There are some places you don’t bring a DSLR.
Guano filled ancient caves probably qualify.
I spent last weekend trudging through caves in the Malaysian mountains.
Nestled deep in the jungle are large caverns that seem beyond explanation. The type of caves that make Dwarven cities in the Lord of the Rings a little bit more believable.
About thirty young college students went with us. That’s not very strange, but this was a different experience. The exception being that all these students were Muslim.
Burka’s and rules. Dates and Halal. Guys can’t touch girls. They seemed like quite the party animals.
Raised in a post 9/11 world, it is somewhat jarring to see people dressed in “Arab” fashion (Obviously if I can be in Southeast Asia and see the same clothes, it isn’t really “Arab,” is it?). While I grew up in a very diverse, progressive, and anti-racial area, I still have come to know Islam through the lens of CNN and Fox News.
I find often how much I have preconceived notions on this trip. It rewrites so much to spend just a little time with people my age from a religion that is seen through the spectrum of terrorism and peace.
Honestly, I had very little experience with Islam until this month. I did though have years of news headlines, angry examples on television of both hurt Americans and extremists, movies like Black Hawk Down, Team America and Three Kings. I remember seeing Imams on TV claiming that Islam is a peace-loving religion while refusing to admit 9/11, Embassy bombings, and much more are really that bad. I remember seeing American believers in Islam explain that extremism isn’t the heart of the religion and that we have it all wrong.
I walked away from western media and American culture more confused then enlightened about world religions.
This isn’t really about the religion though. This is about the people.
Our group left for the cave on a Friday morning. To get there you must traverse jungle roads and hike past streams and waterfalls. Along the way, my Adventure Time homey Ben picked up a few leeches. They are messy otherworldly creatures. Vampiric and bloody. Yet strangely enough salt quickly defeats them.
For three quarters of an hour we hiked up little jungle trails. Army ants. Monkeys. Mosquitoes. All the amenities that rainforest provides were available.
At the top of a trail stood this gaping black abyss. This wasn’t by any means a small cave. The ceiling was at least thirty feet above is. It was one of those expansive spaces you read about in National Geographic. The type of cave seen on Discovery Channel. Well at least before those television channels became obsessed with Bigfoot and Aliens.
With our headlamps ready, we all pushed forward.
I whispered Shakespearean and Tolkien lines underneath my breath, “Once more my friends into the breach.”
“Into the Mines!”
Bats whizzed past our heads. They didn’t seem to have much respect for personal bubbles. Snakes moved in transit from side to side. All my stereotypes about caves from Indiana Jones are now confirmed.
Snakes and bats. It’s all true.
As we ventured deeper into the cave we came upon small narrow tunnel.
I am claustrophobic. I am terrified of Clausters.
I had to get on my stomach and crawl in. For one brief second my chest caught and I almost broke my cool and collected exterior to scream like a little girl.
I am pretty sure the ground was hardened Guano. As I shimmied through the tunnel of doom, Islamic students cheered and clapped to see such a tall and wide frame fit into such a narrow gap.
I do on average stand about a head above the people in Asia. If this were filmed for local television it would’ve seemed as if the Malaysian Chris Angel had arrived.
Inside was a huge cavern filled with stalagmites, cave grasshopper shrimp things (I’m not a scientist) and cave spiders. They are large. Now I finally understand why every single video game and fantasy movie involves killing a cave spider. They are real and they are scary in real life.
So there Ben and I stood amidst dozens of college students. The girls in burkas. The guys in gym shorts.
Suddenly the students got into a circle, they turned out the lights. Nobody really spoke in English so I was left a bit confused. While sitting I observed the Malay people. There was the class clown, the scared girl, and the person who just can’t work a headlamp. All the subcultures of spelunking one finds in America.
A man in the middle began to tell of the prophet Mohammad. In the darkness we heard of this story of him having visions in a cave. The people to the left and right of me fervently prayed and spoke of Allah.
Everyday I am exposed to humanity. To people desperate for a god. Perhaps it’s the very image that looks back at us in the mirror. Perhaps it’s the sky and endless oceans. We all know something is bigger then us. I’m finding myself stunned more and more at the beauty and wisdom of scripture. Eternity is really set within our hearts.
We all long for something more. Something not of this Earth.
After this was all done, the students decided to strike up a conversation with Ben and I. He tried to shake a girls hand.
We probably do come from very different worlds.
Yet a few minutes in and the barriers of culture, language, and religion dimmed. They lessened. I saw some of the men wandering caves and getting laughed at for running off. We approached a creek that went up to the waist and had to wade through. The ceiling was very low for me; even on my knees I often hit my head repeatedly.
My DSLR should be glad I love her enough to hold her above my head, wrapped in plastic, stuck in a backpack, while I crawl on my knees through the water.
The men splashed the women with water, played pranks, and they giggled, grinned, and probably flirted. I can’t speak the language here. Yet I think flirting is pretty universal.
Eventually we escaped the cave into the fresh air of the day, smelling of bat Feces and dingy underground water.
I was the only one bereft of leeches. I may’ve worn jeans.
Some of the students lit cigarettes. They swam in a local waterfall. All in all though,
They were just human. Young college students. Filled with giggles and innocence, vice and experimentation, pranks and gifts.
I didn’t find myself shocked by the humanity they expressed. I found myself shocked at how often I assumed burka’s and rules would have robbed them of humanity.
