23 November 2017

"Becoming the church we dreamed of" part two

Happy Thanksgiving! (Fall in southwestern Oregon -- Valley of the Rogue State Park, last Sunday.)
(Part one.)

Yearly Meeting: a definition
(from quakerinfo.org)

Yearly Meeting refers to a larger body of Friends, consisting of monthly meetings in a general geographic area connected with the same branch of Friends. This body holds decision making sessions annually. The term "yearly meeting" may refer to the annual sessions, to the body of members, or to the organizational entity that serves the body of members. For most purposes, a yearly meeting is as high as Quaker organizational structure goes. Each of the 30+ yearly meetings in the U.S. has its own Faith and Practice, and there is no higher authority in the structure of the Religious Society of Friends, although yearly meetings network with each other through branch associations and other Friends organizations.

[Also see wikipedia's definition.]

Eugene Friends Church and other Friends participating in the formation of Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends are considering some Big Questions. We were in Medford, Oregon, last Sunday, so we missed the Eugene Friends Church worship service in which people contributed their answers to the first question right during worship.

Here for easy reference are the two questions:
Why are we joining together instead of going our separate ways? What holds Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting together? (Examples: Common beliefs/theology? Relationships? Friends' testimonies? Other?)

How should we make decisions that affect the whole of SCYMF? (Examples: refer all decisions to the yearly meeting as a whole? Choose reps to make some or all decisions? Let a specified group make urgent decisions? Other?)
I love the idea of inviting responses to these questions during worship. It is a wonderful way of expressing the importance of covenant and community -- and of transparent process. Has anyone else done something similar?

Exercises like this are also a good opportunity to reconsider the whole concept of a "yearly meeting" in an era where its usefulness is no longer taken for granted.

A couple of years ago, Micah Bales asked, "Is it Time to Get Rid of Yearly Meetings? " (My response: "Yearly meetings, myth and reality.") Just last summer, I had another long discussion about these themes with some Friends with ties to both Northwest and North Pacific yearly meetings. One Friend pointed out two important trends:

First, yearly meetings may be evolving from a model based on geography and shared history, to a model based more on shared theology or ideology. This trend goes back nearly two centuries, if not longer.

Second, a crucial function of those wider bodies -- mutual accountability and particularly the role and preparation of elders -- is weakening in the old system and is being at least partially replaced by more informal processes and by new institutions such as the School of the Spirit.

I don't want to pour cold water on any sorts of experimentation that might help renew Friends discipleship and provide love and accountability for local Quaker meetings and churches. But I still love the old concentric model that I described in the "myth and reality" post. Maybe one reason it seems less attractive is because we've just taken it for granted rather than deliberately investing our enthusiasm and commitment.

In some cases, maybe we've over-bureaucratized yearly meetings and routinized business rather than expecting our gatherings to serve as the forum where we ask each other whether Truth is prospering in each of our local settings, and how we need to coordinate with each other to meet the needs in places where our testimonies are being challenged. As we consider a world full of spiritual, social, and economic bondage, are we too busy maintaining our systems to consider these challenges creatively? Can we make room for new partnerships between the old yearly meeting-as-forum and new initiatives? Two generations ago, such partnerships included the New Call to Peacemaking and Right Sharing of World Resources. What are today's experiments in partnership?

I have heard of a couple of yearly meetings that have experimented with a radically simplified agenda -- if only for one annual session. How did it go? I was present for one such experiment, a carefully planned session of Iowa Yearly Meeting FUM at which most routine business was set aside to consider whether to remain in Friends United Meeting. This example was a response to a specific crisis, but maybe at another time and place, the sheer urgency of focusing on the needs of people who have never heard of us would be "crisis" enough.

The Iowa example brings up another huge problem: local Friends have come to associate "yearly meeting" (the annual gathering as well as the ongoing structure) with conflict and church politics. I've heard this complaint in many places. We might be too busy arguing instead of figuring out together how to build our prophetic and healing presence in the world. We desperately need to restore the ability to extract value from conflicts and diversity instead of hiding or suppressing them.

We also need to learn how to deal with those among us who actually (perhaps subconsciously) love conflict and are too fond of being partisan heroes.

I'm not ready to give up on the yearly meeting as an institution worth preserving and re-energizing. The simplicity of the concentric structure has a huge advantage, as long as its processes are prayer-driven and transparent. A yearly meeting serves as a clear and constant and public access point into the web of relationships that is the Quaker family beyond the local church.

