Part Two: Unfinished business with our neighbors

We had a wonderful visit to Cambodia and one of the stops was Angkor Wat in Siem Reap. This ancient Hindu/Buddhist temple is one of the most famous landmarks in this part of the world… an amazing monument of history, craftsmanship and art. It is impossible to take a bad photo while visiting these beautiful ruins. Walking around the grounds were many visitors and tour groups and a few of them had guides. Sometimes I would eavesdrop on the English commentary.

There was one comment which caught my attention more than once. The guides were telling the visitors about the history and also current affairs in Cambodia and they mentioned that ‘Cambodians do not like the Vietnamese.’ It was not news to me since I had already heard it from some colleagues. I was just surprised that this was such a ‘common knowledge’ even shared with foreigners.

One of the common things I experience – in most places around the world people can very quickly identify who they ‘don’t like.’ Very often it is the neighboring nations as we remember the history shared between us. Sometimes it is a recent history, event or current situation. Other times it is very ancient history but ‘the embers are still glowing.’

Ask many Thais and they point to Burmese; ask Chinese and they point to Japanese; ask Burmese and they point to Chinese; ask Armenians and they point to Turks; ask Indians and they point to Pakistan; ask Ukrainians and they point to Russians; ask the Russians and they point to Americans…

Not everyone has ‘bad’ history with their neighbors. Maybe places like Canada and Norway and Switzerland and others ?… well, I have not asked them yet.

I was talking with a guy whose wife is from Finland. When I asked about Finland’s relations across borders, he said that in Finland he gets the feeling that many people simply ignore the fact that the eastern border is with Russia. He said, “There is this big country to the east that gets ignored. The Finns try not to think about this big neighbor.” One of the reasons not to look east is to look at the land, towns and villages that Finland lost because of the Winter War in 1939-40.

I thought to myself, “I can relate to that.” Many Latvians act and talk the same way. As if we stand with our backs to Russia. We cannot choose our neighbors but we can try to ignore them, right? Until it gets to a point where you cannot ignore each other…

Suddenly you realize that this neighbor is occupying so much of your thoughts, conversations and attention. It is practically living in your ‘living room.’ Some people react with fear; others with anger and hatred and aggression; others with confusion or indifference. I can understand these feelings and reactions but they are not good guides while reaching for better or restored relationship.

What are the guiding signs toward reconciliation and the bridge building tools we need? Join the conversation…

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Bridge crossing from Thailand to Myanmar

Part One: Unfinished business with our neighbors

Have you noticed that once you start paying attention to a certain thing or topic, it seems to appear everywhere? When I started my journey of ‘peaceroads’ and started thinking and studying about forgiveness and restored relationships in a deeper and intentional way, suddenly I heard the word “reconciliation” a lot. Is it just me or is this actually a common goal that people struggle with and long for? Issue that nations talk about? Or is it just a nice word, a trend?

I hear it in the news and media of all kinds… all around the world. I hear politicians, social activists, religious leaders, educators talk about the need to reconcile people. This message is even stronger in the arts. There are movies that focus on reconciliation in personal lives, in families, in communities and between nations. There are songs, paintings, books, plays… I feel like artists are often the ones who express things that many of us feel or think but either are afraid to talk about or don’t know how to talk about it.

Often we are afraid or hesitant to talk about it because it may stir emotions and opinions and narratives that seem opposing. We feel like by saying it aloud that ‘we have a conflict’ or that ‘we have unresolved issues’, we are adding to the conflict and making things even more complicated. So, we pretend it is not there; try to ignore; whitewash it; downplay it. We say ‘harmony and unity’ where there is tension and division. We say ‘peace, peace’ where there is no peace. Yes, maybe there is no war but there is no peace either.

It sounds like my favorite way of dealing with a conflict. Keep it inside, keep it to myself. Even if I start to become bitter and miserable, I feel like I have done the right thing by not confronting it. Until I get headaches and stomach pain and sleepless nights. Until I cannot ignore that person any longer and actually have to communicate and try to fix the relationship. Until I bring it into the light!

In one of my earlier blogs I talked about a friend from Russia who helped me to understand how many people in Russia felt towards the West. I remember her words when she said that people in Russia talked about the Cold War now being ‘Cold Peace.’ What is the difference between the two? And is it OK to have ‘Cold Peace’?

What I hear in the words “Cold Peace’ is that our relationship is cold and distant or that we don’t have a relationship. That we either don’t trust each other or don’t like each other. That we that we are not ‘enemies’ but we are not ‘friends’ either.

My immediate reaction to this description was, “This is not good. This is actually very dangerous.” Because if relationships are full of mistrust and resentment and bitterness and ignorance and prejudice and unforgiveness, this is a fertile ground for bad seeds to bring bad fruit. Much more dangerous than getting a stomach ulcer or sleepless nights.

