How Curry Is Saving My Life

Exciting news! THIS arrived in the mail today!

What is that, and why am I excited about it?

Well, glad you asked! It is a binder with 12 writing samples, one each from the dozen of us that were selected to take part in Writing to Change the World: A Week with Jonathan Wilson-HartgroveThanks to a generous grant from the Lily Endowment and Collegeville Institute, I head out in a couple weeks to spend time developing the art of writing for social change. To prepare for our week together, we had to read a couple books and turn in a piece of creative nonfiction (approx. 2000 words). If you are interested, here is what I contributed. It's called, "How Curry is Saving My Life."

I hope you enjoy! 

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I have come to a place in life where the vocabulary of faith somehow oscillates between the white noise of safe surroundings and the strange, unintelligible sounds of the Nepali language spoken by my neighbors.

Words like sin, salvation, eternal life, truth, and church.

I have held these words in my hands for so long that the form of my grip had been worn into them. Yet not too long ago, on a day or time I cannot place, I looked down to discover empty hands. Where did these words go? Did I drop them? Did they dissolve from overuse or misuse? Were they stolen? Or did they grow to something more expansive than my hands could hold?

Grace is one of those once-familiar, now-mysterious words.

And it is the very word a dear friend asked me to make the subject of a sermon I would be preaching at his church. He needed a week off and asked me to fill in. So, I obliged.

There I stood. Looking at grace. She looked back. It was...well...awkward. We did not know what to say. In vain I began sketching notes to describe her to my upcoming audience.

When the lexicon of my theological training failed me, I turned to an exercise a mentor once shared with me to help with processing very intangible concepts of spirituality and faith through the lens of the very tangible senses. Of all the ways this practice challenged and nourished me, I most remember trying to describe the Kingdom of Heaven as a sound. Specifically she asked, “If the kingdom of heaven were a song, what would it sound like?” I remember this one because the opening guitar riff from a Guns-N-Roses song sprang to mind without my permission. I have never heard Sweet Child O’ Mine in the same way since.

So, when I found myself facing homileticians block, I called my friend and told him that I may not be capable of much more than wrestling aloud with the meaning of grace in front of his church. I asked if he’d mind if I took a less orthodox approach. He told me that he trusted me.  

I then wrote one question for each of the 5 senses that would require the audience to define the too-often theoretical in very palpable ways. For example, for sight I asked, “If you could drive anywhere to look out at grace, where would you go?” 

In many ways I think I did this exercise with them because I needed the church to preach grace into my life.

On the drive home my wife and I talked about the fascinating conversation the church shared during this “sermon.” I had noticed her smiling and even getting a little misty eyed at one point during these questions but never sharing aloud her own answers. So, I asked if she’d mind sharing them with me on the drive home.

Each of her responses revealed (again) to me my wife’s creative spiritual depth. It was a holy moment hearing her talk. The one that fascinated me most, though, was how she responded to, “What does grace smell like?”

Her answer: Curry.

Two years ago a family from Nepal took up residence in the home next to ours. Having been driven from their homes in Bhutan, the Dahals lived in a refugee camp in Nepal for 16 years before being resettled in Atlanta in September of 2009. 

Grace moved into our neighborhood in January of 2013. 

Even though its been more than two years, on our fridge still hangs the invitation to their “most auspicious occasion of a house warm-up party.” Yes, it says “house warm-up,” not warming. Yes, they consider a house warm-up an auspicious occasion. And, after it was over, we did to.

There is so much about that day that I remember. Amazing food, mountains of shoes stacked outside the door, the strange, colorful use of Christmas bows and lights as ceiling decor, the distinct smells of the spices of their foods, the sound of well-beyond-fire-code numbers of people filling the house with the fascinating cadence of their language.

Strangely enough, my fondest and most vivid memory of this auspicious event is us asking, but not getting a straight answer, to what time the party started. When cars started rolling in the day before, preparations going long into the night and set up starting at way-too-early-for-a-Saturday-morning-o’clock, we understood their quizzical looks to our inquires about start time.

Eventually, they amused the Americans with a time to show up, 4pm I think, which we knew didn’t really mean anything. We, of course, followed it to the minute anyway. And as silly as this is, this start time ritual has been played out multiple times in the last two years with the Dahals and the other Nepali families that live on our street (including the day upon which I am writing this).  

Barbara Brown Taylor tells a story of being invited to speak at the church of a friend and mentor. When she asked what she should speak about, he replied with a question, “What is saving your life right now?” Reflecting back on this later, she writes, “What is saving my life now is the conviction that there is no spiritual treasure to be found apart from the bodily experiences of human life on earth. My life depends on engaging the most ordinary physical activities with the most exquisite attention I can give them…What is saving my life now is becoming more fully human, trusting that there is no way to God apart from real life in the real world.” 

From the time that my wife and a few close friends read that anecdote, we speak often about the things that are saving our lives.

This is a story about how curry is saving my life.