Ideological and programmatic associations may come and go; they may focus on specific initiatives; often, they may be the long shadows of gifted individuals. In the meantime, the yearly meeting can keep plodding along, not seeking to out-dazzle its partners, but cherishing relationships, channeling resources, and providing mutual accountability for those initiatives, and always asking, does Truth prosper?

My responses to the "big questions" are based on my love for this traditional concentric organization of the Friends church. The church is nothing more or less than the people who have -- now and throughout history -- gathered around Jesus, learning what it means to live with him at the center, and helping each other to live that way, including its ethical consequences. This learning and mutual support, and our desire to make this kind of community accessible to others who would be blessed as we have been, are the elements that connect us. No matter how far beyond the local church we go on the organizational chart, God remains at the center.

When we make decisions that affect the individuals, and (in the next level of connection) our member churches and meetings, those decisions ought to be made by people we can trust and hold accountable, and to whom we've granted authority to hold us accountable for our commitments.  We choose these people based on the spiritual gifts we see in them, and on our experience of their trustworthiness, not on their social status. I like the way Eugene Friends are instructed concerning decision-making at meetings for business: everyone may attend and contribute, but the presiding clerk looks to members and active attenders in discerning when a decision has been reached.

Our leaders and representatives can make decisions on our behalf when necessary, but basic decisions on faith and practice should, sooner or later, be ratified by all committed participants in the meeting or yearly meeting. And the default question remains, "What does God want to say and do through us?"

This is the church I dream of becoming.

An appeal for Christians in the Middle East: Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, meets with Patriarch Kirill in Moscow. (Thanks to fulcrum-anglican.org.uk for the reference.)

Street-naming as political theatre: In Washington, DC, local politicians are considering renaming a section of Wisconsin Avenue -- the section in front of the Russian embassy -- Boris Nemtsov Plaza in honor of the assassinated opposition leader. The desire to embarrass is blatant and (to my mind) just plain stupid. However, instead of making its predictable objections, the Russian foreign ministry could have neutralized all that scheming by simply deciding to treat the whole thing positively: "Thank you for honoring our former cabinet member and vice premier, tragically cut down in his prime!"

How did 1917 change the West?
Russia and America have spent the last 100 years as mirrors held up to one another, revealing in excruciating detail both the loftiness of our ambitions and our frequent failures to live up to them. Indeed, our almost ubiquitous failures to live up to them. Russia and America – and perhaps the west more broadly – have constructed their contemporary selves with clear and abiding reference to one another: the American way was American because it was the rejection of the Soviet way, and vice versa.
Jamie the Very Worst Missionary describes the Church for All Cynics. Jerry Jones on The Challenge of Thankfulness. Finally, Laurel Shaler with Three Tips for Generating Gratitude.

"Do Lord (Way Beyond the Blue)"

16 November 2017

"Becoming the church we dreamed of" part one

Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends approves its name.
When I arrived in the Pacific Northwest in 2000, I found myself in an extraordinary community of Quakers: Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends Church. It seemed to be a marvelous association of churches: it was a humanely and intelligently evangelical Christian community with a warm, generous culture and a deep commitment to Quaker discipleship.

No doubt my joy at finding this beautiful community, after seven years of leadership in the (then) polarized atmosphere of Friends United Meeting, lulled me into a false sense of security. Of course, Northwest Yearly Meeting had its own ancient fissures and unhealed traumas. Its decision in 1926 to leave Friends United Meeting (at the time it was Oregon Yearly Meeting leaving the Five Years Meeting of Friends) was surrounded by conflict, echoes of which I could still detect in my first visit to Oregon eighty years later. Other tensions were newer. However, my own experience over my seventeen years' connection with Northwest Yearly Meeting have mostly confirmed my first positive impressions.

If I had my way, the community would have been preserved and I would be continuing to serve it with uncomplicated devotion. But unity was not preserved. Reedwood Friends Church, where I'm a member (along with my dual membership in Moscow Meeting, Russia) is already no longer a member of the yearly meeting, and Eugene Friends Church, where I worship most Sundays, is on its way out.

