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Jesus Wept (And so do I)

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I haven’t written a post in a couple of weeks.  I’ve been back and forth to the US twice–first to be ordained and then a second time to facilitate strategic planning for an environmental organization that I work with,  Ceres.  So I got home to Tuzla on  Sunday night and it was an intense week of getting back into the flood relief work, and the economic development discussions and there were visitors from London and Paris who wanted to know about what’s happening here.

Last Tuesday, I took an artist from Paris up to see the landslide area on Ilinčica–the hill that borders Tuzla city center.  We drove part way and then walked.  We hit a place where the road has been destroyed.  I could see that the houses below us were all akilter.  But on the upper side, the house above the slide looked stable.  I called out to the man in the garden and asked whether the house was OK.    My question led to an hour and a half conversation.  (That’s a very long conversation for me given my very limited Bosnian).  The man and his wife took us into their house.  the first floors were cracked in two–split so that one side of the room was a foot lower than the other.  The walls have cracks.  The stairway is akilter.  Upstairs, the walls have shifted sideways, broken off from their moorings at the floor.  Outside the stairs have separated from the house.  The man and his wife showed us how the slide had come from two directions, shifting the house and garden down the hill and along  it simultaneously.

The personal story that they told was heartbreaking.  The husband is missing one thumb–lost in the war.  One of his sons was killed in the war, the other committed suicide in Holland.  The wife has lost all her hair.  I guess that it is stress related.  The two of them have moved into their car park–covering it with tin, putting two couches, a fridge and sink in this outdoor shelter.  Like camping only without waterproofing.  As they talked and talked, we cried.  They knew that my Bosnian is limited.  So sometimes they must have known that I was understanding only a fraction of the wife’s rapid fire monologue.  But she needed to tell the story.  She needed me to know what was happening and what it all meant for her.  Some of the details, I could see for myself.  The ways that they had carefully painted the rooms in the house with soft pastel colors–tangerine, yellow, lavender.  Sometimes with a darker color on the ceiling, or one wall that contrasted.  This house was not just shelter–they had put themselves into it.  The wife told me that they had worked on the house for fourteen years.  It showed in the lovely grape vine across the fence in front of the house, the fruit trees planted in the back.  One of the few things moved from the house to the shelter next door was the man’s violin.  I asked whether he still played–no (and I felt so insensitive for having asked) he cannot play without his thumb.

The tragedy of the losses.   War trauma, the trauma of losing children, the disability and now the landslide.  There is no making sense of why this family should suffer so much.  I prayed with them.  I wished that I could speak well enough to pray in Bosnian.  If I could have prayed in their language I would have prayed calling for God to be with them as Jesus was with Mary and Martha at Lazarus’ grave (John 11:35). But even without my words,  I hope that they knew in my tears, the depth of compassion that I felt for their situation.

I asked as we were leaving about the humanitarian relief the family has received.  The woman told me that she has gotten three food packages (i know that these packages contained approximately $32 worth of dry goods) not enough to support you for very long and without any fresh food at all.  How could this be that they haven’t received more significant assistance?

As I stomped around the end of last week, I found myself cursing the inefficiencies here.  The federal government has been deadlocked in trying to establish an emergency relief fund for international humanitarian aid.  Even in this crisis, there is no government will to move quickly and support the people who need the most.  I found myself crying again, this time about the government’s blindness.

I was reminded of Jesus’ weeping over Jerusalem, “And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation'”  (Luke 19: 41-44).

Looking at the 1000 active landslides around Tuzla–hasn’t this Bosnian regime seen that “not one stone is left upon another” here?  Now is the time for the officials to know that the “things that make for peace.”  Now is the time to serve the people with special attention to those who need the most.

But in addition to weeping, I’ve been doing my rounds of the relief agencies.  I’ve been hearing about a range of strategies.  I’ve been bringing food directly to the people who are still housed in displaced persons’ centers.  They need fresh vegetables and fruits.  In Kiseljak, I’ve brought peppers and tomatoes, cherries and apricots this past week.  One member of the community tells me that they will be out of the center by August 10th. (But I don’t yet know where they are going).

But when I was there this past week, I saw something wonderful happening.  The youth organization that we supported in the first weeks of the flood (with cleaning supplies, art supplies, and food) has continued to serve this group of children at the Kiseljak center.  But now instead of the 12 children who are living there, the youth workers have a group of 30 children.  All of them have come from the surrounding village.  Most of them Roma families, living in caravans (campers) by the lake or in poor housing that they have constructed themselves.  These kids (I have been told) are not consistently in school and certainly the parents don’t have money to send them to sports or other summer activities.  So the displaced persons’ center has become a drop-in center for children and youth.  While I was there, they were reading stories, playing board games and had piles of art materials for a creative project.  The youth leaders (who are volunteers with degrees in psychology) were giving the kids a chance to be kids, to play and express themselves in a safe, clean hall with people who cared.  The women staying at the center were preparing lunch–a lunch that would serve not just those who live there, but also the visiting kids.

I felt like this was a system that was working–at least the community based organization had figured out how to intervene in a way that was clearly meaningful and right for the children who lost their homes in the flood and their neighbors.    I will see what the youth group needs and see if we can continue to support them in this phase of their work.

Then I went to see a well established NGO with a reputation for doing economic development work,  CRP.  I had heard that they would be distributing some international aid to flood affected families in nine affected communities. I met with Amir, who is leading CRP’s flood relief efforts.  I found out that they are doing several things–offering cash relief in the amount of 360 KM (approximately $250) to families who have lost their homes.  This funding comes from a Jewish organization.  With the Centers for Social Work in each municipality, they are doing triage of all those who have lost homes–giving the grants to those whose houses have been damaged, who have no income, who have disabilities and who have no means of income.  Through their current funding, 164 families will get this relief.    It’s a fraction of the families with needs, and $250 will only provide food.  But at least right now, it’s something.  And I was impressed with the systems for getting lists of families, checking to verify their needs, distributing the money via wire transfers–or in cases where the family could not provide accurate bank information (in some cases due to mental disabilities) then the agency hand delivers cash.

Starting this week, CRP is also distributing money from the European Union ($1.2million Euros), giving 1100 families 2000 KM each.  When I asked what a family could do with this, Amir explained that it would buy a used stove, refrigerator and bed.  With those things, the hope is that families will be able to make one room of their homes “liveable” until further assistance comes –either from humanitarian aid or from the family’s own resources.

We talked about other money coming in–some for economic development grants of $500-$1000 for small businesses in a few targeted neighborhoods.  If the businesses were not totally destroyed, then these grants might help the business get going again–replacing lost equipment, plants or livestock.  These grants will be available to only those in concentrated neighborhoods because if the whole neighborhood begins to get back to business at the same time, there is more chance that they will start to sell products and get their micro-economies going again–providing goods and services to other flood affected families in their area.

While I’m dismayed at how little it is, and how many people are completely left out of this triage process, I also felt renewed hope that there is at least a community based project, linked up with international aid organizations (including US AID) that is working in great haste to get some money out to the families who need it most.  Next week in Brussells, there will be a conference of all the international relief organizations who will decide how much more they can send to Bosnia.  CRP will be there (with 8 other invited NGOs) to help figure out how to get the money out to the flood affected families.

Amir assured me that the neighborhood where I met the man and his wife is part of the service area.  Since I don’t know their names or actual address, he couldn’t check the lists for me.  But he assured me that if their neighborhood will be getting some relief.

