25 April 2019

Surprised by happiness

I loved the advertised theme of the April 2019 edition of the Pacific Northwest Quaker Men's Conference -- "Identifying, Sharing and Living Into Spiritual Gifts." I was especially looking forward to hearing Friends historian Ralph Beebe's story of learning and living into his gifts. You can imagine my feelings when I heard, as the conference was approaching, that his health wouldn't permit him to appear as planned.

My feelings were even more complicated when the conference planners unexpectedly asked me to speak at the conference in Ralph's place. In comparison to his lifetime of teaching, research, and leadership, what did I have to offer?

In the first draft of my presentation, I dutifully described my own story with spiritual gifts. Here's how it started: Jan Wood, making a guest appearance in a Sunday school class at First Friends Meeting, Richmond, Indiana, back in 1982, led our group through a gifts discovery workshop. Our class had been studying Peter Wagner's book Your Spiritual Gifts Can Help Your Church Grow. Using his vocabulary, my gifts apparently were apostolic, teaching, and evangelistic. Now, in 2019, it seemed that my assignment for the Men's Conference was to describe how my awareness of these gifts guided my calling and path among Friends in the decades that followed. Just some chronology and stories -- what could be so hard about that?

In preparing my talk, I first tackled my experience of the so-called apostolic gift -- collaborative spiritual leadership beyond the local fellowship. I had become a Friend during my student years in Ottawa, Canada, back in the mid-1970's, shortly after I became a Christian. My conversion at age 21 was a dramatic reversal of the compulsory atheism of my family upbringing, and I was incredibly grateful to Ottawa Friends Meeting for providing a spiritual home that didn't seem to have the theatrics and hypocrisy that my parents insisted were essential features of Christianity.

(I do know now that Friends are not the only Christians who resist these features!)

I soon had an intuition that my gratitude to Ottawa Friends would someday find an outlet in service to the larger Friends movement. I remember visiting the office of Canadian Friends Service Committee a few months after getting involved with Ottawa Friends, and hearing Ruth Morris say that I would somehow be “used.” I had no idea what that meant.

Canadian Friends did some very concrete things to encourage me in discovering how I would begin serving out my debt of gratitude. First, they put me on the Canadian Friends Foreign Missionary Board. Before you get too impressed with this appointment, you should know that Canadian Friends had no foreign missionaries. It was a board that made grants from an old endowment.

Second, they made me an observer to the Friends World Committee for Consultation's 1976 Triennial sessions in Hamilton, Ontario, giving me my first exposure to the worldwide scope and diversity of the Quaker movement. From this awareness and these contacts flowed my future involvements in international Quaker witness, including 23 years of increasingly direct involvement in the Friends movement in Russia.

SIDEBAR: In talking about the apostolic gift and its regional and international applications, I was a bit afraid that the word “apostolic” would seem more grandiose than it is in my own understanding -- or else it might be tinged with the over-the-top eccentricity of Robert Duvall’s character in The Apostle or the authoritarian overtones in the recent “New Apostolic Reformation” movement. The apostolic gift doesn’t necessarily come with any hierarchical advantage or status; it utterly depends on collaboration, especially among Friends. God knows I had no discernible power as head of the Friends United Meeting staff, beyond the power of persuasion -- and that was enough for me.

At this point in my sketch of my gifts chronology -- at precisely the point Russia came into the picture -- I came to a sharp halt. I cannot paint a heroic picture of my service in Russia, where I spent most of my time teaching English comprehension, mass media, and exam prep, in a small linguistics institute in the industrial town of Elektrostal. I cannot say that our nine years' residence, or my participation in Moscow Friends Meeting and the Friends House Moscow board, resulted in impressive growth in the Russian Quaker movement! The future of that movement is in hands other than ours. Our continuing role is behind-the-scenes encouragement.

I came to the sobering realization that maybe my main contribution to Christian witness among Russians came from a completely different gift than the ones on our Sunday school list, an irrational and countercultural gift I'm even a bit embarrassed to acknowledge: the gift of happiness.

"Happiness" is often compared unfavorably to "ecstasy" and "joy" -- and if it just doesn't seem substantial enough, maybe you'd prefer the term "contentment." Still, it’s a gift.

Why do I call it a gift? Sebastian Moore, in his book The Inner Loneliness, says that our relationship with God (the one who knows us better than we know ourselves, and yet loves us one and all) is the resolution of our primordial “inner loneliness,” the first relationship that shapes all relationships based on mutual blessing. Our ability to love ourselves and each other, and our consequent desire to give of ourselves, is all of a piece with God’s prior love. It is not our initiative to love self and other, it is a gift from God, reflected in the happiness we feel when we give to others. But, just as we find it hard to comprehend grace, we’re often not at peace with our own inner God-given beauty and the capacity for pleasure that results: “We snatch at it, as it were, as though it were too good to be true and we were stealing something that did not belong to us.”

