Monotony of Monogamy

A commentary I wrote for the Adventist Review back in 2007 when the Ashley Madison Agency had only a million or so in membership.

The Ashley Madison Agency “is committed to protecting and enhancing principles of personal freedom and social justice” and makes donations to causes such as civil rights and women’s health.” Basic membership is free and allows you to browse and observe; active membership costs $80 a month.

Behind the doors of this seemingly noble enterprise is a service industry fueled by its slogan “When Monogamy becomes Monotony.” It caters to married men and women who don’t want a divorce yet want an affair. One happy customer says I  . . . met a truly wonderful man. . . We have been together for over a year . . . We learned so much and will carry it on to our marriages.”

From Genesis to Shakespeare to television’s Desperate Housewives, infidelity spikes interest and conversations. Something about the forbidden and morally wrong is fodder for primetime news and hometown gossip. The media has given Ashley Madison airtime, albeit unfavorable press. Yet the more negative attention, the faster the agency grows: From just a few thousand members five years ago, it now has over a million!

The founder says, “I’m a marketer, filling a need in the market place” His clients are all affairs waiting to happen; he is merely providing a safe platform where they can be “honest and open” (about their infidelity)

Satan’s new approach is not to dissolve the marriage but to de-sanctify it and make it meaningless. He aggressively zeros in on the lonely and the discontented and uses books, talk shows, and therapists that promote self-indulgence in today’s I-need-to-take-of-myself society. As a result, what used to be taboo is now harmless indulgence. And it’s so easy for us to be drenched in self-pity and cry out “Poor me” rather than be draped in the righteousness of Christ and “not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.” (Romans 13:14, NIV)

our lineage and what it means

(published 2006 in the Adventist Review)

When Tom Robinson, an amateur yet avid genealogist, sent a sample of his DNA to a bioarchaeology firm, the resulting discovery required more than a letter in the mail. Robinson received a personal phone call that informed him that he was a direct descendant of Ghengis Khan.

For some, genealogy is just a hobby; for most, it is a pastime that rapidly turns into an addiction. This obsession to trace and document one’s lineage is not a new fad—The Old Testament devotes large portions to genealogy. It is as though human beings are inherently driven to discover their roots—Finding and sifting through the lives of ancestors, in some unfathomable way, brings meaning to the living. Details of family history can heal wounds of an abandoned childhood, boost the low self-esteem of a dull and boring life, explain a harmful habit, justify attitudes and actions, or simply quell a yearning to answer the question Who am I?

Genealogy helps people understand who they are–Robinson’s connection to Ghengis Khan caused him to reflect on personal traits that could be a result of his lineage to this noteworthy world leader (albeit ruthless warrior)— his supervisory role at work and his ability to ride a horse.

For Christians, however, it takes more than family history to understand the significant slots into which we fit. Whether our research unveils a hero or a villain, who we are and what we are destined to be results not from DNA or genes or history, but from a lineage that connects us directly to Jesus Christ. We must remember that we are “all children of God through faith in Jesus Christ.” Galatians 3:26 (NLT) With this knowledge in our hearts, we must live lives worthy of that connection to the Cross. We must live like children of God.

a cup of tea?

This is the last of a series of 12 articles published in the Adventist Review 

“Where can I get a cup of tea?” he asked, winking exaggeratedly. Must be a nervous twitch, I thought as I pointed down the road and said, “Try the blue stall under the big tree.” His request was strange when tea stalls are plain to see along the roads of Nepal. It took several inquiries about tea before I realized there was something more to tea than tea—especially since all the lost tea drinkers seemed to have a nervous twitch.

Tea here is synonymous with gratuity. Someone does you a favor, you slip them some money. And the favor can be as simple as helping you find the bus station or as complicated as getting an ultrasound machine out of the airport customs office.

