By Tom Holmes
Editor's note: In a series of blog posts, OakPark.com spirituality, ethics and religion blogger Tom Holmes recounts his experiences while travelling alone in Thailand towards the end of 2010. For links to all of the blog posts in this series, visit OakPark.com/ThailandTravels
When I saw my tuk tuk driver running toward me waving my purse in the air at Wat U Mong, my emotions instantly switched from panic to immense gratitude. The gratitude persisted through the evening and into the next morning.
It was troubling for me to admit to myself that I didn't feel this thankful very often. You know, living in the richest nation on earth, beneficiary of a great education, blessed with friends and meaningful work, etc., etc. All this and I still wake up grumpy half of the time.
I needed, I decided, to spend the whole day pondering. So after breakfast at the Riverside guest house, I walked down Thanon Chiang Mai Lamphun half a block, ordered an iced coffee at the Motto Coffee Shop, sat myself down on their small front porch and proceeded to try to digest what had happened to me the previous day.
I wasn't thinking really. My mind would often wander aimlessly. Most people, I suspect, wouldn't call it praying. What I needed to do was to let the emotion which had built up inside me percolate down into my soul. Percolating. . . . .pondering takes time.
The previous day had been an emotional roller coaster ride. Contentment in the forest monastery. Panic when I lost my purse. Tremendous gratitude when it came back to me.
I pictured one of those forest monks telling me that they never get into a panic about losing something, because they don't own anything. Nothing, but three sets of robes and their alms bowl. Everything is impermanent, they would explain. If you want to be at peace, cling to nothing.
But, I did cling to my purse. I prayed not to let it go but to get it back. And, my prayer was answered. At least it was from my point of view, but I hesitate before I say that to anyone. I hesitate, because on the one hand one of my best friends back in Chicago is an agnostic. He doesn't see God's hand in anything, because he views reality through a different lens than I do. When I see a miracle, he sees good luck, and no amount of reasoning can change the fact that we see different things even though we are looking at the same phenomenon.
I hesitate, because on the other hand my evangelical friends are too confident, in my opinion, in their ability to KNOW what is from God and what is not. A pastor I know once quipped that graduates from evangelical schools know that they are right, while alumni from Lutheran colleges hope they are right. I, clearly, am a graduate of a Lutheran college.
Part of my agnosticism, if you will, comes from a long list of what seemed to me for a long time to be unanswered prayers. I had prayed intensely for a month that my fifty year old father would recover from surgery. He died. I had prayed unceasingly that my marriages would get healthier. They both ended in divorce. I had prayed every morning for 24 years that my ministry would bear fruit. The congregation closed. I had hands laid on me ten, maybe fifteen times in the hope that I would be healed of my neurological disorder. It keeps getting worse.
Anne Lamott talks about her "consignment store faith" this way. "I know that when I call out, God will be near, and hear, and help eventually. Of course, it is the 'eventually' that throws one into despair."(Grace (Eventually), Thoughts On Faith, p. 18)
What I have is a consignment store faith. It's not pretty. It doesn't KNOW anything. It tries to trust but never quite gets there. It's not very much like Daniel in the lions' den. It's more like the guy who asked Jesus for healing, and when Jesus asked him if he believed he, ie Jesus, could do it, the man replied, "I believe. Help my unbelief." I've lived long enough with this faith of mine to believe that God answered my prayer the day before at Wat U Mong, but I would never be willing to say to a skeptic that I know that for sure.
I pondered and percolated and read some from the Bible and drank iced coffee there on the porch across the road from the Ping River in Chiang Mai for most of the day. Maybe it was because I wasn't sitting under a bodhi tree, but I never did achieve anything approaching enlightenment regarding what had happened to me the day before.
What I did know as the evening shadows lengthened was that I had gotten my fill of pondering for that day and was hungry for some dinner. I walked to the mom and pop open air restaurant in the corner of the parking lot and ordered a bowl of pad Thai with shrimp. After that I caught a tuk tuk, got dropped off at the boxing stadium near the Thapai Gate in the old part of Chiang Mai and had a wonderful time watching three Muay Thai matches until midnight.