21 October 2021

A great people to be gathered?

Bunhill Fields Friends Meetinghouse (narrow building on right)

Our four weeks in London -- our first international trip in the COVID-19 era -- have just come to an end. Our priority was to spend time with our son, and to get to know his new habitat better. Thanks to London's amazing public transit system, almost everything we wanted to see and do was within half an hour or less from the one or more of the three nearby underground stations or from the bus stop two minutes away from his apartment.

Equally convenient was the nearest Friends meeting, Bunhill Fields, which was a pleasant walk of less than half an hour. Appropriately, most of that walk consisted of the full length of Worship Street. (Toward the end of that stretch you'll find the corner of Worship and Tabernacle streets.)

There were attractive diversions along the way -- and I'm not talking about the bingo parlor on Worship Street. The first quarter-mile or so of the route went right through the Petticoat Lane Market, which takes over the streets of our son's neighborhood every Sunday since about 1650. It's mobbed with bargain hunters going through every sort of clothing, footwear, cosmetics, fabrics, souvenirs of all kinds. Equally diverting are the many languages we heard, most of which I wasn't able to identify. Prices seemed a small fraction of what we saw in stores.

Full of these vivid impressions of good-natured selling, buying, general hustle and bustle among a virtual United Nations on legs, we would arrive at Bunhill Fields Meeting. The meetinghouse and its own tiny plaza bounded by a low wall perfect for sitting in worship, weather permitting, occupied a corner of Quaker Gardens, with a children's playground and a walking path which are in active use at all daylight hours, including worship time. I couldn't help wondering what the people passing by thought about us as we sat in our square circle, worshipping in full view of passers-by. I'm sure many already understood that this was our church, but did any of them feel a tug to find out more?

I had assumed that, during our weeks in London, we might find ourselves in different meetings on different Sundays. For example, I was hoping to visit Westminster Friends on St. Martin's Lane, where I attended worship as a brand new Quaker back in 1975, in my brief stay in London on my way to the Soviet Union. However, the warm welcome we received at Bunhill Fields, and the prayerful atmosphere of that place, settled it for me: that was going to be my Quaker home away from home.

Britain Yearly Meeting's Web site classifies Bunhill Fields Meeting as "small," which is true. The first Sunday we were two out of six in attendance. On our last Sunday, there were eleven in attendance, but several others were visitors like us. The size didn't faze us -- these kinds of numbers were familiar to us from Moscow Friends Meeting. But it did cause me to think once again about a more general question: why are we so few?

Bunhill Fields, for example, is located in a densely populated area. It is right next to an apartment complex called Quaker Court, and another, bearing the familiar name Braithwaite. (I don't know whether Braithwaite House is connected with that well-known Quaker family.) But it doesn't seem that the people who live one or two minutes' walk from the meeting are choosing it as their place of worship. Judging by the warmth of the meeting's welcome to us, two unknowns coming in off the street with no prior warning, this is not because this little congregation is private or standoffish or afraid of newcomers. Nor is there anything secret about the place or its purpose. Most churches I know would love to have the quality of signage that they have -- including the big sign right on the street. It also appears on most reasonably detailed maps of the city, including online maps.

I'm sure that I'm not alone in asking questions like this, and it's not the first time I've chewed on it on this blog. It's just that this hospitable little meeting in a crowded corner of the city vividly demonstrated the very qualities of a congregation that seem to me to be badly needed in our challenging times.

Here are four brief observations -- please comment, if you feel led.

1. In some places, Friends have drifted into a weird sort of low-key exceptionalism. Most effective marketing begins with the audience and its needs, or with God and God's promises, but Friends seem to be compelled to start with us -- how wonderfully subtle our spirituality is, how undemanding we are doctrinally, how advanced we are politically. (This is my impression of Britain Yearly Meeting in particular, so British Friends, please set me straight!) In contrast, some of the other London churches we saw directly addressed people's need to be in God's presence. "Start your morning with God," or words to that effect, said a banner at the front of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, followed by information on a worship opportunity on weekday mornings.

2. That focus on our lack of theological content (which is dishonest on some level) also cuts off a huge part of our potential market. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, it marginalizes people who already know they hunger for God or are already intensely aware of God, but who are seeking for a trustworthy community that honors this knowledge. Maybe I feel this bias more immediately than some because that is exactly the situation I was in when I found Friends. I wanted everything that Christian religion promised, but without the religion industry, without the elaborate trappings, without theatricality, without hierarchies and celebrities and power plays. This is what I found for myself, and I hope against hope that we're not drifting away from the ability to provide that access to Christian experience.

