faith in democracy

Monks protesting in BurmaYou have likely heard about the protests that Buddhist monks in Burma have been engaged in for the past week, ignited by the doubling of fuel prices by Burma’s military government. What is fascinating to me is that while reporting on the protests has been banned by the government, images, video and stories have been seeping out anyway. This article talks about how the Internet, websites like YouTube, mobile phones and instant messaging have become the modes of transmission for reporting on events as they transpire. Bloggers outside of Burma, where they are safer, are then posting all of this information so that it is available for those who want to know what is happening on the ground.

I’m finding this whole story of people of faith marching in defiance of an oppressive government to be very inspiring. I recently heard a lecture where it was noted that we have lost much of the democratic spirit that is so central to our western governments. Cities have been de-politicized to the point where the expectation is that all citizens will be satisfied and no one will be unsatisfied enough to raise any question or attention about an issue. But central to the function of democracy is the right and even responsibility of the people to not be satisfied with the way things are and to always push our governments to be even better. Why are we so content to sit back and think “well, at least it’s not as bad as in Burma”? I am sure that we can think of a myriad of ways that better public policy could improve the lives of ordinary citizens: climate change, poverty gaps, access to affordable housing, food sustainability…

So instead of looking at Burma as a place of injustice, why not look at it remembering our own democratic rights that we don’t take full advantage of. I wonder if we even know what it means to be democratic citizens anymore. People of faith in Burma are willing to die for the right to a democratic government – are we?

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caution: adults at play

I was also struck this weekend by what stuck out to me as the most important, life giving experiences of the weekend: the playing! I spent the whole afternoon on Saturday on a blanket in a sunny, grassy spot, crocheting with my friends. Late Saturday night my cabin mate and I pulled pranks on some of the boys. We played silly games. We tested all the apple trees we could find to see which had the best apples. We made our own pizzas. We spent time on the swingset. We sang goofy songs with goofy actions. We recollected our childhood experiences on the campgrounds. To me, all of these are play.

Play sets us free to be silly, to let our goofy sides show (which sometimes I think are closer to our real selves than our serious sides), to make mistakes that don’t have huge costs, and to try new things. I’m wondering if that is part of what I (we?) are craving in terms of community these days – spaces and groups where we can test out new ways of being human and being with each other in relationship, which is what play allows us to do.

re-membered by the land

Samish SunsetSo this past weekend I attended a church young adult retreat at a church campground on Samish Island in Washington State. It is a gorgeous spot, with mountain views, ocean frontage, a heron sanctuary adjacent, beautiful wooded areas, and, for many who have gone there, a feeling of home is always in the air.

One thing that really fascinated me was the way people talked about the place where we were. This campground is literally holy ground for most of the group that was gathered, a place where, since many of us were born, we have always gone to experience God. People talked about how when they set foot on the grounds they feel at peace, they relax, they feel like they can be themselves, and they remember where they’ve been and who they are. When I step onto the grounds I often feel like the earth asks “why are you so anxious? Why are you so tired? Come lay down an rest awhile.” What a remarkably sacred thing this is.

It is as if the land itself re-members us, in the memories that are held there we can rediscover who we are by remembering where we’ve been. We get put back together through this anamnesis of the land itself.

in appreciation of the rain

So today I am remembering why the rain actually is not all that bad (sometimes): it makes me stay inside and do schoolwork.

I’m a big fan of sunshine, I say sometimes, jokingly, that if I were not so inclined toward the Christian tradition that my number two choice would be worship of Shamash, the ancient Babylonian Sun God. Shamash was awesome. Shamash was also a god related to justice, because, the literature says, Shamash shines light down on whatever we are doing, good and bad, kind of like justice sheds a light on what we’re up to. Shamash is wise and Shamash makes us happy and helps our food grow. All-around a pretty awesome god. I studied ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature last year, hence the familiarity with these Babylonian Shamash texts. Fun times.

Back to the rain though. Since I’m so Shamash-a-philic (or maybe Shamash-a-rotic?) I kind of REALLY like to be outside when the sun is out, which, in case you haven’t noticed, tends to happen a LOT in the summertime. Which means when the sun is out, I’m probably not at my desk, studying. Hopefully this is shedding some light (ha ha, pun intended) on perhaps how my summer unfolded this year….. True, there were actually some bigger things going on too that held me back from my academic work, but when big stuff is going on, I tend to head outside, to try and synch myself back up with the sun and the grass and everything else I’m connected to.

But now the rain has started again, and so instead of lingering outside, sitting in a lawn chair and reading, I am inside writing, looking up books, and actually getting schoolwork done. So perhaps the grey days I’ve been bemoaning are actually a gift in themselves, to free me up from my Shmash-worshipping duties and allow me to turn my mind again to more intellectual pursuits. Which I also love, but in a different way than the way I love napping in the grass on a warm afternoon. Both have made me who I am, both will make me whoever I become.

someone is baking

Someone in my apartment building is baking. At first I thought it might be cookies, but then I sniffed more intently and decided it could possibly be a cake. There is definitely the scent of vanilla and sugar in the air, and that golden-brown fresh-baked smell. It is both my gift and curse that I have this incredibly acute sense of smell.

