16 May 2019

Abortion and the cost of rhetoric

Sources: baby bassinet; execution gurney
Last night I heard another panel discussion on abortion on television. Rick Santorum defended Alabama's just-signed law practically banning abortion altogether -- his main point was that even pregnancies resulting from incest and rape represent innocent lives, however horrific the circumstances of their conception. His opponents on the panel objected to his imposition of his own religiously-based standards on others.

For much of my adult life, I've been in the perverse position of opposing abortion while at the same time opposing most anti-abortion rhetoric. Right now, as the controversy swirls around the Alabama law and similar attempts elsewhere, there are three reckless inconsistencies that gnaw at me:

First: the new "heartbeat laws" are far more extreme than most anti-abortion advocates have advanced in the past. The new laws seem to represent a calculated tactic: their dramatic clash with the relatively moderate U.S. Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision would (they hope) inevitably lead to a clash with that decision, and a chance to reverse it. According to polls, even Americans who oppose abortion still wish to reserve that option for rape and incest cases, but in Alabama's case, the law could punish abortion providers more severely than rapists. (It's logical, says Santorum; rapists rape while abortion providers kill.)

In any case, tactical extremism just adds to the impression that brass-knuckle politics will, once again, make dialogue all but impossible. It makes me see double: are the bill's supporters being truly idealistic in their maximalist stance, or are they cynically exaggerating their true positions for a political gain?

Second: while both pro-choice and anti-abortion advocates count many women among their participants, a large percentage of anti-abortion legislators are men. For example, every Alabama state senator who voted for their new law was male; the state's four women senators opposed the bill. It seems beyond strange that so much veto power over women's health decisions is still exercised by men -- and those men seem, as a group, to be unembarrassed by this discrepancy and unenthusiastic about working for a more representative politics.

(Yes, I'm aware of my own johan-splaining behavior here -- this is a post I tried for most of the day to resist writing.)

Third: both sides exploit the Bible. This is also an old story -- abortion opponents have one way of looking at Scripture; pro-choice advocates have another. The cost of this proof-texting approach: the secular observer concludes, in the words of the ancient cliche, "You can make the Bible say whatever you want." The "orthodox" and "progressives" of James Davison Hunter, or George Lakoff's "strict fathers" and "nurturant parents" -- all can find what they pragmatically need in the Bible to bash opponents and thereby gratify their main audiences.

The actual Bible is achingly ambiguous about the "sanctity" of life. My serious summary: life is precious, except when it isn't. Babies are precious, except when they're not. My opposition to abortion is not based on any specific Bible verse, but on the whole tradition of interpretation that is summed up by the "consistent life ethic" -- which opposes abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, militarism, social and economic injustice, violence in all its devious and addictive forms. Are there other traditions of biblical interpretation? Yes, of course. Can I prove that the "consistent life" interpretation is more correct? No! Does it even command the respect of most Christians? I doubt it.

However, for me there's a persuasive consistency of this "seamless garment" approach to following the Prince of Peace. It's internally consistent: the unborn life is important, but its survival is no more guaranteed than that of the life that has emerged into the world. Just as we ask for sacrifices and communal responses in situations where conception was unanticipated, we ask for sacrificial and communal responses to injustice. We ought to be just as diligent in caring for the born as for the unborn, knowing that all our outward fortunes are uncertain, all of us require care and mercy. It's consistent with the loving kindness and mercy of the God of the Bible. And, just as Jesus and Paul demand, it rejects the hypocrisy of forms for the countercultural reality of the Good News.

This persuasive consistency, I think, would go a long way toward subverting the rigid categories of anti-abortion and pro-choice campaign mentalities. As a first practical step of mercy, we could gain the capacity to describe those we disagree with in terms that they themselves would recognize. (See Katelyn Beaty's "The Abortion Conversation Needs New Language.") And while we slowly build friendships around the complex shared challenge of reducing abortions, we may also find new allies for those other consistent life challenges: injustice, militarism, and all other threats to life.

Elesha Coffman on the legacy of Rachel Held Evans.

The silent significance of British Quaker meeting houses.

Cathedrals "should unite, not divide people": the case of Yekaterinburg.

Victory Day, and again Stalin looms over the scene, not necessarily to Putin's advantage.

Russia without Putin: Sean Guillory interviews Tony Wood.
"...[T]he more Putin becomes indispensable to any description of Russia, the more every successive description of Russia has to have him in there. Otherwise people won’t understand what you’re talking about because you imagine every news report about Russia, even if it’s about reindeer herders in Yakutia, has to have some reference to how this relates to Putin and his power system. Is he in control of this remote outpost or not? And I think that’s really counterproductive. It just narrows the horizon within which people are framing what’s happening in Russia."
Project Artemis: crash program or modest proposal?