(I know that the things my youthful mind dismissed as theatrics and trappings are deeply meaningful to millions of people, but those people are, in many cases, already taken care of. They've made their own peace with the eternal contents-vs-packaging questions, and I'm less judgmental about that, I hope, than I used to be! If our apparent "Quakerly" rejection of what is precious to others is only for the sake of our own special trivialities and our own comfort, rather than an equal or increased passion to hear and do what God wants us to do in our time and place, that's just vanity.)

3. Quakers who live in skeptical cultures (contemporary England, for example) sometimes seem to become hyper-sensitive to skeptics and lose their teaching voice. On the other hand, Quakers who live in societies with a higher proportion of active Christians are likely to reflect that influence -- and not always with due discernment. Rather than live in self-congratulatory isolation from each other, these Friends need to learn from each other and pray for each other, so that neither group would simply pander to the culture around them, but learn how to be prophets and evangelists rooted in the universal and everlasting Gospel. Where have you experienced this sort of mutual encouragement?

4. In the first formative period of the Quaker movement, George Fox reported that when he climbed Pendle Hill, ... "there atop of the hill I was moved to sound the day of the Lord; and the Lord let me see atop of the hill in what places he had a great people to be gathered." Have we forgotten to ask God where there is now a great people to be gathered in God's power? Have we lost the expectation that such people exist, and that many of them may be very different from the Quakers you and I know best? Do we choose leaders who will keep us safe from such questions?

Related: Are Quakers marginal? part one, part two.

I'm posting this at the end of a long day of plane travel, so I'm sparing you my usual links and music clip. Back to my usual format next week.

14 October 2021

On not waiting for a brush with death

If I had ever had a near-death experience (NDE) of my own, I would be leading with that story in this post. Since I have not, I'm going to make some second-hand applications of ideas that came to me during my reading of Bruce Greyson's book After.

The author's selection of near-death experiences in After is not remarkably different or more dramatic than earlier compilations by other authors. Nor does he come to startling new conclusions. The power of his book is in its almost plodding attention to classifications, statistics, comparisons, and the careful examination of mechanistic "explanations" for the mind's continuing ability to function when the brain is apparently disabled.

Over and over Greyson documents the experiencers' frequent testimony to the sharpness of their memories of being out of their bodies (often observing things as if from, above as rescuers pull their unconscious bodies from danger or doctors labor to revive them -- even observing things that they could not possibly have seen while conscious), meetings with dead relatives, the sense of being enveloped by love, accompanied by an unseen guide, and then coming back to normal consciousness with a renewed sense of purpose and perspective, and a conviction that death is not to be feared.

And he does all this with no doctrinal axe to grind. For every experiencer who cites an encounter with "Heaven," he can quote someone else who doesn't apply that label to the reality they experienced while near death or clinically dead. He lists the evidence that the mind is not simply a function of the brain's known chemical processes, but grants that we don't yet have a coherent explanation for how this is possible.

As I said, I've not had such an experience myself. Nor have I ever had other forms of supernatural experiences, although within my family such experiences have certainly occurred. But Greyson ends his book with a challenge: does the evidence that such things occur, and that experiencers gain a more humane and purposeful outlook, have implications for the rest of us? To put it in my own terms, which of these good outcomes (including lack of fear of death!) would I reject simply because, up to now, I haven't had own close brush with death?

One of Greyson's case studies gave me particular pause. Here's an excerpt:

Barbara Harris Whitfield had an NDE at age thirty-two when she suffered respiratory complications while immobilized after back surgery. She described a life review in which she reexperienced abusive childhood events from the perspective of other people involved....

"I could hear myself saying, 'No wonder, no wonder.' I now believe my 'no wonder' meant 'no wonder you are the way you are now. Look what was done to you when you were a little girl.'

"My mother had been dependent on drugs, angry, and abusive. I saw all this childhood trauma again, in my life review, but I didn't see it in little bits and pieces, the way I had remembered it as an adult. I saw and experienced it just as I had lived it at the time it first happened. Not only was I me, I was also my mother. And my dad. And my brother. We were all one. I now felt my mother's pain and neglect from her childhood. She wasn't trying to be mean. She didn't know how to be loving or kind."

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you know that I describe a fair amount of family dysfunction in my growing-up years -- violence, alcoholism, racism, and then the tragic story of my sister who repeatedly ran away from home to escape those things, and was murdered by a drug dealer. In telling these stories, I've permitted myself a number of unflattering descriptions of my parents. Should I repent of those descriptions?

