Wednesday, August 30, 2006

T-Minus 1 Month and Counting

UNBELIEVABLE! It really is hard for me to believe that September 30th will be my last full day here in Kolkata - it just seems incredibly close and far away all at the same time! What is even more strange is that September has traditionally marked the beginning of the school year for most of my life. I must admit it feels odd, and GREAT, to not be counting down to the beginning of classes! Hoorah for graduating!

With my time here two-thirds completed I cannot help but find myself wondering what October will bring. I have no doubt that there will be some amazing adventures. I have the opportunity to visit friends in both Thailand and Australia as I make my way back to Canadian soil. Honestly, there is no way that seeing old friends in new countries could ever be a bad combination!

Adjusting back to life in Canada is sure to be an adventure in itself. Recently a team from The Queensway Cathedral, in Toronto Ontario, visited Kolkata. I got to spend some time with them and the team lovingly informed me, to my great surprise, that I have picked-up some Indian mannerisms and expressions during my time here. I have no doubt that some jokes are going to be made at my expense once I am home. Also, I have actually been cold here in the mornings and have caught myself heading out with a long-sleeve shirt and hat on. So my arrival in British Columbia in the middle of October could be problematic!

More than the change in culture and climate, my return home marks a whole new life-chapter for me - the post-college years have begun! I am excited to officially begin my time as a Missions Apprentice with the B.C./Yukon District. Furthermore, I have been invited to attend a missions conference in Turkey in the month of November (meaning I would be leaving Canada after only being home for a month). It would be a great learning experience and a chance to meet the missionaries under whom I could potentially work alongside for the second and third years of my apprenticeship. Now that is exciting! I do admit that I have been wrestling with a certain amount of angst that has accompanied this anticipation. By nature, I am a planner and, yes, at times even a worrier.

I recently was talking with a college friend from Westbank. This friend had just received my brochure and I was quick to tell them that I did not expect my college friends to support me financially, but to pray for me and make sure that I still take time to smile (students have enough financial strains to worry about after all). This friend stopped me and informed me that they were actually seriously praying about financially supporting me. They reminded me that it is God who provides - however and through whomever He chooses. Who am I to limit God. For the record, this is not to say that I now expect all of my college friends to scrounge up some support.

There have been moments where doubts flood my thoughts: where will I live? how am I going to be able to afford an apartment? will I be able to get a part-time job? will I be able to afford to go to that missions conference? what about your student debt? The worst doubt is questioning whether coming to India was a good idea - after all most Missions Apprentices use the summer months to raise support, not go overseas. Suddenly the phrase "drowning in a sea of doubt" does not seem so melodramatic.

It is in those moments of doubt-drowning that I need to remind myself that God is bigger than all of that. Just as my friend reminded me, He is in control. Sometimes I hear "God will provide" so often that I allow it to become cliche, but there is solid truth in that saying. God is not a jerk and I believe that obedience will never lead to regret. So it is in those moments that I am reassured by the fact that God is not going to call me to a task just to abandon me as soon as I obey. I also take a moment to survey the lives of the Christians around me - I am quickly reminded of how blessed I already am.

Will October and the months and years to follow be challenging? Probably. Will I still wrestle with doubt? Certainly. Will I listen to the song "His Eye is on the Sparrow" on repeat for hours? Most definitely. Will I be amazed time after time as I watch God provide for me however He sees fit? Undoubtedly.

Friday, August 25, 2006

You Don't Say

WOW - time is flying! I cannot believe that I am approaching the two-month mark here in Kolkata. I realized that I have not really kept everyone up to date on what I have been doing. I still work with children who have thalassemia and leukemia - they are still the highlight of my day. As of late I have been working with children who have received corrective surgeries for cleft palate and cleft lip. Also, I have been spending time at a school for blind children located on the edge of Kolkata. My work for the hospital has involved a lot of working with people and administration - it often feels like paperwork with a heart coupled with a lot of one-on-one relational ministry!

The monsoon season is starting to come to a close...this is both good and bad. I must admit that I enjoy not wondering if I might have to swim back when I go out - however, I do not enjoy the increase in temperature that has arrived. I forgot how warm the sun can be! Health wise I am doing well - actually this past week has been the very first time since coming to India that I have felt "ill" shall we say... I am on the mend now and am ever so thankful for that!

