My cheesy Christmas reflections on this beautiful mess

‘Cheesy’ in the urban dictionary means trying too hard. That which is unsubtle or inauthentic in its way of trying to elicit a certain response from a viewer, listener, reader, audience. Cliches are often cheesy because they are an obvious way of making a point.

What obvious point I want to make? That this world is a mess but it is a beautiful mess. We can despair over our stupidity, ignorance, gullibility, evil intentions, lies, violence, greed and even Christmas  festivities are not cheerful or glitzy enough to silence these thoughts or to put a nice shiny wrapping over it. The magnitude of struggles and suffering around the world is simply too big to be covered by “Happy Holiday’s” or “Season’s Greetings” or even “Our thoughts and prayers”.

Yes, we are a mess but we are also very special. This world is beautiful inside and out and Christmas is a  festival when we try to make it even more beautiful inside and out. And we get out the shiny wrapping for the visual effect. In the northern part of the world it is the darkest time of the year but we all know that it makes for the most exquisite light displays. We need darkness to appreciate the light; we need dark background to enjoy the illumination. Just like we need black skies to see the stars. Just like women wear a black dress to show off the whitest pearls or sparkly jewelry. Cliche but so true and we don’t mind. We are created for beauty.

What would be a Christmas tree in the summer?! It would look so fake and ‘inauthentic’ when all the other trees are adorned with their natural beauty – leaves, flowers. When everything is green, the evergreens do not look so green anymore. But at Christmas even a shabby tree can look festive and proud when decorated.

This Christmas Eve I took my grandmother to a traditional service at a nearby Lutheran church. I grew up near this church and was even baptized there but in my childhood memories it stood as big, old, cold and dark. I was sitting in the wooden pew this Sunday and new memories were created. The church was still big and old but it was not cold and it was not dark. It was filled with people (as expected on Christmas Eve) and our bodies helped to heat the place. It was filled with candles and lights and it made the atmosphere simply enchanting. Not to mention the focus of the evening – the Light of the world.

When we were walking toward the church before the evening service, my grandmother commented on the illuminated church tower which looked so majestic and inviting against the night skies. Her eyesight is starting to fail but it amazes me what details she catches. Anything that speaks of beauty and creativity. She always asks about the lights in the distance, she notices decorations in the shop windows and we stopped by a shop which had a disco ball. The ball was turning and it illuminated the sidewalk with what looked like snowflakes falling and twirling. My grandmother was simply mesmerized and I tried to remember the last time I enjoyed a disco ball so much.

Then we were both mesmerized in the church. I was probably making many of the older folks mad by taking sneak selfies with grandmother and looking around so much. Looking at the chandeliers, at the artful wood carvings, at the stained glass windows, at the altar painting and at the ceiling beams so high. I felt like a child again who is getting the scornful looks: “Has nobody taught you how to behave in a church?”

Well, this is exactly what I have learned about proper behavior in the church. Be like children who come with all their questions, their worries, fears, anxieties, hopes, expectations, dreams and longing for love and attention from God and people. Usually children call things for what they are. And Christmas celebrations are much more fun with children because children are never cheesy.

Obviously.

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Irish way of turning Darkness into Light

For those who noticed that I took a little break from writing… there are times when you just have to give full attention to the people you are with, seize the moment and enjoy it. So, I had put the computer away. And who wants to be on computer when you are visiting the beautifully green and ancient land of Ireland?

Now back in Riga I reflect on my favorite thing to see in Dublin – the Book of Kells. Probably the most beautiful book I have ever seen is Ireland’s most precious cultural treasure. It continues to amaze every time I visit the exhibition at Trinity College Dublin. This handwritten copy of the four Gospels of the life of Jesus Christ which was completed around 800 AD is so beautifully decorated and hand painted that it continues to inspire artists and scientists on how the authors actually did it. Many of the illustrations are so microscopic and intricate.

