11 April 2024

"Are Quakers part of the Church?"


I don't think I've seen this question asked any more bluntly: "Are Quakers part of the [uppercase-C] Church?" Or what? Are we on our own? Are we a new religion or meta-religion for whom those old ties have gone stale?

Some background: I'm a third of the way into an inspiring six-week Woodbrooke course entitled "The Shared Quaker Story," presented by Ben Wood, a Woodbrooke associate tutor, with eldership and technical assistance provided by another Woodbrooke associate tutor, Windy Cooler of Baltimore Yearly Meeting.

My personal description of this course is that we are examining the Christian elements that gave the Quaker movement depth and coherence for much of its history, and we are considering the cost of losing those elements. I think (here's an unauthorized prediction!) that we will learn that the most precious of those elements can be restored without resorting to ancestor worship or doctrinal rigidity, and without reducing our hospitality to sincere seekers in all their variety.

This exploration and conversation focuses particularly on Britain Yearly Meeting, where many Friends experience (or practice) a reluctance to describe the faith, if any, that we hold in common. In particular, Christian language and God language are often held at arm's length. Quakers' ethical discipleship (a.k.a. the "testimonies") are held in high regard but are often described without reference to their Christian origins. The customs and folkways of meeting for worship and meeting for business are likewise faithfully maintained but their connections with what early Friends called "Gospel order" are often not emphasized.

This last paragraph is not from the course materials, but from my own observations and reading. However, I think it's fair to say that similar observations form some of the context for this course. They help explain the question from our course's first-week preparative materials, "Are Quakers part of the Church?"

You won't be surprised to know that my initial answer to the question is "Yes, of course! Why not?" But maybe it's not that simple.

A few years ago, I wrote a blog post, "Are Quakers Protestant?" Among other points, I tried to emphasize the role we play theologically in that larger Church:

In conducting our loving and worthwhile dissent from the majority Christian perspective on certain issues—including the nature of leadership and discernment, the role of social status vs spiritual gifts in leadership, the disciple's attitudes to violence and wealth, and the realities of sin and perfection—we have every right to engage with our conversation partners as peers who love the same God and live in the same stream of salvation history. Protestantism, with all its defects, is a concrete, known, honorable movement in world Christianity; in comparison, what weight and presence does a disembodied, self-mythologizing Quakerism have?

Of course "dissent" can go both ways: if we are part of the Church, we don't just get to tell others where they go wrong; they may well tell us where we might be wrong, or where we (in our often high self-regard) may not understand what we're criticizing. As we slash away at anything that resembles liturgy, for example, we may not see how much of our practices begin to resemble liturgical forms of our own. And our criticism of sacraments would be far more useful if we actually knew something of the depth of sacramental theology instead of just assuming our superiority. (See here for Val Ferguson's "three misleading negatives.")

Another thought: if not all of us Friends feel as if we're part of the larger Church, does that invalidate our community's identification with the Body of Christ? If the only unit that factors with us is the radically separate individual, then the game is already lost; on our own, nobody simultaneously acknowledges all of our connections with the wider community and the planet, and we all have different priorities. Using citizenship as an analogy: some USA citizens are extremely patriotic, while others are totally skeptical about the very idea of citizenship, but for most purposes, they're all still part of the country. Happily, most of us are embodied in community most of the time, and we don't need to constantly inventory every connection we have for those connections to remain meaningful.

(The same is true for other member communions of the Church. Even those churches who place a very high value on ecumenical relationships have members who individually couldn't care less about those relationships.)

Just to get a bit more argumentative.... Considering those Quakers who do not believe they're part of the larger Church: do they even see themselves as members of the larger Quaker family?

My understanding of the Quaker movement is that the first generation of Quakers decided to go to Christ directly instead of relying on the Christian establishment of their time. In turn, those founders told their descendants (us) that we could do the same. Along the way, we've learned a lot about what it means to rely on Christ at the center of our meetings, including the ethical consequences. But at the same time, the "establishment" and the other rebels and reformers who preceded and followed us have also been listening and learning—making discoveries and mistakes along the way, just as we have. That's what we are part of, not the creation of a whole new separate religion.


