1988

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My second trip to Russia was through Canada. We flew on the Soviet airline Aeroflot, a night and day difference from our commercial airlines. Cautious, I felt this would be a good thing, Russia from the perspective of the people. That hope didn’t last long. Beyond the clear evidence of what materially was not available to purchase in their home country, each citizen had bags and bags of stuff they purchased in Canada.

It is clearly evident that I am an American on a Soviet Airline. I feel like I’m on a 1950’s grey hound bus. All around me I hear incomprehensible Russian, full of enthusiasm to share the spoils of their trip with their loved ones at home. People have bags and boxes stacked on their laps and under their seats, unwilling to let go of the proximity needed to put them in the upper bins. Their “stuff” includes electronics, Reeboks, and blue jeans. I forget sometimes how accessible material things are to me (even if I can’t afford them). The air in the plane smells Soviet-a mixture of perspiration, musty air and an ointment like smell. It makes me feel like a prima dona because I’m more concerned about brushing my teeth and taking a shower. I helped a woman squeezed into the seat next to mine who looked at me suddenly panicked and I knew she was going to vomit. I grabbed the barf bag in the pocket of my seat and put it in front of her face just in time. I felt so bad for her because I know how awful it is to get sick in a crowded place (like I did last time I was in Russia). It is so easy to love when one who is so vulnerably helpless is forced to lower their guard and let someone help. I didn’t need to speak the language, only sit and be present with my hand on her back and give her a Kleenex when she needed it. She smiled and tried to communicate for the rest of the trip.

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I have always loved Leningrad, now St Petersburg. The Summer palaces, the Hermitage museum and churches are exquisite. Plagued by citizens trying to swap, poach, buy drugs was unsettling. I did not feel safe as a young woman there and wore my glasses most of the time, like it would make a difference (remember that I was young and a bit naive) I had such high hopes for a newer, fresher Russia. I expected a sense of moving with the times, but what I began to understand is that this was a country that wanted the benefits of a western society, but either didn’t want to do the work, or was ill equipped to handle the transition. And they worked so hard to create a smoke screen to make it appear that they would still be equal to or superior to America. It wasn’t a very good one though.

We’re in Leningrad-and it is the white nights. At 2:30 in the morning it looked like the afternoon. I met Leonard Bernstein in a shop. I was completely star struck. It was phenomenal, and he was surrounded by people here too.We went to tour the Hermitage Museum, such amazing beauty and art A young man came up to me and wanted to trade, which isn’t unusual, but then he wanted to know if I smoked or did coke and stared exclusively at my chest. I said “no” forcefully. It felt good, but I was mad that the only people who speak to me here-want something-money exchange or other stuff.

There were people we met with who really wanted to make a difference, but I never got a sense that they had much power or backing to really do anything about it. We met with a few peace summits, as they were called but there were always less than a dozen people present. You could hardly call them a summit. I give these people credit, though, they were working hard to make a better life for the people.

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I had a wonderful conversation with a man named Demetrius at our peace committee meeting. It was refreshing to talk to someone young who is educated and open. He gave me his address and said they would invite me to visit again. Maybe, someday. I also went to the ballet it was wonderful, of course-I’ve been lucky enough to see the Bolshoi Ballet in the States. We went to the tea room afterwards, simple and relaxing. No one to bother us. One thing I’ve noticed this tour, is that there are no visits to war memorials, last time we were inundated. The talk of war is almost minimal except for a breed of hatred for Stalin.

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Landed in Kiev on another greyhound type plane. It is much more relaxed than last time. I stayed in the same hotel, and this time had no less than three marriage proposals. Must not be a good place to plan a future. The peace meeting here, too, was just like last time-all party line.

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My time in Crimea was wonderful and awful. I had never been, which I now see for what it was, sexually assaulted before. I am thankful that I was surrounded by people and members of my group to support me, and empowered by my own willingness to punch his lights out. The picture it painted for me was that I thought there was a license to treat women in a way that was unacceptable in Russia, and I unfairly blamed them for a long time. When I returned home and the growing awareness of sexual violence that continued to permeate my own culture, and more personal experiences on a much smaller and subtle level, I had to come to grips when the fact that it wasn’t exclusive to a reforming communist country. Yet, I’m glad that I only wrote about the wonderful and kind people I met there in my journal. When I saw the news that Crimea was annexed by Russia, I knew why. It is the crown jewel of the Black Sea, of the Ukraine, and like Russia seems to always do…it takes what it wants.

