Saturday, July 26, 2008

1/12 of a Year

Today marks a month until I leave Houston for Louisville to begin YAV orientation. August 26 will be an important day because it really will be goodbye to my family; I plan on leaving my cell phone at home so that I won't be distracted at orientation as we were told that it's at orientation that our YAV year really begins. I feel like this last month will be pretty critical to my preparation as a YAV. I need to finish the reading list, buy the things I still need, pack!, and prepare metally and emotionally for saying goodbye and uprooting myself.

Chasity, a long time friend of mine, emailed me recently and said, "So, tell me: What're you getting excited about and what are you getting nervous about?" So, I thought it would be fitting to include my response on my blog:

Great questions! Well, hmmmm, I'm excited about moving away from anyone I know (not totally true as I've already become close to one of the other volunteers, but still, I didn't know them before). That was scary when I went to Schreiner, but it worked out great in the end. I love building new relationships and it's simply awesome for that to be my 'job.' I'm excited about focusing on my relationship with God more than I have recently. One of my goals is to read the Bible all the way through (maybe not in order) before I come back. I feel like we all should anyway, but I think it would give me an interesting perspective to read it while in a foreign country, especially one where people are struggling at a different level than we are. I'm excited about being exposed to social justice issues that I already care about, but will now have faces to put with the issues. I also think this will be really hard, but good for growth and such. I'm honestly most excited about learning the things that I'm not anticipating because I just don't know. I love the mystery. Oh, and having tea every afternoon.

I'm scared about not being good enough at what is asked of me. I'm scared that I won't be able to handle some things. That something that everyone else is fine with (think scary situations) may be too much for me. I doubt this will really happen, because I'm going into it with a pretty adventurous attitude and a real desire to learn and experience new things. But, really, I'm not that scared. I think I should almost be more nervous. I was more nervous about the idea of going to Guatemala than I am actually knowing I'm going to India, so I think that's a good thing. Maybe I will become more nervous as I get on the plane and such, but it's difficult to feel nervous about something that feels so right.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Fare Thee Well

I've had quite the week. Last Friday I began my Farewell Tour (think retiring rock star) when I left Brazoria for Dallas, where I stayed with an old friend from high school. We had a great time even if we stayed up a little late for my liking. The most exciting part was meeting all of her friends, who I really enjoyed. They were a varied bunch and served for great people watching and intelligent conversation.

On Monday morning I left the big city for Winnsboro, an adorable little town where my friend Hannah grew up. This visit was bittersweet as the purpose was to say goodbye to someone I've become very close to over the last couple years. However, we managed to forget about having to say goodbye until the last minute. Until that time, I had a wonderfully relaxing week.

Her and her brother's friends would come over each day and we would hang around chatting and relaxing. Most of the time we would find ourselves on the porch of Hannah's 1907-built house with picturesque porch swings (one of which was sadly broken, and consequently repaired, during the festivities). It was just what I needed to wind down before the last leg of India preparations.

After waking up, packing, showering, drinking my coffee, having breakfast (shocking, right?), and saying goodbye this morning, I had a 7 hour drive from the Boro to Junction, where I spoke at the closing of First Pres.' Vacation Bible School about what it means to serve Jesus (using India as an example).

The drive was awesome because it took me mostly through back roads which winded through tiny towns. Some felt sad and desperate, while others seemed to overflow with new life. I also listened to some new and old favorite albums.

So, now I'm staying at my mentors' (Jim and Laurie Barker) house until Sunday, when I will speak at their two churches in order to ask one for support in India and thank the other. I will then be heading to Kerrville on Sunday for the final leg of my Farewell Tour.