While I'm taking this Woodbrooke course, I'm also reading Ben Wood's book The Living Fountain, which contains much of the background information he uses in "The Shared Quaker Story." I'm about a third of the way through his book; so far, so good—so very good.

Last week I linked to an article in The Atlantic about the social costs of no longer going to church. This week: here's a poignant article, "The Death of a Church," on the decline of the Methodist churches in the UK, again illustrating what we lose when these communities disappear from our lives.

Simon Barrow at Ekklesia provides a comprehensive annotated list of online resources to follow events in the Gaza Strip and the rest of Palestine. It ends with a list of articles and analyses as of April 3, promising to update as often as possible, and provides links to several organizations providing disaster aid.

While we're on the subject of resource lists, here is Joe Ginder's list of Five Reliable Online and Electronic Resources for Jesus Followers.

Daniel P. Horan in the National Catholic Reporter, on distinguishing nationalist pseudo-Christianity from the real thing. "To be clear, this is a real religion we're talking about here; it's just not Christianity."

And here's a Russian Orthodox case study on pseudo-Christianity: Paul L. Gavrilyuk on false prophecy and state policy.

Ishaan Tharoor in the Washington Post on the fallacy of "the West vs the rest" worldview.

[Matias Spektor:] ...The “rules-based order” and its liberal elements “were not created by Western fiat.” Rather, they are the product of decades of contestation and diplomatic battles that ran through an era of decolonization and through the emergence and consolidation of principles of human rights in international law and the global public debate.

Nancy Thomas: Meaningless! Poems from Ecclesiastes and More Poems from Ecclesiastes.

From Buddy Guy's farewell tour vlog: the European tour. "We're not here forever...."

04 April 2024

Life after a tornado (Pam Ferguson, Winchester Friends Meeting)

When we heard about the March 14 tornado that ripped through Winchester, Indiana, we instantly recalled the last Randolph County tornado of equivalent destructive power—the March 10, 1986, tornado that, among other things, heavily damaged Peaceful Valley Friends' meetinghouse. On that day in 1986 we were at home in Richmond, Indiana, sitting in our basement until the tornado warnings were over.

Ron and Pam Ferguson
Pam and Ron Ferguson have just celebrated 25 years as pastors of Winchester Friends Meeting. When I saw Pam's report yesterday on the aftermath of the recent tornado, I asked whether I could post it here. Pam said "yes" and explained: "We have so many people who are asking about helping here and I told them I would keep them updated and thus the report."

Life after a tornado –

It has been almost 20 days since a tornado hit Winchester, Indiana and it is time for an update. We have been overwhelmed by the goodness, kindness, generosity, and care so many have heaped on this community. Disasters like this make good people visible and they’ve touched many lives and have made a difference for many. The best of “community” has been alive and well.

The first thing I noticed on the day after the tornado was how comforting it was for friends and family members to show up at the homes of their family members to sort through the rubble, to help patch roofs or cut down damaged trees. In those moments of shock – being surrounded by family and friends was essential and brought much comfort in the midst of loss. There were many strangers who entered our community to help with cleanup and that was a gift also, but that piece of the response quickly became overwhelming.

National organizations responded quickly: Red Cross, Samaritan’s Purse, Mercy Chefs, Salvation Army, and many church relief organizations. They left after about two weeks and we are now on our own as a community to organize and launch a long-term recovery response. The county has about 400 buildings damaged or destroyed by the tornado, 147 houses were damaged and I’ve heard the number of 22 homes totally destroyed. We know this recovery will be years and not weeks and months. The city is trying to not lose people from this community, but it will be a difficult thing in a place where housing was already scarce.

