17 January 2019

Good news or bad news, part three: truth and impeachment

Detail of cover of The First Publishers of Truth: Being early records (now first printed) of the introduction of Quakerism into the counties of England and Wales. Source.

The call-in advice show of Radio Yerevan (a legendary template of Soviet-era jokes) received this question: "Can you recommend an eye-and-ear doctor?"

Announcer: "Do you mean an eye doctor? Or perhaps an ear-nose-throat doctor?"

Caller: "No. My problem is what I see doesn't match what I hear."

(Part one, part two.)

What I "hear" as an ordinary U.S. citizen is that we live in a constitutional democracy, a republic of the people, by the people, for the people, with remedies for corruption and abuse of power by even the highest officials in the land.

What I "see" is quite different: conflicts of interest on every hand, from Cabinet appointments to the emoluments debate; a string of indictments and convictions of presidential associates; capricious decisions; constant lies; peremptory demands, including that stupid wall; petty and vulgar personal attacks; outrageous mismanagement of refugee assessment and border control (including new revelations of children being separated from parents); utter lack of transparency in U.S.-Russian relationships; irrational, contradictory, and bizarre pronouncements about Obama, Iran, Turkey, Syria, Afghanistan, coal power, trafficking in women, the danger posed by immigrants; ... the list of flagrant violations seems endless.

In making his case that the U.S. House of Representatives should impeach the president, Atlantic Ideas editor Yoni Appelbaum carefully argues that impeachment is a calm and rational response to Trump's off-the-rails presidency. It's not an extreme, apocalyptic, risky step for Congress to take. Instead, it would channel the wild, divisive argumentation we see everywhere now, fueled by slashing social-media campaigns, and potentially reduces this bitter torrent to the disciplines required by the very process of impeachment: an actual application of the Constitutional filter of "Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors."

Appelbaum challenges Representatives not to base their impeach/don't impeach decision on Senate vote calculations, on scattershot investigations by Democrat-dominated House committees, or on the hopes that Robert Mueller or other judicial processes will either force their hands somehow or do the job for them. (It's also possible that many of us, acting from a misplaced sense of prudence or just disbelief, are waiting for Trump to commit, at long last, another outrage so scandalous that the country is galvanized into decisive action -- but somehow not so outrageous as to do us permanent damage!)

The urgent case for impeachment, from Appelbaum's point of view, is that it would be far less destructive and far more orderly than what is already happening.
The fight over whether Trump should be removed from office is already raging, and distorting everything it touches. Activists are radicalizing in opposition to a president they regard as dangerous. Within the government, unelected bureaucrats who believe the president is acting unlawfully are disregarding his orders, or working to subvert his agenda. By denying the debate its proper outlet, Congress has succeeded only in intensifying its pressures. And by declining to tackle the question head-on, it has deprived itself of its primary means of reining in the chief executive.
Each day that impeachment is postponed is another day where the gap grows wider between what I've always heard -- we're a democracy, we have equal justice before law, we resist corruption and tyranny -- and the brazen violations we see all around us, and to which we're daily becoming habituated.

Personally, I've found Yoni Appelbaum's advocacy for impeachment more persuasive than I might have expected. In part this might be because we're reaching some kind of crescendo in the shambles Trump is making of our country and its reputation worldwide. But I'm also sensing a growing spiritual urgency that relates to a word that's been sacred to generations of Quakers: Truth.

Students of authoritarianism repeatedly caution us that the royal road to dictatorship involves detaching us from any connection with truth. (Example.) It's not that authoritarians deliver a set of different interpretations of the same data, or different philosophies or policies. They want to set aside our common search for good policy (within which search decent people can differ), in favor of such a blizzard of lies that we must rely on their confident, authoritative Voice to lead the way. If we catch them in a lie, they can say, "Oops, here's another version, but your guys lie, too." And those who stubbornly insist on verifiable truth will eventually find themselves in a direct confrontation with those who put their trust in the Voice. Those Voice cultists may be in a minority, but too many of the rest of us may be tempted to avoid the confrontation, or postpone the day of reckoning. Impeachment makes the confrontation real, honest, direct. Passivity does not provide an escape.

In our search for truth, we also reject any temptation to paint Trump as even worse than he really is. It is quite true that Donald Trump correctly identifies some huge gaps in American policy. His cloud of lies and racist innuendos concerning immigration and border control gains currency precisely because earlier politicians have utterly failed to put together a humane and balanced approach. His manipulations throw trash into a vacuum that he did not create.

