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.

 

 

 

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.

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Funeral like no other making love great again

One Lord. One Faith. One Baptism.

I could not get my eyes off this pulpit. And could not turn off my TV for hours even though it was getting late (or early morning) here in Latvia. I had just been changing  the channels to watch some news and found that CNN was showing Aretha Franklin’s memorial service in Detroit at Greater Grace Temple.

The event lasted seven hours!!! I wonder how many of us have been to a funeral this long. And one that did not feel like grieving but like Easter morning church service. In the beginning the TV anchors followed the script and inserted some breaking news (like Trump’s trade wards with Canada) but soon they realized this event is not going along any script. This was a celebration of life which ignored all the ” protocol” of time and schedule. The CNN reporter laughed and said, “We are already 3 hours behind schedule” and then they just let the cameras roll without any further interruptions.

I have never visited an African American church but this was a beautiful glimpse into what it means to be a community that celebrates life (birth, death, joys and sorrows) and faith in the fullest. With passion, emotion, laughter, tears and ever present hope.

Oh my, can they sing!!! The preachers go up to talk and suddenly bust into a song. (I have never seen my pastor do that 🙂 )The singers don’t just sing a song but tell a story with their whole body and the audience responds. The choir is ready at any moment and don’t need a conductor; the band can improvise for hours; the audience can jump up on their feet at random and start moving, shouting, dancing. There were people falling asleep after sitting through so many speeches and eulogies but suddenly they would be wide awake when there was a soulful song or some rousing statement.

And there were many rousing statements. It revealed again and again that the legacy of someone like Aretha Franklin was not just her amazing powerful voice and memorable music but it was a legacy of human dignity, strength, love, civility, solidarity and, of course, respect for each other. R-E-S-P-EC-T

Many civil rights activists were speaking as were famous artists, actors and former presidents. Barack Obama sent a letter in which he wrote, “Whether bringing people together through thrilling intersections of genres or advancing important causes through the power of song, Aretha’s work reflected the very best of the American story, in all of its hope and heart, its boldness and its unmistakable beauty… In the example she set both as an artist and a citizen, Aretha embodied those most revered virtues of forgiveness and reconciliation.”

Last one to perform was Stevie Wonder and he played a beautiful rendition of “Lord’s Prayer” on his harmonica. “Were it not for God’s goodness, God’s greatness, we would’ve never known the queen of soul,” he said. And he talked about “making love great again”.

He finished with his song “As” written in 1976 and the whole place exploded with celebration…

“We all know sometimes life’s hates and troubles
Can make you wish you were born in another time and space
But you can bet you life times that and twice its double
That God knew exactly where he wanted you to be placed
So make sure when you say you’re in it but not of it
You’re not helping to make this earth a place sometimes called Hell
Change your words into truths and then change that truth into love
And maybe our children’s grandchildren
And their great-great grandchildren will tell
I’ll be loving you ”

(P.S. I highly recommend watching the recording of the service on You Tube! It will inspire you!)

 

 

Oregon diary: The art of sanctuary

I will admit the sign in the shop window first surprised me. I was entering a store for used books, looking at the posters and local advertisements and there it was. You could not miss it! “WE WELCOME… ALL RACES… ALL RELIGIONS… ALL COUNTRIES OF ORIGIN… ALL SEXUAL ORIENTATIONS… ALL GENDERS… WE STAND WITH YOU… YOU ARE SAFE HERE”

Safe? In the store? In the city of Salem? In Oregon? Safe from what?

Then I remembered that there are U.S. cities and counties which declared themselves as sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants. What I did not realize that there are also five sanctuary states with laws that limit how local police can cooperate with federal immigration agents! Oregon is one of them and actually the first state to pass such a law. The others are California, New Mexico, Colorado and Illinois.

According to Salem Weekly News, “This state law, passed in 1987, did not begin life as a specific sanctuary law for undocumented immigrants. Some say it was in response to racial profiling of U.S. citizens born in other countries, while others believe it was a way for local police to get out of footing the bill for enforcing Federal Immigration laws. Whatever the original intent, this law is a tug-of-war issue in the controversies over the rapidly shifting U.S. Immigration and Customs policies.”