Ray Manzarek describes the creation of "Riders On the Storm."

09 May 2019

Digesting 2011

That's right, 2011! Today as I sat down to write my weekly post, I decided that I needed a break from observing the attempted slow-motion coup apparently underway in Washington, DC. Looking back on Barack Obama's first term, it almost seems like a more innocent time. To be honest, of course, the cracking and shifting in the body politic, now so scandalously evident, were already well underway.

Anyway, it's been bothering me that the series of annual digests I began in 2010 had skipped a year. Nobody else knows or cares about that gap, but maybe it would be fun to sample what kinds of things drew our attention in 2011 -- our third full year in Russia.

January 2011: Submission

In general, my own family didn't do religious things half-way. Much of my family, including my father and mother, rejected the church altogether. (My father became an Eastern Orthodox Christian shortly before he died; my mother remained estranged from the church until her death.) In my extended family, those who did get involved with the church, however, seemed to plunge in deeply. One fellowship in particular seemed quite totalitarian in its demands; with caution and humility I'd say that the results were not necessarily healthy.

Too often in the religion industry, "submission" is a heretical concept of asking some to minimize themselves so that others can enjoy more power or convenience. I once heard Pope Paul VI quoted as telling a group of Catholic women religious in South America that only a person who is genuinely free can truly choose submission -- I think that's profoundly true. I'm grateful to be in a fellowship that may have found that healthy balance.

(Full post.)

February 2011: Dialogue with Orthodox volunteers

Just as equality is not understood mechanically, neither is unity. There may occasionally be times when a [Quaker] clerk finds that a decision has been adopted even though there may not be perfect unanimity, although a clerk who overrules objectors lightly will quickly lose the trust of the community. We talked about the role of the Bible, the discernment of the community, and the application of accumulated experience of the Church throughout history as factors in discerning the veracity of leadings and ministries.

One participant with experience in Protestant circles asked what we do when we have incorrigibly disruptive people in our meetings. We had no perfect answer for this one, although we agreed that it was important to remain centered in the faith that God is at work and will prevail, making it unnecessary to take hasty, defensive actions. Conversation on this topic continued during tea after our meeting, and it was clear to all that no formula would substitute for patient and direct engagement with the supposed troublemaker.

(Full post.)

March 2011: Life is not a short story

"Life is not a short story. I am not the star." [Pete Greig.] To me these words link directly with one of the central invitations of evangelism: "Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." (Matthew 11:28 -- see context.) One perfectly valid way of seeing this invitation is to focus on the individual recipient -- the person who, by doing you the amazing honor of believing your testimony and accepting this invitation, steps over the threshold of conversion. If you have testified with integrity, you will not have implied that Jesus' "rest" involves a quick supernatural escape from the hazards and temptations of this life.

But I also find it incredibly helpful -- and also incredibly poignant -- to focus on the word "all": "Come to me all who labor and are heavy-laden... you will find rest for your souls."

(Full post.)

April 2011: Holy days

Jesus, you knew full well what we are capable of, but you didn't call your army of angels; you put yourself into our merciless hands and we tortured you to death. Though you forgave us, you died without any illusion that this sacrifice would make us magically into nice people. ("If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead." Luke 16:19-31.) And, indeed, we are not, as a species, all that nice -- we're armed to the teeth, fond of trashing the planet, looking for every possible way to feel superior to others; even those of us who acknowledge you as our Lord and our Saviour often seem more concerned about one-upping each other than making your promises real to the rest of the world.

You asked us to take up our crosses and follow you. If you don't mind, I'd rather follow you without taking that first part too literally.

(Full post.)

Tikhvinskii Convent, Buzuluk
May 2011: Why are we here?

[Sergei] Chapnin talks about the dangerous ways the vacuum he describes can be filled -- using myths and conceits drawn from both crude nationalism (processed in a Soviet matrix) and Soviet-era civil religion with its pagan overtones. Meanwhile, that generation of Russian Orthodox leaders whose faith and practice comprehended both their specific tradition and universal love is aging and dying out.

Dilemmas are resolved (if they are ever resolved!) not by theories and advice -- least of all, advice imported from abroad -- but by example and story and abundant grace. I'm under no illusion that the presence of expatriate idealists like me solves any of these puzzles, even microscopically. It's my privilege to witness, not advise. But I'm more and more convinced that my top priority is to love.

(Full post.)

June 2011: Do I really need to forgive?

