The long journey home

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger


       As it often happens with me, it’s only months or years later that a light goes on and I feel like I have figured out what happened “back when I was alone in Thailand” or anywhere else.  The intuition or insight or whatever you want to call it will come as I’m showing my Thailand slides to friends or while I’m in that liminal place between sleep and waking up or while reading a book.


            For example, I was listening to an interview of a Catholic pro-choice activist named Frances Kissling during a broadcast of the Civil Conversations Project on NPR.  Kissling, who is strongly pro-choice, was reflecting on why the debate over abortion in this country has not only not been resolved but feels like the kind of stalemate on the 38th parallel where South Koreans and North Koreans watch each other suspiciously across no-man’s land with  open hostility.


Kissling said that the problem is due to a reluctance of people on both sides to get vulnerable enough to 1) admit that they have some doubts about their own position and 2)  acknowledge that the opposition might have some values that they can appreciate.  Defensiveness, she said, is a symptom of insecurity.  What is needed, she added, is an “enthusiasm for difference.”


As I listened to Kissling, I recalled those evangelicals in the Buddha Park in Laos who prayed that God would rid the evil of Buddhism from that land.  And I couldn’t help wondering if they were insecure in their faith.  I remembered a friend saying that evangelicals know they are right whereas Lutherans hope they are right, and I found myself being glad that I was a Lutheran. 


I thought of Derek’s contention that growing up in a tradition--which was homogeneous and at the same time didn’t take itself too seriously--gave him the security that allowed him to have the very “enthusiasm for difference” that Kissling was saying was so necessary in our world.  And I thought of Bill Yoder, who had lived and served in Thailand for nearly 40 years, who knew who he was and where he had come from, who loved the Thai people but resisted the temptation to try to be like them.


That same week I was interviewing Alex Kotlowitz for a newspaper article.  Kotlowitz is a white guy who wrote a bestselling book called There Are No Children Here about what it is like to grow up as a black kid in Chicago’s Henry Horner housing project.  The occasion for the interview was a movie called the Interrupters which he and Steve James had made about CeaseFire in Chicago.


He was telling me that on the one hand, he as a white guy was very conscious that he was an outsider on the west and south sides of Chicago, which caused him to be respectful and take the attitude of a learner.  On the other hand, being an outsider allowed him to ask questions which the residents of those neighborhoods had stopped asking or lacked the perspective to ask.


Kotlowitz helped me understand why I am attracted to authors who in my mind write from the “margins” of the Christian  church—people like Anne Lamott, Garrison Keillor, Annie Dillard and Frederick Buechner.  It’s why I enjoyed writing stories for my local newspaper about a Hasidic Rabbi, a Zen Buddhist Master and a Unitarian pastor.  It’s not that I have any desire to adopt their world views and belief systems.  What they have is the perspective to in effect ask questions about what I believe and how I live, questions which I and many of my co-religionists have been unable or unwilling to ask.


And it dawned on me that going to Thailand so many times and being with a Thai congregation every Sunday forced me to bump up against the fact that my own culture was far from perfect even though it was the one in which I was most comfortable.


And that, in a stream of consciousness fashion, led me to wonder which culture I was most at home in, the kingdom of God or American society.  Then I realized—which is probably obvious to many—that my own religious tradition, the Lutheran church, was not the kingdom of God but rather an ex patriot kind of attempt to reconstitute a cultural enclave in a “foreign land,” an attempt that we never get quite right no matter how hard we try.


            Seven months after returning home, I was reading a book entitled Resident Aliens in which Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon argue that Kingdom of God is a foreign country in relation to American culture, that in God’s kingdom not only will the values be different from the materialism, consumerism and individualism which mark American society but more than that, the Kingdom of God proposes a picture of reality which markedly changes how residents with that perspective view life in this world.


That different perspective changes reality, as it were.  It’s like the world is viewing life through the lenses in a microscope, which allows it to observe a portion reality invisible to the lenses in our eyes, like an amoeba swimming around in pond water and nuances in fingerprints.  The world’s perspective has its place. 


The problem with viewing life through a microscope, however, is that the viewer will never see the stars.  The lenses won’t permit that part of reality to be observed, and those who demand evidence, or at least experience, before they will “believe” something to be true, will decide that the star gazers’ claims are implausible.  


“OK,” I thought, “that helps me understand why my agnostic friends have a hard time accepting my truth claims.  They’ll never see the stars I see until they are willing to look at the darkness of the night sky through a telescope.”  But the problem remains.  Why do I have such a hard time seeing the stars, when I think that I’m using the right set of lenses. 


In a paradoxical way I need the perspective of Buddhists and agnostics and evangelicals to help me see the limitations of my own lenses, narratives and sensibilities. Allowing myself to be vulnerable to their questions has often been uncomfortable. 


Ultimately, the purpose of authentic religion, however, is not to make me comfortable but to get me where I want to go in life.  The grace filled paradox was that forty days alone in a foreign land helped me regain a sense of direction, not so much for finding my way in Thailand but for navigating my life’s journey after I got back home.

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