10/25/2011

Revisiting Christianity: The new is saying No! to the old and stale


Exterior door sculpture at the Church of the Gracious Mother of God. Warsaw, Poland


Dave Thomas, Dean of the School of Theology at Walla Walla University, asks a question: "What would the world be like if the followers of Jesus were known as people who are kind?"*
          Thomas' fine essay actually says that if the Bible is their guide, wouldn't they give attention to what religion-by-example calls for. He is aiming his comments at the Seventh-day Adventist Christians in particular. But his thoughts are just as appropriate to all followers of Jesus. One lesson from the essay is that "living by the Truth" should be seen in more than doctrinal correctness.
            His commentary resonates with what the recent-past Adventist world church leader asks - how attractive is the church for those it should ... attract? In his recent thought-provoking book, Where Are We Going?, Jan Paulsen challenges church leadership to address the climate in the congregations.
            "For unbelievers, our churches are meant to be places of healing and renewal, where they will be drawn in and find caring human relationships. ... For believers, our churches are meant to be places to feel free, safe, and at home. They are meant to be cities of refuge, not battlefields."**
           The recent parliamentary election in Poland has again awoken a debate about an intersection of religion and national politics, but also what qualities should the Catholic Church be known for. In what is recognized as a predominantly Catholic nation, one of the unexpected winners in Poland on October 9 was an anticlerical centrist, Janusz Palikot.
            Out of obscurity of populist antics, happenings, and slogans, a master of notoriety in politics, Mr. Palikot launched a successful campaign challenging the Catholic establishment, including what is referred to as it's backward and reactionary craving for dominance in national politics. Named after its creator, the Palikot Movement party came third with over 10 percent of votes.
            His slogans to reclaim the country from the shackles of enslaving religiosity appealed to the young generation. The largely postmodern generation is tired of dogmatic Catholicism and its influence on their freedoms in public life. They voted for change and spoke against tampering with contemporary solutions to life problems of today's Poland.
            Not that the topic is new, but like a perennial plant comes up with clock-like regularity. The new is saying No! to the old and stale.
             My recent encounter with the Polish election as reported in the media parked my attention on an editorial comment by Rev. Adam Boniecki, editor of Tygodnik Powszechny, a respected independent Catholic weekly. His editorial published next day, recognized Mr. Palikot's electoral win as "an anticlerical's expected success."**
              Boniecki wrote that the "less than serious Palikot has turned out to be serious." In what is regarded as secular Europe, Poland is often perceived as a “haven of faith.” The Catholic commentator refers to many harsh reactions against Mr. Palikot's charges leveled at the Catholic establishment, and his attempts to make Poland secular. He then asks a few questions, which the Catholic microcosm would do well to recognize, in his opinion.
               In his words, "listening to the often unjust charges, intently listening to the often one-sided and biased antichurch views, it is worth to ask a question, with which Paul VI reacted when charges against the church were reported to him: 'What if they have some credence, too?'"
               What comes next is also a perennial issue that pops-up among many conscientious Christians, as they are challenged by those who watch them and ... wonder.
                If people are reacting angrily, unjustly or with an indifference, would we echo after Boniecki, "as believers, what face of the Gospel are we showing to the world?"
                There is more. "Would the unbelievers who are watching us, say, like the 'pagans' remarked about the early Christians: 'Look, how they love each other?' Are we the witnesses of evangelical poverty? Unselfishness? Love? Caring for the helpless? Can a poor man knock on our door with confidence? What about a sinner, a blasphemer, a Satanist? Are we more caring about the institution, or about a human person? In our parishes, is the Sunday Mass a joyous experience for the [faith] community?" the editor asks.
              I share a similar sentiment. You may be a Protestant Christian, but you may be equally arrogant and judgmental - theology aside - toward those who represent a different worldview, even an extreme one.
           Boniecki continues with more questions. "Will we leave the 99 sheep and seek out the one which is lost? Is the one that was found taken into our arms, or deluged with reproach ("where on earth did you go?") and demanded signs of remorse and acts of recompense?"
            Finally, the editor asks: "Considering the success of the Palikot Movement, it's worth doing a conscientious and serious evaluation: Those who are watching our deeds, would they for sure be praising the Father who is in heaven?"
            Years ago, I read a personal ad in an Adventist church magazine. A church member wondered if she had a chance to get married again, and with a fellow believer. She wrote: “I am ugly, fat, a single mother, and I am looking for love.” Some enquiries revealed that though she came to church regularly and was active in her witness, she was hungry for love. Of course, she wanted also to get married again. She simply did not experience inclusiveness within her faith community.
           Simply put, many churches, though professing to be purveyors of the good news of the Gospel, are not “walking the talk.”
            All of these issues have their validity throughout Christianity. But, I ask myself, is my own Christian witness known for acts of justice, kindness, and for an assortment of virtues, and among them, gratitude and generosity?
             Whatever is the answer, whatever needs to change, our lives matter when they are reflected in the lives of others.
             That's my soapbox for today.
*Spectrum Magazine blog, October 14, 2011, http://spectrummagazine.org
**Jan Paulsen, Where Are We Going?, Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2011, p. 106.
***Ks. Adam Boniecki, “Antyklerykala sukces spodziewany” [Anticlerical’s expected success],Tygodnik Powszechny, Oct. 11, 2011. After this blog was published, Rev. Boniecki was ordered not to speak publicly and in the media by his ecclesiastical superiors, the Marian Order. His comments are viewed as not being representative of the Catholic Church. [Added on Nov. 3, 2011] 