So I am making plans to make more donations this week.  I think I will try and follow the Jewish organization’s model and offer a few more cash grants to people didn’t get anything in the first round of relief grants.  We can give another fifteen families 360 KM.  And I am sure that these families are among the most desparate.

Then I’ll bring food to the soup kitchen and the displaced person’s center.  I’ll make a donation to the youth center.  And I”ll call World Vision and see how their project to set up more “Child Friendly Spaces” is going.    Our donations are going a long way.  But it is so little and the needs are so great. Still I weep, as Jesus wept.  Keep these families in your prayers.

Here are some more photos of the area around Doboj.  If you look closely at the houses you’ll see the mud line–up at the top of the first floor windows.  That’s where the water was.  The families are now living in the second floor rooms, trying to figure out if they’ll ever be able to dry out the first floor and clean it enough to live there again. 

I find myself tired.  It’s hard to hold this pain, look for signs of hope, laugh and enjoy good times.  And then catch my tears and those of the people I meet again.

 

(If you would like to make a donation, send it to me:  The Rev. Kirsten Snow Spalding, Discretionary Fund, Episcopal Church of the Nativity, 333 Ellen Drive, San Rafael, CA 94903.

 

 

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What we do for One Another.

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I was thinking about relationships this week.  I began just a little Bible research and looked around for some commentary.  I came across this very useful list compiled by a Christian group in New Zealand on their website: (http://www.christianity.co.nz/church5.htm)

The Greek word allelon occurs 59 times as a specific command. We are commanded to

love one another (John 13:35 – this command comes 16 times)

be devoted to one another (Romans 12:10)

honour one another above yourselves (Romans 12:10)

live in harmony with one another (Romans 12:16)

build up one another (Romans 14:19; 1 Thessalonians 5:11)

be likeminded towards one another (Romans 15:5)

accept one another (Romans 15:7)

admonish one another (Romans 15:14; Colossians 3:16)

care for one another (1 Corinthians 12:25)

serve one another (Galatians 5:13)

bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2)

forgive one another (Ephesians 4:2, 32; Colossians 3:13)

be patient with one another (Ephesians 4:2; Colossians 3:13)

be kind and compassionate to one another (Ephesians 4:32)

speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:19)

submit to one another (Ephesians 5:21, 1 Peter 5:5)

consider others better than yourselves (Philippians 2:3)

look to the interests of one another (Philippians 2:4)

bear with one another (Colossians 3:13)

teach one another (Colossians 3:16)

comfort one another (1 Thessalonians 4:18)

encourage one another (Hebrews 3:13)

stir up one another to love and good works (Hebrews 10:24)

show hospitality to one another (1 Peter 4:9)

employ the gifts that God has given us for the benefit of one another (1 Peter 4:10)

clothe yourselves with humility towards one another (1 Peter 5:5)

pray for one another (James 5:16)

confess our faults to one another (James 5:16)

We are to do these things because we belong to one another (Romans 12:5; Ephesians 4:25).

What a fantastic list.  It really resonates with me this week because I have been thinking about my work here in Tuzla around the floods and the humanitarian aid that is so needed in the affected communities.  While we could find other New Testament references that talk about material aid, the thrust of this list is NOT about giving STUFF to those other people.  It’s about how we engage with one another.  It’s about mutual support and respect and love.  I’ve been thinking about what happens when I bring food and cleaning supplies, games for children or warm blankets for people who have lost their homes.  Am I really engaging with the people and building the community that the Gospel requires? Is it a two way street?   Or am I just moving goods in a financial transaction–sharing the wealth of my community in the US with the community here?

I hope that the relief work that we are doing is more than financial exchange or redistribution from our pockets to theirs.  I hope it’s about caring and real community building.  Our intention is to reach out with love and respect to one another.  To acknowledge that everything we have is from God and to contemplate God’s will. And to bring our wills into concert with God’s.  I’ve been focused on getting to know all the community agencies who are providing relief.  And I’ve been trying to support their work by providing food, supplies and my own labor.  I’ve been hoping that by networking, being present and sharing small amounts of support, I”m signalling my respect and appreciation for their work and our commitment to join in.

Today I was reminded about this experience of loving one another and creating community.  I got a thank you from Vedad.  Vedad is a program officer at World Vision, an international Christian charity working here.  I had made a donation last week (with your help) and he reported today that he distributed food to ten Roma families in Lukavac with my donation.  He identified another five families with needs, so he’ll go back to Lukavac again tomorrow.  He sent a picture of the families.  I don’t think we need to share the pictures.  Let it suffice to say that they looked like they need the food.  We know that they lost everything they had in the floods.  And they didn’t have very much before the floods.

But that sharing from us to the Roma families  is not the moment when I felt community making happening most strongly.  For me it was the exchange with Vedad.  I called Vedad last week when I started making connections with all the local relief organizations.  I met with him and learned all about World Vision’s work.  He shared proudly their strategy. They target only a few communities where they think they can make a difference.  They work for years in the same communities.  They believe in helping individuals, but they do it in the context of a neighborhood.  So they provide services locally, they provide education and information locally.  They try and build up a whole community at once so that everyone sees an improvement.  They build community centers, work on getting kids into schools (and keeping them there), they work on maternal health and health education for families.  They work on economic development alternatives and violence prevention.  All of these things happen in neighborhoods.

When the flood happened, World Vision started delivering food, clearing mud, providing disinfectants in the neighborhoods where they already know everyone and everyone knows them.  The losses from the floods are terrible, but the solutions in cohesive communities are a lot easier to figure out than in places where no one knows anyone.

As I thought about Vedad’s (and World Vision’s) approach to development in communities.  And I remembered how I first met Vedad.  His dad,  Rasim was the veternarian who saved Mali Most’s life.  When my little kitten was dying, the pharmacist across the street from where I lived made a bunch of calls on a Saturday morning and found him–the only vet who answered his phone on a Saturday.  Rasim agreed to see me and my sick kitten.  She couldn’t really lift her head up.  Dr. Rasim put her on an IV.  He gave her antibiotics.  He gave her medicine for parasites and skin diseases.  He insisted that I come back on Sunday.  We had a lot of trouble communicating because I’d only been here two months and Rasim didn’t speak much English.  So when I returned that Sunday, Rasim had his son Vedad come to the veternarian offices to translate for me.  After Mali Most’s treatment, Vedad had driven us home so I wouldn’t have to take a taxi with my very sick kitten.  On my way back home, Vedad had told me about his work with World Vision.  I didn’t see him again, until last week, when I remembered how he and his dad had helped me seven months ago.  And I wondered what World Vision was doing in the aftermath of the floods.

Rasim and Vedad were showing real hospitality towards me when they looked after me and Mali Most.  When I remembered their help and wondered about World Vision’s role in the flood, there was something about stirring up one another to love and good works.  Now as Vedad and I work together to help in a few of the communities affected by the floods, we are employing the gifts that God has given us for the benefit of one another.  As Vedad continues to expand the work that he is doing in his assigned local areas, he is looking to the interests of one another in those communities.  I hope that our financial support of World Vision helps to strengthen the work of loving one another–it is a symbol of our caring, our comfort and our encouragement.  It comes with the prayer that hope will be rekindled as the flooded areas are gradually rehabilitated. It comes with the prayer that all in these flooded areas and all of us who know about the devastating floods will love one another fully, as God loves us.

If you have already supported the work that we are doing here in Bosnia, thank you so much.  If you would like to contribute, please send a check to Episcopal Church of the Nativity, 333 Ellen Drive, San Rafael, CA 94903,  Attn:  The Rev. Kirsten Snow Spalding Discretionary fund.

