Some Holiday Reflections: No Room at Ivy Bank, But a Feast at Everest House

They say that life is full of surprises. And even if you expect them to come, you never can predict their shape or size. Whether joyful or painful, surprises remind us that we are not in control. We are all vulnerable to the experience of the unexpected.

Nice surprises are easy to like. We encountered one, as a family, this past week on our holiday in the foothills of the Himalaya mountains. And it did a few things in my heart. But the pleasant surprise came after an unpleasant one, on the same trip. Dealing with disappointment is never easy, but it’s also an important part of life.

Earlier in the week, we had driven from our home in Delhi to the hill station of Mussoorie. The distance is about 300 km’s and takes about seven hours of driving. Although the drive can be hectic because of the condition of the roads and the nature of some of the other drivers, the peaceful setting in the hills is well worth the trip. Mussoorie is a popular holiday destination for Indians. It’s referred to as Queen of the Hills. The part of Mussoorie that we always go back to is called Landour. We had spent three months here three years ago when we first arrived in India. It’s a very special place, home to the Landour Language School, where we first studied Hindi, and the Woodstock School, a well known boarding school where our eldest daughter Alexis did the first three months of her formal education as a day scholar.

What we enjoy most about Landour is the natural beauty of the place, the mountains and trees, the fresh air and open space. It’s also very quiet and peaceful, especially compared to the noise and busyness of Delhi. But since we don’t have a home in Landour, we wanted to stay in a place that was comfortable, something special for our short holiday. Three years ago we spent our three months in a guesthouse that was entirely adequate and affordable, but a little less to our liking. Last year when we visited we had stayed at a beautiful place called Ivy Bank, and our plan was to stay there again this year. We had tried for days to call from Delhi and confirm a booking, but the phones were down. So we arrived on the doorstep of Ivy Bank in the afternoon and hoped for a room.

It says in the Book of Proverbs, "Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life." After learning that there were no rooms available at Ivy Bank, we walked away with sick hearts. Even though we knew that we didn’t have a confirmed booking, we were surprised that we wouldn’t be staying there. Afterall, this wasn’t a busy time of the year. There were other options for us, but they were not Ivy Bank. Maybe God had something better in mind for us? Maybe, but maybe not. Sometimes it works out like that, and sometimes it doesn’t. Life is just not that simple. Nor are the ways of God. Although it’s theologically nice to believe that about disappointments, that there is always a better option, God doesn’t have to submit to the equation. He doesn’t govern his world tit for tat. Even if you believe that he is entirely and always good (which I do), it doesn’t mean that God must deliver happiness after every disappointment. Sometimes his goodness is hidden from us, at least for a time, and sometimes a long time.

We were upset that we weren’t staying at Ivy Bank. I don’t know why it didn’t work out as we had hoped and prayed. The place where we ended up staying was not as nice, but we enjoyed the good features and overlooked the bad. We accepted God’s decision, but we didn’t necessarily understand it. It was no disaster, but it was a disappointment.

The following afternoon we set out on an excursion to Everest House. It was a short drive and an easy hike, even with kids. We packed a light picnic and planned to eat it once we arrived at our destination, which was a clearing atop a hill where Sir George Everest had lived, the Englishman after whom the tallest mountain in the world is named. He was a surveyor and geographer who had mapped out the mountains in India, Nepal and Tibet from the observatory next to his residence on this very hill. Though the name of Everest stands tall, the buildings erected by him here on this site are, unfortunately, falling apart. Still, the location is amazing.

The kids did well as we made our way down the trail and weaved through mountain villages and camping sites. It was a beautiful day, though a thick haze kept the more impressive views hidden. In some places we could make out the faint outline of mountains in the distance, and we knew that there were a host of majestic snow-covered peaks beyond the mist. To the other side, also hidden from us, lay the Doon Valley and the city of Dehradun, the state capital of Uttaranchal. As we made our final ascent to Everest House we had the feeling of arriving on top of the world. And yet we were not alone in the clearing. As soon as we caught sight of the derelict buildings, we also saw several vehicles and a great party spread out on the lawn next to the house. There were umbrellas and blankets and chairs and a grand display of food and drink. And there were people, a cosmopolitan crowd, enjoying it all in a setting like no other. It was elaborate.

As we explored the house, people looked on. Servants scurried about. Some village children played. There was more than enough space for all of us to savour the setting, but we noticed each other, especially our little family and their big party. We looked on with delight. It was a beautiful occasion.

