11 July 2024

Exceptional shorts

Quaker Exceptionalism. We touched on this phenomenon several times in Mark Russ's excellent Woodbrooke course on "Quaker theology and whiteness," just concluded. (If you're intrigued by the course title, ask Woodbrooke and Mark whether it might be presented again!)

I'm glad to see some new attention to this exceptionalism and its spiritual hazards. I do have one mild caution: please let's not use this problem as just another way to shame and one-up each other for being insufficiently spiritual or progressive or anti-racist compared to ourselves in our own eyes! Yes, there is arrogance and ignorance and elitism in this exceptionalism, but it's also fueled by genuine idealism (a beautiful quality I see in Quakers everywhere across our divisions), a desire to do better than the religion industry whose oppressive structures and conceits we originally rose up to oppose.

As an old London Yearly Meeting poster once proclaimed, as nearly as I can remember, "Tired of organized religion? Don't throw out the baby with the bathwater." Let's just watch out for that exceptionalist temptation, whatever our corner of the Quaker world—to replace the Baby with our own bathwater, whether that be the subtle rose-scented water of liberal Quakerism or the soggy cliches of imported evangelicalism.

Related posts: Here's one from back in 2006—but especially see the excellent comments from readers: Are Quakers marginal? Part two. Also, take a look at these rarely asked questions.

One more word on the course on Quaker theology and whiteness that Mark Russ presented: within a couple of years it should be emerging in book form. I can't wait! In the meantime, I'm looking forward to Mark's The Spirit of Freedom: Quaker-Shaped Christian Theology, coming this autumn.

This past spring, via Zoom, Mark gave a sermon on the good news of sin (!!) at our Camas Friends Church.

Scandinavian Exceptionalism. I'm supposedly a global citizen. I've claimed not to have a bucket list. (I already live on my favorite planet.) However, I admit that inside me there is a vein of Norwegian patriotism, with its mixture of justifiable pride and unjustifiable smugness. It's usually well hidden (at least I hope so), but it wakes up every now and then, at Winter Olympics time and whenever I see a new survey showing Norway's high standard of living, its generous international aid policies, and its unrivaled $1.6 trillion sovereign wealth fund.

My late cousin Johan Fredrik Heyerdahl and I used to discuss some of the complexities and contradictions of Norwegian identity. My visit to Norway later this year will be my first since his death, and I'll intensely miss his wonderful company. I'm sure I'll have some good conversations with relatives and friends, but in the meantime I've started my preparations by reading Michael Booth's The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia.

Some of this territory was well covered by Robert Ferguson's excellent Scandinavians: In Search of the Soul of the North, which I briefly described in this post: "Shame is what turns societies around." What I like about Michael Booth's book is his undisguised irritation at the exaggerated admiration that the Scandinavian countries sometimes bask in. It's the sort of admiration of these "almost nearly perfect" countries that doesn't take into account national patterns of conformism (see Janteloven), troubling attitudes toward immigrants, and unresolved dilemmas about national wealth and productivity, among many other shadow factors.

Despite the utopian "myth" of his book's title, Booth isn't relentlessly snarky or negative, not at all. He gives credit wherever he thinks it is due, and cheerfully owns up to his prejudices. His discussion of Norway's gigantic "oil fund" is a good example: his interviews and reflections touch on the blessings of all that money for Norway's quality of life and governance, and he acknowledges the amazingly careful stewardship of that money. At the same time, he points out the contradictions of Norway's internal culture of ecological sensitivity vs the source of all that fabulous national wealth (sales of carbon-based fuels), as well as the apparent impact of that wealth on Norwegians' work ethic.

In any case, I'm eager to gather some fresh impressions of my own, in the land of my birth.

Tim Alberta, author of The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism, writes in The Atlantic: "Trump Is Planning for a Landslide Win. (And his campaign is all but praying Joe Biden doesn’t drop out.)" (14-day gift link.)

Biden quitting the race would necessitate a dramatic reset—not just for the Democratic Party, but for Trump’s campaign. Wiles and LaCivita told me that any Democratic replacement would inherit the president’s deficiencies; that whether it’s Vice President Kamala Harris or California Governor Gavin Newsom or anyone else, Trump’s blueprint for victory would remain essentially unchanged. But they know that’s not true. They know their campaign has been engineered in every way—from the voters they target to the viral memes they create—to defeat Biden. And privately, they are all but praying that he remains their opponent.

I was struck by the irony. The two people who had done so much to eliminate the havoc and guesswork that defined Trump’s previous two campaigns for the presidency could now do little but hope that their opponent got his act together.

