Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Christmas 2009 in Bali

It has been over four months since Christmas, and I thought it was time for me to share a few memories of my experiences in Bali during Christmas vacation. I went with Pastor Rob and a church group to dedicate a new affiliate church in Bali. I was happy to be going with the same people with whom I spent my 2008 Christmas vacation in New Orleans, as part of Habitat for Humanity. These included my friend Sean, plus Christian, who has been staying with Rob. Our job was going to be to complete the final steps in making the church ready for its first service, Christmas Eve. The church paid all expenses, and the airfare from LAX to Bali was a reasonable $1000.

I was able to get some sleep on the plane, although the one man who snored on the flight sat across the aisle from me. I sat next to Sean, and Rob and Christian sat behind us for most of the flights. We'd change seats and walk around to pass the time. We read, talked and slept. When we finally landed in Denpasar International Airport I wanted to kiss the ground. We finally arrived at the Dhyna Pura, a beautifully located hotel surrounded by the lush Kutu, Bali tropical world. I was in heaven...or exhausted. I would be sharing a suite with Sean and Christian. We were all excited about the arrangements, as we were looking forward to sharing new memories, similar to those from Habitat for Humanity.

There would be no time to waste. The pews and pulpit needed to be anchored. Everything was ready for us. We had the workforce, and we were looking forward to finishing the job at hand, and then some rest and relaxation on the beautiful Bali beach. When Rob declared that we were a few short hours away from finishing the job, those of us who know Rob knew that this was his kiss of death.

Another bumpy drive under our belts, and we arrived at the beautiful new church building. It was surrounded by many of the local people, many of whom would be worshiping in the Christmas Eve service. We heard about one simple problem, or as Rob put it, "a little kink in our chain". The pews...weren't going to fit. We had a day and a half to get the job done, and we had to either replace or modify the pews. We came to the conclusion that either 1/2 inch needed to be trimmed from the edge that fit inside a slit in the floor, or the anchor slot in the floor had to be modified. We chose the latter. This microsurgery would be performed by a chain saw. It worked, and as the engine screamed and the smoke billowed, we jockeyed the pews into position, anchoring them securely. This became Sean's "Hoodathunk" experiment. Hoodathunk we'd be using a chainsaw on the pews of this new church. This is my story and I'm sticking to it! LOL

We befriended an 18 year old named Richie. His dad is an elder in the church, and Richie was right there with us. It became a race to see if the four of us could outwork the old people. We did the heavy lifting work while the old people did the thinking...and Rob walked around telling everyone what a super job they were doing. With the help of local craftsmen, we were well on our way to finishing the church.

Exhausted, we went back to the hotel. We decided to meet at 7:00 for dinner, which was yesterday afternoon Los Angeles time...if you can catch the time difference. We decided to throw on our bathing suits and check out the beach. We weren't discouraged by the overcast threatening sky. We went in the water. It was everything we had hoped for. After a brief, yet invigorating swim, we went back to our suite and showered. There were many people there, and after a bilingual blessing, dinner was served. It was a delicious mixture of delicately herbed fish and vegetables, and the staple of Bali, rice. Their diet and their cuisine is certainly a culture shock.

The time was drawing near. The church was now ready. It looked beautiful! Rob and the local minister were ready for the Christmas Eve service. Many children from the school and orphanage were there, all dressed alike. As we were filing into the church a little boy stood at the doorway. He looked at every person who entered, and he greeted them with a smile. As I passed I held out my hand. Instead of shaking it he took my hand and walked with me inside. Rob said, "He just chose you, Michael."

He led us to the pew at the front. He looked at me with the smile of an angel, his bright white teeth contrasted by his tanned skin. I gently touched the tip of his nose with my finger. His smile grew wider. If love could be seen in colors I would have been pouring out rainbows all over this angel. I ran my hand down the back of his head and put my arm around him, and then gave him a pat on the back. His big dark eyes glowed like the Christmas star over Bethlehem. I hadn't felt it before, but I suddenly felt the joy of Christmas in my heart.

The service was bilingual and beautiful. Rob made brief mention of Habitat for Humanity with three lads from Los Angeles, and he recounted the Christmas story, just as he did two years before. I know the three of us listened intently, and Richie and his dad understood why this meant so much to us. Rob has a way of drawing in an audience. He tells a story so eloquently. But he told the Christmas story with a modern twist, how this new church is born on the same night that Jesus was born, and those of us attending the service are the shepherds from the fields, the Wise Men, as well as Mary and Joseph. The angels were all around us. He pointed to the children. They were, after all, the angels of Christmas, 2009.