Quaker cartoonist Signe Wilkinson, from January 2013. Source.
Similarly, he questions American imperial conventional wisdom at some crucial points. To what extent is the USA's "indispensable nation" status in the post-World War II global configuration, and our 800 overseas military posts, serving our actual values, rather than the interests of the military-industrial complex or the convenience of other nations who rely on us to preserve international order while serving as their rhetorical pincushion?

There's nothing inherently wrong with an iconoclastic president who questions conventional wisdom. I can't help fantasizing how an independent-minded leader with intelligence and soul could gather the intellectual and spiritual resources of this country to examine both the strengths and the pitfalls of American exceptionalism. For many of us, Obama approached that ideal, despite his apparent need to reassure the elites by (maybe) overcompensating for his unconventional origins. His speeches (Nobel Prize speech; Cairo speech; prayer breakfast) revealed an ability to reflect on these nuances. However, the Congress, with the opposition party committed to its "party of no" stance, was rarely able to provide him a bipartisan forum to debate these questions and seek a reasonable balance.

In any case, Trump is manifestly incapable of engaging in searching dialogues with diverse voices, even on topics where he has correctly identified inconsistencies in American policy. These inconsistencies need solutions, but nothing Trump has done tells us that he's qualified to address them ... or do more with them than simply use them to rally his base against his opponents.

Finally: In the service of Gospel truth, Christians in particular should reject any alliance with him and his inhumane approaches to all policies involving human welfare or environmental stewardship. I've already written plenty about this fraud he's managed to perpetrate on millions of white evangelicals, drawing them into his personal cult; now I just want the political tie to be severed while we evangelicals still have a shred of dignity. (OK, I heard someone back there just say, "too late.")

We are not excused from the requirement to pray for the president. I do pray for him daily -- for him and for his early retirement. Impeachment is the most orderly, honest, and direct way toward that goal.

This is my 800th blog post. I wish it could be more inspirational. However, by speaking so directly to the need to begin the impeachment of Trump, I hope I've carved out the freedom to write about other things in the next weeks. I had hoped to start discussing the fascinating responses I received to the "trustworthy church" survey; and I also want to return to my long-time theme of Friends worship in future weeks. Another theme in the pipeline: what are the stakes in the recent Eastern Orthodox schism?

Today's sudden substitution of this impeachment theme was prompted by the events dominating American politics these last couple of days -- not in the service of alarm and outrage, but in the spirit of a specific form of discipleship: reducing that gap between what we've heard and what we see.

Friends Journal and the cautious hope of a racially diverse Society of Friends.

On welcoming broken missionaries back.
The church dare not, dare not, pray for the unengaged to be engaged while in the same breath refuse to face the tragedy that will come with that engagement. This is dangerous and irresponsible, if the church is not prepared to deal with the consequences.
Ted Grimsrud's Civil War question: Can one hate both slavery and war equally?

Johns Hopkins University continues to make available remarkable images and animations from New Horizons' flyby of Ultima Thule. (On a more sober note, here's NASA's shutdown staffing plan.)

Kashmir Hill on a less fortunate consequences of space-based resources: unreliable, even dangerous cartographic tagging. (Thanks to Raphael Satter for the link.)

Open Culture: Infographic on American global military deployment.

Nastya Rybka's saga continues with an unexpected stop in Moscow. (Original Navalny video, with subtitles.)

Mary Oliver broke Tim Brown's heart.

Edvard Munch's Scream: Jonathan Jones says it's become the ultimate image for our political age. (And, back in Elektrostal, for a New Humanities Institute exam I used an article about the meteorological connections with Munch's imagery. Take the test if you like!)

"Some people ask me, 'what does a stranger do?'"

10 January 2019

Judy Maurer: Accents, eggnog, and foreigners in our midst

This week, I’m delighted to welcome my wife Judy Maurer as guest blogger.

A few days before Christmas, a well-dressed woman in Winco approached me with a bottle of Irish creme in her hand. “Is this drink for the Christmas?” she asked.

I squelched the desire to quiz her about her native language and how it navigated without articles like “a” and “the”, since the use of those tiny words was clearly not intuitive for her. But like my students in Russia, she was able to get her point across well, without being able to land exactly on where one used a “the” or an “a”. Normally, it’s not a problem -- unless you want to say, “My husband has the money” and you end up saying, “My husband has money.”

But I left all that aside and said, “If they’re Irish-American, it would be perfect.”

“I want traditional drink” she said. Again I squelched a desire to explain that in America, what one perceives as traditional at Christmas flows from your parents or grandparents’ ancestry. Lefse for Norwegians, stollen and marzipan for Germans, and all that. I also didn’t explain that usually, the ones with English ancestry got to decide that their traditions would be mainstream traditional in the US. I’m not entirely sure why that is, since Spaniards were first in to invade North America in any numbers, and then the English.

