Idols R Us - Part II
Our hostess was a brilliant and passionate lady, a doctor and a professor at the local university. She was clearly overjoyed to play the part of family to the young soon-to-be-marrieds and took great care to see that all of us were well fed and enjoying ourselves. I liked her very much. She was warm, vibrant and engaging with dark sparkling eyes and a hearty laugh. When we had all stuffed ourselves full, she scooted us all back into the family room, whereupon she announced the ceremony would begin.
"Ceremony?" I stiffened.
For the benefit of us Americans, she explained matter-of-factly that they would now conduct a simple ceremony - I believe it was to formalize the betrothal and secure a blessing for the couple. I missed some of the pertinent details as my mind was spinning mad, half-formed, and desperate prayers for guidance, discernment, protection. In all my Bible studies and membership classes at church, no one ever discussed what to do if you suddenly find yourself in the middle of an impromptu Hindu religious ceremony. We'd been taught that praying to idols opens one up to demonic influences, and we'd heard ad infinitum the dangers of idol worship. Though I maintained my external composure, I must confess my heart was beating wildly, my mouth went dry and my palms began to sweat. What on earth would my pastors have to say about this? What was God thinking right about now?
We were instructed to sit cross-legged on the floor. As the Hindu folk began chanting softly, my brain cried out "Jesus, Jesus!" in a frantic mantra of my own. "Oh Lord, please forgive me if it's wrong for me to be here, I didn't know..."
Such was my state that I can't relate much of what happened next. I think there was some sort of incense, a traditional oil lamp may have been lit. The couple each spoke certain chants or prayers. As others in the room chanted and prayed over them, some of my American colleagues attempted gamely to join in; I sat tight-lipped and sweaty. Our hostess served as master of ceremonies and dedicated all the little dishes of limes and other foods to the menagerie of gods and goddesses hanging in the alcove. I sat rigid as a board, praying silently for myself and for all present. I fixed my eyes on the blushing bride, who suddenly seemed so timid, girlish and shy - a love struck young person on the verge of the biggest moment of her life. Without prompting, she performed each chant and each rite required of her with both earnestness and aplomb, as if she'd been rehearsing for this moment since birth.
It was over soon enough. We all stood to our feet, the couple smiled shyly at one another and everyone gathered around to congratulate them. I hung back towards the wall, still a little startled and unnerved. I was still mulling it all over in my mind when the hostess approached me with a bunch of bananas in her hands.
"Here, please take this!" she wrenched a single banana from the bunch and proffered it, smiling. "Because it has been offered to the gods, it is, as you would call it, holy, like your communion." She said this very proudly, hoping, it seemed, that this explanation would help me comprehend the honor being bestowed upon me.
My gaze shifted from the banana in her outstretched hand to her broad smile. I must have paled just a little. She pressed it into my hand "Please!" she insisted. "Thank you," I stammered, aware that the color was rising in my cheeks a little. The hostess seemed determined to engage me in a conversation. She was clearly devout, and eager to discuss it. My eyes flitted to the alcove of idols and she caught my gaze. "I pray to them all, each one of them twice," she said matter-of-factly. "I do not know what their hearing language is. I only know Tamil and Hindi myself, so I pray twice, once in each language, in the hopes that they will hear me. I hope they can understand..." Here she paused and grew quiet. Something in my heart broke for her in that moment and my mouth opened as if to speak, but I was dumb. "Of course, I do not know their speaking language. Maybe this is why they do not answer me." Her voice trailed off wistfully as she said this, her earnest eyes softened with sadness.
My heart was moved with compassion, and something stirred up within me.
"When I pray to Jesus..." I started. The words came unbidden, and I startled a little at the sound of my own voice. Oh no, here we go, I thought. Where is this going? "I am sure that He hears me, or anyone else, regardless of the language we speak. He knows my heart, so even things I don't know how to express, He knows what they are." Her eyes locked mine in a steady gaze. It seemed we were a million miles away from everything else. I hadn't noticed the room had grown quiet around us.
"And Jesus speaks to us, He is faithful to answer..."
Words streamed out, flowing between and around us gently, peaceably. There was no time to think what would come next, no premeditation. I told her what I knew about Jesus. She encouraged me to continue, whether out of politeness or fascination I couldn't be sure. Her eyes searched mine for truth. In her eyes I saw questions, perhaps a little fear, a spark of something - was it a yearning? She was rapt with attention, and so were a few others, unbeknownst to me. I finished quietly, sensing the hallmarks of the Spirit of God in that room. Joy, love, praise glowed in my heart, and I thought I'd about bust right open with love for the God who both hears and answers:
Emmanuel, God with us; He was there, hallelujah.
The next morning I sat in my kitchen, contemplating breakfast. The "holy" banana sat mundanely on the countertop. It sported a few more brown speckles than the night before. The night before.
I thought of our hostess praying desperate prayers to the posters in her family room closet. I wondered if she'd ever sat there late at night, perhaps in the midst of a family or personal crisis, keening softly and waiting in anguished silence for answers that never came. I imagined her beseechingly, painstakingly repraying her prayers. I wondered how often she and her family offered gifts and food to the gods.
Food offered to gods. In the New Testament, Paul said not to ask whether foods had been offered to idols, so that we might partake without troubling our consciences. But here I was with a banana that had unmistakably been offered to a motley crew of icons the night before. I stared at it. It just sat there growing more mushy and mottled by the minute. I thought of the fanciful but mute images staring wordlessly from the closet, suspended in their plastic gold frames. I examined my conscience, then began to pray.
"Lord God, You could probably tell me where in the world and on which exact tree this banana grew. You know the hands that picked it and when. Not only that, but you designed banana trees and set them in the precise climate where they would flourish. There is none other like you in all the universe, You are truly Lord of all creation.
