Saturday, March 04, 2006

Thinking about elephants

When you see an elephant on the road, what do you think? I have realized in these months, seeing elephants on the road, that I don't think, that at least to this point I had not thought. What is it like to be an elephant? Is it work or play to walk down the road? Is it good news or bad news---or something else---that an elephant is in a (Hindu) temple, touched and fed and touching people?

As an American in India I count myself blessed. So many things I have not seen in the US I see here. They challenge me, give me the opportunity to think again. How does life work? We have seen an elephant in a plantation, hauling logs; I can imagine that is work. What of the elephant walking through town? So India and the elephant can be a dose of humility, that I don't know what's going on, I don't know how life works, and have the opportunity to learn.

The dose of humility continues in other categories. Can you decipher which pepper corns are ripe, ready to be picked? whether the liquid rubber has dried long enough that it is ready to be pressed? which leaves or spices should be picked to cure this kind of headache or that kind of cut?

How should I interpret time? If you come 45 minutes late for an appointment with me---quite a possibility here in India and many countries around the globe---obviously you are careless, lazy, rude and not a reliable employee. Except of course that telephones and transportation may be irregular, and your 45 minutes late meant you were helping a distant friend with an urgent issue.

How shall I interpret gestures? Two men walk hand in hand or lean on each other. That means?---that they are good friends, quite willing to express their friendship physically, and quite unwilling to touch any woman physically lest they convey sexual impressions that would be wrong.

What does it mean that I turned sixty this week? It means a party, to be sure. My wife and I planned to serve tea, with cake and local onion donuts (vadai), to our community. We thought that would be the end of the story, but India knew better. The Principal of our college and his wife visited at 7:00 am, to bring gifts of special clothes for the day. The greetings in the community throughout the day were clear and direct, not just in passing. The tea in the afternoon, our gift to them, should begin with their speeches of their thanks to us, their gift to us, their prayers, and a ritual cutting of the cake. To become sixty (to have seen a thousand moons) is to reach wisdom. What I knew---I'd turned sixty---now had a new interpretation, the gift and responsibility to be wise, to practice wisdom.

It strikes me that there is something similar in religious life, this challenge of interpreting, perhaps especially for Americans. Oh, yes, we know all about religion. People go through various motions and try to be good. But then there is this new data to be interpreted in the Christian tradition: God on a cross, that God went not just through the motions, but through life and death, in order to be good for us. Something to think about.

---If you think about it and write us and want a reply, please include your email address in the body of your note. Thank you!

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Indian Sabbath

Sleeping in India has caught my attention over these months.

1)This morning around 5:30 my wife and I were walking a few streets of Chennai (Madras). We passed a number of men sleeping on the sidewalks, a few sleeping on the platform of their "truck-rickshaws," otherwise used during the day for carrying goods.
2) Later this morning my wife and I both had to catch naps, having been up since 2:3o.
3) Due to the heat napping came highly recommended when we prepared to come to India, that it could be a regular feature of the Indian day, before afternoon tea.
4) The professional conference yesterday was too much for at least one participant, nodding off.
5) Some prizes could be awarded for sleeping, as in the train station reservation queue or on the bus bouncing across rural roads.
6) Sleeping fits, of course, in student hostels and train berths.
7) The picture is a favorite, a man sound asleep on the breakwater in the Vishakhapatnam harbor.

One could argue that Indians are able to sleep anytime, anywhere. While some of that sleeping may represent the problems of India---e.g., homelessness---some of it may represent a gift. Some of the sleeping is a contrast to this Westerner's expectations. Some of the sleeping, as on the breakwater, is intriguing. One wonders whether there is wisdom in the sleeping, as also in the related skill of simply sitting around talking. By contrast with a Western activist commitment---if it isn't a long work day, it's getting the kids to soccer practice; if we're sitting around it has to be at the computer with a game, violent or otherwise---one wonders if the Indian freedom to sleep or relax has some wisdom attached. One old German said something similar, that nature itself teaches us to rest (Martin Luther, Large Catechism, Third Commandment). He noted often that the real rest comes as a real peace in Jesus, ---but might he agree that India can teach us some of the natural wisdom, to get some sleep?

Friday, January 06, 2006

Overtaking in India

Can you see the larger motorboat in back overtaking the canoe in front? Both are on their way to evening fishing off the coast of Kerala in south India. This image might be a picture of the whole of India, the new overtaking the old, the larger overtaking the smaller. You can see something similar on the road when a lorry (truck) overtakes a bullock (ox) cart. Do such images tell the story of India?