I described the rupture from my point of view last February in this post. Toward the end, I tried to express a "silver lining" for the separated churches:
Churches that are already clear that their local practices cannot remain in alignment with the Yearly Meeting's Faith and Practice have now been invited to form their own new yearly meeting with help from a NWYM transition team ... and compile their own Faith and Practice. I dearly hope that, first, the churches that are unable to align with current NWYM Faith and Practice will in fact have the dedication and energy to form this new body in collaboration with that NWYM transition team. Second, I hope this new body is as committed to biblical authority and Quaker discipleship as NWYM wishes to be. The task of compiling a new Faith and Practice is a wonderful chance to restate core Friends insights for a jaded world. Third, I hope that this new yearly meeting will lavish love and care on its mother yearly meeting, rejecting resentment and cynicism in favor of an enduring hope for reconciliation.
Some of these wishes are already coming true. Not having had anything to do with these developments, having been in Russia most of the time since last summer, I can't provide on-the-spot reporting or take any personal credit, but what I've seen from a distance is encouraging.

The new yearly meeting that is emerging from these developments named itself Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends. The formal membership structure and entry process are still being defined, and it's by no means clear that all churches or individual Friends who might find themselves outside Northwest Yearly Meeting will become part of this new yearly meeting, or even when they might make that decision. This uncertainty has not kept the new yearly meeting from working toward clarity on its identity and discipline

Some of this progress is evident on its Web site, scymfriends.org. On a more journalistic level, there's background information on quakernews.com. After the founding sessions at George Fox University last summer, there was a general meeting last month at Eugene Friends Church in Oregon, and another is scheduled for February 2018. In the meantime, I've joined a task group that is working on recording and licensing policies to propose to Sierra-Cascades Friends.

Another piece of this work: at our last Eugene Friends Church monthly meeting, we were all invited to submit our thoughts on the following questions as a contribution toward the yearly meeting's development.

Why are we joining together instead of going our separate ways? What holds Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting together? (Examples: Common beliefs/theology? Relationships? Friends' testimonies? Other?)

How should we make decisions that affect the whole of SCYMF? (Examples: refer all decisions to the yearly meeting as a whole? Choose reps to make some or all decisions? Let a specified group make urgent decisions? Other?)
My fondest wish -- that Northwest Yearly Meeting would remain united -- did not come true. It was tempting to grieve that rupture indefinitely ... and, to be honest, the grief is not going away soon. However, it is a wonderful comfort to realize that nothing so far is blocking my existing friendships and actual collaborations with Friends in Northwest Yearly Meeting, and I plan to hold on to every relationship I possibly can. In the meantime, I look at developments in Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends with the attitude that Shane Claiborne expressed in his book, The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical.
... [W]e decided to stop complaining about the church we saw, and we set our hearts on becoming the church we dreamed of.
Part two.

Amy Hollywood on prayer and the Psalms.
Psalms are crucial to understanding Christian practices of prayer because they are full of images, rich with detail about the relationship between the speaker and the persons, animals, and objects around her, including, of course, God. God is named, praised, and thanked, worshiped, feared, and railed against, not without images, but through and in them
RT.com as a foreign agent: a Russian journalist's view.

Greg Yudin: Who writes Russian history nowadays: the state or the citizens? (Also see Nanci Adler's response.)

Tim Berners-Lee on net neutrality and the future of the Web.

Edvard Munch through the eyes of Karl Ove Knausgård and Ingrid D. Rowland.

"It's Too Late Brother" ... psycheDELTA Blues Band, Moscow.

09 November 2017

Election week reflections 2016 (repost, mostly)

October 21. Preparing to vote by e-mail.
November 9, 2016 -- one year ago today -- was the normal working day in Elektrostal, Russia, that I'm describing in the following paragraphs, the day we learned that Donald Trump was to be the next U.S. president. I wrote the original post in part to make some political and spiritual commitments. I'll be re-reading those commitments and try to decide how faithful I (we?) have been.

A couple of months earlier, in a post entitled Russian avos' and American politics, I cited this conversation:
One of my colleagues asked, "If it's not a secret, what do you think of your presidential candidates?" I mentioned my doubts about Trump, and she replied, "If Clinton wins, we already know how she feels about Russia -- she's not exactly our friend. In any case, we more or less know what she will do. Don't you think it would be a lot more interesting, even fun [veselo] if Trump became president? After all, he'll have advisors, a cabinet; people will make sure that he can't do too much harm. And life will not be boring!"
What do you think of her predictions now?