The tornado destroyed one of our two nursing homes and this week they announced they will not rebuild and have let all their employees go. The tornado badly damaged our assisted living center and about 26 condos around the main building. Thirty of the assisted living people are staying in a local hotel and it looks like they will be there for the next six months while their building is rebuilt. A handful of condos look like they are unoccupied and almost all have damage. Many of those people are in a local hotel also. We had three churches destroyed and two are now just concrete foundations. Several small businesses were destroyed: a hair salon, Japanese Restaurant, Verizon store, Goodwill, Taco Bell, and a feed store. Walmart, our only grocery store, had damage and was closed for about 3 days. They are up and running now, but without heat. Two cemeteries were badly damaged and thousands of trees throughout the county were uprooted or broken off.

Our faith community had 15 people directly impacted from the tornado with damage to homes. This includes two women in assisted living who are now residents of the hotel. Only one lost his home completely, but others have repairs needed that range from $5,000 to over $100,000. Three had cars totaled. Insurance is coming through for many, but some are discovering they were underinsured or they are having to push adjustors to really look at roofs they know are damaged. It is a long, slow process to work through the damage of a tornado.

Our meeting is prepared to help not only our members but others in the community as soon as we begin identifying who and what is slipping through the cracks. We are waiting on word for what FEMA and the Small Business Administration will be able to do. Many have already generously sent money to us or the meeting and we had money set aside for disasters such as this. In the past, we’ve given $1,000 to other churches who’ve had roof damage and had repairs or rebuilds and we will probably do the same for the rebuilding for each of the three churches lost in the tornado.

The community is literally buried in material aid. We were asked if the pantry could use some of the donated non-perishable food and we said yes. They wanted to bring 23 pallets (as in 5x6 foot pallets stacked high with food) to our already full pantry. We have room for maybe 2 pallets. They agreed to store what they have until we need it. The churches in Richmond and one at Liberty as well as the Richmond Food Pantry brought our pantry milk, eggs and fresh food when Walmart was closed and that helped greatly. Many of the neighbors who use the pantry do not have resources or are too elderly to travel out of town to get fresh food. For over ten years the pantry goes to Walmart three days each week to pick up food they donate to the pantry. We usually get about 300-500 pounds of meat each month among other items. Since the tornado and their reopening, either they’ve ordered too much or no one is shopping at the store and we’ve received over 2,500 pounds of frozen meat such as ground beef and chicken. If this keeps up, we may have to find other pantries to share some of the food as I can’t give it away fast enough.

To top this off, next Monday Winchester is in the path of the eclipse and is smack in the middle of totality. Hotels are booked and many families are traveling from across the US to be with their Winchester relatives for this eclipse experience. Most of us are completely overwhelmed at what has happened this past month and wonder how to survive another onslaught of visitors into our county. But we will and we pray for the gifts of grace, patience, and hospitality during the eclipse. And we pray for wisdom to know how best to participate in the long-term recovery of our community. We are thankful for this faith community who is active and responsive to the whole community as we learn to live life here after a tornado.

— Pam Ferguson, April 3, 2024

Before moving to Indiana, Pam and Ron spent nine years in South Sudan, Uganda, and Kenya with the Mennonite Central Committee doing development and peace work. Many thanks to Travis Etling of First Friends Meeting, Richmond, Indiana, who originally forwarded Pam's report to me.

Derek Thompson (The Atlantic) on our social losses when we stop going to church. (This article may be behind a paywall in two weeks.)

Glimpses of Toni Morrison as encourager and truth-teller, as seen through the rejection letters she wrote.

Greg Morgan on "losing Ben"—on grieving a death that (caused or hastened by alcohol) seemed to have been preventable. Judy and I went through a similar heartbreak not long ago. Maybe you have, too.

It’s simply tragic to watch a beautiful, gifted person struggle with a disease that one feels powerless to combat, and which takes them from us far too soon. It is especially tragic when that disease feels preventable but nonetheless proceeds inexorably, leaving behind a wake of broken relationships, grief, and longing for what might have been. Life feels too precious for it to end this way, but too often it does. For many of us, people like Ben occupy important places in our lives, and they break our hearts every day.

Friends United Meeting's Kelly Kellum co-signs a broad ecumenical call for a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip.

Remembering April 4, 1968.