Most academics believe that this ancient Latin manuscript was written in a monastery founded around 561 by St Colum Cille on Iona, an island off Mull in western Scotland. It became the principal house of a large monastic confederation. In 806, following a Viking raid on the island, the Columban monks took refuge in a new monastery at Kells, County Meath, Ireland. Most likely they brought the manuscript with them or produced parts of it in Kells.

The famous paintings include symbols of the evangelists Matthew as the Man, Mark as the Lion, Luke as the Calf and John as the Eagle, the opening words of the Gospels, the Virgin and Child and a portrait of Christ. The Chi Rho page which introduces Matthew’s account of the nativity is simply stunning and widely considered the most famous page in medieval art.

Some years ago I read a book “How The Irish Saved Civilization” by Thomas Cahill. His main thesis was that the tradition of monasteries, including Saint Columba  and the monks on the island of Iona where ancient manuscripts were gathered, copied and cared for, helped to preserve the cultural treasures of Europe and other parts of the world. I know one thing for sure – there was much more happening in the Middle Ages than what we were told in  school. When I was growing up in Latvia, we were still taught the Soviet/communist version of the world history. Of course, no mention of monks, monasteries or any positive contribution of religion to our cultures.

I am glad that the term ‘Dark Ages’ is not used anymore… because there is Light and Darkness in all ages. People and communities make choices and respond to the times they live in. Some choose to take what is not theirs and destroy what they have not built. But other choose to give away what they have received and build for the future generations to be blessed and to enjoy.

Hopefully we don’t have to save civilizations anymore but we do know that the choice between the Light and the Darkness is always with us… Thank you, the Irish, for reminding us of these timeless truths!

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Chi Rho page (photos from internet)

Latvian:

Vispirms sveicieni tiem, kuri ievēroja, ka es pāris nedēļas ‘atpūtos’ no rakstīšanas… jā, ir reizes, kad vajag veltīt visu savu uzmanību mīļiem cilvēkiem, nepalaist garām kaut ko īpašu un to izbaudīt. Un kurš tad grib sēdēt pie datora, ciemojoties tik skaisti zaļajā un senatnīgajā Īrijā?

Tagad atpakaļ Rīgā es pārdomāju vienu no lietām, ko ir tiešām vērts redzēt Dublinā – Kellu grāmata (saukta arī Ķeltu vai Kēlu grāmata). Uzdrīkstos apgalvot, ka šis Īrijas nacionālais kultūras dārgums ir visskaistākā grāmata, ko esmu jebkad redzējusi. Tā glabājas Trinitijas koledžā pašā Dublinas centrā. Ar roku rakstītais manuskripts satur četrus Jaunās Derības evanģēlijus par Jēzus Kristus dzīvi un ir krāšņi un meistarīgi izrotāts ar miniatūrām un viduslaiku ornamentiem. Tas turpina iedvesmot māksliniekus un zinātniekus, kuri pēta, kā to vispār varēja tik smalki un mikroskopiski izveidot un uzzīmēt.

Kellu grāmatu datē ap 800. gadu, un tā ir rakstīta latīņu valodā. Lielākā daļa pētnieku uzskata, ka tā ir sarakstīta klosterī, kuru 6. gadsimtā Aijonas (Iona) salā, Skotijas rietumu piekrastē, nodibināja Sv. Kolumbs. 806.gadā salai kārtējo reizi uzbruka vikingi, un daudzi mūki tika nogalināti. Pārējie atrada aptvērumu Īrijā, jaunā klosterī Kellas ciemā. Visticamāk mūki šo manuskriptu atveda sev līdzi no Aijonas, vai arī tas tika pabeigts Kellā.

Slavenās ilustrācijas attēlo četru evnģēlistu simbolus. Matejs simbolizēts kā Cilvēks, Marks kā Lauva, Lūka kā Jērs un Jānis kā Ērglis. Katra evanģēlija ievadā ir skaisti zīmējumi. Gan Kristus portrets, gan Jaunava ar Bērnu ir ievērojami mākslas darbi. Viena no slavenākajām un visskaistāk ilustrētajām lappusēm skaitās Mateja evanģēlija ievads par Jezus piedzimšanu. Patiess viduslaiku šedevrs!

