Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Best Drug

Once again I find that I am burdened with a load of guilt from a TV commercial. I am in tears with the wide-eyed, hopeful look on the child’s face and the narrator tells me that just a few dollars a week can feed this child and educate this child for a life time. I search my pocket and find more than a few dollars and through the tears I promise myself that I will feed and educate that little boy, again. Yet before the call is made, before the first check is written, before I have a chance to wipe the tears from my eyes; cynicism sets in. My mind goes through how much work it will be to get that check to that young boy, how much will the organization take of that dollar, how much REALLY will go to that wide-eyed, innocent? I put my checkbook away.

I am sure all of you have gone through similar feelings from pity to guilt, to promise, to cynicism, and to inaction. And I am not writing this to get you into more action and less cynicism. In fact in today’s world cynicism is an appropriate response. So with all the charities demanding your dollars let me dole out a dollop of wisdom to help you deal.

1] Giving should be out of JOY, not out of GUILT. Whenever you feel guilt-ed into action – be suspicious. I am not saying that legitimate charities don’t use guilt, but I KNOW illegitimate charities definitely use guilt as their primary weapon. So if you are being pelted with one guilt bomb after another: back off.

2] Pity is a spur that drives joy into action NOT a means of blackmail. It is human to feel pity for the dire straits of another human. It is godly to recognize how good you have it and repeat: “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” Out of that JOY, that thankfulness you desire to give. When that scene meant to bring you to pity lays on guilt, you know there is something wrong. It is really NOT your fault that children are starving around the world! So guilt is the wrong feeling. But out of thankfulness and joy it IS your job to work at helping those in that situation. Pity drives JOY into action!

3] Giving is based on RELATIONSHIP and not on RESOURCES. People give because they have a relationship with a person in that charity or an affinity of some kind. Families who have dealt with cancer give to cancer research. Families who have dealt with Alzheimer’s gives to Alzheimer’s research. You will give to a family member or friend who is in that charity or mission. When in doubt: fall back on your relationships.

4] When all else fails do your due diligence. EVERY charity should have it’s books open and available for you to make sure that you are not spending 99% of your charitable giving to administration and only 1% to those advertised. Research before you give!

I am always open to new charities because there is no better feeling than GIVING. It is the greatest, mind-altering, life-changing “drug” you will ever have on this side of eternity. Give it a try, in excess!

Innocents Abroad Part 8: The Soccer Ball

We had a one hour window where we were allowed up on the temple mount. For five days we had walked around it, saw it from a distance and even saw a model of it but we had never been on top of it. The Muslim guards checked our camera cases and ran us through metal detectors and after checking our passports we were on our way. We walked up a wooden covered ramp to get up to the level of the mount which towered over that part of the old city. Looking over the handrails we could see the Hassidic Jews with their heads bobbing forwards and backwards while facing the Western Wall. From the back it looked like they were hitting their foreheads over and over on the last remaining wall of the 2000 year old temple.

Once on top I found the space bigger than I imagined it. Not only was the huge Muslim Dome of the Rock dominating the space but there was a huge courtyard the size of a few football fields to be accessed through large pillars at various places along the outside. Some areas were off limits and we could not enter the Mosque but we were free to walk around and take pictures. Security tried to be unobtrusive but you knew they were there in the shade and shadows keeping an eye on everything. After what seemed like a lot less than an hour the soldiers came out of hiding and politely ushered us off the sacred mount and back into the old city.

As we were walking out, a different way than where we came up, I say a young Muslim boy kicking a soccer ball and keeping it balanced on his foot as his veiled mother hustled him along to afternoon prayers. You could almost make out the “Aww, mom!” from the young man as his mother motioned to quit playing with the ball. Just a day before this I saw almost the exact same scene played out with a young Israeli boy with the soccer ball and the “Aww, mom!” was in Hebrew and not Arabic. In the Palestinian Christian quarter of the Old City there were kids playing soccer in a school yard the same day.

Jerusalem is a special city to the three major world religions: Muslim, Jewish, and Christian. How many times have you heard that Religion causes the MOST wars and bloodshed in history? That statement is not only false it reveals a thinly veiled hostility of Religion and a not-so-veiled ignorance of History by the one who says it. The battle for the Temple Mount is not a battle of religions as much as it is a battle of territory and retribution. It is closer to a Hatfields and McCoys battle than it is a clash of major religions. Someone has got to turn the other cheek and the striker has to realize that this other is NOT going to respond with more violence. It takes both. I saw the next generation simply playing soccer. ALL OF THEM! What happens to that boy kicking a soccer ball that turns him into a man who is bent on the destruction of the other soccer boy? How can we stop that transition? What does it take for YOU to give up your long-held and FALSE concepts of others?
As I wrap up my comments on this journey I find the most profound change in me was seeing Muslim, Israeli, Bedouin, Palestinian, and Coptic for who they really are and not what I read in the paper, see on TV, or on the internet. We are all just humans trying to balance that soccer ball on our foot.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Innocents Abroad Part 7: Hard to Find

Our guide got farther and farther ahead of me as I wound my way through the cavern trying to keep up. This was nothing like the carved out cave walk down and down to find the cisterns at one of Herod’s summer escapes in Caesarea. There you would only go down and down and there was only one way to go. You knew your guide was waiting at the bottom for you. But in this cavern there were multiple twists and turns, ups and downs, and plenty of time and room to get lost. I am relatively tall and so I could just make out the funky hat our guide wore way ahead as I struggled to keep up and at every intersection looked for that hat again. At every intersection, or any place for that matter, a vendor would tell me: “You American, I have great price for you, just one dollar! Come and look, just one dollar!” I would mutter “No thank you,” and move on to catch up with my group again. Over the top of the crowd of people I could just see his hat.

