25 April 2007

Conversing on Spirituality: The Jesus Model

It’s an important question: as a Christian chaplain in a very “multi” environment -- multi-faith, multi-cultural, multi-in almost any category you can think of (not to mention occasional moments of anti-faith, anti-religion) -- how can we relate to others about our common spirituality? How do we utilise our common spiritual experience (or, at times, lack thereof) to make authentic connections with students from a wide variety of faith-backgrounds?

When I was asked to lead this discussion, I was immediately reminded of one of my favourite Jesus-stories -- his encounter with the Samaritan woman in John 4. On a journey north with his disciples, Jesus intentionally or unintentionally ended up alone in, what for a Jew was, “a bad part of town.” We know that at the time, there was great political, ethnic and religious tension between Jews and Samaritans, and Jesus was all alone on their turf. What can we learn from Jesus about “Conversing on Spirituality” from this potentially anxious and troublesome encounter?

1. Jesus courageously made first contact
The woman was shocked. Later, when they saw it, the disciples were shocked. By simply asking the woman for a drink of water, Jesus circumvented generations of political, social, ethnic, religious and gender barriers and assumptions.
Be courageously comfortable being in the minority
Bravely circumvent preconceptions and barriers

2. Jesus focused on the common desire for spiritual experience
He jumped off his request for water into a discussion about spiritual thirst and how to attain a sense of fulfilment in our quest for supernatural experience. In effect, he was saying, “There is more to life than physical thirst. There is something more satisfying than water.” He touched on the “divine dissatisfaction” which can be found in all of us.
Observe the eternal realities in people’s stories
(e.g., justice, goodness, evil, love, sacrifice)

3. Jesus avoided historical religious arguments
Once you are perceived to be a spiritual or religious person, people will ask you religious questions. “Which temple is the correct one to worship at?” “So who is right in this or that religious argument?” Even though Jesus sensed the sincerity of her query, he looked right past age-old arguments about religious systems and focused on the truth that God is more concerned with relating to people at a heart level.
Don’t get caught up in defending religious systems
Use religious questions as transition points to deeper issues

4. Jesus acknowledged the importance of integrity
Jesus did this in two ways. First, he commended her honesty about the reality of her personal situation. He could tell that despite her dodgy background, she was genuine and willing to be honest with herself and others. Second, he was graciously clear with her that, in his view, the Biblical Story, sourced in the Jews, was the true meta-narrative -- the Big Story that makes sense of history.
Listen for integrity in other’s personal stories
Don’t be afraid to explain why you choose to live according to the Story you do

5. Jesus’ good news: there is a Spiritual God who desires connection with honest, spiritual seekers
Jesus pulls the conversation together with some good news. Religious systems and physical expressions of worship are mere symbols and shadows. Beyond them is a Spirit God who is eager to connect with people. We need to realise that we are spiritual beings. Many of us have terribly underdeveloped spiritual lives and feel a sense of “divine dissatisfaction,” not quite sure of what we are longing for. We are also relational beings. The more we know of the other the better.
Listen for and relate to other’s “divine dissatisfaction”

6. Jesus was vulnerable, open and direct with an honest seeker
By this time, despite their differences, Jesus knew her sincerity and desire to connect with God. He spoke to her as truthfully and directly as she to him, “I am the Messiah.” (John 4:26 NLT). One of my friends refers to this type of person as someone with “the kingdom in their eyes.” Whatever faith-background they come from, they are sincere in their pursuit of truth and a connection with God. For this woman, Jesus skipped the parables and the “for those with ears to hear” statements and spoke plainly to her. Then, one thing led to another: a simple conversation → she shares with others → the whole town gets involved → Jesus stays on for two more days.
Meet them where they are on their own spiritual journey
Look for the “kingdom in their eyes”
Pray that one thing would lead to another

It all starts with a simple conversation.

Painting by He Qi (http://www.heqigallery.com)

17 April 2007

GOOD Magazine -- Portrait of Kay Warren

Check out this quality article on Kay Warren's passion to assist in positioning local churches worldwide onto the frontlines in the battle against HIV/AIDS.

Preacher's Wife: Kay Warren is convincing Christians worldwide that AIDS is their problem.

Words By Patrick James
Photos By Trujillo-Paumier

Every Sunday, atop a hilly expanse of acreage in Lake Forest, California, Saddleback Church welcomes 22,000 of the evangelical faithful for worship. Kay Warren, 53, who co-founded Saddleback with her husband, Pastor Rick Warren (also 53 and the author of the perennial best-seller The Purpose Driven Life), sees power in these numbers. As the executive director of Saddleback’s HIV/ AIDS Initiative, she contends that the global church is the best hope in the fight against the ever-growing AIDS pandemic.