 

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The Laborers in the Vineyard

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Matthew 20:1-16

20 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage,[a] he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.[b] 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage.[c] 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?[d] 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’[e] 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”[f]

This parable has been very much on my mind the past few days.  If you have been following my blog here or my general blog (http://www.newconsensus.org/KirstensBosniaJournal/), you know that I am working to try and figure out how to help with the relief efforts for victims of the flood.  There are new systems developing to distribute food, cleaning supplies, fresh water to displaced people.  The flood victims are being housed in relief centers and with families and friends.  There is incredible community spirit–neighbors helping neighbors.  Crews of young men are digging ditches and filling in gaps created by landslides.  People proudly show me how there are no ethnic or nationalist distinctions–everyone is working together to help those most in need.    I am inspired and encouraged.  BUT

But then I am also hearing the complaints.  When the ditch digging crew was working to save homes on one hill, they saw that the EU had sent a team to survey the site.  The affected families promptly began to plead for assistance from the EU delegation.  They have nothing in the bank.  They have lost their homes and all their belongings.  They are hoping for some restitution for their losses, some financial assistance so that they can begin to rebuild their lives.  The ditch digging crew of young people began to complain,  “Crazy old man!  Why does he think he deserves money from the EU just because he lost his house.  None of us have any money.  Why should he get a windfall while we’re working so hard and we get nothing.”

Yesterday, I went to visit a closed factory.  The workers at this factory have not been paid in over a year.  A group of unionists have committed themselves to protecting the plant.  They fear that if they leave the factory premises, that the equipment will be sold and there will never be an opportunity to reopen the facility again.  By protecting the equipment, they are preserving the hope that through legal challenges and political pressure, the owner will return the plant to the government and the factory operations might resume.  Protecting the plant is a tedious job–they come to a dingy office and sit there–women during the day, men at night.  Each one taking a shift every three days.  It’s been a year of this monotony.  And there is nothing to sustain then while the do this.  One of the workers dramatically pulled out his pocket–one KM.  “All I have in the world.” he said.  I believe him.

There is so much to say about the hope that these workers are trying to preserve, the vision for a return to a functioning economy, their commitment to the plant that they built.  But as my conversation with them continued, they talked about the floods.  Some of them have family members who have lost homes and land (on top of their already precarious state.)  But others have been relatively unaffected.  They had nothing before the flood.  They have nothing now.  They can see the Red Cross delivering food packets to flood victims and to the workers on the work lines.  (I got a packet on the day that I worked on the line–three rolls, two tins of processed meat, a candy bar and a bottle of water.)  The factory workers expressed their outrage.  “How come they get a food packet when we don’t?”  “We’re here protecting the plant every day and there is nothing for us to eat.” Their jealousy, expressed against the workers who get breakfast.  Their jealousy, expressed against those factory workers who might get a breakfast food packet even though they have not put in regular hours protecting the plant.

As I listened, I found myself more and more distraught.  I wanted to comfort and encourage.  But I also wanted them to stop accusing their neighbors.  I wanted to say that these petty complaints came from the scarcity, the lack of “enough” for everyone.  Those workers who are not showing up to the protect the plant (a year after the closure)–who can blame them for not participating in this Quixotic fight.  Who can deny that the flood victims deserve relief?

But my Bosnian isn’t good enough to gently break into the conversation.  I don’t have the nuance to both encourage them and criticize their backbiting.  How can I say clearly, “it is wrong that any should be hungry here.”  Thinking about the parable,  how can I explain that the Kingdom is one in which all are paid a fair wage?  The last will be first, and the first will be last.

Somehow we need to celebrate acts of generosity and love for one another at the same time as we fight, revolt, to achieve a just system in which none would be hungry.  The workers who are sitting vigil at the plant deserve praise and support.  The youth who are on the work line digging ditches deserve praise and support.  The elderly and dislocated families who are not working; they are doing what they can to survive in the aftermath of the flood.  They deserve support.  The laid off workers who have moved on with their lives but still have no money, no possibility of new work–they deserve support.  It is the common humanity that is at stake–God loves us all and wants us all to live in fulness.  God is not ranking some more deserving of food than others.  The outrage should be directed at the systems that have not provided food for everyone, not at the poor people who have gotten a breakfast.

But where does this leave me–the proverbial landowner with wages to distribute?  I have some relief money to give.   It is not enough.  I cannot provide food or water, salaries or jobs for all who need them.  If I focus on flood victims, why am I ignoring the workers who have lost their factory?  If I give to the youth who are on the work lines, why haven’t I given to the workers who are protecting the factory?

As I think about the proverb, I think about the workers who the landowner hired late in the day.  Were there still other workers in the market who had not been hired at the end of the day?  Was it just luck that some got hired and some had no work at all?  Was the landowner really generous, or should he have done something really radical, like given his vineyard over to the workers so that they could have run it as a coop?

I feel weepy and overwhelmed.  We can’t do enough.  I want to hold onto the image of the Kingdom in which all are treated fairly, but I also must work in the short run to give people food so that they don’t go to bed hungry.  Should I give a chunk of money over to the union leaders so that they can distribute it fairly among all who have lost their positions? (And what if they don’t divide it “fairly”?) Or should I provide breakfast to those I met yesterday at the plant–like the landowner choosing to hire the workers he met at the market.

I’ve been giving to agencies and governmental support organizations–Red Cross/Crescent, Zemlja Dječe, Mercy Center, Civil Defense.  My thought was that I should support and strengthen the good institutions that have been providing services and will continue after this crisis.  I shouldn’t give to individuals because that won’t address the structural problems.  But what about the groups (like the Dita workers) who are not supported by anyone.  Should I just give to them individually?  Or should I give to their new union, Solidarnosti, even though the union might or might not care for every worker with needs?

I’ll keep praying the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.  I’ll keep trying to discern what is real fairness.  I’ll listen to you, my readers, if you have thoughts about what we should be doing to help the least among us here in Tuzla.  I’ll make my donations today prayerfully, knowing that my gifts are insufficient but hoping that with the gifts being given by so many others  (work, money, goods, love), I can trust that God will work through our hands.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Invitation to my Ordination

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Dear Friends and family, You are all invited to my ordination to the priesthood on June 14th and to my first worship service as Presider at St. Mark’s Berkeley on June 15th. While I’d be thrilled and honored to have your presence, more than that today I ask for your participation in my ministry.

It is a strange and terrifying time in Bosnia. The flooding of last week has left thousands of people homeless. While the water is beginning to subside, the borders are still closed. We have just gotten running water back but is not potable.  Here in Tuzla there are over 300 active landslides–that means that homes continue to be destroyed daily and traveling is dangerous even a five minute walk from our apartment. Trying to figure out how to help, I am doing a daily tour of the relief agencies and government departments participating in the relief efforts. I am bringing food, cleaning supplies, toiletries and other essentials to the groups who are working in the affected neighborhoods. I am trying to assess what is needed most where each day and I am trying to offer the encouragement that the international community cares. So many people are helping, but it is woefully inadequate.

If you can help, please send a check made out to Episcopal Church of the Nativity with a note that it’s for Rev. Kirsten Snow Spalding’s Discretionary Fund. 333 Ellen Drive, San Rafael, CA 94903. They’ll get me the money and I’ll report on my spending here and on  facebook.

With prayers of thanksgiving for all that we have been given, lament for all who are suffering and plea for God’s comfort to be conveyed through our work with all who need us. May all be blessed.