My biggest challenge of all in the forgiveness department: Tyrone King, the man who was convicted of murdering my sister Ellen. But that task of forgiveness was inextricably tied up with forgiving my parents, for (in my earlier jaundiced interpretation) causing my sister to start running away from home in the first place, over and over, to the point where she even could have been found in a Chicago south side bar by Tyrone King. In addition, I had to forgive myself for surviving her -- and that was not easy. Although Ellen was two years younger than me, I saw her as more creative, more interesting, more deserving of a long and productive life. Forgiving myself was one of the hardest things I've ever done -- and by "hardest" I mean hard and disciplined work of recovery and learning spiritual self-discipline. In some ways, life as a self-blaming victim was easier, believe it or not.

This isn't the first time I've mentioned my struggle with forgiving Tyrone King, but the crucial point that occurs to me now is that forgiving him for the unrestorable wound of the past is NOT the same as saying that his crime was in any way justifiable or a result of his environment. I am simply aware that both Tyrone and I are accountable to God, and it's up to God to figure out what to do with each of us.

(Full post. Part two, forgiveness, families, and Crazy for God.)

July 2011: Innocent Norway

First of all, Norway is not an isolated land of noble primitives. For over a century, Norway has had one of the world's largest privately-owned merchant navies (presently ranking number 6). The German conquest of Norway in World War II led to armed resistance and Nazi reprisals. The treasonous Quisling was a Norwegian, and the Nobel-prize-winning novelist and national treasure Knut Hamsun refused, even at war's end, to renounce his admiration for Adolf Hitler. After the war, Norway joined NATO. Norwegian forces have fought in Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Norwegian politicians know how to play hardball with each other, as in the recent case of the nasty fight over choosing a new fighter plane for the air force.

Murders are rare, but not nonexistent. Ditto for domestic violence, public alcoholism, suicide, hate crimes and (as I've seen myself) racist and neo-Nazi vandalism. There is no aristocracy in Norway, and many Norwegians share an aversion to immodest displays of wealth, but class tensions do exist.

I'm presenting this very miscellaneous bag of behaviors simply to say that Norwegians are neither ethereal angels nor completely unacquainted with violence.

(Full post.)

August 2011: Anthony Bloom speaks to Friends

This month, I'm helping with a Bible study at Moscow Friends. Rather than plunging directly into a biblical theme, we're going to explore how we understand the Bible and its role in forming us as individuals and a community. I remember a very helpful Wednesday evening discussion along these lines at North Valley Friends in Newberg, Oregon, USA, and I'm eager to see how a similar discussion might go here. A new translation of the Old Testament has recently been published and has been widely discussed (see this item for a bit of an introduction to the discussion), making now a perfect time to choose this theme.

For our first discussion, I chose several scriptures on God speaking to us, through the Bible and through Jesus -- including the well-known passage from 2 Timothy. On a hunch, I also went to a book of sermons by one of my favorite Russian Orthodox writers, Anthony Bloom (the bishop of Great Britain and Ireland at the time he died). There I found a sermon specifically addressing what it means to be a biblical people. I was struck by how close his sermon on the Bible is to the classic Friends view. Anthony Bloom is consistent: he teaches honesty in prayer, in our relationships with each other, and in our relationship with the Bible....

(Full post. Follow-up: Bloom speaks and we listen.)

Bob Schieffer: "Do you believe God uses weather to send
people messages?"
September 2011: "Every kind of sickness and disaster"

The specific issues that grieve God are very clear: large-scale abandonment of faith in favor of idolatry, immorality, and unjust treatment of poor people and foreigners. It would take a very, um, liberal interpretation of these warnings to make them cover budget deficits -- but if they did, wouldn't they be aimed at people unwilling to pay taxes to serve the common good just as much as at governments spending more than the people had contributed? Rarely, if ever, do we see biblical disaster warnings directed against the advocates of specific policies; they are broadly directed at the whole nation that has (often with the exception of faithful remnants) completely abandoned their covenant faith. Those nations who are outside the covenant are not threatened at all with biblical disasters unless they have mistreated Israel.

(Full post.)

October 2011: I ain't no stranger here

A few weeks ago I mentioned reading David McCullough's The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris. I've always loved visiting Paris -- my first memories are from an ocean crossing on the S.S. United States to Le Havre and Paris at age 10, on our way to grandparents in Stuttgart and Oslo -- and so it wasn't hard for me to close my eyes and imagine the life of an American expatriate. In 1977, I went from Oslo to Paris the long way -- by train and ship, via Bodø, Narvik, Kiruna, and Stockholm. By the time I crawled off the train in Paris, it was a relief to be back in a familiar place. In Paris, I walked for hours and hours, just as McCullough's American visitors did, and in much the same places. I experienced some of the same intoxicating experiences of galleries, architecture, culture, delicious tastes, and, above all, books.

