#1 Prologue: Wandering

Some of you may know, a few years ago, I took a trip around the world to Brazil, Wales, Tanzania, China and Honduras to get a traveler’s perspective on Christianity around the world. Back in the U.S. afterward, life slowly started to return to normal. You soon forget the lack of hot water, sporadic electricity, internet and indoor plumbing (well no, let’s be honest, you don’t forget that), and are right back in the middle of mundane details like paying bills, answering emails and ironing your pants.

It was a great trip, but something was missing, like a conversation with something still left unsaid.

When I wrote Coffee, Tea and Holy Water, I was often asked why I didn’t include the country of India. The answer was simple, “India could be a whole other book by itself,” I would joke.

Somewhere along the way, this answer became real.

India is the second most populated country in the world, behind China, with nearly 1.3 billion people. The diversity of its people color the country like a profusion of wildflowers, overgrown and tangled. I had family in India – one of my cousins married a native of Meghalaya in northeast India. There had been a revival in the Northeast several years earlier – why didn’t I come visit, they asked?

At the same time, I was wrestling with a question of a different kind.

What does God ask of us?

Specifically, what does God ask of me?

To be faithful? To tithe? To live a quiet life? To be missionaries? To support missionaries? To stay out of trouble?

It remains a question at the heart of every conscious believer.

What does God ask of us?

***

I grew up in Alabama, in a culture of Christianity, you might say. I flew through high school, then college in three years. I entered my first entry-level job at 21, as a tech writer in the basement of an ISS building, all the time wondering, What does God really ask of us? How do you find it?

I felt paralyzed every time I thought about it, kind of like I imagine an African tribesman would feel stepping inside a Wal-Mart for the first time.

We are called to love him, to serve him – yes. I know there was no “wrong answer.”

And yet, the responsibility felt so great.

For the first time in my life, there was no “next step”…and I envied the people who had found that next step, who had purpose.

I wish I could tell you I figured it all out, but I spent years in that phase, trying to answer those two questions. Adrift, but somehow knowing, like the ruby slippers in the Wizard of Oz, that the answer should be with me somewhere.

It wasn’t that I was completely lost, mind you. Just aware of my own ineptitude. I didn’t trust myself to make a brilliant decision with my life, or to know I fit into God’s “master plan.”

Where should I go? What should I do?

***


A few years later, I wound up in Nashville.

Now, there are a few things you should know about Nashville:

  1. It’s a musical city. Not just country music, but every kind of music. And while celebrity sightings are somewhat rare, it’s not uncommon to run into a famous band’s guitarist in the produce aisle, or a reality TV star from three years ago, or hear “You just missed Taylor Swift…she was here 20 min ago.”  

    If Nashville were a drink, it would be bourbon. It gets its culinary personality from hot chicken, ainancial advice from Dave Ramsey.

  2. It loves a good party. Whether it’s a marathon, pub crawl, art fest, flea market, h race, hockey playoffs, tailgating, the CMAs, CMTs or AMA awards, there’s always something happening.
  3. There are more parks, coffee bars and kinds of beer than the city really knows what to do with. Oh, and the state capitol is in there somewhere.
  4. Snow shuts the city down. Shuts it down. If flakes have been spotted anywhere in an eight county radius, or if it’s snowing in Kentucky, school is canceled. And so is your next event too, probably.
  5. The church culture runs deep, like a slow southern drawl. Young churches to old churches, from classical to contemporary, megachurch babies to traditional sanctuaries.

I’ve written before about the Christian culture of the South. Being from Alabama, I moved one state north to Tennessee, from Christian to…more Christian – if that’s possible – although I’m told the holy dust starts wearing off somewhere above the Kentucky border, right along the snowline. If you don’t like country music or the church, you’re out of luck…because that’s the current running through the city.

Deep and soul searching like a country song, I asked God my questions. Am I on the right path? Why can’t I hear from you?

***

Sometimes the start of a spiritual journey starts with the ordinary – a gentle prompt of knowing you should that you can’t explain. I was working at a Nashville organization, minding my own business, when the invitation to visit India appeared – from a friend on Twitter, no less.

One of my friends, Pete posted on Twitter, “Who wants to go to India?”

He may have meant this rhetorically, and normal people probably need more details, but for me I knew that was my call. Pete was on the board of a non-profit called OneLife International, an organization dedicated to serving those in poverty in Calcutta.

The plans for the trip slowly began to take shape. Maybe it was the diversity of India that made it so appealing. India was the land of spices, tea, silks, gems, colorful scarves, rugs, smoke incense, music and color. Poet Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “In the great books of India, an empire spoke to us, nothing small or unworthy, but large, serene, consistent, the voice of an old intelligence, which in another age and climate had pondered and thus disposed of the questions that exercise us.”1

Somewhere in India, perhaps I could find the answers.