Want to read more ... http://www.goodmagazine.com/section/Portraits/preachers_wife

13 April 2007

Tramping Through Orc Country

At the end of March, with six men from our church, I hiked the challenging one-day “tramp” across Tongariro National Park. The 17 km. Tongariro Crossing has long been known as one of the best one-day hikes in New Zealand, if not the world. However, in recent years, as the brochures attest, tourists come to visit “The Lord of the Rings” movie locations, including Mordor, Door of Sammath Naur, the slopes of Mt. Doom, Barren Waste Lands, Sea of Boulders and Orc Country.

So, the choice is yours, (1) for $185 per person you can take the tour, or Door Number (2) you can pay the $25 round trip bus fare and hike the whole thing. I recommend the hike.

Take a look, see what you think. http://picasaweb.google.com/seajaybee/TongariroCrossing

10 April 2007

Rabia at the Hyatt

Short story by Tara Baltzley
Differences exist, but not in the city of love. Thus my vows and yours, I know they are the same. – Rabi’a of Basra, 8th century Islamic mystic
I can’t decide which is more breathtaking – the Himalaya-like mountains which seem close enough to touch, or this Hyatt hotel. Nothing beats the two at once. Sipping a cappuccino, in a lushly upholstered chair, staring out the immense glass windows at the Tien Shan. (Did I mention the air conditioning?!) They are always white-capped, the Tien Shan, even in this blistering Bishkek summer heat. Once you’ve seen them, anything else is just a hill. I almost prefer viewing them from the pristine cocoon of the Hyatt, than hiking through them. This is my favourite escape. I suppose it’s my only escape, really.

After 7 years here, which seem more like endurance than living, we were thrilled when they finally finished it. Construction started about the time we came, built by Italians, who eventually ran out of money. For several years it stood, like much else here, half-finished. We joke that you can’t tell whether things are being built or torn down. They are half-way to something and wholly deserted. It was then bought (for quite a bargain, I’d imagine) by Hyatt Hotels and finished. It’s supposedly a 5-star. Though I recall a stuffy American businessman referencing a cigar butt which remained visible in an ashtray for ‘far longer than one would in a true 5-star hotel’. Still, for us, it has been salvation. An oasis in a desert of post-soviet architecture, food and culture. Glad I can get away and that I’ve got Rabia back home tidying the place, while I catch my breath here.


Where is her black skirt? Oh Kudai (God), help me find it quick. I’ve got to hurry to make it back before she does. She said she’s picking up the girls from school first, so I’ve got till 3:20pm or so. I’ll need a taxi both ways – if I take the bus there’s no way I’ll pull it off. Ah, here it is! It’s so wonderful that Elaine and I are the same size. She’s petite and thin. Not like most American women – especially after they return from a few months at home. I don’t know how she does it. She can afford anything she likes to eat. She’s always bringing home food from the import stores. Not shopping at the open bazaar like we do. She tries to put them away before I see. Like a child hiding a cookie for later.
I’m thin because my salary is all our family lives on with Nurbek earning so little, despite being a surgeon. His friend Sadat, attended a neurosurgery conference in Moscow with Americans. One asked what his monthly salary was and when Sadat told him, the man remarked that he spent at least that on lunch everyday! Elaine thought it was awfully insensitive for him to say that. Still, it’s prestigious here to be a surgeon. I can’t decide what matters more, money or dignity. I make at least $75 a month cleaning this apartment . . . but after so many years I can’t stand the shame anymore. Now that the girls are in school all day I can’t even pretend that I’m their language teacher anymore…I pray I don’t screw up this interview. I’ll make a lot less, but I’m desperate to get the job.


“Vood you like another cappuccino?” Natalia asks.
“No thanks. Could I just have a glass of tap water … with a slice of lemon? … oh yes, and shyot pazhaloosta , I mean, check please.”
“No problem” she says, smiling.

I used to just speak Russian to her, but I think she’s embarrassed to speak it in here. And the Kyrgyz waitresses slip into low, muffled tones when I use Kyrgyz. They’re thrilled that we’ve chosen to learn their language, which the Russians never bothered to do. But, still ashamed to use it in front of their Russian co-workers. So, I just use English when I come here.

All the wait staff have decent English. Where they’ve acquired it varies. Most have foreigner friends who’ve helped them improve to this level – probably helped them get their job as well. They’re also all nice looking. The cream of the crop really – capable of so much more – yet this is the best gig in town. Their uniforms are crisp and they fit right in with us, more than they would outside. Of course, they’re still subservient, just better dressed and polished.

Most the missionaries treat them respectfully – often conveying an unspoken, ‘good for you that you’ve gotten such a good job’. Not that I can say the same for the business and embassy people. They remind me of the men’s club in Out of Africa. Condescending. Superior. Suspicious. Like the woman inviting me to join the International Women’s Club telling me they keep their dues ‘a bit on the high side to keep the locals out.’

