I remember being in Indonesia in 1999 and failing to comprehend the rules of the road. The traffic looked chaotic. It was impossible to work out who had the right of way in which circumstances and where. But, the experience set me up well for being driven from south to north Sri Lanka, back again, then across into the mountainous country where I am writing this (at over 2,000 metres, the first place to have a heater in the room rather than air conditioning… and it is hammering down with warm rain).
Broadly speaking, today's western mind needs to know the rules, if only to know when they are being broken. Traffic feeding onto a roundabout from the right has right of way, and traffic waiting to drive onto the roundabout has to wait its turn.
Yet, here, as in Indonesia (and two memorable drives through Athens in the rush hour in a friend's car – which taught me how to pray better), the 'rules' are different. Yes, there are white lines, yellow lines, traffic lights and kerbs. But, there is little waiting, little respect for ideas such as those that dictate that “cars joining a major road from a side road should wait until they can safely do so without interfering with the traffic flow”. They just go. And, somehow, it seems to work. Nobody gets cross and we have seen only two minor accidents. The only rule seems to be: everyone on the road has as much right as I do to go where they want and when they want and how they want.
I guess this means that even the driving is based on relationship and not rule. You watch, you flash your lights, you beep your horn, and you go … and you somehow end up in the flow. Don't ask me about overtaking.
Talking here with the Bishop of Colombo about the Anglican Communion, it leaves me wondering if we have (at least) two conflicting assumptions about the 'rules' by which such a communion should be shaped. There are those who insist on the letter of every law being applied, and there are those who just, somehow, want to make it work – messy as it looks and is – and are less worried about the rules and more about the mutuality of the relationships.
Yes, I know this is neither deep nor original; but, it is what is wheeling its way around my mind while thinking and conversing about a range of matters to do with God, the Gospel, the Church and Christian mission in the world's we inhabit.
This afternoon we visited an old colonial church. The plaques on the walls reveal just how many people here died in their 20s and 30s. We then went on to visit a home for destitute children – up to 40 boys and girls from toddlers to almost 20. What struck us was the dedication of people who decide to do one thing with their life – giving it for the sake of such children. No concern for promotion or variation, no manoeuvring for the next job. Single-minded commitment to one thing and for life.
This isn't to be romanticised. Yet, here are children who would otherwise have no home and no experience of genuine and long-term love. The motivation seems to be simple: God, in Jesus Christ, invites us to share in his ministry of generous love, open service, unsentimental commitment and costly reconciliation. We can respond with realism and joy; or we can walk away.
It is a brilliant trip so far, and one that is giving to me far more than I can give in return. (Apart from the Delhi belly…)