Pirms dažiem gadiem es lasīju Tomasa Keihila grāmatu “Kā īri izglāba civilizāciju” (How The Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill). Viņa galvenā tēze bija, ka viduslaiku klosteru un mūku tradīcija, tai skaitā Sv. Kolumbs un kopiena Aijonas salā, kur tika savākti, glabāti un pārkopēti neskaitāmi senlaiku manuskripti, palīdzēja izglābt šos Eiropas un Tuvo Austrumu kultūras dārgumus. Katrā ziņā viduslaikos bija daudz vairāk Gaismas, kā Apgaismība mums apgalvo. Un daudz vairāk Gaismas, kā man tika mācīts skolā Padomju Latvijā, kur par mūkiem, klosteriem un vispār par reliģijas pozitīvo ietekmi uz Eiropas kultūras attīstību netika minēts nekas. Jo tā laika vēstures versija uzsvēra, ka reliģija ir ‘tumsonība, varaskāre, vardarbība un turklāt meli, kuros dzīvo dumjās masas’.

Tas ir labi, ka vairs nav populāri lietot apzīmējumu ‘Tumšie viduslaiki’… jo visos laikos un laikmetos ir bijusi gan Gaisma, gan Tumsa. Cilvēki, kopienas un tautas izdara izvēles. Vieni izvēlas ņemt to, kas viņiem nepieder, un iznīcināt to, ko paši nav cēluši. Otri izvēlas dot citiem to labo, ko ir mantojuši un saņēmuši, un celt tālāk, lai nākamās paaudzes var dzīvot labāku dzīvi.

Cerams, ka mūsu paaaudzei nav jācīnās par civilizāciju saglabāšanu, tacu mēs zinām, ka izvēle starp Gaismu un Tumsu ir vienmēr mūsu priekšā… Paldies viduslaiku mūkiem Īrijā, ka viņi mums atgādina par šīm nemainīgajām patiesībām!

Bubbles and simple beauty of joy

London is one of my favorite places in the whole world. I have visited many times but have never lived there. So, I am allowed to keep my “honeymoon” feeling 🙂 It is a city of stories. On every turn you feel like there is an interesting and important story. Buildings, bridges, parks, statues, paintings, museums, theaters, train stations, markets, underground.

But my favorite thing to do is people watching. Believe me if you have never visited London; it is one of the best places to do it. The world is here. Literary. And for that reason I love walking along the river Thames. The view of the city does not change but every time it feels different because of the people. The story of London has a new chapter each day.

This last time I experienced a chapter about joy. The art of bringing joy. How little it costs but how much it does.

Who does not like soap bubbles? Children and adults alike are mesmerized by them. How they form, how they start floating in the air, how they change shapes and how far they fly. Some we catch, some get in our eyes or mouth and some get away. I love the colours and the rainbow reflection and I try to catch a glimpse of our world looking through a soap bubble.

There was a guy making large amounts of soap bubbles. Hoping to make some money but also enjoying it. And so was everyone walking by. The children forgot about their tantrums and wishes for sweets or rides or toys. They just wanted to play and catch and wait for that incredible moment when out of nothing (well, some soapy water) comes something as incredible as these simple objects of beauty.

Joy is bursting out as these bubbles burst out. I realize that I experience something that is fleeting. We describe it as “having fun”. The bubbles burst or float away and disappear. The children walk away and after 10 min they can be unhappy about something. The adults take the photos and then promptly forget about it. But this is a small glimpse into something bigger, more beautiful and lasting.

“A thing of beauty is a joy forever”, said poet John Keats.

Famous German theologian Jürgen Moltmann wrote on theology of joy. “Joy is enduring and puts its mark on one’s attitude to living. Fun is short-term and serves amusement. True joy is only possible with one’s whole heart, whole soul and all one’s energies. The feeling about life which underlies the party-making fun-society is, I suspect, more boredom with life than true joy. True joy opens the soul, is a flow of spirits, giving our existence a certain easiness. We may have fun, but we are in joy. In true joy the ecstatic nature of human existence comes to expression. We are created for joy. We are born for joy.”