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Feeling like Noah on the Ark

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Genesis 1:6-9 is where we find the story of Noah and the Ark.  The quick outline we all remember–God was angered with humankind.  God determined to destroy all people and every living thing.  But God favored Noah and gave Noah very specific instructions about how to build an Ark and put his sons and their wives and 2 of every living thing inside it.  Noah did as he was commanded.  He shut the ark and the rains commenced, blotting out every living thing. For 150 days it rained and then for months and days the waters subsided.

Here is Bosnia it has been raining since Wednesday.  It had been raining intensely before that, but on Thursday morning we heard that the government declared a state of emergency.  The waters continued to rise on Thursday night and all day yesterday.  Today it is clear, but we fear that the rains will begin again.  It is the worst flooding in 120 years.  Many of the places I have written about around Tuzla are under water.  Maglaj is under water.  Bijeljina, Orašje,  Zavidovići all destroyed.  The library where I work has flooded–books saved by staff bailing water throughout the night.  Thousands of people are being evacuated.

 

We’ve been without running water since Thursday (with the exception of an hour yesterday).  Our internet connection is sporadic–none yesterday, it’s strong now, but we may lose it later in the day.  We have plenty of food, bottled water is readily available.

But I’m wondering how Noah felt.  I am feeling lost and useless.  So, so powerless.  There is nothing I can do to stop the water.  It’s filling the library where I work, it’s filling the streets, basements, fields.  It will destroy all crops this year.  Mudslides have closed all the roads in and out of Tuzla.  The airport is still operational, but there are so few regular flights in and out.  I cannot reach friends in Tuzla who live in villages outside the center city because the roads are out.  They are isolated with whatever supplies they have at home.  Without a boat and real rescue skills there is nothing I can do to help in the towns that are flooded.  I have brought blankets to the shelter and today I’ll meet with others to figure out what we can do to help get more aid into the country.  I can’t even really follow the events–our cable TV is out, and I don’t understand enough of the radio broadcasts to follow what is happening in each village and town around us.

Basically, all I can do is stay home and watch bootlegged movies (no streaming video, no English language books), play games and cook for my family. Limited laundry, no dishwashing.  It’s strange and alienating.

How did Noah wait it out in his Ark with his family?  What did he feel like when everyone else he knew was unreachable?   How did he feel when he looked out and saw how the rains were destroying everything.  Noah must have known that what was destroyed in the flood would never come back–something new was going to be born from his children and his pairs of animals.

As I look at the images of bridges being swept away, houses and Mosques under water, settlements cut off from Tuzla by mudslides.  I can see that things will not return to normal tomorrow or the next day even if the rains do stop.    There is no money or infrastructure to rebuild the old that has been destroyed.  This government has no capacity to provide real support to the people who have lost everything.  There is no “insurance” system to rebuild the houses that will never again be inhabitable.  The roads that are out will become single lane tracks for months before they might be repaired–if (and it’s a big if) there is money to refortify the highways and rebuild those parts that have washed away.  We saw this slide on the road to Belgrade on Thursday.  We turned around when the emergency vehicle was pushed by a second slide to the river’s edge, threatening to topple the truck into the raging water below.  

What could Noah do but wait and look after his family?  He tried to follow God’s instructions about the Ark to every last detail, but still he couldn’t stop the devastation.  I wonder if Noah was angry with God for destroying everyone and every thing.  I wonder if he was impatient for the raging waters to subside.  I wonder if he felt irritable with his family when none of them could do anything to help those outside the Ark?  Did he feel guilty when he ate a good meal while everyone around him drowned?  Did he feel grateful for God’s having saved him, or was he wishing that God would give him a more active role to play in saving the rest of the earth?

Clearly Noah, the faithful prophet is the one who saves humanity–by protecting the family members who are left.  From them, the population returns.  But what about during the floods–I think Noah might have felt as useless as I feel.

My plan for today is to go buy crocheting yarn.  I’m thinking I’ll teach the boys to crochet and we’ll make some baby booties and hats for refugees from the floods.  As soon as there’s a clear plan, I’ll send out pleas for material aid.  But neither of these tasks seem enough–there is nothing, just nothing that I can do except watch the devastation.  I can’t fix the government which is not stable enough to address the crisis effectively (and may be so corrupt that it will profit from foreign aid that tries to come in).  I can’t help the families who are now homeless more than bringing some blankets and food.

I am shut up in the ark, cursing the rain, wishing I were not so damned human, so little, so powerless.  It’s a terrible feeling.

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6yIKLWJajsM[/youtube]

Almighty and everliving God,  you made all creation.  You make all creation each and every day.  Grant me wisdom to understand and show me what you would have me do when your natural world seems to work against us.

Lord Christ,  you know our suffering.  Show me how to help your people who are suffering this natural disaster.

Prince of Peace,  you knew how to confront injustice in your time.  Show me now how to combat the corruption which threatens to keep aid from those who need it most.

God our mother and our father, comfort me and those around me in our confusion and helplessness.  Strengthen me to do small chores when they are clear.  Keep me from paralysis when my efforts are wholly insufficient.

Holy Spirit, you who blow all winds of creation, blow now to ease the raging waters.  Blow through us to motivate us to work together so that our combined efforts may be greater than any effort we might make alone.

In the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ, I pray. 

May 16, 2014

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Preaching in the Public Square

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I love to preach. Readers from my congregation in Marin know that I love the process of praying the lectionary texts in the weeks before a sermon. In my prayers, I listen carefully for God’s message to my anticipated hearers. Each time I preach, I hope that those who will hear the word will hear God’s Word in a new way and that the message will help them to live into their baptismal promises. I always hope that my preaching will comfort those in need, empower those who are feeling weak, unsettle the complacent and generally open up the Word. I always feel that the process of preparing to preach helps me to hear God’s message and call to me. There is a “call and response” quality of preaching prep and the sermon–I ask questions and hear responses from the texts, from the congregation, from God.

Here in Bosnia, I have been missing the opportunity to preach. Of course, we talk about the readings on Sundays when we have our house church services. But we do more collective reflection than real preaching. Over dinners we talk about Scripture as a family and with friends. But that’s not preaching either. When I think about my role as a Deacon here, I think about the public as my congregation. I am called to minister to these people here and now. But how to preach to the public without being written off as the crazy ranter on the street corner? How to preach the Gospel in a secular setting where if people have any religious affiliation at all, they are most likely Muslim (over 85% in Tuzla)?

It occurs to me that maybe this is a problem that I should have wrestled with long ago. Maybe we should all be trying to figure out how to preach to a public that doesn’t know the Gospel and is ambivalent at best to the message.  How do we reach people who distrust the Church or who have an aversion to their imagined images of a transcendent God?

So, I issued my first media statement here in Tuzla a couple of weeks ago. I was participating in a press conference announcing the plans for May Day protests. I was asked to speak because I have been working with a group of trade union leaders who are starting up a new union. They are an inspiring group of men and women. They are all unemployed–their factories have been closed as a result of privatization of their firms. But in spite of the hardships that they are facing, they are hopeful and committed to making things better for themselves and for all in this place.

Here’s the statement I read.

Press Statement
April 24, 2014

Rev. Kirsten Snow Spalding
Episcopal Church, Diocese of California
United States of America

 

Today the workers of Tuzla and citizen participants of Plenum are calling for a demonstration of solidarity and support on May 1st. This demonstration will be a protest against the unfair policies and political corruption of this government that have led to massive unemployment and suffering of workers and their families.