A makeshift wooden cross was erected in front of the Presidential Palace in Warsaw after the Polish president and 100 dignitaries died in an air crash on April 10, 2010. It's public placement and refusal to be moved elsewhere became an object of bitter political arm wrestling.

10/12/2011

On repairing our everydayness


A brief marketing encounter a few days ago with the Sligo Adventist School in Takoma Park, Maryland, a grade school operated by a congregation I worship in, gave me an opportunity to listen to parents of kids whose lives are being impacted by caring teachers. Their stories zeroed-in on such concepts as values and virtues which properly classified the pedagogues of the school.
            These stories reminded me of Janusz Korczak, a pedagogue, and a guardian of the homeless, neglected, and often abandoned children.
            Korczak’s story is rich and compelling. It was Summer of 1942. He refused to leave the Warsaw Ghetto because of his adopted children, and met his fate in the gas chambers of Treblinka concentration camp. His forte was “ethical sensitivity” in education, and a belief that one should place physical development of a child on the same level as his or her culture of feelings and emotional life.
            In his journal he wrote this little memoir about sparrows:
            During the summer the windows were usually open and they would come into the room and sit on a flowerpot. If I was also sitting still, they were not afraid. But once, when I entered the room unexpectedly, a sparrow flew away and being scared off, it could not find a way out and hit the window glass. It was stunned. Maybe hurt, even. Later, before I entered my room, I would knock on the door.
            But now, it’s wintertime and I have once again asked the glass-fitter to come and cut out a small [corner] piece of the window, so that sparrows could come in and eat. It would be warmer for them inside.
            This little gem of a story reveals the secret of Korczak’s educational success. When from time to time he received psychologically crippled children into his new homes for orphans, he treated them the same way he would treat the sparrows. All he wanted was that the boys and girls would not be afraid anymore.
            Reminders. What would we do if they ceased to propel us into repairing our everydayness, helping someone by being present in their lives, perhaps just by keeping them company and simply casting the fear away.


10/05/2011

Lavender, bell heathers and the celestial bliss

French lavender. Annecy, France

It was a daydream. It catapulted me into this piece because of a rather unexpectedly poor and cold weather. Having a deep connection with the nature I am enchanted by the seasons that unveil the nature’s beauty.
            So, I was imagining a permanent year morphing all four seasons into each other.
            What if, the purple lavender of the summer in Provence seamlessly shared the colors and the scent of the purple autumn bell heathers in Hampshire’s heathlands in England. Being born in the month of September, it’s the heathers that attract my sensory pleasure.
            Then, my daydream morphs seamlessly the colors of the golden autumn in Poland, Canada and New England, giving themselves up for the wintery whiteness and abundance of snow in front of our house in Laurel, Maryland. Grazyna would then permanently enjoy frolicking in it and giggling like a small girl. She would wave her arms creating an angel imprint in a snow mountain on a day when the hazard of driving would keep her away from … school.
            Soon the snow would join the warming sunrays of spring, with an array of green hope covering the flora.
            Such daydreaming is a reaction to what one experiences in a loss of what once was predictable, the golden yesteryear. Now, there remains the predictability of the effects of global warming, and with it the decaying nature and beauty of our Mother Earth.
            In A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway describes sadness “of losing a season out of your life” when unseasonal changes in the weather destroyed the expected warmth of the coming spring. “When the cold rains kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person had died for no reason. In those days, though, the spring always came finally; but it was frightening that it had nearly failed,” he wrote about his Paris days in the 1920s.
            As I recall what it was like in the “good old days” of my distant past, gone are the farmers gazing at an evening sky and knowing for certain what would come in the morning.
            What seems to be left now is a daydream.
            What followed one night was a dream. While I daydream in full color, my night dreams are checkered with some color, but all too often with black-and-white scenes -these scary nightmares with vivid experiences of fear. I seem to be usually running, escaping, in those bouts of night-imagination.
            That night, what I saw were the images of heaven. The images were definitely inspired by the imagination evoked when reading Scriptural narratives. Whether I was there, or not I cannot tell for certain. What I saw there etched itself in a memory and recalled later again and again.
            People were walking on the heavenly boulevards. It seemed like an uncounted multitude of them. All was bathed in sunshine forming a display of a palette of rainbow colors.
            On closer scrutiny, I recognized some faces. Ha, I heard myself utter, did they deserve to be there? I would not have expected to see some of them enjoying the celestial bliss. Oh, really?
            When I woke up, it was obvious that hardly anything is as simple and true in life as one assumes and is convinced about it.
            Whether you dream at night or daydream in the afternoon about a better reality, all you can do is look after your own rights or wrongs. 
            The rest – actually everything - belongs to the Life Giver. 