For me, the simple fun with soap bubbles is like a door that opens for a short time to make us all stop and behold and then reflect why our heart so instinctively responds to it.

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Along the Thames (photos from personal archive)

 

A question not to ask me

“Do you miss Latvia?” or equally irritating “Is it nice to be in Latvia?” Yes, I do get annoyed from time to time… I know it is just a nice question and usually it is part of small talk but for some strange reason I wonder why people ask me this kind of thing.

There are many things I miss about Latvia when I am away. I miss the woods and the green fields and the walks through the countryside. I miss the wild flowers and making a wreath or a simple bouquet. I miss sitting or laying in the grass and not worrying about snakes (well, there are still lots of small bugs but they are harmless). I miss swimming in the lakes and rivers and not worrying about crocodiles. I miss the Baltic Sea and finding some amber or beautiful rocks on the shore.

I miss the four seasons. Even though I wish the winter was shorter, the autumn was sunnier, the spring was earlier and the summer longer. I miss the different moods I experience during these seasons. The autumn for sure brings some melancholy. It is a great time for reading books and reflecting. The winter is perfect for cozy places and long chats with friends. The spring brings so much hope and anticipation. And the summer is simply… busy, busy, busy.

The reason why I don’t like these type of questions because I don’t like to categorize and compare. Is Latvia more beautiful than Thailand or Australia or South Africa? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder! I love diversity… I look at the mountains and jungles in Southeast Asia and I enjoy the sweet smell of tropical plants. I will always miss this smell.

I remember the green, rolling hills in South Africa and I start hearing the music from “The Lion King”. Yes, this is the kind of place for the King of the jungle. Can you imagine lions in Latvia? I cannot! Or giraffes? Or elephants? I will miss the big, open spaces with lots of wildlife.

Diversity is something to be celebrated. Not to be compared or rated. We are amazing because we are so different. Our planet is so beautiful because the nature and landscape is so diverse. I believe that nature teaches us many things and it tells us deep truths if we are willing to listen. It tells us that we are a part of this Creation and that we need to relate to it with love and respect. I am blessed by the simple beauty of Latvia and I hope that Latvia is blessed to have me here.

I am blessed to be here this autumn which is exceptionally sunny. The colors change weekly and sometimes daily. It is a beautiful, ever-changing canvass. There is a popular Latvian song which says, “The autumn comes to paint Latvia but don’t try so hard. She is beautiful to me… Any Way.”

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Latviski: Jautājums, ko man labāk neuzdot

“Vai tu skumsti pēc Latvijas?” vai vēl kaitinošāk “Kā tev patīk Latvijā?” Jā, ir lietas, kas mani kaitina. Es saprotu, ka tā ir vienkārši pieklājīga un draudzīga saruna, bet kaut kāda iemesla pēc manī rodas šī reakcija. Kas tiek domāts ar šo jautājumu?

Ir daudzas lietas, kuras man pietrūkst, kad neesmu Latvijā. Man pietrūkst zaļie meži un pļavas un pastaigas pa laukiem. Man pietrūkst pļavas ziedi un vainagu pīšana. Man pietrūkst sēdēšana vai gulēšana zālē, kur nav jāuztraucas par indīgām čūskām (nu, kukaiņi arī reizēm traucē, bet tie ir tik nekaitīgi). Man pietrūkst peldēšanās upēs un ezeros, kur nav jāuztraucas par krokodiliem. Vēl man pietrūkst Baltijas jūra, un smuku akmentiņu un dzintara meklēšana.

Man pietrūkst četri gadalaiki. Kaut gan ziema varētu būt īsāka, rudens varētu būt saulaināks, pavasaris varētu būt agrāks, un vasara garāka. Man pietrūkst tie dažādie noskaņojumi, ko izraisa gadalaiki. Rudens vienmēr ir melanholisks pārdomu laiks, kad var lasīt grāmatas un domāt par dzīvi. Ziemā ir forši iekārtoties kādā siltā stūrītī, un jauki pavadīt laiku ar draugiem. Pavasarī rodas daudz cerību un gaidu. Un vasarā vienkārši… visam nepietiek laika.

