like the hollywood sign.
the buddha on the hill brought to memory two things that i had seen a couple weeks earlier on a family trip to mt rushmore... not the heralded, four-faced shrine to democracy, nor the crazy horse national monument (although kashuba's fortress looked very much like the crazy horse project) but something seen en route: outside one town was a massive sign with the ten commandments on it; in a farmer's field in the middle of literally nowhere was a huge cross on a knoll, lit up and visible for miles around in the same way.
it is really interesting how everything seems to be informed by everything else.
outside of another town, we saw cows feasting upon the garbage in its dump, sharing it with an elephant. elephants in the streets of some of the towns was not uncommon- although, unlike this one in the dump, they were also kept on leashes. we saw three or four on the trip to batticaloa and back.
apparently, the sinhala translation for 'lamb and lion lying down together' is 'cow and elephant eating garbage together...' although you won't find it in any phrasebook.