We are in Yalta, the vacation paradise of Russia. The hotel is magnificent, the beach crowded with people, families unconcerned about body image, just happy to be on the beach, work first, though. We went to a pioneer village, a youth camp and we only met one official, which was quite disappointing.One distinction beyond the same universal educational curriculum for the last 10 years, rock music is no longer suppressed, and some pictorial art.

Back relaxing in the pool, a very attractive man swam up and tried to sell me lacquer boxes. I splashed him off and then felt bad. I saw him that night in the disco and danced with him and nearly punched his lights out when he started to mall me. Whatever decorum was present last time is not present this time. It is very disturbing.

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Back in Moscow at the Hotel Rus (*which is now an office building…original built in 1894) and there were cockroaches. Someone stole a pair of my shoes from my room. I am ready to go home.The city tour was OK, it is dirty now.

That was all I wrote about Moscow the second time, except for one funny ditty I wrote in my journal “Hotel Rus, 6000 rooms with 6000 unused bidets”. We did have gala dinner to conclude our trip and I remember it as lovely, but full of other tourists. I couldn’t wait to go home. The only memory of my return trip was that I had to convince so many on the plane when we stopped over in Ireland not to spend all their money in the duty free shop there. It was hard to convince them that Canada would have everything they needed. Going through customs took forever, one of our party got in trouble for trying to smuggle in caviar. I missed my connecting flight and stayed in Montreal at a new friends family home. My sadness returning home would have been oppressive, but I was ready to start my new teaching job. I didn’t journal for months, so I can hardly recall what my feelings were. I did pack up all my Russia books and materials and put them into storage…which speaks volumes.

Both trips to Russia were an instrumental gift in my life. How it presented and continues to present itself in my life may seem blurred at times. I do know that my devotion to truth and cutting through political subterfuge is a result of those journeys, and is the number one reason I am so pained by what is happening in the world right now. I have paid a price for it, but one that I accept readily. Jesus says the truth will set you free…I walk in that belief and understanding every day.

Walking on Water

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Let me begin by saying this post is indeed political and may indeed seem polarizing, but it has nothing to do with political parties or the election per say. As part of my year of clarity, which is almost at an end by the way, I remain committed to see the world as Christ intended when he said blessed are those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. Having come so far, I certainly am not going backward now. In many ways, this year has been a torturous stripping away of every illusion, every chain and old belief that I held onto as an appeasement to my fears, insecurities and those beliefs that limit my personal evolution. I never anticipated what asking for the eyes to see and ears to hear would do to my life. It was upended. Be careful what you pray for, I’ve heard. And as much as I had no idea how naive my request was, I remained stalwart through every point of this journey, sometimes to the detriment of my health and personal psyche. I also want to say, while not everyone is a Christian like I am, I hope you will appreciate the conclusions I’ve come to anyway. Today, I am Peter, when Jesus was walking on water:

Meanwhile the boat, already a few miles offshore, was being tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against it. During the fourth watch of the night, Jesus came toward them, walking on the sea. When the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were terrified, “It is a ghost,” they said, and they cried out in fear. At once Jesus spoke to them, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter said to him in reply, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus. But when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught him, and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Even after all I’ve learned and how deep my faith has become having answered Jesus when he said “Come,” now that I am here standing amidst the turbulence, I am trying not to be afraid, trying not to sink into the depths. I have the benefit of hindsight that Peter didn’t. I already know Jesus response, “oh you of little faith, why did you doubt.” In this moment of such turbulence, I will not let fear falter my journey. That doesn’t mean that I won’t be afraid, I just simply reject the doubt so I don’t sink. I will walk on water regardless of my fear. I will respond to Jesus command when he says come. So what does that even look like? This may take a moment, so please bear with me until the end.

For that last few weeks, I have pondered, and worried a bit over Jesus words in Matthew 10 when he describes the world they, as disciples, would venture into:

Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword. For I have come to set a man ‘against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s enemies will be those of his household.’ Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more that me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up his/her cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his/her life will lose it, and whoever loses her/his life for my sake will find it. Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me. Whoever receives a prophet because he/she is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever receives a righteous person because she/he is righteous will receive a righteous person’s reward. And whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of theses little one’s to drink because he/she is a disciple-amen, I say to you, surely he/she will not lose their reward.

Life as a disciple is often life shattering. It is an ultimate test of loyalty and faith. If we succeed, we can walk on water. Call it whatever you will, a metaphor, a means to make the unfathomable, fathomable…I really don’t care. What I really care about is that regardless of the fear that holds many of us paralyzed right now, we must keep walking, we follow Jesus command to come. We refuse to doubt and be one of little faith. We do what seems at the moment to be the impossible. Because with God, all things are possible…right?