Sometimes I loathe the scene here, yet I need it. I often feel guilty afterwards. Especially when I arrive home to Rabia and make no indication of where I’ve been. Like a man who enjoyed a business-lunch tryst, greeting his wife after work.

Rabia. I never refer to her as my maid. Though I guess that’s what she is. When we first arrived here, I had no intention of having house help. Even when I found that the few other foreigners who were here then had ‘maids’, I resisted. I quickly found sweeping floors, and mopping by hand (no mops here then), while raising a 1-year old and studying Kyrgyz language full-time to be overwhelming. Not to mention the general level of culture stress. So, when my language teacher pleaded with me to give work to her sister, I finally let go of my pride and hired Rabia.

Her namesake was a famous Sufi mystic. She was surprised when I told her that. She hadn’t known there’s a Sufi past here in Kyrgyzstan. Never heard of Sufism for that matter. That’s what the predominant branch of Islam was before the Russians took over. I’ve actually read some of her writings. They say she had visions of Jesus. Of course, she called him ‘Isa’, as he’s called in Arabic in the Koran.

A lot of people, even Muslims, are surprised to hear Jesus is written about favourably in the Koran. The references to His followers, on the other hand, are mixed. And history from the Crusades to George W. hasn’t exactly helped.

But Muhammed seemed to have no problem with Jesus. So, I figure maybe he did appear to some of those early Muslim mystics. Like Rabi’a. There are others who wrote about Him too. There’s a poet from Uzbekistan. His name is well-known amongst the Uzbeks. I hear the government won’t publish his writings now that they’ve found he wrote about Jesus.

He’s ‘appeared’ to a number of our Kyrgyz friends – usually in dreams. People who’d never heard of him before. He reveals himself as ‘Isa’ like their Koran says. He’s never appeared to our Rabia, but she’s following him just the same. She says its as if a huge weight has been lifted from her shoulders. She feels free. She doesn’t have to worry about all the times she didn’t keep the Ramadan fast during the Soviet times. She’s forgiven. But, sometimes I worry about her future. What will happen to her after we leave?


A little of her hairspray should do the trick. And some perfume. I’ll crack the window so she doesn’t smell it when she comes home. It’s 1:30 p.m. My interview is at 2:00 p.m. I speed-cleaned the place and didn’t do the kitchen floor. I don’t think she’ll notice, though. Only if there’s a spill and she wipes it and sees those precious white paper towels she buys have some grime on them. I’ll wash it tomorrow. Can’t forget to lock the door. Better not walk too fast, lest a neighbour notice me and mention to Elaine they saw me leaving. I hope there’s a taxi waiting at the corner. Best to avoid the ones Elaine always uses. They might mention it to her. Might even tell her where they took me. That would shock her! I wonder if she’s ever been there. I doubt it. Although, she might not have told me. She can be so secretive. I’m never quite sure what they can afford. Why they’ve never bought a house and completely remodelled it like all the other foreigners is beyond me. I guess they’re not planning to stay forever.


Did I mention we only eat or have coffee here? Can’t really afford to stay a night. We’ve tried to live fairly simply. Unlike most ex-pats we’ve never bought a house here. It’s a dream our local friends could never afford. Though our apartment’s pretty nice. I’ve never actually even seen one of the rooms in this place. The restaurant and lobby’s paradise enough with its morrocon hues, plush carpets, and deep-seated armchairs. Deep-pile Turkish rugs hang on the walls. A vague nod to the local custom (was it Russian or Kyrgyz first?) only these are elegant and hang from black wrought-iron rods. Nothing like the gaudy, gold-hued synthetic ones in our first apartment that I left up for a year, until I finally thought of telling the landlords that I was worried our daughter (then 2) might try to crayon on them. A fairly ingenious face-saving way of having them removed.


Ah, there it is! I think I must have picked the slowest taxi. I know I got a better price though, since he’s a fellow Kyrgyz. I hope Elaine and Rob aren’t too hurt if I leave them for this job. I’ll miss their girls so much. I won’t miss the housework. Okay, walk in slowly, confidently. Like you belong here. Pretend you’ve at least been inside it before. This rotating door is something else. So the doorman didn’t greet me. He in his stiff, soldierly Hyatt uniform. Me in my ‘borrowed’ American skirt. We can see right through each others’ facades. Neither one of us really belongs here.


I’ve got to stop by one of the tiny ‘supermarkets’ to pick up some things before I get the kids from school. I’d better hurry. I’ll just leave the 100 som under my cup. Along with a large tip, of course.

“See you later, Natalia. Spaciba.”

As I’m nearing the door, I almost walk right into Rabia. (Is that my skirt?!) As the color drains from her face, I feel mine go flush. We simultaneously stutter, I in Kyrgyz and she in English…

“What are you doing here?!”

The End