My September visit to Paris, which combined Russian visa formalities with seeing our son Luke, brought back those memories of half a lifetime ago and more. Too soon, the visit came to an end. I got on an Air France plane to Moscow, took the Aeroexpress train from the airport to Belorussky train station, took the Moscow circle line metro to Kursky train station on the east side. There I found my green elektrichka commuter train to ride most of the rest of the way home.

(Full post.)

November 2011: The Gathered Meeting, part two

The gathering of Russian-speaking Friends, supported by the European and Middle East Section of Friends World Committee for Consultation, took place two weekends ago in Kremenchuk, Ukraine. Judy and I were both able to be present. Judy reported on a European Friends gathering in Tolna, Hungary, the previous weekend, and (as promised) I led a discussion on Thomas Kelly's "The Gathered Meeting."

In my session, I began by telling the story I mentioned two weeks ago, about how I first encountered this inspiring essay. It also seemed important to acknowledge the chain of relationships that made this essay even more alive for me. At the Friends World Committee triennial in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1976, I was helping Gideon Juma of Pemba Yearly Meeting by pushing his wheelchair around the McMaster University campus. The wheelchair, and my resulting relationship with Gideon Juma, allowed me to be places and see people I might otherwise not have dared approach in my timid status as a recent convert.

(Full post.)

View from Room 8, 9:34 a.m.
December 2011: How to write about Russia

About four years ago, we took the electric train from Elektrostal's downtown station to Noginsk's downtown station, a journey of about 20 minutes. Elektrostal's station has no turnstiles, so it is possible to get on the train without a ticket. But Noginsk's station does have turnstiles, so you need a ticket to exit. OR you get off the train, jump down onto the tracks, and walk down the tracks about twenty meters, to where the station's perimeter ends, and clamber back into town. The vast majority of the passengers chose that path to free transportation. As one of our friends says, "The government's job is to build fences. Our job is to find the holes."

(Full post.)

Other digests: 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2010

A grief shared: coming to terms (or not) with the death of Rachel Held Evans. Ruth Graham. Emma Green. Jonathan Merritt. Sarah Bessey and Jeff Chu.

John Mark N. Reynolds on a Hell of a thing to learn.
I was arguing for the necessity of Hell when he corrected me. He agreed that the Church taught that somebody went to Hell, even many somebodies, but did not insist that any particular person, saving perhaps Judas Iscariot, would be there.
Crown Prince Akihito, also known as Jimmy.

Cherice Bock's whirlwind year.

Journalistic ethics and the unmasking of a popular Russian blogger.

B.B. King in Stuttgart, Germany.

02 May 2019

If you were a real Christian...

Recently Franklin Graham challenged Democratic presidential aspirant Pete Buttigieg on the latter's gay/Christian identity:
Mayor Buttigieg says he’s a gay Christian. As a Christian I believe the Bible which defines homosexuality as sin, something to be repentant of, not something to be flaunted, praised or politicized. The Bible says marriage is between a man & a woman — not two men, not two women.
Here, Graham is pointing out a contradiction (in his humble opinion) in Buttigieg's Christianity. At least within the text of this tweet, he's not denying the Democratic mayor's right to call himself a Christian.

On the other hand, what about Franklin Graham's Christianity? His comments on Buttigieg earned him a social-media backlash, much of which referred to Graham's enthusiastic support of the USA's Sinner-in-Chief and questioned whether Graham was a genuine follower of the Prince of Peace.

I actually defended Graham on Twitter, if you can call this a defense:

This business of distinguishing between imperfect Christians and fake Christians reminded me of Roger E. Olson's blog post from a month ago: Is Everyone a Christian Who Claims to Be a Christian? Olson says that an attitude of total acceptance of anyone's Christian self-identification, without actual comparison with the essence of Christian faith, is anti-intellectual and a-historical. It's not mean or judgmental, for example, to expect that any authentic Christian acknowledges being a sinner and repenting.

I respect Olson's argument but have a few misgivings. My most important caution: consider the context of any situation in which one person is judging another's Christian credentials. In the best case, the question could come up in an honest face-to-face encounter, with the well-being of the would-be Christian as top priority. That's far from the reality we see all around us in political discourse. (Example.) When a politician announces that Pete Buttigieg or Franklin Graham or Barack Obama is a fake Christian, they're no doubt expecting approval from their audience, and perhaps some political benefit from that denunciation. And without a personal conversation based in love for the soul of that public figure, chances are the denunciation crosses the line of bearing false witness.