Moore goes on to say,
The reason for this attitude is a deep distrust of happiness, of free, unconditional joy, in the human mind. There is a certain natural pessimism, parsimony, puritanism about the way we think of ourselves. Thus we keep the core-experience, of enjoying ourselves in making another happy, in a kind of limbo of too-good-to-be-true.
Haven’t you seen evidence of this “parsimony”? I vividly remember reading this book, which I’d bought with my employee discount at Quaker Hill Bookstore, and suddenly understanding that I no longer needed to apologize for my incorrigible optimism. Then I ran into a friend who was on the faculty at Earlham College. I know she loved her subject area, but our conversation was mainly about her overloaded schedule -- she said she was just one departmental committee meeting away from insanity. Listening to her with Moore’s words in mind, I thought about all the other conversations I’ve had with my friends in which a kind of overload competition was going on. “You think you have it bad.” How rarely I heard stories of contentment, of saying yes and no to obligations out of a place of abundance.

To be honest with you, I still hesitate to talk about my gift of happiness. Some voice is whispering in my ear that to be happy means I'm not carrying my fair share of the load, avoiding my fair share of the world’s misery. At least keep it under wraps! However, despite all temptations to sabotage God’s gift of happiness, it continues to bubble up as a normal state. And I can't help wondering how many others would confess to being happy if we were all able to shed our culture's emotional wet blanket.

Happiness is not mindless bliss. Catholic theologian Matthew Fox visited Earlham School of Religion back in the mid-80’s, and I attended a gathering with him. It was the first time I confessed publicly to being a happy person. For some reason I had to make sure that Fox and the others knew that I was NOT happy that my parents were alcoholics, that their older daughter had been kidnapped and murdered, that my mother was a raging racist, and that I was angry and grieved about the USA’s roles in Central American conflicts.

Another part of the full picture: I also have another gift that might sound paradoxical. It’s something that Catherine de Hueck Doherty, in her book Poustinia (bought with my employee discount from the Anglican Book Society’s bookstore), calls the “gift of tears.” All my life, tears of grief, compassion, relief, joy, have come easily to me, often at the most awkward times. In Russia, I once showed a beautiful film about the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. When the last note died away and the film ended, I told my students, “Now maybe you understand why I'm here in Russia” and tears were streaming down my face.

I was so relieved to learn from reading Catherine Doherty that this affliction had some actual dignity to it. Her description might help explain why tears are a gift, and in fact a gift compatible with happiness:
Clarity of soul is different from clarity of mind. I can see my sins clearly with my mind. I can use the methods recommended by ascetical theology (which is based on reason) to overcome my sins. But clarity of soul is acquired by the gift of tears. I weep, and the gift of tears wash away my sins and the sins of others. My mind is serene and unaffected, because I know that the grace of tears is not from my mind but proceeds from the heart of God. It comes to my heart, and I weep. My mind now is clear and my heart is clear -- I am clear....

... We should distinguish between depression and a state of sorrow. [I'd add distinguish, but don't rank! -jm] Sorrow is a state of union with God in the pain of [humanity].
In Russian culture as we experienced it, overt happiness is even more countercultural than it is here. Anyone who seems happy in public, who smiles on the street, is likely to be judged a bit deranged. Self-gratification and enjoyment of the good company of your friends are just as popular in Russia as anywhere, but hope is definitely in short supply. As a trained political scientist, I’m as skeptical of glib hope as anyone, but I think that at least some of our Russian friends realized that my happiness and hope came from a deeper source. And that, rather than any kind of apostolic heroics, may have been my main ministry in Russia.

Gamifying Main Street ... thoughts about how to attract people to the downtown in Richmond, Indiana ... or anywhere.

Damaris Zehner: So how does the Church evangelize people who are reluctant to think about the future...?

Yurii Kartyzhev may be the first person fined for expressing disrespect for the Russian authorities under a new law, but apparently he plans to continue.

How do filmmakers rate the all-time best movies?

James Harman, "your full-service blues man since 1962," calms down and plays some blues, alright?

18 April 2019

Jesus is condemned to death by ...

Emmanuel Charles McCarthy, source (PDF)  
I responded to a Twitter survey yesterday:

All of these aspects are urgent and compelling to me. Somewhat to my own surprise, the answer I was immediately drawn to was "crucifixion."

Spoiler alert: the crucifixion isn't the end of the story. God showed definitively that "the Way" which Jesus invited us to walk with him had not reached a dead end at all. I want to stay committed to remaining on this path -- and what good company I'm in!! This daily reality is a constant refreshment to my idealistic side.

The sour, skeptical, cynical pre-conversion voice in my head reminds me that the "cannibals" mentioned by Ilya Grits, the torturers and executioners of the world's systems, still roam our globe, two millennia after Easter, seeking whom they can coerce or eliminate. Often they seek to persuade us to cooperate, or at least remain passive: they warn us that our civilization is under threat from migrants, or we must deter some threat, or just "trust us, we know better. Just keep minding your own business."

In some cases, they can point to an actual danger. Someone else attacked first. After all, demonic systems feed on each other; it's not surprising that violence in turn begets violence. My father's father was a lieutenant in the Norwegian resistance army (Milorg) in World War II. This army was, of course, responding to the violence of the German occupation of Norway, but, ironically, part of my grandfather's task was to dissuade grassroots Norwegians from acts of terrorism and sabotage against the occupation forces. Those acts would simply provoke retribution.

