I didn’t want to stare. His head was as big as his straw hat, hanging over his neck the way a beer belly does a belt. His face was not like a face at all.
The medical term is lymphatic filariasis, swelling caused by the bite of a rare mosquito. You might know it by the vulgar name elephantiasis or the Christian term: “If there is a God, why does he allow this?”
He was at church and my eyes kept gravitating to him.
It’s a Three-Self Patriotic Church in Kunming, China, on Renmin Lu. No hipster sporting a Hawaiian shirt behind the pulpit, but a government approved minister in a satiny robe, every word scripted. He is uttering the same message you’d hear in any church on any given Sunday in China. His words are meticulously translated for the three big nosed Americans in the pews by a younger assistant.
I tried to listen to the sermon. I really did. But truth be told, I have heard it so many times, I can mouth every word. It’s like the Brady Bunch episode where Marcia broke her nose. I know every line. I can’t bare hearing it again.
The poor man goes to heaven, the rich man goes to hell.
I can’t concentrate. I keep on looking in the back to the man in the wide-brimmed hat. He is next in the last pew, which leap-frogs decades back into time when deformities were commonplace. The blind with sunken eye sockets. A boy with twisted legs. A tiny lady with stunted limbs crumpled in a wheelchair, a defect associated with Agent Orange.
My eyes move towards Lazarus in his straw farmer’s hat. He is listening earnestly to every word.
I wonder why they are there. I wonder why I am there? Why God gave that man such a hard path in life as well as everyone else in the back row. Yet, they are thankful. But me? What don’t I complain about?
I stop listening to the English translator. I think about Lazarus in his wide brimmed hat. I wonder what questions He’d like to ask God.
The last song. The benediction. I can leave. I pass Lazarus. We make eye contact. His eyes twinkled. What did mine do?
I go home. Lazarus comes with me. I see him when I look at my Bible. When I see a hat. When I pray. I see him as clear as my keyboard as I peck out this post.
We picture Jesus as the beautiful person with good hygiene in a white robe, not someone hard to look at. The beggar. The addict. The Agent Orange baby. The man in the wide brimmed hat. Yet they are human hand-mirrors from heaven allowing us to take a look at ourselves.
We feel bad for a moment, put money in their buckets or scan their QR code with our phone.
But soon, we are back to complaining about the taste of Chinese bread. How we were overcharged for tomatoes by the leathery lady at the farmer’s market. Or how we bought a bottle of yogurt instead of milk but didn’t realize it until after we poured some into our coffee.
Then at night we can’t sleep because we are disgusted with ourselves. We realize that we are the grotesque ones.
But then we go to church. We see the man in the wide brimmed hat with the floppy face and the twinkling eyes. He looks at us and smiles. He forgives us. No question asked.