Immigration is such a hot and divisive issue. Even while writing, I know that it is very complicated and certainly not “either/or”. We see how many government elections and referendums around the world are wrapped around this question. Who belongs and who does not. Who is welcome and who is not. Who is local and who is immigrant (no matter how many generations later). Who is “us” and who is “them”. Who is “good” immigrant and who is “bad” immigrant. Which religion is “acceptable” and which one is “threatening”. Which country’s citizens we want and which ones we don’t want.

I love America and certainly feel very welcome and accepted here on my visits. But I do know that not everything in the story of this “country of immigrants” is as it seems or as told by the “official” version. For example, friends in Minnesota can tell me about the days when there were signs “Irish are not welcome”. And the Protestants in certain communities did not want to welcome the Catholics and vice versa.

Recently I heard a comment from an American friend who was very reflective, “Yes, we are a country of immigrants. But we, the European descendants, do not think of ourselves as the immigrants in America. The ones we call ‘immigrants’ are the non-Europeans – Asians, Africans, Hispanics… everyone who does not look like us.”

When I saw the sign in Oregon, it reminded me why I like this Pacific Northwest state so much. It is not perfect by no means but I like the strong spirit, broad mindedness and the attitude of being pro-active. Oregonians have strong opinions, choose to act and obviously this shop was making a loud and clear statement.

How fitting for a store that is selling books and stories of our interconnected and shared human existence and experience!

 

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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Rohingya and soul searching in Myanmar

Myanmar is making international headlines again and the news is not good. Tragedy for the thousands and thousands of people who are losing their homes, ancestral land, possessions and fleeing to neighboring country Bangladesh… hundreds are also losing their lives and their loved ones. The story of Rohingya ethnic minority has repeated through the years but the current crisis is a new low.

Myanmar (Burma) holds a special place in my heart. Peaceroads was inspired by my friends from this beautiful but broken country. We have spent many hours talking, working and praying for peace, freedom, restoration and reconciliation in this nation. Many are already experiencing peace and freedom but not everyone. Not yet … and it will take even longer now.

It is racism but this is not just about race. It is religious but this is not just about religion (most Rohingya are Muslim minority in a predominantly Buddhist country). Nationalism, economics, politics, military power, etc… It is complicated, yes, and long story. There are violent and angry people on all sides, yes, and someone’s freedom fighter is someone else’ terrorist. We don’t know all the facts, yes, and Myanmar government accuses international media of misinformation (while not allowing them access to the conflict area!). Still, many facts are too obvious, stories are real, pictures speak for themselves and there is suffering for the whole world to see.

This is why international community is reacting with such sadness, criticism and challenge to the current leaders of Myanmar. For decades and decades people and governments in democratic countries supported the long journey toward freedom, dignity and rights of the people of Burma, including demand to release Aung Sun Suu Kyi from house arrest and let her lead the nation. Now many of the Nobel Peace Prize laureates are challenging her to speak out, act fast and defend the rights of ALL people.

I deeply care about real and lasting reconciliation in Myanmar and right now it is facing a dangerous moment. There are plenty of evil forces that are ready to exploit this fault line and make it even more violent (Al Qaeda, ISIS and other such groups are looking at this as a new cause to support). It is like a perfect storm brewing if there is no immediate and courageous national leadership and brave decisions. It also requires a deep soul searching in the whole society – who is this country for, who is my neighbor?

I am no expert but I know enough about Myanmar’s pain of the past, the struggles of today and the hopes for the future. This is not just about human rights; this is about right human relationships. How will these communities live? What will happen to these displaced people? If they are allowed return, how do they rebuild their lives? What will make them feel safe, protected and wanted? What about justice? What about forgiveness?

I want to copy an open letter by Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, which expresses many of my own thoughts…

“My dear Aung San Su Kyi

I am now elderly, decrepit and formally retired, but breaking my vow to remain silent on public affairs out of profound sadness about the plight of the Muslim minority in your country, the Rohingya.

