Monday, May 30, 2011

What must I do to inherit eternal life?

Several things have struck me recently about Luke 10:25-37 (See the Good Samaritan page if you are unfamiliar). First of all, perhaps unlike the questioner of this story whose intent is to trap Jesus in his words, I really want to know what Jesus has to say in response to the question, “What is required of me?” When Jesus responds to the question with another question, “What does the law tell you?,” he seems to be saying, “Well, let’s start with what you know. Always strive to answer questions by piecing together those things you already know to be true.” Along with this man I could have answered easily, “Love the Lord you God and Love your neighbor as yourself.” Though for different reasons, Jesus’ affirmation that I’d answered correctly would not have satisfied me either. I too would have pressed further, “No, what I mean is, how much is enough?” Jesus responded with the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
Sometimes the Good Samaritan kind of love comes naturally. The most severe exchange I’ve witnessed so far between Romanians did not occur between sworn enemies but on a weekend rock-climbing trip between a mother and her child who had just dashed out in front of a car and was almost hit. The tremulous, high pitch of the mother’s scolding was unmistakable, even though my limited Romanian preventing me from catching each word. She just loves him so much.

Love toward non-family members often does not come as easily as love for family members. Volleyball has my allegiance for this reason. More than any other sport, I would argue, volleyball is a team sport. Thanks to the centrality of “volleying” to the game (in order to deliver the most powerful attack, at least two team members must be involved in every play), one team member simply cannot win a game single-handedly. Furthermore, perhaps only in as great a degree as tennis players, good volleyball players prefer to play against challenging opponents because (due to the speed and rhythm of play) only against teams of greater or equal ability is a team able to play its best. In volleyball, it is in one’s best interest to play with teammates and opponents who play their best.

A lot of people don’t appreciate this about the sport. A couple weeks ago while playing volleyball (to my delight, I’ve been able to play several times since arriving in Lupeni!) my teammates (inexperienced players) didn’t bother to pass to one another and congratulated themselves on scoring points with cheap shots, while our opponents (older and experienced) stuck to three-hit, quality volleyball. I wonder if God ever looks down at us on Earth, laughs pityingly and shakes his head saying, “If they would only see that it’s a better game when they play together.” Volleyball opens my eyes to the reality that often the gain of my neighbor is my own gain. Other times my eyes lie to me and say just the opposite: my neighbor’s gain is my loss.

Then life holds up a mirror to reveal the absurdity of my withholding love from others. Last week I was invited to an after school care center nestled among the red tile roofs and lacy curtains of what used to be the miners’ quarter (now predominantly Roma/Gypsy) of a neighboring town to teach dance. Only when the child care workers helping me instruct stomped their feet and bellowed, “Be quiet and pay attention!” at the children who, excited but not defiant, would squirm in anticipation of the next step, could I see, as if in a mirror, the absurdity of my own tendency to lose patience with the children. My Mom has warned me before, “When children make you mad, sometimes you have to realize that even if it feels like it, they’re not doing it to you.” Somehow, maybe because of the noise inside their own minds as they tried themselves to learn the dance, the day care workers became angry and short tempered at children who weren’t doing anything to them. I had to ask myself, how many times at dance class have I, certain that I had no patience or grace or smile or gentle voice left to give, been so caught up with my own limitedness that I cannot see the children’s deserving? So focused on the amount I’ve already drawn that I forget the unending supply of Love within me?

My Mom and I have discussed it before: just how far will you take this Christianity thing? Just how literally will you interpret commands to “give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you”? Or assertions such as “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me”? It all seems so extreme, so radical. Absurd, even. And it is.

I don’t know “how far” I will take it. But I’m not sure that “how far” is even the right question. The man asked Jesus for a measurement, and Jesus replied with a story. We ask “Who is my neighbor? For exactly which ones am I responsible in this world?” Jesus replies, “The person before you who is in need.”

Development Studies, like theologians in the tradition of Martin Luther, is concerned with numbers, minimum requirements. Peter Singer famously argued that, at the very least, “morality” requires a wealthy person to give aid to a person in need, so long as in giving it the person does not sacrifice something “of comparable moral value” and does not extend herself beyond the range of “marginal utility.” A logical argument! It’s only decent for a person who has more than enough to share what she has, and since she herself deserves a dignified life and would be no use to others if she compromised her own well-being, her giving is limited.

But Christians follow a self-sacrificing God who instructs followers to “take up your cross and follow me.” Maybe it’s not about logic. Maybe our “morality” cannot squeeze the whole scope of reality into its lens. Maybe it’s about more than merely “confessing with your mouth and believing in your heart.”