Instead I just tried to explain about “eggnog”. I wrote it out on my smartphone for her, because what is a “nog”? How would she know how to capture that in her memory? She seemed perplexed that she should look for it in the dairy section.

After nine years in Russia, it’s a familiar point of stress for me. Going to a social gathering as a foreigner means trying to figure out what is the accepted practice. Everyone else knows it, accepts it as gospel truth as the-way-it-should-be-done, but you have no idea, and even have to set aside your own sense of the-way-it-should-be-done which is so embedded in your view of life that you don’t realize it is just your culture’s sense of the-way-it-should-be-done. So what the others think is the civil and polite thing to do may seem at the least perplexing. So my worry tended to be: “when I stumble over a social obstacle, will the others think my cluelessness is charming, or rude?”

Asking a stranger in a grocery store is a good tactic. I told her that the Irish creme in the fancy bottle would be a very good thing to bring to a party in America, but she repeated that she wanted to bring “traditional drink.”

Painful things have happened since I left the US to go to Russia in 2008. In 2017, I came back to a country in which people speaking English with accents are no longer as willing to engage in a conversation about where they are from. But I hoped I had built up enough rapport with her so that she would be willing to talk. So I asked.

“Iraq,” she replied.

“Good. I’m glad you’re here.You’re safe.” She seemed surprised, but when she caught my eye again while quizzing grocery store employees, probably about traditional drinks, she beamed.

During the worst of the Ukraine crisis, when Russian media blamed the “decadent West” for everything that went wrong, I felt vulnerable in Russia as a westerner. State media is dedicated to telling the news in just such a way to make people more compliant with what the leadership wants to do anyway. (I know. This never happens in the US, right?) Blaming foreign countries, and foreigners in their midst, is always a good strategy for deflecting blame away from the realities of this country. This tactic works particularly well if there is significant corruption among the political leadership, but what would we in the US know of that, right?

In the spring of 2014, when pro-Russian separatists took over parts of eastern Ukraine, the Russian leadership was in desperate need of these tactics. Stereotypes are particularly useful in these times, and state media trotted them out. They flooded state and social media with reports of the “Godless West”.

I grew up in a very conservative area of the US southwest, and was regularly subjected to films in school about “Godless Communists”. So as Yogi Berra said, it felt like “deja vu all over again,” but with a mind-numbing twist: I was now defined as the enemy. A wise Russian friend told me that the easiest way to rile people up against the enemies of Russia was to dust off and use again the Soviet-era stereotypes of Americans, as we had been the most frequent targets during the Cold War. It would have been a farther reach to enrage the populace against western Europeans. State media was just doing what came easier.

It was particularly painful when our good friends bought into these stereotypes. In my own living room, an old friend asked with wide-eyed wonder, “Can a man find a woman who would take care of her husband in America?”

I felt like saying, “you’ve seen with your own eyes how I take care of Johan -- and he takes care of me. Do you really think I’m the only American woman who takes care of her husband?”

The cold-war stereotype in Russia is that American women are selfish, independent feminists who won’t lend a hand to their own families. Another good friend insisted to me that I must have learned to cook in Russia, after I left the US. The unstated part was, “everyone knows that women in America don’t bother to cook for their families.” Since I had just provided a yummy home-made treat for the teachers’ lounge, then it stood to reason that I had learned to cook in Russia. Really? One learns to make apple crisp in Russia? In most of these cases, I was too stunned to argue.

While our friends believing in Soviet-era stereotypes was the most painful, being outside their care, as foreigners in public, was the most frightening. I polished my public Russian image so I could blend in. In addition to my black leather coat, silk scarf, brick face without smile in public, I stuffed an orange and black -striped ribbon in my purse so I could whip it out and tie it on at a moment’s notice. This ribbon was the Russian nationalists’ symbol; I would look safely like a Russian nationalist with a St. George’s ribbon on my purse.

Once when I was in Moscow I called home and said, “Johan -- I forgot to tell you. I moved that carry-on suitcase -- the one to take if they knock on our door.” High-profile deportations of westerners -- politicians who were proving their mettle by deporting hapless English teachers -- were enough of a thing that I put everything I would need for a sudden deportation back to the US right next to our front door. Some of our students believed it was enough of a threat that they described for us what cars the immigration service would use - the Russian equivalent of an FBI Black Maria.

And I resolved, once I returned to the US, to help individual foreigners in the U.S. feel welcome. In the Old Testament, the foreigner is sometimes an example of a marauder, but more often of the vulnerable, as in Deuteronomy 24:17-19 “Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this. When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.”