Two blues veterans, Steve Guyger and Anson Funderburgh....

28 March 2024

Death triumphs, or so it seems (mostly a repost)

When I wrote the meditation below back in 2018, we were reeling from the Parkland shooting and the terrible disaster at the Winter Cherry Shopping Center in Kemerovo, Russia.

The spring of 2018 was our first in the USA since leaving Russia. In November 2017 we had sold our furniture to our wonderful landlords, said goodbye to our beloved kitties, and ended our ten-year residency in Elektrostal, Russia.

But for many mixed reasons, Russia is still often on my mind. The war in Ukraine, the life and death of Aleksei Navalny, and now the searing tragedy of Crocus City Hall...these are parts of the Calvary Road on the way to Easter 2024 for me.

Many of us are also paying close attention to the agonies suffered by ordinary innocent people in the Holy Land. Last Sunday I spoke to Friends at Spokane Friends Meeting, confessing that I had originally planned to give a sermon on hope, but found that I was not in a condition to do so. Instead I promised that next time I visit them, I'll try again. For last Sunday I chose the theme of trust. Regardless of whether our hopes come true, as Peter says in his first epistle, chapter 2 (quoting Isaiah), "the one who trusts in [Christ] will never be put to shame."

Here is my meditation from 2018, based on Emmanuel Charles McCarthy's Stations of the Cross of Nonviolent Love:

Source (pdf).  
If you've been with me for a while, you'll recognize the graphic above as a page from Charles McCarthy's Stations of the Cross of Nonviolent Love, which I read every year during Lent.

A shroud from Assumption Monastery, Sviyazhsk.
(More information, in Russian, here.) Photo: V. Strelov.
In earlier years, when I mentioned McCarthy's stations in my blog, I usually provide a station a little before this one, number 13, which is (along with 14, "Jesus is laid in the sepulchre") the bleakest of all. But I'm still in a state of shock over two mass tragedies and the perverse backlashes that have followed those tragedies. I am not in a mood to avert my eyes from the evidences of bondage to violence and inhumanity represented by these incidents.

The first event was the shootings at Parkland, Florida, and the efficient killing made possible by an AR-15. The backlash: smear campaigns against the students speaking in favor of gun control.

My mini-shrine. A flower for Kemerovo's kids.
Screenshot from TV Rain's coverage of Moscow meetings.
The second incident happened since I last wrote here. Last Sunday, 64 people, at least, died in the Winter Cherry Shopping Center in Kemerovo, Russia, including 41 children. In some cases, parents were electronic witnesses to their children's last moments, thanks to mobile phones and social networks. The backlash: highly placed politicians charging those parents and other angry survivors with taking advantage of this tragedy for political gain.

(If for some reason you have a desire to throw up, just read senator Elena Mizulina's comments in this summary of Russian media coverage of the Kemerovo aftermath.)

[Comment from 2024: Some things don't change; witness the political exploitation of the Crocus City Hall tragedy.]

In the hours and days after the Winter Cherry fire, I watched as much coverage as I could, including the huge meeting outside the city administration building, and then Tuesday's memorial meetings in Moscow. A reporter asked one of the participants in Moscow for his feelings about the fire, and he said something that I've come to expect to hear every time something like this happens in Russia: "Whatever 'they' do, we live in the kind of country where these things will keep happening." It was this hopelessness that reminded me of Station 13: "Death and the dark side of reality are always the final victors."

Which is it? Violence, racism, elitism, cynicism, and death are the victors? We know too much about what that looks like ... what that continues to look like two millennia after Jesus.

OR ...

Will we realize something completely different on Easter Sunday? How will the world know that things are different?

Last year's [2017] station from McCarthy's booklet. And 2016's station (scroll down).

(Back to 2024...)

A group of performers honor Aleksei Navalny with a video in the style of his favorite TV show, Rick and Morty.

Putin's paranoia: Timothy Snyder on terrorism, delusion, and self-destruction.

Right Sharing of World Resource (where I once served as the one full-time staffer!) is now seeking a new general secretary.