Man laikam nepatīk šie jautājumi, jo nevēlos salīdzināt. Vai Latvija ir skaistāka par Taizemi, Austrāliju vai Dienvidāfriku? Ir tāds teiciens, ka skaistumu piešķir tas, kurš skatās. Man patīk dažādība. Kad esmu Dienvidāzijā un skatos uz kalniem un džungļiem, es ieelpoju smaržīgo tropu gaisu. Man patīk turienes augu un ziedu smarža. Tā vienmēr pietrūks.

Kad atceros Dienvidāfrikas zaļos, maigos pakalnus, man ausīs sāk skanēt mūzika no multenes “Karalis Lauva”. Jā, šeit var dzīvot dzīvnieku karalis. Vai variet iedomāties lauvas Latvijā? Es nevaru! Vai arī žirafes? Un ziloņus? Man pietrūks tie lielie plašumi, kur tik daudz savvaļas dzīvnieku.

Dažādību vajag svinēt. Nevis salīdzināt un sacensties. Mēs paši esam tik apbrīnojami, jo esam tik dažādi. Mūsu planēta ir tik skaista, jo daba un skati ir tik daudzveidīgi. Es ticu, ka daba māca mums daudzas un dziļas patiesības, ja esam gatavi ieklausīties. Tā atgādina, ka esam daļa no Radības, kuru mums jāmīl un jāciena. Man Latvijas vienkāršais skaistums ir par svētību, un ceru, ka arī mana klātbūtne ir Latvijai par svētību.

Vēl esmu pateicīga, ka šogad varēju piedzīvot tik saulainu un skaistu rudeni. Krāsas mainījās pa nedēļām un dažreiz dienām. Kā viena liela, mainīga, dzīva glezna. Kā dziesmā, “Nāk rudens apgleznot Latviju, bet nepūlies, necenties tā. Man viņa ir visskaistākā… Tik un Tā!”

Hannover and Hiroshima and the church without roof

So many reflections after my recent trip to Hannover, Germany. I had the most unusual tour of the city. It told a story of significant past, diverse community, powerful kings and fascinating facts, but also tragedy, violence and beauty from the ashes. In the literal sense.

In just one night of October 8, 1943, more than 200,000 bombs were dropped on the city of Hannover. Not much was left standing. I think of my own city, Riga, and what it looked like after the war. I think of Sarajevo in Bosnia, Aleppo in Syria, Gaza in Palestine, towns and cities in eastern Ukraine…

Now you walk around and enjoy beautiful buildings and parks and street-side cafes. You see people enjoying a good life. You see diverse cultures welcomed here. Hannover is a very nice place to be. Still, the scars remain and I appreciate how people in Germany do not hide from these scars. As painful and ugly as they are. It speaks about healing and restoration.

There is a church without roof, now covered by our beautiful sky. Aegidienkirche originated in the 14th Century. It was destroyed in a bomb attack in 1943 and has not been rebuilt. Its ruin is now a memorial to the victims of war and violence. Like many other people before me, I stood there thinking, “If these ruins could speak…”

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The church has a Peace Bell, which the city of Hannover received in 1985 from its partner town of Hiroshima. The bell has a twin, which hangs in Hiroshima. Every 6th August a special memorial service to commemorate the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima is held in this church. As part of this service the peace bell is rung at the same time as its twin in Hiroshima chimes.

There is a statue of person who embraces. The person is on his/her knees. To me it shows humility, brokenness and longing to embrace and to be embraced. When we speak about forgiveness and repentance and redemption, there are many powerful and beautiful symbols. During workshops on reconciliation I ask for mental pictures and commonly people see ’embrace’ or ‘handshake’.