If you followed my family-history tour in Japan last fall, you might remember that I found my mother's childhood home through the Nazi membership list, where their street address was listed along with her father's membership enrollment date: April 1, 1934. I would love to know what my two grandfathers said to each other when they first met. They were both courteous gentlemen with no obvious violent tendencies at all, but both of them became dramatically enmeshed in systems of cyclical violence.

The princes of Jesus' time didn't know what to do with him. They traded Jesus back and forth ("I can't find anything to charge him with" -- "Crucify him; we have no king but Caesar"), but, in the end, nobody stepped forward to prevent that same old imperial solution: death to the troublemaker. Peter couldn't even admit to being his disciple! Jesus, the son of God, did not evade the corrupt will of the empire, but on the Cross he asked God to forgive his tormentors because "they don't know what they are doing."

Jesus, the humiliated victim of a kangaroo court, completely defies the cycle of violence. Forgive them! We, the Body of Christ and his ministers of reconciliation, are authorized to commit the same defiance. We don't always know when we're being invited or seduced or deceived into washing our hands of responsibility for each other's fate, but it's worth learning how it happens. Good Friday is a good day to recall and refresh this commitment.

John Woolman gave us some tools for discernment in his essay, "A Word of Remembrance and Caution to the Rich" (written shortly before his death in 1772).
... When that spirit works which loves riches, and in its working gathers wealth and cleaves to customs which have their root in self-pleasing, whatever name it hath it still desires to defend the treasures thus gotten.

This is like a chain in which the end of one link encloseth the end of another. The rising up of a desire to obtain wealth is the beginning ; this desire being cherished, moves to action; and riches thus gotten please self; and while self has a life in them it desires to have them defended. Wealth is attended with power, by which bargains and proceedings contrary to universal righteousness are supported; and hence oppression carried on with worldly policy and order, clothes itself with the name of justice and becomes like a seed of discord in the soul. And as a spirit which wanders from the pure habitation prevails, so the seeds of war swell and sprout and grow and become strong until much fruit is ripened. Then cometh the harvest spoken of by the prophet, which “is a heap in the day of grief and desperate sorrows.” Oh that we who declare against wars, and acknowledge our trust to be in God only, may walk in the light, and therein examine our foundation and motives in holding great estates! May we look upon our treasures, the furniture of our houses and our garments, and try whether the seeds of war have nourishment in these our possessions. Holding treasures in the self-pleasing spirit is a strong plant, the fruit whereof ripens fast. A day of outward distress is coming, and Divine love calls to prepare against it.
The honest acknowledgment of our own complicity in systems that depend on violence should not paralyze us with shame, nor should it prevent us from confronting those systems. It just reminds us that we can't fight this Lamb's War in our own discernment alone; and the call to forgive our enemies also applies to ourselves, and should be very effective in preserving us from arrogance.

Here's a concrete example of helping each other in our discipleship: this month's Quaker Religious Education Collaborative "conversation circles" are on "Quaker Parenting: Supporting parents and other caregivers on the spiritual journey of parenting." April 23 and 25; you can register using the links on the Conversation Circles site.

And on May 3: a retirement celebration for a long-time collaborator in discernment, Ron Sider.

Yet another co-worker in Quaker discipleship: Ashley M. Wilcox spoke at Guilford College on Quakers, the prophetic tradition, and the recording of ministers.

Too good to hold over for a year: Palm Sunday and the gift of disillusionment.

Joanna Stingray and her new book on her involvement with Soviet rock music: the Meduza interview. (And here's a video of a presentation -- half in Russian and half in English -- of this book with Joanna and her daughter and co-author Madison.)

Around that same time, Jim and Nancy Forest began their "pilgrimage to the Russian church." You can read their book, now out of print, right on their Web site. (My own copy is still in a box in my garage. Bookshelves coming in two weeks!)

Albert King and Stevie Ray Vaughan reach back for a slow one, "Blues at Sunrise."

11 April 2019

What does "that of God" mean?

George Fox's Works, vol. 1, source.
There are three quotations from Quaker co-founder George Fox that are often used (in and out of context) to sum up Friends' message:
  • "You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say?" (quoted by Margaret Fell)
  • "Christ has come to teach his people himself." (quoted by Lewis Benson)
  • "...That of God in every one..." (Fox's Journal entries for 1656)
That last fragment is probably trimmed of crucial context more than any other, but in its full form, it's an important sample of Fox's foundational thinking. I remember how inspiring it was to me when I first encountered Friends.

As part of Phoenix (Arizona) Friends pastor Steve Kozimor's Masters course work at Barclay College, he surveyed Friends leaders, both self-identified liberals and self-identified evangelicals, about how they would answer these two questions:
  1. What do you think is meant by George Fox’s statement, “that of God, in everyone”?
  2. How does your meaning inform your spiritual formation?
Somehow my name landed on his survey list. Since at that very time I was also running a survey, it seemed only fair that I respond to his. Here, with some light editing for this blog format, are my answers.

