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!

Nations becoming something more: European perspective

Sitting in Lähetyskirkko in Helsinki, an old church with a very contemporary and welcoming feel, I was  drawn to the stained-glass window with the map of the world. Enframed within the ornate design, it looked beautiful but small and somehow fragile. Just like those amazing images from the outer space which make me think about “the whole world in His hands”.

The world and the continents may seem monolithic but not so once we zoom in and the borders of the nations come into our focus. As I was looking at Europe, my mind was playing one of those interactive maps which show how the borders of the European nations have shifted through the millennia, centuries, decades and years. With so much… too much blood spilled fighting over these lands and the borders. And Latvia, this small corner on the Baltic Sea, has suffered under many powerful and shifting winds of history.

Here I was in Helsinki, participating in a State of Europe Forum (SOEF) which focused on the current European challenges and also opportunities for creative solutions. Christian leaders from many different backgrounds – arts, church, government, politics, science, academia, business, education, environmental work, etc. – came together with an agenda to explore difficult and important issues. The SOEF framed these topics within the premise of “the largely Christian origins of the European movement, and of ongoing Christian responsibility towards the shaping of Europe’s future”. The underlying question – “why do such roots matter for the future?”

One of the sessions focused on the current trends of rising nationalism and populism in democratic nations. What concerns me the most, though, is when religion, specifically, Christianity gets weaponized to legitimize obviously authoritarian, undemocratic and simply unjust ideas and actions. For example, the infamous Crimean speech in 2014 which the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, gave on the occasion of annexation and “unification” of Crimea with Russia. “Everything in Crimea speaks of our shared history and pride. This is the location of ancient Khersones, where Prince Vladimir was baptised. His spiritual feat of adopting Orthodoxy predetermined the overall basis of the culture, civilisation and human values that unite the peoples of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.”

Russia is an obvious and easy target to highlight these trends but unfortunately it is not the only example. It comes much closer. I could name various similar ideas in the West  – in Brexit debates, elections in the U.S.A., memory and identity politics, migration policies and foreign policies in other Western countries. Therefore in any public discussion that focuses on Christianity’s influence in the history of European nations, we, Christians, have to take a very hard and long look into the mirror and examine our own reflection. Why do we allow for our faith to be weaponized in such ugly ways?

Recently I heard some statements which I really liked. These were stated during Riga Conference 2019 panel discussion on ” New powers – shaping regions or shaping history?” by Simon Serfaty, a professor of political science at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, USA. He was discussing the weaknesses in authoritarian systems and how the “new” and “renewed” influential nations, for example, China, Russia and Turkey “live their future in the past tense” with revisionist approach. S. Serfaty described the project of European Union as “a matter of necessity, not a matter of choice” and asked the audience “how, when and whether this necessity is gone?”

S. Serfaty concluded: “The liberal hegemonic order did not force its participants to become somebody or something else; it forced its participants to become somebody or something more.” This statement immediately reminded of my personal experience growing up in the Soviet Union and now living in the European Union. I thought to myself: “Exactly! Soviet Union tried to shape us into something else against our own will but European Union gives so many nations a chance to try to become something more.”

More than simply nations focused on their own nationalistic interests with attitude ” God bless us (and no place else)!”  In the current global situation it would be extremely difficult to defend the so-called fundamental EU values – respect for human dignity and human rights, freedom, democracy, rule of law, equality and peace –  outside such an unprecedented platform of “Unity in Diversity”.

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!!!

 

 

Evasive confessions, elusive healing

Years ago I read “Blue Like Jazz” by Donald Miller which had become somewhat a cult classic (and later a movie) among young evangelical Christians. One of the most memorable and provocative stories from this memoir was the story of small group of Christian students setting up a sidewalk confession booth at Reed University campus in Portland, Oregon. It was during a renaissance festival called Ren Fayre, and the booth had a sign “Confess your sins”. Instead of asking people to come inside to confess their sins to the Christians, the Christians were confessing the sins of the church to people who don’t have a religious affiliation. Apologizing for horrible things done in the name of God. Apologizing for inaction toward loving things which God desires.

I am thinking about this story in the context of Lent. Ash Wednesday was not a part of my particular church experience. Neither was Lent with its contemplation and fasting. Even today I admire friends who fast for 40 days. Not only from certain foods and drink, but also from social media and other things. I am always afraid to make  such vows public since breaking too many past promises.