“Tea” is a contradiction to my clear cut, no-nonsense Adventist way of doing things. When everything is either black or white, life is simple and uncomplicated; every action redeeming or damning. So I want nothing to do with tea–the sleazy kind you pass under the table or the caffeinated kind you slurp.

Lessons learned from my upbringing in a typical, cloistered Adventist campus play my conscience all the time. But reality is that here in Nepal nothing gets done without at least a tiny sip of tea (If you know what I mean). Last year I met a director of Southern Asia Division who has two different business cards. One reflects his position as Brother So and So, Director of Something Good and Pure; while the other insists he owns a tractor company. The card he presents depends on who he is having tea with. He neither moonlights nor gets two pay checks; The two business cards and the lie are connected to his sincere work for the Lord—It’s just that there are places and situations that he can have access to only as the owner of a tractor company.

These low-key, Mafia-like dealings shatter my Adventist black and white, do’s and don’ts system. To add confusion to my already rattled conscience I think of my Ethics class in College where we discussed (without coming to satisfactory conclusions) grey situations –like telling one lie to protect the truth or taking one life to save many. And I think of Mission Institute where we learned about conceptualization and how morality is often intertwined with culture and that missionaries need to be flexible without being intolerant. And I ask myself “Whose standard should guide me? Is there room for compromise? How can I be ‘Christian-ly’ different when I’m easing into their way of doing things?” So many perplexities in so many shades of grey when I step out of my black and white world!

My husband has taken to tea drinking—both kinds. He does it with ease; yet I know he doesn’t like tea—either kind. So I asked him how and why he did it. In his observations and explanations I found understanding.

Tea—the drink—is weak, milky, and extremely sweet. It is offered when you visit a home or an office. To refuse the beverage would be an insult. You can’t claim to be lactose intolerant, diabetic or even just too Adventist. Talking business over a cup of tea binds two people with a shared purpose. Tea—the gratuity—works the same way. You would offend a Nepali by calling  it a bribe.  It’s a gesture of confidence in the person and assures smooth transactions in the future. Nepalis never forget the people they’ve had tea with. You become friends for life (or until you stop having  tea with them).

“Tea is all about building relationships,” was Roy’s closing phrase. “And without relationships, YOU will never get anything done and THEY may never get a glimpse of Christianity.”

I hear many tea drinkers say of my husband: That Christian is a man of his word. A trustworthy man. An honest man. A fair man. May he live a 100 years.

Of me they say nothing. All I get is a wary smile.

What is right, what is wrong? Don’t ask me. One thing’s for sure—”Missionary-ing,” even in Jesus’ day, was done in a very grey world. As for me, even with Roy’s explanation, I continue having trouble seeing the value of compromising my standards in the grey area of tea drinking.

Oh for black and white again where everything is clear!

God’s price tag

This was written by Dr. Silas Gomes and me. It was his experience. (Previously published in the Adventist Review)

“Nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, very well, thank you. Nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, very well, thank you.” I turned towards the sound of the nonsensical “English” chant and saw the source—He was dark, gaunt, skinny, dirty and almost naked.

He seemed so out of place—he was a lower caste in an upper caste village; his dirt caked body was incongruent with the full river flowing just a few feet from us; his blabbering in the quietness of the Sabbath morning was disturbing.

It was a special day and I wished he would leave before the rest arrived. I was there early after ensuring that my patients were taken care of, switching my turn to speak in church, and driving an hour on mountainous road.

Not the best time to be annoyed by a mad man, I thought as I tried to avoid eye contact with him. I hope he doesn’t stop to pester me for money. But He didn’t stop; He just walked on by. He didn’t ask for money; he just mumbled “Nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, very well, thank you.”

As I breathed a sigh of relief from inconvenience, the pastor, church members and the 13 baptismal candidates arrived in the hospital bus. My heart swelled in pride and happiness at the sight. Baptisms in Nepal are done secretly and quickly in rivers that run through remote areas. This was not a time to take in nature, drag out the service or loiter around. The group was already on their way to the river bank and I was getting ready to follow them when I heard him: “Nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, very well, thank you.” Oh. No! He’s back! Maybe he’ll just pass me by again, I hoped as I quickly walked to my motorbike to get my gadgets and myself ready to record the baptism for posterity.

