25 March 2009

"Interesting" Encounters

"Interesting" is a wonderful enigmatic word - at least in certain American English contexts. It can mean we truly want to know more, or it can mean we heard too much information and wish we could forget. We use it to describe an experience about which we do not wish to say anything negative, yet we about which we can't say anything really positive. Sometimes I use it when I do not know what to say - when I am still processing an experience or encounter and I am trying to decide why there is an awkward or unsettled feeling inside. Okay, I tried to explain it. (Those of you who know what I am trying to say understand, and those who do not use the word in this way, well, please just nod, feign agreement and say, "Hmmm...that's interesting.")

All that to say that I have had a couple of "Interesting" encounters in the past few days. (Before I continue, though, I have to tell you that the color the rising sun paints the building across the abandoned lot out the window is absolutely amazing!)

Interesting encounter #1
On Friday we received a phone call from a clerical friend in Estonia (the country north of Latvian) asking for a bit of assistance. He went on to tell us that he did not quite understand the situation himself, but this is what he knew: A young man from one of their congregations was in a hospital in Lithuania (the country south of Latvia), and he did not know why - only that he had been missing from his town for two weeks. The hospital was sending him back to Estonia via bus which had a six-hour layover in Riga. Because of this person's condition, it would be good if someone could meet him Riga, spend some time with him and make sure he got on the correct bus at the correct time to make it home to Estonia.

Court and I knew this was one of those moments we had to be interruptible. Court had a Sunday School Teacher Training on Saturday, which she needed to lead and in which I only had a part. I went to the bus station alone after my part, armed with a magic-marker sign with a name and my mobile phone for this young adult to call our friend in Estonia and confirm that, while strange, I was not a stranger.

I found the young man near a ticket window trying to change his ticket and return to Lithuania. I asked him to phone our friend, and after a few minutes of conversation he was excited to be on his way Estonia. He had an amazing command of English, so communication was not an issue. It didn't take me long to realize some sort of developmental delay or slight mental condition existed as parts of stories changed and he didn't quite grasp the concept of time. Our time was, indeed, interesting, yet not because of these things.

As we would walk by the flower vendors on the street he would stop, smile at the vendor, cup his hands around the blossom, inhale deeply, then stand up with outstretched arms and proclaim, "Ahhhhh...Spring. God is amazing." As we walked through the park on the way to lunch he would look at the hint of buds on the trees (not sure if they should bloom or stay closed because of the obscure weather we are having) with a smile and then he would quack at the nearby ducks and waddle after them a few steps.

These are things I know I should appreciate - and in some ways I do. Yet in other ways I have satisfied myself with the knowledge of awareness alone rather than actually receiving the gift of the coming of Spring. I'm not completely oblivious to the flowers or tree buds or ducks, yet I don't stop to inhale, gaze, and play.

Even before the "Jesus loves you" experiment (previous blog) I was aware of the homeless and destitute on the streets. Yet in Riga I have told myself, "I don't speak Russian and I'm not sure how far my Latvian could carry me in conversation..." As a result I smile, I acknowledge, I pray, yet I have rarely said anything.

As this young man and I walked past a church in Old Riga we saw a lady, bundled against the cold, sitting on her crate with a jar-lid in her palm. As he saw her he reached into his pockets, and upon finding nothing, placed his hand on her shoulder and started speaking in English. At first I was startled by his inhibition, then I was startled by the smile on the lady's face as she looked up at him. She was not scared or agitated. She simply said, "I don't understand." So I ended up translating into Latvian as he told her that he didn't have any money but he knew that God loved her and he asked God to bless her this day.

This happened a few more times, and, to my surprise, these people did not feel threatened or angered that someone would approach them, touch them, and speak to them. I will venture to say this would not be the case with every person on the street - but still...

It did seem a long day, yet this interesting encounter has had me thinking awareness moving to action.

Interesting encounter #2
On Sunday after church a young adult approached me and told me she was not in service because some people stopped her in front of the church and started asking her questions about the Church, the Bible, God, etc... She talked with them the entire time. She asked if I would be willing to meet with them later in the week. So, yesterday afternoon she, the pastor of Riga 1st, and I met with three of these people.

I do not know what I had expected of the conversation, but I do know that I didn't expect this encounter. I think both the pastor and I were confused as to what these people were asking and wanting and what they believed. At first we tried to answer what we thought were their questions on why denominationalism and what the Methodist church believes. Somehow that missed the mark. They said they represented a group of people who wanted to read the Bible together do what Jesus said, and that they didn't understand why so many people follow tradition and listen to others for interpretation. They said, "The Bible speaks plainly and clearly and we should just do everything it says - no more and no less."

Little bells and lights always go off in my head when I hear someone say, "We just want to do what the Bible says without interpretation to skew it," because they, perhaps unknowingly, already are interpreting it. (One Biblical scholar suggests, "To read is to interpret.")

I tried to engage them in conversation about certain texts they read by tying it in with the whole story of scripture. I don't think I communicated very well. For them, it seems that while the whole of scripture is important, each individual verse stands on its own (rather than in relation to the verses around it), and therefore they can be pulled out and placed together alongside other 'independent' verses to make a point. While I think it is good to weave texts together to build a more comprehensive picture and understanding, we must do so while honoring the context in which certain phrases are mentioned. (This reminds me of a link someone sent me to a YouTube clip of George W. Bush, in which someone jokingly cut and paste different words and phrases of his speeches over the past eight years to make a new, abusrd comedy clip. Did he utter each of those words and phrases? Yes. Did he intend them to have the meaning that the new clip conveyed? I would guess, no.)

I am not saying these people are wrong in their pursuit to follow Jesus. Yet I wonder how to convey to them that what they obscurly told us of their beliefs is itself an interpretation of scripture. I didn't hear joy or grace or peace in any of what they said...and for me, those are essential elements of a Christian understanding of God and God's love and interaction with all of creation, humanity included.

Anyway, after two hours I left with the plan to come home and make dinner. I replayed the dialogue over and over again in my head. How could I have said this differently or used a better example? What were they really trying to understand - what was the issue? I didn't make dinner. I didn't do much of anything except sit on the couch with a headache and stomach ache. I prayed for them. I prayed for the young adult, for the pastor, for myself. I went to bed a bit uneasy.

When I awoke at 3 o'clock this morning, however, I felt better. I had a renewed vigor. I awoke with the words of the Apostle's Creed resounding in my head. Hebrews' passage on the "Great Cloud of Witnesses" chimed in now and then. (My apologies for those to whom these references seem like gobbledegook, these are parts of the Christian story which refer to Who God is and who we are in God.)

I hope to encounter these people again for another conversation. Until then, I will pray for them and remember, "Jesus loves you."

Well, these two encounters have provided me with some 'interesting' food for thought especially because they occurred so close in relation to each other. It has also provided a rather long blog that I hope you find, well, 'Interesting.'

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