And what do you think of the "fantasy" in the final section below? "It's my fantasy that in the months and years to come, churches will play a unique role." Is it happening?

Here follows the repost:

I've never been able to resist watching election returns, wherever I might be. So I got up on Wednesday morning at 3:45 a.m. (eight hours ahead of the USA's Eastern Standard Time), made some coffee, and settled in for three and a half hours of streaming video from CBS News before I'd have to leave to teach our first morning class.

I kept CBS News streaming into my smartphone as I walked the 35-minute icy path to the Institute, picking my way through the most slippery places with my cane. By the time our first class of the day started (at midnight on the U.S. East Coast), it was very clear that the tide had turned toward Donald Trump. For a few minutes we projected our news feed onto a classroom screen -- it was our Mass Media class, after all -- before tackling our subject of the day, an article about the "Depressing Food of the Depression." It wasn't until our second class of the morning that a little alert from the news site Lenta.ru came on my laptop screen that Hillary Clinton had conceded.

I spent a good portion of the previous day, the actual U.S. election day, in the wonderful company of seven graduate students at the Baptist seminary in Moscow, teaching theological English. Toward the end of our session, I played Nate Macy's song "Grace to You" as a gapfill exercise, and to my delight, after we worked through the blanks, they wanted to sing it together. One of the students picked up a guitar and worked out the accompaniment with delightful results.

These wonderful hours at the seminary provided nurture and perspective for the less wonderful hours to come -- following the election returns from across the Atlantic.

Instant message to me on Vkontakte, November 9.
Soon after our second Wednesday morning class ended, we began getting congratulations on Trump's victory from our Russian students and colleagues, in person and on social networks. They must have assumed that we had done the (in their minds) sensible thing and voted for him. That evening, I had a long conversation with a retired engineer -- one of those who had congratulated us. She explained (as we already knew) that the main Russian television networks had made it clear that Clinton was hostile to Russia, making Trump the far more desirable candidate. With some indignation, she told me that Clinton and the foreign-policy establishment figures around her were falsely accusing Russia of hostile intentions. "We are a country of peaceful people," as she summed it up.

Russians can be excused for putting foreign policy concerns above America's domestic agenda. And it's that domestic agenda that threatens to give me ulcers. Well-meaning people can reasonably differ on many policy issues, but this election cycle's corrosive campaign and its outcome reveal deeper problems, of which I want to focus on just one symptom: the way Barack Obama has been portrayed in social-network posts by people close to me, and what that says about our sources of information.

Some of my friends and acquaintances acknowledge that Obama has covered all the conventional expectations of a U.S. president, helping guide an economic recovery process and health care finance reform in the face of unrelenting Republican opposition. He has carried out his roles of global leader and national pastor-in-chief with competence and often with grace, especially at times of crisis and tragedy. With his record of extrajudicial killings-by-drone, he's no hero to me, but objectively he's just doing what imperial presidents are supposed to do -- and, to his credit, he seems to have resisted the influences of far more hawkish advisors.

Other friends and relatives seem ready to circulate material about Obama that I can only describe as outrageously false -- so aggressively false that I would have thought that this stuff comes from some parallel universe where a mysterious anti-Obama is busy totally destroying the freedoms of the anti-USA for his personal enrichment, while opening the back door of the anti-White House to Islamic terrorists. Here's what really drives me nuts: if allegations of criminality at this level came to me, I would do some checking before passing them on. Even if I thought the media was already too corrupt, too bought-off to look into these sorts of charges, I would not pass them on without some kind of proof or at least a caveat. "Thou shalt not bear false witness."

It's my fantasy that in the months and years to come, churches will play a unique role. The global family of faith may be the only institution that brings together people holding these diametrically opposite viewpoints. I know this is true in our own Quaker yearly meeting. It may be the one place where "irreconcilable differences" can be transcended, if we are determined to resist the fragmentation promoted by the most hateful media.

Those who are overjoyed by Trump's victory will still need to pray for him -- and it's just as important for those devastated by his victory to pray for him as well. For eight years I passionately opposed George W. Bush's warmaking and slander of Muslims and fiscal shell games, and for eight years I prayed for him daily. I prayed for him for my own sake -- in order to manage and rebuke my own rage -- as well as for his.