The USA spends close to a trillion dollars on its military despite its string of failures in traditional war-fighting terms. But (says Tom Engelhardt) maybe the real World War III is best understood not in traditional war-fighting terms at all, but as a slow motion war on the earth—that is, on the physical planet that we live on.

"No more international travel"—Seasoned travelers Hal Thomas's and Nancy Thomas's "fairly firm" decision, until ....

Finishing up with some blues energy: Rick Holmstrom and Nathan James.

21 March 2024

Palm Sunday (USA, 2024)

Entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem (1320) by Pietro Lorenzetti; source.

The arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem, just days before his arrest and execution, is sometimes called the "Triumphal Entry." It wasn't triumphal to everyone, of course; there was already plenty of controversy about Jesus and his activities. Still,  his own disciples celebrated enthusiastically: (from Mark 11, verses 9 and 10, New International Version)

Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted,

     “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
     “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!”
     “Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

I love the matter-of-fact next verse in Mark: "Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve." Nevertheless, the shouts of those who greeted Jesus as he entered indicated high expectations of his arrival in this politically sensitive place. He might be the one to restore David's throne!

It soon became apparent that Jesus was completely redefining what his "kingdom" was all about, and throwing its gates open to everyone who was ready to receive him, including all who might have been left out of earlier invitations, right up to you and me today.

Those original celebrants, yearning for a political triumph, may have misunderstood what was about to happen, but it's hard to blame them. Today, we see a similar confusion: many of those we would expect to help Jesus keep those gates wide open to all who would receive him, are having a hard time. Many of them seem determined to repel anyone who is not planning to vote for their hero in November.

Just to set the record straight: Jesus, who was executed for redefining his kingdom and its radical invitation, is very much alive. Come and see for yourself.

Last week I had barely enough active neurons to write a few sentences on my blog. It turns out that I needed abdominal surgery, which happened yesterday, with good results. By next week I hope to be back to my full blog format. For today, I'll close with a slightly different form of blues dessert, from the film Horowitz in Moscow.

14 March 2024

"... Nature cannot be fooled," part two.

 Selfie on the train from Birmingham to London, last autumn.

Tomorrow I'll be on the train again, going to Klamath Falls, Oregon. This evening I have a pounding headache, so I'm taking the day off and not posting on this blog. As I said last week, "nature cannot be fooled."

I'm scheduled to give a message at Spokane Friends Meeting on March 24, and I am feeling a strong leading to speak on the theme of hope. It must be a leading; I don't actually want to address this theme. Feel free to pray and advise!

07 March 2024

"...Nature cannot be fooled"

North Sea sunset.

The dream is almost always the same. I'm out in the open country. There's a roar overhead, and I see a missile crossing the sky, and I instantly know it's carrying a nuclear warhead. It's on its way to a target somewhere behind me. I take off and run. There's a blinding flash and the dream ends.

Well, occasionally I manage to dive into a depression, feel the heat and shock pass by, shake off the dust, and realize that I've apparently survived. Then the dream ends.

I've continued to have these dreams since childhood. They're stored in my brain alongside memories of the Cuban missile crisis, air raid shelter signs, the air raid siren tests every Tuesday at 10:30 a.m., and classroom instructions on what to do during a nuclear attack. 

On March 26, 1970, our high school classes were canceled owing to a snowstorm, but I was already at school. One class had scheduled a viewing of the British pseudo-documentary The War Game, portraying a fictional nuclear attack on the UK. The teacher decided to offer a viewing to anyone interested. Not really wanting to trudge two and a half miles back home in the snow, I joined the audience, and got many more searing images for my apocalyptic dreams.

We are not yet really free from the threat of nuclear warfare, but the shadow of another threat has become at least equally prominent in our times: global ecological catastrophe. The first threat may seem more vivid and immediate; some would argue that the second may be more inevitable in the long run. Has this second threat—climate change's worst scenarios—become our younger generations' version of nuclear dread?