For years, I've angrily rejected the cliche "your parents did the best they could," partly because they seem to have made deliberate choices that harmed us children. But reading Whitfield's story made me wonder how an experience like Whitfield's would change my perspective. For example: what if I could have experienced, for a NDE-like moment, what it was like to grow up in Japan during World War II, as my mother did? What was it like to see her city bombed by waves of American bombers? What was it like to be brought up in a Nazi-influenced school? What was it like to be formed by, not just one, but two cults of obedience -- to Hitler and to a divine emperor?

In the absence of a near-death experience, could I voluntarily undertake this exercise in empathy? Can I pray for God's help in doing so? I'm not giving any quick answer to this, but at least I'm asking myself the question.

Several of Greyson's cases refer to a specific contrast between our limited perspective in ordinary life and being on the edge of eternity, as in a near-death experience. The contrast: while in that near-death zone, experiencers report a total and complete awareness, an ability to see, or know, in all directions simultaneously, whereas here our bandwidth is extremely limited. Our brains serve as a filter, providing only the more or less linear stream of data we need to function now. Even with the best of empathetic intentions, I cannot deliberately open up this kind of channel.

How would such a perspective help me understand, not only my parents, my childhood, my own good and bad choices, but also disruptions in relationships that puzzle and frustrate me? One painful example: how would it help me to cope with people in the Donald Trump personality cult? -- especially those who are otherwise close to me? Would some kind of undifferentiated "it's all good" acceptance be demanded of me? If not, what lines do I draw? What fresh connections are required of me? Here, too (barring an NDE of my own!) I know I will need God's help.

W. J. Astore: We're mad as hell ... and fighting each other.

America needs an anti-imperial party, a “Come home, America” party, a party that puts domestic needs first as it works to downsize the military and dismantle the empire. Yet, in the spirit of Orwell’s 1984 and the Two Minutes’ Hate, Americans are always kept hating some putative enemy.

On the other hand... Matthew's Gospel, Abba Joseph, and Micah Bales: You can become all flame.

Speaking of flame, sales of internal combustion cars in Norway may end as soon as April 2022.

Yet another Ted Lasso opinion piece, but it's one I like.

October 16 and 23: Quaker Religious Education Collaborative online workshop, Creativity and Design for Teen Sunday School Resources.

A delightful glimpse of the Tedeschi Trucks Band rehearsing:

07 October 2021

Redeeming Germany? (partly a repost)

(c) University of Bern (2015); source.

Germany's political parties are busy assembling possible coalitions to take over the government, but one thing is certain: Chancellor Angela Merkel's time as a central figure of European politics is coming to an end.

In Germany, as in most of Western Europe, Christian politicians do not wear their faith on their sleeve. Merkel is not exactly an exception, but she is more willing than most of them to express a connection between faith and public practice.

And in one particular moment of time -- the refugee crisis of 2015 -- she did not take the despicable path too often pursued by publicly Christian politicians, linking faith with nationalism and cultural "purity." She went a very different direction, one with great political risks: she linked Christian faith with hospitality to refugees, regardless of their religion.

Since 2015, when I originally wrote the post that follows, we USA citizens have had our own literal come-to-Jesus experience with public Christianity. The results have not been pretty.

Back to 2015 ...

Redeeming Germany?

One reason I have such a visceral dislike of racism and anti-Semitism is that I grew up with that poison. My German mother believed that she was born into the master race, and that others' inferiority was obvious.

(Her special brand of racism had an unusual asterisk: having been born and raised in Japan, she freely admitted that the Japanese were, if anything, perhaps slightly superior to Germans.)

When my mother left Germany to live and study in Chicago, she did not leave behind this master-race mentality. I can tell you first-hand what it was like to grow up in this family micro-culture, in which any neighbor who didn't match her Teutonic ideal was dismissed. In this way I experienced some attenuated version of the mentality that seduced a whole modern nation into total war and premeditated mass murder on an industrial scale.

Maybe this explains why I'm so moved by German chancellor Angela Merkel's persistent and intelligent defense of her refugee policy, even as some pundits point out the political risks involved. Today the BBC quoted her telling an interviewer, "I'm proud that we are receiving refugees in a friendly and open manner. I don't want to compete to be the country which does best at scaring off refugees." I can't help wondering what my mother would say to that.