 

When this government privatized the manufacturing firms and service industries in Tuzla, they did so without protecting the workers who had made these companies prosperous by their innovation and consistent productivity. The corrupt politicians and new owners of these companies took the profits and gutted the firms, leaving them without products or customers. They systematically destroyed the lifeblood of the Bosnian economy—the workers who had made this country strong and prosperous.

 

It is time now for the people to take back the Bosnian economy. It is time now for the people to govern with transparency and accountability. It is time for workers to return to their jobs and support their families with dignity. It is time for the workers to make good products and provide fine services that will make Bosnia once again an economic asset in the Balkans. It is time for workers to unite in new trade unions that will represent the workers fairly and stand in opposition to government or employers who will destroy the economy.

 

As a US citizen and person of faith, I stand today in witness to the change that must come to Bosnia—the change that is coming to Bosnia. I will participate in the May 1st demonstrations as a supporter of the Plenum process, a supporter of the new trade unions that are forming and as a supporter of all those who demand the prosperous future that Bosnians deserve.

 

I add my voice to the voices of all Tuzla citizens who call on the international community to support the just demands of Plenum and of the workers. It is time now for change to come to Bosnia.

I didn’t mention God (one of the first rules of preaching in Church is that people want to hear about God–that’s why they come to Church).  But I hope that people heard God’s message nonetheless.  I hope that the people who heard my statement (which I believe was broadcast on radio and television and covered in print media) heard, “The Lord looked and was displeased that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, He was appalled that there was no one to intervene.” (Isaiah 59:15-16)  

I hope when I preached in my media statement, that the people heard that they are not alone in their lament, in their outrage and in their commitment to make a change.  I hope they heard me echoing their prayer, “Vindicate me, O God, and plead my case against an ungodly nation; O deliver me from the deceitful and unjust man!” (Psalms 43:1)

I hope that when I said,  “It is time now . .  ” that the people might have heard an echo of Jesus preaching the Beatitudes saying,  “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven . . .”  (Matthew 5:3-12)

I imagine that most of my hearers weren’t asking “where is God?, or “what would God have us do in this situation?”  Most people here don’t articulate their fears or questions in theological terms.  But they are asking, ” What is right? What is unfair?  How do we make it better?”  I believe that the people don’t need to call God by name for their prayers to be heard and answered.  Maybe preaching in the public square can be an echo of God’s answer to some of those prayers that are wordless, or formed without a belief that God will answer.  As a person of faith who is trying to hear Jesus speaking to me today, I can articulate and share the Gospel in words that might be heard by people of different faiths, by atheists or agnostics.  Maybe if I identify myself as a Christian when I share the Word in this way,  my hearers will come to understand my faith differently and open themselves to an experience of God working in their world.

Fast forward to May 1st.  I joined the labor leaders, workers, academics, activists and general public in the protest march.  It was the first May Day protest since the 1960s.  It was the first jointly organized protest between Plenum (the citizen’s forum that emerged after the February protests) and the new unions.  The May Day protest interrupted people’s barbecue plans.  It was a disruption on a holiday.  But I think at least a thousand people participated.

Our presence was another form of preaching.  By showing up and standing together with our signs we collectively proclaimed the unfairness of the current economic and political situation. We condemned the politicians who have created injustice. We declared our solidarity with the unemployed, the disenfranchised, and those who continue to experience the post-war trauma that stresses everyone here.  We looked forward with hope to a better day (the Kingdom of Heaven) when all Bosnians will thrive.  We were energized and outspoken, insistent that the change must come now, not in a distant future that we cannot see or hope to live.

Not exactly the same as my preaching in my congregation, but it felt right here and now.  It felt like God was speaking–I was listening as I preached the Word in the public square.

 

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Easter in Bosnia

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Easter in Bosnia was a strange experience.

On one hand, it has been the hope of resurrection, the hope for new life in this place that has been motivating so much of our work here.  We feel every day that things here must get better, can get better.  God wants the Bosnian people to thrive, and it is our work to be God’s hands, sharing hope and supporting Bosnian efforts to bring the Kingdom here.

But the traditional messages of Easter, the liturgical significance of Holy Week, and especially the Triduum, the deep engagement with Christ–the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection has been hard for me here.  I missed being in a community that identifies Christ as that hope. (Reminder that Bosnia is 85-95% Muslim, even though most people here do not practice their faiths.)  I missed English speakers with whom I could lament death at the hands of oppressors.  I missed the singing, praying, waiting of Easter Saturday–holding our breaths for the new life that we know is coming.

So I did my best, seeking out the small communities of faithful Christians and witnessing to their traditions.  I went to the Serbian Orthodox Church in Tuzla early on Friday morning for egg dying. Good Friday in the Serbian Orthodox Church is a day of mourning and fasting.  The Church in Tuzla dyed 1000 eggs crimson red.  The eggs were beautiful and it struck me as somehow more theologically sound than the usual chocolate egg hunt after Sunday morning services–an enticement to children and their parents who come to church only once a year.  The eggs were dyed the color of blood–and yet from the death (blood) of Christ comes forgiveness and new life (the chick), nourishment for us (the hard boiled egg).  The eggs were prepared to be handed out with the communion bread that is shared at the end of the Easter Sunday service.  A powerful statement of shared prosperity and shared food in this place where so many are hungry.

At the early morning Good Friday service called Mother’s Tears, we gathered around a special tomb–an altar like structure symbolizing the tomb with a Christ Icon on it.  There were other objects on the tomb–including this silver dish with a little spade and a rock (I think it’s a rock) and knife on it.  I do not know what all the objects signified.  (Leave a comment on the blog if you know).  The liturgy was one of lament, with prayers and hymns.  The tomb was decorated with funeral flowers.  Most moving for me, a family stood at the back of the congregation and a friend told me that they were there for the first time after the death of their 21 year old son.  As I listened to the liturgy, I held their tears with my own.  At the end, we stepped forward to the priest who anointed us each with holy oil.

At Good Friday vespers, I returned to the Church for a second Good Friday liturgy–this one symbolizing the removal of Christ from the cross.  As we neared the end of the service, a procession of priests and lay assistants carried a cloth and draped it over the icon of Christ on the tomb.

 

 

 

 

This symbolic burial cloth united the congregation’s experience of burying friends and family with this burial rite for the death of Christ.  Our human experience and Christ’s were merged in this powerful liturgy.  I had with me friends from Berlin.  Natalie (who is 5) went with me to light candles in a side altar.  We put the lit candles and the sand and I explained to her that the candles symbolized our prayers for friends and family who have died.  Several hours later at dinner, Natalie reminded me about a family friend of hers who died.  She was still thinking about the light of the candle and the experience of watching it burn.

And then on Easter morning, we were in Sarajevo.  I went first to the Serbian Orthodox service at 9 a.m.  The Church in Sarajevo is grand and over the course of the nearly two hour service became packed with people.  I watched as grandmothers instructed children on how to bow and when to kneel.  I watched as the congregation gathered to peer through the open doors of the iconostasis where the priests performed the liturgy.  But then the Gospel procession brought the Word into the crowd and the congregation made a path for the book to wind its way from the Altar to a high lectern from which a priest read the Gospel.  Another priest preached a sermon from floor, in the midst of the people.  And then the holy communion was offered to the congregation (unlike Sunday Orthodox services that I’ve been to where only priests consume).  These were powerful moments in the liturgy when the actions come into the midst of the standing crowd–a symbolic breaking in, moments of participation and an acknowledgment that God seeks relationship with all of us (not just the ordained.) .

