Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Central Asian Country Bans Santa

As many readers know, after seven years working in the home office of a U.S.-based mission organization, I took to the field. My goal was to experience what it would actually feel like to leave the Western life behind and take one's first steps in a new existence at the ends of the earth.

Of course from the perspective of Jesus' words in Acts 1:8 ("you will be my witnesses..."), my new home in Oregon is much more ends-of-the-earth than Muslim Central Asia could be. The town where I lived there is only about 2000 miles from Jerusalem (as the crow flies), while this one is about 7000. Culturally, too, a Central Asian person's mindset and way of life has more in common with a first century middle-easterner than you'd find in North America.

Yet the Soviet Russians left their mark. As these Christian-background atheists expanded their footprint in that region, they brought some aspects of European Christendom and introduced redesigned and secularized winter holidays to bring a little light into the darkness (without stirring up anyone's religious or ethnic sensibilities).

They popularized a character my friends called Kor Bobo, grandfather snow, the jolly man in in a fur-lined suit (sometimes red) who comes around each December. And Archa Bairam, the tree festival, where schools and communities gather pine branches and decorate them with tinsel and ornaments. The big holiday is Yangi Yil; people sing carols, make festive dishes, and exchange holiday greetings and presents in honor of the New Year.

Now the government of one country, Uzbekistan, is lashing out a bit against these too-Western traditions. See the article Uzbekistan Bans Santa to get the details.

St. Valentine's Day posed a similar threat -- it was an affront to national values. So like nationalists in India and some other Asian countries, Uzbekistan has tried to suppress it. They still allow International Women's Day, with its chocolates and flowers and a day off work. Perhaps that ought to be enough. The government encouraged local folks to replace Valentine's day with a celebration of the February birthday of local hero, ruthless Moghul warlord (and passable poet) Babur (1483-1530).

I'll leave you with a few lines of one of his early verses, recorded in his journal (aka "the Baburnama")

Other than my own soul I never found a faithful friend.
Other than my own heart I never found a confidant.

No, maybe Babur would not have been a fan of St. Valentine's Day.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Fifteen Days and Counting

A hundred Christmas cards, that's what I'm hoping to send. It may go without saying that they will not go out the day after Thanksgiving. I'm just aiming to get them in people's hands by Christmas Eve. If it seems strange to send that many, consider my occupation as a support-raising missionary-type person - a trade that makes space for and in fact to some extent requires maintaining a large network of loose ties, supporters and colleagues and praying friends. Most of my communication is electronic; I don't send mail like I used to. But having done wedding invites less than a year ago, we have an unusually up-to-date list of addresses.

It has been much harder than I expected to get together with friends and relatives this last year, or even to get on the phone with them. So I'm hoping this batch of cards will help send the message, "Hey, we're still thinking about you!"

Probably need to resist the urge to explicitly say, "And let's get together soon!" I long for such interaction. I'm not sure what it would take to make space in our lives for it now. Maybe this is just a season for doing without. We did join a small group at church... and just learned the leaders are disbanding it. So it's back to the drawing board.

But you know, I do enjoy the long-distance communication too. And Christmas cards are part of that plan. I have the supplies to make simple ones by hand using inexpensive materials, and will enclose photos that ran us nine cents a copy. So the chief investment is the time to assemble things - and that will go by during the space of a holiday movie or two.

Every year I get fewer and fewer Christmas cards. Some post their greetings on Facebook, or send them out by email. Others still do a mailing, but it's either a letter, or a card; seldom both. I wonder what it will be like this year?

When the cards are done, it's time to think about Christmas gifts. We've purchased two or three things but there's quite a ways to go. I have a budget, and last year's list. I think we need to sit down and make a plan together. But this will have to wait until Hubs is done with school. It's his last week.

Here's something I recently read about holiday gift giving. The specific question was: "Is it the thought that counts?"
"...The latest psychological research indicates that the amount of thought you put into a gift has very little impact on how much the recipient likes the gift, let alone how much they bond with you. Research indicates that if you put a lot of thought into a gift that tends to make you feel a lot better than it does the recipient. Furthermore the process of carefully choosing a gift bonds the purchaser more to the recipient than it does the recipient to the purchaser. Then what does make someone feel good about a gift? Getting the gift they wanted, that’s what!"

See Do Yourself a Favor and "Voucherize" this Christmas Thing (Forbes).

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Life Under Pressure

Things like journaling and blogging were pushed to the back burner last month - there were articles to write and edit, the twitter stream I've been feeding for work, quite a bit to read and write about for school, and plenty of demands connected to the house and family. Life is full, and not just my life but the life of every member of my little family. Too often I've found myself carrying at least a low level of guilt and shame attached to unfinished tasks and failures. Next week D. comes back to us, and it's time to set the alarm clock for 5:30 again to get him to morning swim practice, every day.

I'm hoping things will lighten up a bit this winter but am trying to be realistic; it may go on like this for some time. And it's helpful to realize that I actually prefer it over the the depressed state that comes on me when I have plenty of time and nebulous responsibilities and still can't manage to get things done - the boredom of a life that's too empty or unstructured. Knowing I'm in over my head brings its own odd kind of comfort. It helps me sleep at night. I'd rather live something more like the contemplative, spiritual, relationship-driven way of life I tasted on sabbatical, but since that's not in the cards at present, I can find a form of contentment in the way things are.