Even back then, foreigners were vulnerable, without status or protection, and God told Israelites to treat them well. That part has not changed. We must treat the foreigners among us well, particularly if our country had much to do with making their country a dangerous place to live in. While we’re at it: What national problems might be hiding behind these “enemies” and distractions being thrown at us? What does our political leadership not want us to see? Let’s focus on those problems. Let’s reject fear, so that God might bless us in all the work of our hands.

Judy Maurer is a member of Moscow Friends Meeting, Russia, and Eugene Friends Church, USA. From 2008 to 2017 she and Johan taught English at the New Humanities Institute in Elektrostal. Before leaving for Russia she was a publicist and fundraiser for ARMS - Abuse Recovery Ministry and Services. She is writing a book on anger and angry people.

Photo: at Cathedral of Elijah the Prophet, Yaroslavl.

Mike Farley: The heart being the place where God's love meets us (Romans 5.5-6) it meets too there the one whom we are holding in our heart.

Red Cross photos from Russia of the Civil War era. (Last two photos are from the region where Friends worked in famine relief.)

Bridget Collins in The Guardian on the top 10 Quakers in fiction. (Thanks to Martin Kelley for the link.) I would have included the Birdwell family in Jessamyn West's The Friendly Persuasion, particularly Eliza, among my own top ten. What do you think of the list?

Remembering Lamin Sanneh and Friend Samuel Snipes.

Jackie Pullinger warns us that we're going to feel stupid for eternity if ...

And to add to our current season of major space exploration stories, could these repeating fast radio bursts be from aliens?

One more time for this delightful blues collaboration with James Harman at the BluesMoose Cafe:

04 January 2019

Let's play

Fred Rogers at work
I heard Quaker economist Kenneth Boulding give a lecture at Carleton University sometime in the early 1970's. I can't remember much now about that lecture except that, to my surprise and delight, he argued for the importance of play. Years later, I heard that his wife, sociologist Elise Boulding, sometimes complained that when Kenneth was playing with their children, he would sometimes end up playing more with their toys than with the kids themselves.

Kenneth and Elise thought that both children and adults needed to play. In Kenneth's lecture, he said that it was actually a child's job to play. To the extent that the child inside us never dies, I hope that I too may be permitted to play.

Arthur Koestler's The Act of Creation defends play as a serious subject. Beyond that book, which I read during my high school years, and the Bouldings' lectures and books, I've honestly not studied play all that much! Drawing from these serious thinkers, I conclude that play ...
  • involves experimentation with objects, role-playing, sensations,
  • has an element of recreation and non-compulsion, which is part of its attraction,
  • gives pleasure through successful creation, problem-solving, construction, or progression of some kind,
  • can be solitary (even 100% imaginary) or in a group,
  • can involve a template of some sort (such as a game) or be utterly spontaneous,
  • can be earthy, cerebral, both, or somewhere in between --
... all of which seems important to me and potentially everyone I know. For children, it's also part of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (article 31), which to my non-surprise, the U.S. is the only member of the United Nations not to have ratified.

Play relates to another of my favorite themes: ecstasy. I define ecstasy as an experience of joy that is so total that it verges on self-abandonment. And, similarly to play, I think that everyone is entitled to ecstasy, although we may experience it very differently according to our temperaments and situations. And some of us probably come from cultures or families where it wasn't acceptable to welcome or expect total joy. Be serious! Be productive! Be overworked (but complain about it, too, and be sure that you're just as overworked as those you overwork with)! Be trapped in shame! All of this nonsense is inconsistent with being creatures whom God loved into existence.

The Sassy Animals (posing in my room
at Woodbrooke, Birmingham, UK)
This happy stuff  is not just a matter of personal gratification, reserved for those who are economically and socially secure. In a faith community with a healthy division of labor, the mystic who testifies to the importance of play and ecstasy is in partnership with the prophet who wants to know what is preventing others from experiencing these good things.

May your 2019 be full of play! (I know mine will be; Judy bought me a three-headed dragon for Christmas, to add to our collection of puppets and sassy animals.)

A happy coincidence involving the science fiction writer David Brin:

For most of the last three weeks, my every free moment has been taken up by reading Brin's novel Existence. It's not that I'm a slow reader, but my experience with his book was similar to my experience of Liudmila Ulitskaya's Daniel Stein, Interpreter, another amazing novel that involved a similar diversity of voices and viewpoints and platforms (in her case: letters, diaries, transcripts, reports). In Brin's case, our planet was gripped by the arrival, only a generation or two in the future, of messages from extraterrestrial civilizations (or were they hoaxes!?), and the novel's many different voices reflected many different hopes and fears and political attitudes among earth's population. As a result of these extraterrestrial messages, a long pause in humanity's efforts at space exploration comes to an end.