Hannah and Me

True Story

Two young friends, recently brought together again by the cross-state trip of the man, enter a Brazilian restaurant around 11:00 PM. Because it is a pleasant night in Dallas, the two decide to sit outside. Having already received their menus from the host, they begin catching up on each other's lives as they peruse the rather eclectic offerings of the coffee bar/restaurant hybrid.
Before long, a waiter, dressed in oversized shorts with long, purplish-red hair, approaches and, in a laid back voice that suggests he could be altered by substances not yet legal in the US, asks for their drink orders. The man orders a water and the woman follows suite and adds a chorizo queso to the ticket. As he walks away, they pick up their conversation where they left off, quickly realizing that although they haven't lived near each other since high school, they are still kindred spirits.
Not long after, a quirky blonde approaches and politely offers to take the two's drink order. However, they quickly assure her that they have been taken care of. The friends continue catching up on each others lives. Not much has changed, but they both do poorly when it comes to keeping in touch. At about the same time, the two look at each other and then towards the door and then back at each other. The man asks, "Where are our drinks?"

Not too worry though, the waiter begins approaching with drinks. However, the two are astonished when he stops and places them on the table closest to them. The friends are slightly irritated, but are in no hurry so they resume their conversation. Before long the waiter walks in their direction again and this time actually stops at their table... with empty hands. The friends glance at each other briefly.

The waiter innocently asks, "Has anyone gotten your drink order?" The two are astonished. For what seemed like forever, the friends stared at each other, both knowing this was the same waiter that previously took their drink order. The boy said, "You...," and the girl muttered an extended "uhh." They continued to look back and forth from each other to the waiter for an inappropriate length of time.

The man thought to himself that this had to be one of the most hilariously awkward moments of his life. At a loss for words, the man simply smirked as his friend re-ordered their drinks and queso. The waiter assured him that he would have the drinks right out, never realizing this was the second time he had received the exact same order.

The two friends had a difficult time eating through their laughter.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Where I Stand

My last post about the progress of my India preparations was written amidst my coffee hiatus. I will try to bring you up to speed from there.

I am glad to report that my kidneys are being damaged by coffee again on a daily basis. After a week of 3 urinalyses, the doctor felt certain that I was fine and signed off on my physical. I am scarred by the experience, but steadily recovering.

Last month I visited the local health clinic to mooch off the government and get as many of these shots for free as possible. I scored. After only thirty minutes, I walked out having had 4 shots (Tetanus, Meningitis, Hepatitis A, and Hepatitis B) and with very little pain.

Last week I visited the Baylor Travel Medicine clinic in Houston (not free!) where the Travel Nurse was quite effective in convincing my mom that I would catch Malaria. No, she wasn't that bad, but it doesn't take much to worry dear mom. I left that lovely office (it was quite nice) with only two puncture wounds (Polio, and Hepatitis A/B combined for comfort).

I am now through being poked by needles. I expected the count to be much higher, but counting the aforementioned shots, TB skin test, and blood work, I was only damaged eight times. It would have been more had I not elected to not get the Rabies pre-exposure series or the Japanese Encephalitis shot and not chosen to take Typhoid orally. The point is: other than a dentist appointment, I'm done with all things medical regarding India.

The other aspects of preparation have been quite humbling. After feeling pretty confident about where some funds were going to come from last month, I was quite shocked to see it didn't come so easily. After a fair amount of panic, I found that everything worked out and came from unexpected places. I think to fully appreciate people's generosity, I had to be beaten down a bit and learn a little patience.

The other disaster was the visa. Quite the piece of work that visa. After getting my passport rushed back in May, I was feeling productive and decided to go ahead and apply for my one year visa. Mistake. You see, my visa came back with "Date of Expiry: 18-JUN-2009" written so gently upon it. Like a thief in the night. It appear the year I'm allowed doesn't begin upon arrival. Oh, no; the expiration is one year from the date the visa is processed. Seeing as I am not planning on leaving India until ??-AUG-2009, we had a problem. The only solution, pay even more money to replace it with a 5 year visa. So, now I have my visa ready to go and I can even visit India again before 02-JUL-2013 if I see fit. It all worked out, just not as I intended. Such a tricky one, that God.