The life of Mother Maria Skobtsova, a communist sympathizer and an Orthodox counterpart to Catholic Dorothy Day, suggests as much. After her daughter died of influenza Mother Maria felt she must become “a mother for all, for all who need maternal care, assistance or protection.” She opened up a home in Paris where any who needed were welcome to stay and eat, and when Nazi’s would come in search of the Jews she sheltered, she would show them an icon of the (Jewish) Virgin Mary. Practicing a new type of monasticism she strove to eliminate “even the subtlest barrier which might separate the heart from the world and its wounds” and believed that love functioned as coins drawn from a supply that is never spent. Ultimately she died in a concentration camp just days before the Allies reached it.

Could this be the kind of love Christ had in mind? A reckless, even foolish kind? A determinedly inclusive kind? A sacrificing throughout-life-and-unto-death kind? “And we will become fools in Christ, because we know not only the difficulty of this path but also the immense happiness of feeling God’s hand upon what we do.”

I can get tired just thinking about all that work, anticipating all the expenditure. Could there be any joy in it? Once I got to hear Shane Claiborne speak, and he said that when people question his decision to give up all his stuff and live among the poorest folks in Philadelphia, he has to shake his head because they forget that in giving up everything, he’s gained the “pearl of great price.”

When Jesus’ questioner correctly identifies the Samaritan as the example of a loving neighbor, Jesus doesn’t say, “That’s right. Now you’ve got the golden ticket. Now you’ve found your loophole. Now your conscience can be silent.” No. He promises something more wonderful and whole.

“Do this and you will live,” He says.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Ingredients for the “Good Life”

In one of those plane conversations of accelerated intimacy while flying home from school, the woman sitting next to me pronounced that I was a serious person. Too serious for a person my age, she thought.

I’ve realized in thinking about education and development and parenting and evangelizing (see May 2nd’s posting) that these forms of leadership all contain a pretty lofty implication: living as a “leader” implies that you have a grasp on “the Good Life.” That you embody the ideas you proliferate, that you are worthy of imitation, even.

Now, I don’t consider perfection/absolute integrity/crystal-clarity of vision prerequisites for leadership. In fact, I think a healthy dose of incapability and self-doubt (as well as good listening skills and prioritizing the interests of others) does a leader good. These implications are still important to examine, though. When I find myself dreaming up an ideal form of education (one that involves farming and painting and dancing and good books) and fantasizing about the products of this education (individuals who are capable and happy), I have to pause to ask whether I live the life I would want for future students? The woman on the plane would say that I don’t…

But seriously! ( :P ) Sometimes I fear that, as the woman in the poem “When I get old I’ll wear purple” puts it, in “the sobriety of my youth” I am missing out on the Good Life, the very thing I strive to help provide for others.

In the past few weeks of being abroad, I have discovered my conscience’s pressure points (You’re going to regret later spending that money, now, Joanna. If you don’t work all the time, you’ll probably fall behind and never catch up! If you’re not careful with your use of Romanian, you’re going to offend people here!) and, in the same relentless way a tongue finds a lose tooth and pokes and prods even though it smarts, my anxiety abuses my conscience. I was so anxious the other day that when some Romanian women saw me fumbling with my Romanian and apologizing profusely at the grocery store, they bade me relax. “Calma,” one said, gently.

Wonderfully, the past week has been a series of invitations to leave needless anxiety behind and to live life to the full. Sunday I joined my host family and their friends on an all day hike. It was a thoroughly Romanian experience: each “pausa” we took during our climb lasted as long as it took two of our party to smoke their cigarettes, we commandeered an unoccupied shepherd’s hut and cooked lunch (a fatty smorgasbord of meats and cheeses with no apologies) over the fire we made there, and we all laughed hard and often. As we made our descent that evening, I wanted to memorize every detail of the day and incorporate all of it (save the body-harming parts) into my life: Their intimacy with nature (all day I ate various leaves and berries familiar thanks to generations of wisdom to my fellow hikers), their playfulness, good humor, affection and devotion to one another as friends…

Thursday was our second Dance Class. About twenty children (ages 5 to 12 or so) and I are preparing dances for International Children’s Day on June 1st – we plan to perform a dance around a maypole in one of the parks in downtown Lupeni! The little dancers are marvelous to me. I’m always surprised to find which movements are difficult for them (I was sure this Palestinian grapevine move would be a winner…but first there’s that whole, “Which foot is right and which left?” thing, and then there’s the “I lack the fine motor skills that prevent my legs from getting tangled,” thing…oops!). And after all my clumsiness and bossiness as a teacher, I’m touched by their grins, hugs and “multsumesc’s” (“thank you’s”) at the end of class.

One little girl especially inspires me. It’s obvious that she absolutely delights in moving her body, and no matter how chaotic class gets nor how faded my smile, I can count on her always to be grinning and her eyes sparkling. She finds joy in every minute of class.