Furthermore, Kristin Kobes Du Mez warns us not to be taken by surprise:

There is apparently no need for hoods anymore.

That’s what’s changed. These ideas aren’t new, but the tone and tenor of rhetoric has shifted perceptably in the past few months, even weeks. Growing numbers of Christians are not even trying to hide their nativism, misogyny, anti-semitism, and authoritarianism.

And where are the moderate voices? Where are the principled conservative leaders, organizations, and institutions? Where are individual conservative Christians digging in their heels, defending our Constitutional government, religious liberty for all, and democratic pluralism?

They are few and far between.

All of this should be cause for alarm, even if you aren’t looking at the poll numbers.

Diana Butler Bass on talking about politics in church, and the intellectual grounding her childhood church gave her to do just that.... (And, fast-forwarding to now: "Who's Reinhold Niebuhr?")

It isn’t that Reinhold Niebuhr had all the answers. He didn’t. I now disagree with much of what he wrote. I draw from a much wider range of theo-political options.

But Niebuhr represented a tradition — part of that long Christian argument that shaped the imagination of an elementary school girl in a Methodist church in Baltimore. From him, and from those others, I learned that it was good to argue about faith and politics in church. Indeed, it was our birthright.

Paul Anderson: John as the universalist gospel and as the "only way to the Father."

Olha Lychko-Parubocha (Friends Peace Teams partner in Ukraine) focuses on the things she can change.

Registration link for Zoom discussion on August 1, 4 p.m. Pacific time.

Chris O'Leary and his band appeared at this year's Waterfront Blues Festival. Here they're performing "19 Cents a Day":

"For a year before your firing, you were thinking about retiring, but your pension plan's been looted ... I hear that Walmart is hiring...."

04 July 2024

Happy 20th birthday, part two: more statistics

July 4, day one of this year's Waterfront Blues Festival.

A few weeks ago I celebrated the twentieth birthday of this blog. I wanted to add a few more statistics in that post, but I ran out of time, so I thought I'd squeeze them in here.

You'd think that with today being election day in the UK, and repercussions from the first U.S. presidential election debate all over my news and opinion feeds, I'd have something less self-focused to write about! However, I'm quite sure that you're as closely in touch with all those developments as you want to be, and don't need me to fill you in. I, on the other hand, have taken most of today off to enjoy day one of Portland's Waterfront Blues Festival. I'm too exhausted (happily so!) to think very deeply, so sharing some blog statistics seems a safe choice.

Since the current count started on June 30, 2010, I've had 1,758,175 visits. I'm pretty sure that 95% or more of those visits were accounted for by visitors landing as a result of a search that had little to do with my content. For example, five of the six most popular individual pages have the word "repost" in the title. How many hundreds or thousands of search engine users included the word "repost" in their searches and found ... me?

Blog post titledatetotal views since 06/30/2010number of weeks since post (starting 06/30/2010)adjusted view count
The atheist's gift (partly a repost)10/05/20239,33039239.23
Vanity of vanities (partly a repost)03/02/20239,75070139.29
Quaker communion (partly a repost)10/22/202017,00019388.08
Redeeming Germany (partly a repost)10/07/202111,00014376.92
Sitting in the Russian section09/16/202110,10014669.18
Abortion and the cost of rhetoric (repost)05/05/20227,28011364.42
When fear is a gift05/21/202013,80021564.19
Earlham College, ESR, and Anna Karenina12/17/20204,42018523.89
Benefit of the doubt, part one (repost)02/02/20177,73038719.97
What's so urgent about sex?01/19/20184,69033713.92
A good Quaker is hard to find07/13/20174,71036412.94
The Quaker movement: decline and persistence02/22/20184,10033512.24
When grief just won't come05/24/20183,52031911.03
Hell, holiness, and Jerusalem05/17/20182,5803208.06
Women's Day reflections03/08/20182,5503307.73
Faith, commitment, and aspiration (repost)07/14/20163,0204167.26
Khrushchev and his time03/11/20104,1907315.73
An Eastwood film with no villain04/14/20053,9207315.36
What differentiates Quakers from other Christians?05/03/20073,4407314.71
Biblical realism11/06/20083,5908174.39

This list includes the twenty most popular posts for the whole history of my blog, by raw count. Probably some posts from before 2010 are undercounted here, but I still find the list interesting. Totals for the posts are in the third column, and the fifth column ("adjusted view count") divides those totals by the number of weeks that have passed since the count started on each post. This was my way of evening out the ranking, so the old posts don't have an unfair advantage.

The result, in that adjusted order, is in the table above. I'm using Chrome to edit and read this post, with data imported from a Google spreadsheet; I hope it works with your browser.