Life here in the city really is exciting. Kolkata has a quality to it - a personality - all it's own. I enjoy going out with friends in the evening and walking down the bustling streets while music (because there is always music playing somewhere) drifts over the sound of car horns and vendors. Kolkata is affectionately called "the city of joy" and the sense of community, even amongst strangers, is so evident as I stroll along - usually sipping tea from a clay cup which you can purchase almost every ten feet.

A new favourite spot of mine is the roof of the hospital. From my perch atop the water tanks I can see the city sprawling in every direction - as far as the haze will let me see. By 6:00pm the sun is setting and I can hear the call to prayer begin to echo through the city corridors from the numerous mosques. It is comparable to a poorly timed choir with the members all starting at different times, but ultimately building into one giant crescendo.

Living in a hospital has also been quite the expereince. I sometimes forget that my temporary home is a full-fledged medical facility - and then I get a harsh reminder when I see a patient on a stretcher or someone staring out a window while crying into a cell phone outside of the ICU. The floor where I live is still under construction and so I am surrounded by a symphony of tools from just before 7:00am until any given time at night (or early morning). I refer to it as my penthouse apartment!

I have developed some interesting friendships while here. I would like to share a little bit about a young man, about my age, who we will name "Fred" (and do not think that Fred is not a name used here in India...the Anglo-Indian culture is quite strong and on Sunday night I listened to an Indian man, named Hendricks, play the blues - bet that shatters a few stereotypes!). Fred was abandoned as a little boy and grew up in the Assemblies of God boys home. Required to leave the home when he finished high-school, Fred has spent the last three years as a nomad sleeping in cars, on the streets and staying with friends.

Through Fred I have a glimpse into a whole other world. He has been involved with, or witnessed, so much - including drugs, alcohol abuse, gang violence, robbery, stabbings, executions and even bombings. When he tells me about his life, I cannot even begin to understand what he has gone through. Fred came to accept God during his time at the boys home and is a remarkable example of faith. Though he still has no place to call home, I have yet to hear Fred complain.

Fred is very involved in the church and so he has seen many well-meaning Christians come and go through Kolkata. He told me, very honestly, that many people have come and "spoke pretty words" and then left. According to Fred, "their love has no action". Though Fred was wearing the same clothes he had on yesterday, had not eaten in almost twenty-four hours, and was not sure of where he would sleep that night, he began to explain to me that God had never failed him, even when people had. So even when his circumstances may seem bleak, he knows that God is looking out for him.

Since my arrival here in Kolkata I have been asked countless times for money or assistance, often by people who seem to be doing alright. Not only has Fred never asked me for a thing, besides prayer, but in fact he has even refused my offers to take him out to dinner: "oh brother Matthew, don't you worry, God takes care of me".

I am struck by two things: firstly, Fred raises a good point. True love, Godly love, requires action and often sacrifice. After all, Jesus was MOVED with compassion - He acted on what He saw. As Christian's we should be the last to speak and the first to act. Secondly, I have heard it said that there is no one more thankful to sit and eat, than the one who can remember what it is like to starve. Though Fred has so little in this world, he has so much more in God. He has proven to me that even when we do not have all of the answers, it does not mean we question God. God promised that His grace is sufficient to sustain. God never promises us an easy journey, but that He will never make us walk it alone. Fred has reminded me that each moment of our journey, no matter how rough, is wonderful...why? Because God is walking with us.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

A Discouraging Encouragement

The power in belief and encouragement really is remarkable. There are examples of this all around us. In the much beloved story of Peter Pan, all it takes to end the life of a fairy is for someone to announce they do not believe in such creatures. On the less fairy-tale side, one cannot help but notice a child run a little faster in a race when they hear their parents cheering from the sidelines "WE BELIEVE IN YOU".

I would just to thank everyone who has been an encouragement to me over these past weeks. Your e-mails, phone calls and most of all your prayers have been a source of strength and have encouraged me more than I can fully express. But I would like to take a moment to share some insight I experienced after receiving a discouraging piece of encouragement...

The other night I was out with a group of people from the church I have been attending. Two of the people in that group had actually spent some time in Vancouver completing their higher education. As Indian nationals who lived in Canada, they offered some intriguing insights. They described Canada and Canadians as "not wanting to offend anyone, so they allow everything", "the only thing that is wrong is telling someone they are wrong", "liberalists", and "hedonists". The most gut-wrenching moment came when they concluded that "it is easier to be a Christian believer in India than it is in Canada".

Though sharing a taxi with some friends that night, the drive to my accommodations was remarkably silent. I could not shake the term "post-Christian" from my thoughts. Could it be true that my nation was not only done with church but with God? Whatever happened to "He shall have dominion from sea to sea"? I found myself wondering why God would call me to foreign missions when there is such a huge need in my own back yard. Is it strange that my heart for Canada beats strongest when I am overseas?

