Patience is another name for peace

It has been a very long pause… long pause in blogging, writing diary and social networking. I started February with a great determination to get back to regular schedule of weekly posts and then it happened. Someone very close to me was facing a difficult situation when unexpectedly becoming a primary caregiver to his newborn baby while the baby’s mother was in the hospital for an extended period.

Suddenly everyone in the family was on a steep learning curve of managing a crisis mode while learning all about baby care – milk formulas, nappies, burping, tummy issues, baths, etc. I remember how “relieved” we felt after the pediatrician had the first monthly check-up and gave a good report. It did not help that all this happened during the Covid-19 pandemic when our “lives as we know it” got severely interrupted and most of normal routines had to stop. It added so many complications that I cannot even begin to describe.

But something else happened. An unexpected twist which I will try to put into words. It seemed that during the quarantine the word on the street or, in this case, the word online was “time”. We have time. We have more time. Finally we have got the time. We have been forced to stop from our rat race and now we have time for what really matters. With all the million suggestions in articles, podcasts, interviews and talks to describe, analyze and define what is it that really matters.

But to me it felt like I had lost the time. More precisely, like I was living outside the time. Like the time stood still. Until I realized that this is probably what living in the moment feels like. I was pushing the baby carriage for long walks in the park, smelling the spring in the air, watching how people keep the distance from each other but still prefer to walk where they can see each other. Besides time to listen to some uplifting and inspiring podcasts, I kept reflecting on how this little helpless baby is teaching me something very important. The baby could not speak but every time she looked at me I heard loudly – slow down! I could not fix the difficult situation that my loved ones were in, but through this sense of slowing down I was also sensing a lot of hope in the midst of confusion and pain.

Today I found the exact words I was looking for. In a beautiful little book titled “Living Gently in a Violent World”, theologian Stanley Hauerwas writes: “Peace takes time. Put even more strongly, peace creates time by its steadfast refusal to force the other to submit in the name of order. Peace is not a static state but an activity which requires constant attention and care. [..] So, peace is the process through which we make time our own rather than be determined by “events”over which, it is alleged, we have no control.”

That is exactly how I felt it and saw it – I was learning in a new way how to make personal and social peace through an activity which required constant attention and care. I mean literal attention and literal care. And I am not talking about mindfulness, meditation or any other spiritual practice to “slow us down”. I am talking about listening intently to the “weakest” and “slowest” members of our community.

I would like to think of myself as a very patient person, but the little daily things routinely remind me that I am not. I walk back and forth, while I wait for the public transportation, to “kill the time”. I listen to a podcast, while on the public transport, to “fill the time”. But God through a little baby was revealing to me how to “still the time”.

Because at the heart of “living more gently in a violent world” is the realization that I have all the time I need.

P.S. I borrowed the phrase of Stanly Hauerwas for the title of this post.  It was simply too good 🙂

Faith and politics at the dinner table? Needed more than ever

When I visit the United States, many friends want to hear my European “outsider” point of view since they know my interest in religion, politics, history and current issues. Not in a sense that I am some kind of expert or have the best analysis. The main reason is that they like me and I like them and they trust me to respect their views. Even if we see things differently.

We all know the old maxim  – polite dinner table conversation among friends, family and, especially, strangers should avoid discussing politics, religion and other “private”, sensitive topics. We don’t want to stir up strong personal opinions and disagreements, experience unpleasant or embarrassing reactions, etc. I think of the countless movie scenes where finally the father or, usually, the mother tells everyone to shut up, change the subject and simply enjoy being together as “family”.

It is nothing original but I want to strongly challenge this maxim. In the current age of incivility, polarization and disrespect I believe that  we need to bring hard topics to our places of fellowship between friends and gatherings among family. My argument is very simple. Where else can we learn to practice robust, open and honest conversations with civility, respect and even love?

There are articles, books, research and whatnot written about all the negative “side effects” of our digital age of internet, social media and technology. One of them being the danger of “echo chambers” where we only chat with the people who think like us. Other big communication problems are the lack of civility, bullying, trolling, demonizing and so on. These days we are not just missing critical thinking, logical arguments and fact checking. We are missing a basic civility and simple kindness to another human being.  Our social communication and interaction is becoming nastier and more toxic. No wonder we need such initiatives as, for example, Kindness Institute at University of California-Los Angeles.

