MW Cook

An illiterate scribe

Category: Life Stories

Tea with the landlord

Kunri, Sindh.  2006

Our landlord lives in the flat below us. He invites me over for tea in the evening, after the nap. His place is nicer than ours. I like ours better, though. We have the roof. It’s one of the biggest buildings in Kunri—three storeys. And the high walls on the roof make it look taller, though they do spoil our view.

I sit with my landlord on the charpai. His English is good, and I’m grateful. I’ve only been in Pakistan a year and Urdu still makes me nervous. We talk about all sorts of things. He asks me about my family. He asks me about Canada. Strange, I don’t seem to ask him much.

He brings up religion. They always do here. I’m eager on this subject. I take control. I make my argument. Tight and powerful. I show the weak spot in his (what shall I call it?) cosmology. Proved. Done. QED.

But he doesn’t get it. He has no answer, but he is unconvinced. Seeing that the stakes are raised, he throws his own attack at me. It’s nothing I haven’t heard before. Nothing I haven’t thought of before. It doesn’t faze me. I have no answer to give him, though. And the look on his face tells me he thinks he’s won something.

The conversation moves on, I suppose. I hardly notice. If only I’d had more time, I could have told him something clearer. Something that would have helped him see what I see. It’s just so obvious from my side, and I can’t understand why he can’t see it. He’s not an idiot, after all. I wonder, as we shake hands and I turn to go home, if he is thinking something similar about me.

I don’t sleep much that night. It’s hot. My bed is on the roof, nuzzled by winds that have been gentled by the high walls. I stare at the stars and ask my silent God to sow a seed in my landlord’s heart. To crack the hard shell of his delusion.

At least as much as he’s cracked mine.

Teaching in Kunri

Allah Wala Chowk

My classroom is small.  A second-storey room with an open window looking out to the fields in the nearby Christian district of Josephabad.  I have eight students in my split grade seven / eight class.  I look at them weakly this morning, because I’m in the middle of a malaria resurgence.  Today we’re trying to talk about history.  The history from their textbook is not the history I learned in school.  We aren’t learning about the First Nations people or the French Revolution.  Our histories are full of strange names like Jinnah, Nauru and Emperor Ackbar of the glorious Mughal Empire.  I ask if they know anything about European history.  One student tells me how much he loves Hitler.  It is hard to fight him and the malaria at the same time

.

The Subway

I look up and down the length of the subway train while we are still in the station. There are no partitions between the cars on these newer trains. I’m able to see all the way down in both directions. I’ve never been able to do this before. It’s nice to be able to see to the ends of the train.

And it stays that way for little bit as we pull out of the station. But then, suddenly, everything goes wrong. The cars ahead of me veer off to the side. I look behind me and those cars are also twisting back and forth, crooked and foolish. My car is the only one that remains straight, as far as I can see. I’m fortunate to have walked onto this particular one, I guess.

But then I walk a little, just to see what’s going on with the car next to me. It does not seem quite as crooked as the ones beyond it. Funny, when I get there and look back, the car I was on now seems a little crooked, and this one seems straight. And when I stand on the moving hinge between them, everything seems to be bending and twisting.

Then the train stops. I can see all the way the train again. I wonder if any of us really were crooked. I wonder why I judged silly subway cars on how straight they seemed in the first place.

My Journey #5 – Not all who wander are lost.

I guess that nearly leads us to the present, in wide, sweeping brush-strokes. There was no way to tell the whole complex story, but I told enough to be comfortable with.

I also feel comfortable enough to share hints about where I seem to be right now. Not because people will understand and accept it, but because I don’t feel like I need understanding or acceptance. And, man, it feels awesome to no longer need those things.

I’ve gotten some private feedback from people wondering what I’ve replaced Christianity with. The short answer is nothing. I have not found, nor looked for, anything to replace the all-pervasive hold that Christianity had on my life.