Now, here is where it gets tricky for me. As many of you know, I have friends who are democrat and republican. I embrace and accept that different ideologies exist. We’ve all walked different journeys and have embraced our own conclusions about what we’ve seen. I have friends who are religious and non-religious alike. So, my beef isn’t about that, hence the latter scripture that speaks about peace vs the sword. Here is my beef. Political ideologies, in essence, belong to Caesar (see last post), and we give to Caesar in our own way. How we express those ideologies most definitely leaks into giving to God what is Gods. So this is when the fear grips me most deeply. When you use an ideology to set others apart, to demean or demoralize them, to treat them disrespectfully you are not a being a disciple of Christ. When you cross the line in defaming your opposition, someone who doesn’t support the candidate you do, you are not being a disciple of Christ. That doesn’t mean the conversations about ideas won’t be difficult and painful. Where it became appalling to me in this election cycle was the deeply vicious and slanderous way people shared their opinions and almost never to anyone’s face. I always thought that to the people who know me, they know I’m a good person and so would listen to things from my perspective as well as their own and  that they wouldn’t dismiss me or talk about me behind my back because I thought differently than they did, or get angry when I expected truth beyond salacious innuendo. I am not a bad person because I voted a certain way. Winning this election doesn’t give you God’s stamp of approval, God doesn’t give a shit about who won this election. But losing this election doesn’t give you the right to give up all hope or hate the other party either, God has clear opinions about those kinds of judgement too.

Being immersed in an environment that often is diametrically opposed to my most core beliefs has at times been difficult for me, but I’ve adapted because I’ve learned to see the deep goodness in the people who surround me. It has always been my prayer that others would offer me the same accord and it grieved me when that didn’t always happen. This year of clarity has given me freedom from that concern. I don’t care if you judge me, because my journey is sacred. I’ve said this before, that until you walk in another’s shoes you can never understand or judge their journey and I’ve worked hard to try and do that. So I implore people to listen to, and most importantly actually see those who are hurting right now and try and understand why. Sometimes seeing life through another’s eyes isn’t pretty, especially since it challenges our assumptions. There are people of color, sexual orientation, ethnicity, different levels of education and economics, who are devastated by the situation they are in today and the implications they may face come with deep feelings often times fear and rage. But when you take time to really see them and hear them, and break the confines of a limited perspective, fear diminishes and the walk gets easier, kind like gliding on water.

And yet to those who remain convinced that the problems we face are someone else’s fault, or that your “side” has the license on righteousness or God’s imprimatur, or that the answer lies in one person’s judgement against another, I choose to stand against you, whatever side of the aisle that puts you on. To refuse to recognize that we are all of us together, citizens who should all enjoy the the same self evident truths that are the cornerstone of this great country: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, is simply unacceptable to me. So, as a Christian, my sword will be lovingly raised, and wielded in every moment the Spirit deems fit. Go ahead hate me, reject me, whatever. I choose to answer the call and walk on water.

 

Would you me mine, Could you be mine, Won’t you be my neighbor

080When a scholar of the law asked Jesus what must he do to inherit eternal life, Jesus asked him what the law said, to which the scholar responded: “You should love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus responded that he had answered correctly and said “Do this and you will live.” The scholar then asked who his neighbor was, and Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan. For those of you who don’t know the story…let me tell you some history first. The Samaritans were people of what had been the former Northern Kingdom that had been conquered by the Assyrians, resulting in a mixed race people comprised of both Jews and pagan ancestry. Although they worshiped Yahweh, as did the Jews, their religion was not mainstream Judaism. Because of a lack of strict adherence, and pagan ancestry they were despised by ordinary Jews.

So the story then goes as follows:

A man fell victim to robbers as he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. They stripped and beat him and went off leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down that road, but when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. Likewise a Levite came to the place, and when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. But a Samaritan traveler who came upon him was moved with compassion at the sight. He approached the victim, poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them. Then he lifted him up on his own animal, took him to an inn and cared for him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper with instruction, ‘Take care of him, If you spend more than what I have given you, I shall repay you on my way back.’

Which of these three, Jesus said, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim? The scholar answered, ‘The on who treated him with mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

This timeless story couldn’t be more prevalent in facing today’s volatile atmosphere. In America there is a movement, like the Jews with Samaritans, of defining standards that limit who fits into a narrow definition for what an American is. And it goes against the root of the message that Jesus was trying to convey. The funny thing, though, is that no one really fits this limited definition, its all an elaborate illusion. We are all of mixed heritage and history. But I still believe we all have more in common than we have differences. That should be the end of the story, but its not. So I ask the question that scholar asked…who, then, is my neighbor?