Having the mind of Christ, we can also devote ourselves to other specific tasks in the wake of this election, dividing the labor according to our gifts and leadings. We need to diagnose the role of racism, of elitism and social alienation, and other evidences of primordial evil and structural sin in whatever guise they have taken in our day. I can imagine forming book groups and Bible studies, and then taking the time to work out strategies of divine resistance we will offer our congregations. The Friends meetings of Portland, Oregon -- both liberal and evangelical -- studied the situation after September 11, 2001, and began systematically planning visits to congressional offices. At around the same time, a small group of churches and pastors also began staging social exorcisms in government locations in Portland and Salem, Oregon, praying publicly to cast out the demons of violence, greed, and racism.

From a God-centered perspective, this spiritual warfare utterly transcends the divisions between liberal and conservative; the more pertinent division is between those who live in hope and work to bless the community, and on the other hand, those who just stop caring. Let's put fresh energy into community-building, not letting anyone get marginalized, no matter whom they voted for.


Back to 2017 and some fresh links:

D.L. Mayfield's experience of U.S. election night 2016. "I announced to the faithful gathered at my house. He is going to be our next president."
The twist that I never saw coming was that the apocalyptic threads of theology I picked up as a child can be traced parallel to evangelical Christianity’s obsession with obtaining cultural power. In years where democrats were elected (or civil rights demonstrations skyrocketed), Christian apocalyptic thinking became more popular, books were sold, theologies of a world getting worse and worse until it suddenly ended grew. But when things were looking up—Republican presidents, for instance—the end times language quieted down.
Luther goes global: Martin E. Marty reviews coverage of the Reformation's 500th birthday.

A powerful call and warning to parents serving cross-culturally: no child soldiers, no child sacrifice.

David Roberts writes on the epistemic crisis that goes well beyond Donald Trump's success or failure in his current legal challenges. (How does this analysis affect my "fantasy" of the church's unique role?)

Ruthie Foster, "Phenomenal Woman"

02 November 2017


Moscow's Wall of Grief, commemorating victims of political repression, was unveiled Monday. (Source.)
Russia's President Putin led Monday's unveiling of the Wall of Grief, the first official national monument to the victims of political repression in the USSR. Perhaps aware of the skepticism of today's human rights defenders in Russia, who charge the president with unleashing a whole new wave of repression, Putin was unusually direct:
Neither talent, nor services to the Motherland, nor sincere devotion to it could help avoid repression [in the Soviet system], because unwarranted and absolutely absurd charges could be brought against anyone. Millions of people were declared ‘enemies of the people’, shot or mutilated, or suffered in prisons, labour camps or exile.

This terrifying past cannot be deleted from national memory or, all the more so, be justified by any references to the so-called best interests of the people.

The history of our country, like that of any other country, has plenty of difficult and controversial stages. People argue about them, discuss them, offering different approaches to explaining various events.

This is a natural process of learning history and seeking the truth. However, when we are speaking about the repression, death and suffering of millions of people, it will only take a visit to the Butovo memorial site or other common graves of victims of repression, of which there are quite a few in Russia, to realise that these crimes cannot be justified in any way.

Political repression has become a tragedy for all our people, all our society and dealt a harsh blow to our people, its roots, culture and self-consciousness. We are still feeling its consequences. Our duty is to not let it slip into oblivion. Remembrance, a clear and unambiguous position and assessments with regard to those sad events serve as a powerful warning against their recurrence.
I quote extensively from his speech, because most of the Western press coverage (example) of the event pays more attention to the skepticism than to the actual event. I'm not necessarily criticizing the skepticism, since it's clear that the space for political activism in Russia has been shrinking continuously since he took over, but it seems patently unfair not to report the guarantee implicit in his speech that the cruelties of Stalinism will not be covered up or repeated.

Stalinist repression represents cruelty on a pervasive, industrial scale. Zooming inward, I reacted with  horror at Manhattan truck terrorist Sayfullo Saipov expressing satisfaction with his actions, regretting only that he couldn't drive farther and hit more people. Cruelty, it seems, is no nation's monopoly.

