Tag Archives: leprosy

To the Wounded and the Weary . . .

Savior, may I learn to love thee . . .

I WANT TO LOOK OUT into their faces. It makes me lose my place in the music for a moment, and I garble a lyric. But the faces. These are my brothers and sisters and I still love them more than words can express, even after all these years since I was their bishop. They are good people–kind and caring–and I’ve seen them welcome all kinds of people into their hearts.

I wish I’d done a better job. A bishop is a shepherd. In that, I fell short. And looking into some of the faces, I remember pain I couldn’t diminish or understand. Each bishop falls short, I suppose. But as a bishop, I never forgot that the members of my congregation, my flock, were not mine. They belonged to the Good Shepherd. And it was not to the handbook, nor to policies and procedures, that I looked when I needed to understand how to take care of them. It was to the life and ministry of Jesus. Whatever the situation, the moral authority of His example carried greater force and clarity than any handbook ever could.

It’s hard to get through this duet. My arm is around Rebecca and I feel her support. She has been at my side through the thick and thin of my spiritual journey and she knows my heart. Singing this duet with her couldn’t feel more natural. But today, this day when so many people are in pain—it is bitter sweet. Because I want them so badly to feel peace and love, but they are not really welcome here. Not anymore.

Walk the path that Thou hast shown . . .

MY SON SHARED A STORY he’d heard last week in Primary about a boy who foolishly strayed from a path to help someone. The moral was this: “Beware of leaving the path, even to help someone.”  As we sat around the dinner table, I offered my own parable. It ended something like this:

“But Father,“ said the son, “if I’d helped those people, it would have required leaving the path.” And the Father answered, “My son, helping those people WAS the path.”

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Pause to help and lift another . . .

DSC_0054WHEN OUR FAMILY LIVED AMONG the outcasts in India, we saw wounds deeper than any leprosy bacteria could have wrought. These people had been cast out. And their children, we were told, reeked of the same stench. Stigma, it seems, passes from parent to child. We could not smell it on them. To us, their children were beautiful and whole. And so were the parents. In my life, I expect no sweeter memories than the ones of my children embracing the leprosy-affected, seeing past the fetid rags and seeping bandages. Seeing my children playing soccer with their children and all of them laughing together. We had to leave our comfort zones, our neighborhood, our flock, to be with them. And in return, they taught us to discover Jesus in every face.

Finding strength behind my own . . .

THERE IS A PRAYER ATTRIBUTED to Saint Francis that I used to say in India. I think of it now.

Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;

Where there is injury, pardon;

Where there is doubt, faith;

Where there is despair, hope;

Where there is darkness, light;

Where there is sadness, joy.

Savior may I love my brother . . .

REBECCA IS CARRYING THE MELODY now, and I’m singing a third below. The piece is actually for SSA, but we made it work. I have to sing up an octave here and there, and I jump from the alto to the second soprano and back now and then. It’s not what’s written, but it’s working. It’s the music that matters, after all. The message of love we’re trying to share.

I’m thinking about all the people in pain. My friends who are getting married this upcoming weekend, one of them a believing Mormon who wants her children to grow up to cherish the gospel as she cherishes it. And hearing how this policy stabs them to the core. Other straight allies who’ve invested years reaching out to their gay loved ones to assure them they can find God’s love here in our Church. And of course the children. For them, an official policy of exclusion which isn’t even applied to the children of rapists, murderers, ex-mormons, felons, or even (shudder) Democrats.

I don’t know why these policies were put in place, but I do know how they will affect the children. It will be just like India. They will be made to feel as if something about them is contagious, something reeks, and the only way to rid themselves of the stench will be to move out of their homes and disavow their parents’ disease.

I want the history books to include this detail: When this policy was leaked to the public, my Facebook feed was filled with good people, mostly Mormons, letting the gay community know their phones would be on all night, that they could call, could reach out, in case any of them were thinking of taking their own lives. I want the history books to show that the policies of our leaders did not reflect the highest values of the people they have been asked to lead. They issued policies and we posted suicide hotlines.

