Alone In a Foreign Place

5 05 2011

Imagine that you have been invited to travel to some place that is totally foreign to you. I don’t mean some place pretty in France where you can buy a croissant in a cafe with a view of the Eiffel Tower. I mean some place that would scare you if you were alone. Some place with an illogical maze of narrow, noisy streets; where not a word of English is spoken or written and people make gestures that you can’t interpret (friendly or unfriendly?). A Tim Burton kind of city that had no city-planner so that buildings stand at demented heights — one squat, one impossibly narrow — and the sunlight only filters in by ribbons, or shadows depending on how it catches you. It is a collection of alleys and down one you are met by a dozen set of accusing eyes, and down another, a mad collection of colors and canopies and carts. Nothing makes sense.

Nothing makes sense, but it is no big deal. Normally it would be a big deal, but in this case you have the one thing that makes you a casual observer: you have a guide. The way it happened was this person (I will use “he” for ease of writing) suggested the trip and it seemed like such an opportunity because he was completely familiar with the place. He understood the culture and customs and was completely fluent in their language. He would plan it, you would just tag along. Win, win.

So there you are, in the middle of the word “foreign” and you are OK with it and he is a superb guide. He knows everything. Having said that, “everything” can be a bit much. At times you find yourself saturated with information so you tune out here and there. When he suggests that you learn a few words in “their language” you repeat-after-him but quickly forget the difference between “good morning” and “good night”; the words all sound the same. He tells you about their local customs, the ins and outs of their daily life, their politics and their religion; the issues they contend with. You listen and then you don’t listen; you know how it is?

Its so easy, this touring thing. No matter where you are, or what snag you hit, he always gets you back to the hotel. And one evening, back at the hotel after a long and exhausting day of  seeing the sights he suggests the two of you get some air. There is a lovely garden in the courtyard; you could close your eyes and hear things down there; something you should experience, he says.

While practicing this, this listening, a commotion breaks out. You have no idea what it is about, but there is a lot of yelling and people converge on the courtyard like a tsunami. You become separated from your guide, with force. There are uniforms and civilians, fists and fury. Strange words have a familiar ring: anger. You want to find your friend, but you can’t see…wait…you do see him and he is being roughed up. You should break in but you debate it. If you do, then this is the outcome. If you don’t, perhaps this will be the outcome. If they know you are with him, will they do that to you? You look around for help, but You don’t know what help looks like here, alone in this foreign place.

Shots pepper the air.

It is the worst thing; the worst thing imaginable. You run from the blood on the ground, the blood of your friend, the one who walked with you.

You are stunned; in shock. Everyone looks wild to you. So you run to the one place that you know: your room and you lock the door. And you check that the door is locked. Three times, you make sure the door is locked. And you sit on the edge of the bed and wait like someone is going to step into the role of your guide and do what he did: explain.

No one comes. You think you hear people at the door and you sweat. But no one comes.

What was it he said? You never expected to be alone, so you didn’t really listen when he said, “If we ever become separated…” You never thought he was serious. Were you to phone someone? The phone is in the lobby and you don’t know how to call out, or even who to call.

You eat the granola bars from your carry-on and drink the tap-water even though that part you remember (“Don’t drink the tap water”) but wouldn’t he say that in this case, drink, because he would want you to survive? This should get you through one day, two days, three days at the most.

* * *

This is where my mind went this morning when I read John 20:19, about the disciples sitting behind locked doors. Weren’t they like this? Just tripping after Jesus, their guide? Didn’t they listen and then not listen? Didn’t they miss some important parts altogether, like “if we get separated, don’t worry because in three days…” They hadn’t listened well enough and when Jesus was crucified they might have even said, “What did we get ourselves mixed up in?”

It would have been that scary. To have walked an alternate, narrow road with Jesus; one that so angered so many people. To have given up so much. To be identified with his counter-cultural ideas.

Behind locked doors they could not even imagine Jesus “always being with” them, because how could he be? Wrapped in grave-cloths in a tomb. And the whole, “in three days I will rise” might have felt like another parable they didn’t understand. Something with “deep meaning” that escaped them. Death is death. There was no one with the know-how to raise him up.

In my foreign lands, don’t I often feel the same? It is one thing when I have someone giving me the step 1, step 2, step three but go and leave me on my own to live it out, to see how it works and I just want to sit in my room a while.

Yet, my guide, Jesus, who always was with me, continues to be with me and when I unlock the door and look both ways and haven’t the faintest clue how to get wherever I need to get…he promises to still light the way, still direct my paths, still comfort me, still interpret for me, still keep me safe from the evil one (currently my favorite prayer: John 17:15). Nothing and everything has changed. Nothing, because Jesus is the same. Everything because there is no longer anything that can separate us.

But still, being human, I understand the locked door.

— Teresa Klassen



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