My friend knew that in relations between Latvia and Russia there are issues. That is why she thought that I may reject her. And yes, she was right… the relationship between our two nations is not the best. And one of the main reasons is some unfinished business between us as neighbors. Things from the past that keep affecting our present.

Unfortunately now in 2015 our relations are even worse and the ‘Cold Peace’ feels even colder. So, it is more than timely to talk about it. Also, as a Christian I feel very passionately about our responsibility to work towards restoring and healing relationships in this fragile and volatile world. It is not optional.

So, let me start a conversation about our neighbors… and how can we change this ‘status quo’.

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“Going Home Star – Truth and Reconciliation” by Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet

Considering the flowers…

My grandmother is almost 92 and, to tell you the truth, I cannot keep up with her. Yes, she does not hear so well and moves slower, but she has so much zest for life. On her good days her energy is overflowing and I still cannot keep her pace while working in the garden. She is like a human tractor – the weeds are flying, bad roots are dug up and the ground is turned…

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The photo with waterlilies was taken on her 90-th birthday and she really wanted this picture. She loves her waterlilies and cannot wait for them to bloom and then to watch them open up in the morning and close in the evening. This photo describes my grandmother and her passion!

She is a Gardener. Her greatest love after God and people is flowers and beauty. Wherever I am in the world, I think of her when I see a beautiful flower or unique plant. She would stop and look at it closely and try get some seeds if possible. (It is impossible to have a quick walk through the park when I am with her.) I have brought her different seeds from around the world but most of the tropical plants do not grow well in Latvia.

My grandmother taught me a lot about beauty. She would show me a little flower from the field or the garden and say, „Look at it! Isn’t it beautiful? Why did God make it so special? Do you notice how every flower and plant is so unique? Why did He want so much diversity?” She can spend hours just looking at the designs and colours.

It teaches me to slow down and to stop and to look. Look closely! See it, touch it, feel it, smell it… The creation has a message which is much louder than any loudspeaker and much brighter than any billboard or neon sign. It is all around us. It gives us assurance and peace and joy.

There is a story that compares us to the flowers of the field and tells us that we are beautiful and special and loved. If these flowers which are so fragile and temporal are created so beautiful, how much more are we… the very image of God.

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Discovering empathy, hospitality and embrace

When I was 18 years old and left home for the first time, I stayed in Oslo, Norway. I went to help some relatives of mine with childcare and they gave me an opportunity to experience the beautiful Norway and its culture. During the week I went to study Norwegian in a class for immigrants.

This was my first real cross-cultural experience and I still remember many of the life lessons learned. There were many nationalities in our class but two ladies puzzled me. They always seemed sad and looking at them, I could not understand the look in their eyes. I thought to myself, “Why are they so sad? Aren’t they grateful? Aren’t they happy to live in Norway? This is a wonderful country.”

One of the ladies was from Croatia and the other was from Lebanon. We had times during our class to share about our nations and cultures. And for the first time I started to grasp the word ‘refugee’… These women were refugees. One left her home because of the civil war in Lebanon and the other fled because of the Balkan wars. Of course, I had seen it on the news but I had never met anyone from those places. As they talked about the beauty of their home countries on the Mediterranean Sea, the food, the celebrations, I thought about the life they had left behind – home, career, family, and friends… and I started to understand their sorrow and sadness.

There were also three young guys I could not understand. They were Kurdish from either Iran or Iraq. We were about the same age but they struggled in the language class. Even with the alphabet. I started to wonder why they were so slow in learning and even thought that maybe Europeans learn ‘faster’. Until one day I realized that they were illiterate. They told me, “We know a lot about guns and fighting but we did not spend much time in school.” I was shocked and ashamed of my thoughts.

Some years later I met refugees again. This time in Cairo, Egypt and they had come from Sudan. I was with a team involved in literacy training for a teacher’s course. The leader of the teachers was a pastor. His name was Abraham and he was a very tall Sudanese man. What amazed me about the group was the mix of Christians and Muslims. I had never worked with a multi-faith group. They were trying to provide basic education to their children and united in their desires to build better lives. Even while living in exile.

We studied Jesus of Nazareth as one of the greatest examples of teaching through relationship. We prayed together, worked together. Sometimes they would sit in a circle and talk about the “difficult issues”. About the violence and poverty in their country (this was before South Sudan became independent); about the ethnic and religious conflict; about Christianity and Islam; about the challenges to relationships. I would sit and listen and observe their faith. They wrestled with the difficult questions with such grace.

Everyone has a story and every life’s journey is special. Some of the journeys are simply unbelievable. Yes, there are things that are very difficult to hear and to comprehend; there are things that break your heart as you listen, but we must listen. We must give the time and space.

Some people hesitate because they are not sure if you really care. Some people find it too difficult to recall or they want to just forget it. Still, learn about the life they left behind; the people, the culture, the landscape, the food, the smells, the music … and learn to celebrate it with them!

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