What's even more remarkable to me, especially in view of the too-frequent American correlation of conservative Christianity with anti-immigrant views, is (as the BBC article points out) her associating generous refugee policies with Christian faith. In defending her policies, for example, "she claims she's simply exemplifying the Christian values of the CDU" -- referring to the political party she leads, the Christian Democratic Union.

Although her party has no religious restrictions on membership, its intellectual DNA has strong connections with both Catholic and Protestant social ethics, some of whose proponents were in the anti-Nazi resistance or in prison during Hitler's reign. Merkel herself grew up in a Christian family in a politically hostile context, communist-run and USSR-dominated East Germany, where her father was a pastor.

Almost all prominent politicians in Europe are far more reticent to emphasize faith in their public behavior than their American counterparts, and Merkel is usually no different. But refugee and immigration controversies seem to have struck a nerve with her. I found her comments at her European Parliament caucus, as reported by Politico, fascinating and inspiring ... and even redemptive. Quoting the article,

In the party meeting, Merkel was especially tough on European countries that have portrayed the acceptance of refugees as a threat to religion. "When someone says: 'This is not my Europe, I won't accept Muslims...' Then I have to say, this is not negotiable."

European leaders, she said, would lose their credibility if they distinguished between Muslim and Christian refugees. "Who are we to defend Christians around the world if we say we won't accept a Muslim or a mosque in our country. That won't do."

Given my own childhood memories, maybe you can understand the healing effect of hearing such sentiments in a German accent.

Another instance of Merkel's linkage of immigration and faith happened about a month ago [that is, in September 2015] in Switzerland, where she received an honorary doctorate from the University of Bern. Her comments on the refugee crisis were widely reported in the English-language press (example). According to McClatchy's Matthew Schofield, "During a news conference Thursday in Bern, Switzerland, Merkel said it was both an honour and a moral obligation for Germany to take in 'die Fluechtlinge,' the refugees."

However, most English-language reporters seem to have ignored her comments on Muslim immigration and Europe's Christian heritage. I found several references in Russian-language news sites. Drawing in part on a Polish source, the newspaper of the Roman Catholic diocese of Novosibirsk headed an article on Merkel's news conference in Bern by quoting her: "You don't want the Islamization of Europe? Go to church!"

She went on to explain, "I would like to see more people who dare to say 'I am a Christian,' who are brave enough to enter into dialogue," noting that she also supports the guarantee of religious liberty in Germany.

[The University's own coverage of the event quoted Merkel in the question-and-answer period following her acceptance speech:

With regard to the question as to how Europe can be protected against Islamisation, Merkel emphasised: “Fear is not a good adviser. It is better that we should have the courage to once again deal more strongly with our own Christian roots.”]

I find it refreshing (in the American context as well) to hear Christians challenged to go deeper into their own faith, and prepare for honest dialogue, rather than be corrupted by fear, identity politics, and searches for enemies. I think that is a reasonable interpretation of Merkel's words; I hope, but can't be sure, that this was the motivation for publishing her words here in Russia, where Islamophobia is also a sad reality.

Merkel, "Faith in God makes many political decisions easier."

Fast-forwarding to the present (somewhat reluctantly) ...

Heather Cox Richardson, "If this is not a hair-on-fire, screaming emergency, what is?" Robert Kagan's diagnosis and warning.

Nick Turse on our forever wars and the memorial-worthy names we'll never know. (Hint: they're not Americans.)

Christians and dementia: At the University of the West of Scotland, PhD student Tamara Horsburgh is researching "the impact of holding the Christian theologies of hope and suffering, when one is first diagnosed with dementia." She would like to conduct interviews with people "who have been newly diagnosed with dementia (the past 6 months or so), hold their faith closely, and would feel empowered by the opportunity to discuss how they feel about their diagnosis and their faith." Contact Tamara at Maragal16@outlook.com for more details ... and please pass along this invitation.

John Shelby Spong was not my favorite theologian, but I've been interested to read the responses of Quakers and others to his recent death. Here's an appreciation of sorts from getreligion.com: Death of a post-theist shepherd.

Becky Ankeny: Jesus our mother.

Diunna Greenleaf and Kid Andersen at the Greaseland Studios:

30 September 2021

Politics on Sunday, part two

Abbey Thornton's "Everyday Militarism" poster. Source.

(Politics on Sunday, part one)

Back in May, writing about models and metaphors for church, I proposed "observatory" as one such model. I told how our Quaker meeting in Moscow proposed to "observe" the rapidly-moving developments in Ukraine in early 2014, and to prepare ourselves prayerfully to report what we had observed, in hopes that we could unite on a message to the larger Quaker world.