You can see a thousand examples of such overtaking. Autorickshaws have replaced bicycle rickshaws. Private autos appear increasingly, taking over from the dominant white Ambassador taxis. Digital cameras replace film while India creates its own (and overtakes US?) Silicon Valleys. Travel for a month and notice the national highway system growing, at least four lanes wide. Note the ecology efforts in national and local parks, sometimes overtaking habits of waste or consumption. Watch the (expensive?) high rise apartment blocks overtaking the two story places. Note the Coca Cola and Pepsi bottles overtaking the local productions.

Will the motorboat in fact pass the canoe? One wonders. Is there any road in Chennai without some potholes? On the four lane highways you may find traffic coming at you on your side of the divider. Sit in some of the tea estates and meet people who now work for pay only two days in five. A local government in south India has today set 17 conditions for Coca Cola to operate in its area. Talk with people whose role in life is fixed at birth, a task or job set for generations. Caste, culture and social system have been in place for generations, centuries, thousands of years.

Should the motorboat pass the canoe? Certainly, e.g., one sees good hospitals and medical care, and more could be on the way. Kerala has high literacy rates and much of India aspires to the same. But perhaps the motorboat should not pass the canoe, only travel along side? What happens to the quality of carving, cloth and cooking when the machine overtakes the hand? The restrictions on Coca Cola concern taking over ground water: is water a private commodity or public resource? Family connections, related to caste and culture, give social stability.

And then, if you are a Christian, you wonder: God made his love evident in the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. What difference does that love make when the motorboat is catching up to the canoe?

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Eleven Lutheran Church Bodies?

Here at Gurukul Lutheran Theological College in India we have just come through the remembrance of Reformation, the splitting and healing that the Christian Church experienced with the leadership of Martin Luther and others in the 1500's in Europe. (We have also just come through a Hindu festival, Diwali, on November 1. Diwali is called the "Festival of Lights" but should be called, we think, the "Festival of Sound," or simply "Firecracker Day," because it is marked by hours---days---of firecrackers. From about six to midnight on the first we could not hear the TV in our living room because of the firecrackers outside.) Let me use the day to describe something of churches in India.

1) On Gurukul's compound are the offices of the United Evangelical Lutheran Churches of India. UELCI is an association of perhaps eleven Luthern church bodies from around the country. Both our state (Tamil Nadu) and the neighboring one (Andhra Pradesh) have "state" churches. (No Christian Church is under government control; I mean simply that in our area there is a "Tamil Evangelical Lutheran Church" and north of us is "Andhra Ev. Lutheran Church.") In our state, and around the country, there is also the India Ev. Lutheran Church, a partner church to the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in the US. (The Tamil and Andhra churches have, I think, partner synods in the US in the ELCA.) But then---and here I am reading from the list of students in the Gurukul catalog---there are also at least JELC, ELCC, ALC, SAELC, NELC and NWGELC; this last is the North West version of the GELC, from which it has divided over language and culture issues.

The distinctions represent differences of language and culture and mission origins. (We are about 100 km from the site of the first Protestant missionary work in India, launched by Zigenbalg in July 1706; many came after him, all over India.) It may be that there is less division between the churches than within them. We hear some number of stories of court cases among leadership, of family, power or financial concerns assumed to be driving some to positions of power. (LCMS history has prepared us for some of this.)

2) But then, when you read the catalog, you learn that also at Gurukul, among students and faculty, we have Baptists, Pentecostals and Presbyterians. From Kerala state, next door, are several Marthoma students. (This body is either or both: founded by the apostle Thomas after he arrived in India, c. AD 52; reformed about 130 years ago by someone under the influence of reading Luther.) Church of South India, a union in 1947 of Presbyterians, Anglicans and Methodists, is well represented. The photo I will try to attach shows the Gurukul commemoration of the anniversary of that founding. A number of students come from states in the north east of India, where some tribal(i.e., aboriginal) populations might be more than 80% Christian.

In this mixture of people from various church bodies Gurukul becomes an intriguing experiment in ecumenical life, in how the whole Christian Church might live together. There is control on campus in terms of curriculum, catalog, hostel regulations, etc. In terms of chapel services and viewpoints in the classroom there is much less control. The challenge sits before us: given a unity in Jesus Christ, how will we live?

Friday, September 30, 2005

In the continuing adventure of learning to blog we present you with two views of our home for the year, Gurukul Lutheran Theological College and Research Institute in Chennai (Madras) India. We will attempt to add and link more pictures, but as you can tell from the tilted one, we have some things to learn yet to do that and to give you a better picture of our setting.