I should point out that two of these top twenty were not written by me; they're guest posts written by Judy Maurer: "Sitting in the Russian section," and "When fear is a gift."

This particular set of twenty higher-scoring posts touches on most of my favorite themes: faith, discipleship, and religious rhetoric; faith and politics; Russia, where I spent almost ten of those twenty years; and, finally, thoughts and stories about human relationships. (I'm still working on the grief that "just won't come.")

Stats by country since 2010. The
last few lines are cut off (screenshot).
Most of my blog posts since about 2007 have come with blues videos at the end, but as with all links, some of those clips vanish from the Internet. Pictures on the older posts, especially those dating back to my use of Photobucket, also have a tendency to vanish, but I still have my Photobucket archives, and I'm slowly trying to restore those pictures. Links to interesting sites and blogs frequently get changed or abandoned, and I'm gradually replacing them, when possible, with links found on the Wayback Machine. Let me know if you find a post that might be worth refurbishing.

One important theme that didn't show up on this list was the story of my sister Ellen. Last Sunday would have been her 69th birthday. I posted some photos on Facebook  to remind the world that she was once among us, and added a link to this post I wrote when she (would have) turned 60.

OK, no more self-referential blog posts until the next worthwhile anniversary! See you again after the blues festival.

Hank Shreve played his harmonica this evening at Kim Field's Harmonica Blow-Off, an annual feature of our blues festival. Here's a relatively recent video of Hank and his band.

27 June 2024

The long defeat, part two

The Convocation Unscripted S1E3. Screenshot from source.
Top: Robert Jones, Diana Butler Bass.
Bottom: Kristin Du Mez, Jemar Tisby.

Last week, in part one, I was thinking about how to pray honestly when considering the "butcher's bench" of history and the persistence of sin—by which I mostly mean the ways we mistreat each other and Creation generally.

Concerning that persistence, I linked to Kristin Du Mez's blog post in which she mentioned Tolkien's "long defeat" as quoted by one of the ministers at her church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She went on say how important it is, in our service on behalf of justice and truth, not to grow dependent on victorious outcomes.

Last week Du Mez published another post, "Peace where there is no peace," with what struck me as a case study for not depending on victorious outcomes—and the case was one which I immediately identified with. Here's a clue from the title of the podcast episode embedded in her post: "When Your Religion Cancels You."

(The podcast, The Convocation Unscripted, features conversations among three historians and one sociologist, all of whom "write about religion and its intersection with culture, history, and politics in America"—Diana Butler Bass, Kristin Du Mez, Robert P. Jones, and Jemar Tisby.)

Kristen Du Mez's denomination, the Christian Reformed Church, is tightening up its discipline regarding churches (and possibly faculty members of its associated educational institutions, such as Du Mez's Calvin University) who dissent from the church's "confessional" teachings on sexuality and marriage. For a brief and seemingly evenhanded summary of the situation, see this Religion News Service article.

Going back to Du Mez's newer post, written shortly before the Synod meeting described in the RNS article:

When your Religion Cancels You.

That was the topic selected for our second podcast episode over at The Convocation: Unscripted. Little did my fellow podcasters know, that’s a sensitive topic for me this week. As I write, my denomination is dictating the terms that will require my home church and many others to leave the denomination over a new interpretation of what is now deemed “confessional,” one that requires condemnation of same-sex relationships.

In terms of getting “cancelled,” my case isn’t like many others’ in that I’m staying with my congregation. We’re all leaving together, along with many other congregations in the US and Canada. Still, it’s a lot to process.

I shared just a bit here [in the podcast], and you can hear Robby, Jemar, and Diana talk about their own experiences leaving the faith communities they once called home. I’m guessing that many of you may find points of connection.

So, dear Friends ... when did "our religion" cancel us? Here's the blog post from 2017 that sums up the story from my personal point of view—our involuntary separation from a body of believers that I loved and appreciated, Northwest Yearly Meeting. One similarity to the process being experienced by the Christian Reformed Church and ours, is the length of time the process of enforcement is taking. In each case, it feels like an experience of the long defeat. Each time our little band of exiles meets, we do get a "some glimpse of final victory," but my heart aches for what might have been.

I'm going to stop here. I don't want to reduce the amount of time you might spend checking some of the links and videos above, particularly the Kristin Du Mez post.

Kent Hendricks: Observations on patterns of division and departure in the Christian Reformed Church. It makes for an interesting comparison with what we experienced in Northwest Yearly Meeting.

