A Final Lesson from the Other Side
I am on the first of four connections back to Portland (Dimapur to Calcutta). By the end, it will have been 20+ hours on a plane, not to mention the 7-hour layover in Delhi. Dimapur is about as far as I have ever been away from home. For two weeks I have lived on the other side of the world—the other side of life—training pastors and talking about leadership. It began in Siliguri with one doctoral class, and after a 15-hour journey by train, I taught a second course in Dimapur, located in Nagaland, the northeast tip of India.
It really is the other side of life. It is where Asia meets India, and the poor meet the poor. It is also where things sometimes work, and then they stop (like electricity). No one seems to notice. Back home, it’s easy to turn and look away when poverty and desperation stare at you. Over here, it creeps in at every turn and reaches for your attention. You cannot hide your eyes.
For two weeks, I have started the day before class with a morning walk. Confined to small quarters, it has been an essential need to get out. Every day has been an adventure of sorts. The filth, the smells, the vacant eyes are everywhere. Siliguri was more rural. Dogs and chickens and goats. In Dimapur, I have been in the city, where there are no sidewalks, and the constant rain has made the unpaved roads a quagmire. Rickshaws run you off the road if you are not careful. They hate people taking any space on their road.
This morning, I took one more walk, this time heading for the back alleys. I wanted to escape the suffocating traffic and the constant blare of horns. Along the way, I saw tin shacks, some with standing water due to the rains. I have no idea how people live in this. An old man forages through a garbage pile for anything of worth. Two boys hack away on a large pig carcass. Thankfully, outside of seeing some dogs for sale in the market, I have not seen them in the butcher’s shop. I ended, crossing the same small bridge that provides passage over water so filled with garbage it appears to be dead. And God knows what is underneath.
Hard as this is to see, there is something more troubling. Nagaland is 99% Christian, which is really quite astounding. Years ago, most were animists. But in the 1800’s, the witness of missionaries from Ireland changed everything. Maybe not everything. There are churches everywhere, suggesting God is powerfully at work. Perhaps, but underneath there is a disturbing nationalist underside. A thriving mafia bribe and force people to pay ransoms. There are five core “terrorist” groups here in Nagaland, and most all of them are in church on Sundays. Their slogan is—Nagaland for Christ. I’m serious. They have prayer meetings, in which they fast and have Bible studies, and then head out to extort. Monday night, just before dinner with a Nagaland pastor, we waited while his wife got out of the car to pay a substantial bribe. It’s routine—like stopping for gas. Most pastors remain quiet.
The health and wealth gospel people are everywhere as well, which is to be expected. They love to prey on the poor. Meanwhile, ministry groups within and without meet to set their evangelistic goals. Leaders strategize where and how to plant the next one hundred churches. Churches raise funds to build large buildings, using raffles as a way of getting funds. Have the right ticket stub, for a price, and you win a new washing machine.
Before flying out, I met one more time with some of these young pastors. I looked them in the eye and told them that I don’t believe God is impressed with numbers or percentages, or playing Christian lottery or big buildings surrounded by shacks. There are 187 Baptist churches alone in Dimapur. So what? What does it matter?
What matters are visible expressions of Ephesians 4:11-13—communities where leaders are equipping saints, saints are doing the work of ministry, and people are taking on the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. Far more important than a huge number of nominal churches are a few godly, faithful churches, marked by love and integrity, with the courage to call out sin and follow Jesus. It’s true for Dimapur—as well as Portland.
It’s hard to asses one’s impact. I sit on this flight and wonder. It’s all so overwhelming. I will leave it with God. I do know this. On my next flight, I won’t sniff at the meal served or complain I have less inches for my legs. When I arrive—at least for a while–I will not whine if the temperature of the pool at the club is on the cool side, won’t be too ruffled if Costco has stopped carrying my favorite cereal or the price of pork has gone up. I think I will be okay if I am stuck on Hwy 26 on Monday. It will not be the end of the world if gas has gone up five cents. I will not nag if I have to wait for my wife, settle for a rerun, or discover the shirt I wanted is still in the wash. If Donald Trump tweets something stupid, or Democrats are obstructionists, or the April 15th tax bill is higher than I expected, or MAX is late—it is fine. Right now, I plan to stop and give thanks. And if I don’t, my guess is that somewhere in the near future, God has another trip for me on the other side.