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Katy Sundararajan is the Th.M. Program Administrator and International Student Advisor at Western Theological Seminary, and partners with her husband as an RCA missionary with Audio Scripture Ministries. She continues filling in for Tom here at The Twelve.
My four year-old has been methodically working through the alphabet this year at preschool. About two weeks ago they made it to the letter P. Oftentimes we try to come up with words that begin with the Letter of the Day while we eat our lunch before school. Sometimes we come up with only two or three word suggestions before we are on to a new topic, but P was a good letter. We listed off more than a dozen words before it was time to head to school.
After school, I had to run to the post office to mail a package, and when we got back into the car, my son eagerly said, “Mommy, I know another words that starts with P…” I smiled because I thought it was cute that he wanted to revisit our little game.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Post Office,” he said, very pleased with himself.
And so a dialogue began between us.
“Oo. Good one. I also know a word that starts with P.”
Back and forth we went naming pizzas, pickles, parrots, potatoes and pennies, until my son said very sweetly, “I know another one, Mommy… No P on the Sign.”
What?? My brain blanked, and then jolted to different time and place, and then came back again and saw the “No Parking” sign along the side of the street, near the Post Office. “Ah, yes,” I replied. “Very good eyes. You mean the No Parking sign. It does say “No P” on the sign.”
But I promise you, “No Parking” is not the first place my brain landed when my son reported this particular P-themed word. Instead I found myself, in an instant, walking along a side street in Bangalore, India, pondering once again a “Do not urinate here“ sign painted on a wall.
It is not uncommon to see men urinating along the side of just about any road in India. While a cultural norm of sorts, I wouldn’t want to suggest that this practice is approved of or encouraged in any way. Hence, the variety of signs indicating that one should not pass urine in a particular place. We’ve even seen paintings of various deities on corners and walls because it is commonly understood that people would not want to urinate on their god. Smart, right?
These sorts of brain jolts or cultural confusions happen to me occasionally, now that India has become a second home of mine. All it takes is a wee four year-old doing his best to learn the English alphabet, and I find myself in the humid and scented side streets of India, contemplating the need for all of humanity to find a proper place to urinate. This is one of the nuanced gifts of travel, and most especially of inserting yourself into another place and culture and attempting to find any semblance of familiar order or normalcy. Your brain gets a little zig-zagged once in awhile.
I’ve been thinking about this little moment I had with my son in relation to the season of Lent. Within the church calendar, Lent moves us out of Ordinary Time into a specified time of simpler living, self-examination, repentance, and prayerful preparation for Easter, which lies ahead. We need these 40 days to fully move out of one reality and into another, like the 40 days are a different set of lenses that we put on to change our everyday perspective. As we intentionally inhabit these days that lead toward the cross, it is like making a faithful attempt to live into a new and different culture. Things that at first make no sense beyond their stark and obvious different-ness become more clear. They show their meaning and intention within this other space. So, while a painting that requests you not urinate on deities seems shocking and almost laughable at first, it soon becomes obvious that this particular sign might be the most effective sign of its type, and you know this simply because you’ve spent more time living into the new place. We need to spend enough time dwelling in the season of Lent for the practice and purpose to become clear to us. These are 40 days in which we can live into Lent like a new culture. Perhaps at first we can only see the glaring differences, but soon the vibrant truth and bright hope that Lent points to become clear.
Lent allows us to discover many things about ourself, but it also allows us to discover many things about our great God. We would kind of like for our brains to do the cultural confusion thing as we move from one season to another in the church calendar. We sometimes need to be jolted out of our ordinary time by the little revelations that happen in a new place. I hope that this Lenten season will give you a few jolts that prompt you to move eagerly toward Jesus, his crucifixion, death, and resurrection.