Unity was not something that would come automatically to us. Our little meeting was divided -- not just between those supporting Ukraine and those supporting the actions Russia was taking, but also divided concerning the controversial role of the USA. (And I, clerk of the meeting at the time, was a U.S. citizen.)

Most of the discussions and disputes concerning developments in Ukraine came after the end of meeting for worship, during our tea and discussion hour. However, "political" content erupted during meeting for worship as well. At one point a Friend asked rhetorically whether anything could possibly be more fascist than the actions of the Ukrainian government.

These were not trivial sentiments. Many Russian families have members born in or currently residing in Ukraine. The historical cross-currents are complex -- after all, the nation of Russia was actually born in what is now Ukraine. Much of contemporary Ukraine is populated by people whose first language is Russian. Cutting across the enduring ties between the two countries are other historical realities -- Stalin's vindictive treatment of Ukraine in 1932-33, for example, and Ukraine's disproportionately high losses in World War II.

Given all these realities, it may sound amazing to report that no rifts developed in the Quaker meeting as a result of our conflicts. The crucial factors, I'm convinced, were love and trust. We loved each other, and trusted that we were bringing our real selves to meeting, we were serving the same God, we all wanted the best for each other. Our conflicts were real, but they neither defined nor divided us.

This is really what I want to say: if there is trust and love, even politics will not divide us.

What I'm not saying:

  • I'm not saying that the power of religious rhetoric should ever be used manipulatively to imply one policy or party has a monopoly on truth, or a lock on Heaven.
  • I'm not saying that righteousness and self-righteousness are the same thing. Outrage and anger can become self-indulgent, even addictively so, even when we seriously believe that one policy or candidate is positively evil and the other one is singularly God-anointed.
  • I'm not saying that the meeting's pastor, or weightiest Friend, gets a license to advocate parties and candidates during meeting for worship. This kind of high-handed behavior has the danger of either crowding out other viewpoints, or else (equally dangerous) converting worship into a political forum where listening to the Holy Spirit is set aside.

What I am saying is that when the community is genuinely trustworthy, we can dare to bring our whole selves into the worshipping community, including our emotional selves and our political selves. We will know that even if we are "inappropriate" in our heat, our timing, even our partisanship, we will be heard in the context of relationship and prayer. The Holy Spirit, and Spirit-centered listeners, can translate even awkward vocal ministry into points for reflection and prayer. (If this would not be expected to happen, the meeting has more problems than simply an overly political participant.)

When a trustworthy community is truly pursuing the central Quaker query, "What does God want to say and do in this time and place through us?", we realize that God may ask for our participation in concrete steps to fulfill Luke 4:18-19. We won't be anxious that every possible response would be polite and moderate, or even on track. When we in Moscow set up our Ukrainian "observatory," we certainly had no guarantee of sweet reasonableness. We knew conflict might ensue. However, we (or most of us) believed that our relationships were strong enough to bear the strain, and, as it turned out, we were right.

What about meetings and churches that don't have much experience dealing with politicized Sunday morning ministry, and are new to these questions? Let's not be afraid to look straight at the issues involved. One book that has been out for a while but which has a lot of excellent content and small-group exercises, is Charles Elliott's Praying the Kingdom: Towards a Political Spirituality. Do you have any recommendations?

I was grateful for the responses I got to last week's post, both on this site and at Facebook, including the Quaker Theology group. In responding to one comment, I mentioned my memories of Beacon Hill Friends Meeting. For convenience, I'll paste in those memories here as well:

Early in our lives as Friends, Judy and I worshipped with Beacon Hill Meeting in Boston, MA. Beacon Hill Friends were located a very short distance from the Massachusetts State House, a Unitarian office complex, and a variety of unorthodox spiritual movements who sometimes apparently thought that our Sunday mornings could be a forum to pitch their ideas. Once a group of restorationist Quakers came as a team and harangued us in turn about our inadequacies. I loved the way that the meeting was able to roll with these incidents without getting defensive -- but also without getting terminally complacent.

One response on Facebook gave me a lot to think about. Here's what Rashid Darden said, in part:

I have found that things that are defined as "too political" very often have a lot to do with who, in the room, has the most privilege and power.

I am Black, and from a Baptist tradition of civil rights engagement. I could deliver vocal ministry in a Black Baptist setting that is Biblically and theologically sound and would not be considered political.