The “Old City” they call it. Yet the Old City of Jerusalem would sell you digital camera SD cards and batteries. Pots and pan, women’s and men’s clothes hung above you while on all sides were everything from antiques to TV’s and stereos. It was a cavern maybe ten foot wide and another one I had to duck through or I would hit my head on a low hung pan. Most every street was lined with a vendor of some kind and it was VERY easy to lose site of our guide who glided through the cavern like a stealthy cat knowing every twist and turn to get us to the places we were heading. Every now and again we would be overrun by pilgrims singing Christian songs in many languages as our path crossed theirs. They were following the “Via de la Rosa,” the way of the rose, the last steps of Jesus as he went through the old city 2000 years ago.

I was lost. I listened to the song “Beautiful Savior” sung in Korean for too long and the funky hat was nowhere to be seen. I pulled out the map of the Old City. It seemed to be a pretty good map supplied by the hotel and I knew where we were supposed to be going this afternoon but there was a problem. There were no street signs. Every now and again I would catch a glimpse of something scrawled on a wall that seemed to be the name of a street but I could not get it to match my map. Finally, after listening to a number of vendors trying to sell me their whole store for a dollar if I just come inside and have a look, I stopped one to ask for directions. “No problem” he said in near perfect English and a big smile. He showed me the way and it wasn’t too long and I found the tail end of our group and was back in step before our guide knew I was gone.

I was struck by the Palestinian man who gave me directions. Very quickly he dropped out of his sales pitch and was genuinely trying hard to help me. It was as abrupt as if he had a mask on and he took it off to talk to me. As I left he put the mask back on again and tried to sell his store for a dollar. As is the case more often than not I find a little more about myself as I find out more about my neighbors. My crisis had forced me to take my mask off first and treat him like the human he is behind the mask. My mask was mumbling and meandering through his streets, looking strait ahead and not acknowledging the humans with their masks on around me. When I took mind off and genuinely talked to him he reciprocated by genuinely smiling and talking to me. The masks were down and we had a moment, just a moment. I remember looking for him as we made our way back later that afternoon but all I saw were people with masks on. A mask-less face is hard to find.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Innocents Abroad Part 6: Trains and low flying Birds

In a journey filled with great and even jaw-dropping experiences there was one experience that had to be the fly in the ointment. There was one experience that gave all of us in our party a measurement for rating all the other experiences. We could always say, “At least that wasn’t as bad as the slow train to Luxor!” or “Compared to the slow train to Luxor this is luxury!”

We began our journey from Cairo to Luxor excited about riding what was billed as the Agatha Christie train ride. I have not read the books but apparently there are mystery novels set on a train from Cairo to Luxor. We fought the hazy Cairo traffic to get to the train station with ALL our luggage. And there we sat. The train was a bit delayed. We found out later that there was a crash delaying OUR train so they hastily put together another train to take its place. That should have been clue #1 but we didn’t know any better. The train finally arrived and we were looking forward to our luxury compartments for the eight hour, over night ride. We knew something was wrong when we walked down the narrow aisle, struggling with our luggage, while looking out of windows that looked like they were coated in a thin film of frost. It turned out not to be frost in the Egyptian desert but skuz. Our luxury compartment was a dingy grey with brownish accents and no room for luggage much less a 6’1” 250 lb. passenger and his wife. I sat in the seat with my knees grazing the sink in front of me looking at myself in disbelief in the mirror. Don’t even get me started on the bathroom down the hall because this is a family program!

The food was delivered by our steward and we picked at it for a while before he came and made it disappear. It was some kind of meat with some kind of vegetable with some kind of hard, crusty bread. I got some tea to wash the few mouthfuls down and was happy that I had the sink in front of me. Then our steward came in and pulled down the bunk beds for us and I found my grey sheets and ratty wool blankets were, just like the bunk, made for someone closer to 5’6”. The boards that supported the bunk were easy to find and hard to sleep on with the one inch mattress rising and falling around each one of them.

After a sleepless night we found out in the morning that the train was not going to move for a while. That same accident that stopped our original train was now gumming up the whole train system and we sat for an extra six hours staring out skuzzy windows and trying to find our steward who was fast asleep in one of the compartments. At least he got a good night sleep.
As I look back it reminded me of spending a Sunday in Jerusalem the week following this train ride. I was dressed in my Sunday best and we went to a Lutheran church in the Old City. We had a great time and a spiritual high for me but as we were walking back I got “bombed” by a low flying bird. It hit me on my ever-growing forehead with unexplained, wet warmth. I asked my wife what it was and all she could do was laugh. As I look back on the train ride I can complain to you as much as I want, and my co-travelers would complain with me but, after all, we were in Egypt. We had just seen the great pyramids of Giza and were now in the Valley of the Kings, I’m sorry but on a trip like that I can handle a nasty train ride OR being dive bombed by Jerusalem birds.