More than this I cannot say -- only that Brin's sampling of the reality of beleaguered humanity -- global warming's rising sea levels, and the contrasts in lifestyles between the involuntary nomads of poverty and the thrill-seeking nomads of the ultra-wealthy (remarkably similar to theologian Samuel Escobar's predictions) add to the book's realism.

With each of these novels -- Ulitskaya's and Brin's -- I frequently had to put the book down and think about what I'd written, or let my imagination play with the characters and situations, putting myself in their places. Sometimes I had to reach for a bit of nonfiction for sheer relief!

David Brin: "... It's theologically significant
that we're so good at this...."
I finished the last page of Brin's book on Monday evening and turned my attention to NASA TV, which at that point was streaming the New Year's Eve Party for Little Worlds at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, culminating in the countdown to the NASA space probe New Horizons' closest approach to the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed Ultima Thule.

At one point during the evening, a number of congratulatory messages were spliced into the coverage -- among them, a message from David Brin. Having used the broad canvas of his novel to give us a picture of what it might be like for earthlings to reach out beyond the planets of our solar system, he was congratulating the team that was, in real life, doing just that.

Sarah Kaplan's vivid reporting on the Ultima Thule fly-by mission: the fly-by itself and the first fruits of the mission. She also reports on another New Year's success: a Chinese spacecraft carrying a rover lands on the far side of the moon.

Two of my earlier posts relating to ecstasy: in worship and in music.

A declaration of faithful disobedience from pastor Wang Yi of Early Rain Covenant Church, Chengdu, China. (Thanks to @ChristyWimber for the reference.)

Adria Gulizia on diversity -- racial and theological.

Jo Firestone: Tell me one more time what to do about grief. (Recommended by Kate Bowler.)

Weather has not been the ideal persuader for the reality of climate change and global warming, but as David Leonhardt points out, that may be changing. And the stakes couldn't be higher:
I wanted to write my last column of 2018 about the climate as a kind of plea: Amid everything else going on, don’t lose sight of the most important story of the year.

I know there was a lot of competition for that title, including some more obvious contenders, like President Donald Trump and Robert Mueller. But nothing else measures up to the rising toll and enormous dangers of climate change. I worry that our children and grandchildren will one day ask us, bitterly, why we spent so much time distracted by lesser matters.
Meduza's catalog of the very best Russian independent journalism in 2018.

More of James Harman's visit to the BluesMoose Cafe in Groesbeek, Netherlands.

27 December 2018

Digesting 2018

January What's so urgent about sex?

As we survey the wreckage left by boundary-violators and the huge outpourings of outrage and counter-reaction greeting every new celebrity scandal and every new debate about "consent," there's something I just don't understand, and this may reveal what a sheltered life I've led. The mystery: why does it seem so important to have sex with someone before you know that person well enough to understand their boundaries? I ask this because every discussion of determining what constitutes "consent" seems to presuppose that having sex is so urgent that those boundaries ought to be measured and crossed (with whatever form of consent the pundits finally agree on) as soon as possible!!!

February The Quaker movement: decline and persistence

... I suspect that there will always be a small but persistent market for what I've perhaps unfairly called boutique Quakerism -- tiny groups with progressive political ideals mixed with a savory blend of self-help spirituality and old Quaker cliches. Their marketing will probably continue emphasizing how doctrinally undemanding they are, how optional their linkages to anything remotely biblical.

Another persistent group will emphasize how safely they cling to cultural evangelicalism in its white North American manifestations, shielding its adherents from any exposure to the dangerous diversity of the worldwide Quaker family, accusing dissidents of betraying biblical standards.

March His eye is on the collateral damage

There are many other examples of collateral damage in Biblical texts -- whether the victims are forces opposing Israel, or Israelites themselves. Just consider the fate of Korah and his friends, including "wives, children and little ones," Numbers 16.

Which explanation do you prefer?
  1. These people's sufferings were inconsequential to God in comparison to the value of teaching the rest of us a lesson.
  2. God's biblical chroniclers did not understand God well enough at that point in history to record God's provisions of care to those whose death appears cruel to us.
  3. These incidents did not happen exactly as they're depicted in the Bible; in reality, no innocent people suffered just for the sake of shock and awe.
Which is it? Did God drown and burn and crush people ... and is it the very same God whose "eye is on the sparrow, and I know he cares for me"? (Scripture; song.)

April Games, sports, comedies...

... The general point comes through clearly: all of these worldly recreations threaten to crowd out the awareness of God. Not that [Robert] Barclay is against rest and relaxation, but I suspect he feels that rest and relaxation are a concession for our weakness, and if we were not in vessels of clay we would be at maximum reverence and sobriety 24/7. Just think of what passes for relaxation in Barclay's sight: geometry!!