It was a beautiful baptism. After the wonderful fellowship and lunch that followed, it was time to go. The bus was the first to leave. As I was about to get on my motorbike the man was back. This time he had an empty plastic bag held open. It was obvious he was hungry. It was obvious he was hoping that someone would throw a few scraps of food. Yet all I could focus on was his skinny, dirty, half-naked body and his not-so-lucid mind. I didn’t want him near me. I didn’t want to have to deal with him.

I quickly got on my motorbike and drove away. My engine hummed against the background of “Nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, very well, thank you”. As I wound my way back to the hospital I was consumed with the plight of that hungry man and the realization that I had with me a can of potato chips I was too full to eat. The chips were probably all that man needed to make his day. Yet there I was driving away with it.

I have not been able to forget that man. One look at him and I had decided he was not worth my time. The value I placed on him was based on his appearance and his words. One look at him and I had decided that he was not worthy of being part of the baptism scene or my lunch.

As a human being I have this problem of placing face values on people. It is easy to judge people by their appearance, their social status, their mental acumen, and the comfort level I have in their presence. That is my humanness, my weakness.

That crazy man has made me understand God’s love more clearly. The price tag He places on each of us is so high that all the gold on earth will not be worthy of us. The value He places on us is that of His own Son. Should the earth have been populated by just one dark, gaunt, skinny, dirty and almost naked man mumbling “Nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, very well, thank you” all day, God would have still sent His Son to die just for him. God would have done that because His value system is not like mine. He holds each one of us gently in His loving hands, turns us over and over, sees all our flaws, all our handicaps, all our disabilities—and then tags us all equally worthy.

the view and the fog

(published 2003, Adventist Review)

Sometimes a fog of discouragement clouds my vision and my view is not very appealing. What once brought pride and satisfaction is now a pathetic sketch of mishaps and coincidences. What once was a source of encouragement is now a sore irritation.

Without a WOW moment in a while, my spirituality is in a slump. When the petty takes control of the day, it’s difficult to remember what it was like just a while ago. Clouds hang heavy at such times. Times like when . . .

I read the chronicles of conversion in other 10-40 window areas and can barely hear a few lethargic sheep bleating in the Nepal fold;

I return from vacation to be bombarded by complaints of irate workers about trivial problems;

I take 3 hours and pass 7 army checkpoints to travel 12 miles to do my weekly shopping;

I find Roy at times too busy being missionary in Nepal to be husband and father;

I read an anonymous letter listing the sins of a church leader in Southern Asia;

I learn that the three new members joined the church because they thought it guaranteed a job.

At such moments I hear a voice telling me “Pack up and leave. NOW.” And I embarrassedly remember the accolades and praises we receive from friends back home—all in admiration of what we are doing in Nepal. If they could only see me now!  The weight of my gloom emphasizes the hypocrite within me. What am I doing here? I should be home, close to my college-age son. I should be concentrating on my career. Is it all worth the spattering of miracles now and then?

Discouragement can be fatal to spirituality. It quickly translates a satisfying spiritual past into a series of superfluous, insignificant blah blah blah’s—noise that drowns out the good and positive.

From the lessons I learned since at my mother’s knee, I know what I must quickly say to the one sucking out my enthusiasm–“Away from me, Satan!” The solution to my negativity is really as simple as that. I need to get the focus off myself, get off my high horse and let go of the reins. In my humanness, the present looks bleak and hopeless. But heaven looks down, sees God in control and cheers the march forwards and upwards.

So I force my unwilling soul to do what is unnatural at the moment—I get down on my knees. I raise my soul heavenwards. I tightly shut my eyes so I can see.  And I see people touched by God’s children passing through this land.