Martin Marty provided an example of taking context into account when he discussed the phenomenon of post-Watergate prison conversions, including that of the late Chuck Colson. He couldn't help but question the trend of jailhouse conversions, but said he would never question an individual case. He certainly respected Colson's sincerity.

In the preface to Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis (whom Olson mentions) insisted on a very straightforward definition of Christian, one that dates before the emergence of the New Testament:
Now if once we allow people to start spiritualising and refining, or as they might say "deepening," the sense of the word Christian, it too will speedily become a useless word. In the first place, Christians themselves will never be able to apply it to anyone. It is not for us to say who, in the deepest sense, is or is not close to the spirit of Christ. We do not see into [people's] hearts. We cannot judge, and are indeed forbidden to judge.

It would be wicked arrogance for us to say that [anyone] is, or is not, a Christian in this refined sense. And obviously a word which we can never apply is not going to be a very useful word. As for the unbelievers, they will no doubt cheerfully use the word in the refined sense. It will become in their mouths simply a term of praise. In calling anyone a Christian they will mean that they think him [or her] a good [person]. But that way of using the word will be no enrichment of the language, for we already have the word good. Meanwhile, the word Christian will have been spoiled for any really useful purpose it might have served.

We must therefore stick to the original, obvious meaning. The name Christians was first given at Antioch (Acts xi. 26) to "the disciples," to those who accepted the teaching of the apostles. There is no question of its being restricted to those who profited by that teaching as much as they should have. There is no question of its being extended to those who in some refined, spiritual, inward fashion were "far closer to the spirit of Christ" than the less satisfactory of the disciples. The point is not a theological, or moral one. It is only a question of using words so that we can all understand what is being said.
Those early disciples in Antioch "accept[ed] the teaching of the apostles" ... but we cannot be sure exactly what the disciples were taught. Jesus and Paul specified very few tests; a complete New Testament canon and formal creeds were centuries in the future. I agree that those early tests are supremely important, powerful, and (to me) persuasive, but they were limited in number and had no artificial precision: "The kingdom of God has drawn near. Repent and believe the good news." (Jesus.) "Not everyone who says 'Lord, Lord' will be in heaven, but only those who do God's will." (Jesus.)  "If you declare with your mouth 'Jesus is Lord' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." (Paul.) Finally, you will be numbered among the sheep rather than the goats if you have ministered to him through your care for "the least of these." (Jesus.)

Ilya Grits vividly described the consequences of defining those we don't like as not belonging to the "people of God." The stakes are high. Exclusion can be a first link in a chain that leads to genocide.

Does it matter whether being publicly identified as Christian has positive or negative public consequences? In the USA, we grew accustomed to Christianity being the majority religion, earning its adherents approval or, at worst, indifference, even some mild hostility in limited circles. It's not dangerous, whereas there are places in the world where Christians are persecuted and those who convert to Christianity are killed. Those are not places where the Christian tag is adopted lightly, and there's probably little temptation to be a fake Christian. We Quakers now get mild approval in most places, and may easily forget that our first generation risked confiscations and prison and martyrdom for their Friendly discipleship. We don't often hear about "fake Quakers."

One final note on Olson's essay: I may be dubious about anyone's right to call someone else's Christianity into question, but I draw an implication from Olson that I agree with. If someone calls attention to their Christian identity, we have the right (humbly, knowing that we too have imperfections) to call attention to inconsistencies in their faith and practice -- especially when those inconsistencies are likely to confuse the public and endanger the reputation of our message. Once you make an issue of your faith in the public arena, you are fair game for debate. Only, let's conduct the debate with love and honesty.

Will voters care about the Graham-Buttigieg exchange?

Steven Davison provides a contemporary case study in defining Christian boundaries among liberal Friends.

I'm late in acknowledging a death in the Russian film world: Georgy Danelia.  One of his films, Kin-Dza-Dza!, is one of my all-time favorites, a tribute to friendship and a unique grunge-steampunk science fiction landscape laced with wicked humor. (It's on YouTube, with captions. Part one. Part two.) Also check this list of five must-see Danelia films.

It's been a while since I spoke with my Linux operating system fan voice. Here's Jack Wallen's summary of the top five Linux distributions. These days I'm using Ubuntu, with the Mate desktop. It's been eleven years since I abandoned Microsoft Windows, and I've rarely looked back.

Remembering John Lee Hooker....

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.

This post was also published in SEEDS, the monthly newsletter of Good News Associates.

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."