So here I am, reading detective novels, getting massages, listening to blues, and grieving the death of Harry Anderson. Are my recreations evidence of the degradation of society (or of Friends) in the centuries since Barclay? Or am I uniquely corrupt? Or is there a way I'm actually honoring his cautions despite the greater freedoms I claim in choosing ways to relax?

May When grief just won't come

... There is progress of a sort. With the advantage of decades of counseling (both giving and receiving), classes in pastoral care, and conversations with others who've had similar biographies, I'm better able to think about the social contexts that formed and controlled my parents' choices. It used to irritate me almost beyond endurance when people said, "Your parents did the best they could." It never seemed that they put much effort into doing the best for their children; they had other priorities, and we mostly raised ourselves. I interpret that cliche a bit differently now: my parents had little idea of what the "best" might be. Racism, atheism, alcohol, the culture of obedience ... all combined to rob them of tools that might have given them more choices and a higher vision.

June Sowing in tears

In the meantime, we may weep but we still do the work. We sow, knowing that every seed (every work of kindness, of faithfulness, of persistence, of honest testimony) bursts with the potential of life and resurrection. At a Baptist seminary in central Europe, Judy and I met a young Russian pastor whose grandfather had become a Christian while in German captivity after World War I. German Baptists had ministered to this former enemy soldier, who was eventually repatriated and formed a church back in Russia. Exiled to the western border of Siberia by the new Communist government, he formed another church in Chelyabinsk. When he was cruelly killed (sprayed with water in midwinter), his wife became pastor and continued the work. The kind and dedicated man we met would not be serving now if they had not kept sowing.

July Reverence

The Quaker approach to ceremony does have its advantages. When you don't have architecture, furniture, and expensive special clothing and hats to reinforce dignity, you may be less tempted to enlist the forces of political and social control to guard the stuff and maintain order. Furthermore, you might be able to reduce church politics because you don't need all the licensing and quality control mechanisms that are the delight of the church bureaucrat.

On the other hand ... in many traditions, the tension between social control (dignity and the mechanisms that reinforce it, such as disciplined ceremony, ancient symbols, a spiritual aristocracy of one kind or another) and powerful spiritual content is a drama all its own. That was part of what made Michael Curry's sermon at Meghan's and Harry's royal wedding so fascinating. All the scripts and trappings of tradition cannot contain the revolutionary potential of love. When we Quakers minimize the container, do we risk dissipating the content?

August George Fox on overcoming corruption

As I sit still and follow Fox's advice, the first thing that comes to me is that there is no special corruption or villainy in Trump's captives that is not potentially present in me as well. They are the same biological species, they are subject to the same signals of territoriality and group mobilization, the same patterns of identifying "ours" and "theirs" and the same tendencies to ascribe evil to "them."

Being honest with myself and God that I'm not categorically better than "them" doesn't have to cause a paralysis of shame or uncertainty. I have made decisions and commitments in my life that I would like to count on to keep me from being trapped in those patterns; and when I stumble or fail, I have already put myself into the hands of a church community that has the right to teach and elder me. The challenge is to stay in the "light that discovers" rather than jump back into those old patterns and shortcuts. Thanks to family and community and prayer, I don't undertake this challenge alone.

September Being perfect, part three

In last week's post, both the Protestant and the Eastern Orthodox writers seemed to agree that ideal disciples are centered in God -- their acts (the Protestant emphasis) and their identity (the Orthodox emphasis) are completely God-oriented. How is this possible? In a demanding and competitive world, where our family's welfare may seem to depend on choosing the lesser of many evils, how can we afford mystical union with the Divine? How can every decision be an act of worship?

Alone, I will never be able to know perfectly whether my choices (for myself and in relation to others) are God-centered. I need a community with others who are struggling with the same questions, some of whom have more experience than I do, and who make it safe to share successes, uncertainties, and failures.

October Quakerism of the future

I totally understand that we're not all mystical, and we don't elevate mysticism as some super-subtle elite key to understanding Friends. But right from the start, we've honored the spiritual gifts that George Fox and some of his companions had -- a particular sensitivity to the inward movements of the Holy Spirit. They didn't exalt those "openings" above the confirming testimony of Bible and community, but those inner confirmations anchored the movement in spiritual reality above earthly hierarchy, above social status, above the claims of wealth and power. In our own day, as authoritarians and their sophisticated technologies confront angry skeptics and anarchists, all with their own competing mythologies demanding our loyalty, we need those God-given anchors. We need to take the time to listen deeply inside ourselves, seeking and finding the inner witness of God that the mystics correctly tell us is there.