I cannot always do that in Quaker settings, and that's a shame.

How would we handle this advocacy on a Sunday morning? -- As billionaires grow richer, children go to sleep hungry. (Thanks to FCNL for the link.)

Russia's suppression of independent political voices continues apace.

Popular Christian groups on Facebook may have decidedly non-Christian origins and agendas. 

In Emily Provance's "Being the Church" series, she looks at small groups and other connection opportunities for our pandemic and post-pandemic reality.

Robert Mugge's documentary film Deep Blues (1992) is about to be reissued in the form of a high-quality restoration. Here's an article about the project, and the new trailer:

23 September 2021

Politics on Sunday

Wentworth Street, London (where we're staying at the moment)

About seventeen years ago, I presented a week-long course on politics and Christian faith at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Center. It was part of a project I was conducting during the 2003-2004 academic year at Woodbrooke on evangelism and the Quaker testimonies.

For one of the sessions, I invited Michael Taylor, a Baptist theologian who had headed the organization Christian Aid for twelve years. He was a superb guest speaker; he had clearly done his thinking on faith and economic justice. For some reason, the subject of party affiliation came up, and he told us that he was, by deliberate principle, not a member of a political party. Some of us were a bit surprised because he was clearly committed to economic justice on a practical as well as philosophical level. His explanation (if my memory does him justice): he was, above all, a Baptist minister, accountable to congregations with diverse political identities, and every single member of his congregation needed to know that he was as much their pastor as anyone else's.

One theme I wish we had pursued after listening to Michael Taylor: how would we Friends (with our more diffuse concept of pastoral leadership) apply his principle? Woodbrooke would have been a great venue for this discussion; among the Quakers in the course, I was the only one from the pastoral Friends tradition. 

The question still seems important to me. Obviously, political themes are going to rise in the life of a Friends community. My favorite definition of politics is "the art and practice of allocating scarce resources." This deceptively simple definition raises all sorts of theological and biblical issues: who allocates whose resources and by what standards of individual and corporate justice? What is our understanding of "individual" and "corporate" responsibility for justice? What is "scarcity"? Do we Friends tend to address these issues as if poverty, however deplorable, is someone else's situation, or something we experience within our community? Insights concerning these issues might erupt at the hour of our maximum attention to the Holy Spirit, not just at a committee meeting or adult forum.

Even so, Michael Taylor's caution has a place in our community. We Friends (especially in Europe and North America) sometimes have a tendency to overemphasize how special Quakers are, a temptation that can degenerate into isolation, conformity, and elitism. If we forget to regard people as we regard Jesus, and lose our precious testimony of radical hospitality, all our correct political theorizing will just be "notions." How can we leave the space open for the fertile conversations that happen when we are genuinely and lovingly curious about the person we disagree with?

Is there such a thing as ministry during worship that is too political? The marks of spiritual authenticity in an outwardly political message, and among the hearers, might be these: 

1. Does the ministry arise from prayer and a sense of leading? If there is advocacy, is it expressed with humility and direct references to the tests of discernment which the speaker applied -- in other words, expressed in a way that shows the speaker is wrestling with the challenge of being misunderstood as overtly political rather than Spirit-guided? 

2. Does it arise from an obviously sincere attempt to interpret the Bible, using tools and references that give evidence of that attempt, rather than just beating the others over the head with biblical billy clubs? 

3. Does it arise from prophetic sources, clearly responding in God's power to the central Quaker query, "What does God want to say or do through us in this time and place?" Not what do we want to do, or how do we want to change those other people, but how does God want to use us for God's purposes?

4. Does the community take into account diversities of culture and temperament when tempted to judge ministry as "political"? Sometimes we assume that the ideal Quaker voice is low and grave and without obvious passion, which may be a symptom of isolation and elitism rather than evidence of deep spiritual maturity.

5. Do we take sufficient account of the gift-based "division of labor" that can unite radically different temperaments in a Friends community? -- Some of us are gifted to speak politically, while others are gifted to pray for them, to elder them, and to do the biblical teaching that establishes context-- but all are called to love.

This list is incomplete; what can you add?

Politics on Sunday, part two.

Related posts:

"Our life is politics..."

Prayer and politics

Worship and protest

Why evangelicals should like critical race theory

William Barr, Max Boot, and "the vapor trails of Christianity"

George Fox on overcoming corruption

A case study: First Friends Richmond and war tax refusal

What might it mean to take aliens more seriously?