No doubt we need to put new ashes on our foreheads and heads… heaps and heaps. My religious beliefs teach me that it is normal and important to acknowledge brokenness, sin and to repent. It brings healing to ourselves, and it helps us to restore broken relationships with others. At the same time I am fully aware that we, Christians, don’t practice what we preach. Too often I don’t practice what I preach. And one of the most shameful experiences is to be exposed of our dark secrets and efforts to whitewash the sad reality.

We live at a time of so much public exposing. Not knowing what the next spotlight will reveal while struggling to even begin the  process of healing, justice, restoration and reconciliation. Using biblical terms, we could talk about apocalyptic times (‘apocalypses’  means ‘revelation’, not destruction as many think). So many things that were just below the surface are now in the public space and conversation. The hashtag activism  is one strong sign of it like #MeToo movement. And the religious communities are not exempt. I was talking to a Catholic friend, reflecting on the ongoing revelations of sexual abuse by the priests, and he said: “I think of it as a time of healing. A chance for the healing to begin…”

I care, and I need to be reminded again and again that it is not about causes. It is about people. I think of the revelations in the documentary ” Leaving Neverland” about the sexual abuse of young boys by the King of Pop – Michael Jackson – and try to understand the backlash from hardcore fans who simply do not believe these testimonies. And the haunting questions asked again – how was it allowed to go on so long? Why do we have such a hard time facing hard truths? Like idolizing people with fame, money, power, talent and charisma and then being shocked that someone uses their status and power to manipulate and abuse.

We rage against the corruption of our elites and then we turn violent and smash things which are not ours and search for scapegoats to unleash our anger (yes, I am hinting at protest movements which have radical groups that start acting like a classic, violent mob). There is no better to say it than the words of  Martin Luther King:  ” Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love.”

In Latvia, we are in the midst of our own public exposures. Emotionally and psychologically charged but with very few confessions. Like publishing the KGB files to look at our collective past under a totalitarian system. Learning that every answer brings more questions and there are many shades of ‘truth’. Hoping for at least some honest acknowledgement of collaboration and realizing that this wish and expectation may remain unfulfilled. So far I can think of only handful of people who in different interviews have told their stories of collaboration with KGB quite openly. Only one of those people has publicly stated “I feel very bad about it and I am sorry”. He is a well-know poet who is also a practicing Christian, and he highlighted that his Christian faith drove him to this public confession.

Starting this post I wrote about the confession booth where Christians confess their sins to non-Christians. And immediately wanted to shift or at least share the blame by adding that not only Christians and the church as religious institution have sinned, but so have all of us and all of our institutions. Which would not be a false statement but it proves my point. I am more willing to admit my fault if others start admitting theirs. I don’t want to be singled out. I don’t want to the first. I start protesting “Yes, I have been wrong about this or that. But so have you and him and her and them…”

Our experience shows that an honest confession and taking personal responsibility remains evasive, and it makes the healing and restoration process more elusive.

 

 

 

Love and its more than fifty shades of green

May is a beautiful month but this one has been exceptional. In Latvia we experienced the sunniest and warmest May I can ever remember. Everything was blooming all at once. Lilacs, wild roses, chestnuts, rhododendrons, now jasmines … like blooming season on steroids. Makes me want to scream, ” Slow down! Save something for the rest of the summer!”

I took my grandmother who is suffering from dementia to Botanical gardens and she simply came alive. She may not know many things anymore, get confused and forget what she did the day before or even few hours ago but she never forgets the names of flowers! Anything blooming, beautiful and colorful catches her eye. Grandmother will touch it, smell it, adore it… and talk to it.

Yes, she talks to the flowers and tells them that they are pretty and that each is unique. She also talks to a tall tree and asks where does the tree draw its strength and what kind of stories could it tell. We sat down in the grass and grandmother was gently stroking it like it was the smoothest silk. Saying ‘thank you’ for this soft, fresh and green blanket we get to lie on.

My grandmother is a very spiritual person as well and looks at the nature as Creator’s love letter. If she had lived in medieval Italy, I imagine she would have followed the teachings and example of St Francis of Assisi. They would have gotten along very well and probably would have talked for hours about every little creature there is.

Actually I did not mean to write this post about her but about one very important document published by Pope Francis. Encyclical “Laudato si (‘Praise be to you’ from old Italian) was  published in 2015 with the subtitle “On Care For Our Common Home.” It covers theology (creation, nature), science (ecology, global warming), environmental ethics (consumerism, irresponsible development), politics (unified global action)… just to name a few things covered by this paper. Above all, though, it talks about life style described as “integral ecology”.