My voice breaks. I’m supposed to join Rebecca on the last stanza. I’m supposed to sing, Savior, may I love my brother. I can’t get it out. There is literally nothing that will come out of my mouth. The piano accompaniment slows down for the last line.

Lord, I would follow Thee.

I’M TOLD THIS IS A TIME for choosing loyalties. That we need to stand with the Church and its leaders, that this is a war, and we have to choose which side we’re on. I don’t know what that means. What do they mean when they say my commitment is being tried? My commitment to which values? Higher laws, or lesser laws? What do they mean when they say I must remain loyal? Loyal to whom? To man or God?

I’m disappointed when the highest principle my Mormon friends can point to at times like this is obedience to rules and policies. Jesus’ example stretches my morality beyond rule-following to something higher. To love. His example calls me to recognize when lower laws ought to yield to higher laws. His example suggests that sometimes we too must put ourselves in a position to stop the stones of judgement from bruising another brother or sister.

Forgotten ManSo whom will I follow? And if Jesus, where am I willing to follow Him? Am I willing to leave the ninety and nine? Am I willing to leave the path to lift the wounded and the weary?

For all who have left and our leaving, I understand. I love you. I know you have not left the path. For the true path is discipleship, and that may lead some of you to the leper, the lonely, and the outcast. He may lead you from gilded temples to soup kitchens, from mega-malls to homeless shelters. You may lose the upper seats in the synagogues, but you will recover your soul. And to those who stay, you too are disciples. You make sure there is space, even if you have to push the boundaries and stretch the tent cords to make room for everyone who shows up, no matter who they are and what others say about them.

My voice isn’t back when we come to the final phrase. Rebecca’s hand squeezes mine. But I’m singing it in my heart. No one else can hear it, but it’s there:

“Lord, I would follow Thee.”

Reflections during our family’s year-long stay in India, working among the leprosy-affected.

In June 2014, our family moved to southern India to volunteer among leprosy-affected communities. We ended up spending almost a year there, providing basic hygienic care and dressing wounds, building latrines, combatting stigma and social isolation, alleviating poverty through micro-lending, and empowering children from the leprosy colonies through education and talent development.

It was our privilege to work alongside inspiring volunteers and committed staff in situations that called for our deepest compassion, and every day was an invitation to stretch far beyond our selves. My five children, aged from 19 years down to 8, earned my life-long respect for how they rose to the occasion; and Rebecca, of course, was amazing–a natural born Mother Teresa. I, on the other hand, spent most of the year attempting to piece back together the shattered fragments of a naively-held Messiah Complex that couldn’t survive even the first week intact. By the end of the year, I’d given up trying to be that person; instead, I began allowing myself simply to show up, vulnerable and open. The following essays, written while we were in India and gathered here chronologically, reflect that journey towards presence, learning to sit as one wounded among the wounded and discovering the miracle of wholeness.

Beep, Beep. We are Here.

. . . I’m shaken by this. Not our safety–it’s becoming increasingly clear that Rajendiren will expertly navigate these perilous waters–it’s the sense that here, with a billion plus people, life is cheap. Like ants crawling over ants to get to work. I know this is only apparent, but that’s how I’m feeling as we drive. A collective sense that the stream of traffic, that ravenous beast, must continue to flow, even if must be fed a few lives from time to time. Read More

A Tale Cut Short

. . . there’s some tumult in the kitchen. Rebecca points up in the corner near the fan vent. There’s a gecko, the size of a pinky clinging to the wall, panting. And where a tail should be, there’s only a stump. I know tails regenerate, but none of us hold out much hope for this little fella. Rebecca points out a gash from the fan blade on its torso.

“I saw it skittering into the vent and then . . . . chink . . . it skittered out without a tail.”

One of the kids says they think they saw it fall.

“Saw what?”

“The tail.”

“Where?”

They point at the counter-top space next to the gas burners. “There.”

We look.

It’s twitching.

It’s the size of a chow mein noodle, translucent, and it’s arcing back and forth like a miniature windshield wiper. Read More

I Meet “Mountain of Wisdom”

. . . “God in me, God in them. No difference,” he says.

