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”

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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)

 

 

Most difficult peace with ourselves

My claim to fame – meeting and talking with Brian “Head” Welch from Korn. I was never a huge fan. I could not relate to their darkness and anger and even less to the destructive lifestyle, but few years ago I heard Head perform his solo album “Save me from myself“.

Talk about a story of redemption! Now two books later, re-joined with Korn and traveling the world with a very different kind of message – one of brokenness, hope and more humility – Head caused some controversy when he reacted emotionally to the death of his good friend, Chester Bennington of Linkin Park. On Facebook page he wrote “Honestly, Chester’s an old friend who we’ve hung with many times, and I have friends who are extremely close to him, but this is truly pissing me off! How can these guys send this message to their kids and fans?! I’m sick of this suicide shit! I’ve battled depression/mental illness, and I’m trying to be sympathetic, but it’s hard when you’re pissed! Enough is enough! Giving up on your kids, fans, and life is the cowardly way out!!!

I’m sorry, I know meds and/or alcohol may have been involved, I’m just processing like all of us and I know we are all having some of the same thoughts/feelings. Lord, take Chester in your arms and please re-unite him with his family and all of us one day. Be with his wife and kids with your grace during this difficult time.” Later he added, “I didn’t mean to sound insensitive about Chester. Just dealing with a range of emotions today. Love you Chester. I’m pissed that you did this, but I know this could have been me back in the day after getting wasted one night.”

That’s just it. It could have been Brian Welch, it could have been me, it could be many people I know. We come from very different worlds and backgrounds but there is something we all experience and struggle  with. The ability to forgive yourself or even harder – to love yourself. Self-hate and self-rejection, in whatever form it comes, is one of the most common human experiences. I have never had to battle a serious depression, mental issues and have been fortunate to avoid lots of self-destruction but I do know what I have felt or thought many times looking in the mirror or reflecting on my innermost thoughts and motives and past actions.

There is something else Head and I have in common – we are pursuing peace with ourselves, others and God. Started following the way of Jesus in very different circumstances but with the same desperate need – to be saved from ourselves. To be saved from my pride, selfishness and self-loathing among other things. We want peace in the world but this personal inner peace is the most elusive. To love your neighbor is often easier than loving yourself. To love yourself just as you are because you are loved by Someone who knows you even better yourself. To forgive yourself as you forgive others and are forgiven.

I was heartbroken when I heard of Chris Cornell‘s (of Audioslave and Soundgarden) death in May. Why did I cry and listen to his songs again? Besides coming from the grunge scene, why did it feel so personal? Yes, I liked all the bands he was in and I absolutely loved his vocal talent. More than that – I was touched by the lyrics Chris wrote. He had a special gift for raw poetry. I think of all “Audioslave” fans who have sung along these lines “You gave me life, now show me how to live… And in your waiting hands, I will land, and roll out of my skin”

Yesterday I was driving across the state of Minnesota and all radio stations were playing Linkin Park. The one I did not hear and my favorite is “What I’ve Done“. I really like the official video and the lyrics,

“So let mercy come
And wash away
What I’ve done

I’ll face myself
To cross out what I’ve become
Erase myself
And let go of what I’ve done

Put to rest
What you thought of me
While I clean this slate
With the hands of uncertainty

I start again
And whatever pain may come
Today this ends
I’m forgiving what I’ve done”

I pray for comfort to those who mourn the death of their idols, friends, family, parents, sons, daughters! And I understand the overwhelming emotions Head expressed when you want to say to dear friends… I don’t wish you to “rest in peace”. I wish you to “live in peace”.

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Brian “Head” Welch from Korn and Sunny from P.O.D. sharing about their fears, hopes and faith

 

Earth Day and dimming the lights on our bright future

I want to write more about climate change and environmental problems but I often don’t know what to say. On one hand so much has been said and written already. On the other hand it feels like so many influential and powerful people who can decide and implement real solutions still live on planet Mars, not planet Earth. One very powerful and influential world leader recently said that he has an ‘open mind’ about it and then someone else commented that there is a thin line between an ‘open mind’ and ‘no mind’.

I don’t need any more convincing. Our beautiful home planet Earth is screaming for attention, begging for help and solidarity and shouting out warnings left and right. Who can count how many times we have heard the words  that “we are near the edge”, that “we need to act together now” and that “tomorrow will be too late to reverse many of the trends”.

This week I was in the mood for some intelligent conversation on economics, sustainable development and the changing world order. So I listened to Jeffrey Sachs (follow the link) who is known as one of the world’s leading experts on economic development and the fight against poverty. He also teaches in Columbia University, USA and has been a special advisor to the UN Secretary General for almost two decades. People like him speak with knowledge but also with hope and vision because human beings have never been smarter and more technologically advanced to address these problems and actually solve them.

We listen to the science and we know that there are some conflicting views but there is an overwhelming consensus that we, the people, are bringing some of the systems to irreversible breaking point. Previous generations procrastinated but we cannot afford to. Just ask the Chinese government if they have an ‘open mind’ about it. I think it is high on the list of their priorities because 1,3 billion people will let them know how unhappy they are if these disasters are not averted.

I don’t need the scientists when I live in Thailand and see the effects of fast development. The city is growing, the shopping malls and centers are popping up like mushrooms (I think of all the air conditioning needed in this hot climate), the water canals are so full of chemicals and the drainage stinks like there is pure poison running under the ground, Then there is the ever-worsening smog because of cars and slash-and-burn practices. The forests are getting cleared for quick money and the fastest way is to simply burn it. There were days when I was sweeping ashes in our apartment. And don’t get me started about the plastic on the ground and in the waters!

Few months ago we had the Taize ecumenical gathering of Christians from many traditions and European nations in Riga, Latvia. There was a seminar titled “What can we do for our common home, the earth? Reflection on urgent environmental questions based on Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si” (follow the link to download). There was lots of facts and good research, lots of good discussions and practical ideas on personal level. What can I as an individual do in my own life to lessen the ecological impact on our systems – water, biodiversity, non-renewable resources, etc?

I will admit I have not read Pope Francis’ encyclical yet but intend to. I have heard much about it but not enough in the church circles. Actually to those of us who attend church regularly I want to ask, “how many sermons have you heard on creation care and environment?” I think many of us would reply, “None!” I have hear one sermon and that was a few years ago in Wales. I still remember all the points and stories and the Bible verses because it got my attention.

“For most of us and most of the time, we can’t know what will happen. But what we can know is what should happen and that is a “should” from a moral point of view. We can know what’s important to happen. With technical knowledge, we can know what is possible to happen. And then our responsibility as moral agents is to make what is possible to happen.” (Jeffrey Sachs)

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(photos from personal archive)