Still more sobering reading, this time on Russia and Ukraine. Both of the next two items are from the Meduza service: 

First, Dmitry Kartsev interviews Jonathan Littell, author of the book An Inconvenient Place (with photographer Antoine d'Agata), reckoning with Nazi and Russian atrocities in Ukraine "from Babi Yar to Bucha." The book is available in French and Russian now, and an English-language edition is scheduled for publication in September.

Second, an interview (Russian original; machine-translated English) with Tatiana Kasatkina, wife of imprisoned human rights activist Oleg Orlov, former co-chair of the now-liquidated Memorial organization. 

Adapted from source.
"You are safe with ..." chaplain Greg Morgan.

The Internet Archive (on which I depend constantly!) is forced to delete half a million books from its online library; 19,000 supporters write an open letter to publishers.

Starliner continues to provide suspense. (See earlier post on Rocket science.)

Faith, hope, and love—Nancy Thomas's companions on a journey through time.

Has your church ... or a church you're curious about ... had a visit from a Mystery Worshipper?

Spanish bluesman Quique Gomez and Ukrainian bluesman Konstantin Kolesnichenko in Dnipro, 2019.

20 June 2024

The long defeat, part one

Top: Kristin Kobes Du Mez (source).
Bottom: Len Vander Zee (source).

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. (Romans 8:22, context.)

“Together through the ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.” (from J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings.)

Credit where credit is due: what follows was sparked by a message, "Growing Pains," given on Pentecost by our Camas Friends Church's pastor Matt Boswell. Not for the first time, his thoughtful message led me on some trails of my own, which I then put together as a sermon at Spokane Friends Meeting, later in May.

As I told Spokane Friends, Matt had spoken about the passage in Romans chapter eight that refers to all Creation groaning and awaiting its liberation. The passage continues (Romans 8:24-27; full chapter):

For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.

Matt invited us to consider how we’ve dealt with pain and growth, and how we’ve experienced the Spirit interceding for us. As often happens these days, my thoughts went in a direction that you may have already predicted: how some very specific parts of Creation are groaning, namely Ukraine and the Gaza Strip.

Although I'm not normally shy about connecting prayer with political implications, I have a different purpose here today. I want to consider how God’s Spirit intercedes for us when we run out of ways to pray. 

It was almost five years ago that I applied to Christian Peacemaker Teams, as they were still called at the time, to serve on their team in Hebron, Palestine. Somewhat to my surprise, I was accepted. I served there the last quarter of 2019. Somehow, even during the most violent episodes of those three months, I didn’t fear for my own safety. By the way, I’m not a total idiot; later on, and even now when I look at pictures from those months, I get retroactively scared, if you know what I mean. In any case, while I was there, I realized that the purpose of my service in Palestine was not to be some sort of hero of nonviolent accompaniment, but to learn what it means to pray without ceasing

All the same, I’m not claiming to be a very effective practitioner of nonstop prayer, because no matter how hard I prayed during those three months in Palestine, lives kept getting lost, houses kept getting knocked down, and different groups of people, all equally loved by God according to my own theology, kept insisting on seeing each other as implacable enemies.

Father Emmanuel Charles McCarthy, a Catholic lawyer and theologian, gave a sermon back in the late 1970's whose theme was, “Apathy in the face of preventable suffering is radical evil.” (I’m pretty sure I’ve quoted him on this subject before.) In that sermon he used this vivid phrase: “History is a butcher’s bench.” Among the people McCarthy has counseled over the years is Father Zabelka, the chaplain of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bomber crew. Father Zabelka’s conversion to Christian nonviolence a quarter century later was a powerful witness, but the reality is that those bombing crews made it to their targets. As did the Japanese crews that flew to Pearl Harbor. And the chain of violence and retribution stretches back to Cain and Abel.

God loves us but does not necessarily restrain our violent hand.

Of course it is true that we don’t necessarily know when God’s intervention did happen, only when it apparently didn’t. So God didn’t restrain the hands of Russian soldiers in Ukraine, though we have to wonder what happened in the minds and hearts of the thousands of soldiers who have apparently deserted since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. And God didn’t prevent the loss of thousands of innocent children in the Gaza Strip since the Hamas attack. It just doesn’t seem right to me to say that all of us who prayed our little heads off for peace and reconciliation just weren’t using the right words, or we failed to mobilize enough people to pray enough times day and night to finally persuade God to act. Ever since we ate those apples in the Garden of Eden, too many of us humans think we know better than God how to fix conflicts by eliminating our enemies, and God hasn’t seen fit to set us all straight.

So: Creation continues to groan. And we continue to search for the words of authentic prayer, and the assurance that, even if we fail, the Spirit will intercede for us.