Now: how would you respond to Steve's questions?

Starting with the first question: "What do you think is meant by George Fox’s statement, 'that of God, in everyone'?" ...

I've always appreciated Lewis Benson's essay, "'That of God in Every Man': What did George Fox Mean by It?" Among the important points Benson makes, persuasively, are these:
  • Fox's understanding of "that of God" is based on the first chapter of Romans. Therefore, "that of God" in us cannot be understood apart from the "knowledge of God" that Paul says is available to everyone who turns to it rather than to the long list of counterfeits listed by Paul in Romans 1. (Benson is in part reacting to the relatively recent error that "that of God" is an embedded piece of divinity in humans that is somehow independent of the "counsel of God" and the Christian Gospel.)
  • Fox uses the concept of "that of God" pastorally rather than doctrinally. It's a feature of his "applied theology,"
It's this second point that has been important to me as an evangelist. In my blog post about John Chau, who died trying to reach the North Sentinelese people, I quoted one of the most famous "that of God in everyone" passages:
This is the word of the Lord God to you all, a charge to you all in the presence of the living God; be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come; that your life and conduct may preach among all sorts of people, and to them. Then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one; whereby in them ye may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you: then to the Lord God you shall be a sweet savour, and a blessing.
I interpret this as an exhortation for us to call people to that knowledge or counsel that God has already made available to each member of our audiences, to every human. God has granted us this knowledge, but in our own capacities we ignore or disobey it, whether by our own weakness or the action of the Enemy. Without our turning to this knowledge and receiving it and the Savior who provides it, there is no other path of reconciliation with God.

Quakers (in my opinion) are completely orthodox Christians in insisting on this connection. Where we depart from the Christian establishment of the 17th century is in our insisting that there is no outward licensing or priestly activity that is necessary to accomplish the task of directing those deemed "unreached" to this inward witness of God. Every one of us can walk cheerfully over the world, calling forth God's inward witness that God has made universally available. We are not carrying a cargo of new knowledge (or even less of new culture) to bless this new audience; instead our faithfulness promises a mutual blessing.

Now, to the second question, how does this interpretation inform my spiritual formation? Since I grew up in an atheist family, part of the appeal of the Quaker family of Christians was that I could receive Jesus with joy and enthusiasm without having to deal with all the stagecraft, hierarchies, and apparatus of the religion industry. Christ has come to teach his people himself [there it is, fragment no. 2!], and I found this was true -- through the Bible, through mentors at my Friends meeting, through Barclay's Apology (which I devoured during lunch hours at work), and through inward confirmations.

My joy at finding this fellowship drove me to enroll in the Ottawa Lay School of Theology, and I found similar resources in the places we moved after I left Canada -- the Christian Study Center at Park Street Church in Boston; InterVarsity classes in Charlottesville, Virginia; Earlham School of Religion in Indiana; the Mendenhall Bible Church at Mendenhall, Mississippi; and other more informal opportunities over the years. I tend to be an unapologetic idealist and optimist despite all sorts of distressing trends to the contrary (and my own family's history of violence and alcoholism); whether that shaped my Christian formation or my Christian formation made me that way is hard for me to say!

I became a Christian in 1974 and began attending Ottawa Meeting in Canada. However, between 1974 and 1982, I never spent more than two or three years in one place. My first long-term church home was First Friends Meeting in Richmond, Indiana. Not long after we arrived there, our Sunday school class took a spiritual gifts inventory test, based on Peter Wagner's book Your Spiritual Gifts Can Help Your Church Grow. My gifts were apparently "apostle," "evangelist," and "teacher." I've tried to choose jobs and vocations that involved those gifts, including the ten years I served in Russia.

More recently, I've been reading Primal Fire: Reigniting the Church with the Five Gifts of Jesus and discussing the book with others in the Friends of Jesus Fellowship. I'm still trying to learn more about what it means to stay faithful to "that of God" in me and to honor "that of God" in others, and to use that knowledge in exercising my gifts. I'm currently involved in the Committee for the Nurture of Ministry for our yearly meeting, Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends, which gives me a new channel for thinking about formation after the manner of Friends.

Friday PS: In my answer to Steve, I didn't mention another deviation of Friends from the orthodoxy of their time and place: their denial of original sin and total depravity. I've covered some of this territory in my posts on evil and hell.

The "that of God" quotation from Fox that I used in my answer to Steve is sweet and positive, and explains how evangelism by pattern and example, by life and conduct, need not require arguing over doctrinal propositions. However, if we zoom out to a longer extract, and see what came before and after that beloved paragraph, we're not left in any doubt about Fox's sense of urgency, and its warning that this kind of "walking cheerfully" may not be to the exact liking of the powers and principalities. Fasten your seatbelts; here's that fuller extract. (Note: I've not edited for inclusive language, for which I beg forgiveness; but I've added a few paragraph breaks.)
Bring all into the worship of God. Plough up the fallow ground. Thresh and get out the corn; that the seed, the wheat, may be gathered into the barn: that to the beginning all people may come; to Christ, who was before the world was made. For the chaff is come upon the wheat by transgression. He that treads it out is out of transgression, fathoms transgression, puts a difference between the precious and the vile, can pick out the wheat from the tares, and gather into the garner; so brings to the lively hope the immortal soul, into God out of which it came.