So, where are we now? Well, it seems I've gotten all my paperwork in to the PC(USA) and just need to focus on reading and packing for the next 6 weeks. I'd like to point out that it hasn't really hit me yet that I'll be moving to the other side of the world in the time that it takes elementary students to get their next report cards.

However, I am leaving tomorrow for what I'm calling the Farewell Tour. I'll be visiting various friends and mentors in Dallas, Winnsboro, Junction, and Kerrville over the next couple weeks. Should be fun!

CMS College

On June 30 I was thrilled to see my inbox had been graced by my an email containing my specific site placement in India. I had gotten the impression that there were only about two possible sites for men and I had begun leaning toward one. I anxiously opened it to find I had been placed at CMS College, my top choice.

The following information was included in the email:

The work assignment can include possible tasks from those below:
  • Engaging a few classes on areas like developing communication skills, creative writing and media.
  • Involving in student activities like film club, English chit –chat club, nature club and other interested fields.
  • Associating with College Chapel service, Bible study groups and college choir.
  • Associating with college magazine.
  • Visiting churches and associating with youth groups on week ends.
  • Visiting Boy’s Home at Kanam, near Kottayam
  • Visiting homes of students and staff and get a clear understanding of the community around.
  • Any other area that the volunteer may come across, and would like to associate with.
Accommodation: staying in the postgraduate student's hostel/dormitory with a bath/toilet attached private room for oneself and eating with the students.
Words and phrases including, "creative writing... film club... nature club... Bible study groups... visiting churches... visiting Boy’s Home... visiting homes of students... any other area... and private room," where of particular excitement. And we're just going to gloss over the part that suggested I may be singing. I'm also looking forward to working with people who are essentially my peers. I'm excited to discover the nuances within the similarities and differences of life for Indians that are my age.

Naturally I looked to Wikipedia to jump start my research of CMS. It is a (now) co-ed college began by missionaries in 1817. One site called it the first college in India and another just said Kerala. Either way, it has a lot of history. The college also boasts an impressive list of alumni and appears to be quite prestigious. I'm glad that I wasn't able to find too much information on it as there will be plenty mystery surrounding my new home upon arrival in September.

The 60,000 population town of Kottayam that CMS calls home also seems like a unique place. Not only is it home to the first printing press in Kerala, it was the first city in India to achieve 100% literacy. That is huge! I'm fairly certain a few towns surrounding me in my beloved Texas haven't achieved that. Another point of interest is that the Kottayam District (think county) is 45.83% Christian, coming in just under Hinduism. This is very unique to the country which is only 2.3% Christian. These statistics simply speak to the pluralistic society found in Kerala. A society I hope to learn from in order to have on new outlook on the wounds that we have here in the States between denominations.

All in all, I'm now even more energized about my upcoming year, which I anticipate will be full of challenges and blessings.

"Just One More Chicken"

The following is my first sermon. I preached it at my home church, Bethel Presbyterian Church, East Columbia, TX, on July 13, 2008. It is by far the most memorable and meaningful Sunday of my life.
Good morning, Bethel. Before I begin, I’d like to tell you a little about my journey to this moment. During my last year at Schreiner I passed up multiple preaching opportunities. One for the church I interned at and another for my Campus Minister’s weekly chapel service. My reasons for not being able to preach were mostly petty half-truths such as, “Oh, I really don’t have the time to put in the preparation it deserves.” The truth is I had high hopes for this first sermon (And a few of you have told me you do as well… No pressure there!). So when I met with Jim back in May to discuss my upcoming year of service in India, I said, “You know, I’m really not doing a whole lot this summer, so if you have anything you could use help with let me know.” Well, he let me know without missing a beat. “Would you like to preach,” he said connivingly. And before I could stop my tongue, I heard myself say, “Sure!”

It wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I offered, but the truth is, the highest hope that I have always had for this first sermon was that it would be here at Bethel. No group of people has had more of an influence on the choices I’ve made that have brought me here in front of you.