Human palette of rainbow colors. Chirala, India

10/03/2011

Such sweet and intoxicating scent of ego

 
Lenin's Mausoleum, Red Square, Moscow, Russia 

If you are a writer, you know when a story will write itself.
            Such a moment came after reading a passage from Tom Rachman's fascinating true-to-life novel about predicaments of the newspaper industry, The Imperfectionists. I noted at once that a story is being written in my head and would be put to paper with my favorite Faber-Castel pencil.
            So this is how it goes... A reporter is sent to interview a once well-known author. His assignment is to prepare an obituary about her as she is getting on with age and the facts about her life are sparse. Reflecting on her own encounter with death knocking-in, she thinks aloud describing the absurdity of ambition, and yet remaining in its thrall.
            "It's like being a slave all your life, then learning one day that you never had a master, and returning to work all the same. Can you imagine a force in the universe greater than this? Not in my universe. You know, even from the earliest childhood it dominated me. I longed for achievements, to be influential - that, in particular. To sway people. This has been my religion: the belief that I deserve attention, that they are wrong not to listen, that those who dispute me are fools. Yet, no matter what I achieve, the world lives on, impertinent, indifferent - I know all this, but I can't get it through my head. It is why, I suppose, I agreed to talk to you. To this day, I'll pursue any folly to make the rest of you shut up and listen to me, as you should have from the start!"
            And she continues, "Here is a fact: nothing in all civilization has been as productive as ludicrous ambition. Whatever it's ills, nothing has created more. Cathedrals, sonatas, encyclopedias: love of God was not behind them, nor love of life. But the love of man to be worshipped by man."
            What she describes can be viewed as a slice of our common folly. My folly certainly fits into this picture.
            My boss had an uncanny way of bringing me back to earth from my inflated opinion of myself. A few years ago there was an encounter that registered itself among the experiences of life, but needed to be recalled back, reclaimed.
            My chest was bursting as I shared with him what happened, and how elated I was to be recognized.
            "Aren't we wonderful," he said, and walked away.
            It was a moment to forget, I thought in an instant.
            A treasure throve of life's experiences gave birth to that memory as I read the words - "... I deserve attention."
            Frankly, I admit to creating lots of madness in my own life, as I pursued ambition and praise. So, from time to time a lesson comes, and is also often forgotten in the fog of pursuing fleeting praise.           
            Bob Edwards, once an NPR radio host, remarked that what he did on the radio was not about him. He satisfies his ego by the very fact that he is on the radio already, he commented in conversation with another radio personality, Diane Rehm.
            "I'm a minimalist. And in the show, you know, especially "Morning Edition," doing NPR news, it wasn't about me, it was about my guests," he told Rehm. "My guests were super so I wanted to hear more of them. You know, I had enough ego satisfaction just to be hosting the program. That did it for me. I didn't need to talk."
            The wisdom others teach you, I reflected, as I listened to Edwards.
            It's never easy to sober up from intoxication with one's ego. A question lingers on: How can one remain on an auto-pilot firmly set to being useful for the sake of goodness and for the sake of others? Just be, do good, and the meaning of it all will be with those who encounter your life?
            This post stopped writing itself three days ago. Then, true to my enjoyment of twists and turns in life, I began writing its closing sentences. I got stuck in the process.
            Then at one bend I took, a thought appeared. Stop! - it shouted at me. Let the piece write itself.
            In an avalanche of verbiage, it is much useful to acknowledge those people in your life who disagreed with you. They are saying that you don't have all the answers. You are just as well not having them, either.
            A masterpiece in life is decided in the encounter with others. They will tell you when they see it. 
            In the words of the Bible, “Don’t indulge your ego at the expense of your soul.” – 1 Peter 2:11 The Message

Strasbourg Cathedral, France