November "Don't skip to the end"

Kate Bowler's story has very little outwardly in common with Ray Hinton's. She's a young respected author and seminary professor, a Canadian transplant in North Carolina, and not a convenient suspect in a racially-compromised murder case. But she too faces a lethal deadline: the universe has conspired to impose an untimely death sentence in the form of cancer.

The cruelties she experiences are different from Hinton's, but they're real. Cruel irony: as an academic, she's a student of the prosperity gospel movement. More than just an "objective" scholar, she has immersed herself in churches shaped by this heresy (my word, not hers) and as a result is subjected to all the ways that movement explains non-prosperous outcomes. Even though she herself is anchored in healthier theology, she can't help hearing the exhortations and accusations: Everything happens for a reason. All things work together for good. God has a better plan. Our God is a God of victory. And the constant invitation to self-doubt: It's me, isn't it? There must be unexamined sin.

December Have we seen his glory?

What did John the Evangelist mean by asserting that "we" have seen his glory? Was it John referring to being present at the Transfiguration? Or are you and I included in the "we" by virtue of the previous verse, where "to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God..."?

I'd like to assume that John meant the second interpretation, the one that includes me. But then I'm face to face with the challenge: have I in fact seen this glory which he refers to? And what is "glory," anyway? Augustine defines it as "brilliant renown accompanied by praise." "Glory" can be associated with God or with humans (and if we're addicted to it, it becomes "vainglory"). In either case, glory seems to refer to qualities that are so amazing and transformative that they rightly evoke gratitude and praise.

Patricia Wild in Friends Journal on Sweet Baby Jesus.

Ron Synovitz's keyboard is OUTRAGED!!!

Public domain day is coming!

Rule number one: Know your enemy.

Trump-related link of the year: Nihilism and the empty core of the Trump mystique.

The trustworthy church survey is running through Monday. Thanks to all who have already participated.

My favorite blues track of the year: Back in January 2018, to the sorrow of his many fans, Terry Evans died. Here we can enjoy his collaboration with Hans Theessink:

20 December 2018

Have we seen his glory?

If you want to hear a true story about what made the Devil sweat, listen to this sermon by Matt Boswell (Camas Friends Church, last Sunday). On the page I just linked to, you can also read the Bible passage Matt referred to, and the query which led us into the period of open worship.

These words from that morning's reading grabbed me and haven't let me go: "And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory...."

What did John the Evangelist mean by asserting that "we" have seen his glory? Was it John referring to being present at the Transfiguration?* Or are you and I included in the "we" by virtue of the previous verse, where "to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God..."?

I'd like to assume that John meant the second interpretation, the one that includes me. But then I'm face to face with the challenge: have I in fact seen this glory which he refers to? And what is "glory," anyway? Augustine defines it as "brilliant renown accompanied by praise." "Glory" can be associated with God or with humans (and if we're addicted to it, it becomes "vainglory"). In either case, glory seems to refer to qualities that are so amazing and transformative that they rightly evoke gratitude and praise.

Have I "seen" this glory of the Word become flesh? Not if you mean something as visually spectacular as the Mount of Transfiguration. But I love the "seeing" that Charles Spurgeon defines (sermon 414, 1861):
Why, faith sees it! Faith looks back to the man who lived and died for us, and sees glory in His shame, honor in His disgraces, riches in His poverty, might in His weakness, triumph in His conflict, and immortality in His death! No, Faith is sometimes assisted by Experience; and Experience sees His glory—it sees the glory of His grace in rolling away all our sins; the preciousness of His blood in giving us reconciliation with the Father; the power of the Spirit in subduing the will; the love of His heart in constantly remembering us upon the throne; and the power of His plea in its perpetual prevalence with God! 
After this soaring rhetoric, my own version of this testimony might be a letdown, but I can honestly say that my becoming one of "those who received him" has made all the difference in my life. Any sense of purpose and meaning in life can be traced back to that decision. Having been formally disowned by my biological parents, becoming an adopted child of the Word had an immediate practical consequence: I gained a worldwide family. (That's not a metaphor; specific people -- Deborah Haight, Gordon Browne, and others -- patiently ministered to some of the gaps in my upbringing.) Thanks to the diversity and generosity of that family, I could begin healing from the violence, race poison, and anger that cramped my adolescence. Healings and miracles and reconciliations are certainly part of my story, but even my worst encounters with boring administrative tasks and messy church politics, and confrontations with failure, had a redemptive edge that the eyes of prayer could detect.

That's enough glory for me.

* The fact that the events of the Transfiguration were not described in John's Gospel doesn't mean John wasn't part of that story, as Paul Anderson argues in proposing his "Bi-Optic Hypothesis," in which John is aware of and augments Mark's Gospel, rather than forming an independent account. For a fun summary, see this article.