On the day I gave this message at Spokane Friends, that morning I had read a remarkable substack post by Kristin Kobes Du Mez, reporting on a sermon she had recently heard from Len Vander Zee of the Church of the Servant in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Some of you probably recognize Kristin Du Mez’s name as the author of the book Jesus and John Wayne. Her post was very helpful to me as I prepared myself to speak about the ways we as the Church respond in prayer and in honesty to a creation in pain.

Her substack post quotes Vander Zee as saying,

What is the calling of the church? You know what that is. Take up your cross and follow me. The church is called to follow its king in self-sacrificing love.

Somehow the church tends to pick up the idea that we’re supposed to win. That our place in the world is not one of suffering love, but victorious power….

It’s so easy for the church to forget that Christ did not call us to rule but to serve. He called us, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, to come and die. The church’s role in history is to live the way of the King, the way of the cross, the way of self-giving love.

Now, Kristin du Mez lets us know that she had some other things going on in her mind as Vander Zee continued with his sermon. Here’s what she says about that:

As I listened to the sermon, I was thinking about steeling myself for the months ahead. I thought of the organizations and networks I was involved with, of the posts I had planned here, of the traveling I would be doing, of the projects (some yet to be unveiled) that I’d be dedicating my time and energy to. My mind was wandering, but I was still following along with the sermon. And then I heard the words that jarred me. Len was quoting Celeborn and Galadriel in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, saying: “together through the ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.” Tolkien expanded on this in a letter to a friend: “I am a Christian….so I do not expect history to be anything but a long defeat, though it contains…… some glimpse of final victory.”

“A long defeat.” Sounds pretty dismal, doesn’t it? 

Yet, on some level, doesn't it match the actual record? Despite all evidence that power and violence never work in the long run, the myth of redemptive violence keeps chugging along, generation after generation, raining bullets on the just and unjust alike. Here’s how Du Mez interprets this “long defeat” for herself, in the context of the campaign she sees herself waging, against the heresies of white Christian nationalism:

We all think our cause is righteous. And when you refuse to allow for the possibility of losing, it changes what you’re fighting for. It changes how you fight. And it changes who you are. …

As much as I want my side to win this next round, it’s not a given. The cause is urgent, and (I think) good. But we are not called to win, nor should we necessarily expect to.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t work diligently to protect the good of our nation and our fellow citizens, and, for those of us who are Christians, to fight against what we see as a dangerous distortion of our faith. I’m planning on spending the next several months working to this end. But it also means that we need to be grounded in something deeper than winning the next battle. If we are, I think we’ll find the resilience to grapple with whatever the outcome of the next battle might be.

I began this message intending to address how we pray when we see Creation groaning beyond our apparent ability to intercede. First of all, I do trust that the Holy Spirit intercedes for God’s people, as Paul says in Romans 8. But I’m a verbal person; that’s how I express my faith, however clueless I may be at times. Here’s where another passage from Paul,  2 Corinthians 1:19-20 (context), helps me:

For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us—by me and Silas and Timothy—was not “Yes” and “No,” but in him it has always been “Yes.” For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God. 

Here, Paul is explaining why he changed his itinerary on his way to meet with his audience, and that he did so not for trivial reasons, as if there were no difference between “yes” and “no.” When I first read this passage as a new Christian, a freshly minted Quaker in Ottawa Meeting, it struck me deeply, and as a result, the word “yes” became my lifelong one-word prayer. To put it another way, I see Jesus as the “yes” to God’s promises. The most important promise, in my view, is that God never abandons us. The world is not in a position to guarantee our safety, but the world doesn’t get to separate us from God.

For me, the word “yes” implies another one-word prayer, “no.” (More about "no" from Yakov Krotov.) We don’t have magical powers against violence, racism, greed, cruelty, elitism, and the demand that we see others as “enemies,” but when we have said “yes” to the Prince of Peace, we have the right to say “no” in his name to any force that seeks to harm those he loves.

I am not pleading for this list of one-word prayers or against that. I love the three one-word prayers that Anne Lamott suggests:  “thanks,” “help,” and “wow.” When all is said and said and said, I want and need to fall back on Paul’s promise that the Spirit will intercede for us through wordless groans, as if the Spirit, too, knows and understands this “long defeat” that the Spirit is equipping us to endure.