For a spiritual person, it is a lifestyle that integrates our four relationships – with God, with ourselves, with other people and with all created order (nature and animals).

Read the encyclical which you can easily download or listen to audio! It is long but it is so well written in common language while reflecting serious theological and scientific research. Of course, it does not cover everything on this topic but it does encourage and even force a deep and open conversation about how to have peace and just relationship with all nature and all its inhabitants.

So, instead or writing about the importance of recycling or how to limit our personal environmental print or what to do about systemic injustices to our earth, I decided to write about love. St Francis of Assisi was a lover of nature and has become a patron of animals and the natural environment. You could say the “saint of ecology”.

Pope Francis who obviously picked the name ‘Francis’ for a reason has said that “God always forgives; human beings sometimes forgive; but when nature is mistreated, she never forgives.” Like a scorned lover who has been rejected, abused, enslaved and mistreated. Our relationship has been broken and it will take more that this encyclical, books, world conferences and declarations.

I wish I could say I was my grandmother’s granddaughter when it comes to this awareness but I am not. Just a beginner in what has been described as ‘eco conversion’ but don’t see any other way. How can we care for ‘peace on earth’ without caring for ‘peace with the earth’?

Israel-Palestine conflict and my personal challenge

This one is hard. Not because I have nothing to say or because it is too complicated. No, it is because I am a Western Christian and also student of theology/religion. And there is no other international geopolitical issue which can divide Christians as sharply as the Israel-Palestine past, present and future. No matter how gentle or blunt, informed or ignorant, rational or naive, well intentioned or foolish I try to express myself.

This is such a controversial conversation about a long standing conflict, historical justice, human rights and relationships, identity, understanding of the Scriptures and the importance of the land and so on. It is also very emotional because it touches people’s religious feelings in three major world faiths and makes an honest and open dialogue hard to achieve. But dialogue we must. Especially those of us who don’t live in Israel-Palestine but still have some impact through our personal connections, churches, religious organizations and also our governments which represent us as citizens. For example, if Latvia had decided to move its embassy to Jerusalem to follow the USA example (which it hasn’t) , I would form an opinion as a Latvian.

Few days ago in downtown Rīga I was approached by a reporter and her camera person. I had to think fast about the question, “What is your opinion about Crimea?” What is she trying to ask between the lines? I assumed she was asking me about the latest news and how I felt about the newly built bridge between Russia and Crimea which is supposed to cement the Russian claim on this peninsula. How do I feel about it? Quite simple! That Russia is in the wrong and that Crimea was illegally annexed and there is historic injustice happening right before my eyes. And that most people around the world don’t really care because “out of sight, out of mind”. Plus, how are we going to make Russia give it back to Ukraine?

It made me think if I would ever be asked by reporters in Latvia what I think about Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is never “out of sight, out of mind”. That small corner of the world regularly makes  the world headlines, mostly with stories of division, violence and suffering. And that is one of the big problems –  the stories we hear are often superficial and tailored to ‘our’ ears. Or it’s very one-sided depending on our preferred news source and our own political and religious views.

Here I come to the Christian part. I cannot count how many times I have heard other Western Christians say, “I had no idea there are Palestinian Christians. I assumed that all Palestinians are Muslim”. It is amazing how for some of us things change when we start thinking about Palestinians not only as fellow human beings but also as brothers and sisters in Christ. And how ‘inconvenient’ it becomes. When we find out that there are actually churches in Gaza and that when people suffer hardships in this overcrowded and besieged strip of land, everyone is suffering together – Muslims, Christians, others…

Before someone jumps in, “here we go… talk about objectivity… she is so one-sided”, I strive to be pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli. I don’t know many things, I am no expert and I have never been to Israel or Palestinian territories in West Bank and Gaza, but I have met and learned from many people in that land. I have met musicians from both backgrounds who formed a band called “My Favorite Enemy”and wrote songs in Arabic, Hebrew and English, expressing common pain, fears and hopes. Here is a link to one of their songs called Stones written from a perspective of a stone being thrown…

I have met, listened and read theologians from both backgrounds. One of the books on my shelf is “Through My Enemy’s Eyes: Envisioning Reconciliation in Israel-Palestine” written by Salim J. Munayer ( a Palestinian Christian and faculty member at Bethlehem Bible College) and Lisa Loden (an Israeli Messianic Jew and faculty member of Nazareth Evangelical Theological Seminary). I have met them in person and listened to their amazing, challenging and deeply moving journey as friends.