Let me say that I have a fear and dislike of sharp, public arguments. I don’t even like to join discussion threads on social media like Facebook commentaries. Many times I have written my piece of mind only to delete it seconds later. I am extremely careful not to add “more fuel to the fire”. Plus, I don’t feel like I can influence anyone’s opinion or have a deep, robust conversation in the digital world. You may question then why I write a blog, but somehow it seems different. I write down my reflections and trust that somewhere and somehow it will resonate.

Our modern/postmodern society has another big problem – the lack of trust. Specially not trusting any institutions and “sources” whether it is mainstream media, education, government, even the church. Often in discussions about polarizing political or faith issues I get the question of what  are my “sources”. Who is your authority? If we are from different camps, we are usually not even interested in the honest answer. We have made up our minds that to see things differently is narrow-minded, ignorant or even dangerous. Then we don’t feel bad to treat other people unkindly or disrespectfully.

This is where the dinner table in the company of family or friends comes in. Family or friends discussions about sensitive and difficult issues are important. We all need places where we can practice civil disagreements with respect and love for each other. Of course, we still need to use judgement what topics and when but not talking about the “elephant in the room” is not the solution. Always avoiding difficult topics is like saying “peace, peace” where there is no peace. I don’t mean that we need to force debates simply for arguments sake, but we do need to cultivate the civility and atmosphere of openness and inclusion.

When the person whom I disagree with is a person I feel affection for, things are different. Communication is more personal. Desire to listen is greater. I know that I want this relationship to flourish, even if our views are polar opposites. Also, with family and friends I am usually much more open and interested to understand their views. I don’t dismiss their “sources” and I am more ready to hear another perspective. If we don’t learn how to do it “inside” the home and with our close friends, how are we going to learn to do it “outside”? If we don’t want to do it with family and friends, what makes us think that we will want to do it with strangers? Or in the anonymous digital reality?

Therefore it is more important now than ever to break the taboo and keep the divisive and excluding topics at our dinner table…

That’s it! No resolutions but one!

I went to the farmer’s market for the weekly shopping. Potatoes, carrots, apples, oranges… what else do I need for the last three days of 2019? Do I want to cook something? Not really! This is what happens when my husband is away during the holidays and I don’t care if the fridge is empty. Call it the end-of-the-busy-year laziness!

Tomorrow is Sunday, the day to see my church friends. I particularly enjoy that the church service starts in the afternoon because weekends are also perfect for late starts. Usually there is a long list of things I wish to do on the weekend but I get too ambitious. The list is simply too long and the hours too short. Friends, family, books, morning devotionals, walks, movies… the familiar choice of favorite activities.

I also tend to spend a lot of time of thinking, and there is always a certain pressure to reflect at the end of the calendar year. I don’t know why?! Maybe I do but I am sure smarter people have many answers why we need to mark each year – the milestones, the highlights, the achievements, the failures and the surprises – and why we make resolutions for the next one.

I peeked at my last post from December 2018 (please, don’t!) and saw a reminder why my New Year’s resolutions is usually such a vapor. One year ago I wrote: “I would ‘plan’ more fun.” Like dancing (occasionally in front of the mirror?), swimming (once this summer?), reading classic novels (when was the last time?), live concerts (yes, a few!), hikes in the woods (none!), museums (did I?) and traveling around (some in 2019 but starting 2020 with a trip to Thailand).

There is certainly something wonderful, uplifting, human, healthy and necessary about trying to choose and to decide what this earthly life is about and what are my most important priorities in the year to come. In some ways it is not so different from those childhood dreams of “who I want to become when I grow up”. Surely I am still growing up. I get excited when I think about what unknown challenges, opportunities and adventures may be around the bend and I still prefer the road-less-traveled.

There is one resolution, though, which I make… and absolutely need to make every year, month, week and day. It may sound like a spiritual platitude but there is one companion whom I cannot do without and choose to hold on to – God as in Father, Son and Holy Spirit! As in personal God, as in friend, as in helper and much more. There is hope when I get too arrogant, self-righteous, distracted, confused, discouraged, lost and delusional. There is hope when there is madness in me and all around. There is hope when I don’t know what I want or need or can. There is hope when I want to love my family, friends and even my “enemies” like Jesus has showed us and taught us, but I cannot. There is hope when I realize again and again that I have a “stiff” heart but God can turn it.