I see Biku Maya. Homeless and illiterate, she can’t understand what goes on in church, but she comes anyway—just to be in God’s house, with God’s people. She comes because someone, a very long time ago, showed her the compassion of Jesus.

I see Aarti. She used to work in her mother’s tea stall from before sunrise to way past sunset. But now she goes to school because John and Ruth who came here as volunteers one summer are giving her the gift of education.

I see Dawachiki. She used to be a beggar outside our walls, but the hospital stepped into her life some 30 years ago. Now she is a ward aide in the hospital and has seen her daughter become a nurse.

I see Surya. She began doing odd jobs around the hospital at the young age of 13. Today she is the hospital’s chief financial officer. Her life is such an intertwining of Adventism that she’s decided to join the church.

I see Bishnu. He struggles with alcoholism in a land that does not recognize it as a disease. The hospital now conducts one of the two Alcoholics Anonymous programs in the country–to bring hope to him and others like him.

I see terrorists, near death, brought to this hospital because they know that here compassion overrides prejudice, hatred, and even fear.

I see women who can now ride the bus and shop on their own because ADRA has taught them to read and count change.

I see these lives touched by those who come and go, those who leave behind a legacy of God’s eternal control over His church, over His people, in this country and everywhere.

Where I am today, the view may not be good, but if I listen hard enough, I hear Him through the din and fog. He tells me “Do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go” Joshua 1:9

heirs of the kingdom

(Published 2003, Adventist Review)

Raging against the caste system, Mahatma Gandhi said “I do not want to be reborn. But if I have to be reborn, I should be born an untouchable, so that I may share their sorrows, sufferings, and the affronts leveled at them, in order that I may endeavor to free myself and them from that miserable condition.”

Since Gandhi, the crusaders have been many but the battle is yet to be won. Feeding on human prejudice the caste system thrives–One out of six Hindus today continue to be considered untouchable. Objectively one may say that without the caste system Hinduism stands on shaky ground. Built on the principle that all men are created unequal, Hinduism teaches that the sole purpose of living is to be reborn into a higher human form, to climb up the caste system at every rebirth.

From the moment a child is born into a low caste, he is taught that he is a lesser human form. From that moment, he accepts his fate and lives on the periphery of society.

Set apart from the rest, the “lesser ones” have evolved to be distinctly different. And the man sitting in the far corner of the church was certainly different. He had traveled on foot for a day and then by bus for 16 hours just to find our church pastor, A. M. Puri. And he had a story to tell.

His home is among others like himself, in abject poverty, in a remote area without electricity, running water or even a telephone. Resigned to their fate, complacent in being the leftovers of humanity, they live apart from the rest of Nepal. The commonalities of their low caste keep them together—their looks and mannerisms, their food and language, their culture and customs, their feelings of inferiority and lack of education.

One day came a stranger. Blinded to the trademarks of their caste, he visited with them and told them stories of Jesus. He returned many more times with more stories. And then just as strangely as he appeared in their lives, he left one day and never returned.

Illiterate and without a clue, they did not know where to find another to tell them the remaining stories about Jesus. Did the true God have someone without prejudice for them? Over a year went by when they heard from someone who heard from another who heard from  someone else that there was a pastor in Banepa—A. M. Puri—who was not only without prejudice but who had also lived among the low caste a long time ago.

As our visitor begged Puri to come teach his people, Puri’s own life began to make sense. More than 20 years earlier he worked with this particular caste of people. A college graduate, he could not understand why he was being sent to a serve an illiterate people. But he went anyway.  He learned their language, composed Christian lyrics to fit their folk tunes, studied their strange rituals and even developed a customized Bible Study to fit their life and culture. Then two years later he was posted to another area and never had a chance to use his material again.

Now he could see the connection!