None worship God but who come to the principle of God, which they have transgressed. None are ploughed up but he who comes to the principle of God in him, that he hath transgressed. Then he doth service to God; then is the planting, watering, and increase from God. So the ministers of the spirit must minister to the spirit that is in prison, which hath been in captivity in every one; that with the spirit of Christ people may be led out of captivity up to God, the Father of spirits, to serve him, and have unity with him, with the scriptures, and one with another.

This is the word of the Lord God to you all, a charge to you all in the presence of the living God; be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come; that your life and conduct may preach among all sorts of people, and to them. Then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one; whereby in them ye may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you: then to the Lord God you shall be a sweet savour, and a blessing.

Spare no deceit. Lay the sword upon it; go over it. Keep yourselves clear of the blood of all men, either by word or writing, and keep yourselves clean, that you may stand in your throne, and every one have his lot and stand in the lot in the ancient of days. The blessing of the Lord be with you, and keep you over all the idolatrous worships and worshippers. Let them know the living God; for teachings, churches, worships must be thrown down with the power of the Lord God, set up by man's earthly understanding, knowledge, and will. All this must be thrown down with that which gave forth the scripture; and who are in that, reign over it all.

That is the word of the Lord God to you all. In that is God worshipped, that brings to declare his will, and brings to the church in God, the ground and pillar of truth: for now is the mighty day of the Lord appeared, and the arrows of the Almighty gone forth; which shall stick in the hearts of the wicked. Now will I arise, saith the Lord God Almighty, to trample and thunder down deceit, which hath long reigned and stained the earth. Now will I have my glory out of every one. The Lord God Almighty over all in his strength and power keep you to his glory, that you may come to answer that of God in every one in the world. Proclaim the mighty day of the Lord of fire and sword, who will be worshipped in spirit and in truth; and keep in the life and power of the Lord God, that the inhabitants of the earth may tremble before you: that God's power and majesty may be admired among hypocrites and heathen, and ye in the wisdom, dread, life, terror, and dominion preserved to his glory; that nothing may rule or reign but power and life itself, and in the wisdom of Ged ye may be preserved in it.

This is the word of the Lord God to you all. The call is now out of transgression, the spirit bids, come. The call is now from all false worships and gods, from all inventions and dead works, to serve the living God. The call is to repentance, to amendment of life, whereby righteousness may be brought forth, which shall go throughout the earth. Therefore ye that be chosen and faithful, who are with the Lamb, go through your work faithfully in the strength and power of the Lord, and be obedient to the power; for that will save you out of the hands of unreasonable men, and preserve you over the world to himself. Hereby you may live in the kingdom that stands in power, which hath no end; where glory and life is.
After reading all that, if you're still ready to walk cheerfully, let's walk together!

I'm enjoying a moment of self-congratulation ... this week I didn't mention politics! Of course, George Fox's revolutionary theology is bursting with political implications.

Marilyn McEntyre admits there are lots of reasons to avoid church, but ....

David Williams on the theological risks and rewards of reading and writing science fiction.

Terry Mattingly: Can we really understand demographic trends without taking religion into account?

Source: NSF.  
A black hole 55 million light years away, and how its image was generated.

While we're in space: can NASA really return crews to the moon by 2024? Casey Dreier considers the challenge. (Related Planetary Radio podcast.)

A warning? "...The forces are awakening." J.S. Ondara, "Revolution Blues."

04 April 2019

Malice in Wonderland

The American commentator Tucker Carlson is known for his warnings about immigration and diversity. In this monologue, he uses several rhetorical tools with venomous effect: extreme interpretations, rhetorical questions that imply extreme or unacceptable answers, unsupported allegations.

The technique is clever; it enables him to charge his opponents with extremism without ever producing evidence. For example, he asks if we have enough doctors to take care of immigrants, and whether we can afford their care. On the face of it, the question is reasonable. However:
  • He charges that the Democratic party and the tech barons don't want you to ask questions like this. How does he know?
  • He apparently wants you to assume that the answers to his questions are always negative or extreme -- without making a place for research, without considering the possibility of better health care arrangements, and without considering the contributions immigrants make to tax revenues, insurance company revenues, etc.
  • He seemingly wants you to see immigrants as competition for a limited pool of resources -- and unworthy competition at that.
Sometimes he doesn't hide behind a rhetorical question. "If you agree with her [representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez], you're virtuous; if you don't, you're a monster. There can be no compromise!" "Big business ... likes their immigrants low-skilled and cheap; Ocasio-Cortez does, too."

Over and over, he charges that anyone who asks his kinds of questions will be charged with "racism." I've rarely if ever heard of someone being called a racist simply for asking questions for the sake of genuine research and policy design. (I'm sure it might happen; dishonest rhetoric is not an exclusive monopoly of the right.) However, tendentious questions advocating favorable treatment for some and exclusion of others might well deserve that "racist" label.