“If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” My resolution for 2020? To ask for more of the spirit of Jesus!

Postcard from Little Rock with famous stairs from segregation to inclusion

A visit to Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas, a National Historic Site? Done! Ever since watching the documentary “Eyes On The Prize: America’s Civil Rights Movement” and learning more about the Little Rock Nine and the events in 1957, I wanted to see this site of former social and political struggle. (I call these my “pilgrimages” to meet God and fellow human beings in a deeply challenging way.) Using religious and biblical language, this place has an aura of holiness where I want to take off my shoes like Moses in front of the burning bush.

Absolutely gorgeous and majestic building! If I did not know that it is a high school, I would think it is a big, old university or government building. Like the beautiful state capitol buildings all around the USA. To me, it looks even more majestic because of its troubled history.

To quote a History Channel website, “The Little Rock Nine were a group of nine black students who enrolled at formerly all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in September 1957. Their attendance at the school was a test of Brown v. Board of Education, a landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling that declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional. On September 4, 1957, the first day of classes at Central High, Governor Orval Faubus called in the Arkansas National Guard to block the black students’ entry into the high school. Later that month, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent in federal troops to escort the Little Rock Nine into the school.”

As we know, history is not just about facts. (Those you can learn by simply searching for  ‘Little Rock Nine‘). It is about the truth that it stands for and the mirror it holds out to us. We can judge the past generations, but they always push back with a rhetorical question –  what would you have done? I looked at those beautiful stairways and the large platform at the LR Central High School and though to myself, “What a stage! What a platform for the whole world to see!” Much of the Western world did watch the ugly face of blatant racism on full display.

And then I think about all the other schools and institutions around the world, past and present, which are not under such a spotlight but ,nonetheless, struggle with the same issues. ‘Us’ and ‘them’. ‘Insiders’ and ‘outsiders’. Those who ‘belong and deserve’ and those who ‘don’t belong and don’t deserve’.  Separating people by race, gender, language, religion, ethnicity, etc. Little Rock Central High School could be anywhere and, in some ways, it is everywhere.

Europe, Australia, Southeast Asia, North America… all parts of the world. Ask the Rohingya in Burma, ask tribal people or anyone with dark skin in Thailand, ask Aboriginal Australians, ask the Gypsies in Latvia and other European countries, ask the Sudanese in Egypt… I think of all the conversations I have had with friends who have experienced different forms of racial prejudice.

Racism comes in many shades of attitudes and forms. I never knew I could think as racist and speak as racist until I found out that I could. And I am very grateful for dear friends who called it out! I have been blindsided many times. Just like many of us who don’t think about “racism” because we think we can choose not to think about it.

The neighborhood around Little Rock Central High School is another powerful visual reminder that the struggle for our common human dignity is continuing. The neighborhood is an obvious “hood”. For me as a visitor, it looks like a Hollywood movie about gang-ruled, run-down, trashy, poor neighborhood, but unfortunately this is not a movie set. I drove around thinking how I would not want to live here, how I do not even want to park my friend’s  car anywhere and how out of the place the beautiful historic high school building looks. It is very easy to imagine that, back in 1957, this was a mostly white (or maybe all white) neighborhood. Now the residents are mostly black. Obviously at some point the demographics were completely switched. Even as the high school was becoming integrated.

I saw many white high school students coming out of the buildings, but they did not walk very far. Getting into their cars, parked right in front of the school and school buses and driving away. To some, surely, nicer, newer and much safer neighborhoods. The contrast between the two realities  – the school and the neighborhood – could not be any starker.

This short pilgrimage to Little Rock Central High School grounds reminded me that of us, not just Americans, are on a continuous journey. To quote Martin Luther King, Jr., “The arc of moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” There are many more beautiful, but difficult stairways to climb.

 

The lessons of humble courage from my long-time hero

How to respond when people make statements about the Church being full of hypocrites? My favorite answer was given by Shane Claiborne, a hero of mine, who said: “No, the Church is not full of hypocrites. Not yet! There is room for more!”