I loved the Easter morning service, but I missed the experience of full comprehension–because my Bosnian is still not good.  I could not understand everything that was being said in the liturgy.  And because I was alone, in a congregation in which i knew no one,  I missed the feeling of being forgiven and resurrected as a cohesive community.  It was strange for me to hear the words,  “He is risen.”  “He is risen indeed.” ringing back and forth between friends–when no one spoke to me.  I smiled and shook hands, but I did not take communion and could not articulate my Easter joy.

So, happy, but a bit unsatisfied, I went to the Roman Catholic Easter Mass at noon.  It is the only mass in English.  The Roman Catholic church was also beautiful, but it was the fourth mass of the day for that church.  The service immediately preceding ours had been televised and the Cardinal for the area had attended.   The priest who conducted our service seemed tired and perfunctory.  Even the stray dog who hangs around the church was worn out by all the visitors and just fell asleep on the welcome carpet.

The choir had left, so the priest rushed through the prayers, sometimes skipping the antiphons.  He read a sermon printed in the missal.  He administered communion from reserved sacrament.  In one dangerous moment, Averil and his friend Kellen received communion.   The priest called the boys back and (with his microphone on) and asked them if they had consumed the host.  Averil quickly responded that they had eaten it, but then was uncomfortable, wondering what he had done wrong.  After the priest had cleared the altar he apologized publicly, saying that he had been worried that they might just be tourists who didn’t understand what communion was and that they might have taken it away as a souvenir.  I guess when he saw that the boys were with me (in my collar), he must have figured that they knew what they were getting.

I later apologized, and explained that we are Anglican.  He had clearly invited all who have been baptized to receive, but maybe he didn’t imagine that there would be any Protestants in the congregation.

We concluded our afternoon with a beautiful walk in the hills above Sarajevo.  Through the graveyards and up to the fortress from which we can see the entire city.  We went out for a beautiful dinner with our dear friends Kristin and Nick while the boys entertained themselves at home.

As we returned to Tuzla, I thought about how much I missed being in my Church, at home in California.  And yet, there was a richness about this experience, knowing that Christ is Risen here, for all Bosnians, for visitors and for me.  Even though I felt alien, and alienated, I could still participate in these liturgies which unite me to all Christians.  I could celebrate Easter even though I didn’t understand all the words of the services.  God was present, close with me and my friends, close with all these people I am meeting for the first time, and those whom I will never get to know.  It is a humbling reality, Easter happens whether I am fully engaged, or just witnessing it as an outsider.

Eternal Peace Flame, with Nick and Kristin on Easter evening

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Kitten theology

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We have a cat here in Tuzla.  Her name is Mali Most, which means, Little Bridge.  We found her on Halloween on a little bridge over the river on the way to the boys’ school.  She was shivering  behind a post, tiny and scared, surrounded by a pack of dogs who were barking at her.  Had we not shooed the dogs away, they would have caught her and killed her, or she would have fallen off the edge of the bridge and drowned in the rushing river below.

When the dogs left, we left her there, not wanting to touch her because she was so wild and filthy–clearly a very sick kitten.  But I thought about her all morning and when the boys came back from school, I went back to the bridge just to see if she was still there.  She was, and we wrapped her in a towel and brought her home.  I never intended to have a cat.  I thought maybe we could get her healthy and find a home for her, or maybe she wouldn’t make it but at least she wouldn’t be killed by dogs.

But that’s not what happened.  We fell in love with her during her recovery.  After those nights when we thought for sure she would be dead by morning, after those hours of holding her while she fought fevers and diarrhea, parasites and food poisoning–somehow we couldn’t turn her out. (For more details on those early days, look at my October blogpost.)  And somehow she became part of the family.  Now, we’re making plans to bring her back to Berkeley.  She travels with us–last week in Sarajevo, next vacation in Serbia.  She’s been spayed and had a hernia operation.  She’s recovering from a sprained knee with special vitamin treatments and we’re massaging her leg with something like Icy-Heat gel to help bring circulation to the joint.  X-ray scheduled for tomorrow.

Mali Most is still a kitten.  At approximately 8 months old, she is playful and energetic.  She runs after balls, plays tag with the boys (chasing them until they make eye contact and then running the other way until they make eye contact with her again).  She hides her hair twisties under the rug and carries around her feather toy on a wire.  She sleeps on the beds, follows us from room to room wanting to be where we are when we’re working.  She eats homemade ground meat with a little oatmeal.  She purrs and rubs when she’s hungry or sleepy.  When she’s energetic she attacks–jumping on ankles or hands and arms to bite them, attempting to eviscerate  her stuffed toys, or chew through the hand that she has caught.  Flies don’t stand a chance given her patience, speed and agility on the hunt. She has made friends with the lady upstairs–going to the window and looking up when the woman upstairs comes out on her balcony to smoke.  The woman waves and watches as Mali Most watches the birds.

In our relationship with Mali Most, I am learning some lessons about God’s unconditional love for us.   I am also watching Mali Most live into our love, totally enjoying being herself.   I am thinking about how she is a model for accepting God’s love and loving others as God loves me.

1)  God loves us when we’re sick and when we’re healthy.  We are perfectly loveable in God’s eyes and to our fellow humans even when we are so sick that we are close to death.  And that love is not just because God or our families remember us when we were healthier.  It’s because of who we are.  As I cleaned the feces off her matted fur, as I did wash after wash of soiled towels in those early days, I fell in love with Mali Most.  Even before we dared to name her, we were loving her.   We loved her fiercely, protectively when it looked like she could not possibly survive the night.  We cried when she was too weak to lift her head, and rejoiced when she ate her first solid food.  The stories of Jesus touching the leper (Luke 5:12-16) or healing the woman with a hemorrhage (Mark 5:24-29) or raising Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:21-24) show us how God loves the sick.  In the Psalms we hear God’s answer to the lament of the weak, sick and dying, (Psalm 6:8-9) “Away from me, all you who do evil, for the Lord has heard my weeping.The Lord has heard my cry for mercy; the Lord accepts my prayer.”  But maybe because of the unconditional quality of my love for Mali Most, I feel like I’ve come to know this truth about how God loves us when we’re sick or near to death in a new way.

Maybe when I get very sick or close to death, I might remember how we wanted to be with Mali Most in her sickness, I might let my friends and family come close to me.  I might feel their love in its wholeness rather than feeling guilty or unworthy when they express it.  This unconditional love, even in our broken, or invalid state is the grace that God offers us.

2)  God’s love doesn’t depend on our being nice.  Mali Most has a mean streak.  We can’t explain why she attacks us in the mornings.  There is no obvious explanation for why she bites our hands and feet even when we weren’t playing with her, even when she does not seem to be uncomfortable in any way.  When I come out of the shower with bare ankles she ambushes me on the way to the closet, raking me with little sharp claws and opening her mouth as wide as it will go to take a bite.  If I’m sitting in bed having a cup of coffee, she’ll jump up and bat at my head with both paws, claws extended.  This is just not nice behavior.  Joe has stopped it effectlively by pinning her down when she does it–establishing himself as the alpha cat who will not put up with biting or batting.  But the rest of us are just covered with little scratches and bites all over our hands and ankles.  We cope by escaping to another room if we really don’t want the abuse.  This is the same kitten who will purr and rub our legs, snuggle and seek out ear rubs when she’s in the mood.  But it’s all on her terms.

She can be nice to us or mean to us and we love her just the same. We don’t like it when she’s mean.  And Joe has established “consequences” for her mean behavior. But my love doesn’t waiver.

