I’d like to break off a little praise-Jesus-what-what. Last night was pretty good.
My TOEFL students mention corruption a lot, and they were wanting an authentic reading sample to practice with. So I took them to youtube on Tuesday and introduced them to Oscar Romero – former Archbishop of El Salvador and social justice martyr. Then I gave them a speech he made about the roots of and cure for social injustice. They read the speech and came ready to discuss it. In the speech there is an oblique reference to the woman caught in adultery, and I asked them what Romero’s rhetorical purpose was in using that (that’s a TOEFL-style question). They couldn’t make sense of it, so we googled the phrase and wound up on youtube again watching the adulterous woman scene from “The Passion of the Christ”. The man in the class wasn’t there, but that actually allowed the girls a little more freedom in the conversation. They seemed really taken by Jesus. From there we discussed Romero’s claim that the cure for social injustice is for each human being to be saved from sin, and what that might mean practically. That was my TOEFL class.
From there I went to Aikido and had a normal class. I’m getting better. But that’s not why Aikido was cool. After, I declined an invitation to Sensei’s chay with my Sempei, because I was thinking that he wanted to go home and was only asking to be polite. And he was. But he wavered a bit and after he showered he asked me again to just go drink one chay and then we’d leave (thinking my need to go would let him leave without burning 3hrs at Sense’s table). I agreed, and I drank chay and answered an English question or two, and tried to find an exit from the conversation. They were talking about opening a new branch of the dojo and were discussing potential class times. They asked me when foreigners would like to train and would 10pm be too late, and I told them that I wouldn’t know but 10 would be too late for me because I get up pretty early every day…two or three hours before I go to work, usually. Here’s how the conversation between me and four of them went from there:
“Why do you get up so early?”
“Well, sometimes I train a little, and I shower and I pray every day.”
“Every day you pray? Is it at a certain time, like Namaz?”
“No, no. I just pray because I want to.”
â”What do you do when you pray?”
“I read the Ingil for half an hour or an hour, and after that I pray…for my heart, my sins, my hopes, my family. For my friends, for you guys, for the dojo, for the City. For the world. And I just worship Allah.”
“You pray for us? For the dojo? What do you pray? Why do you pray for us?”
“I pray for progress for the dojo. And for you…you guys are made in God’s image. When I look at your face, I see some of God’s dreams for you. You are my teacher, and you’re 50, and I understand that. But still, I feel that we will be friends. We must carry our friends, no?, so I carry you to God.”
“What language do you pray in? Do you understand what you’re saying?”
“Yeah. Sometimes in English and sometimes in Narnyan. But what is in my heart is what I pray.”
“Are there special movements or positions?”
“No. Sometimes I am sitting. Sometimes I am kneeling. With me, I use my body to communicate to Allah how my heart feels about what I am saying. For example, my friend’s wife is really, really sick. When I pray for her, sometimes I am on my knees, or on my face. But sometimes when I pray I am so happy I could dance.”
[Here they break off into a conversation about how people sometimes do Namaz in the middle of Aikido class, and how unnecessary that is. And why do they do it in Arabic? They don’t understand a word they are saying. Then they continue with me…]
“How beautiful that you do this.”
“Well, for me, it’s all about grace. I don;t do this to make God happy. Here, here’s a good example. It’s written that sometimes people trust their own good deeds to make God accept them. And because of this, Jesus gave this parable [insert the parable of the Pharisee (I explain this person as an imam or mullah) and the tax collector]. So, what is necessary is not good deeds to make God happy, but to trust in his mercy.”
“For me, prayer is not my debt to God. My life is my debt to God. My sins are many. My life was empty. And he grabbed me, and he gave me hope, and he put his Spirit inside me, and he changed my life utterly. After that, I began to read the Ingil, and it’s there, from Jesus, that I began to learn how Allah loves me, and I began to love him back. I watch people every day, walking around, thinking that God is far away. But God isn’t far away. Allah is near, and he loves these people, and his heart is broken because they do not see how much he loves them. And so, my heart is broken with his for them, and so I pray. I’m sorry, I don’t speak Narnyan well. Do you understand me? Sempei, are you alright?”
“Me? Yes, yes. I’m just thinking deeply about what you’re saying. I want to ask you a few questions. Ok?”
“So do you have enemies?”
“I did. And I was their enemy. But Allah has forgiven me much, so I must forgive them. Period. And Jesus told me to love my enemies. So I do. They may be my enemy. But I am not theirs.”
“Wow. So did you begin to pray and then your life changed, or what?”
“First Allah grabbed me and saved me. I could not change myself. I needed a savior and he sent one. Then, I began to pray and read the Ingil, and slowly, slowly, he is changing me completely.”
“Beautiful. Do you guys see that? Beautiful.”
Along the way, the two girls in the room were on the edges of their seats, occasionally explaining to one another what I was meaning. And, throughout, my teacher (the Sempei) was settling deeply into what I was saying, and something real was going on inside him as we talked. All this was in my halting Narnyan, but where I felt meaning might be obscured I’d negotiate it with them until it was clear. I’m less excited about what I said, and more excited about what they asked.
And along the way, two things flashed in my head crystal clearly: 1) Three times a week, when I leave at night and my wife is left to put the kids down herself, and it wears her out, this is what that is for; and 2) Every night when I just want to fall asleep, and she says, “Do you want to pray?”, and we pray for these guys – this is directly connected to that. Part of my gift set is that I can sometimes clearly intuit the connections between things. And I saw it last night – this was as much her work as it was mine.
And for those of you who pray for us – this was your work, too.
Now for the hard part of waiting for the next act, and living out love in the meanwhile. Tomorrow I’m supposed to go to a Russian bathhouse with my sempei, so we’ll see if more conversation goes on over steam, ridiculous heat, beatings with eucalyptus brooms and near-nudity.