That tilted picture, set right, is the administrative and classroom building for Gurukul. A main road of Chennai (Purasawakam High Road) lies past the building, under the arch of trees; you can sometimes hear the honk and bell ringing of the road in the classrooms, under the whir of six high-speed ceiling fans. Gurukul's history goes back decades. In the middle period of its history it moved to and combined with United Theological College, Bangalore. Since 1985 it has returned to this campus, and grown to offer BD, MTh and DTh degrees on behalf of the United Evangelical Lutheran Churches of India. Under the banner of a "Bold Theological Vision" it has emphasized the study of theology in relation to communication issues, dalit (untouchable) life in India, women's concerns and national development. Students in the BD program intern not only in congregations but also in NGO's. The building itself demonstrates some interesting plannng and financing, as the street-side "front" of the building contains a three floor "mall" including our nearest grocery store.

The top picture shows you "home," our flat on the first floor (above ground floor) in married study (MTh) housing. The window on the right is where I sit at this moment, having converted the bedroom to something of a study. The central window is our living room; concealed behind the columns is our bedroom window. Gurukul has provided air conditioners; we have not used them, but run the ceiling fans all the time in our 80 and 90 degree weather. Our downstairs neighbor is also a visiting prof, coming from Bemidji, MN, after years of teaching experience in India and Hong Kong. At dinner last night in a nearby restaurant we picked up from him much history of the church and the area. Ordinarily our meals come in the Church Women's Center, through the gate at the right in that picture. The center houses tailoring, typing and computer skill training programs for women, as well as housing literally perhaps twenty women studying or working in Chennai, in need of a safe place to call home and three good (Indian) meals a day. Breakfasts are some kind of bread (chapatti, dose, or idli, usually); lunch and dinner are rice; always with some spicy "soup" mix, usually with a vegetables; all to be eaten with the right hand.

With two weeks of classes under our belt I have learned as a professor how little I understand of Indian teaching and learning styles. Miriam has begun to learn what it means to teach English to Korean visiting students. We both thank God for being here, and for your interest.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

From bacon to bai/ tsi\

This post reports that the Carters are alive and well, having traveled from St. Paul to Spokane through Asia and Hong Kong to Chennai, Tamil Nadu (state), India. Future posts will describe our life and mission in India. This post discusses transition.

"Bacon" in the title refers to the first part of our transition, our welcome in Hong Kong. The Carl Hanson family took us in around 8:00 am on August 11, with bacon and eggs for breakfast. What a welcome treat after an "all night" flight. (We saw the sun go down on Tuesday and come up on Thursday, given the international date line.) By Saturday transition seemed "complete." We had gone farther in Asia and eaten local foods with bai/ tsi\ (that's the best I can render the sound, with rising and then falling tones), a vegetable something like small heads of lettuce, cooked in soups. Had I been able to get the photos to work for this blog, you would have seen a shot with us in the Hanson apartment eating bacon, and then a shot of our noodle restaurant cook preparing that soup a couple days later. (Those of you who know that I have resisted going to China because I was concerned about the variety of foods can imagine the Lord laughing in his heavens, not least as I "transitioned" to eating fried wasps one night. With the local plum wine they were not bad.)

You could mark our transition also by the ability to cross streets. What a victory it was! It's kind of like polite dodge 'em. There are pedestrians, bikes, motorcycles, cars and busses passing from side to side, not exactly in lanes or with street lights, and you chart a path between them. The only thing I (Rich) have been hit by was a crow once we arrived in India. We made all the street crossings safely.

Hong Kong and Asia were good transition because we met missionaries in Hong Kong and teachers of English in China. We saw significant service learning at Hong Kong International School and a clinic being built by help from the Concordia Welfare and Education Society. We understoond more clearly both the work of the Church and the challenges of a dynamic country. We were immersed in ways of thinking, eating and crossing streets that had never crossed our minds before. (Miriam was brave enough to try a foot massage that begins with VERY hot water and goes on to pressure every bone in your foot.) We met faithful people, cross cultural and local sisters and brothers in the faith from whom we could take encouragement as we go. The Buddhist temple across from our hotel in one city reminded us of why we have come for this year, to celebrate and serve with these brothers and sisters.

We appreciate your interest and your prayers. By the next blog I may have the photos working again so that you can "see" the work here, both in the seminary in Chennai where I will teach and in the world around us.

God's blessings.
Rich and Miraim

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Comissioning for India

July 24 was the date, the good people of St. Stephanus were the congregation for our commissioning for the work for this year in India. We are standing with Rev. Jim Bender in front of the St. Stephanus centennial quilt. In a sense we have become a new square in the quilt, one more outreach of the congregation, while we serve as well with Synod's Board for Mission Services and on sabbatical from Concordia University.

The bulk of the work for this year is Rich's teaching for Gurukul Lutheran Theological College and Research Institue in Chennai (Madras)( Behind the scenes there will be much learning about Indian languages, cultures and religions. Also we will discover how the church serves in such a minority setting; Christians are perhaps 3% of the population of India.

We are grateful for the support of family, congregation, Concordia and community as we set off on this venture. We will post some new images each month as a thank you for your support.