Monday, July 25, 2011

On Pain and Loss

I have lived a comfortable life. Some people who have lived a more comfortable life than mine would disagree with me, but there are many, many more who would say that up to this minute my life has been and continues to be pretty cushy compared to theirs. These might question my ability to comment on Pain and Loss. Nonetheless, this past year I have experienced more pain and more loss than I ever have before, and I have to wonder about it. So this is me, wondering out loud.

Very clearly, the hand of God is in this pain and loss. I'm not blaming him, as he is not the source, but I do wonder about him, because he is letting it get past him and into my world. In my head I know he has his reasons, and in my head I trust him. But my heart is having trouble with pain and loss.

How long?

It has been about a year now of one thing after another, after another. I have stopped expecting that nothing more can surely happen, because so far it surely does. It's like having a whole tree-full of snow dump down your neck, and you are standing there in shock thinking, is it done? And no, another lot comes tumbling down on you. You get numbed pretty quickly, and wonder if you will ever thaw out.

You may think I have read every C.S. Lewis book written, but I haven't, and I just finished for the first time The Problem of Pain. It isn't what I expected, and it is a little strange with its theistic evolution and animal heaven. But I liked this:
    My own experience is something like this: I am progressing along the path of life in my ordinary contentedly fallen and godless condition, absorbed in a merry meeting with my friends for the morrow or a bit of work that tickles my vanity today, a holiday or a new book, when suddenly a stab of abdominal pain that threatens serious disease, or a headline in the newspapers that threatens us all with destruction, sends this whole pack of cards tumbling down. At first I am overwhelmed, and all my little happinesses look like broken toys. Then, slowly and reluctantly, bit by bit, I try to bring myself into the frame of mind that I should be in at all times. I remind myself that all these toys were never intended to possess my heart, that my true good is in another world and my only real treasure is Christ. And perhaps, by God's grace, I succeed, and for a day or two become a creature consciously dependent on God and drawing its strength from the right sources. But the moment the threat is withdrawn, my whole nature leaps back to the toys: I am even anxious, God forgive me, to banish from my mind the only thing that supported me under the threat because it is now associated with the misery of those few days. Thus the terrible necessity of tribulation is only too clear. God has had me for but forty-eight hours and then only by dint of taking everything else away from me. Let Him but sheathe that sword for a moment and I behave like a puppy when the hated bath is over – I shake myself dry as I can and race off to reacquire my comfortable dirtiness, if not in the nearest manure heap, at least in the nearest flower bed. And that is why tribulations cannot cease until God either sees us remade or sees that our remaking is now hopeless.
The fact that pain and loss have been for me an anomaly up until a year ago is not a normal state of being for mankind in this fallen world. This is. The thief comes to steal and kill and destroy. Treasure is destroyed by moth and rust. People we love die, or worse, betray us. Mosquitoes bite, climate change happens. Temptations are relentless in their pursuit. There is always one more demon to wrest from our soul.

It is not because God enjoys this game like some sadistic child, or that he is powerless to stop it. He could stop it, and now. But he loves us too much to leave us comfortable with our complacency, our pride, our lust, our self-focus. And so he lets things slip by him that he could arrest with no effort, to keep us needful, watchful, diligent, attentive to him.

Is this effort at too high a cost? A few days ago, a madman in Norway shot and killed more than 60 young adults at a political summer camp, many of whom would have become leaders in their nation. Why did God not stop him? Allow a traffic accident on the way or make a tree fall on him? It seems like such a high physical and social cost for the sake of the possible spiritual redemption of some of the survivors. How can God justify this kind of price?

I have no idea.

But I can return to what I do know, about his nature and character, about what he has clearly revealed to us about himself. All of it tells me that I can trust him. Even when I wonder about him, plead with him, scream at him, down deep I know that he is utterly reliable, fair to the point of fearful, unfathomably holy and righteous. Despite my fears that nothing will ever change, that trouble will be unrelenting, part of me continues to hope in his lovingkindness, the truth that he does not treat me as my sins deserve, that he is "merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love." According to many places in the Scriptures, I have access to everything necessary to navigate rough waters and make it to the end of life full of joy and contentment.

But God has not included happiness in the tool kit. The American Dream of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is not only overrated; it has robbed us of the ability to cope with death, limitations and the certainty of loss. In our expensive and wasteful attempts at comfort and ease, we make things much harder for the rest of the world, but we ultimately make it harder on ourselves. Our ways of dealing with pain and loss are often thoroughly messed up.

Here is what God offers us. The same God who allows pain and loss to slip by him to reach us has suffered more than any of us could ever imagine. That act, fixed in time, in which his Son obediently hung on a cross and bore our guilt and shame and his Father's wrath, has reached down into the chaos of our world, and has rescued, redeemed, forgiven, filled and gifted us. Paul puts it best:
    And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

    What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,

    “For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
    we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

    No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Keep this in mind: When he says that nothing can separate us from his love, he does not mean simply how God feels about us; it is about his constant and tenacious activity to ensure what is best for us and his kingdom, his glory. Trouble is like snow falling from a tree down our neck; the love of God is an avalanche, irresistible and unrelenting.

"Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed." Thank you, Peter. May our hearts be surprised at nothing, and trust him in everything.

