Blessed are the Merciful, for they shall be shown Mercy.

10-mercy

I’ve been quiet. I’ve been busy. I’ve been stretched. I’ve been focused. I have lingered on this beatitude for awhile. Mercy: I have yearned for it, received it, exercised it, celebrated it, and embraced the hope it brings. I have also, at times, stood with an aching sadness at the lack of it in the world in both small and large ways. Mercy was at the heart of my spiritual awakening and is the sustenance for my soul. And it is mercy both in its effort and absorption that keeps my house clean when I am tempted to throw it by the wayside and rage against the lies and cruelty and ignorance and ego and judgement and entitlement and fear. In desperate moments I remember Jesus in the garden sweating blood because his fear and anxiety was so deep yet was still willing to give his Godly heart for my flawed human one. My life transformed because he augmented my broken heart with his heart. And it was then that I became his fruit, a viable product of his extraordinary life and sacrifice, a means by which the power of mercy can live and stay palpable in our often sad and desperate world. When I allow his heart to be my heart, mercy is air, it is breath, it is life, it is everything.

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.

009   010

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.

014  1988 russia friend

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.

012     011

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.

me and Diana    1988 gala dinner

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.

1984

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my visits to Russia, once when it was the USSR, and once after it dissolved. I was reading through my journals about the trip the other day, and I thought I would honor that young girl by first sharing some of her insights about the trip. I was the youngest member of a delegation of the National Council of Churches, being only 24. I had to study extensively before hand as well as attend briefings for days at Columbia University in New York City before we left. It was 1984, and there was still a cold war, but I believed that this opportunity was a God-given one that I couldn’t pass up. There are so many more stories that I can’t print here, but I want to offer some of the insights that shaped my future thoughts

Notes during our briefings

Like America, there seems to be a big difference between the people and those in power. The big difference is the sense of futility of the Soviet people feel in overtly doing anything about the injustice they are forced to live with. I was also amazed at the structured and networked way people work around the system. I’ve always believed things are not always what they seem to be, that we live in a time of Olympic level charades-the feeling that things are not what they appear to be. In the USSR it must be overpowering. Again, the difference between the two countries is not just ideology but one of survival. All the bullshit in America is who can get ahead-who can accumulate the most. The feelings in Russia are to survive, to beat an unfair system-yet Hedrick Smith says they’re very generous people-they love to share gifts with people. We are not allowed to bring any denim and the woman have to wear skirts or dresses. Clothes of the west are a hot commodity. They asked us to bring pins to share, I am completely unprepared.

about the Olympic boycott

I’ve just heard about the boycott of the Russians to our Olympics. I’m sad that our two countries keep egging each other on.What will this do to my trip? I’m beginning to realize the seriousness of what I’m about to do. I’m nervous because I don’t know what to expect, but don’t want to push any preconceived ideas into my thinking.

On the the trip    the-children      russia-friends

After our city tour, we went to a small village church. The pastor’s name was Basil and I know what will have been the highlight of my trip was the children, it was wonderful! There is no way I can explain it in words…just freedom. Fr Basil took us to his “home” where we had another “gala” dinner-we made many toasts (too much vodka). During one of the toasts by Fr Innocent (irony of the year) I started to cry, partly because I’m tired, but mostly because of the double speak, the secret language of the heart and the language of the mouth, or party line, which I’ve had pretty much enough of by now. My eye contact with people has become quite piercing…and they don’t like it, not at all. But you see, you have to look so deeply for the truth and when they deceive and you’re looking deep into their eyes, they can’t hold your gaze. It started having a bad effect on people…not speaking but just forcing eye contact. I hoped my eyes say “I see YOU”. It was when we visited the collective farm I wanted to scream “Do you really think we’re that stupid?” It doesn’t matter to me that you’re trying to impress me, what I want is the truth…a rare commodity here. I’m tired of the press, people taking our pictures and the presence of the KGB. Do they think I can’t tell the difference between a real seminarian and a Soviet officer, especially the way they look me up and down?