One Saturday evening at 10pm I was trying to finish a sermon for a different friend’s congregation. It was not my normal planning process, but after the week and day we’d had, it was my only option. My wife Holly was up late pouring over the endless tasks of her “part-time” job with a local non-profit. I was desperately trying to bring order and honor to the text in front of me. Low on energy and creativity, we just wanted the day to end but knew that the calendar would loose another page before we found our way to bed. 

Then came a knock at the door. It was a few members of the extended Dahal family stopping by. They had, like they frequently do, family over eating and celebrating together. They wanted to come in and share their joy with us. We wearily obliged. With one an eye on our work and one on our thickly-accented guests, we were relieved when they left. 

I closed the door behind them, and sighed “I’m never getting this sermon done.” 

Holly sighed in return, “We are going to be up all night.”  

Within minutes another knock came. Laxmi, the teenager daughter, said that Beda, the matriarch, wanted us to come over and eat. We thought we’d be safely excused by telling them our two elementary school age sons were in bed. They simply said, “Bring them" as if it were the middle of the day and not really late on a church night. We were able to politely send her away, close the door, and roll our eyes at each other. But, they came back, this time with Beda. She insisted that we wake the boys up and come over. We looked at each other and, being too Southern-polite to say no, acquiesced. So, our bleary-eyed and pajamaed boys joined us for the little family festival. 

We walked in to the experience of shoes piled high by the door, Christmas lights glowing on their ceiling, Hindi TV blaring, and the smells of homemade spices wrapping their arms around us as soon as we entered. Food was served, deep hospitality given, our children were loved, and we got to see a great-grandmother, whose arched back and wrinkled skin age her in my mind near, at least, the century mark, dancing with their 20-something cousin to a song with a tune and words we’d couldn’t possibly understand.

Laughing at this between bites of freshly made roti, Holly leaned over and whispered in my ear, “This is saving my life right now.” This decidedly inconvenient and inconsiderate invitation disrupted our stress and welcomed us into the world of grace. 

Curry was once a mostly unfamiliar, repelling scent. It use to be a stimulus that told my brain I had entered into a space that wan’t mine and among a people to whom I did not belong.

However, in the last two years we have been welcomed, again and again, into this Nepalese home, each time greeted by feelings of their affection, symbols of their simplicity of life and, of course, the fragrance of curry. 

What was once the odor of displacement, now communicated the kind of deep welcome one only experiences at home. Who knew that a southern boy could find the aroma of curry as comforting as fresh-baked cornbread.

Is this grace?

If grace has anything to do with repairing and bringing fullness to the lives of the undeserving, then, yes, without question. From the time of our first encounter with them, our Hindu neighbors have gone about the unassuming, patient work of healing our wounds and teaching us what it looks like to follow after Jesus. This has been true not only of my wife and me but of our two sons as well.

The first time Srijana, the Dahal's elementary age daughter, came over, it was with a light, almost apologetic knock on the door. My wife and I were delighted and our boys a bit confused at why she’d come over and what she wanted. After struggling a bit to understand each other’s English and a brief time of play, she went home and all seemed content. When she came back a second day in a row, we were a bit surprised but obliged her desire to come in and play again. It was on her next visit I saw how deeply my family needed her. I say this because when she knocked on the door for the third day in a row my older son, seated comfortably in his favorite spot on the couch, looked up from his book and, with audible annoyance, sighed, “Again?!”

That moment was an altar call, a moment the scales fell from our eyes. We saw that we’d raised our children to view our home as a sanctuary away from the demands of others, that home is a place of private retreat where neighbors are seen as intrusions. Hiding behind the pace of our lives, the demands of ministry, the personality traits of introversion, we were not living the hospitality that is a hallmark of the Jesus way. The spiritual formation we had put our children through taught them that home was not a place of open doors to strangers, open tables to guests, and open arms to neighbors. They understood what we had never said - that the stranger is welcome only during those times and places where we decide.

We knew that this was not just about our personalities or family habits. Our inhospitable posture was a symptom of our spiritual wounds, deficiencies within ourselves that could only be healed by the touch of a neighbor.

The Dahals have gently unlocked our doors and created space on the floor for the shoes of guests. In reference to Srijana, Beda often says “my daughter, your daughter” as shorthand for the fact that they have adopted us into their family. Each year during their celebration of Dashain, with tikas they anoint us as their own. They have taught us what it means to welcome the stranger and to be welcomed by the stranger. They have brought color and texture to all those stories of Jesus sitting around tables as host and, more often, as guest. 

I have grown up in church. I have much of Scripture committed to memory. I have spent years in seminary and professional ministry. And yet I have come to a place where I have trouble understanding the supposed foundational things - sin, salvation, eternal life, truth, church... and grace. I can, though, tell you that grace takes its shoes off at the door, grace decorates her home in strange and colorful ways, and grace does not have strict biological definitions for family.

I don’t know how to define grace, but, thanks to my neighbors, I know what it smells like.