Zen-circle-symbol

That being said, I’m into Zen, which is as much a surprise to me as it is to anyone else.  I don’t actually have anything to say about it right now.  I used to think it was a silly empty thing. And it totally is, but not in the way I thought. If you look into Zen you’ll probably get frustrated by the cryptic one-liners the old Zen masters liked to throw around.  Don’t be too hard on them.  Zen can’t be expressed without either sounding ridiculous or completely misrepresenting it. Much like the best parts of Christianity (1 Cor. 1:23).

People will say I’m wandering. And I am. I totally am. But that doesn’t make me lost, despite what my friends may say. I can’t say where I am or where I’m going, but I love this journey. And I’m always home. My destination is in each step.

Also,
I love you.
And I bet you love me, too.

My Journey #3 – Hell

Every evangelical has to question hell eventually, unless they’ve had the humanity stripped from them. The idea of a loving God forever tormenting billions because they did not put their faith in Christ grates the teeth. Calvinism has a ready defense for hell: God is just, and when it looks like he isn’t just, it’s only because I am totally depraved and can’t see what real justice is. So even though it seems unjust to torment billions forever, it’s actually hunky-dory.

I used to do personal little theological studies. There was nothing better than opening up the Word, grabbing a pencil and notebook and working through some meaty theological problem. I picked up the study of hell a year or two after returning to Canada. To my surprise, though, I couldn’t find it.

Anywhere.

The Bible presents the two roads of a life following God and a life rebelling against him as a life / death battle, not a life / torture battle. The wages of sin is death. Those who do not believe will perish. Many verses use fire as an image of judgment, but I realized that fire is mainly used to make an end of a thing, not to torture it. A few passages in Revelation seemed to hint at something that sounded like the traditional view of hell, but Revelation is all manner of crazy, and I was not comfortable building a doctrine of hell from it alone.

I realized that if I had come to the Bible without going through the church first, I never would have come up with this idea of hell. Especially considering that the Gospels paint a picture of a God so loving that He was willing to sacrifice Himself to save (some of) humanity. I wondered if I was becoming an annihilationist. I wondered what this would do to my Calvinism.

And then Rob Bell showed up and everything went nuts.

You should have seen it.  The Internet blew up with anger over this geeky pastor who wrote an artsy book that suggested our ideas of hell were wrong. One of the most influential pastors in my own life excommunicated him on Twitter before the book even came out. It gave me a chill. Would that anger have been directed at me if I had shared some of the things Scripture was showing me? I had a realization:

My faith tradition had sacred cows–at least one of which I hadn’t noticed until now. How many more unjustifiable things did I believe?

I had to attempt a fresh look at the Scripture. And I had to do it no matter what the Internet said, because Truth was, and is, so much more important than the objections of friends.

My Journey #2 – Calvinism

I was a Christian. I sought after God through the Spirit. I preached in church and counseled at Bible camp and I knew that neither of those things meant anything. I was born of God and striving to live by the Spirit. So when high school ended, I signed up for Bible college.

CalvinInsignia

KLBC was the best time of my life, up to that point. I had never had such deep relationships as the ones I formed there. I had never met such deep and committed followers of Jesus. I dug through Scripture for treasures like the proverbial master of the house (Matt. 13:52). I met my wife there. I also met Calvinism.

Have you ever encountered a beautiful philosophy? A set of ideas that makes you pause, take a step back and go, “Wow”? Calvinism was one of those philosophies (or doctrines, if you prefer). From the outside, it seemed harsh and heavy, but when I dug a bit, I found something lovely. Much of Scripture seemed to imply it, and it in turn illumined much of Scripture. I was quickly convinced of its truth and I used it as I went through the next seven or eight years of my life. It wasn’t my God–it was a useful framework to understand Him.

Even though the denomination I was raised in was started by Calvinists, the philosophy had since fallen out of vogue. For the first time ever, I was standing a little bit away from the rest of my church on an issue of doctrine. Not very far, of course. But far enough for me to notice a difference. That difference allowed me to realize something I had already known:

It was up to me and the Spirit to explore the Bible and discover what I could about God, the universe and everything. While I was always willing to listen to my church, my tradition, my professors, I realized that I had to judge and seek out the answers for myself.