For me, I know I’m lucky. Growing up, I was in a neighborhood where the moms watched each other’s kids in a pinch and there were enough of us for two teams of whatever the game was of the moment. Our house may have felt too small for our large family, and while none of us were rich, with a pitcher of Kool-Aid, a bike, a ball or wading pool, who cared? We helped each other out when sickness came, or death, or just relaxed on a hot summer evening. We were a little village, and we felt safe and had each other’s backs. As an adult, I always made a point to meet my neighbors, because we were breathing the same air, and they or I may need help some day. Most importantly, life is so much better when you’re not isolated, or alone. I was always surrounded by people who were different from me, in ways that always expanded my universe. When mercy is offered, most often it is returned with mercy.

Loving your neighbor begins with you. You have to extend the hand first. That was my attitude when I landed in the latest, and greatest neighborhood of all. My neighborhood is the gold standard, as neighborhoods go, with grand functions we’ve entertained in the 21 years we’ve lived here. We’ve had chick parties, boccie ball and bowling and golf tournaments, pool parties, spooky paths, Christmas Caroling, Dance Camps, World War II simulations, Jelly stone camping excursions, bonfires, road trips and Oktoberfest romps. we’ve  grown and mourned together, read books together and laughed until we snorted, OK, until I snorted,  we celebrated life events together. Most importantly we all pray and celebrate the goodness that God offers us. We don’t all pray the same way or in the same building, but for Buck Ridge, where we start is the simple dictum Jesus taught us: “love your God with your heart, being, strength and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”  We extend mercy in so many fun and wonderful ways, and mercy is what is given in return. It is that simple platform that makes our neighborhood so wonderful, and uncomplicated and oh so easy.

The greatest truth? It isn’t how lucky we are, I already know that. I just want to point our that when you extend the hand of mercy, and treat another as your neighbor, all the fears that life brings, dissipate just a little bit. Isolation breeds fear, being a good neighbor breeds love. It isn’t contingent on anyone else, just you. Perhaps when we can master this practice in our own small neighborhoods and towns, it will leech into the larger picture, calm the fray and lead us to a time when all Americans will be seen as neighbors.

 

A Model to Follow

flagThis Memorial weekend I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about sacrifice. To all the veteran’s out there, I thank you and words cannot express the deep gratitude I feel for your service. We are able to continue our great American Experiment due, in large part, to the great sacrifices of our men and women in uniform. I believe most Americans, regardless of which side of the fence they sit on, honor you for that. Regardless of the lowlifes out there who capitalize on this weekend to breed ever more hatred for their opponents, claiming “ownership” of being a real and true American, I believe all Americans shine with pride on this day for our brave men and women of the military. It does a disservice to politicize it…even if you are in uniform, you are not sacrosanct to vilify your fellow citizens either. No one gets a free pass to condemn anyone. It defeats the purpose of the sacrifice, which is to maintain freedom for all. I tread carefully here, because while I will never undervalue those who fought in war, there are also other ways to fight, to lead, to serve, to evolve our country into something even better that demanded the sacrifice of life too. Their sacrifices are no less valuable and I honor them on this weekend too.

While I have not served in the military, I have spent my life in service. The model I have used was the core to my vocation, from the Gospel of John 13:12-15:

So when Jesus washed their feet and put his garments back on and reclined at the table again, he said to them, “Do you realize what I have done for you?” You call me “teacher” and “master,” and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, master and teacher have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that I have done for you, you should also do. Amen, amen, I say to you, no slave is greater than his master and nor any messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you understand this, blessed are you if you do it.

Throughout all my life though, as my understanding grew, this model Jesus set for us is so much more than humbling oneself to wash another’s feet. It is how we must look at each other…the master equals the servant. In one simple motion, Jesus disassembles one of the most embedded notions of cultural  hierarchy, that there are those who deserve privilege and others who don’t…and says that we are all the same, no one is better than the other. No amount of societal consequence, propriety, adulation or even condemnation can make any set of eyes looking into mine any greater or lesser. I can honor their gifts or challenge their flaws without placing them above or below my gaze.

So when I celebrate this day, I do so not only for those who have sacrificed their lives, but to honor that sacrifice by holding myself to the highest standard for what a real American looks like: a beacon to the rest of the world, while acknowledging my power as a citizen of the most powerful country in the world, I embrace the model that Jesus set for me, not lording over, or looking down on, but helping others to rise up to their greatest potential. Our greatness depends on an America committed to building the strengths of its citizens and on leaders who are not kings, but who model the example of humility and service and return our gaze with equality and respect.