I guess I know that God loves me whether or not I’m being nice, but it’s a hard thing to really accept. It seems like my embedded theology (the God that I knew as a child) was that I had to be selfless to be acceptable to God.  I was never supposed to be in a bad mood because it might hurt the people around me.  There is the Bible story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman (Matthew 15:21-28) in which the woman has begged Jesus to heal her daughter.  He says no–the children must be fed before the dogs. But the woman gives a sharp and maybe even rude retort–“Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  For this reply–evidence of her faith, Jesus  heals her daughter.  I know that’s not a great example of someone being mean to Jesus, but it seems to me the same level of rudeness as jumping on the unsuspecting ankles of a friend. We know that God forgives without a second thought, but insight about God’s love is this is less about forgiveness and more about how complete that love is.  It is about forgiving ourselves for the minor transgressions and knowing that we can be acceptable even when we are not divine.

Maybe when Mali Most is attacking us, she is just desperate for attention.  Maybe she’s feeling frisky and imagines herself a big hunter able to take down the human.  Whatever the cause of her feisty-ness, our response is to love her.  We would never love her less because she not as nice as the sweet tempered cats who are always friendly. In this relationship with Mali Most, I imagine God’s gentle gaze at me, forgiving me, gently encouraging me to be the best I can be, sometimes reprimanding me, but always loving me–even when I’m not as nice as I should be.

3)  God wants us to have fun, be comfortable and well-fed, well-rested and well loved.  I grew up with an image of God who wanted us to work hard, wear grey and suffer for the sake of holiness.  Being lovable had a lot to do with how hard I worked, how much I achieved, how accomplished I was .  I had the sense that I could have too much fun. I had to moderate all of my sensual desires–how much food, how much laughter, how much relaxation, how much sleep.  Good fun was about enjoying work–like digging for clams, or planting a garden.  But frivolous, pure fun was somehow not what my childhood God wanted me to have or to be.

Being with Mali Most teaches me how wrong this is.  Mali Most (like all cats i know) is a pleasure seeker.  She wants to lie in the sun.  She wants to stretch out and feel the softness of the pillows, the warmth of her humans.  She loves a good smell–the fresh air, some meat in the kitchen, (the armpits of my sweaters!)  A few hours of minding her humans–playing with them, watching them, following them around is enough.  There’s important exploring to do–up on the kitchen counters, into the wardrobes, out on the porch.  Occasionally there’s real work, like digging up a flower pot, or putting toys under the couch.  But the rest of the time, it’s fine to just sleep blissfully, or wait around until good food comes.

I don’t think any less of Mali Most because she’s no longer a wild cat making her way without humans.  I don’t care that she hasn’t caught anything bigger than a fly since she came indoors.  I don’t care that she doesn’t always feel like playing when we do.  I don’t think she needs to be entertaining visitors, or learning new things every day.  I think she’s perfect.  I know she deserves the pleasure of a sunny spot on the couch or a belly rub when she’s been asleep for hours. I can hear Jesus telling his disciples, (Mark 6:31) “”Come away by yourselves to a secluded place and rest a while.” (For there were many people coming and going, and they did not even have time to eat.)”  We know that Jesus and his disciples stopped to eat together and enjoy good food and conversation; even as he faced his death, there was time for a dinner party. 
And this need for rest, the time for friends was not reward for how much they had worked or all that they had accomplished.  Jesus wanted real pleasure for his friends  He wanted them to feel good, to enjoy, to relax.  Just like what I want for Mali Most.
There’s so much more to learn from Mali Most.  She’s a wonder.  God is working on me, through Mali Most.  I wonder if there aren’t more spiritual lessons to be learned from our pets, our friends, our family relationships.  Listening for God in unusual places–maybe this must be my discipline of the week.
[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XHFN0Sxsfqk]
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Prophesy to the Bones

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This past Sunday, the readings were focused on resurrection (Easter is coming!!!), but they were also about prophetic voice.We heard the story of the Valley of the Dry Bones (Ezekiel 37:1-14).  God tells the mortal to say aloud to the dead bones,  “Hear the word of the Lord.”  And when he does, the bones come together, bone to bone.  At God’s command, the mortal prophesies to the breath, and they “lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”

We also heard the story of the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-45) in which Jesus returns to Judea after Lazarus has died and facing his own death he goes to the tomb.  He thanks God for having heard him (11:41) and then cries out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” (11:43).  At which point , “the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”” (11:44)

I’ve been thinking about the prophets all around me here in Tuzla.  My work here has become a daily practice of listening to the pain and suffering of the unemployed, the underpaid, the families destroyed by the war, and the everyday pain of those who have lost hope.  I listen from my post in the library (where I write every day).  I listen to the voices at plenum and the voices at the protests.  I listen to friends over coffee and dinner.  I listen to the news and the stories that the boys bring home from school.  These are prophetic voices in that they name what is wrong, they highlight the corruption and failure of political will that has left workers, students and pensioners without enough–not enough to eat, or to stay warm, not enough to thrive even if they can subsist.  We hear people naming the rising nationalism that threatens to destroy the unstable peace that exists.   As we witness, hear and hold the pain and lament, we accompany those who are suffering.  As companions, we can lessen the load. As I tell the stories with my words (here on my blog, and out on the streets) and identify with the stories by my presence, I prophesy to the human failings here, the distance between the Kingdom of Heaven and this system of oppression that leaves so many in poverty and hopelessness.

But the story of the Valley of Dry Bones and Raising Lazarus from the dead suggest that maybe I need to do more to hear those who are prophesying to the bones, prophesying to the dead in their tombs.  The prophet who speaks to the bones calls them to rise from the dead, to put sinews in place and breathe with new life.  The prophets calls on the dead and dismayed to rise up in a vast multitude.  Here in the midst of this change, I need to listen intently for those voices who are calling into the tombs, into the valley of the dead and commanding, “Lazarus, come out!” Prophesy is both identifying the places and people who need AND calling for new life in those places.  Prophesy is about praying with those who are suffering, and praying for resurrection.  Jesus’ work was to be with the weak and by his ministry and his resurrection to create new life where hopelessness reigned.

I met last night with a group of eight union leaders who are starting a new independent union.  They are a determined and gritty bunch.  All of them have lost their jobs as a result of the plant closures that have made unemployment in Tuzla Canton the highest in the country.  They gave me the figure–105,000 unemployed, nearly  60% of the working population.  Official sources suggest that the unemployment rate could be higher.  One of the leaders was held for questioning by police about his role in the protests for four hours yesterday.  Four of the others came to our meeting from a funeral–a fellow worker aged 56 died.  All of them agreed that people die young as a result of the stress and anxiety caused by the situation in Bosnia today.  But our meeting agenda was not focused on what has failed or the misery that the economic and political systems inflict.  Our meeting was focused on how we might engage the labor movement worldwide in supporting their work to establish a new union here.

These workers are determined to rise from the valley that they live in.  These leaders are planning, mobilizing, gathering names.  They are strategic and thoughtful.   They are angry for sure, but it is time to hear not only their complaints, but also their plans.  They are calling for others to join them.  Their new union is open to the unemployed, those who are working in manufacturing, in service industries, in professional jobs.  They are calling on students and pensioners to support their demands for enforcement of the existing labor laws, and for changes to prevent further privitizations, to restart some of the closed manufacturing firms and to get relief to the unemployed who cannot pay their utility bills.  They have gathered nearly 5000 names and phone numbers on handwritten sheets.  They don’t have a meeting space or a computer to create a data base.  But they are rising up and coming out.  They are testifying to a new possibility that workers here might be unbound.