Even when the answers I found put me at odds with the people I loved.

My Journey #1 – Purpose

Sept 29, 2013 015(2)

My name it Matt. I used to be a Christian. I’m not anymore, and I want to tell the story about how that happened.

Topics like these are controversial because most of us are intensely invested in our worldviews. It would be easy to misunderstand the purpose of my telling.

I am not telling the story to defend myself. As an evangelical I would never have been convinced to justify the moves of someone who left the faith. If there was no spirit of Christ, it did not matter how heavy the evidence or profound the experience. No Christ = no good. So I know that no one from where I’ve come from will be able to consider my path as legitimate. I understand that and I don’t begrudge it. I did the same when I heard of brothers and sisters who abandoned Christianity.

I’m not telling the story to draw anyone away from their own faith. Jesus gives the world one of the most powerful ethics I’ve ever seen. If everyone were to adopt his way of doing life, we would have world peace tomorrow. Sure, his ethic generally takes a backseat in the lives of his devotees, but every once in a while someone appears in the Church that takes Jesus’ way of life seriously, and the world is better for those people. I’d hate to pull someone away from that.

Part of the reason I’m telling the story is that everyone wants to be understood. It sucks when the people you love don’t understand you. It sucks when they look at your path, with all its complexities and struggles and nuances, and write it off without understanding how it all happened. And even though I know most of my friends will not understand even after I’ve told my story, heck, at least I tried.

The next four posts will highlight the major signposts in my journey. It is all from my perspective, because that is the only perspective I have the right to speak from. Take it as that. Or don’t. I don’t care, in the end. It is enough that I have had my say.

Morning Commute

I finish my tea and go back to my house.  We eat fried flat breads with last night’s chickpeas.  A bit of yogurt and raw onion to make the taste dance.  More chai.  I adjust my pathan cap and sindhi ajrak and gently carry my bicycle down the narrow stairs.  My wife follows in her burka, with our son.

Pakistan 097

My son sits on the bar in front of me.  I screwed a little padded seat there for him.  He grins as he clutches the handlebars.  My wife pulls herself up on the rear rack while I hold the bike balanced.  Then we’re off.  What things can I see while we go through the streets of my town?  The shop we buy our firewood from.  The only honest yogurt vendor in town.  A child defecating by his front door—the same time every day.  I see goats tied to electric poles, red-mouthed paan vendors and little boys running to delivery steaming little tea pots and nearly clean cups.  I see rich men in large cars blocking the roads while I slip easily by them on my three-person bike.  I see yellow rickshaws crammed with schoolchildren and teachers.  I see the natural world of humanity, busied and arbitrary.  There is no difference between this place and the place I was born.

Chai Khana

The Chai KhanaI slip down the dark narrow stairs onto the bright dusty street.  There’s a lot going on.  Our corner of the intersection is the electrician’s part of town.  The shop right by our  door is owned by the guy who put in our line to the communal backup generator.  The shop around the corner is owned by the guy who fixed it when it exploded a day later.  The line, not the generator.

I cross the intersection, lazily dodging a motorbike weaving around a milkman’s donkey cart.  The milkman is bringing milk to the chai khana.  The chai walla smiles and raises his hand to me.  I shake his and sit on the bench, huddled in my chadar against the surprising chill.  Akbar and Faisal are there.  Akbar tells me a story about his village.  I hardly understand a word because he’s spoken Dhadki to me ever since he found out my wife was from a related tribe.  Faisal makes fun of him for it in Sindhi.  The chai walla smiles and hands me my chai on a clean saucer.

Fire Building

Kunri StreetI wrap a blanket around myself and drag the metal fire holder to the open part of our apartment where there is no roof.  I build the fire to heat our bathing water.  The landlord’s teenaged children, who often peek under our door to watch us, are surprised that I know how.  I ask if this is because they assume a high-class white boy like myself would know such a rural skill.  They say it’s because building fires is such unmanly work.  I say it is considered very manly to be able to build a strong fire in Canada.  They laugh, because that’s stupid.