Content Among Us

In 1992 the King ofRefugee Bhutan exiled 1/6th of Bhutan’s citizens. 100 years before, his own great grandfather invited Nepalese people to Bhutan to work the farmlands in the southern part of the country. Unlike the native Buddhists of Bhutan, these immigrants were Hindus. But they brought stability and prosperity to the southern part of the country and were granted full citizenship in 1958. Like Pharaoh regarding the Hebrews, this 4th Buddhist king was frightened by their growing numbers and influence and revoked the citizenship of 200,000 people, forcing them to seek asylum in other countries.  The world yawned.

Bhutan NepalThe refugees made their way across India and into Nepal, living in the forests made famous by Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book.  They lost friends and loved ones to cobras, disease, thirst and hunger. Most of the refugees ended up in UN camps in Nepal, where they would spend the next 18 to 23 years waiting for a country. (You can read more about it here.)

Last year, I was in Nepal with Ram and Ajay, two refugees. We were at the border station on our way to the airport after a day’s journey in India. A JapaneseUN Camp Food Rationse tourist was in line with me at the customs station and I offered her a ride with us to the airport. On the way, Ram related the story of their exile. The Japanese tourist said, “You must hate them.” Ram said, “No, we don’t hate them. We love them. We pray for them all the time. We pray for the king of Bhutan. I hope to go back some day and share the love of Jesus Christ with him.”  What faith!

Several days earlier we were in one of the UN refugee camps. I met the pastor of a church there who had been a Hindu priest before becoming a follower of Jesus. I asked him what prompted him to leave the rich family tradition of Hinduism and become a Christian. He said, “When we were thrown out of Bhutan we were forced to live in the jungle. We had no food, no water, nothing. People were sick and dying. We were bitter and angry. But the Christians lived content among us and served whoever had need.”

He had been impacted by the contentment and selfless service of Christians in horrific circumstances.  Isn’t this the life we are introduced to in the New Testament?  Several verses came to mind…

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. (Philippians 4:11)

But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. (1 Timothy 6:8)

Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for He has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5)

These are people without a country. Their national identity was taken from them. Yet those who have identity in Christ live with such power that it is transforming the people around them.

I found myself asking, “Do I live content and serve selflessly?” And what of the church in America? Are our lives marked by contentment and selflessness? Or are we forever outraged by the things that inconvenience us, sharing our discontent with those who do not know Jesus? If we believe we can tell a yawning world about Jesus, shouldn’t we bear the evidence in the lives we live among them? We would do well to reexamine our lives in light of these faithful Bhutanese refugees and to rediscover the power of the witness of content people serving selflessly in the midst of hardship.

Dances with Fishes: Lessons from Alaskan Natives Part III

The dancers ranged from as young as 3 to as old as 83.  They wore beautiful Tlingit regalia.  They danced, drummed and chanted energetically.  When they invited the visitors to participate, I joined in.  The men dance by getting very low to the ground.  Think exercise lunges for 5 minutes straight.  The purpose of this particular dance was so young men could show young women that they were strong enough to hunt and to care for a family.  After the dance, I looked like a quarter horse after a three mile race – breathing hard and sweating out of every pore of my being.  The Tlingit men looked unfazed though they wore heavy regalia (and this was not their first dance).  Lesson – these guys are tough!

Haida DancerLast summer we were invited to a culture camp in Hydaberg, Alaska.  We were working on a cultural reclamation project in a Haida village, Kasaan, and had been invited to the culture camp to help “pack the pole.”  About 100 men carried a totem pole, made from a yellow cedar, on a parade route through town.  At times elders and children were carried on the pole.  After raising it, a feast of seafood followed.  And then after dinner, the people who represented various Haidi and Tlingit clans performed dances.

One of our friends here spoke about how he encouraged his children to learn the ancient dances.  So they did.  He was so proud of them. Then one of his aunts, who gave him a very stern look as he was proudly watching them said, “you cannot simply watch. For their sakes, you must dance with them.”  So at 40 years of age, he danced his first dance.  Dance, for the Tlingit people, is a means of expression and communication. Songs and dances are owned property belonging to a clan, and can only be performed with the express permission of the clan leaders.  They are based on stories that have been passed down for hundreds of years.  He said a strange sensation washed over him as he danced with 5 generations of men and women.  Connectedness… with centuries-old traditions and his own place in his culture.

“If we had learned about Jesus, our clan house would have become a center of worship.  Totem poles would begin to tell the story of Jesus.  We would have drummed, chanted and danced to the God who had finally been fully revealed.  But the American missionaries denounced us as savages and railed against all of our cultural practices, which they said were rooted in idolatry.”

Another point of connectedness is salmon.  Life revolves around the cycle of return of salmon.  There is a dance called the salmon dance where the salmon are gathered into the center by the fisherman with nets.  Dances with fishes.  Fish come in clans; the Sockeye Clan, the Coho Clan and the Chinook Clan.

The same friend talked about how his father had made him take his brothers out to net sockeye salmon.  They labored all morning and caught 200 fish.  They filleted them all and brought them home in wheelbarrows.  Their father had them load the pickup truck and they went about the village giving fish to every family who had need or desire.  He was not happy with his father.  By the time they returned home there was only one fish left.  His father said, “Perfect, I want some fish stew and that will be just enough.”  Later he said to his sons, “Today we fished for the clan.  Next week, we fish for our family.”  The following week they gathered in abundance.

He continues his father’s the tradition with his own children. The only real way to teach your children, he said, whether via song, dance, stories or acts for the betterment of the clan, is to do it alongside one another.  Whether about dance or fish, the Tlingit are engaged in a multigenerational effort to revive their culture.  The people are rediscovering a culture that they were made to be ashamed of by the arriving Westerners.

It is a fascinating culture.  Learning about it forces us to ask questions about culture and humanity and the brokenness of our own western culture.  We are losing connection with one another.  We don’t talk on our way to and from work; we plug in our ear buds and listen to iTunes.  In our neighborhoods, front porches and front doors have been replaced by back decks and automatic garage door openers.  Families rarely eat together, and when they do, they don’t seem to know how to communicate.  One generation has no idea how to talk with another.

In the church, we lament the fact that our young people are leaving.  Too often we focus on the fact that they are leaving church, but we should be more concerned that they are abandoning Jesus.  Why?  Is He lacking?  Have we shared an “optional Jesus” with them?  Who exactly have we been teaching them about?

Could this be rooted in our own relational brokenness?   Is Jesus a Person in my home, or an abstract that has to do with how to live?  Have we really shared the song, dance, stories, acts for the betterment of the clan, and His presence in ways that give our own children a chance to see Him in action; life on life?  Or have we parceled that out to the experts – like we do to sports coaches and music teachers?  Are we consumers of Christian goods and services, hopeful that our children will choose our favorite brand outlets, or do we live a life with Jesus that matters; one they see as inseparable from who we are?  Maybe we need to return Jesus to the place of eminence in our homes and churches and enjoy Him as whole families.

There is still a place for clan house worship in Alaska. And there is still a place for full multi-generational engagement in our Christian clan houses.