Another sort of cruelty has been at the center of attention these last weeks: sexual harassment in its most persistent and transgressive forms. Why is the word "cruelty" appropriate here? It just seems the right word to use for any situation where physical or mental pain is inflicted for the satisfaction of the perpetrator. We pacifists might insist that there is no legitimate reason ever to inflict pain, but "just war" reasoning allows proportionate violence when it's, well, just. Violence to assuage paranoia or simply for enjoyment is outside anyone's ethical framework, but it happens, over and over again. My fourteen-year-old sister's murderer faced no threat at all from her, yet he pulled the trigger that blew her stomach away. Cruelty and its delights have been around a long, long time.

Back to aggravated sexual harassment, a cruelty that takes place in the larger context of sexuality, with all its uncertainties and anxieties for those who find themselves at the crossroads of ethical ideals and raw desire. Where are the boundaries, they legitimately ask, especially as culture exalts gratification. Guidelines, etiquette, warnings, second chances for bumblers ... all these devices help us muddle through the typical awkwardnesses of flirtation and courtship, but just don't seem to work when we confront the serial violator.

Elizabeth Bruenig looks directly at this dilemma in her article, "This is why sexual harassment can't truly be rooted out."
Once we exhaust our tools of procedure and persuasion, those who still offend are of a different moral sort. It isn’t clear what to do about them; it never has been. But it seems obvious that we shouldn’t build our public consciousness around their uncommon deficits, or abandon efforts that are generally working (the long-term legal and cultural campaigns against workplace sexual harassment) in favor of procedures designed to do the impossible.
"Hard cases make bad law" goes the saying, and we don't want to descend into a regime of total prudery in a vain attempt to head off the worst cases. Instead, as Bruenig implies, let's do what's already working for the more typical problems. Let's also keep reminding each other -- as Putin attempted to do, whatever his motives -- what cruelty looks like and what it costs society. Let's remove shame from the equation, so that victims regain power, knowing that they can count on our support.

Something in me also yearns to address perpetrators and their spiritual situation. Were they born without an effective conscience, or was that conscience damaged by illness or abuse? Is there room in our discipleship to pray for them, to pray for their release from bondage and the restoration of the image of God in them? If we can't all do this, can it be part of the church's division of labor?

Can we also pray for the healing of memories, and the healing of the world? In Russia, we were often reminded of the persistent echoes of national trauma and the virus of fear that causes so many people to try to live in a cloak of near-invisibility. But as Putin said, every country has its difficult and controversial stages. We are not helpless: let's pray boldly, passionately, and even publicly (according to our gifts and leadings) to exorcise those demons.

When I wrote about #MeToo a couple of weeks ago, I was remembering my own #MeToo moment, around the age of 12, when two guys bigger than me ganged up on me in a bathroom. The sheer number of such experiences challenges us to grow in our awareness of cruelty and bondage, to anchor ourselves in the solidarity of sorrow and joy that we gain from living in reality instead of denial and sentimentality, and to love each other more fiercely in the face of that reality.

A powerful sermon about the most important thing: Becky Ankeny... "On Friday, I started hearing this verse march through my head: whoever comes to me, I will never send away."

Andrei Sabinin talks about what it's like to be a human rights lawyer in Russia.

Stanley Hauerwas asks: The Reformation is over. Protestants won. So why are we still here?

26 October 2017

Boredom for dummies

The Columbia River, from the Amtrak Empire Builder.
... I don't have time for those who don't know what time is.

These words from Boris Pasternak came back to me during the long, slow hours we spent on Amtrak's trains from New York City to Chicago, and then from Chicago to Portland, Oregon.

To tell you the truth, I really needed those long, slow hours of sitting by the train window and letting time carry me into my future. In my last weeks and days in Elektrostal, time went by with dizzying speed, and my mind struggled to keep up, storing up impressions and sensations against the uncertainties of that future. It's likely that we'll never live in Russia again. (Yes, we hope to visit, but even that is uncertain. In any case, I don't think we'll ever again be residents.)

We are learning about gravitational waves rippling through space and time, thanks to Albert Einstein and the recent LIGO observations. For most of us, it's not news that time also seems to be experienced in waves, now compressed and now just dragging along. I love living in the moment, but slow moments, and stretched-out periods where time nearly seems to stop, are equally precious to me.

Trackside at Shelby, Montana.
In a moment of unguarded boastfulness, I once said that I was never bored. That claim didn't stop me from preparing for the transatlantic flight and the train trip by loading my Amazon Fire with episodes of Doctor Who and the Vietnam War series, along with two novels, two books of theology, a history of Protestant missions, and two autobiographies -- by Norwegian politician Gro Harlem Brundtland and American astronaut Scott Kelly. But much of the time, day and night, I just watched the country scroll past the window. I felt no pressure to savor or memorize or store up -- I just let the planet be the planet and me be me.