As we made our way over to the other side of the clearing to crack out our snacks, an elderly man broke away from the crowd and came toward us. His invitation was kind and clear, "Please come and enjoy some of our food." Impressed and humbled by the gesture, we accepted the offer. Before we knew it, we were seated on the grass, feasting on the finest food, with ceramic plates, silverware and linen napkins. It was hardly the simple picnic we had planned. We were surprised, and grateful.

We learned that the man’s name was Rana and he was celebrating his sixtieth birthday party with his family. He told us that they had come from all over the world to celebrate his life in this location, from London, New York, Stockholm, Montreal, and Delhi. They had certainly come at no small expense, parents, children and grandchildren. It was extravagant.

Rana was obviously honoured and pleased by the whole event. We don’t know what else was in his heart, but he seemed grateful. His act of love was sincere and we were touched by his eagerness to share. He was generous with us, and kind. He offered more than we received, but we were never made to feel uncomfortable. It was simply a gift, freely shared. And we thoroughly enjoyed it, and laughed at our good fortune.

As we finished our food, Rana offered to have his driver take us back to our car where we had begun our hike. We gratefully accepted that offer as well, having completed the greater distance of the circular hike already on the way to Everest House, and knowing that the remaining hike was more precarious than our family probably had energy for. We said goodbye and expressed our gratitude, and our encounter with Rana was finished. Our hearts, however, kept stirring, and we spoke to each other of the goodness we had just experienced.

It’s not hard to see the good in a surprise like that. It was a gift of grace. We had done nothing to deserve it from Rana. We will probably never have an opportunity to repay him for his good deed. As well, even after seeing the party, we had certainly not expected, or even hoped, to be included in any way. In that way, our meeting at Everest House was coincidental, random. However, Rana’s generosity gives us a glimpse of God’s generosity. Although neither Rana nor us planned our encounter, we believe that God did. It is entirely congruent with our beliefs about God and his goodness. We didn’t deserve this unexpected blessing, but we believe that God was delighted to allow our family to experience this beautiful charity. It convinces us again that God is good, and that people, whatever their relationship to God, also have an amazing capacity to do good. This happening restores within our hearts a sense of common grace in our world, found in gracious people and ruled by a gracious God.

Amidst life’s disappointments, gifts of grace like this keep us bouyant. They help to keep us believing in people and believing in God. If painful surprises are inevitable, then joyful ones are also necessary, though God alone decides the shape and size of them all. He alone knows what we need and what we are able to bear, and when.

P.S. After asking their driver a few questions and doing a little research back in Delhi, we discovered that our gracious host at Everest House was Rana Talwar, a prominent international banker and a recently-appointed board member of DLF (Delhi Lease and Finance), the largest real estate development company in India. Rana is the son-in-law of K.P. Singh, the owner of DLF, and according to the Forbes listing of March 2008, the 8th richest man in the world.

For Palm Sunday: A Sermon

Palm Sunday is celebrated one week before Easter and commemorates Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, as told in the Gospels.

Do we understand Palm Sunday? What does God want to speak to us today through this story?

That's where I have to begin as I read this story again, asking myself those questions. And I must admit that when I came to this story again this year, I thought I understood Palm Sunday better than I did. And I was surprised in some ways with what I found in this story, and what perhaps God would want to speak to us through it.

I'm reading the story of Palm Sunday from the Gospel of John, chapter 12. In John, the story of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem is very closely tied with the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, which is told in chapter 11. That amazing miracle had a huge impact on the people in the area surrounding Jerusalem (and rightly so, people don't get raised from the dead too often). Lazarus lived in Bethany, which was about two miles from Jerusalem.

At the beginning of chapter 12 Jesus is in Bethany having dinner with Mary, Martha and Lazarus, and Mary has just anointed Jesus with very expensive perfume (to the dismay of some of the disciples, especially Judas) and Jesus makes a statement about this being an anointing for his burial.

This is the story from John 12:9-19 (NIV).

(9) Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there (in Bethany) and they came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. (10) So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, (11) for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and putting their faith in him. (12) The next day the great crowd that had come for the Feast heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. (13) So they took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting,
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the King of Israel!
(14) And Jesus found a young donkey and sat upon it, as it is written, (15) "Do not be
afraid, O Daughter of Zion, see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey's colt." (16) At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that they had done these things to him. (17) Now the crowd that was with him had continued to spread the word that he had called Lazarus from the tomb, raising him from the dead. (18) Many people, because they had heard that he had given this miraculous sign, went out to meet him. (19) So the Pharisees said to one another, See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him.

