Sojourners and Exiles: GUEST POST

I choose to view the world in a very holistic way. The spiritual and the physical exist equally. Equally as strong, equally as present. That’s my worldview. However, while this deliberate perspective makes me more sensitive to the supernatural, I don’t feel I’ve honed or tended to this spiritual gift. I am by nature an analytical thinker, and that can tempt me to reduce the world to the purely physical.
Travel has changed this in some ways as the developing world, as a cultural whole, often adopts the holistic world view. It’s much easier to see the connection of spiritual and physical here. As a result, I’ve been confronted with several spiritual predicaments: Is it ok to participate in an experience that has spiritual roots if it is also hailed as a cultural experience? What about just observing it? I’m tempted to offer the “but I’m a tourist” defense. After all, one of my primary goals in life these days is flinging myself full measure into every iconic experience.
The first time I experienced this inner conflict was while in Malaysia. To set the scene, I must tell you that we seemed to have been missing famous events left and right while traveling. (And it has continued since we left KL!) So of course, we thought we had hit the jackpot when we realized we’d be in Malaysia during Thaipusam– a Hindu holiday which happens just once a year– and Chinese New Year. These would both be huge cultural events that we’d be lucky to observe. Everyone we met, including every taxi driver we had, urged us to go to the Hindu celebration in Batu Caves during Thaipusam. They all clucked their tongues and bobbed their heads and said yes, we were so lucky. We were lucky to be here just at the right time to catch this famous event. “A million people attend every year. And you arrived just in time!”
However, as I started to learn more about the event, I felt unsettled in my spirit. (You can learn more about Thaipusam here, but I have to warn any squeamish readers that a careful perusal of that webpage may make you uncomfortable. The event involves trances and self-mutilation.) But not only was I uncomfortable purely on a physical level, I was also disturbed on a spiritual level as the whole purpose of the holiday is to honor a spiritual deity that I believe is leading people away from the one true God.
Tyler didn’t feel the same uneasiness as I did, so I spent a lot of time mulling over the situation and identifying my motives. On one hand, I felt deep sadness over people being slaves to rituals that I knew weren’t working for them. On the other hand, aren’t there ways we’re slaves to our own religious rituals? Who was I to judge?</p>
I also– if we’re being very, very honest here– feel uncertainty about my own religion sometimes. How do I know it’s true? Certainly not by virtue of popularity or general consensus. Other people are equally, or even more, devoted to their idea of reality and truth. They’re putting hooks through their skin! Where is my authority to denounce their devout practice of their own chosen religion?
In the end, I still felt extremely unsettled about the whole thing, so we decided to pass on our once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view Thaipusam. It didn’t hurt that Tyler got sick that weekend and we had another excuse to solidify our decision. In the end though, neither of us regretted the choice. Although I think I could be pardoned by the “I’m a tourist” excuse, it just didn’t work for me that time.
Later, we asked ourselves similar questions when we were encouraged to go to the Chinese temples during Chinese New Year and– “just for fun”– perform the rituals there for good luck. There are also rituals for determining what course you should take in life, what answer to choose when confronted with big decisions. While we did visit many temples during Chinese New Year, we both quickly decided between ourselves that we wouldn’t be participating in any way. It was again an uneasiness, but this time, we differentiated between visiting the temple and participating in the ritual. We decided together that viewing and admiring the beautiful architecture and bright red colors was an activity befitting a tourist. And we were happy to play the role. Participating beyond that was something we felt was a spiritual– rather than cultural– experience, and we needed to pass on that.
A few months later, I ran into new questions, pushing the debate a bit further. In Bali, we were introduced to the practice of making offerings to evil spirits. Balinese Hindus lay out banten– small woven baskets filled with flowers and food– on every doorstep, on the dashboard of their vehicles, in front of stores, everywhere. When we asked our taxi driver about them on our second day in-country, he happily launched into an explanation. They recognize the spiritual realm, he said, and they live in awareness of its power. To appease the evil spirits, they provide them with a nice place to dwell, with fragrant flowers and morsels of food. In a sense, they are saying to the spirits “here is your place, please stay here.”
I immediately felt the same sadness as before. Such time and effort going into a useless ritual! But despite feeling the familiar unsettledness in my spirit, I also felt a hesitation and uncertainty over how to express my thoughts. When is it appropriate to say something? When should I just be quiet and learn? As a tourist, I was asking questions. As a Christian, I felt a strong reaction to the response. But when am I to remain a respectful tourist happy to glean something new about the culture, and when am I obligated to share my convictions? I thought of the familiar Bible passage: “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” How then, indeed? If I truly am committed to my faith, and if I believe that I’ve been introduced to the only pathway to God, how can I not share this with someone who so clearly is on a different path? What if I’m the only contact they have with Christ on this earth?
 In the end, I don’t know what is right here. I think it’s one of those situations where the annoyingly trite directive to “see how the Spirit leads” is actually the only course of action.  I didn’t say anything to our taxi driver that time. I felt too conflicted and wasn’t sure what would be the right response. And to complicate matters further, my turbulent thoughts just led me to more questions. Some people, like my taxi driver, actually found these things to be cultural– versus religious– themselves.  So is that the case then? When he explained that the banten had spiritual roots but that his family continues with the tradition as a cultural practice, could I tell him differently? I think this is what ultimately led me to accept his answer and proceed with the conversation as if it were truly, solely cultural. In my heart, I can approach the offerings differently. I do think there is great spiritual significance to the offerings. But as a tourist, I can enjoy their beauty and charm. For me, watching was again ok.
We’re nearing the end of our year of full-time traveling, and I suspect my collisions with the “cultural versus spiritual” dilemma will become fewer and fewer. It’s a topic that I think invites debate, but also some awkwardness. I wish it would be more widely discussed though, as Christians and as travelers. It would be beneficial to so many if we could come together and draw conclusions and spur deeper spiritual discovery for each individual. For myself, I’ve decided that being a tourist doesn’t excuse me entirely. I’m a holistic being, body and soul. I love the experience of travel and I love the layers of history and culture that we find in every corner of the world. But I also must protect my heart and honor the whispers of the Spirit leading me to greater discernment. A lot of times, this has meant observation is ok but participation is not. But each experience is approached differently, with the trust that I’ll know how to react, and if I mess it up, there’s grace and room for learning.

My life mission is to see the world, to know humanity, and feel the reality of God. My husband and I are currently living our dream of traveling the world full-time, and The Wild Rumor is where I share honest stories of our journey together.
Connect with Linda: Instagram Twitter | Snapchat (leendamurph)

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