It is so tempting to slap this iconic Fox News figure around by treating him the same way he treats his opponents -- with sly, dishonest rhetoric and snarky comebacks. Instead, I have a sincere, if partly rhetorical, question of my own.

Before I get to that question, I want to concede a generous assumption to Carlson and his segment of conservative media. Let's assume that all who call themselves conservative (and particularly the Christians among them!) want the USA to be a blessing to the world. One way or another, we all want God's will on earth as it is in heaven, with everyone treating neighbors as themselves. If someone in our current rhetorical battles wants a future that is nice for them but wretched for others, or disclaims any responsibility for those who suffer, let them say so publicly instead of simply trading on fear, jealousy, and resentment.

Given that assumption, can you discern a vision of a desirable future for the USA and the world in the anti-immigrant, anti-diversity party that makes up so much of Trump's base? With all that malice and venom, is there another side of the coin that would compensate? Persuade us with a conservative vision of a country and world at peace, where the better angels of our nature could come out and play. Let us hear the policy implications, and let us subject those proposals to the same questions of resources  and realism as Carlson asks ... only without the mocking tone and implied eyerolls. Since it's fun to point at failures of socialism, what examples are out there of conservative success stories that have been blessings to the world?

Or does this party simply foresee permanent conflict? Walls alone will not solve the problem: full isolation from the world would impoverish us as well as the world in countless ways. Furthermore, it's too late! We already have diversity -- both its richness and its discontents -- within the country, along with a huge number of people advocating for that diversity and rejoicing in it, even as they wrestle honestly with its complications. The monolithic "radical left" of Carlson's rhetoric is a myth, and the real left (including its Christian components) is constantly grappling with nuances.

Example: the controversy over Joe Biden's tactile bonhomie, currently a source of amusement to Carlson and friends. It's a serious issue (and reminds me of John Turner's troubles 35 years ago), but I see people making reasonable arguments on all sides (some finding it hard to see how Trump supporters could exploit this issue). Same with border enforcement, reparations for slavery, health care financing, and all the other instances where there are no actual jack-booted socialists in evidence.

So, once again: How would a militarized border, tax concessions for billionaires, ruthless trimming of low-income protections, and the other features of today's political right, build the beloved community? We know a lot about what that group is against, but what vision of the future are they actually for? Whom does it bless, whom does it cast out?

Rowland Scherman; source.  
Today is the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. I've written about my own memories of this event in previous posts. Today, in the service of actual vision, I want to pass on a blessing from Martin King, a blessing dated August 28, 1963. His paired contrasts ("Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics") might today form a longer list, but the breadth of his vision is still breathtaking -- and we are still falling short. In today's atmosphere of malice and division, it's an urgent antidote:
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low. The rough places will be plain and the crooked places will be made straight, “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”

This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day. And this will be the day. This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning, “My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my father died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.” And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire; let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York; let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania; let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado; let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California. But not only that. Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia; let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee; let freedom ring from every hill and mole hill of Mississippi. “From every mountainside, let freedom ring.”

And when this happens, and when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”
Within this vision, there is methodology: "...With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together...." As E. Stanley Jones said, there is room in this vision for conservatives and radicals keeping each other honest -- "The conservative conserves the values of the past, and the radical wants to apply them to wider and wider areas of life." But I don't see any room for lies and malice.

Becky Ankeny on approval vs obedience.
...[I]t comes as an unpleasant shock to hear Jesus say as reported in Luke in the anti-beatitudes: “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that’s how their ancestors spoke of false prophets” (Luke 6:36).
What would 40 acres and a mule mean today? (Thanks to Steven Flowers for the link.)

Rising mortality rates challenge one of Vladimir Putin's top priorities.

Madeleine Ward on the crucial importance of social cohesion in post-Brexit Britain. (Thanks to Fulcrum for the link.)

Once again, Otis Spann's tribute.

28 March 2019

Russian avos' and American politics, part two

Greg Sargent comments on Donald Trump's new attack on the Affordable Care Act -- italics mine:
[Acting chief of staff Mick] Mulvaney likely played on Trump’s ignorance about the complexities of health care, and his unshakable confidence that he can simply make things come true if he says so, to persuade him that he’ll be able to conjure one up. And sure enough, Trump has been suggesting this will happen, blithely asserting: “The Republican Party will soon be known as the party of health care.”
This brought back to my mind a blog post I wrote two and a half years ago, in the full heat of the Clinton-Trump election campaign: Russian avos' and American politics. Avos' is a Russian word that is translated, variously, as "seat-of-the-pants," "on the off-chance," "come what may," "hoping for the best." I drew from Natalia Gogolitsyna's Untranslatable Russian Words for these two commentaries on avos'.
... the concept of "Russian avos". What is it? In fact it is the habit of living in conditions of limited information. Living and surviving. Valery Milyayev

... a Russian can't work like an Englishman; even now we do everything on the off chance. Andrei Konchalovsky
Well ... maybe that second example (Konchalovsky) is a comparison that has been weakened by recent Brexit developments -- but "conditions of limited information" seems very pat to our condition in the era of Trump. Not only are we assaulted by fabulous (literally!) streams of misinformation, but the nation's Chief Executive seems to regard information as totally optional. As Natalia Antonova said in the essay I quoted on my original post, "Facts are boring."