Hubs, though, is struggling with what we think is sleep apnea, and feels rotten much of the time. He can rally his energy when he must for work, school, and fire department, but has little left when he comes home. Even though we are able to block out 8-10 hours and sometimes more for sleep, at 3:30 or 4:00 pm each day he starts to feel like death warmed over. He saw a doctor recently and has an appointment with a specialist next week, and those are hopeful developments.

Sleep apnea is a big deal but quite treatable. I hope it doesn't take months to jump the hoops to get him the C-PAP machine that is the usual prescription. Meanwhile, he built himself an interesting breathing contraption of his own design, one using a fan, a funnel, some small plastic tubing and a whole lot of duct tape... This does not do much, really, but it helps somewhat - and what fun to come up with and execute the plan!

I find a choice before me. Will I rise to the challenge of focusing on and caring for my not-all-there husband - and, at least when he's with us, our son - and love them? Or will I cultivate worry, self-righteousness and resentment because this is not what we had hoped for?

The path of self-pity, though I can "justify" it, only increases my own pain and everyone else's. It's like adding a 15% tip or tax onto whatever trouble comes our way.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Seminary Update

One artist's rendition of the perennially popular
four horsemen of the apocalypse - or at least their horses.
I'm wrapping up my latest seminary class, the fourth in a series of Bible survey courses.

Still have to go back and take number three, a gallop through just four books, the Gospels. From the syllabus it looks like these are taught through a method that mashes them together in a chronology. I don't quite approve... Luke's purpose and narrative are not Mark's - shouldn't they be read as literature and theology more than as history? On the other hand, as each class has brought surprises and deepened my appreciation for the scriptures and how to understand them, so I have enough faith to sign up for Bible 5132 and look at the Gospels, too, through new eyes.

Meanwhile, I'm finishing "Acts to Revelation: God's People Proclaiming Redemption Globally."

Perhaps the most helpful discipline has been an assignment, for each book we cover, to read it through in one big gulp, then again more slowly looking for insights in every chapter. What's your takeaway? What leaps off the page, challenges you, what do you want to hold on to, to chew on and digest and make part of yourself? Reaching the end of the course I realize I've made a list of 171 such things - a rich collection of mini-sermons from the Holy Spirit to myself. Also included in the class assignments are my observations on each book's purpose, atmosphere, and contribution to a theology of global mission. (Here's the assignment.)

Sure ending with a bang. Revelation is a shocking book, full of contrasts and symbols. Prophetic-apocalyptic writing is like the genre of magical realism, like dreaming with your eyes open. It's hard to know where it crosses the line between description and metaphor, but some of the language could not be other than figurative. For example, when John describes locusts that look like horses but have human faces, womanly hair, and are wearing crowns, I realize we aren't supposed to keep our eyes open for horsy locusts - he's talking about something else. But what? 

After we study each book on our own, it's time for online lectures, chiefly narrated PowerPoint presentations. They are quite helpful. Lot of background. Less dogmatic than I expected. My professors and text-book authors seem glad to let each book sing in its own key without attempting to simplify them overly or and force them to support a certain doctrinal structure. They present a variety of views and let us know which one they find most convincing but often require us to pick teams. At some point I am sure I'll run into professors who do, but not yet.

I like some healthy ambiguity, though there's such a thing as too much. Recently heard someone tell the story of his attempts to be ordained in the denomination of his youth - one that has drifted a bit from its early moorings as a movement promoting holiness. They asked him, "What did Jesus mean when he said he was the way and the truth and the life?" My friend tried to couch his answer in terms that the examiners would accept ("to speak 'Liberal,'" he told me) but was unable to do so. "I like to think of God as 'Delicious,'" said one of them. "We may not be talking about the same God at all. But your idea of God is Delicious, and my recipe is as well."

As I understand the Bible, though, it teaches that God is a person and he reveals himself to us. Though we may see and understand different aspects of who he is, it is not up to us to write the recipe, to decide what we want him to be like.   

Monday, December 03, 2012

An Engineer's Guide to the Grocery Store

Here's the method of grocery shopping which I learned from my parents:

If there was something we were out of, something we needed or wanted, one of them would say (sometimes with a tinge of impatience) "Put it on the list!" There was always a grocery list, and it was usually posted, quite logically, on the refrigerator door.

We were also encouraged to make note of the item desired by adding it to more or less the right part of the list, which was composed in "grocery store order." You see, as long as the produce items were listed before dairy and meat, or frozen foods before bread, the shopper can proceed through the store in a smooth and orderly way.

And of course, one would never want to show up at Thriftway without the shopping list in hand. Certainly, you wouldn't just drop in because you were hungry!

Hubs laughed when I tried to explain this system to him. Can you imagine? "Sounds like something a couple of engineers would come up with!" he said.

OK, yes, I do come from a family of engineers and mathematicians. Maybe that's where I get my skills in research, copy-editing, fact checking, code-cracking and puzzle-solving. Not that I always use those skills, but I can pull them out when needed.

There's a strong streak of creativity in my family, too. Sometimes we do make things up as we go. And by nature I think I'm less systematic than some of my kin. That is to say, I like to develop systems and processes, but I constantly tweak them and sometimes mix things up just for fun.

You know, go into the grocery store and turn right instead of left. Do my shopping clockwise one week, and counter-clockwise the next!

Q: Do you shop more systematically or more impulsively?