Our visitor returned to his village and Puri followed a few weeks later with a representative from the Nepal SDA Field. What a surprise awaited them! In a 15-mile radius, there were six communities, totaling about 350 people—all of them eager to learn more about Jesus, all of them wanting to be baptized!  Among them was Manoj, one of only two educated members of the community. Manoj has completed 10th grade and dreams of going to college, studying theology, and returning to disciple his people. Even if the whole community pooled in their resources, it wouldn’t be enough. But what’s a college education compared to the stigma they are overcoming through Jesus!

Puri will be making several more long journeys to prepare them for baptism. And one day very soon, we will witness the largest Adventist baptism in this Hindu country. It will be a baptism of great significance–not just because of the numbers but because it will be a momentous day when these lesser ones are made heirs of God’s kingdom.

the club

(published 2003, Adventist Review)

Ten feet tall, it stands in my front lawn on a well worn patch of dirt, symbolizing the differences between the worlds on either side of the fence. The basketball hoop is as uncommon a sight in Banepa as is a 225-pound, 6-foot, bearded 17-year-old.  And it doesn’t take long for a crowd of children to gather on the other side, wagering on Jez’s shot and his age!

The differences between both sides of the fence are many, caused mainly by the dark cloud of inescapable poverty that hangs over the other side. Undernourished and underprivileged, children here are small in stature, resigned to their fate and starved for fun. Often they have only their imagination and someone else’s trash to provide entertainment–A bicycle wheel turns into a hoola-hoop, the discarded wheels of a chair convert to a skateboard. I’ve even seen a rock take the place of a ball! Such is their life–void of childhood, forced into the role of breadwinner before reaching puberty. In their world only the fit and tough survive and principles are dictated by the lack of equity: For example, it is acceptable to take from those who have more; it is foolish to aspire to be more than what your caste dictates; it is unnecessary to say thank you when the gift is given out of abundance. Theirs is a world where life is what the gods have predestined one to have—or not to have.

Befriending those on the other side sometimes has a negative effect on their already low self-esteem and feelings of inferiority. One-on-one relationships oftentimes only emphasize the disparity that is very real and cannot be combated with gifts or goodwill. In an effort to address this bleak, fatalistic attitude, the Club was begun by the Shrestha family where the father is Nepali and the mother American.  The Shresthas’ bicultural environment helped steer the kids across the fence into a non-threatening group setting, away from the seeming opulence of our lifestyle.

They came in little groups—curious yet intimidated by and apprehensive of the mixing of the worlds. Soon The Club was the talk of the town. There was basketball, volleyball, parties, games, crafts, and lots of fun. However it wasn’t long before they discovered that in order to experience the “fun,” they had to sit through a Christian meeting. This was a “Pathfinder” Club!

Like forcing dinner down just to have dessert, they sat in polite silence through our worship. This was understandable since the majority of them were Hindu and what was said had little relevance to them. But a few months later, they began to show some interest: They actually listened to the stories, asked questions, memorized verses, and even came on time for worship. A few more months went by and they were attending Friday night vespers and Sabbath School classes. By the end of the first year, several joined the pastor’s baptismal class and some formed a music band called “Mukti” (Salvation).

When the Shresthas moved back to the US, Jez took over as Pathfinder leader. Watching him take pride in his “children,” I remembered his days as a member of the Spencerville Pathfinder Club in Maryland. Of course, the Pathfinder Club of Banepa SDA Fellowship cannot be compared to the one at Spencerville where fun involved ski trips, theme parks and Camporees. Here donations are needed even for the paper needed to make airplanes. And the Banepa kids will probably never get to a Camporee. However, be it The Club in Spencerville or the one here in Banepa, the end product is the same: an environment that fosters relationships– with Jesus and with one another.

The Club here initiates young men and women into a new kind of life and gives them a fresh perspective. At The Club they learn that life has possibilities, not limitations; that talents are to be nurtured, not stifled; that fulfillment comes from sharing and not hoarding; that the future is what you make of it, not what is handed to you; that God is not someone who sits on a pedestal but one stays beside you—no matter what.