Nor am I saying that wordless prayer, or one-word prayer, is superior. Our prayers reflect our temperaments—some of us are severely practical, some of us are mystical and live in constant awareness of God’s presence, some of us are verbal, some visual, and so on. For many of us, the Lord’s Prayer keeps us well-rooted in God’s promises. Anthony Bloom, in his Conversations on Prayer, says that our prayer life should be as transparent and intimate as we are with our wives, husbands, our best friends. Douglas Steere, the Quaker philosopher, wrote in Dimensions of Prayer, that when we begin a time of prayer, it may help to pause at the threshold and consider whom you’re about to meet.

There is no hurry, however, about plunging into prayer. We may well linger in the portico to be awakened, to remember into Whose Presence we are about to come. If one of us were to be ushered into the presence of one of the great spirits of our time—Albert Schweitzer, or Alan Paton, Vinoba Bhave, or Helen Keller—we should be glad for a little time in the portico to collect ourselves, to adjust, not our clothing, but our spirits, for meeting this one whose reputation we cherish. During this waiting period, we might well think of how this person had lived, of how he or she had spared nothing to give of himself to some great human cause, and of how drawn we were to have the blessing of conversing with him. If this time of recollection is precious preceding a visit to a contemporary, how much suitable and necessary it is before coming into the presence of God.

This kind of pausing is, I think, already prayer, a prayer of relationship and reverence.

Finally, I’m also not saying that we must never pray for miracles. I’ve prayed for many people to heal from terminal diagnoses, and I will keep doing so. I’ve told you before that, when the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began and the missiles began flying, I would pray that God would send legions of angels into the skies over Ukraine. I still sometimes find myself praying for those angels to be sent. No matter how often my prayers seem foolish even to myself, I have a standing testimony against cynicism. But, however you and I pray, the Holy Spirit knows how to intercede for us. I’m just grateful to God for this. It means, after all, that we don’t have to adopt a piety that pretends that a good outcome will happen in this hurting world just because we finally find the right words.

The long defeat, part two.

When I gave my earlier version of this message at Spokane Friends, I ended with these queries:

Is the idea of history as a “long defeat” helpful or unhelpful to you? Do you sometimes see, with Tolkien, a “glimpse of final victory”?

What would it be like for you to pause at the threshold and contemplate the wordless communion or the conversation you’re about to enter?

When (or if) you say “yes” to God, what else might that lead you to say “yes” to? What might that lead you to say “no” to?

In the Woodbrooke course on "Quaker theology and whiteness," which is halfway through its six-week term, Mark Russ has just given us some glimpses of how Eastern religious cultures and practices were selected, categorized, and commodified for Western audiences. I had that class in mind when I read Jackie Bailey in The Guardian:  "Yes, praying and posing can bring joy – but true spirituality demands something more of us."

... Related? Richard Beck on contemplative elitism, part one, part two, part three.

Seraphim Sigrist reaches into his files for a beautiful reflection by Karina Chernyak on the power of a seeking, yearning, celebrating community—such as Karina herself wanted to help create in the early post-Soviet years in Moscow.

Philip Ball: Scientists wonder if the universe is like a doughnut.

More rocket science (referring to my June 6 post on Starliner and Starship): More Starliner drama, as its return from space is postponed again.

Gary Clark, Jr., and Jimmy Vaughan. "Honest I Do."

13 June 2024

Happy 20th birthday ...

... to this blog.

Last week Can You Believe? turned twenty years old. My post last week on "Rocket Science" was post number 1,081. Those posts have collected 2,005 comments on the Blogger platform, plus an uncounted number on Facebook and a handful elsewhere.

When I started this weekly weblog, in early June 2004, I was in my last weeks of a year-long academic fellowship at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Center in Birmingham, England. Two experiences in that year helped whet my appetite for a blog-like channel:

First, during my very first two weeks at Woodbrooke, Dan McCracken and Ron Woodward asked me to contribute to a feature on the Barclay Press Web site at the time, the Conversation Cafe. The assignment: two weeks of daily essays from me, followed by similar series of essays from a group of other writers. During those two weeks, I ended every day by writing an essay, which would arrive eight hours earlier in Newberg, Oregon, owing to the time zone difference, and be ready for that day's post. Here's one sample.

When my two weeks were up, I had enjoyed the experience very much, and found it helpful for my own personal reflections, but it didn't dawn on me to find another channel to continue creating that sort of expression.

My theme for my Woodbrooke academic year was "Evangelism and the Friends Testimonies," and I began reading and corresponding to build up resources for this theme. This title was admittedly a bit provocative, since the word "evangelism" was not in frequent use among British Friends, but my Woodbrooke collaborators were good-natured about my choices. My goal was to help Friends begin conversations between the Quaker groups that, broadly speaking, preferred to do outreach by emphasizing the Christian invitation to "repent and believe the Good News," and those who preferred to demonstrate their faith through prophetic action in the world, in the service of peace and nonviolence, simplicity and equality, leadership based on spiritual gifts instead of social status, governance based on community discernment, and care of Creation. Were there ways that the advocates of each emphasis could make creative connections with the advocates of the other priority?