Friday, July 15, 2011


March 15, 2011
I am on a train between New Delhi and Haridwar. Kilometer after kilometer, I see people: children, men and women of all ages, walking, watching, squatting, washing, being. There are so many, and there is not one inch of this country that is not touched by them. I am told that foreigners most often focus on the dirt and garbage and squalor. N___, our guide and growing friend, encourages us to look past all of that and see the beauty. It is not in the landscape here in the lowlands, where we can feel the heat of the sun but not see the blue of the sky for the brown haze. But I think the beauty may be in the people. Let's back up and catch the highlights of the journey so far, since I just bought this journal yesterday.

Things have gone smoothly, with potential problems and disasters managed by the abundant and very evident grace of God among us. We shared kids meals on the BC ferry and spent the first night at what has become a tradition among our Teams: Oakridge Church hosted by Nathaniel, who played hymns on the piano and led us in worship. I asked Bret to sing for us, and it was so utterly beautiful and appropriate. I found myself listening with eyes closed and tears streaming down. It was all the more moving because just a few days before she told us of the miracle that has taken place in her since January - that she has taken the plunge and immersed herself in the saving grace of God. Here are the words from her own hand, if she is willing:

let no one caught in sin remain
inside the lie of inward shame
but fix our eyes upon the cross
and run to him who showed great love
and bled for us
freely you bled for us

Christ is risen from the dead
trampling over death by death
come awake,
come awake
come and rise up from the grave
Christ is risen from the dead
we are one with him again
come awake, come awake
come and rise up from the grave

beneath the weight of all our sin
you bowed to none but heaven's will
no scheme of hell, no scoffer's crown
no burden great can hold you down
in strength, you reign
forever let your church proclaim

Christ is risen from the dead
trampling over death by death
come awake,
come awake
come and rise up from the grave
Christ is risen from the dead
we are one with him again
come awake, come awake
come and rise up from the grave

O death, where is your sting?
O hell, where is your victory?
O church, come and stand in the light!
Our God is not dead, he's alive, he's alive!

I have had enough of death this past while. It is wonderful to watch someone come to an understanding of life.

March 10 was maybe the longest day I have ever experienced, as it merged into March 11 in full sunlight and none of the usual nocturnal transition. We flew along the west coast of Japan over tranquil seas, that had no idea of the turmoil and devastation to come. The long day was followed by the longest night ever. It would have been okay if I was one of those people who can sleep until 2:00 in the afternoon, which was the time in Canada when I finally crawled out of bed. We enjoyed an extravagant complimentary breakfast in the hotel, with everything from pancakes to grilled squid. And then we flew away and left Tokyo unknowingly to its fate.

The earthquake struck just three hours after we left the ground. It registered 9.0 on the Richter scale, the fifth largest in the world since 1900. And it was devastating, both in itself and the tsunami it created. The paper this morning says that 10,000 in one town are still unaccounted for. It moved the massive main island of Japan eight feet and set the axis of the earth four inches off its rotation. If we had not left when we did, it is possible we would still be waiting to leave. Instead, again by the hand of God, I am on a train headed for the Himalayas.

Our first day in India was overwhelming. We left the airport in a bus that, like every other vehicle on the road, vied for the distinction of being the only one there. N tells us that getting a driver's license here is a simple matter of filling out an application form and demonstrating that you can back out of a parking spot as the official glances out the window. But I must say that these drivers of cars, trucks, motor-rickshaws and motorbikes are highly skilled. There is no attention paid to lines on roads, traffic signs or the fact that this many rows of vehicles don't actually fit between the curbs. Only the horn has power here, and it is applied effectively and loudly, at all hours of the day and night. Some cars even have sirens, and not because they are emergency vehicles.

The same bus took us to two contrasting shopping areas the next morning. The first was what in Canada would be considered a narrow alleyway, but proved to contain some higher-end clothing stores that the girls took by storm for two hours, and that the guys polished off with well-thought purchases in twenty minutes.

From there we bussed to the open market downtown. So overwhelming. I was expecting the children, though their apparent entrepreneurship with beads and pens was startling. But I wasn't prepared for the women with babies - it was straight out of Slumdog Millionaire. One woman followed me and pressed my arm for blocks, holding a baby with a large infected wound on one leg and one eye that was clearly blind. I was so conflicted - do I give her a few rupees out of compassion for her child, or by doing so am I financing some monster who deforms babies? I think it was when she held out the baby's leg to show me the wound, making the baby scream, that I decided to give her nothing, which is what N had told us to do. But I felt so helpless.

The brightest part of the day was at our meeting place, McDonald's (chicken and fish and goat burgers only). A few students decided to take some burgers out to the street children, and were of course surrounded in moments. But as they entered back into McDonald's, they took with them three children and a teenage girl, and sat down with them for the full meal deal.Two of the children beckoned me to an empty seat at their table. It was so fun to watch them relax and enjoy our company, away from the eyes of their handlers and the pressure to sell. That's what the teenage girl (who said she will marry soon) told us about the infrequent times someone invites them in: they get to enjoy conversation and friendship and laughter.

We noticed that most of the other customers were watching closely, some smiling, some complaining to the management, who would do nothing because we were westerners. Clearly we were breaking some barriers, which normally we would be sensitive to, but in this situation we didn't care. I played thumb wars with a very bright and vivacious little boy who should be the Minister of Finance someday, and a little girl who should own her own clothing shop.But the system is not likely to allow that. Nevertheless, for 45 minutes they got be children. I noticed that both ate exactly one half of their burger and carefully wrapped the rest, "for mom."