Later that evening for the weekly debrief dinner I’d determined to make Mexican food. As I made the twenty-minute trek to a second grocery store in pursuit of tortillas or some suitable substitute, I wondered whether I was being unreasonable. A book I’ve been reading about life in Eastern Europe during communism has heightened my consciousness of the almost disgusting number of choices we have in the United States - from feminine hygiene products to eating “conventionally grown” versus “organic” to options for education and employment. Maybe I should restrict my own lifestyle as an act of solidarity with those around the world whose lifestyles, by forces they cannot control, have been restricted? Maybe so. Especially if in so doing I can help achieve a better standard of living for others. But that night, at least, as I tasted the salty melted cheese and tangy mango salsa, I knew that periodic acts of extravagance (in a relative sense) are integral to a Good Life.

When I near my life’s end, the last thing I want to see looking back is a life too full of work and seriousness to include friends, joy or a measure of extravagance. And as Annie Dillard says, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Guess I’d better start incorporating these ingredients for the Good Life now!

P.S. Mom and Dad, you two are my example in this whole “worthiness of imitation” thing. I know it isn’t on accident that in striving to be the best parents you could be you became the best individuals and the best couple you could be. You guys will always see room for improvement, but on the whole you are living the “Good Life” – full of karaoke parties, rich church community, Sunday family dinners, laughter, and constant learning – that you want for us girls. I love you! Happy Mother’s Day, Mom!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Means and Ends

I probably first encountered this difficulty while “helping” my little sister with her homework. When you try and try to explain why of course an all-encompassing thesis statement belongs in the first paragraph of an essay, and can’t she come up with a sentence that does that?, and other paragraphs with examples to support that?, but she just looks at you all imploringly…sometimes it’s just easiest to do it yourself! (I can hear Dad's "Amen!"). It’s easier to just take the pencil in your own hand, to do all the thought formulating, to dominate rather than facilitate, control rather than empower.

If a simple homework assignment presents such difficulties, how much more a teacher’s presentation of school material or an organizer’s development of community or revolutionaries’ institution of government! The challenges may vary in size, but I think they are analogous. Should we not ensure that, if the end goal is independent thinking or agency and solidarity or democracy, the means we employ to achieve the goal also honor the goal? Shouldn’t we refine the process as well as we tend to refine the result?

Czechoslovakians in 1989 thought as much. In what has since been named a “velvet revolution,” anti-communist revolutionaries, committed ultimately to the goal of democracy and peace, determined to conduct their revolution democratically and peaceably. Revolutionary leaders held regular press conferences in “The Magic Lantern” theatre in Prague, to set a precedent for transparency in leadership. As best they were able, leaders of the revolution followed the will of the people as they chose new leaders to replace deposed communists. At protests, revolutionaries extended candles when police extended truncheons.

The cutting edge in Development Studies also calls for continuity in means and ends. Whereas the reigning development paradigms tend to overemphasize “life-sustenance” to the point that “development” is reduced to economic growth, development theorist Denis Goulet asserts that community developers must attempt to balance three values: life-sustenance, esteem and freedom. Instead of entering a community as outsiders and diagnosing that community and imposing development strategies upon it, developers must allow communities to become the authors of their own development, to identify problems and imagine solutions themselves. That way, not only does development sustain life, by empowering community members to develop authentically, it also safeguards community members’ dignity and freedom.

Waldorf educators might refer to this as “building capacity.” Rather than teaching children what to think, they teach children how to think. Rather than offering children lines within which to draw or dots to connect, they offer children blank pages. Believing children enter the world bearing unique gifts for the world and furthermore believing freedom to be the goal of education, Waldorf educators build capacities in their students – the capacity to relate numbers to one another, the capacity to move one’s body elegantly, the capacity to create music – and then they leave it to student to imagine how these capacities will be developed and applied.

In the context of Romania especially, community developers emphasize the importance of building trust among community members…and I think it is just as important that community developers learn to trust community members: legitimizing indigenous wisdom, accepting their responsibility of facilitation rather than domination, and, ultimately, entrusting to community members the task of improving their community.

Easier said than done! On those occasions where I determined to actually help my sister with her homework, asking questions that allowed for her to discover answers herself rather than supplying them for her, encouraging her to follow the steps of the writing process (brainstorm, outline, rough draft etc.), just because the process had improved did not mean that the results showed improvement. Often I disliked words she had chosen, or felt she didn’t take full advantage of the advice I offered from my superior wisdom. But however unsatisfied I felt, the truth is that she took one step closer to becoming self-reliant and proficient in her writing – and she, deservedly, felt pride in her good work.

Heh. Now that I’ve outlined the keys to effective leadership/teaching/sistering/developing on paper, I get to go and try it out in real life tomorrow night at the first IMPACT club meeting :P Wish me luck!

(And for the record, my sister is an excellent writer, and has been all along. Hopefully she won’t mind this analogy too much…)