Boredom is not a problem to be solved. It is the last privilege of a free mind.

These words open Gayatri Devi's essay on boredom, published on the Guardian Web site about two years ago. Her essay seems to assume a definition of boredom as a state of discontent resulting from lack of external stimulation. (Dictionaries, on the other hand, often seem to focus on boredom as a state resulting from the wrong kind of stimulation -- tedious, repetitive, uninteresting.) She rightly recommends not curing boredom by reaching for new sources of stimulus, such as the ever-handy smartphone. Instead, she recommends "metathinking" -- in a sense, observing yourself as you slide into boredom, considering what makes you bored, "how your mind responds to boredom, what you feel and think when you get bored."

I would just add a couple of things that are, maybe, already implied in Gayatri Devi's advice:
  • Learn to enjoy your own company. This doesn't mean to give yourself a free pass on everything that might appear on a Fourth Step AA inventory -- but look beyond your imperfections to the whole of yourself, the person whose God-given mind is capable of thought, reflection, observation, intention, reconciliation, synthesis of old and new ideas, and so much more. That apparently empty period of time, whether it's at on a slow train or in line at a bank, is just a golden opportunity to get to spend some time with your complicated self. (Learning to enjoy your own company is a good step toward confronting temptation and addiction. God loved you into being, as Anthony Bloom said, so it's time to look at yourself with God's loving intention in mind.)
  • Reframe slow time as prayer time. You can ask God or your own memory banks for prayer concerns that you may have forgotten or just heard about or that simply beg for your attention. Devi mentions Wordsworth's daffodils; you might instead choose or form a short prayer along the lines of the prayers I mention here....
Make me an instrument of your peace.


Lord Jesus, have mercy.

I want to dwell in you.

Back in 2011, I wrote about reading Pasternak's words about time as I sat waiting my turn at the bank branch in Elektrostal.

Stanley Hauerwas: A Prayer for Our Enemies As We Are All Learning How to Hate.

The U.S. Congress mulls surveillance reform. The options range from good to bad to worse. On November 1, VPNs and similar anonymizing facilities become illegal in Russia, but ordinary Americans should not feel superior.

More on "#MeToo" ... Beth Woolsey didn't realize it for 25 years.

Kerry Connelly sets herself a "dangerous" and "messy" theme: a theology of whiteness.

The Guardian tells how the city of Bergen, where my father went to grade school, is refashioning its image.

The late Ron Artis and his family.

19 October 2017

My heart is breaking. So what?

We left Russia on Tuesday evening. Now we're traveling on Amtrak from New York City to Portland, Oregon. Our train stopped for nine minutes in Charlottesville, where we spent the first two years of our marriage. A lot has happened since then, with us and with Charlottesville.

My heart is breaking with the flood of #MeToo stories from people who've experienced sexual violence and objectification of all degrees. CNN reports a Facebook statistic: "...More than 45% of people in the United States are friends with someone who's posted a message with the words 'Me too'." Seems entirely possible. Just based on people I know, that proportion might actually be low.

But my breaking heart is completely beside the point. The problem is people whose hearts aren't breaking and will not soon be breaking. Many of them don't consider themselves predators, and their behavior is often supported and protected by their surrounding culture, as noted in Teri Carter's article, "Saying 'me too' isn't enough. Women have to stop excusing men." Some no doubt plunge into cycles of offense and remorse, hoping that their remorse counts for something....

Last year, a similar online phenomenon took off in Russian and Ukrainian social networks. Natalia Antonova described the origins of this movement and some of the assumptions it unearthed. She did not express wild optimism about outcomes, but there is a path toward progress:
We are seeing an example of real collective action — not sponsored by any government, not popularised by marketing or television. The very fact that there is such a big controversy, an outcry, criticism, and counter-criticism tells us that quite a lot of people are emotionally invested both in the problem of violence and trauma — and are also invested in public life and public discourse.
Before we protest that the USA (for example) is more progressive on this score than the post-Soviet world, can we honestly say that we never see examples of  the "hypocritical blending of patriarchal and liberal norms" mentioned by Antonova?