After a great deal of thought, prayer and reflection I have been reminded of something foundational: God is still in control of the nations. He has called me to foreign missions and I have every confidence in that calling and the One who calls me. However, let me take a moment to provide some encouragement that came from my discouraging conversation. All of us, whether pastors or not, are called to influence those around us. It is foolish for anyone to believe that they do not influence others - we all do! I want to encourage you to impact those around you. Do not let moments slip past, but rather live out the Gospel. Canada, our home, is gaining an international reputation as a nation who has decided it no longer needs God.

So consider this a moment of role-reversal: the overseas missionary is encouraging the people at home! I BELIEVE that God is not through with Canada. We are His hands and we are His feet - let's be sure to make a difference. God told us to change the world around us in His name and He BELIEVES we can do it.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Clarification, Contrast and a Pencil

Let me begin with a clarification to a question I have received a lot lately –Calcutta and Kolkata are the same place. I am not in some remote village with a name that is similar to that of the big city. Since India gained independence from British rule just over 50 years ago, the national people have been deliberate in working towards restoring their heritage. This endeavour has included changing the names, or spellings, of several cities including Mumbai (formerly Bombay) and Chennai (formerly Madras).

Until recently I had not had the opportunity to explore Kolkata. I have obviously become familiar with the area in which I work – which is on Park Street in the very heart of the city. Some locals quip that it is the “Manhattan” of Kolkata. The streets here are always teeming with human traffic and the bustle of a downtown core. Countless shops, restaurants, cafes, chai wallas (tea vendors) and businesses line the street. The contrast between Park Street and Lower Circular Road, where I stayed during my first month, is remarkable. Though only 10 minutes apart when walking, they are worlds apart in regards to the living conditions.

Here on LC Road you will see naked children rummaging through dumpsters collecting scrap metal, people bathing in large puddles that form around pipes which line the road and never stop flowing, and people sleeping in the median in the road using a brick for a pillow. On Park you can buy a new Mercedes. In an alley (which I obliviously used to take as a short-cut) just off of LC Road, you can buy anything from a market known as “Thief’s Bazaar”…where you can purchase items which were obtained with a five-finger discount. Kolkata is full of contrasts.

Contrast is the best word to describe life here. The world media made Kolkata synonymous with poverty by focusing on the work of Mother Teresa. I must say that I have never seen poverty like I have here. I recently had the opportunity to visit an area of the city where “rag pickers” live. For a lack of a better word, it is a sprawling “slum” that stretches along a canal near a city landfill. Here people, both the very young and very old, make their living by collecting plastic grocery bags from the landfill. In turn they sell them to the recycling companies. My friend Prakash, and guide at the time, explained that people will be born and live out their whole life here. Without education they need the money that “rag picking” provides and so they remain trapped in this life. Poverty truly is a self-perpetuating cycle.

That said, it is not fair to portray Kolkata as completely destitute. Kolkata has beautiful old-world architecture reminiscent of the British era. All one has to do is explore the B.B.D. Bagh, College Street, Fort William Military Base or the Maidan (a large city park containing the governor’s mansion) to experience an era gone-by. The horticulture centre and botanical gardens are breath taking. The Victoria Memorial, a massive white-marble palace, stands as a symbol of prosperity and reminds visitors of the politics that once embodied this former British capital. Yes, Kolkata and the surrounding areas are incredibly poor and over-flowing with people who need assistance; however, there is beauty here in both the flash of Park Street and the simplicity of LC Road.

Let me share two connected thoughts that have been rolling around in my head ever since I visited Mother House (the burial site of Mother Teresa). At Mother House there were quotations from Mother Teresa. Two jumped out at me: “If someone see’s God in me, I am happy. I see God in everyone, especially those who suffer…”. Just as Kolkata is filled with contrasts, I do see beauty in both. The man in the business suit is just as precious to God as the day-labourer who is barefoot. Likewise, whatever goodness people observe in me is only God showing through my humanness. There is a simplicity that comes with poverty – a return to the basics of life: food, shelter, companionship. I have never seen community like I have observed amongst the bustees. There is no one more thankful for a loaf of bread than someone who is starved. The beauty of a poor person’s worship to God is in its sincerity. When God is all you have, you are glad to know Him.

