Saturday, April 18, 2009

Some Easter Musing

I am going to break with the normal rhythm of the blog and expound on something meaningful that arose in my heart during Lent.

If you want to see what we did today in Singapore, it was pretty much the same as last time - and we enjoyed it just as much. It's really a well put together city.

As was the case with Lent in recent years, I observed Lent this year. I say "I did" observe Lent because we as a family didn't acknowledge it collectively. These two years have been an utterly transformative time spiritually, mentally, emotionally, awareness-wise, etc. ..... yet we have not been part of a Christian church with any regularity, at least not resembling what we had in the US. In some ways, this has been difficult. Our church friends and fellow congregants and pastor are all an important part of our lives back in Charlotte, at our church. Aside from the central reason we go to church, it is an important thing to be part of a community. To be part of a community that spans the full range of human age is in and of itself an amazing thing. Babies come from couples who joined the church to have a place where they could get married, these children grow in front of you, couples age, hair goes grey, some lose their hair, friends of 50 years sit next to each other week after week, age sets in, and the old eventually die. It is only in a community that spans the ages like this that you have engaged the proposition of community to its fullest possibilities. We will really enjoy that being part of our life again.

Additionally, being part of a singing community is a great thing. Think of it - we assemble so that we can do many things, but chief among them is that we sing. A singing community. I think more transformation has happened through devotional music than perhaps anything else. Apartheid was combated by song and jubilant songs were heard as it crumbled.

We white Americans heard songs that captivated and convicted us, from the black community. Song changed the game of race relations.

I have sang at the funerals of friends.

When a baby is christened, we sing.

A singing community is a powerful thing. We will enjoy returning to that.

I gave up tobacco this Lent. It felt good. I have had several cigars since, so it is with some irony that I am celebrating the Resurrection by puffing on big fat stogies all week in SE Asia. I, too, am a complex set of impulses.

I gave up alcohol in 2004 for Lent and didn't have a drink for quite a while - about five years. Truth be known, I've enjoyed a few libations as of late. But it was nice to have a five year hiatus from something that was launched in Lenten times. It also let me offer a sacrifice to the memory of my brother, for whom alcohol was a ruinous, and eventually fatal, thing.

This Lent was different than anything else I had experience before. I'll explain why....

It is with some reservation that I bring it up - because it sometimes does not translate well into an American audience. And I know that most of the blog's readers are Americans - by birth, life experience, and/or conviction - so, I don't discuss this one much. It seems to lack humility.

It is this question of servants.

We have servants.

During our time here we have had various people whose job it has been to attend to us in one way or another. Their life is about making our lives easier. It is not only the people that have worked in our first or second home, but there are people at my place of work, as well. There is the guy who brings coffee or tea if I call him to do it (took me a year and a half to do it for the first time, I can get my own coffee). These same guys also come into meetings where I am and make the rounds, leaning down and quietly asking if each of us needs anything.

Yes, they have white gloves.

And there are people making the rounds and cleaning up after me in some situations at work and home.

Often, these people become invisible. You get used to the attention and benefit from it, yet the point of the relationship is not that you attend to their needs, it is the other way around. As a result, you learn to ignore these people.

In the beginning, these people would enter the room we were in a clean, or wipe the floors, etc. and we would stop what we were doing and smile at them. We hoped they would make eye contact and talk to us and we could be nice - but, their lives have not been like that, most of them don't speak English, and they are there to do their job. So, over time we learned to look past them, to be honest.

As an example, I often drink coffee in my home after Hindi lesson and watch some news. When Padma comes by to wipe the floor at that time, I lift my feet onto the table so she can wipe the floor underneath me. She doesn't say anything, I don't say anything. We know the routine. I am not showing her disrespect, I am getting out of her way. Pleasantries are not expected or needed.

In this scene, the coffee I am drinking is a cup she made.

This has been very hard to get used to. As Americans and Christians, you have certain beliefs that have been imparted to you. Essentially, it is the fundamental equality of all people (the American ideal) and even that each and every person is a vessel in which image of God exists (the Christian ideal). And our society, with all of its imperfections, generally holds onto these ideas and lives them out. Even when we make radical mistakes like segregation, we think of the correction as a process of "returning" or "getting back" to something we already knew. "Moving forward" is more recent language in the American lexicon.

So, as an American, it has been a little odd to have these people do these things for us as our servants.

This past week in Bali we had a driver, a cleaning/cooking woman and a guy who did the heavy lifting. They were part of the place we stayed. Really nice people, very good at what they did. I found that I was interacting with them according to the norms I had adopted in India. It took a few words coming out of my mouth to realize that this was a different place and had unique norms that perhaps weren't like India. Generally, I was right. These folks were nice and talkative and curious to learn more about us and establish some warmth. In India, there is a mentality that enforces some distance between people of different groups and castes. As expats, we fit into some weird quasi-caste and it has been often slow in coming that the people that work in our house have engaged us on a very friendly basis.

Well, two weeks back, something happened that links this thesis back to Easter.

I was eating in Chennai in the cafeteria of a company that my company is merging with. It was a quick lunch between events, and we were having our food. As we were talking, one of the invisible people came up and wiped the table between two colleagues that were sitting across the table from me. He just shot in silently and wiped some crumbs from the table. My colleagues didn't notice. One shifted slightly to the side, the other was talking and didn't miss a beat. She just kept talking.

I think I was heightened in my awareness of this because of Lent. I stopped hearing the conversation around me and noticed only this guy, as he backed away from the table and went about his next task. I wondered how many times I had had my crumbs swept away by someone I didn't notice. I wondered how many times I have been driven from one place to another, had my plate cleared from in front of me, or had something I dropped picked up by another person that I didn't acknowledge?

These people have decent jobs in a very poor country. This is a good thing. Yet, sometimes you get the sense that their humanity is buried beneath their task and it is easy to forget that they are there. India has various ways to remind them that they are not lofty in the social strata that exists here, there is no mistaking that. And I have felt that creep into my bones a little bit. I have felt my heart shift so that there is a part of it that knows what the rules are in terms of being served in India. I have never been *mean* to anyone, I am actually relatively polite. But that is not much of an affirmation when you consider that I have ignored people who are vessels of God's image.

As I got back to my room that night I sat and thought about this guy and how his presence there was not acknowledged. I usually would have been part of that. And in some ways, this represented a much more systemic set of issues in the way we decide to conduct ourselves. The horrors of how people treat each other don't need to be repeated here. And everyone knows it is all the more horrible when someone espousing beliefs like ours, Christian beliefs, is the source of the injustice.

The cross is a radical statement about the equality of every person. Jesus was not on the cross for one person or group of persons. He was there for everyone. No one was excluded from the intent of the redemptive act. The only rejection of that message can come from an autonomous human. God's side has always been completely open and shockingly egalitarian.

I used to think that disbelief was a form of darkness. I think maybe it is the closing of eyes due to incredible light. The result is the same, but it is not an absence of light that gives rise to it - it is an abundance of light that hits eyes and hearts often more concerned with the things of this world.


I have felt something very new in India. Sure, people in the US are there to do things for me - but having servants is a different thing. And in that dynamic I let some people become invisible.

What I trust and pray on the other side of that lesson will be something that allows me to acknowledge each person I meet as someone worthy of greater kindness.

May it be so.

Happy belated Easter.