Zagorsk    zagorsk-2  zagorsk-3   zagorsk-4

Celebrating the high holiday for Russian Orthodox-Pentecost, at Zagorsk, which is their equivalent of Rome was beyond words. When our many buses drove into the monastery, there were thousands waiting to greet us. Walking through all those people just staring at us made me realize that we were definitely on display. The whole experience was beautiful and breathtaking and yet completely freaked me out.

The cantata at the Baptist Church   cantata

There was quite a bit of excitement at the Baptist Church. They had prepared a special cantata for us and it was really beautiful. But after the music was over, some people held banners over the balcony claiming in English that many pastors of Baptist Churches were being imprisoned. I was astounded, everything had been so “perfect” until this point. Our leaders avoided it and we were basically told from everyone, what you saw, you didn’t see. Afterwards, I could see one of the wives giving an interview with journalists. I am impressed by her determination and guts and will pray for her protection.

Gala Dinner Menu (one of many)          gala-dinner

Cocktail/Salad: rolled ham stuffed with eggs, stuffed hard boiled egg with tomato, salmon and white fish, tomatoes, and breads with caviar. This served with vodka, also for toasting.

First course: crepes and black caviar. Served with red wine.

Second course: Chicken Kiev, with vegetables and rice in a puffed pastry. Served with white wine.

Dessert: Ice cream and filled cake. Served with Champagne.

Coffee: biscuits,cheeses. Served with cognac.

Dancing, and most were a bit drunk…Cheers to my Irish tolerance (and I did toastes with water, not vodka)

Leaving the USSR  propaganda   soldiers

I’m in the Moscow airport ready to board the plane for Amsterdam. My feelings are mixed. I’m sad to leave because I feel like I haven’t seen enough-but the tension of this society is so oppressive that I can’t breathe. I’ve also felt disillusioned about this trip. It seemed to be so much media hype for our Leader—– I don’t like to be part of diplomatic niceties which I feel most of this trip was, especially near the end. There were times when I felt like I was on the mountain being tempted by the Devil with all the fanfare, pampering and “gala” dinners. Everything. was. just. too. nice. It makes me wonder what the results of our trip will really be. Will all the frosting hide justice? i.e.the women at the baptist church.

Amsterdam     amsterdam

The lay over in Amsterdam was a needed break. My wild side came out, and I’m sure a bit of repressed anger too. I waltzed some of the ministers down to the red light district..he he. Their faces as they looked at the prostitutes in the store fronts doing their best come hither, is something I will never forget.

Home     breifing

They said everything was a perfect success. I began to panic because I knew I had to tell people about my experience-that was part of the deal. While going to the USSR was a dream, I had to borrow against my next year salary to do this, with the little I make working with the church it was such a risk. I thought I would be making a real difference, and now I wonder. One of the youth group members committed suicide just as I was arriving home. Physically her life was nice, like our peace mission. Nice isn’t enough, it just can’t be. Christianity can’t always be nice. Peace should be defined by more than nice. It means pain, sacrifice, being vulnerable, being scared and letting go in the face of it. I didn’t get that from the leadership of either country. I felt those things personally and I’m angry that those feelings were never supported by a group speaking in my name too.

We Americans and the Soviets are different, I accept that. I accept protocol and diplomacy are very important. We depended too much on behaving “appropriate” and not enough on being Christians. Our connection was our mutual faith. The Church’s route just has to be different than a political one, it has to be. Politics is rooted in a struggle for power, Christianity is rooted in the spread of the gospel and love. Human beings have proven through history that they are incapable of bringing about lasting peace by their own initiative. It doesn’t matter how good and noble the intentions are if they become egocentric somehow.

Because I am young, the youngest that went by far, my insight and intuition isn’t quite as keen as it will be some day. God has blessed me with much potential, though. So I will listen to how deeply disturbed I feel. There was so much going on in the Soviet Union on a completely different level. I could tell by eye contact, body language, atmosphere-the shadow language. It was all very subtle, but clear enough to demand attention, because when added to the whole picture, my impressions were radically altered. My struggle will be to create an honest picture without embellishment.