Nearly as soon as we arrived at the market, Sarah had the joy of recognizing Bindia, a wonderful little girl whom Shannon (Sarah's sister-in-law) had connected with two years before. Bindia remembered Shannon, and received the gifts sent to her by quickly adopting Sarah as her own sister and showing her around.

I think we were a little shell-shocked as we pushed our way back onto our private bus through a crowd of begging children and women with babies, collapsing on our seats with bags of purchases from the market. What else could we do? It was so unfair.

We wrapped up the evening with a discussion about our day and then a walk through the streets to more butter chicken and rice at a popular night spot, mostly full of westerners. The night before we had watched in amazement the hordes of people on the streets late at night, and now we were a part of it. India is like a massive party that never ends, day or night.

Or at 5:30 in the morning, which is when we joined thousands more people waiting to catch the next train out of Delhi. We are getting good at chasing long-legged N through crowds of gawking people, carrying all our stuff and protecting the girls from the cameras and physical contact of the men. Our train was clearly a step up from the ones with the barred and glassless windows stacked to overflowing. Ours had glass in the windows and reasonably clean squatties at each end of the car, complimentary papers (the unfolding disaster in Japan still on the front page) and breakfast, which somehow didn't make us sick. And now I have caught up to where this journal started - on the train and watching people, people, people. But I will leave the rest of today's story to tomorrow's pen.

March 16
The train took us to Haridwar, one of the most sacred cities to Hinduism. Last year, the largest Hindu festival ever took place here, 70 million people over a period of three months. Our guide - a believer with a background in Hinduism - led us first to a massive statue of Shiva standing beside the milky-blue Ganga (we say Ganges) River. He explained to us the basics of Hinduism, as gurus and worshipers watched us closely and listened in. One holy man who cares for the grounds sat inside a cage with a shrine in it, and we stood near so he could hear us and be relived of his suspicions about these white Christians. I guess our guide spoke accurately about Hinduism, as the man raised no objections. But I think you could say almost anything about Hinduism and be accurate - it is that diverse.

We went from there to the river and the steps leading down to it. To us, the place was packed, but our guide said that at festival time you can't even see the ground, and the crowd moves as one, as slowly as a glacier. Such emptiness in those eyes - especially the many beggars, mostly lame or amputees or the very sick, abandoned there by their families who think they have done a noble thing to leave them in such a place. It was a relief to leave.

March 17
Very nice hotel. I'm lying in bed writing this, as we stayed here two nights. Last night we gathered in one room to hear the stories of two young Indian believers who N carefully smuggled in here for that purpose. One was a part-time weaver, part-time pastor who has experienced his share of suffering for his faith, but who is surely one small stone in a coming landslide of faith in Northern India. He brought items of his weaving with him, and we were able to bless him by giving him more than what he was asking, and by encouraging him and praying for him and his wife. He was followed by D, a local pastor who has been on several trips like we are doing. He is leading many to Christ and is becoming an instrumental leader in this area - so gifted and godly and articulate. Bret sang her song again as we joined in and it was a significant time for us, especially after Haridwar, and we prayed and went to bed exhausted and happy for it.

We had a nice slow start this morning, lingering over breakfast and taking an extended time to talk and pray together in one of our rooms. I see change taking place in several students' hearts, and especially I hear it in their prayers - rich, often surprising prayers. God is moving here among us.

Driving through [city] is like playing a video game or driving bumper cars, though we saw only one collision. Imagine Canada with one billion people: we would never drive anywhere because we are too darn polite and would not fit on the roads. Here they make it fit, with centimeters to spare on all sides. Amazing.

We spent the day at a Moravian school, where Nicki spent two months and is remembered by all, of course. The children were still in class when we arrived so we had a tour of their beautiful grounds, overlooking the plains a thousand feet below and the first of the foothills above. We also heard the stories of a teacher and his wife, who suffered the disdain of both their families when they married because he was a Hindu and she was a Christian, though he became a Christian before the marriage. Their godly example and passion for intercession are very clear, and the school is so fortunate to have such a couple. We were also hosted for lunch by the director of the school and his wife, who spoke with us about his work in such an inspiring way that several students wanted to hear about the opportunities should they want to return and help there. Wonderful time of prayer with them.

March 19
By then the children were out and it was time to meet them. I have to admit that I focused most of my time on three, with utter bias. M, M & P are three children sponsored to be there by several former Kaleo students and staff, and they are wonderful. I am currently sitting in their village high in the mountains after traveling over (whew!) roads for eleven hours - more later on that - and today by foot for twelve km, finishing with 1500 steps up, with packs. Anyway, I met their father, mother and older brother and sister today, and through N I told her father about my time with them. He laughed and seemed incredulous that M's English is so good and that he placed third in a recent exam. What I didn't tell him was that his daughter looked like any girl in Canada playing field hockey, far from her traditional garb. M was excited to meet a friend of Nicki------ (emphasis on the first syllable), and took me to his dorm room to show me his bed and locker and to introduce me to his brother. It was so hard to drag our own students away from that place. There was so much conversation (it is an English Medium school) and interaction and laughter and play.

We finished the day with the director of the school and his wife, who took us to a Tibetan restaurant and then to his beautiful new marble Indian church. Several students are talking about returning here to volunteer at the school as Nicki did. I pray that they will.