This morning, we met on a picket line in front of the attorney general’s office, calling for investigations and responses to the long list of stagnant labor cases that are pending in the prosecutors’ office.  They came out in the pouring rain to make a change here.

Later this week, I will go to the Plenum, the citizens’ forum where they will discuss the government’s responses to citizen demands for reforms and formulate new recommendations for the interim Prime Minister and his departments.  While the plenum meetings are smaller now than they were a month ago, they are real working meetings.  People are putting forward proposals, debating them, voting on them. 

They are working in between meetings and mobilizing new people to support and carry the demands forward.  Meetings are now marked by flip charts, and note takers, reports from committees and accounts of meetings with government and international representatives. 

 

 

 

 

In the new Plenum formations, I hear prophetic voices naming possibilities, recognizing what is changing and identifying ways forward out of this valley.

You may recall a post of several months ago when I talked about the abandoned, defunct swimming pool fed by a thermal spring in the Slavinovići neighborhood.  (See my January 8th post, “Epiphany Miracles”).  This week, one of the community members whom I’ve been talking with gave me a contractor’s quote for refurbishing the shower at the pool.  We’re still working to put together a committee and begin the hard work of getting government permits, financial commitments and a real plan to reopen the pool.  But this faxed quote for the cost of fixing the shower was a prophetic document. (It came to less than $2000.)  It was a sign of possibility.  It was a call for new life, new life at the Slavinovići pool.

For my work here and my prayers here to be prophetic, I must call for and embody God’s  love for all who are hurting, who do not have enough.  But I must also pray for and work for the change that God imagines, that God’s people are imagining.  The people are rising from a deadened place,  we are with them in resurrection light.

 

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Fellow citizens and members of the household

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Ephesians 2:17-22

 17And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

 

It’s been a wonderful week with our friend Jean Lave visiting from Berkeley.   Besides just enjoying showing Jean our haunts in Sarajevo and Tuzla, we’ve been talking, talking, talking about how it is to try and make sense of this place, the conflicts here and the work that we’re doing.

One of the things that has been so difficult here, has been trying to get to the bottom of what’s really going on.  If you’ve been following our blogs, you’ve probably ended up confused about how things here got the way they are.  Is it a result of the war?  Is it about neo-liberal capitalism imposed after the fall of a socialist state?  Is it about a new global economy in which Bosnia just couldn’t compete?  Is it about nationalism and fights between Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Croats and Bosniaks  that have plagued this country for 800 years (at least)?  It is about a hunger for land, or about religious difference? It is the fault of the Dayton Accord, or are the problems rooted in some failure of Tito or even earlier?

When we ask these questions, we get really frustrated.  Just when we think we have a partial answer, whomever we’re talking to changes the subject and we end up thinking we understand less than when we started.  Maybe this is because we’re focused on the “laws”.  By looking at the myriad of rules (the social, economic and political rules) that govern our world, we find the differences, the distinctions, the divisions between people. If we think about the rules of how economies work, we get one set of answers.  If we think about religion, or ethnicity or struggles between empires (Ottoman v. Hapsburg), we get stuck because none of these sets of rules or the answers about what went wrong with them adequately explains either how it got this way, or where (and how) to go forward from here.  We think about blame and we look for new rules that would make things better.  This circular thinking that might give us a thread of understanding immediately gets tangled up with other threads that prevent us from progressing.  Jean discovered a Bosnian word, “zbrka” which means confusion–but not in the sense of mental confusion, more in the sense of a mixed up mess.  Trying to sort thing out in accordance with the laws just doesn’t sort it out.  We have a sense of being on shifting sands, each time we get close to what seems like a truth, it conflicts with some other truth that we have heard or discerned.  Certainly, the people we’re talking to don’t want to stay stuck in the muddy confusion of causes or the oppressive impossibility of real change without complete reform of the system.  But rule based thinking, distinctions about who’s in and who is out, dualistic, hierarchical problem solving just doesn’t go anywhere.  Seemingly, it doesn’t go anywhere for the people we talk to here or for us.

There isn’t one bible passage that jumps to mind to help me work through all of the complexities of my theme about confusing problems and no easy solutions.  But I reread this passage above from Ephesians and thought about how the Apostle Paul is instructing a conflicted people to make a big shift in their dualistic thinking.  They are to get beyond the laws (about who is circumcised and who is uncircumcised, who’s a foreigner and who is a believer) and instead focus on their life in Christ, growing together to become a holy temple.

Maybe here is the lesson for me.  If I shift away from thinking the laws, the countervailing identities, the differences that created the problems in Bosnia and instead focus on growing together, what happens?  If I stop trying to get to solutions by way of looking at causes of problems, maybe there will be new possible answers.  What if instead of analyzing the laws that don’t work to figure out what new laws are needed, I instead think about what it means to be fellow citizens and members of the household of God?

Maybe there are new possibilities that might emerge from thinking more about what we want to create than thinking about what is wrong with the status quo.  Using this passage,  growing into one holy temple could be an image for what it is we’re creating.  It seems to me important that these images about fellow citizens and members of the household are not about smoothing over the differences between us or insisting that we are all the same. We might not even all have the same goals or same ideas about what a better Bosnia would look like.  But Paul is suggesting to the Ephesians that that need to figure out how with their differences, they might live into fullness as a household.

Jean described some research that her friend Uli did in a family therapy setting.  Without going into all the details of the research,  Jean described his discovery, that the key to successful therapy was that the members of the family find a way to both hold their individual motivations and identities–acknowledging their differences and then that they stay together in the conflicts that are an inevitable (maybe essential) component of family life.  While every member of the family might like it if the other members of the family changed to resolve the conflict, this is unlikely.  Instead, the members have to agree to be in conflicts AND carry on together as a family.

It seems that this is what Paul is getting at when he tries to help the Ephesians.  It is time to stop drawing the boundaries and start looking at our fellow citizens as engaged in the same project that we are–creating a holy temple in the Lord, being knit together into “a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”  Focus on letting the Spirit expand for every person in the household and see what new possibilities are out there.

Talking “the Bosnian situation” through with Jean and thinking about Paul’s advice to the Ephesians has made a few things clearer than they were.  One lesson that I must learn again and again is that it’s not that helpful for me to focus on thinking of new ways to “fix” things.  Instead or proposing strategies for change (new rules),  I should try and really focus on being a fellow citizen.  (More listening, less problem solving is hard for me, but it seems like the right thing to do.)  Being with Bosnians and imagining this place as a household in which God will be able to work in every single person–that’s what I should be doing.

Another lesson is something about accepting the foreigners–living with the differences (and the inevitable conflicts that will arise) but doing so with the goal of coming together to build a household of God.  We are certainly foreigners here–Amercians who have no business intervening in the Bosnian situation. And yet we have something to contribute to this household.  The nationalism that would identify all Bosnians as Croat, Serb or Bosniak solidifies the status quo and prevents growth in fellowship.  But if all of us, Bosnians of every ethnicity and combinations of ethnicities as well as international participants in this change process could act as fellow citizens, members of a common household then maybe we could  allow the differences (or even celebrate our differences) and focus on living for God.

It is my belief that the apostles, prophets, saints and Jesus Christ (the cornerstone) are all present with us here if we only seek to listen and look for them.  All around us are people who have little but share a belief in better things to come.   As I go off to my plenum meetings tonight, I recommit myself to listening for the voices of hope and to worrying less about how things got to be so wrong and more about what it would take to accept the differences among us and live into new possibilities of what God hopes for us all.