Pandemic, Zoom, and a quiet life.

Petting the lion, and fearing the right things.

At the top level of British blues royalty: Joanne Shaw Taylor.

16 September 2021

Sitting in the Russian section: a guest post

We knew something big had happened. She sat down during our student tea, looked at us to be sure she had our attention, and then said in a serious tone, “No one has died….”

We’d been teaching English outside of Moscow, Russia for a few years by then, without benefit of long-term work visas, hopping in and out of the country every three months when our visas ended. It was nice at first to hop into Latvia or Ukraine or whatever handy European country to renew our visas, but then we tired of all the times we had to miss birthday parties, anniversaries, special celebrations because our visas had run out.

Every Friday that we weren’t out of the country hunting visas, we held a tea for students. We taught words like “muffin” or “cookie” by the things I brought for them. Our students didn’t realize that they served as a testing ground for me. I’d consider what flavors Russians would probably like of what I knew to cook, and brought them to the teas. The students, traditional college age, had more adventurous tastes than our teaching colleagues, so I’d try out various recipes and bring the results along to the weekly teas. Lemon muffins, reduced sugar to bring out the tartness, were a hit, and so were chocolate cherry cookies. Girl scout cookies, thin mints to be precise, were not. Johan and I faced the terrible prospect of eating all three packages of thin mints I had brought in my carry-on from Oregon, until I discovered one Friend who loved them. She giggled happily as I handed over one full box.

On the day of that student tea we were within sight of a yearly renewable work visa instead of those three-month visas. The paperwork was vast and the bureaucracy arbitrary, with no appeal but bribery, and even that was uncertain. But we all had chugged our way through the process, and just maybe….

We knew by then that the director never swept students away from us, whether in class or in hallway conversations, unless it was absolutely necessary. So the evidence that something had gone very wrong was before she said, “no one has died.” I knew something was up because she dismissed the students. The tea was over.

We stared as she explained that one of her employees had filed the wrong paperwork for our temp visas, and the college faced a $20,000 fine. The immigration official who gave her that news had an offer -- if we could be out of the country by midnight that night, and that we arrived back in with a new, fresh clean entry on our passport -- and the correct paperwork --  by 9:00 am Monday morning at her office, she would process the paperwork without the fine, on the basis of the new entry stamp.

It was 4:00 pm Friday afternoon. She wanted us to go to the airport and take whatever flight would get us out of Moscow by midnight. But I was leary of last-minute plane delays. I had also noticed that Russian immigration officials on trains seemed in better moods than the ones having to do entire shifts inside the cubes/kiosks in airports. Because of the snafu, our paperwork even for exiting Russia would not be perfect. Curiously, Russian immigration officials often wouldn’t let foreigners even leave without perfect paperwork. If not deemed perfect, your paper and your person has to stick around Russia for a few days until you can present again, without flaw. So I suggested a train to Kyiv, Ukraine, instead.

The director agreed, put our passports on the table, spread out the paperwork and said, “don’t lose this piece of paper. It will show them that...” well, I don’t remember what it would have shown them. I can’t stand to think of it now.

A train out of Moscow to Kyiv that evening would cross the Ukrainian border by 11:00 pm or so. We could still catch it. Johan took a cab to the Elektrostal train station to get tickets for us; I subbed for him in his classroom. He bought us a ticket overnight to Kyiv that Friday night, and overnight back to Moscow on Saturday night. It would be a weekend of trains, ending up back where we started.

On the commuter train into Moscow, we discovered we had lost that piece of paper. It had probably been left in the Elektrostal train station ticket booth. Terror surrounded us. We had one job that evening -- to get out of Russia -- and would we be able to do it? It didn’t seem likely.

We lost valuable time in the train station in Moscow trying to find the missing document, calling the director to see if she had a copy, calling the Elektrostal ticket office to see if they would fax it to Moscow. Finally we had to give up. We lost a few extra minutes finding the train, and by the time we found it the final call was sounding. I could barely breathe from running with a suitcase, but we had to run to find our car. A kind conductor yelled, “Come in here. You’ll miss it if you don’t!” We threw ourselves and our suitcases in, and the train began to roll.

But we were still in Russia. Friends of ours had still been stranded at rural outposts, left at the last station in Russia because their documents weren’t in order. And we didn't have that piece of paper. We decided to play it cool. The immigration officer came in just before the border. He reminded me of the Nazi boyfriend in The Sound of Music who turned out to be a snitch. I tried hard to act unconcerned, like it was a routine thing for us, just another trip to Kyiv. He took our passports, looked carefully at each page, one by one, asked a question, and without moving a muscle on his face, stamped the exit stamp in our passports. One more station stop, and then the Russian forests would yield to Ukrainian wheatfields.

