20 November 2008

Yalagin winter shorts

Yesterday, we got a hint of snow, but the first significant snowfall came today. Students approved--nearly to a person they agreed that the fall had dragged on too long.

I think it was two winters ago that the first snow did not come until mid-January. Everyone I know here prefers genuine winter with fresh snow rather than the muddy, slushy alternative that gives local credibility to theories of global warming.

My students on Obama: Questions about Barack Obama and the elections have come up frequently at the Institute. Most students who've spoken to me express some optimism about Obama and the improvement of Russian-USA relationships. (It is telling that this is the main concern about American leadership these days.) In two different classes, students expressed caution, in one case reflecting a Russian television program that student had seen, that perhaps Obama was too young, too much of a lightweight. I don't think they realized his actual age; he has an ability to project youthful energy, but he's really middle-aged.

I showed some videos of election night--both mainstream TV coverage of the vote-counting and the Stewart/Colbert alternative. Aside from everything else, we got in a lot of conversational English content. "We project that...", "16% of the precincts reporting...", "John McCain's gameplan...", "bellweather states," "voter suppression" and so on.

One question I always hedge on is "What do you think of our president, Dmitri Medvedev?" I can't think of any analysis that I could make at this point that would add to students' knowledge either of conversational English or of politics, so I usually decline to go beyond a few courteous generalities. However, recently I've pointed out that both Obama and Medvedev are deeply rooted in the study of law and both claim to have deep respect for the rule of law. Based on this shared attitude, we can be optimistic that, when they meet and work together, they'll share an intuitive bond.

"Trying to know Christ in the poverty I see...." Recently, one of Northwest Yearly Meeting's list services has carried a fascinating conversation on simplicity. I appreciated this contribution from Debbie Thomas in Rwanda, and got her permission to include it here:
This discussion leaves me with so many thoughts that I want to share and talk about...These issues are where I live, I'm trying to know Christ in the poverty I see around me and at the same time believing that bringing Christ into that poverty will make a difference on the physical level in many different ways. (while of course having a spiritual impact as well.)

I hardly know where to start...

Even though being a Christian doesn't mean we will prosper financially, God does want his people to have the ability to feed their families. The people I know can't feed their kids more than once a day right now. They are Christians, fully trusting and loving God, working hard too. Christianity here in Africa has largely been spiritual only and hasn't traditionally touched the areas of economics, social relationships, politics, education, etc. Why is that? That's what I'm trying to figure out, and I'm trying to live out a Christianity that does address all those social realities.

[Another participant's] comments tend to lean (I think) towards saying 'use capital to make money then give it to the poor'. That's probably not exactly what he is saying...but I really don't think that's what God is asking of us. It's a horrible thing to have to depend on others to give to you, without ever gaining the ability to get what you need for yourself. It's the difference between giving someone a fish and teaching them to fish. The problem is that it's so painfully difficult to teach someone to fish. And, when you get to the lake, you find that it's been polluted, over-fished, and the poor aren't granted access....


What do I see as a viable answer to the question of poverty that all Christians feel somewhat responsible to respond to? We have to be willing to go the long haul with people. To know them, love them, hurt with them and not have answers. To help them think, help them become the kinds of people who can tackle the problems that face them. It's not easy. It's not quick. It's actually rather messy and painful.

For example, right now we have trained 4 teams of Rwandan Christians who volunteer their time to engage over a 3-5 year period with one poor community (so we are doing this in four communities). We don't have any money or projects to give them; we don't even have any answers to their problems. But we can help them to really examine their problems, and their resources, and help them as a community to start tackling some of their problems. We can share with them our hope in Jesus and why we would even take the time to reach out in this way. We can discuss the cultural norms and expectations and lead them through discussion of how they might want to act in different ways.

I've visited communities that have done this in Uganda, they are called transforming communities, it was an absolutely amazing experience. In these transforming villages there was spiritual vitality--meeting in homes, in church, loving God, studying and applying his word...and this spiritual vitality was transforming all aspects of their communities. They had complete food security (while other villages nearby were starving), they sent all their kids to school, they had trained members of their community as health workers and no longer suffered from intestinal parasites and malaria, they had beautiful crops using improved seeds, they raised cattle and drank the milk, they used the fertilizer on their crops.....they were happy, healthy and they loved God fully. They realized that they weren't 'fi nished', there is still a lot of work to do, but they realized that they were able to live in the goodness of God's provisions.

Now isn't that what we are aiming for? Could I ever get enough money from the US or from capital investment to buy that kind of contentment for a community? Never. Are they rich? No. Are they prosperous? In many ways, yes. Are they content? Yes. Much more than many Americans I know. And they, as a community are reaching out to other desperately poor communities helping them to go through this same process.

Ok, so I'm totally off the subject of simplicity. I am passionate about these things, and it thrills my heart to hear other Christian leaders grappling with the same issues. Thank you for wrestling out loud with the issues, so I can benefit too.

A righteous link from Sean Guillory on the media's self-criticism over its coverage of the recent Ossetian war. Interesting comments, too.

Otis Spann and Sunny Boy Williamson on the winter theme: "Nine Below Zero."


Bill Samuel said...

Thanks for sharing Debbie Thomas' comments. Her wholistic view of the Gospel is refreshing. Evangelical Friends haven't always gotten it, but Debbie sure has.

Real change is going to come from things like the transformational communities about which Debbie writes. It is not going to come from politics. Christians need to work to bring about changed realities and changed attitudes. When this has spread broadly, the politics will change. But not before.

I feared Obama would be a stalwart pillar of the establishment and an impediment to change. But I hoped my fears would be proved wrong. As I look at this early appointments and what appointments seem coming down the pike, I'm afraid it is worse than I feared. People like Emmanuel and Clinton have been among the worst in the Democratic party on war and peace issues.

It is the job of the church to be God's instrument to bring about His will being done on earth as it is in heaven. The politicians have always opposed this. Remember they killed Jesus. But we have to continue on, secure in Jesus' promise that he has overcome the world, as hard as that may be to see reading the news.

Anonymous said...

Consensus is about the slowest way to change anything. Military dictatorships about the fastest.

Slow change goes to the core of our belief in the Divine Light residing in the most recalcitrant adversaries. For those of us believing in consensus, winning an election 52% to 48% is no cause for celebration.

Take a look at the audience in the Otis Spahn/Sunny Boy Williamson video. (About 6 minutes into the song and at the very end.) It is not 5% different from the audience at McCain's concession speech.

Change has to be a personal thing, one individual at a time. All we can do is change ourselves, and encourage our neighbors to change. But they need to do the changing. We cannot do the changing for them.


Johan Maurer said...

(In defense of the audience: I'm pretty sure this video is from Germany.)

I believe that the church has an identity and mission that is radically distinct from the government's and the self-identified powers that be. That's why I'm not too disappointed in Obama's decisions to date; in fact I'm fairly optimistic. The point of reference for these decisions is not strict Christian discipleship but rather what is possible within the existing logic (however defective that logic is) of secular government. As a lovingly skeptical observer, I wish Obama the very best, knowing that a true paradigm shift depends on our ability to evangelize the base, one at a time, not on wishing for unlikely miracles within the old logic.