It makes me laugh out loud but also touches something deeper and more profound than a good sense of irony. It speaks to our imperfect humanity and shared vanity. All of us are hypocrites in one sense or another. In or outside of religious communities. With or without any religious beliefs. We often don’t practice what we preach. Still, as a long-time practicing hypocrite I would rather be in the company of others who recognize it in ourselves and desire to follow a better way. The way of humility which for me is the way of Jesus Christ!

I finally got to meet and hear Shane Claiborne in person. He is a best-selling author, speaker and founder of The Simple Way community in Philadelphia.  Mainly known for activism inspired by his Christian faith, advocating for the homeless, nonviolence,  to end the death penalty and being involved in other social causes. His latest book “Beating guns” (2019) focuses on ways to stop gun violence. I have read Shane Claiborne’s books, ” The Irresistible Revolution”, ” Jesus For President”, agreed with many of the stances and followed his public activities for some years now. Needless to say, I got very excited to see him listed as one of the speakers at Justice, Mercy and Humility conference @  AudioFeed Festival in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.

Audiofeed Festival is an Arts and Music community whose goal is “To create an environment where unconditional love is nurtured, encouraged, and shared without regard for appearance, religious belief, race, societal status, or any other thing that separates us from each other in the world at large. We believe that the perfect example of that Love was expressed through Jesus Christ and we do our best in fitful and imperfect ways to follow His example. Exploration, questioning, doubts, fears, hopes, joys… all are welcomed and encouraged. Ultimately we’re people who want to support each other and experience great music and art with others who feel the same way.”

I can truly say that it is a space and an event where the atmosphere of community, authenticity and inclusion is palpable. From organizers, volunteers, artists to the audience. Lots of it can be explained as inheriting of values and philosophy of Cornerstone Festival (1984-2012). (If you never had the chance to attend Cornerstone Festival in Illinois, USA, I will not even attempt to describe it. I can only recommend watching the documentary, dedicated to its 20th anniversary.)

Creative authenticity and humble courage are qualities the world needs. ” Entitlement is the opposite of humility”, one of the statements from Shane Claiborne that has really stuck with me. Often we talk about pride as the opposite of humility but entitlement is something that points to the deeper root of pride in our hearts. The way of Jesus turns the notion of entitlement on its head! “Though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (Philippians 2:6-7)

I apologize if this too much Christian and Bible talk for some, but these simple truths get twisted and misrepresented so easily. This is the reason why I enjoy being in company of people who acknowledge that we are all imperfect hypocrites, together on the journey of faith.

P.S. AudioFeed Festival is not Cornerstone, but it is close as it gets. Highly recommend it!!!

 

 

Crossings that change direction

“Some people cross your path and change your whole direction”… Looking at these words written on a wall in front me while sitting at the most popular coffee shop on my grandmother’s street. (btw, this franchise is called Hedgehog-In-The-Fog in case you are looking for a cool place to hang out with friends in Rīga)

Simple but profound statement! Not just people, but also places… change the direction. Like Cairo, Egypt where I had the privilege to do volunteer work in different projects some years ago. For many Egypt may be a place to go on a vacation to some Red Sea resort, visit the Giza pyramids or other  places of ancient history. For others it may be a place to stay away from since there has been such political turmoil in the last decade and the news headlines often give a grim and confusing picture.

For me it was a place where I met some amazing people and learned some very important things. To name just a few – I learned about the Coptic church and other Christian communities and the challenges they face; learned more nuances about the geopolitics of the region; learned more about the Islamic culture and faith. I learned the life in different suburbs of Cairo (after spending time in most of them) but I cannot say I learned to love the public transport (you have to learn to be pushy) there. And, of course, the food (most of it very delicious).

The greatest impact on my life was the people. Like the team of Sudanese refugees who were learning to become teachers for their community in exile. The man with the vision was pastor Abraham (almost wrote “father Abraham” 🙂 ), a refugee from Sudan himself. He was from the southern part of Sudan before South Sudan was officially formed as an independent nation. He was so tall I had to bend my neck to look him in the eye (most of Sudanese men were very tall) and had the biggest, most reassuring smile.