Afterwards, I was relieved when a journalist called to get my opinion of the trip. Excited to tell my truth, we talked for a long while. When the article came out in a national paper, not only wasn’t I mentioned, but it “nice.” In my mind, I had been censored and rendered insignificant. I became depressed and disillusioned after that. I spoke three times about my trip, the bare minimum and I continued to worry and pray about the baptist ministers wife and what the truth really was….so I went back, four years later……

Ripples and Fruit

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None of us share the exact same gifts, nor will we produce the same fruits. What is necessary to cultivate and sustain them may be different too. To take it one step further, we are not always aware of the impact of fruit shared. Confused? Let me share a story. While a teacher at the Academy of Holy Angels, I had the benefit of working with the theater department (cheers to Gregg Sawyer) to create a one-act play about the homeless. Because I was in campus ministry at the time, I coordinated experiences about the homeless with students who were writing the play. Working with a homeless shelter in downtown Minneapolis, many of our students got the opportunity to volunteer and gain some insight into the plight of the homeless. On one particular evening when I was volunteering with some students, I had a somewhat confrontational interaction with a woman who didn’t like that we were there “spying” on them. I continued the conversation with her for quite awhile, and learned many things about her struggles. She was an educated woman who struggled with mental illness and alcohol. I don’t really remember the specifics of the conversation, but I think we parted on good terms having listened to one another.

Over a decade later, in my small little town 60 miles away, we had a patient scheduled that my husband had known from high school who was down on his luck and had lived in Mexico and had struggled with drugs there. He was in rough shape and needed a chiropractor desperately. He arrived for his appointment, and his companion was the woman I had met in the shelter all those years ago. I knew who she was right away, ( I never forget a face), and I could tell by the look on her face that she recognized me too, because she complimented me on my eyes, just like she had done in the shelter. Neither of us brought it up, but she paid for his visit and the one the following day. She wanted to help her friend, she said. She had at one time fallen on hard times, and she wanted to be able to give back, she said. I smiled and said something about the ripple effect. She smiled, and I never saw them again. Was it divine providence? Cause, seriously, what are the odds of that happening? What lesson did I learn? Perhaps we had influenced each other in a simple but powerful way, and God threw us together for a moment to illustrate that we should always be ready and willing to put ourselves out there, extend a hand or a word because we may never know the impact it has on someone’s life.

What would have happened if I had gotten all defensive and just blown her off? I wondered about that a lot. Bearing fruit doesn’t have to be magnanimous to be miraculous. That can’t be said enough. The alternative is true as well. The one ingredient that I know is essential regardless of the size or breadth of the fruit is kindness. I remember that woman often as my encouragement to never underestimate a simple gesture…and I hope she remembers me too.

On being Unequivocal

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I’m not a tentative person…never was, never will be. While that may have caused me considerable consternation in the past, I don’t worry about that anymore. I do worry, however, about the state of the world and those who command our attention. I wonder how differently they would speak if they read these words everyday:

Jesus said:

A good person brings forth good out of a store of goodness, but an evil person brings forth evil out of a store of evil. I tell you, on the day of judgement people will render an account for every careless word they speak. By your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.

Just saying…I’m sure there would be a lot more silence.

 

On Seeing the Glass Half Full

half-full-glassIt’s been awhile, and the reason is simple: life happens and sometimes life is hard. Events occur and people we love grow ill and the future teeters in a precarious balance that seems beyond everything but hope and prayer. The world is fraught with crisis and to weigh in demands I make a choice. Will I be a glass half empty person or a glass half full person. I choose to stand on the side of the half fullers. For me its not a Pollyanna thing but a hard stance in the face of negativity and dare you to defy my hope kind of thing. Ultimately, it is a requirement of my faith…for without it, I am just a seed on rocky ground. This world is so good, and so full of great things happening every day, and not the apocalyptic nightmare purported over the many means of media.

It’s also a science thing for me…in a quantum situation, i.e. light can exist as a particle or a wave depending on how its observed (note, prior to this double slit experiment, it had to be one or the other, light could not exist as both). Life can be good or bad, I as the observer determine which…and that determination matters more than anything. I can affect an outcome through faith, hope and love. Words matter, telling the truth matters, prayer matters, looking to the future no matter how daunting with God, in whatever form, augmenting our weakness with deep abiding love and strength matters. It ultimately distinguishes who gets up and moves forward.

For you glass half empties…I offer you my prayer to learn to see with hopeful eyes

 

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.