The second thought: “I am a little pencil in God’s hand. He does the writing. He does the thinking. He does the movement. I have only to be the pencil”. When confronted with the overwhelming needs in Kolkata it would be easy to become discouraged and conclude that there is just too much to do – it can never be done. BUT, the exciting thing is that you and I do not have to save the world. God already has – He is in process of working it out. He knows each person here in this city. He knows their dreams, their thoughts, their hurts and needs. God has a plan for each person.

I do not have to revolutionize the Gospel, rather, I have to be a willing participant in the working-out of God’s plan. After all, I am a pencil. Trying to be a writer would only complicate matters – so I will be the best pencil I can be, and when the work becomes overwhelming, I can pause and remind myself that I have only to be the pencil. The writer is still in control. In this manner I too see God in everyone I meet. His writing is all over them. In the same way, I hope that His penmanship can be seen in my life.

Wednesday, August 2, 2006

Home Sweet...Hospital

Yes, I am in the hospital. They say I am going to be here for at least 7 weeks; but do not worry, it was a planned move into Mission of Mercy Hospital and Research Centre. In order to be more economically-minded I have taken up residence in the hospital in which I have been working. In an innovative display of tent-making, Calcutta Mercy Ministries has renovated the two top floors of their hospital. The objective is to attract wealthy paying customers, who will occupy these newly remade rooms, in order to fund the hospital and its numerous free-treatment operations. So I have moved into the only finished room on the top floor, which is still under construction. The room is really very nice. My new alarm clock has become the sound of hammering in the hall and my lullaby the sounds of chisels in the room next-door!

I returned from the neighbouring state of Jharkhand on Monday July 31 where I had spent several days travelling with Calcutta Mercy Ministries founder Mrs. Hulda Buntain. We had flown to the capital city of Ranchi early on Thursday morning and were met by a local pastor, Rev. John Topo, and the Superintendent for the Eastern District of the Assemblies of God North India, Rev. Hannok Ghosh. We spent our days visiting and dedicating village churches and schools all across the state. We had full days in which we covered a lot of terrain…and by terrain I mean roads I had only seen on the Outdoor Adventure Channel! I cannot tell you how many times I was convinced that our jeep would not make it up the road, only to find myself up that road after my head had hit the roof several times! I would also like to say that cows, goats and non-domesticated dogs are not afraid of cars and utilize the roadway as their personal lounge.

The villages we visited were remote and often dependant on agriculture. The scenery was unbelievable with mountains, jungle and rice patties stretching as far as I could see in all directions. The life here was simple. We were often greeted with flower necklaces, singing, dancing, drums, and having our hands washed while water was sprinkled on us using leaves. The warmth of the people was remarkable. In all my life I have never seen such fervent, intense and sincere worship and prayer. These people, who lived such simple lives, simply trusted in God and were thrilled to be known as His church.

I was able to speak briefly at almost every place we visited, especially at the main church in Ranchi. Here I got to deliver a sermonette to the youth in the packed Sunday morning service. It was a wonderful time. The highlights and impact of this journey are too numerous to include here, but I must include a few. The devotion of these people to their faith was astounding. We were travelling through areas which were known to be home to the Naxalites, a communist extremist group. I did not think they were a serious threat until we stopped at a clinic that had just reopened since its doctors had a nasty habit of being kidnapped. Yet, the churches were not only unafraid of these people, but had actually converted several members of this group and were even endorsed as a good thing by the Naxalites in several communities.

The pastors I met were just ordinary people, doing great things for God. Their charisma, dedication and love for the people was evident in everything they did. One pastor had in fact been a Naxalite. One day an elderly lady, who was now a member of his congregation, gave him a Bible and said “read this, it will make you a good person”. As he read, he had a vision of Jesus on the cross and he knew that Christ had died for him. Now, in addition to pastoring, he visits his former criminal-colleagues in prison. He said that they are hungry to know God and plead with him to go to their families and share the Gospel. Another pastor had lost the use of his left eye. As part of his ministry he travels to several isolated villages by motorcycle across rugged terrain. The constant bouncing and jerking of this travel had damaged his retina to the point of partial blindness, yet he continues to pastor all of these churches.

Often we look for God in the grandeur of life: the stars, the mountains, cathedrals, elaborate services and rituals yet, He is most evident in the simplistic, over-looked portions of life. We fail to notice Him in the honesty of a grandmother’s quiet prayers, the mud walls of a church, and the rains that fill the rice patties. God reveals Himself unceasingly in the everyday miracles of life. A simple people, a simple faith, in a God who simply loves us for who we are.