I’ve read similar sentiments from Mother Theresa, but Vedadhri says it as if asserting water is wet. This wasn’t some theological article of faith, but a basic fact of the universe. I think how the same religious world view that justifies the stigmatization of leprosy as cosmic payback for some karmic misdeed in a previous life could also provide the insights motivating compassion and charity. Hinduism is no different than Christianity and Islam in this, it seems, with some of us beating swords into plough-shares and some sharpening those plough-shares back into swords, depending on how our heart is swayed by our scriptures. Read More

Right Hand, Left Hand

. . . A meme has been floating around Facebook, suggesting that we are God’s hands. I don’t whether that’s true. If it is, then about half of us must be God’s left hand. My service so far is mostly of the left handed variety: digging holes for toilets and septic tanks; dumping basins of water made foul by oozing ulcers; clipping toenails of feet on which only one or two toes remain; emptying our bathroom bucket of used squares of imported toilet paper; tearing off a piece of chapatti when no one’s looking; and killing scorpions in the middle of the night with the same sandals that I take off every morning at the door of the meditation hut where I wish all living beings peace. I’m okay with that. And every morning, with hands pressed together into a lotus bud to begin my prayer of peace, it’s the left hand that most feels the throbbing of my heart. Read More

Still Life: A Study in Green

. . . Cohen depending on the tooth fairy to find her way to India, which she does, unbelievably, three times already. Lifting the pillow and placing three 10 rupee notes under his sleeping head, each bearing the likeness of Gandhi who will bring dreams of peace. And already the new teeth pushing through, each emptiness filling, slowly. Somewhere between hole and whole.

And Stumpy our gecko, fan-blade survivor, depending on the voodoo of cell regeneration. The brown-green bud sprouting like an onion bulb into another tail, until we can’t tell him apart from any of the other geckoes we see skittering across our bedroom walls at night, or, unseen, hear snickering behind curtains in the evening as the kids form words in their nightly round of Banana Grams. Tile by tile, cell by cell. Forming and reforming.

A baby tooth is lost no sooner than a new one is ready to take its place. A tail reforms, faithful to the genetic specs printed in the DNA of every cell of the gecko’s body. Without searching, what is lost becomes found; without mending, what was rent becomes whole. When wood is green, it’s alive, supple, vigorous. Lop off the trunk and the sap bubbles up, heals the wound, feeds new branches.

I wonder at the resilience of life. And now, here in India one month, I think of the people at the leprosy colonies, what their leprosy has cost them. The pinnacle of evolution, and their DNA as Homo sapiens doesn’t provide a lizard’s worth of instruction on how to regenerate a toe, or how to return the club of a hand back into sophisticated digital technology.  Read More

Cohen and I Spend the Morning Getting Buzzed at the Local Saloon

. . . Kumar’s scissors open and close, snick, snick, snick, in the same steady but unhurried way. Periodically he tilts Cohen’s head up back. A few young men step out of the street and into the saloon, pick up a spare comb from the barber’s grimy counter, and groom themselves in front of the mirror for a minute or two and then, as suddenly as they came in, they toss the comb back on his counter and step back out into the street. This happens twice more during Cohen’s haircut. I’m guessing they’d got haircuts from Kumar in the past, may have standing permission to come use his comb and mirror whenever they’re in the area. But seeing random people swooping in and sharing the same comb makes me a little uneasy, especially for a population where it’s not uncommon to see children and even some adults shorn to the scalp to rid themselves of nits. Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lice.   Read More

What’s in the Bag?

. . . “What’s in the bag?” I ask.

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve pulled out of the bag a Tibetan singing bowl, a toothbrush, a Native American flute, a blister pack of Mefloquine (anti-malarial medicine), a pound of uncooked basmati rice, and a stainless steel tea cup. And every day the mystery leads us to a story and the story leads us to a lesson. Actually, the story IS the lesson.

Today, I’ve brought a snake. A life-size, weighted, coiled, realistically painted, rubber snake. Cohen brought it along to India with him because we allowed each child to bring one “comfort animal” on the plane with them. And he wanted to bring his snake. Not a problem in LAX, nor at Amsterdam, but when we tried to get through security to board our final leg from Delhi to Chennai you’d have thought the X-ray specialist pausing at Cohen’s backpack had discovered a nuclear detonator. Soon a military guard was interrogating us.