In my heart you are a dearly beloved younger sister. For years I had a photograph of you on my desk to remind me of the injustice and sacrifice you endured out of your love and commitment for Myanmar’s people. You symbolised righteousness. In 2010 we rejoiced at your freedom from house arrest, and in 2012 we celebrated your election as leader of the opposition.

Your emergence into public life allayed our concerns about violence being perpetrated against members of the Rohingya. But what some have called ‘ethnic cleansing’ and others ‘a slow genocide’ has persisted – and recently accelerated. The images we are seeing of the suffering of the Rohingya fill us with pain and dread.

We know that you know that human beings may look and worship differently – and some may have greater firepower than others – but none are superior and none inferior; that when you scratch the surface we are all the same, members of one family, the human family; that there are no natural differences between Buddhists and Muslims; and that whether we are Jews or Hindus, Christians or atheists, we are born to love, without prejudice. Discrimination doesn’t come naturally; it is taught.

My dear sister: If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep. A country that is not at peace with itself, that fails to acknowledge and protect the dignity and worth of all its people, is not a free country.

It is incongruous for a symbol of righteousness to lead such a country; it is adding to our pain.

As we witness the unfolding horror we pray for you to be courageous and resilient again. We pray for you to speak out for justice, human rights and the unity of your people. We pray for you to intervene in the escalating crisis and guide your people back towards the path of righteousness again.

God bless you.

Love

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu

Hermanus, South Africa”

tutu

photos from internet

 

Beware of narrow vocabularies and two-dimensional world

The great “back to school” migration has begun… public transport packed with excited or anxious children, proud or worried parents and other happy or annoyed passengers who observe this happy noise and energy. In fact I am building up my own excitement for continued studies in Latvia University which begins on Monday.

In Latvia (and many other post-communist countries) it is called the Day of Knowledge. I think about my studies with far more expectations for myself than for my professors.  They certainly have lots of knowledge in their scientific fields and different styles for conveying it to us but ultimately it is up to me to take it or leave it or store it for later. I love my field of study – theology and religious studies – because it wrestles with the truly important and relevant questions of human life. One classmate who would not describe himself as particularly religious commented that he came to this faculty to explore the big question of “Why?” Don’t we all?!

There is one thing that I absolutely love about being a student again. The libraries! There is not enough hours in the day and not enough days in year to take full advantage of these amazing archives of human exploration and resources. Our faculty has a small one but still it is one of my favorite spaces in the whole building. Books, books, books… thoughts, concepts, reflections, facts, thesis, questions, answers, arguments, paradigms, worldviews, research… and words, words, words.

Recently I read a small, short manifesto book “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From The Twentieth Century” by Timothy Snyder, a prominent American historian. He wrote that “the effort to define the shape and significance of events requires words and concepts that elude us when we are entranced by visual stimuli. Watching televised news is sometimes little more than looking at someone who is also looking at a picture. We take this collective trance to be normal.”

He also reminded of authors and thinkers like George Orwell whose novel 1984 portrays a world where “one of the regime’s projects is to limit the language further by eliminating ever more words with each edition of the official vocabulary. Staring at screens is perhaps unavoidable, but the two-dimensional world makes little sense unless we can draw upon a mental armory that we have developed somewhere else.”

It feels like George Orwell novel when our societies/politicians/media/we become narrow in our vocabularies. Or words gets changed, diluted and become meaningless.

Word like ‘humility’ should mean “the greatest among you shall be your servant. Fōr whoever exalts himself will be humbled.” (Jesus Christ)

Word like ‘greed’ should mean “Do not covet” or “There is enough for everyone’s need but not enough for everyone’s greed.” (Mahatma Gandhi)

Word like ‘dignity’ should mean “Dignity does not consist in possessing honors, but in deserving them.” (Aristotle)
Where is your mental armory? How do you develop it?
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The beautiful old library at Trinity College, Dublin (from personal archive)