I had always assumed a twenty year old girl with a head covering would feel chained and joyless.
And here it was I began to realize how often I had lumped so many people into the same category.
Have you ever done something because of Christianity you didn’t want to or agree with? Some hard to understand arbitrary rule maybe? Dressing up for Sunday? Not wearing hats inside of a building? Standing for worship? Sitting for communion? Not lifting hands during a somber song or hymn?
Have you ever adhered to a hard rule because you thought it was best? I can tell you many want to save themselves for marriage, but few want to put in the work involved. Many want to stay away from alcohol and vice in order to serve God better. Few ever wander down that path and often if they successfully navigate sobriety, they stumble headlong onto legalism and judgment. Some of these Islamic students are having the same type of journey through a different lens.
Have you ever been “raised” in the church? Only to walk away, stumble off for a few years, and make God “Your own”?
I realized, that just because someone adheres to rote rules and a standard of a religion does not mean that they necessarily want to, agree with them, or disagree with them. It’s simple, but it’s oft forgotten. They feel the same feelings we do. They have the same insecurities. They even have the same struggles.
We are all human.
There are lukewarm Muslims. People raised in belief that live it out of duty instead of passion. There are passionate believers of Allah. There are lukewarm Buddhists who offer beer and Doritos at the family feast because they know they eat it later and the ancestors won’t mind.
Is it possible some husbands love to see their wives but cover them up to follow a law that they think is honoring Allah? Perhaps they don’t enjoy having to hide the beauty around them, yet because they think it is good, righteous, or right, they do?
Have we assumed all Islamic people love the rules? Love the burkas? Love the hard lifestyle of sobriety and baconless meals? Maybe the atrocities we see in our media are committed out of desperation to get to paradise? A desire to serve a creator they long to know?
It’s not that what has been done is by any means right or justified. Yet I think we assume that people who commit crimes and religious atrocities do them out of hate and violence. We assume they know evil and are willingly choosing evil.
Yet what if under the twisted sense of morality involved, they are honestly thinking of what they are doing as good or at the very worst acceptable? What if a mixture of ignorance and improper morality causes all this? If we all went out for coffee and left our guns at the door, the discussion would be light-hearted, fun, and about the same things?
I have heard from multiple sources that in some locations in Malaysia, gang rape is common. When the men involved are told that gang rape is wrong, the response is stunning.
They honestly react with,
I personally am SHOCKED that anyone cannot see such a heinous act as violent and evil. I want to grab the people involved and violently shake them. My natural instinct is…
I want justice. I want them to know the love of God.
From behind bars.
On the way to the executioner.
Yet, when you are raised by a father condoning rape, told to devalue women, told you are more valuable because you are male, told that a women in the wrong place is accountable for your horrific actions… is it not understandable that when raised up and force-fed bad examples and lies you would make terrible decisions?
It’s still evil. It’s still awful.
Yet we are only by the grace of God raised in a better way.
Can we not at least praise God for the grace to be raised in a culture that reflects at least some standard of Judeo-Christian morality? Should we not praise God that we are not raised in a home of such low moral concepts? Our world-view is in much part our own responsibility, as well as in much part a result of the people and lessons in our lives.
Honestly I am just trying to understand the source and cause of things that we deem absolutely barbaric. I am trying even more to understand places and areas I’ve gotten it wrong. I am coming face to face with people who have experienced, slavery, genocide, and hate crimes. Some who have committed them. Every day it challenges me to understand how humans can act the way they do.
Warning: Bombs of the F persuasion. Or swearing for those with fragile little ears.
Some people get more offended by the F-Bombs in this song then the fact we did such a poor job as a church loving Noah, he feels this way.
I have a very minute grasp of the religious beliefs around me, what I do know though…
Is that my heart is full of judgment, stereotypes, western thinking, and ideas I only believe because I grew up in an American world. I watched enough TV to find myself “enlightened.”
When I got back from Taiwan, it was rather common for people to tell me what Taiwan was like because they watched television. Some went so far as to argue with me. Obviously my two years rubbing elbows with the natives paled in comparison to the thoughtful observations of Geraldo Rivera.
The fact is Asians hate other cultures, struggle with racism, and live out of a narrow worldview too, much like Americans.
We, I speak mostly of my American experience, hate to seem ignorant. Yet when we “Put ourselves in another persons shoes.”
We wear our own socks. We put ourselves into those shoes with the same mind frame.
“What would I, wearing another persons shoes, do?” Instead of just thinking…
“Holy crap, how the heck could they act like this? People don’t just make irrational decisions. Unless they are famous like Lady Gaga.” and going from there.
Maybe today you see someone at 7/11 that comes from another country. You are frustrated because the guy at McDonald’s knows five languages and none of them are English. You see bad stuff on the news. Ask questions. Investigate. Think deeper. It is not about Islam, Buddhism, foreigners, or religion. This transcends nerds, jocks, hipsters, scene kids, fans of twilight, Jews, gentiles, pagans, homos, heteros, Australians, and anything in between.
Maybe you hate an entire people group because of something that happened to you. Maybe you get angry. Maybe you were hurt and robbed.
Give it up. Forgive them. Put on new eyes.
Because when all is said and done Jesus not only died for these people.
He knew them better than us.
He forgave them. He longs to be with them. He longs for us to dwell richly in unity with them.
Perhaps we should try to find out why.