After several months of accumulating resources, I realized that I needed a new way of sharing those resources and drawing more people into the conversations. I turned to the most popular form of Internet-based discussions in those years, namely Internet forums. I set up a forum on a service called Network 54. When it appeared that this platform might not last forever, I exported its contents to a Google group, which can be found here: Evangelism and the Quaker Testimonies.

Toward the end of my Woodbrooke year, my hunger for such exchanges of ideas, and my desire to provoke further consideration of the connections between faith and practice, particularly faith and politics, was not satisfied by the static format of online forums. That's when I discovered the Blogspot  platform and decided to give it a chance by posting a paragraph or two. To my immense delight, a Friend who may have been the very first Quaker blogger, Martin Kelley, responded right away with an encouraging comment. (Also see Martin's "The Early Blogging Days.")

I actually think my desire to go public with blog-like essays and invitations to dialogue started even earlier—when I was part of the Quaker Life staff, during the years 1993-2000. I provided a column for just about every issue during my tenure. There's a sample editorial halfway down this blog post. The pace was more leisurely for a monthly publication, as I now remember fondly, and I'm thinking that after twenty years of weekly posts on this blog, maybe it's time to slow things down.

Another reality: blogs don't have the readership they used to. In my peak month, some years ago, I got about 40,000 views. Last month my count was down to 16,349. That is a raw total; it includes people who are drawn by some search that somehow included me in the results, and I'm sure that it took the vast majority of them just a second or two to realize they weren't going to find what they needed on a blog mainly intended for a Christian and mostly Quaker audience.

Thank you for your good company to this point. As for the future, I've decided nothing so far ... except that I will be back next week.

Happy 20th birthday, part two: more statistics.

Related: The blogging rules I usually break.

Here's a Facebook story about the "genius of the cello," Mstislav Rostropovich, which reminded me of my own memories of him.

Norman Solomon (Tomdispatch) on "The Absence—and Presence—of Daniel Ellsberg."

Philip Boobbyer on what it takes to break the blame-hate-revenge cycle.

Our friend, Ukrainian pacifist Yurii Sheliazhenko, has been on trial in Kyiv.

Many Palestinian farms, properties, and orchards in the West Bank are under constant physical and legal harassment, including the Tent of Nations near Bethlehem, while the world's attention is (for good reason) focused on the Gaza Strip. (Thanks to Gordon Matthews for the link.)

In my Genius of the Cello post, mentioned above, I described how we used such films in our classes in Russia. Another film we used was Standing in the Shadows of Motown, because so much American English slang comes from musicians. In the first clip below, Jack Ashford of the Funk Brothers demonstrates the "Motown Sound," using the song "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" as his example. ... "You see how that feels? That's part of the Motown sound, right? Now I'm going to add my tambourine to it."

The second clip: Joan Osborne, "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted?"

06 June 2024

Rocket science: two suspenseful mornings in a row

The flap begins to shred before our very eyes...can Starship hold together for just eight more minutes?
(Screenshots from source.)  

I have been a spaceflight fan since the days of Mercury Redstone and José Jiménez, so yesterday and today have been red-letter days for me. The starring attractions: yesterday, Starliner, and, today, Starship.

Yesterday's event was the very first flight of Boeing's Starliner spacecraft with passengers on board. Here the tension was focused on the very fact of the launch: after four and a half years since that embarrassing first test flight, and after additional technical problems surfaced along the way, and after last Saturday's scrubbed attempt that came within 3 minutes and 50 seconds of reaching "zero," it was hard not to wonder whether Boeing's counterpart to the enormously successful SpaceX Crew Dragon would ever take off. In the background: the contrast between these commercial spaceflight competitors, Boeing (expected at first to be the obvious choice for NASA's commercial suppliers for spaceflight) and the unexpectedly nimble winner of this commercial space race, SpaceX.


Back to yesterday's launch. As soon as the Atlas 5 with its Centaur second stage and Starliner cleared the tower, I was relatively sure everything would go well, and today would find the two test-flight astronauts, Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams, joining their colleagues at the International Space Station. And so they did, although the flight and docking were not problem-free. Boeing and NASA now have about a week to put their craft through all the steps of its trial voyage.