The most benevolent interpretation I can make of his latest tossing of the ACA dice is this: Trump calculates that if his party's legislators are facing a health care apocalypse, whose timing is solely based on his own sense of political urgency, they'll simply have to produce a plan. If the New York Times's reporting on the genesis of this kill-the-ACA decision is correct, Trump's calculation, and his promise that "the Republican party will soon be known as the party of health care," is not rooted in reality. The physical and financial well-being of tens of millions of his fellow citizens is being entrusted, not to trustworthy policy and legislative processes, or careful planning of any kind, but to avos'.

Similarly: with border-control funding priorities distorted by anti-immigrant venom apparently angled to please the Trump base, border officials are overwhelmed by the numbers of would-be refugees legally presenting themselves for processing. Once again, we have limited information about family members -- the kind of information that would be needed to reunite children and parents. I won't argue about the percentages of actual refugees to pretenders, because nobody seems to be in a position to offer trustworthy statistics. I am simply amazed at the failure to ensure elementary intake and dispatch records for human beings!

Que será, será.

Thinking about the president's limited-information and toss-the-dice approach to governance, I also remembered this August 2016 conversation with my colleagues in Elektrostal, Russia, quoted in that first avos' post:
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!"
A classic expression of avos'!! If we're in a mood for alternative histories, we can imagine how the Hillary Clinton administration would be plodding along now, with boring old procedures, boring old congressional debates, and boring old G8, G20, and NATO meetings, all carefully gamed out in advance by experts and covered by C-SPAN. All administration policies would be centrist, with deviations within a fairly narrow range, from mildly reformist to Wall-Street-protectionist. There would be scandals, both real and artificial ("Benghazi! Those e-mails!!") but I could imagine a tight leash on the presidential spouse....

We would never know what it would look like to throw out every concept of normalcy in presidential  governance.

Back to our fun [vesyolaya] reality. Trump's fruit-basked upset has hit on every level -- policy, personnel, regulations, norms and ethics, presidential etiquette, race relations, religious cohesion -- without apparently threatening his core support, the people who who see his chaos as fulfilling his Make American Great Again vision despite every effort of the Deep State to thwart him.

I don't want to exaggerate the menace of these supporters; they're just as worthy of love as the rest of us, and no doubt each has a personal narrative that led to their availability to be groomed by Trump's limited-information, maximum-bombast approach. They're not to be mocked or maligned. Instead, let's keep  resisting the constant entertainment value of avos' in favor of clear, honest, persistent communication of its real-life risks and costs, including the degradation of values we cherish, and the very vision of a shared fate as a nation.

Chaotic personality-driven leadership that upsets the establishment may be immensely entertaining for a season. To serve a country that actually blesses its citizens and planetary neighbors, we have to go back to boring fundamentals: all actors ("liberals" and "conservatives" and all other categories) publicly committed to the welfare of the nation as a whole, fully empowered to keep each other honest, and conducting our debates and governance with transparency, compassion, careful research and preparation, and mutual honor.

Meanwhile, the jollier approach offers:
  • making Americans uninsured again (pending!)
  • separating families at the border
  • normalization of white nationalism
  • entrusting care of the environment to polluters
  • reducing quality control of judicial nominations
  • allowing Trump-family business priorities to distort national security and international relations
  • utterly trashing the "bully pulpit" value of presidential pronouncements
  • making Christianity repellent to huge audiences
  • calibrating taxation by the immediate interests of the wealthiest, discounting the value of fair taxation to the country as a whole.
Are we having fun yet?

Faith, imagination, and the glory of ordinary life: a conversation with Marilynne Robinson and Rowan Williams.

Sampling Elena Anosova's Out of the Way project, photographing isolated Russian snow-forest communities.

Ivan Ovsyannikov on Russia's new restrictions on media content.

St. Olav's Way: in case you'd like to do your medieval Christian pilgrimage in Norway.

Erin Blakemore reports on NASA's digital archive selections on Soundcloud.

Eddie Taylor, Jr., died earlier this month, at age 46. Rest in peace.

21 March 2019

Trustworthy, part four: churches' choices

(Part one; part two; part three.)

In 1982, when Judy and I began attending First Friends Meeting, Richmond, Indiana, it had occupied its enormous meetinghouse for 104 years. The meetinghouse didn't just serve First Friends (formally known as Whitewater Monthly Meeting of Friends); for decades it was also the meeting place for Indiana Yearly Meeting and the Five Years Meeting of Friends, now Friends United Meeting.