Yesterday was driving, driving, driving. First the [city] arcade game, then immediately into the incredible switchbacks to [town], dozens of them climbing to 6000 feet, then all the way back down the other side. At the bottom we had to wait for workmen to lever enormous boulders with crowbars from the hillside above the road, which they shoved by hand to the side so we could drive through. Then it was hour after hour on mostly one-lane road hanging on the sides of enormous mountains - the mere foothills of the Himalaya. Horns rule here too - whoever has the loudest horn assumes the right of way, and there were hundreds of blind corners for which the horn became the driver's eyes. The road degenerated from paved to gravel to rock, and we arrived at our "hotel" as dusk turned to dark.

Two wonderful highlights of the day:
1. N had the bus stop at what looked like yet another concrete house with its rooftop level with the road. It was actually, as we found out later, a former cowshed. I went down and poked my nose in one doorway and was amazed to see dozens of beautiful dark eyes look up at me and voices say in unison, "good morning!" It was more than a dozen very little boys, dressed in grey trousers, blue-checker shirts and dark blue sweaters.

It was a school. It is operated by a contrastingly blonde lady from Qualicum Beach who came here to bring to the tiny neighboring village an education that would match anything in the world. She and her husband (he's a believer and Indian, and she is neither) asked the village for a building for a school, and almost cried when they were given this concrete cowshed by the road. But it didn't matter. Villagers came and cleaned it out, poured a concrete floor and whitewashed the walls. It has only a vague smell of cow. She has several excellent Indian teachers (and needs more), and unlike the local government schools, she is trying to teach them the principles, not just rote memorization. A humble hero.

2. Our next stop was a town hanging over a river, high and steep cliffs dominating. We walked to the house of a man and his wife whose names should be added to Hebrews 11. They have lived there 33 years and have been instrumental in the salvation of hundreds of people in that valley. He has faced threats and harassment from many people - all of whom are now dead, from cancer, accidents, falling off a roof. There is a fear of God in this valley now, and they leave him alone. His wife has trained 1000 women in sewing and the making of clothing. He has a constant stream of people coming to him for wisdom and help. Another couple of humble heroes or faith.

Last night at [village], which hangs on a cliff, we readied ourselves for trekking. We had glimpses of mountains on the way before it git dark, and saw several fires burning up the sides of mountains but didn't know why. The hotel was a concrete block with squatties, but the blankets were super thick and warm, and we fell into exhausted sleep.

The morning was early but so good. Wonderful breakfast with fresh naan bread made by our cook over the camp stove, and the very best chai I have ever tasted, as the sun rose over the snowy Himalaya. We talked and prayed and sang. I told them that as we were driving here, at a point when one tire of our bus was hanging over the edge of the road, I closed my eyes and prayed, and I saw one of the trails we would walk on, and God said, "You will walk here. It's okay. Relax."

We loaded everything and ourselves into two jeeps and drove as far as we could toward where the road ended at [village]. It was a landslide (which took place a short time before, shortly after N. drove over the spot) that stopped us, and we put our packs on for the first time for trekking. The views became increasingly beautiful. At one point we had a clear view of the mountains we were headed for, framed by deep red rhododendrons, and before them [village], our destination for the day. Everyone was in good spirits as we walked the six km to [village], an did well with their packs.

Our entry into [village] caused a sensation. I took a picture of a group of boys on the bank above me and showed it to them, and they were very enthusiastic. Here it is all wooden buildings, beams hewed by hand and often elaborately carved. We met the mother (and older sister and brother) of M and she was very happy to see us. I brought out the photo prints we brought with us from previous trips, and everyone was very excited to identify themselves and their families, and claim photos to keep. The students immediately started playing with the children, chasing them and being chased, making up nonsensical games on the spot. It was amazing to watch Anna M, who had told us that she does not love children, play with them the most. She concedes now that maybe she loves them after all. The people were especially taken with Kristine, on account of Nicki being her sister, and M's mom invited her into her home, where the women talked together and the little girls played (only the boys played with the students outside, which N. said spoke of the girls' modesty).

The real trekking began here, because there are no roads for vehicles beyond this point. The trail began pleasantly enough along the blue and roaring river. But it was hot, and everyone was thinking about what was coming, the infamous "Jacob's Ladder," a climb of 1500 steps. We were giving the option of taking the easier and shaded donkey trail, but everyone chose the stairs and up we went. It was tough, harder than I expected (though students considered it easier): rough, uneven stones climbing beside nothing but air. And then it was quite a distance up after the stairs. It was very hot, which resulted in a bit of heat exhaustion for me later. Finally the village came into view, wooden houses punctuating terraced fields of green and mustard.

March 20
We stayed in the home of G at the very top of the village, with a full view of the slate rooftops, mustard fields and the river valley below us. The house had a broad deck where we had supper and talked about the day, together with G and his wife. But I was toast - literally, though no sunburn - and was glad to go to bed.

Early morning, sunny with a cool breeze. The goal today was a higher village, over the shoulder of a mountain, down to the river and then high up the other side. All was well and everyone was in good spirits until we descended to the river, across from a small village that N has so far found closed and dark. As we came near a bridge, Bryan stumbled and twisted his ankle and was in lots of pain. We got him down t the stream and had his soak his foot in the icy water while we had lunch.

It was a dark place spiritually - we all felt it. There a tea shop there by the stream - a roof with a smoky fire and kettle, and a number of young men and boys lounging around. The girls who had traveled with us from the village that morning were nervous and stayed close. A fight broke out in the village across the river (we found out later it was about a cow that got into someone's field) and lasted a long time. The place felt volatile, and we left with heavy hearts that lifted the farther we left that place behind, with Bryan on a borrowed horse.