The U.S. president announces a withdrawal of forces from Syria. For a pacifist like me, what's not to like about the prospect of reducing our military presence in the Middle East?

In this particular case, the order may have been the last straw for his Pentagon chief, Jim Mattis. I read the Mattis resignation letter attentively, and found myself in substantial agreement with the first principles he lists there -- security based on global network of friendships, and a recognition of the threats to those friendships from authoritarians. (My words, not his!) The Christian peace community may disagree with Mattis on the role of lethal weapons in upholding those principles, but the principles seem sound in themselves. I don't see Trump's decisions to sandbag Mattis with this sudden withdrawal announcement as serving those principles at all.

Why putting Christ back into Christmas is not enough.

Mercy is foundational to our understanding of the person of God.

Yonat Shimron on the tensions among American evangelical organizations over protections for LGBTQ rights.

My survey on trustworthy and untrustworthy churches is still gathering responses. I'll close it at the end of the year and publish some of what I'm learning early in January.

More blues next week. But this week, one of my favorite Christmas carols in its Oslo Gospel Choir version:

13 December 2018

Advent shorts

Vladimir, Russia, December 2016. (From the vault of special memories.)
December 2016, Elektrostal. (Same vault.)
Survey update: I've received sixteen responses to my survey on building a trustworthy church. On the one hand, that's too few to do much quantitative analysis (but that won't stop me, eventually!). On the other hand, the open-end answers and other comments are incredibly helpful. If you are one of the respondents, I'm extremely grateful.

Someone suggested that I add "anger" to the list of emotions in question 8(h). That was a real omission! -- especially since Judy is writing a book on anger. Thanks very much for the suggestion. It will get added immediately, at the risk of slightly warping the data, since it should have been there from the start. But with a universe of sixteen responses so far, the effect won't be devastating.

I will keep the survey open for a couple more weeks, and will recirculate the invitation to respond to it. The full explanation is at last week's blog post, and the bare, undecorated survey is at maurers.org/survey. I'd be grateful for reposts far and wide, including among people who aren't involved with organized religion.

Advent: Along with many other non-liturgical Protestants, I don't usually keep a clear separation between the anticipatory, meditative season of Advent and the Christmas holiday. Seven years ago I wrote a blog post concerning the important things I learned from others about Advent, and why we Friends do things a bit differently, and I repeated that post a year later in 2012.

2012 -- that was about halfway through our years in Russia, where we celebrated Christmas in a far quieter way that we normally do here in the USA. The New Year holiday took on the responsibilities for holiday hoopla, providing a sort of cultural buffer for a quieter, arguably more spiritually-centered celebration of Christmas on January 7. (Granted, the commercialism lingered -- Christmas music continued to be played in all the big stores right up through the second weekend of the new year.) This rhythm gave me a greater appreciation for that aspect of the Advent season that involves meditation on the impending Incarnation of God.

This year, I have mixed feelings about Advent and Christmas. It was a lot of fun to see all those old Christmas tree ornaments and garlands, in storage for the years we were in Russia, back on display on our full-sized Christmas tree. I'm enjoying the music and lights and symbols of the season very much.

I'm also missing our Russian life intensely. We were lucky to be in the midst of people who really knew how to celebrate. I confess that I even miss the snow.

But that isn't all. I feel as if the times we're living in demand a more sober approach. In the 2012 post, I quoted Jeff Dunn as saying, "I need Advent to tell me why Jesus had to die, and that he was born as a baby in order that he could grow to be a man who would be executed as a criminal." I'm probably taking Dunn's words somewhat out of his own theological context (he was focusing on our need for personal atonement), but one implication jumps out at me: God's intervention in history was and is unavoidably political.

Yes, Dunn is right -- if I think I have no need of a Savior, then I have no need of Christmas. But together we live in (and support) a system that also falls far short. This very Advent, the Holy Family's migration, their search for shelter and safety, is strangely and wickedly reflected in the trials of migrants at our own southern border. That's a situation that really merits a season of deep reflection. How can we celebrate the Incarnation when we seem to have lost the center of the Story? Jesus and his family were not symbols, not ornaments, not doctrines, not metaphors, not ethereal fables to make us feel good. They were refugees.

(via Facebook)  

The world said goodbye to an unusual hero this week: Liudmila Mikhailovna Alexeyeva. Here is Meduza's obituary.

The Nobel Prize site's coverage of the 2018 Peace Prize includes the lectures (and their transcripts) of both winners.

Virgin Galactic's space ship Unity reaches the edge of space today, finally!

Since I'm in a nostalgic mood ...