Now, there is a part of me that wishes I could/would go and hunt down the source of this heavenly aroma. I wish I knew the people on my floor well enough that I could start knocking on doors and find out who was baking, and why. But the sad thing is that I actually do not know anyone else, even in the building. Sure, I can recognize faces, and the guy in the apartment next door I know owns a motorcycle and keeps odd hours, but I have no idea what his name is.

I sit here at my desk with five quotes staring me down, five quotes that are hanging above me in order to help focus my critical thinking for my thesis work. They are all quotes about “community” because “community” is my obsession, my quest, my holy grail. I have plenty of “conflagrations of community” (as Catherine Keller would call them) in my life. I draw on both the past and future possibilities in my dreams of community (as Marjorie Suchocki reminds me to do). I know that community is difficult and tenuous and “not automatically ‘beloved'” (as Grace Jantzen puts it). And I realize that community should never force us to deny, stifle or smother out our differences (as Zigmunt Bauman challenges).

And so I sit, gazing at these quotes and dreaming of living where I can knock on my neighbour’s door and ask what it is they are baking. I dream of taking my own fresh-baked cookies across the hall to the guy with the motorcycle. I long to make too much potato salad because I know that someone in my building is too busy to make dinner and would love to share mine.

Sometimes I think these dreams are silly and childish. Sometimes I wonder if I dream of these things because they are what the demographic I belong to are supposed to dream of. But part of me believes that I dream of these things because there is some desire deep within me (and maybe within others too?) to huddle together and share food and laughter and tears and touch. I’m interested in how we can do that with fidelity to our post-modern, post-Christian context, and how connection and community can, indeed, even save us.

It is tricky to put these two things together: the academic quotes and the heartfelt dreams. Right now I can feel the two both weighing heavily on my heart and mind, because they are still learning how to speak each other’s languages and are still learning how to be patient enough to listen to one another. And yet I press on, convinced that somehow I might be able to say something that will take the desires of my heart and speak them back into my academic work in authentic and life-giving ways.

Maybe I’ll go bake some cookies.

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My quotes:

Catherine Keller: A conflagration of communities “cannot draw opaque boundaries around either its individuals or its communities…. it clusters locally and vines globally.” (Apocalypse Now and Then. 218)

Marjorie Suchocki: “Who we are,” as individuals and as ‘the church’, “depends upon our past and upon our future possibilities.” (God, Christ, Church. 143)

Grace Jantzen: “Communities are not automatically paradise. Communities can be extremely powerful, and can use that power in destructive ways.” “Community is not automatically ‘beloved’.” (Becoming Divine. 225)

Zigmunt Bauman: We need to employ “the republican model of unity, of an emergent unity which is a joint achievement of the agents engaged in self-identification pursuits, a unity which is an outcome, not an a priori given condition of shared life, a unity put together through negotiation and reconciliation, not the denial, stifling or smothering out of differences.” (Liquid Modernity. 178)

Me: “Middle-class, North American congregations need to re-imagine what Christian Community looks like in their particular contexts.”

I love this book

Ok friends, so I haven’t been a prolific blogger lately because this fabulous book called Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert has been occupying all of my free moments since I bought it in the Denver airport Sunday morning. I was going to title this blog entry “you must read this book”, but decided to just own up to loving the book, making a case for it, then letting you decide whether you must read this book (even though I think you really should read it, really).

It is a memoir of Elizabeth’s year-long journey through Italy, India and Indonesia to pursue pleasure, devotion and balance. The book is insightful, funny, inspiring, and oh-so-lovely. I was laughing out loud on one page and then crying on the next.

I love how the spiritual wisdom and insight sit so comfortably next to funny stories, descriptions of amazing food, and tales of the pain that comes from living. The author doesn’t claim to be an expert in meditation or prayer, but just does such a good job of articulating how a spiritual journey can unfold. One of my favourite parts was story 42 (there are 108+1 stories in the book, like a string of prayer beads) where she described a typical interaction between her and her mind when she tries to meditate, it made me laugh in recognition of the games my ego-mind plays to try and stay in control of situations.

The other thing I really love about the book is that it is not a story of self-denial and perfect devotional practice, it is the story of someone who takes time to enjoy the beauty and pleasures of life as well as spiritual discipline, which is so wise. What is the use of becoming a calm, centered person if you won’t also let yourself enjoy the world? She writes about savouring meals, people, places, as well as not attaching to those things. So good.

I’m almost sad to have finished the book, I enjoyed living in it for awhile, watching someone else’s journey of self and spiritual discovery unfold. But then again I have my own journey of spiritual self discovery to take, and it seems to be unfolding in some lovely ways. I can’t wait to see what’s around the next corner.