Even though there were no passengers involved, today's fourth test launch of SpaceX's Starship was high drama for me. (Somewhat confusingly to me, "Starship" refers both to the whole booster/spaceship combination and to the spaceship on top of the booster. By itself, the booster is called Super Heavy.) SpaceX has big plans for Starship, especially for the version that will carry crews to the Moon and beyond. But Starship has a long way to go before it is ready for such missions.

The process by which Starship is being developed has been called "iterative and incremental development," which reminds me of the advice the British Quakers drafting their new Faith and Practice gave us members of our own yearly meeting's Faith and Practice Committee: "fail fast!" Put prototypes (or drafts) together and then get them out for testing. Subject your prototypes to maximum stress and gather data as they fall apart or explode, so that the data collected can be used to get the next iteration farther.

And so it has been with the full Starliner combination. The first test flight (April 2023) went out of control, ending in an explosion at around the four-minute mark. The second flight (November 2023) did better; both segments exploded, but only after a successful separation of the booster and the spacecraft. The third flight (March 2024) did much better, carrying out several functional tests in its long suborbital flight to the Indian Ocean, but losing control and breaking up during reentry.

Since nothing is guaranteed during a SpaceX test launch, there was a sense of drama every minute of today's flight. All of us audience members could see right away that one of Super Heavy's engines did not light, but the 32 remaining engines did their job, and the craft was on its way. At booster separation, everything looked normal, and we could relax a bit (not too much, of course!) while Starship coasted along its near-orbital trajectory toward its destination off the coast of Australia.

At about 45 minutes into the flight, with Starship at an altitude of 105 kilometers and descending gradually, we could see the beginning of a glow developing around the leading face of the craft. As it continued on course, that increasing heat glow of compressed air told us that the temperature would soon test the durability of every exposed surface and every joint or gap, including the control flaps. At the 58-minute mark, we could see one of the flaps start to disintegrate, and even the SpaceX commentators frankly admitted that they didn't know how much more Starship could take. As molten debris hit the camera cover and obscured our vision, and the camera signal cut off briefly several times, I caught myself thinking, "Come on, only eight more minutes! You can do it!"

Indeed it could. As the end approached, we could barely see anything through what remained of the camera lens, but we could follow the telemetry, as Starship maneuvered into landing position and fired its rockets one last time in a successful watery rehearsal for future soft landings.

And I could breathe again.

This week's post marks twenty years since I began this blog. More thoughts next time on how things have changed over these twenty years ... and how I still repeat myself constantly. Thanks for your good company!

I recommend Scott Manley's excellent video overview of today's Starship test flight, including its most dramatic moments.

Pew Research Center on "Cultural Issues and the [USA's] 2024 Election: Immigration, gender identity, racial diversity and views of a changing society." Here's a teaser, although I should say that not all themes align so dramatically:

Among the major findings:

Enduring divisions on race and the legacy of slavery. Just 27% of registered voters who support Trump say the legacy of slavery affects the position of Black people in America today a great deal or fair amount; 73% say it has little or no impact.

Opinions among Biden supporters are nearly the opposite: 79% say slavery’s legacy still affects the position of Black people, while 20% say it has not too much or no effect.

More on Gaza: Some Quaker minutes of concern, collected by Western Friend.

... And what about sending unarmed peacekeepers to Gaza?

... And Tareq Baconi on what Gaza can teach us about the struggles that shape our world. (What do you find persuasive in his essay? Where do you think he might be stretching it ... or not?)

The success of hegemony is predicated on dehumanization, and the role Gaza plays in the Israeli psyche is exactly the role other unwanted and undesirable communities play in the popular imagination of the powerful. It is a mirror unto the Self, and through its very existence, Gaza showcases state-of-the-art ways the powers of our time can deploy for dealing with that unwanted reflection. Confinement, surveillance, mass torture, de-development, de-ecologizing, imprisonment, starvation, bombardment; through such tactics and others, Gaza offers a road map for confronting and managing populations that must be forgotten so that the civilized of the world can claim their humanity and superiority.

Palestinians in Gaza joke, morbidly, about their welcoming of a quick death from an F16 spewing fire over the slow suffocation of the blockade. They understand that the strangulation they live with, day in and day out, is the intended purpose—not their ultimate death. For the very unsustainability of Gaza, highlighted intermittently as if some urgent endpoint needs to be avoided, is precisely what sustains it: Unsustainability in this instance is a structure, a process with its own logic, persisting in perpetuity. Unsustainability is what allows the oppressors to pacify while also claiming a civilized status.

George Fox on the cover of Friends Journal: Bob Henry on his cover art.

Kate Bowler offers a blessing for everything we cannot buy.

"The Ice Queen"—Sue Foley.