I'm not too much into politics, but I do know that when a new political leader comes into prominence, people put their hope in them. People look for change. They hope for better times. Right now in the US, Obama might be this kind of figure for some. He's showing some potential.
He's getting some people excited. They're saying, "Maybe this is the President we've been waiting for." People are cheering. People are hoping.

When Jesus strolled into Jerusalem a week before the Feast of Passover, the people were excited. They were cheering for Jesus. They were proclaiming him as King. They were crying out, Hosanna, which is a Hebrew word simply meaning, "Save us!" They were saying to each other, "This is the one we've been waiting for." "Maybe he's the one who will save us from all our problems."

And these people had problems -- their biggest problem was the Romans. These people desperately wanted freedom, political freedom, freedom from the oppression of the Roman government. They wanted a king who had power, the kind of power that could overthrow the Romans. And Jesus had power, incredible power, power to raise the dead. And these people thought, "This is it! He's the one! This is the man that God has sent to conquer Rome. This is the man who's going to set us free."

So the crowd is cheering for Jesus, but the question is, do they understand him? They're proclaiming Him as king, but do they understand what kind of king He really is? Crowds of people cheering, but where were they all a few days later when Jesus hung on the cross, dying? They weren't cheering anymore. A Crucified King didn't fit their expectations, their hopes. Jesus was not the political Messiah that many in Jerusalem were hoping for. He wasn't there to rally the troops and conquer Rome, he came to Jerusalem to die and in dying to conquer sin. Jesus was a king, but it seems that these people had a wrong idea about what kind of king He was.

This was a problem that Jesus encountered a lot during his ministry. That's why so often He was reluctant to be called the Messiah, and he often warned His disciples not to tell people. WHY? Because people didn't understand Him or the true nature of His mission.

In John 6 we have an example of this. This is right after Jesus has fed the 5000, it says in v.14, "After the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus did, they began to say, 'Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.'"

The people start to get excited about Jesus, but for the wrong reasons, they have wrong motives.

Then in v.15, it says, "Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again into the hills by himself."

Jesus was not the kind of king that the people were hoping for. He knew it. The people didn't.

Later in John chapter 18, when Jesus is talking with Pilate, Jesus admits to him that he is a king, but he's very clear about the fact that ... "[His] kingdom is not of this world" (v.36). It's a different kind of kingdom.

This is why the donkey is important in this Palm Sunday story. That donkey helps explain in some ways what kind of king Jesus really is. The donkey is linked to a prophecy from a passage in Zechariah that talks about a king who comes to Jerusalem in gentleness and humility and who comes to bring peace not war. This is a different kind of king, a humble and gentle king,
a servant king.

The full passage in question reads like this,
"Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your
king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a
donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will take away the chariots from
Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He
will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and
from the River to the ends of the earth" (Zechariah 9:9-10).
Jesus' mission was to proclaim peace to the nations. But these people during Jesus' time are enamoured by his power. They're impressed with his miracles. So they're cheering for him, but they don't seem to understand his mission as a Servant King.

What about us? Are we cheering for Jesus? We spend a lot of time in our churches singing his praises, but do we understand him? We have proclaimed him as our King, our Lord, our Saviour,
but do we understand what that means? Do we understand the path that he had to take to secure our salvation?

We're not unlike the people of Jesus' time. In some ways, we also want a king, a king who will give us what we want, when we want it. Sometimes we think of God like that. It's easy to cheer for God when everyone else around us is cheering. We tell him how awesome he is. We sing songs about how great he is. But often times, what we're really interested in is what he can do for us. Sometimes we're just as earthly-minded and self-centered as those people in Jerusalem.
Their praise of Jesus didn't match their understanding of who Jesus was, and it didn't seem to match their commitment to follow Jesus. They hoped he would bring them a better life, but he ended up dying.

What about us? Does our praise of Jesus match our understanding of who he is? Does it match our commitment to follow Him? I hope it does. I hope that our praise comes from our hearts.

We see Palm Sunday from the other side of the Cross. We know that Jesus is worthy of our praise, that He is King of kings and Lord of lords. We know that when we cry out, "Hosanna! Save us!", that that's exactly what Jesus accomplished at the Cross. We know that his mission was to set us free from sin.

Palm Sunday is a celebration for us, and it should be. But we need to understand what we're celebrating. For Jesus, in some ways, Palm Sunday was a glimpse into the future, when he would rule and reign as King of kings. But Jesus understood his mission. He knew that the path to victory and triumph would be a path of self-denial and suffering and death. Jesus came to Jerusalem to die. His triumph only came as a result of his death on the cross. Palm Sunday is a day to celebrate the obedience of Christ.