The trail up to [village] was long and steadily uphill, and we were beginning to feel the high elevation. For myself, struggling with heat exhaustion from the day before and a pack that was too heavy, it was painful. J's house was, of course, at the very top of the village, and not long after arriving - as much as I wanted to be social - I climbed into my bag and went to sleep.

During my nap, students went into the village and played with the children, and had so much fun with them. Bringing out a camera here is guaranteed to bring out the children. They love to see themselves on the screen. That evening, J invited us into his room with his wife and children - another new precedent - and we talked openly together about our day and our faith and our hopes for this village. It is difficult to read where J is in his faith in Christ. It can be a long road for people here, but it is clear that he is happy and grateful to have us in his home, and so are we.

The next morning discussion began at 6:00 am among the porters as to whether we should attempt [upper camp] that day. Though it was sunny here, or at least high overcast, it was clearly snowing in the 20,000 foot plus peaks surrounding the high valley that was our highest destination. Some said that the weather would improve, others said it would get worse. Surprisingly, it was G's daughter who was the first to say we should go, and opinion swayed in that direction as the mountains came clearer into view and the sky started to break.

There was also much dispute as to how best to transport Bryan. Though he insisted that his ankle was feeling better, they did not want to take the chance. A donkey could get him to the snowline, but past that they would use an ordinary plastic garden chair suspended on two poles and carried by four porters.

Bryan was devastated when he heard of this plan the night before, but this was clearly part of his journey of grace. By morning he was good with it, and as he told us later on the radio, he was soon filled with joy at the beauty of the mountains, and the kindness and endurance of the porters.

In the meantime, we wound our way up the side of the valley, high above the river, sometimes with nothing below us but air for thousands of feet. The porters had taken most of the students' packs, and M, who was to become a favorite with us, insisted on carrying mine before the steepest climb. Even so, many students found it tough. But their resilience amazes me - nearly dying one moment and singing their hearts out the next. We soon needed gaitors, sometimes plunging up to our knees in snow. The mountain drew suddenly close as we rounded the last shoulder into the high valley. It was astoundingly beautiful. J kept telling us, "two more kilometer - one hour for you, 15 minutes for me!" And then his now-famous, "Five more minutes," which turned into 45. Finally we left the last of the trees behind and it was all glacial valley going two directions around a high peak - the next state in one direction and nearby Tibet in the other - all surrounded by series of steep peaks all above 20,000 feet. We were all but done as we reached the government "hotel," which is almost the only thing that gives this place a location.

M. quickly did the most wonderful thing and built a roaring fire in one room, just outside of the fireplace itself so that it filled the room with light and heat but still sent the smoke up the chimney. I laughed out loud when I saw it, it was so good. We surrounded it with more red plastic garden chairs and hardly budged all evening, except to go look out at a small blizzard that erupted as dusk turned to dark.

Our conversation around the fire that evening was wonderful. Stories of wonder that we were up here at all, grace upon grace. But the two best highlights were having permission from G's daughter to pray for her (she had a sore stomach from eating snow), and M telling us that it was our prayers to Jesus Christ that had enabled us to make it to our destination that day.

M is such a kind and grateful man. N carefully retold his story, how that the K6 team had found him in his home with his leg broken in two places, and in agony. He and his brother were both married to the same woman, as they could only afford the bride price between them. His brother had taken a rod and broken his leg, and left him to die. N talked with J, who agreed that something should be done in spite of his family's wishes, and agreed to get M to the village at the end of the road if N would take him from there. It was an extremely painful journey, but N arranged to have a doctor ready for him in the town. After a long recovery, M returned to his home, where some repair to the relationship took place. He told N he would serve him the rest of his life, and though told it was not necessary, he has shown all of us much kindness. He even broke cultural boundaries by holding Mary's hand much of the way on the trail, as she was not feeling well and may not have managed without his help.We finally rolled off to bed in our common room, guys on one side, girls on the other.

The next morning was magical (or rather, full of grace as magic is all to real in this land). N and I were up at 6:00 am and took our sleeping bags out to the porch, and each settled into two plastic chairs to watch the light rise on the mountains. S, our cook, brought us cups of hot chai, and it was heavenly. J told us tales about lost treasure and a cavern filled with gold and jewels and guarded by a massive serpent. Chai was followed by cracked wheat hot cereal as students began to join us, still in their sleeping bags.

J offered to lead those of us interested up the valley to see even more peaks. Most of us went, and though it was very tough with the lack of oxygen at 13,000 feet and often breaking through the snow, it was wonderful. I could explore there for weeks. Massive boulders rising out the snow, endless peaks. We arrived back late, of course, and made ready for the journey of 11 km back to the village. Wow, how we move fast downhill! A little too fast for me, as there was so much I wanted to take in. We came around the shoulder again and found the porters gathered around a fire of the sticks they has stashed on the way up. We joined them, and conversation led to local songs, sung by M's son, and then some amazing dancing by M himself. Then the girls were invited into a dance with the porters. The girls followed G's daughter's lead through intricate footwork in a circle with the porters. It was rather surreal, high on the mountainside above the river, with the snowy peaks towering ever so much higher above us. Everyone was in such good spirits, which shortened our quick trip back to the village.

When we arrived, word went around that some of us were looking to purchase blankets and other woven goods. People started bringing things, whether newly made or already in use but of less current value to them than money. The making of these things is a huge process, a lifestyle really. Small goats and sheep are led daily onto the mountainsides to find grass or straw to feed on, most often watched by children. The wool is finely spun by hand on spindles about a foot long that are spun like a top on the ground or in the air, as people converse, and then wound on the spindle. Then it is woven on looms by the low caste people, woven so tightly that water won't permeate it. They brought thick blankets (one was given to me by N), coats, vests, shawls, hats and belts. We blessed them through buying, which most tourists who happen to pass through don't do.