"You alone are God, and you alone have the power to bless or curse. I do not believe this is anything but an ordinary banana, I don't care who said what about it or to whom or what it was offered. In my heart I believe there is no power in it, nor in the words that were spoken over it. I'm going to eat this banana, asking first Your blessing upon it, believing in faith that there is no uncleanness in it at all."
And with that, I sliced it up rather unceremoniously over a bowl of corn flakes and milk. And that was that.
The carpenter stretcheth out his rule; he marketh it out with a line; he fitteth it with planes, and he marketh it out with the compass, and maketh it after the figure of a man, according to the beauty of a man; that it may remain in the house.
He heweth him down cedars, and taketh the cypress and the oak, which he strengtheneth for himself among the trees of the forest: he planteth an ash, and the rain doth nourish it.
Then shall it be for a man to burn: for he will take thereof, and warm himself; yea, he kindleth it, and baketh bread; yea, he maketh a god, and worshippeth it; he maketh it a graven image, and falleth down thereto.
He burneth part thereof in the fire; with part thereof he eateth flesh; he roasteth roast, and is satisfied: yea, he warmeth himself, and saith, Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire:
And the residue thereof he maketh a god, even his graven image: he falleth down unto it, and worshippeth it, and prayeth unto it, and saith, Deliver me; for thou art my god.
They have not known nor understood: for he hath shut their eyes, that they cannot see; and their hearts, that they cannot understand.
And none considereth in his heart, neither is there knowledge nor understanding to say, I have burned part of it in the fire; yea, also I have baked bread upon the coals thereof; I have roasted flesh, and eaten it: and shall I make the residue thereof an abomination? shall I fall down to the stock of a tree?
He feedeth on ashes: a deceived heart hath turned him aside, that he cannot deliver his soul, nor say, Is there not a lie in my right hand?
Remember these, O Jacob and Israel; for thou art my servant: I have formed thee; thou art my servant: O Israel, thou shalt not be forgotten of me. Isaiah 44:13-21
For ease of reference, I've decided to call the wooden figurine Bessie, since its rather prominent mammary glands would tend to make you think of a creature more bovine than human. Bessie is still wrapped in tissue paper, sitting in the bottom of the flowered green Hallmark gift bag. A few days have passed. There is so far no sign of creeping plague in the walls or floors of our house. We have not been swallowed up in a ditch. Beyond the usual pregnancy complaints, I'm feeling quite well and Baby F is kicking away to beat the band. Mr. F still has his job which he dutifully trudges off to each day. We have food on our table and we retire in peace each night with clean consciences. Furthermore, no one has been nearly drowned in a surfing mishap, crawled upon by tarantulas, or scared witless by Vincent Price in some creepy fire-lit cave. (Those of you who grew up watching the Brady Bunch may get the reference.)
Bessie will not be given a place of honor in our house, that much is very certain. Were I completely ignorant of its significance and intended use, I'd still rather not subject myself or anyone else to its rather exaggerated physical attributes. For now it's staying in the bag, and the bag is sitting on the table in the living room until I figure out where to toss it, probably the basement with our stockpiles of wrapping paper and gift boxes.
Last night, lying awake, I pictured the grain of the wood, and wondered what tree, once stately and strong, was harvested to make perhaps dozens of busty little Bessies. I wondered whose hands carved and sanded each little form, somewhere on the other side of the world. Was this just a cheap trinket, useful for culling American dollars? Or did it mean something more to the person who created it? I don't know. God does. In the middle of the night, somewhere between wakefulness and sleep, I prayed for that person, whoever he or she may be. Maybe like my charming Hindu hostess, they too wait silently in the night for answers that never come.
Since our outing the other day, I haven't spoken to my old friend, save for an exchange of quick emails. While contemplating whether to address the matter of Bessie with her directly, I remembered something she said to me in the car, right before we parted ways that day. As the afternoon drew to a close, she became thoughtful and quiet. There was a lull in our conversation, then she spoke rather suddenly, blurting out the words as if she might not get the chance to say them again. She hearkened back to the days following her personal tragedy, her terrible loss. She had gone to a certain priest, she said, and had told him that she was angry at God, that she wanted to know why God would take her loved one away from her, and why so senselessly. In response, this priest gave her a litany of worn platitudes and cliches, greeting card sentiments. He offered nothing she could cling to, nothing to counteract the growing chill in her heart. "What was the use in asking anymore when you never get an answer?"
She went on. Seems a short time ago she sat down with minister at a nearby church in her town and posed the same hard questions, the ones she's been yelling into the night for years. This time, answers came. Hard answers, unshakeable answers, answers you could stand on, rail against, fall on - answers that bore her up and carried her. It's a beginning.
Perhaps little by little she's considering things in her heart, perhaps there is a kernel of understanding. Perhaps she's coming to realize that all the totems and statues and fetishes in the world stand stock still - deaf, dumb and dusty as ever - silent curiosities without power to heal or save. Maybe she's not completely there yet, but in her heart she's beginning to notice the difference, to sense the mind-blowing reality of a God who hears - and answers.
Someday, maybe not too far off, I believe I will have the opportunity to tell her precisely what I really thought of Bessie, and we will laugh about it together. I'll let her decide what we should do with it - maybe draw on a kooky face, clothe its nakedness with a tacky little muumuu, and make it wear a crazy little flowered hat like Minnie Pearl. Then again, maybe we'll just decide to toss it. Perhaps we'll offer up a quick prayer of thanksgiving to Jesus for His mercy and grace, then Bessie will get an unceremonious heave-ho into the trash.
I'll let her do the honors.