I would say it began in Sunday School with teachers like Barbara, Cheri, Donna, Marj, and Lynn who let me run my mouth (and they can all attest to that), and continued on from the opportunities to read scripture during worship… to the experience of being the Youth Representative to the Session… to the financial support and care packages throughout college… and now to the absolutely overwhelming support for going into the ministry beginning with volunteering in India. I sincerely thank you not only for allowing me to preach today, but also for everything you’ve all done to bring me to this point in my life. There is no one else I would rather share this moment with.

So, a few weeks ago I found myself back in Jim’s office to discuss what crazy ideas I might have for a sermon. I shared a little with him and he said the advice he got after his first sermon was, “That was great, Jim, but just tell us what you believe.” So, my first thought at hearing this second-hand advice: Well that’s simple. Me being a great Presbyterian and all, I’ll just recite the Apostle’s Creed 16 times. And while that would get me to my goal of 12 minutes, I’m afraid a few of you may see it as a copout or “unoriginal.”

But in all seriousness, that’s what I hope to do today. To simply tell you what I believe instead of attempting to wow you with every bit of knowledge I acquired over the last 21 years.

In that same meeting, Jim loaned me a book, What’s Right with the Church, written by William H. Willimon in 1985 and published by Harper & Row. If there is one thing I learned in college, it is to cite your sources! In that book, I found this story, recorded by a pastor, a conversation between himself and someone you could say is a little critical of the Church:

“‘You know, Preacher Will, that Church of yours and Mr. Jesus is like an Easter chicken my little Karen got one time. Man it was a pretty thing. Dyed a deep purple. Bought it at the grocery store.’

I interrupted that white was liturgical color for Easter but he ignored me. ‘And it served a real useful purpose. Karen loved it. It made her happy. And that made me and her Mamma happy. Okay?’

I said, ‘Okay.’

‘But pretty soon that baby chicken started feathering out. You know, sprouting little pin feathers. Wings and tail and all that. And you know what? Them new feathers weren’t purple. No sirree bob, that darn chicken wasn’t really purple at all. That chicken was a Rhode Island Red. And when all them little red feathers started growing out from under that purple it was one hell of a sight. All of a sudden Karen couldn’t stand that chicken anymore.’

‘I think I see what you’re driving at…’

‘No, hell no, Preacher Will. You don’t understand any such thing for I haven’t got to my point yet.’

‘Okay, I’m sorry, Rave on.’

‘Well, we took that half-purple and half-red thing out to her Grandma’s house and threw it in the chicken yard with all the other chickens. It was still different , you understand. And the other chickens knew it was different. And they resisted it like hell. Pecked it, chased it all over the yard. Wouldn’t have anything to do with it. Wouldn’t even let it get on the roost with them. And that little chicken knew it was different too. It didn’t bother any of the others. Wouldn’t fight back or anything. Just stayed by itself. Really suffered too. But little by little, day by day, that chicken came around. Pretty soon, even before all the purple grew off it, while it was still a little bit different, that darn thing was behaving just about like the rest of them chickens. Man, it would fight back, peck the hell out of the ones littler than it was, knock them down to catch a bug if it got to it in time. Yes sirree bob, the chicken world turned that Easter chicken around. And now you can’t tell one chicken from another. They’re all just alike. The Easter chicken is just one more chicken. There ain’t a darn thing different about it.’

I knew he wanted to argue and I didn’t want to disappoint him.

‘Well… the Easter chicken is still useful. It lays eggs, doesn’t it?’

It was what he wanted me to say. ‘Yea, Preacher Will. It lays eggs. But they all lay eggs. Who needs an Easter Chicken for that? And the Rotary Club serves coffee. And the 4-H Club says prayers. The Red Cross takes up offerings for hurricane victims. Mental Health does counseling, and the Boy Scouts have Youth Programs.’”

Now before the Session calls a special meeting and takes away any potential India funding, I will say that I wouldn’t classify Bethel as an Easter chicken. But isn’t there a large bit of truth to this man’s point? If other non-profit organizations are accomplishing the same goals as churches, and sometimes more effectively, is the church living up to its call?