One thing that seemed possible in July 2016, the time of Antonova's article, was a woman serving as president in the USA, something that no Russian I spoke with thought would happen in Russia in their lifetime. Most Russians told me that it shouldn't happen, in Russia or in the USA. Of course, for the USA, that moment didn't come to pass.

(But yesterday came the announcement that Ksenia Sobchak plans to run in the Russian presidential election next year! The conventional wisdom so far seems to agree that this is just a way that the Kremlin wants to make the highly stage-managed Putin re-election process more interesting and entertaining. My question: Can Sobchak's candidacy nevertheless have subversive benefits in widening the forums for discussing sexual violence and related topics?)

Back to #MeToo and the chorus of male grief. The sad truth is that the existence of men (and women) who have no desire at all to offend, or are supposedly too nice to offend, or who repent, or who simply have learned how to manage their "needs," hasn't been enough to prevent that "more than 45%" statistic. Our goals should go way beyond expressing sympathy; they should include ending cultures of impunity. This isn't an easy thing to advocate -- my conscience is stabbed by the question, How often have I been given the benefit of the doubt?

Ending cultures of impunity ... what might this imply? How do we get there? For one thing, it would help to have offenders' peers confronting offenders, and for these stories to circulate. I'm reminded of a case I know personally: an alcoholic wife-abuser being confronted by his older brother, himself a recovering alcoholic: "Hey, take it from me, you straighten up or you're going to lose the best thing you have, and I'll want to know the reason why."

Victims' and survivors' dearest ones also have a role to play, especially in cultures where the "boys will be boys" attitude prevails. In theory, we know that love trumps shame, but we need to make that true in every concrete situation where shame smothers the truth. This is especially important where victims end up entering into alliances with their attackers and therefore feel complicit. Again, for cultures that don't value lofty theories, we need stories of families and sweethearts taking shame out of the equation. Let's tell our stories of shame being healed, whether we were the channels of healing or the ones experiencing healing.

What about men? (After all, the majority of offenders, and also the apparent beneficiaries of the prevailing power systems, are men.) Sometimes my inner cynic worries that this arena is just another channel for men to entertain fantasies of heroism, or (given the persistence of sin and addiction) to use a veneer of sensitivity for seductive purposes. But there are concrete steps we can take:
  • Listen, don't rush to fix. Be rooted in grace. Listen, listen some more. Be human! 
  • When women exert leadership, respond positively. That may simply mean getting out of the way without waiting for recognition or credit.
  • Replace the old "men have needs" excuse with active encouragement for any decent efforts to teach young people about sexuality and boundaries. Maybe it's an opportunity for liberals and conservatives to work together -- for liberals to assert the importance of equality, for conservatives to remind us of sin's devious persistence.
  • Other ideas?
One of my biggest frustrations is the lack of attention to sexual discipleship in the church. The resulting harm includes not just violence and harassment, but endless shame, anxiety, hypocrisy, homophobia, and ultimately cynicism, alienation, atheism, ... in total, a lot less joy, intimacy, and long-term pleasure than God intended for us.

I think I understand the reluctance to tackle sexual issues; I don't know about you, but I really don't go to church to talk about sex! That means finding creative ways to confront the old boundaries and allergies that ultimately served oppression, and create new boundaries that put sexual discipleship in proper perspective with other topics of life as believers -- such as financial discipleship, to name another awkward theme.

Think of the rewards of expanding our discipleship education: building a far more rewarding model of whole-life Christianity that doesn't keep two sets of emotional books (one for display at meeting, and the other reflecting our private anxieties and agonies). Think of the evangelistic advantages as well -- inviting skeptical people into a community that behaves as if it actually believes in the abundant life Jesus promises.

A related post from last year: Trust and its erotic dimension. ("Now it gets personal.")

How badly have traditional Christian sexual ethics failed?
In the absence of any concept of consent, patriarchy might have been the best humanity could do to provide a stable social order that somewhat protects vulnerable people from the kind of mayhem we see in Sodom in Genesis 19 and Gibeah in Judges 19. Unfortunately it fails to provide full protection; it just keeps the violence behind closed doors.
Postliberalism for Quakers. (Thanks to @MeetinghouseBP for the link.)

Another view of Ksenia Sobchak's candidacy, from a pro-Kremlin outlet.

"Johnny B. Goode" Russian style.