“What is in the bag?” he asked us.

“Um . . . lot’s of stuff. It’s our little boy’s carry on,” Rebecca sputtered. “Is there a problem?”  Read More

Abraham’s Song

. . . I met Abraham in the Vandalore Leprosy Colony. He and I hit it off because we’re both musicians. I’d brought my Native American flute along, thinking it might be nice to play something soothing for the patients while their wounds were being treated by our medical team. I’m covering holes on the cedar flute with my fingertips, making up a melody, when Abraham steals the show. Now, I’ve studied the jazz art of improvisation in college, but this was improvistation in its truest form. Having no money for a proper instrument, and no intact fingers to play one with anyway, Abraham devised a way of humming while alternately plugging the stubs on his hand into his nostrils, as if pushing valves on a trumpet. The sound is, well, not exactly what you’d call beautiful, but I found myself entranced, snake charmed. Later, he took me to his home and banged on a plastic tambourine for me, singing full-throated. Pictures of the Virgin Mary floated along the walls. Read More

Sri Lanka, Part I: Mud and Mudras, Lotus and Dulip

. . . WHEN WE ARRIVE IN SRI LANKA, the first one to welcome us is the Buddha. I get the feeling he would have been just as content with us staying in India, but he doesn’t seem to mind that we’re here. He’s sitting in the lotus position, upturned soles resting on opposite thighs, gaze lowered. Passengers from our flight push past me, anxious to reclaim their baggage. I’m pausing, hoping to be rid of mine. A reverential spirit alights on the twig of my heart and then flutters away once I see the statue more closely. First I notice the pendulous lobes of the Enlightened One’s ears. They stretch so low he must have hung buckets of water from them as a boy, thus freeing his hands for gesturing. Which leads us to the second detail: the Compassionate One is flipping us off. Read More

Sri Lanka Part II: Climbing Up the Buddha’s Back with 400 Pounds of Poop

. . . They simply reasoned that if an elephant’s diet is mostly fiber, its poop must be, too. With that insight, the Mr. Ellie Pooh paper company was born. An employee gave us a tour of their factory, which borders the elephant sanctuary. The system goes something like this: They spread out the poop to fully expose it to the sun. Then they cook it, subjecting it to intense heat that sterilizes all the yucky stuff. What’s left is a slurry of fiber that’s dried over a screen, pressed smooth, cut, and sold to eco-conscious consumers at healthy profit margins.

Hearing the man talk about this process, I’m reminded of the Buddha’s most fundamental teaching, the 4 Noble Truths. The 1st Noble Truth? Poop happens! When we understand the nature of that poop and what it’s made of, we’ve arrived at the 2nd Noble Truth. Believing that we can transform that poop into something useful moves us to the 3rd Noble Truth. Then, following the path outlined in the 4th Noble Truth, we can bring sufficient energy to bear, transforming something stinky and toxic into something pure and productive. Read More

Divine Union: A Hindu-temple inspired reflection on twenty years of marriage.

. . . Large enough to make even the most confident of men more than a little insecure, the lingam symbolizes the god’s male potency and virility. But on this late afternoon, twenty years since Rebecca and I, twain, became one flesh, I can’t help but reflect on a temple symbol that foreigners often miss: Shiva’s lingam is always set in and circumscribed by a divine womb, or Yoni. It is only together, Yoni and Lingam, that the Divine is fully expressed. Read More

That’s Where the Light Enters

. . . If we’re lucky, we shed any silly notions that we (the supposed “whole”) are bringing healing to them (the presumed “broken”). We simply share a space where healing happens, and it happens as much to us as to them, though one of us wears a mask and one wears a wound. Healing becomes another name for wholeness revealing itself. Read More

Brooklyn leaves (with a Matriarchal Blessing)

. . . So here I share a poem I’ve written for Brooklyn, in which I imagine she finds herself quite unexpectedly visited by a goddess in the form of the fearless Durga, who has come to endow her with the courage and wisdom she’ll need as she continues conquering the world.  Read More

A Few Notes Before We Leave . . .