The sanctuary was illuminated by candles...dozens of them. There was a brief dedication ceremony. Then we sang "Silent Night" in English and in Balinese. The kids sang. It was beautiful. It drove home once again the purpose of our visit. I remember this feeling. I remember this feeling two years ago on Christmas Eve. Wow! We did it...again! I couldn't help but glance over at Sean and Christian. I knew what they were thinking. We've been here before. Not here, per se, but here, on Christmas Eve, with a purpose. I couldn't help but feel proud, maybe not of myself, but of the group and of the people we helped dedicate this beautiful new church of God. They'd be worshiping here in 2010, 2011, 2020, 2050, and so on. I'd love to return in 2059 for the fiftieth anniversary service, if they have one. I'll still challenge the old people to see who can work harder, only maybe then I'll be challenging the young people to see who can work harder. You know what? I think I know who the winners will be. Maybe I'll simply let them win. :)

For what seemed like hours, we talked about what a beautiful, inspiring service it was. We went over it several times, the six of us. This was just one of several new churches built all over Bali this year. We all agreed that we wished we could have been part of the dedication of all of them.

Rob connected to the Internet and launched Skype. I enjoyed a brief video chat with my mom, sister and brother. Sean chatted with his family, but he became emotional. I never asked him why, or if he was homesick, although I don't think he was. It was rewarding, although it made us miss our families and our homeland. But we decided to enjoy it while we were there.

I wish I could encapsulate all that we did and all that we saw. Bali is beautiful. The people are beautiful.

While we were there we learned about some of the customs. We learned about the Indonesian custom of Circumcision Day, which is traditionally January 1, but many of the boys choose to get circumcised at certain times of the year. December 24th was going to be two brothers' day of circumcision. They were 6 and 8 years of age. It's quite an honor, and it's not twisted by any American taboos. Rather, it's quite public. There's usually a celebration, and the boys receive gifts. Mostly observed by the Muslims, the custom is gaining popularity with Christians, although I'm not completely sure whether these children were Christian or Muslim. It didn't seem to matter to me at the time. I'll flash back to an experience I had, which explained a lot to me. I needed to relieve myself in one of the less Western-style bathrooms, and there was a young boy in there, urinating in the trough. I had great difficulty initiating a stream, as the boy's eyes were focused on what *I* was doing, rather than what he was doing...and there was nowhere for me to "hide". I glanced over at him, and he flashed me a happy smile. When he left I was then able to complete the task at hand. I realized why he smiled at me, being that he saw that I was among the elite circumcised. There was no shame or taboo. He only wanted to check to see if I "fit in", or my status. Before we would leave, it would become common knowledge that Sean, Christian and Richie were among the elite, too.

As we were admiring the church that was now complete, the boys made their new status known in the form of tented shorts, protecting their new manhood status from undue abrasion. The minor discomfort was overshadowed by the anticipation of a party and gifts. They were all smiles, and we couldn't help but share in their joy. Perhaps they knew that I was "one of them". This made me very happy.

In the Christian minority of Bali, many of the Western Christmas traditions are observed, such as a Christmas tree. The only Christmas trees I saw required assembly, but colorful painted ornaments, which I think were fruits or handcrafted out of wood, were plentiful. I do not remember a lavish show of Christmas in the area, although the hotel did have some decorations for Christians.

In the short time we had left we used it to our advantage. Surfing is big in Bali, although I did not. I expressed a sincere interest in the four-month Conversational English program through the church and the hotel, and the big selling point is that many of the programs include surfing lessons. Volunteers get to teach Conversational English, and they get surfing lessons. They receive lodging, usually a private home, plus food. That is certainly something I would enjoy, and although I'm not a big surfing enthusiast, I am in no way a stranger to a surfboard.

I would have enjoyed spending a few extra days in Bali, but before we left I knew I'd be back. I am now in the belief that this has become my calling. Perhaps I won't die a millionaire, but I do plan to make my mark on humanity, a little bit at a time. I have many years ahead of me, so I'll take it slowly. America has shot itself in the foot with regulations and restrictions, but there are places in this world where someone who wants to help his fellow man is received with welcoming opened arms.

It was sad leaving these beautiful people, but all of us shared memories...our own memories of that special moment that made the trip worthwhile. Mine was that little boy who took my hand and walked us into the church. And if I learned one thing about spirituality, it's that if you want to see God, just look into the eyes of a child. And as our plane roared through the clouds, I uttered our governor's immortal words: "I'll be back!"

I had planned on going more into detail about the culture and more of the customs, but I decided to keep it closer to home. Maybe someday when I write my world-travel memoirs I'll go into greater detail. There is so much I don't know. I have so many questions about the people and their customs. It is my hope that my questions will begin to be answered this July, when I return.

This blog has been long in coming, mostly because I haven't had the time or the ambition to sit down and try to remember everything that happened. I can't. I don't. Much has slipped by, but I hope I gave you a glimpse of what we all experienced. We accomplished what we set out to do, and we managed to enjoy ourselves. We met some wonderful, beautiful people, and we made new friends. What more could I ask for?

And one more thing. My motto, as it has been for the past few years, has been to never pass up the opportunity to say I love you. I said it in sign language. They said it in Balinese, but it was the hand gesture that we passed among ourselves so frequently, a gesture that transcends any language barrier. A little hand would go up, make the sign, and it was usually followed by hugs, smiles and giggles. I can honestly say that I did NOT pass up the opportunity to say I love you. And the more I gave, the more I got. What more could anyone want for Christmas? May God bless us, everyone!