The Transfiguration of the Commonplace – chapter two

PakistaniGreetingsBORDER CRISIS
The state of Texas is at the frontline of America’s recent obsession with border security. Some call it a crisis. Others call our response to the situation the crisis. From where I sit at Barbarossa Coffee about 365 miles from nearest border crossing, the idea of crossing international borders still seems abstract.

Most international borders have remained invisible to me. At the age of 47, I’ve now crossed 26 unique international borders. Those border crossings have almost always happened inside an airport while moving from the “international zone” of duty free shops and harried commuters through a customs and immigration terminal into the “real world” of whatever country I was visiting. I flew across an imaginary line in the sky and was then officially “recognized” as a visitor to this new country by a booth-dwelling government employee.

I’ve drifted on a ferry across the invisible barrier between Asia and Europe around the Golden Horn of Instanbul, Turkey. I’ve herded a van load of anxious teenagers through a chain-link gate from Botswana into South Africa. When the immigration agent at the San Ysidro border crossing from Southern California into Mexico asked, “Citizenship?” I responded with an enthusiastic “yes!” and was mocked relentlessly by the friends with me in the car.

Most of the borders that exist in our world have been drawn as a negotiation made by some group of old men sitting around a table. “This is mine. That is yours.” Perhaps no such division is more bold than the line drawn in 1947 between India and Pakistan. This “partition” of the Indian state of Punjab into a new Muslim-majority nation resulted in the displacement of at least 14 million people and the death of anywhere between 200,000 and 2,000,000 people. To this day, the border crossing between Pakistan and India is dramatic display of unneighborly dissension.

RooftopChurchA few years ago, I was invited to train church leaders in Faisalabad, Pakistan and Kakinada, India. Because these countries are next door to one another, it seemed completely reasonable that both requests could be honored in a single trip. However, because of the tension that has remained at the boiling point for the last 72 years, no flights are allowed to enter India directly from Pakistan so my friend and I decided to…hoof it.

After a week of training church leaders in Eastern Pakistan we were sardined into mini-van with 9 of our new friends for the 3 hour drive to the border. Our hosts knew that if we were visible through the windows of the van not only might we personally be at risk, but they and their continuing work in Pakistan might be at risk so we sat knees-to-chest on the floor of the van for most of the drive. A quarter of a mile from the Wagah border crossing in Lahore, Pakistan we extricated ourselves and our bags from the overpacked mini-van and began the walk toward Amritsar, India.

wagah faceoffThe Wagah border crossing is a melodrama of national pride and relational tension. At sunset every day, guards from both countries put on a spectacle of nationalist fervor for crowds of residents who gather to cheer and stoke the fires of ethnic and religious dissension. I’ve since watched videos of this ceremonialized face off. I’ve wished I had witnessed the ceremony in the same way one might crane their head to take in the gory details of a car accident. But THAT day I hoped to be nothing but a shadow. My friend and I aimed to be inconspicuous extras disappearing into the background of the scene.

Though we walked in front of the stands that line the road on either side of the border, our mid-day crossing was witnessed by almost no one. The power was out on the Pakistani side of the border so the guards could not verify our identities or our itineraries. They spoke almost no English and I spoke almost no Urdu. They simply dug through our bags, side-eyeing us suspiciously, and allowed us to pass.

tuktuksWe walked the hundred yards of no-mans-land between the 2 countries, through a turnstile gate and into the well-lit and air-conditioned Indian immigration and customs center at Amritsar. By this point, the combination of a final celebratory meal in Faisalabad of bone marrow soup, motion-sickness from the van ride, heat, and anxiety left me feeling (and looking) extremely green. We were allowed to pass without even slowing down and were soon in a tuktuk headed toward the Guru Ram Dess Ji International airport.

After a week on India’s southeastern coast in Kakinada we returned exhausted to the United States. After all of the tension of the Wagah border crossing from Pakistan, it was actually this final leg of the journey that proved the most contentious. Traveling to Pakistan was frowned upon by the US government in those days and my friend and I were quarantined and interrogated separately by US border patrol agents. While in both Pakistan and India, I felt the need to be…vague…about my work with Christian pastors. With US customs agents however I felt completely comfortable explaining the full nature of our trip. They weren’t buying it.

During the interview I was asked multiple times whether we had crossed into Afghanistan. Finally after recounting every boring detail of our time in Faisalabad, the agent added the question, “now was all of this before or after you crossed into Afghanistan?” He thought he might sneak one last trick question into my interview. I wanted to roll my eyes and crack a joke but just as I opened my mouth with a snarky reply, the better angel of my nature nudged me and I slowly repeated “we never even came close to the Afghanistan border.” Even after my wide-open honesty about our itinerary I was put on a watchlist and for several years received a side trip for “secondary screening” at every TSA station I entered. In the United States we take the crossing of borders very seriously.

Jesus was constantly crossing borders: ethnic and gender borders, religious and social borders. The guardians of the rules were often offended by Jesus’ disregard for the borders they worked so hard to both create and maintain. Catching Jesus crossing one of their regulatory borders was not difficult. The gospels record Jesus’ holy border crossings again and again. The biblical record reflects an outward spinning of the gospel that has transcended every boundary it has faced in all the world. There is much that divides us globally but the centrifugal force of the Kingdom of God seems to not even notice these imaginary borders we use to define what is mine and what is theirs.

Faisalabad CrowdAre there imaginary borders that you have drawn around your life? Have you built some “us and them” boundary lines to protect yourself? Borders of race, gender, religion, nationality, relationship? Perhaps, a boundary that you thought was protecting you is actually hurting you. A Kingdom adventure might be waiting for you just beyond that imaginary border. The gospel is constantly propelling us outward with the only clear destination being that people of every tribe and tongue, ALL people, might someday hear and know that Yahweh is the Lord and there is no other. Step with confidence through the border of self-protection and you will find just on the other side, The Guide has been waiting to lead you into His revolutionary love-story.

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