I wasn't aware of all this when we chose First Friends as our church. We lived up on Quaker Hill, on the near north side of town, we had no car, and First Friends was within walking distance. The church building (with a large addition not shown in the photo above) seemed like it had a dozen doors. We chose the first door we saw on our pedestrian route along East Main Street, and went in. Once inside, we found ourselves in a small room with an enormous vacuum cleaner that looked like R2D2 ... and (thank goodness) another door. When we opened that door, we emerged into the very front of the enormous meeting room, with a whole congregation turning and staring at us.

That congregation soon put us at ease, and after the meeting for worship we were invited for dinner by Barbara and Mike Brown -- the start of our years of deep involvement in that meeting.

First Friends was a complicated place. Ancient patterns, Main Street respectability, and conventional wisdom often struggled with discontent and impatience, with deep longings for renewal. Sometimes we could see that struggle happening within individuals. I was usually on the side of renewal, but, looking back, I can now see where my own lack of experience narrowed my perspective.

As with many churches I've known, there were deeper patterns also at work. Some informal leaders had outsized influence that wasn't reflected in committee memberships. We heard, for example, that this influence included decisions about hiring and firing pastors. The best example of this kind of leadership might have been the meeting's most famous member, Elton Trueblood -- and at this distance it's hard for me to judge whether Trueblood himself demanded influence, or whether it was simply offered and granted to him by his admirers in the monthly meeting. He may or may not have entirely deserved the powerbroker reputation he had among us malcontents.

Another subterranean influence was the First Friends Foundation, an endowment fund whose history and rules seemed to be unnecessarily mysterious.

In the mid-1980's, First Friends began making some new choices. We decided to hold a week-long revival, although being all proper and Main Street, we played it safe and called it a "Week of Renewal." Among our speakers, I particularly remember E. Glenn Hinson of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the Baptist Peace Fellowship. I was part of the planning of that week, and then was put on a pastoral search committee -- me, a relatively young newcomer, a self-identified young Turk. Later, Judy was made an elder, and (in partnership with a remarkable older member, John Newman) began disentangling the obscure threads of the Foundation.

Another sign of renewal: when the monthly meeting was asked to take tax refusers into its care, ministering to those of us who were not paying the military portion of our income taxes, I'm sure our (probably) Republican-majority congregation gulped ... but their decision was clear: our church would publicly support tax refusers -- including a presence at any court proceeding, and practical aid if money or property were seized.

Hard times were ahead -- difficult personnel situations (some of which remain under wraps to this day) and, perhaps most dramatically, the honored old building's fatal flaws, leading to a decision to sell the whole storied property for demolition and build a completely new meetinghouse. Somewhere in all that history, First Friends chose:
  • to prioritize transparency and prayer over opaque processes
  • to prioritize renewal over respectability
  • to listen to new voices
  • to take risks
I don't want to exaggerate the ease of the transition. I remember an elderly Friend who opposed a proposal to hold business meetings at another time than the Sunday school hour. She argued -- and I think this is nearly verbatim -- "We tried that back in 1937 and it didn't work." As much as I wanted to laugh out loud, I had to acknowledge that her entire history at the meeting exemplified selfless service.

First Friends had dysfunctions, but it doesn't belong among some of the horror stories I encountered in my travels as a denominational worker in the 1980's and '90's, where physical abuse, rape, and cruel scandals and shunnings sometimes made me truly wonder whether a meeting was even worth saving.

One of the questions on the trustworthy church survey was this: "Have you ever experienced an untrustworthy congregation changing, becoming more trustworthy?" As I look over the column of survey stories and ideas under the heading "What were the actions or factors that led to this change?",  several of the responses were familiar to me from my First Friends years. Some other highlights from the responses:
  • the use of small groups to pre-digest difficult choices facing the meeting
  • learning from unforeseen crises, such as the sudden death of a young person, or a split on the denominational level, or a financial emergency
  • choosing a new leader (clerk, elder, or pastor) with an ability to listen deeply and sensitivity to diversity
  • choosing to become more accessible -- for example, demystifying worship patterns, explaining hitherto tacit rules, providing better maps and signs, carefully training and deploying greeters
  • asking cross-generational questions in sensitive ways; "what has this church meant to you over your half-century here?"
  • preaching and teaching on trust, including from the pulpit
I can personally vouch for some of these ideas, having seen their effectiveness in several cases. But sometimes a more difficult route ends up becoming the only one available:
  • The congregation split. The exclusives left and the inclusive stayed. We stayed.
Many thanks to everyone who responded to the survey. I realize I've only scratched the surface of the data you provided me, but I'll keep working with your stories as I continue to ask myself -- and you -- what it means to build a trustworthy church.

More about the demise of the old First Friends building.

Is missionary work colonialism? A view from Craig Greenfield.

From Israeli military truck driver to army refusenik: Roman Levin's story.

For today's young generation, is climate change equivalent to the Vietnam war for mine? (Or, I'd add, to the danger of nuclear war?) My own conversations point to "yes."

Using history to discuss the future of church-race relations: a conversation with Jemar Tisby and Wesley Hill.

The story of Bonnie Raitt's famous Nick of Time album on its 30th anniversary. I used several of the songs in this album in my English classes in Elektrostal, including this song (video after gapfill):