Paul writes in Philippians chapter 2, that, "Jesus humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross." Then it says in vs.9-11 of chapter 2:

"Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is
above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and
on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is
Lord, to the glory of God the Father."
As we draw near the end of the Season of Lent I hope it has been a valuable time of self-examination and self-denial, and that you are more ready to celebrate the victory that Jesus won at the Cross, more ready to bow before our Humble Servant King, Jesus Christ.

We noted earlier that before this passage about the Triumphal Entry, Jesus is talking about his death and his anointing for burial. As well, right after the passage, still in John 12, Jesus is again talking about his death, but not only about his death but about ours as well. He says in v.24 of ch.12,
"I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it
remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who
loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will
keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my
servant also will be."
Jesus came to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to lay his life down for us. He also invites us to lay our lives down for him. Palm Sunday is a day to not only praise Jesus with our lips, but a day to surrender to Him our very lives.

From Azerbaijan With Love

I’ve been reading Shantaram, the hefty international bestseller by Gregory David Roberts (2003, by Scribe Publications). It’s a well written novel based on the author’s own experiences of escaping from a prison in Australia and moving to Bombay, India. It’s quite an amazing adventure, and I’d recommend the read. Obviously, it held my interest even more because it is mostly set in India.

One of the things that this fugitive takes up in Bombay to provide income for himself is exchanging money on the black market. He begins on a small scale with tourists and ends up working large corporate accounts with the Mumbai mafia.

So, as I’m reading this story in the evenings before I go to bed, during the days I start to get randomly approached by people who ask me to exchange money for them. A driver who works in our neighborhood came to me on a couple occasions with coins, first with a Canadian two-nie, then with two euros, small stuff that I gladly gave him rupees for, at a fair exchange rate. A couple days later, a security guard at a nearby shop approaches me with two Canadian five dollar bills, and asks simply, "Exchange?" I chuckle and hand him four hundred rupees, a better exchange rate than he could get anywhere else. I tell myself that this is a courtesy more than anything. So far, I wasn’t entertaining the idea of charging commission. But I start to wonder a bit more about it when a day or two later the same guy brings me two US twenty dollar bills and asks for the same rate. I oblige him again, but determine in my mind not to let this go too far.

Strangely enough, a few days later, I am approached again by another security guard in another neighborhood, this time with a small foreign currency note that I’ve never seen before. As I look closely, it appears to be from Azerbaijan, 1000 Manat, of which I had no idea about its worth. I confessed my ignorance to the guard, but he asked me to take it anyway and try to find out something about it. With a tinge of curiosity in my mind, I put it in my pocket and continued on my way. I forgot about it for a good day. Then, after re-discovering it in my pocket, I checked the spelling and typed it into Google. One of the links brought me to a currency converter and I casually punched in "1000". I was more than a little surprised when I learned that the funny little note was valued at $1185.00 USD! That’s over 47,000 Indian rupees, probably a tad more than that security guard dreamed. In fact, that’s about a year’s wage for him!

The next question, of course, was, Who is going to exchange this for me? Well, after calling a few money exchange centers here in Delhi, I realized that it wasn’t going to be easy. The last person I spoke with told me plainly that I wouldn’t be able to exchange this currency anywhere in India. So I went back to the Internet and found out more about my predicament. First, I found out that there is more than one edition of the Azerbaijani Manat, and the note that I had was probably worth more like 20 cents US rather than the massive amount I had first encountered. Second, I found out that it was unlikely that I would be able to exchange the note anywhere outside of Azerbaijan. I did find out that there was a Azerbaijani Embassy in Delhi, but unfortunately they haven’t answered my phone calls.

So, what am I left with? Well, for starters, one disappointed security guard. I told him that I was encountering some difficulties, but that I would keep trying to get something for it, and that I would surely give him the rupees if and when I was able to exchange it. I am flying through Heathrow Airport in London in another month or so, and I’ve thought that that might be as good a place as any to enquire about exchange. But I am increasingly doubtful that I will be getting anything for that special little note. So for now, the 1000 Manat remains in my wallet. But I must admit that I’m a little disappointed too. Not only am I not able to surprise the security guard with a huge bonus, but my interesting story is also losing it’s bite. However, the dying wind in my sails is perhaps good for at least one thing, I am less tempted to enter a side-career in black market money exchange. For now, I’ll happily deal with the small stuff and leave the big stuff for the novels.