Things I Re-Learned While in Asia (Part 1)
Lisa Allgood, Executive Presbyter
Now having been questioned by the Pharisees as to when the kingdom of God was coming, He answered them and said, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ For behold, the kingdom of God is within you”. Luke 17:20-21.
You all know how much I love to travel. I just got back from a trip to Vietnam and Cambodia – the picture is of a bridge over the Mekong River under the very full Worm Moon.
In addition to learning more about the history of conflicts in the region – centuries of them (reminiscent of the recent trip to Israel in January) – here are some things I “re-learned” while traveling:
(1) How Often We Rely on Strangers. Every tuk-tuk, every store and restaurant, every guide. Every chance encounter. Every school child and mother, every village I walked through, every hotel. Every person who asked me to take their photo with their phone. We didn’t always speak the same language or use the same currency and there were places I went where the best I could do to eat was find a place that had pictures I could figure out and point at one (cubes of tofu aren’t always easy to find). But – people are wonderful. The same of course is true here. How often we rely on strangers – every cab/uber, every door dash, every interaction, every transaction – we can approach every interaction with a stranger as a chance to be joyful and trusting and a part of the tribe we call human.
(2) How a Smile is the Shortest Distance Between Two Souls. So many published studies say Americans smile too much, especially when in another country. Other countries, the studies protest, don’t do that. And – referencing the above – when a genuine smile is part of meeting a stranger, it becomes an immediate bridge across cultures that relaxes into a different level of trust, even when hand-signals and pidgin are required to get a meaning across. The same is true in a greater sense for our churches – when people talk about their church with joy and love and smiles, people are intrigued. When people talk about their church with pain and scowls, that church (and sometimes all churches) is dismissed. Smiles and love and connection are another reminder that we are all part of this tribe we call human, and that God created us for the purpose of community.
(3) How an Attitude of Forgiveness Can Overcome a Difficult History. Certainly the relationship between America and Vietnam has had a checkered history, and I learned a lot about how the Vietnamese see Americans today – even those who were alive during the war (the majority of Vietnamese are under the age of 30 and see the war very very differently than we do). The forgiveness, the re-positioning, the connection expressed by every Vietnamese I met, was gracious and accepting and in fact loving towards America, even during the time of the war. (I didn’t talk with any of the 5% registered in the Communist party, however). I’ve encountered this in Europe, Africa, South America – everywhere – as well. No culture is an exception to that kind of history – including right here, within our own country, and in our own churches. When forgiveness (both sides) leads an interaction, it is yet another reminder that we are all part of this tribe we call human, and that God created us for the purpose of connection and community, and that we are all in need of forgiveness.
(4) Kids are Kids Everywhere. That might be a “ ‘nuff said” statement. Kids play, fall down, cry, get up again; they’re spoiled by mothers or grandmothers or whoever happens to be closest to them. They’re hungry, demanding, time-consuming, attention-grabbing, and a source of joyful amusement. Yes, I know children can also be taken advantage of, and it breaks my heart. I have found, though, that the first statements are true of kids in every situation, even those who are the least of these and in the most horrific circumstances – they are the most resilient of us all (I’m reminded of the kids I saw flying kites, laughing and running, in the rag-picking slum they call home). No wonder Jesus asked us to have the faith of a child. Kids are a particularly poignant reminder that we are all part of this tribe we call human, at all ages, and that God created us for the purpose of connection, and that we are all in need of love and grace, and that we fall down and get back up (especially because He holds us).
(5) God has Created an Amazing World. Yes, it is full of beauty and pain, full of smiles and tears, full of wonder and astonishment (I’m reminded of Mary Oliver’s poem “Instructions for Living a Life”). One of the reasons I love to travel so much is to drink in as much of that wonder as I can. All of it, without a filter – cities and countryside, cultures and places of worship and food and arts and smiles. Because we are more linked than we are different, more human-alike than not, all formed under the Hand of God. We are all part of His Tribe we call Human.
Let’s live that in our churches as a people blessed and sharing blessings, in the way we treat those around us, with our families, with strangers, with any we might call “Other”. We can be the bridge to light that saves a soul. We are all the same.