The point I want to make is that if we really care, we need to seek out these local voices. People who actually live there and deal with this conflict on day to day basis as they have a much closer view on what is helpful or unhelpful to the peace process and reconciliation efforts. On things that our governments do or don’t do. On views that our churches support or don’t support. On what is loving and what is not. On what is just and what is not.

Here is another book I recommend. “Light Force: A Stirring Account of the Church Caught in the Middle East Crossfire” by Brother Andrew, the passionate old Dutch minister.  Who was very popular in the West when he wrote “God’s Smuggler” about taking Bibles behind the Iron Curtain and sharing his faith with the communists. But not so many Western Christians were interested when he started ministering in the Middle East, even meeting with leaders of PLO, Hamas, Hezbollah and other such groups. Brother Andrew is very open about his own preconceived ideas and Western Christian approach as an outsider trying to fix the problems in the Middle East. But nobody can criticize him for living out his passion for the good news of God’s love.

It has to be good. It has to be news. And it has to be love for all people. Brother Andrew often asks what kind of people does the Book produce? Speaking of the Bible.

Finally… some Christians (or non-Christians) may say that we should not get political. Only focus on the spiritual. When it is us, Westerners, speaking while enjoying the freedoms and peace which did not come without political will, I find it ironic. When Latvian Christians supported the independence of Latvia from Russian and German empires and later from the USSR, was it political or spiritual? Was Martin Luther King and non-violent civil rights movement in the USA political or spiritual? I could give many more examples like South Africa, Northern Ireland, anti-slavery, anti-human trafficking but then I would be getting really really political 🙂

We may have many strong opinions on who is to blame for failing peace efforts in Israel – Palestine and we may have strong beliefs about the eschatological future of this region, but we should never forget that this is not some theory for the people there. If I had been born in Gaza instead of Rīga, I would want the world to think of me as someone who matters. I certainly would not want to live in Gaza, a virtual prison controlled by air, land and sea. If I was a member of Gaza Baptist Church, I would want the brothers and sisters around the world to think of me and pray for our little, struggling fellowship who are caught in the crossfire.

We have to make much more room in our hearts… this is what the Book says and does.

Traitors, doubters, lovers, pragmatists, self-righteous, dreamers at God’s table

 

Is Simon Peter famous or infamous? To be proud or to be ashamed of? Two sides of the same coin? Every year around Easter (and any other time of a year) his famous ‘infamous’ story of denying Jesus three times is told and retold. The moral lessons to be learned; the wisdom and compassion of Jesus knowing our human weakness; the humiliation of self-righteousness; the bitter repentance; the encouragement and strength that ultimately comes out of this failure.

We know the story. I know the story. All four gospels tell this story. I was reading the gospel of Mark this week and comparing the parallel passages between the synoptic gospels and the gospel of John. And again I had the question why do they all tell the story of Peter. Especially John who has his own perspective on many things. There are so many other important details that could be told but this just had to be included.

Last year while visiting Ireland I saw this public artwork called “Dublin’s Last Supper”. The author of the large photographic modern-day re-enactment of Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’ is the Irish artist John Byrne. It catches your eye for so many reasons. First of all, Jesus. He is portrayed by an Indian student from Trinity College. Then the disciples. Different ages, races, female included, traditional and contemporary dress. All interacting and reacting to life, God, each other.

Original “The Last supper” by Leonardo Da Vinci is famous for portraying the moment when Jesus tells his closest disciples that one of them will betray him. Collaborate with the authorities. Make money from this betrayal. Save his own skin only to lose it few days later. And the disciples are shocked and puzzled: “What are you talking about? Surely not I? Surely not one of us?”  The only one who does not act surprised is Judas and in Dublin’s version he is the guy in business suit.

The artwork in Dublin is reflection of a “changing society and the growing cultural mix in Dublin” and the artist expresses “positive politics and faith in ordinary people“.

That’s it! Ordinary people. That is why I could not take my eyes of this scene and kept thinking which person reflects me. One of the traitors? Calculating Judas or self-righteous Peter? Doubting and skeptical Thomas?  Dreaming idealist John? Confused Matthew?

So ordinary and extraordinary because they are brought together by Jesus. And they have walked with him and talked with him and watched him. In the pubs of Dublin, the slums of Bangkok, the refugee camps of Mae Sot, the skyscrapers of New York, the streets of Cairo, the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, the beautiful beaches of Khao Lak.

The Last Supper is a moment of truth and God’s love. And in the end Peter could not deny that he had been at the table.

Happy Easter!