N wanted to see the house that M and his son were building, and invited us to come. This exploring and visiting is his favourite thing to do at the villages, and it proved to be ours. It was fascinating to see and hear about the construction of these houses. Every beam, every plank of the walls is cut by hand from pines and cedars (like our junipers) high up on the far side of the valley, and carried by a rope around the shoulder down to the river and back up to the village. One beam in this house is eight meters long and weighs 500 kg. It took eight men to carry it an set it in place. M's son gave us permission to bless his house and pray for him in Jesus' name, and we sang there.

While we were there, a boy came to tell us that we were invited to M's house for milk. This is what N feared might happen, both because of the burden it places on the family to give us the milk from their own cows, and for the effect it might have on our digestive systems. But it proved well, at least until the next morning for a few students who did get sick. M and his brother and their wife have 12 children between them, most of which filled one side of the 12 by 12 foot room. They all live here. There is a small open fireplace used for heat and cooking, and wood is chosen for giving off less smoke, which mostly goes up through a closeable hole in the ceiling.

They were so happy to have us there. I found it difficult to watch my new friend M sitting with the two people who tried to murder him, and certainly his brother is the more aggressive in speech and manner. But peace has occurred here somehow, and I have to wonder if it is not peace from God through N's intervention for M a couple years ago. We talked and laughed, they brought out more things to sell which students graciously bought, we took many photos. Good things are happening here. Because they don't understand us, we are free to pray out loud with eyes open as we are in the room with them, asking that Jesus would enter this home. We left late and in good spirits.

I have been imagining what would happen if this village at the top of the valley became a village of Jesus followers. N is right - it would have deep effect all through this valley and others like it. The beginning of an avalanche. That evening we talked briefly and cryptically in J's room, because of his visitors. I hardly slept that night, for no apparent reason, since unlike a few others I was not losing it out both ends. But it was a good night, filled with prayer and images and words from God, and occasional sleep. "I will wipe every tear from your eye." The only thing I remember clearly except joy.

We all slept in, since it was determined that it would not be safe to travel today. It is "Holi," the colour festival, and though the worst that usually happens is that people throw lead-based pain at one another, it is also a time of drunkenness and enemies getting even with one another. It may have been dangerous to pass by that one dark village today. Here, people chanted in procession from the temple all through the town, "This is a holy day, this is a holy day." They beat on drums and pulled friends from their houses to smear them with paint and make them join in. They came to our courtyard, but J told them to leave. Tourism is much too important here for them to bother us, but it was a little threatening. Some were even our porters.

A few are sick today, or exhausted, and though the day started warm and sunny, it is now cold and snowy. So no one is doing much of anything. Perhaps it is good, but in some ways I wish we had gone back to the first village today. Instead, we will bypass it tomorrow with a very long day of hiking near the river. I am still hoping for good things to be part of today.

Kristine is especially unwell and spent much of the day wrapped in sleeping bags on a bench on the deck, beside a bucket frequently used. J told her that he would pray to Jesus for her, and soon after she was well. Wonderful.

March 21
Soon after my last entry, N, Logan and I went down to where we were told we could find puppies. On the way, a man demonstrated a loom for us - it was very primitive but very quick. This was the low caste area at the bottom of the village. There is quite a contrast - rougher, dirtier, and everything done or made by hand happens here. "Manual labour" is beneath the higher caste like J, yet they spend long hours with their livestock, which I discovered today occupy the lower floor of their house.

The puppies were beautiful. When the children went to pick them up to show us, the puppies wailed like they were being murdered. N tells us that it is because they are so badly treated that they always expect the worst. In N's arms they quickly quieted down and became subdued and docile in response to a little affection. When I took one in my arms, I couldn't believe how thin it was - fluff and bone. It nestled in like I was a tower of refuge.

When we came back, I found most of the students still hunkered down in the house, so I encouraged them to get outside and see if the children would come. They did. Bubbles and hackysack were a big hit, and once there was a happy buzz in the "courtyard" in front of the house, I took the opportunity to hunker down myself. Late dinner, always excellent by hand of our cook, S. Did I mention that he makes the best chai in the world?

March 23
I am a little behind again. The days are so full that it is starting to feel like I have always been here. Yesterday on the bus (disclaimer: I was pretty sleepy), I startled myself by suddenly not remembering where I actually live. Crofton and my life back there came back to me at a slow crawl through the mist. It is amazing how we have immersed ourselves in this experience.

Leaving the village was very hard. The day broke clear and sunny, and the mountains were sharp and breathtakingly beautiful. All I wanted to do was hike back up to the upper valley and spend the next week up there with J as my guide. As we were packing up I found myself standing beside J, so I took this opportunity to quietly slip him my headlamp and a bunch of batteries. "For friendship," I told him, and he said he was very happy for the gift. I told J that I would never forget him, that I would pray for him. I hoped that he would come to know Jesus, and that his influence and leadership in the village would grow. That our paths would one day cross again. He told me that he also would always remember me, and always welcome me back.