I want to read you Romans 12:2 again, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” This verse speaks to us about the concept of using discernment to recognize a call from God. The concept of call has become a large aspect of my relationship with God over the last few years. From the decision to go into the ministry to applying to the Young Adult Volunteer program…

One thing I’ve learned about call is that it is ever changing. It isn’t a onetime packet God sends you, including color coordinated tabs and timelines, that maps out your life as your Lord would have it. Instead, discernment is an ongoing process that not only includes God, but also one another in an effort to constantly listen for what the Lord would ask of us. One fatal mistake is naively believe that we’ve got it right. That we’re doing all we could. The truth is, we’re human, and the chance that we have no room for improvement is pretty slim. We must never be content with our actions or our world. Instead, we must keep this conversation with God open.

If each of God’s children has a call, does the Church itself not also have a call? And if so what is it? Another verse, Micah 6:8, has a lot of meaning for me. Not only was it my Campus Ministry’s motto in college, but it was also chosen to guide the General Assembly of the PC(USA) last month in San Jose, CA. It reads, “But what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” It seems all to obvious that the Church has a responsibility to not become content with the status quo, but to remain constantly vigilant as to what is going on in the world. A world that the Church is surely a part of.

And certainly the Church’s role should not be that of an observer. Instead the role as an active advocate for all of God’s people seems more appropriate. While justice can be about court room cases, more importantly it is about achieving equality among all of God’s children from East Columbia, Texas to Kottayam, India. While kindness can be about manners and thoughtful cards, it is maybe more importantly about showing mercy and forgiveness to those we don’t feel deserve it. And while Bethel may be praised for its stained glassed windows and beautiful buildings that seem to be filled with a wedding each Saturday, it is the humility of the members that God would praise.

The task God has put before us is not simple, instead it is a three-fold call that requires balance that is no small feat to achieve. Finding that balance will require the constant renewal of each of our minds through prayer and conversation with one another.

So Bethel, as we leave today, I ask you one thing…

How will we not fall into the trap of being just one more chicken, but continue to do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God?

The following is an excerpt from an email written to my campus minister the evening that I preached. I feel it best encapsulates my immediate thoughts after my first experience of preaching.
It went amazingly!! I felt absolutely calm and at peace behind the pulpit. Neither my hands nor voice shook, my heart didn't beat to fast, my legs didn't feel weak. I just felt calm and confident. It felt right. That's the only thing I know to say right now. And they clapped (and they aren't clappers at all!). It was overwhelming. I loved it. And I'm totally drained.

Letting Go

When I began this blog, my intention was that it would become a safe place for me to express my thoughts as I reflected on various aspects of my life. I wanted to explore those things that deeply matter to me. I have failed.

Looking back on my recent posts, I see that I became frightened. I expected that come September this blog would be visited by various people hoping to keep up with my adventures in India, many of whom would disagree with my political, religious, and or social views, which are tightly linked. My response? Instead of sharing my thoughts on significant world events that matter to me, I chronicled my (often boring) day-to-day life only at a surface level.

I realized over the course of the past month that I too often, in the hope of maintaining peaceful relations, censor myself around those that I disagree with. As an open and honest person, I am troubled deeply by this injustice I'm doing to myself and others. I am tired of holding back.

I feel that we all have the responsibility, as citizens of a global society, to speak out about what we see as injustices or to praise efforts we feel are making a positive impact on people's lives. This revelation became even more clear to me as I prepared my first sermon over the past two weeks. After some effort, I was able to let go and proclaim to the congregation what I truly believed God was telling me. I didn't let fear of disagreement become a roadblock to what I saw as the truth.

I now hope to reclaim this blog as a place where I will step outside of my comfort zone in an effort to vocalize what I am bothered, excited, and moved by in the world. I will naturally continue to inform people about what I am up to, but never at the expense of a deeper honesty.