. . . You seem like a very nice razor blade and I’m sure if we’d met under different circumstances, we would have hit it off handsomely. But see, I was next in line when the customer in the barber chair pulled off his t-shirt, lifted his right arm high into the air and grunted for Kumar to scrape his greasy pits with you. Read More

Vivid Dreams: A Valediction

. . . How much will stick? If I’ve come to recognize Jesus (or Infinite Worth or Buddha-nature) in the faces of the leprosy-affected, will I recognize it back home in the face of the grimy man holding a cardboard sign, the obnoxious neighbor, the surly skateboarder loitering in the school parking lot?

Obvious suffering engenders compassion–and in this way, serving the leprosy-affected required from me no special force of will–but how do I respond when someone triggers my contempt, my revulsion?  Already, I have to admit, back in Gate C-19 waiting to board, my small self, the smug, disconnected ego self, was chiming in with snide remarks about that passenger who could have been from Duck Dynasty. I caught myself feeling smarter, more sophisticated, more enlightened than him. And so I shrunk by just exactly that much.  Read More

Circles of Inclusion: A letter to my community from the leprosy colonies.

BEING WITHOUT AN INTERNET CONNECTION so far from home can feel like being marooned on an desolate island. The tower that connects us to our loved ones was overthrown in a violent storm a few weeks ago. We’d only been in the remote village here in India for a day and half when a tropical gale ripped the tower from its rusting anchors and hurled it to the ground. No more internet. We didn’t know how much we relied on it and now we’re really struggling without it. The hardest part is the feeling of being severed from our community, isolated, cut off.

With that in mind, you may understand the mixture of sadness, disappointment, and utter helplessness I feel as I’m getting weather reports from back home. It seems that a climate of fear, mistrust, and hostility broods over the Mormon community. Storms eventually blow over, but this is something different. This is a foul, pestilential vapor hanging over our community, although, in one of the many ironies inherent in being human, we are asphyxiating ourselves even as we fume at others.

I have no breath of fresh air to offer. No breezy expressions to sweep away the reeking miasma. In an emergency, they say, an oxygen mask will drop from above. But clearing the air will take more than some deus ex machina.

It was not the gods who did this–they did not command us to kick each other out of the church; they did not whisper that TRUTH was such a fragile thing it needed protection from IDEAS; they did not inspire us to pick up stones and hurl them at one another; they surely did not teach us that moral influence and power should be maintained by virtue of priesthood office, nor by exercising control, dominion, or compulsion, nor by contracting out the dirty work to modern-day hirelings, the PR Department.

Sadly, it seems to me that the hand of inclusion and acceptance we’d been extended by a few apostolic leaders seems to have been withdrawn. Now it’s all jabs and sucker-punches.

BUT I ALSO HEAR REPORTS OF KINDNESS, of inclusion, of individual ministries where institutional ones have failed. I rally when I hear these reports. They tell me that pockets of fresh air are possible where two or more are truly gathered in His name–a kind of rescue breathing where words of acceptance and inclusion resuscitate the dead and dying.

To those who have been excommunicated from the body of believers, whether formally (institutional punishment) or informally (social punishment), my heart aches for you. I’ve been working among the leprosy-affected here in India enough to witness how dehumanizing it is to be shunned, marginalized, even banished from a community. I’ve also come to understand the fear and ignorance lurking under the surface of such behavior. But you are not unclean for questioning injustice. You are not filthy for calling foul. You are not untouchable for challenging the status quo.

Every time someone, in fear, draws a circle that excludes you from the Mormon community, please know there are others of us drawing circles wide enough to take you in. And as your brothers and sisters, we will continue our commitment to inclusion, through renegade acts of radical acceptance, until we find ourselves—all of us–circumscribed into one great whole.

 

Here outside the tiny village of Thottanaval, there are plans to rebuild the tower that pulls internet fire from the sky. It could take a month or a year. But in the meanwhile, I still find my most meaningful relationships intact, needing no intermediary to connect us. May it be so for all of us.