As we left down through the village, I didn't see M in front of me dodge a patch of ice on a rock. I came down hard on my seat with my pack on, which was fine, but I also came down with my right arm on top of a low rock wall beside me. I think if the wall had been a few inches higher, I might have dislocated my shoulder. As I fell, it was like it was happening to someone else, it was so unlike me to do that. The same thing happened to N, who came down a few minutes after us. It was the same shoulder I separated while snowboarding in January, and though I think I did no further ligament damage, it was pretty stiff and sore that evening. Better now, but such incidents are not helping my shoulder to heal. [Note: As I am typing this out, I am awaiting a specialist appointment, which I expect will tell me that I need surgery to reconstruct my shoulder, which has been getting worse ever since].

On the way down, we passed a number of villagers who have been at work since early morning on their stepped fields and gathering. We passed a man and his wife carrying two wooden beams up to the village. Each one was 20 feet long and about 4X6. And it wasn't one person at each end. Both man and wife carried their own beam by a rope over the shoulder. J tells us that life is very hard for the people here, and that everyone works very hard every day. But they have warm places to sleep, food to eat, clothing they have made themselves, and life is good. N told M and his family that they have skills and abilities that we would never have, that if we tried to live as they do we would soon die. They found that hard to believe, but it is true. We find ourselves envying their way of life, and dreading checking our email at the end of this trip.

The journey back was good, everyone hiking well and in good spirits. I could hear - and shared in - some good conversation, and students often broke into song. As we neared the village where Bryan had hurt his ankle, we prayed. But when we arrived at the place where we had lunch before, there was no one, and no villagers came across the river to check us out. I had prayed that not only would we be protected there, but the presence of God would felt by them as we passed by, a fear of the Lord. It was such a contrast from what we experienced there a few days before.

We took the river trail to the lower village, bypassing the trail up to our first village. I would have liked to have spent another night there, at G's house, to say farewell to his wife. So I was glad to see upon our arrival at the lower village that she was there. G and his wife invited me to the home they had there, a slightly smaller version of their house in the higher village. The construction was the same, two wooden squares set close together with another two on top, which looked bigger because of the deck space around them. No windows, small doors.

I had noticed that day that G was substituting a bright pink sweater for his usual classy woolen jacket. I soon found out why - he and his wife gave me the jacket, which fits well if I don't attempt aerobics. It was made from wool from their own sheep, spun and woven by a low caste family and then taken to town to be tailored into a jacket. I feel so honoured, and I was glad that I had in my hand a gift for him, my bright red gortex gaiters. Together with a pair of boots one of the girls gave him (they have very small feet, these porters), his feet will no longer be in the very sad condition I saw them in at our highest destination in the snow. G's wife told me through N that she was very glad to have me take the jacket, but I was distressed to see that evening in [village] that he didn't seem to have anything to replace the jacket (N lent him a fleece). I guess a new jacket will be one of the summer's long projects: herding sheep, shearing them, hiring a low caste to spin and weave, taking the cloth - how far? - to a tailor to have the coat made. I hope it is a beautiful one. I know that this one is greatly appreciated.

Because the landslide had been repaired while we were in the mountains, the jeeps met us in the village. It felt like a long way in the back of a jeep, and in case the parents of a student read this, I won't tell you about the "road." While we were away, the rhododendron trees fully bloomed, and the road was lined with bright red blossoms. We spent the afternoon wandering the little shops of [village], which were all the same - filled with every type of item you could think of, from shoes to candy to stainless steel milk cans - and we discovered some new favorite treats, mostly Indian-version spicy chips and nuts. We finished with dinner and chai (I watched S make the chai this time, boiling spices and adding a full cup of tea leaves and another of coffee whitener), and discussed our day and were reminded that, though we were back from the mountains, the adventure and opportunities were not over yet.

However, none of us were looking forward to our ten hour plus bus ride back to the city. S and G came with us (G wanted to visit his children at the Moravian school), but this is where we would say goodbye to M, who had clearly become a favourite of the group. A student gave him her hiking boots, which he quickly stuffed in his pack, and because I had noticed he loved them so much, we made a gift to him of our hiking poles. He will remember us. God, give us grace not to forget him.

The bus ride was indeed long, cold at first and then too hot, dusty and punctuated by many pee breaks. But the road improved as we went this time, and we were most often on the mountain side of passing other vehicles, instead of teetering on the edge. At [town] we gave a friendly farewell to G and S, made a stop for the guys to buy knives at a small shop in [city] that supplies the Indian army (wholesale prices - we armed ourselves to the teeth for the price of one knife in Canada), and finally arrived back at our (by Indian standards) very nice hotel.

The first order of business for me was to let everyone at home know that we were back safe from the mountains, and to figure out the status of our flight home. It seemed that our flight back through Tokyo was still available to us, but there were various opinions as to whether we should take it and I couldn't reach the people who would know best. It was not until this morning that we received the advice to take the flight but stay in the security area of the airport instead of taking our hotel rooms and hot showers - not because of the radiation danger from the damaged nuclear reactor, but because so many countries have advised their citizens to leave Japan the the security lineups are horrendous.

The second order of business was a long, hot shower, and the third was a late and delicious supper in the hotel restaurant. Again we stressed looking for the remaining opportunities before us, and went to bed.

So now, I am back on the train to Delhi, and it is dark. If all goes as scheduled, we should be there by 10:30 PM, but N tells us it could be midnight.

This morning we made a slow start, lingered over breakfast, loaded up three jeeps with us and all our stuff, and headed out into the city. How these drivers can drive! Most of the time there are few serious accidents, as drivers can rarely go fast enough to get past second gear. But I got nervous as we began to leave the city and gain speed - there are no seatbelts.