Although both threats originate in a sort of shortsighted human arrogance, there are important differences between them. The decision to use nuclear weapons is in the hands of specific human beings who are, or should be, perfectly capable of choosing not to use them. (Of course I'm glossing over the possibilities of miscalculations, insanity, and equipment failures.) Nuclear war is not inevitable, whereas ecological degradation is already well underway. Human interventions to avoid catastrophe are possible at several points on the chart above ("Global warming and climate change"), and many scientists and activists have specified what those interventions should look like, but the track record of our species in acting at the required scale is not promising.

Sometimes I'm tempted to succumb to a doom mentality. For all we know, extinction might be inevitable no matter what we do. Countries and empires have come and gone, civilizations have perished, species have vanished. The planet itself will survive our misdeeds—as Richard Feynman reminded us in his famous appendix to the Rogers Commission investigation into the Challenger explosion, "... nature cannot be fooled." However, at some point even planets will vanish into their dying suns. Our loving Creator will archive us one way or another (I vote for "heaven"!) but, short of that, nothing about our long-term future is guaranteed.

Before I reject doom entirely (you knew I would, right?), I found this article in Scientific American intriguing: Beyond the Doom and Gloom, Here's How to Stimulate Climate Action, by Madalina Vlasceanu and Jay J. Van Bavel.

Not everyone is a fan of the doom and gloom messaging. Climate scientists like Michael Mann have warned against climate “doomerism,” messaging that can depress and demoralize the public, assuming that helplessness will simply lead to further climate inaction. And the title of a new book by Hannah Ritchie states clearly that it’s Not the End of the World: How We Can Be the First Generation to Build a Sustainable Planet.

There is, however, some evidence that doom and gloom messaging can spur climate action, as long as it falls on the right ears at the right time. For example, research has found that climate distress, climate anger and climate anxiety are all associated with increased climate action under some circumstances.

[Links in original]

paper edition; digital edition
I'd like to recommend a better way. Cherice Bock, an environmental scientist and theologian, and Quaker minister, has an alternative vision—one that has two major advantages over the doom mentality. She describes this vision in her short, carefully organized and well-written book, A Quaker Ecology: Meditations on the Future of Friends

The advantages of her approach: 

First, her vision of an Eco-Reformation has great persuasive power. She anchors her vision in powerful biblical insights and the raw honesty of acknowledging the toxic effects of individualism, racism, and colonialism, even in our own Quaker histories. She writes beautifully about the healing effect of repentance and of reweaving ourselves into the ecology around us and within us through what she intriguingly calls "watershed discipleship." If a new, wider Reformation among people of faith adds to our united ability to reach the scales needed for crucial interventions, Cherice has made a valuable contribution toward that end.

Second, no matter how far we succeed in sharing this vision, no matter what the eventual outcome of our efforts to mitigate climate change might be, this is how we should live along the way. Cherice is blunt when she needs to be, but she personally models the power of honesty and a non-shaming repentance in describing, for example, the history of her own family on lands once inhabited by Indigenous nations. And her watershed awareness carries with it a sense of joy and embodiment.

Cherice subtitled her book, Meditations on the Future of Friends. Although I'm convinced that her theological and ecological insights have wide application beyond Quakers, the history and current state of Friends in the USA give an important context to her book—and give me a sense of positive urgency. As she says, "I was inspired by earlier generations of Friends; I want to be part of my own generation's faithfulness."

Nancy Thomas looks at the patriarchs, the Psalms, Ecclesiastes ... and old age. "The tree or the insect."

This link is hard to post. Ashley Wilcox tells us that ALS is likely to keep her from reaching old age.

More ripples, via Meduza, from the death and burial of Aleksei Navalny. Shura Burtin cautions us against unrealistic faith in the "beautiful Russia of the future." On the other hand, here is a Russian university instructor who is tired of being afraid.

The documentary film Butterfly in the Sky celebrates the legacy of the long-running television show Reading Rainbow, which I remember watching with our kids. Here's the trailer and context. (Thanks to Lithub.com for the link.)

Michelle Birkballe (Denmark) covers Solomon Burke's classic "Cry to Me." (Link to Burke's original.)