“Cush Mission for Rebuilding” was exactly what its title meant. “Cush” is the name for the ancient kingdom mentioned even in the Bible. “Mission” was the calling and passion and “rebuilding” was the vision, dream and even courage. Many afternoons I stayed with the group as they were sitting in the circle and discussing all the challenges they were facing as refugees. And all the challenges they would face one day returning to their homeland. The group was inter-faith (Christian and Muslim) and they openly discussed the religious aspects of the violence, conflict and war in their communities back in Sudan.

Just by listening, I was overwhelmed by those hardships and obstacles but also inspired and personally challenged. In the midst of  a conflict where many people would blame religion as one of the causes of sectarian violence, I saw how religion can also be the greatest resource for peace building, restoration, healing and reconciliation. There were no easy, glib, cheep answers or solutions but there was an acknowledgment that faith and trust in loving, just and merciful God is a source for this hope and vision. What amazed me and went against all my preconceived ideas was how both Christians and Muslims were together learning from the life, words and works of Jesus of Nazareth!

As I continue being involved in peace building work and often in a religious setting, I often think of this experience in Cairo. It gave me a glimpse of possibility, not impossibility; an example of confidence, not fear; a taste of hope, not despair. Just like this letter which I kept.

Sudanese 17

In the church this side of the barricades

In January expect a real winter in Latvia. Icy sidewalks, snow piles, slush, messy driving… this time of the year I walk the streets of Riga watching every step and practicing good balance.

January with its cold temperatures is also a month that brings memories from 1991. Every year Latvia commemorates January 20 and The Time of the Barricades. It was one of the most tense and dangerous periods during mostly peaceful transition from the Soviet regime to a democratic and free Latvia. There was a real threat that Soviet regime would use military force to stop these changes by taking over strategic buildings and institutions – TV, Radio, Parliament – in the capital city of Riga and other regional centers. People in Latvia quickly mobilized to protect those institutions by building barricades.

The awaiting for confrontation lasted January 13 – 27. Thousands of people participated in taking turns on the barricades. My dad and his whole group of work colleagues took position at the TV tower in Riga, and I went to visit him there a few times, bringing food and hot tea. Actually in our family, mom was usually the one who went to demonstrations and protests and took more risks. Dad reminds me how mom and I had gone to Riga immediately after hearing on the radio that the barricades need to be built. I remember walking around the center of the city, amazed at all the big trucks and bulldozers that came out of nowhere and the huge concrete blocks being pulled, pushed, lifted and piled on.

It was a very cold January and people started small bonfires on the streets. Those became more than meeting places to get warm, rest and exchange the latest news. I remember people sitting around those bonfires singing and praying. At the same time the church buildings were  open for shelter and refreshments.

Memories are an interesting phenomenon. What we remember and how we remember! One of my favorite theologians, Miroslav Volf, in his book “The End of Memory” writes about collective memories as “sacred bonfires” which people gather around. It symbolizes the strong bonds and identity created by shared experience. The Time of the Barricades was certainly one of those collectively shared experiences which I remember as a highly spiritual time. I mentioned the church buildings being used as kind of headquarters and many of us had never spent so much time inside a church

I was just a teenager and certainly not religious. Still, I joined thousands of others in realizing that we need a higher hope against all odds (honestly, those barricades could not have stopped a serious attack). The churches had people praying but more significantly I remember feeling the streets were the church. The bonfires was where the fellowship took place and the shared food was like the Eucharist. Everyone was sharing what they had and there was no difference in social status, ethnic background or religious affiliation.

Two weekends ago I was sitting in one of those churches that were so central in the Time of the Barricades. Dome Cathedral was hosting a special commemoration concert and it was packed. Not as packed as it was at times in 1991, but the emotions of many, especially elderly people, were visible. I was moved by the beauty of music and lights, but mostly I was moved by memories. And I cried.

And afterwards I was deeply touched by some of the overheard conversations. People commented how easily we take something for granted or become ungrateful. On the other hand, I was thinking how much the church struggles to remain the prophetic voice and to be out there on the streets when the system changes and the brutal persecution stops. How in peace times the church retreats from the public sphere and  tends to focus on individualistic spirituality!

One of the songs that night was “Prayer”, a very popular song during the days of national awakening and transition. It ends with words:

Let us walk through ages toward the unknown times,
Give us strength, give us courage, give us one mind, Father!