We arrived at the first school for the blind established in all of Asia, in 1903. The current superintendent and his wife, who together graciously showed us around, have been here for 25 years and have taken the place from a dilapidated place to a pristine environment for learning. It is hard to know how to describe the place, like an oasis in a desert. Spotlessly clean (which is in itself a contrast in India), so carefully designed, well-equipped. It is a Christian school, so funding is difficult and entirely through private interests, but the staff and teachers are wonderful brothers and sisters in Christ. Many have been here since they were children themselves, 15, 30, even 50 years. We heard of and from several people whose stories place them in the hall of faith - heroes. The school mostly takes girls and a few of their male siblings, because girls have a much harder road educationally. There is a mix of blind, visually impaired and sighted children, and all are clearly loved alike. Thoughtfulness is everywhere here, from textured walls and floors to help the find their way, to a fuzzy and friendly dog to play with, to methods of teaching and communication that astound me. They told of one girl whose sight was restored to 70% through cataract and laser operations, and whose experience at the school led her to faith in Christ. But she wanted to become a nurse. Against all odds she was accepted, excelled, and is now a government nurse working high in the mountains, where she is the only believer. They asked us to pray for a believing husband for her. She has had many proposals but will only marry a believer.

What an incredible group of people. Our students could so benefit from coming alongside this community for a time. They remind me of the Coastal Missions crew - long-established and full of compassion and integrity.

From there we went to lunch at a restaurant. No scrimping on food this trip! I had a platter with half a dozen kinds of somethings, most of which I liked very much. So many contrasts here. You walk through a squalid parking lot full of scooters, begging kids and moms-with-babies, into a modern eatery with marble floors and elegant waiters.

We made a brief visit to a jewelers where Sarah, Mary and Kristine had the adventure of getting their noses pierced by a talented old man for 60 rupees ($1.25) each, including the nose stud. Then it was off to the train station, less intimidating than Delhi and Haridwar, and here I am on the train, several hours to go. So far I have almost had too much mango juice (so good), and Janet is trying to get up the courage to talk with some handsome, long blonde hair dude sitting at the other end of our car.I have offered her all the rupees in my wallet, Starbucks and a cheeseburger on the ferry home if she does it. We will see.

March 24
She did. For twelve minutes. He is from just outside of Toronto, and teaching at a school in [town]. Actually, N recognizes quite a few from the school on this train, because they are on spring break. They talked about the earthquake in Japan and about a friend who was in a Tokyo hotel when it happened, as we might have been. He said his hotel swayed back and forth for four minutes, and some of the aftershocks were even longer. I'm not sad that we missed that experience.

We arrived at the YMCA about midnight, and as we briefly met we realized that our time with N was nearly done. We went to sleep, though, with good hopes for tomorrow.

We like breakfasts at the Y, even better than the hotel in [city]. There is toast and eggs, always something Indian, and cracked wheat cereal. But also a very friendly crowd from all over the world.

We did just one real tourist thing this trip - the largest mosque in Delhi and the oldest, dating back to the early 1600's. It is red stone like the famous Red Fort nearby, and it is very popular with tourists. We paid to go up one tower, twisting and turning up more than 100 stone steps, and had a good view of Old Delhi with its Hindu and Muslim quarters.

From there we went to the Muslim market, where N knew of a famous Mongol restaurant. Just a hole in a wall of an incredibly busy alleyway, but very excellent food, including grilled mutton that I liked a lot. We shopped around a bit there too, and Bret picked up a harmonium for her brother at another hole in the wall that was filled with sitars and drums.

We went back to the market in Delhi, where Bindia and her bead-selling friends found us immediately. Students hung out with them, and most of the girls attempted some last-minute shopping. But it was clear that our time was running out. It was a good thing that we had taken time that morning to express our deep appreciation and to pray for N. He is so humble though, and had a response to every kind thing said about him. I am so glad that these students had the opportunity to come alongside this man of God, man of prayer. They talked mostly about his kindness - toward them but also to everyone we encountered, from brothers in Christ to beggars on the street. I hope they will remember him and pray for him a long, long time.

Some great milkshakes at the Big Chill (another famous hole in the wall down a back alley) and then off to the airport. N allowed the girls to break protocol and hug him goodbye. He will take a night train back to [city], deal with the gear, and then he returns to the USA in early April. We already miss him.

I was surprised that there is so much more red tape in leaving India than entering it - multiple showings of passports, forms, bags searched. The new airport in Delhi is almost better than Tokyo, and looked not at all like our experience in India. We were all glad to get on the plane and crash (not literally!) - but none of us looked forward to our layover in Tokyo, which would be in the airport rather than the showers and beds in the hotel. After having to go through Japanese security, students went right to sleep at our gate and are just now starting to wake up, totally disoriented as to what time it is or how long they were asleep. Still five hours to go before we board. And then another nine hours to Vancouver and two more on the ferry to the Island. It is a very, very long way to our mountain valley. But so worth it.

The day has gone more quickly that we expected: reading, snoozing, chatting, trying to find food in Japan that was not too weird (not easy). We are not particularly talkative. Probably processing and relatively content.

[Post script: Obviously, we arrived safely back! N tells us that six children have just arrived at the Moravian school, including G's who are returning for another year, and two of J's and their cousin who are new! These two men are so impressed with what they are seeing in their children, they have been meeting with D, and J has been voraciously reading the NT he was given. Please keep praying!]