‘Ubuntu’ is an African thought and expression which is usually translated as “humanity toward others”. No wonder my African friends love to hug and to hold hands. There is something deep within us that tells us that an act of embrace is the acknowledgement that ‘I am what I am because of who we all are’. Archbishop Desmond Tutu from South Africa describes it like this, “A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”

And one more thought as I reflect on this embrace. Theologian Miroslav Volf from Croatia said it the best: “Forgiveness flounders because I exclude the enemy from the community of humans even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners.”

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Burma road continues… by train

Just returned from two wonderful weeks in Burma (also Myanmar) where I was invited to teach. It is a beautiful country with great people. Yes, there are lots of challenges and problems and the country has a long journey ahead toward restoration and development and peace. Still, the energy and hope and times of change are in the air…

Here is a short photo journey from our train ride around Yangon, the capital city. The train makes a full circle in approx 3 hours and gives a glimpse in the daily lives of people and the city. Train is a great place to get some rest or take a nap. I love sleeping on trains. Except this time I kept my eyes open to catch all the sights.

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People work very hard to earn daily income. Some of the train stops were busy vegetable markets.

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The farmers are gathering one of our favorite vegetables to eat – watercress. Most of the vegetables in Southeast Asia are the green leafy kind.

There is a popular song from 70’s, written by a British musician whose stage name was Cat Stevens. It is called “Peace Train” and some of the lyrics come to my mind:

“Out on the edge of darkness, there rides a peace train
Oh peace train take this country, come take me home again

Now I’ve been smiling lately, thinking about the good things to come
And I believe it could be, something good has begun

Get your bags together, go bring your good friends too
Cause it’s getting nearer, it soon will be with you

Everyone jump upon the peace train
Come on now peace train”

Restoration and stability is longed for in Myanmar and it is one everyone’s lips. We feel privileged to be a small part of the peace building process there.

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I imagine differently than John Lennon

Music is a powerful communicator and musicians have a beautiful way of connecting their message with the audience. There are thousands and millions of melodies that speak without lyrics… Still, I like words. I like musicians who are good story tellers. And I like the ones who use their voice and art for something good.

Sometimes I hear a word and immediately think of a song. Hearing about zombies, makes me think of ‘The Cranberries’. Even though their hit song has nothing to do with zombies, but speaks about violence in our hearts and communities. The official video highlighted the conflict and pain in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. It is one of the popular cover songs all around the world but how many people actually pay attention to the deep message inside?!

For me, ‘U2’ is in a category of its own. Often Bono is described as part preacher, part politician, part social activist and musician. And when he hangs out with another Irish musician, Bob Geldof, watch out… the Irish can be very passionate and persuasive.

All this came to my mind when I was watching the movie “The Killing Fields” about Cambodia and the soundtrack included John Lennon’s “Imagine”… People call it the ‘peace song’ but I realized that I actually disagree with his imagined version of peace. John Lennon said:

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today…

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…

So, basically if we got rid of religion, national borders and all possessions, we would become united and loving and selfless. Lennon said that he was not only one with this point of view and he was right… many people feel that way. But their dream has a major flaw – what about the question of human heart? Yes, violence and selfishness and greed can be taught, exemplified and encouraged, but even without any of that – it comes naturally to all of us.

Christians call it the problem of ‘sin’ or missing God’s ideal; Buddhists call it the problem of ‘suffering’ which comes from our desires; Muslims call it the problem of disobedience if people are not submitted to God…

I don’t know of John Lennon’s worldview but it reminds me in some ways of the Marxist ideals. I grew up in a society where we told that all problems come from religion, nationalism and capitalism. So, telling your children about God was forbidden; being Latvian or Armenian was discouraged because we would create a new international person and things were owned by the state. And that was a ‘dream’ that most of us were very happy to wake up from.

I choose to join another dream. Desmond Tutu put it like this: “Extraordinarily, God the omnipotent One depends on us, puny, fragile, and vulnerable as we may be, to accomplish God’s purposes for good, for justice, for forgiveness and healing and wholeness. God has no one but us.”

South Africa