At Kyiv Station
It took a long time for me to relax enough to sleep. I was groggy when the train pulled in to Kyiv.

Then we had nothing to do until the train took us back to Moscow that night. Breakfast is my favorite meal to eat out, so we celebrated achieving our exit from Russia by having breakfast in a restaurant near the station. Its decor intermingled old Soviet-style posters and propaganda with Madison Avenue poster ads from the 1950’s. Each booth had its own wallpaper from the Soviet Union or the US in 1950. Soviet leadership and Madison Ave had curiously similar styles at the time -- The New Soviet Man and the ideal 1950’s American housewife looked like a perfect match.

And after breakfast, then what? What to do in Kyiv with no planning and not much sleep? We went to the parking lot where city tour buses gathered. We chose one randomly and paid for a three-hour tour.

I learned Spanish in Spain in high school; Russian never came so well to me, having put off learning until my mid-fifties. Tracking a lecture or tour guide required intense concentration, if it was possible at all, and that day, with no sleep, a warm bus and a down coat, I didn’t have any concentration left to spend. So I wasn’t paying the tour guide any mind as she prattled on, I thought. We were on a serpentine road going up a steep hill.

“Hey, listen to that!” Johan elbowed my side to get me out of my reverie. “She’s using new-age words to reach non-believers about prayer!” Then he began interpreting, “There’s a spot at the convent --  people come for it as a zone of healing with cosmic forces. When you’re there, be sure to feel it for yourself. And think about the people you care about, and what you wish for them.” She probably described where it was, but my Russian failed me and Johan didn’t interpret. I mulled over her words reaching out to new agers about prayer, but that was all. The bus stopped at the convent and she told us in no uncertain terms to be back at the bus in 45 minutes.

We walked around the convent, mostly outside. There was a wide walkway up a short slope, with large concrete landings instead of steps. A little chapel that looked more like a greenhouse, some shrubs and greenery. Then I felt it -- a sensation I can only describe as more real than real -- not in this world, but in the next; a sense of looking into that world, but more like feeling into that world. As if all my senses were attuned, sharp, and showing me a look into the next world. But it wasn’t sight; it was sensation. A sense of contentment beyond contentment, a sense of real beyond real. I stopped short.

“Where did she say that spot was?” I asked Johan.

He looked around, considered for a moment, and said, “right here” I sat down. I never wanted to leave. Ever again.

St. Helen's grave is in the green chapel. Kyiv, Ukraine. Source.
The little greenhouse looking chapel held a plaque. It said that in the 1830’s, a nun would sit there and a line would form and she would pray for healing, and people were indeed healed. She would sit in that exact spot where I had sensed it. Later, this little chapel was built around her grave.

I had felt that sensation of real beyond real only once before, when a good friend of mine faced a crisis; her son was about to lose custody of his children to an ex-wife who had been neglectful and physically abusive of her grandchildren. A few close friends were with us, and we prayed like we never had prayed before. I felt something opening; I felt the forces of evil and the forces of good, and I felt something change. I stayed in that feeling for 24 hours or so -- the sense of the spiritual world being more real than real. I knew my boss would have experienced that, too, given her fervent prayers each week in our office.

I described the sensation and she said yes, she knew exactly what I was talking about. She told me of a specific time, too. “If we focused on this, Judy, the truth is that we could heal the dead.” In the years that we worked together we had prayers regularly. These weren’t the “guide the hands of the surgeons” sort of prayer, or “give the doctors wisdom” prayers. They were out and out prayers for healing, intercession of the Holy Spirit and Jesus kind of healing.

I was stunned at how many people we prayed for who had remarkable recoveries. They went to the doctors, took medication prescribed, etc etc -- and yet often the results were far better than I had ever expected. It wasn’t that no one died, or became chronically ill, but that I heard news of healing well beyond medical expectations, on a regular basis.

And yet she thought we were not being intense enough about our prayers.

During my years in Russia, I realized that generally, we in the West are trained to believe that good people are rational, analytical people. Good, reliable people only know what they should know, and that knowledge comes from a place or practice that they know and can name. If we have knowledge that is good and useful, then we know how we came by that information. Even with dis-information being rampant, we know where disinformation comes from, or is alleged to come from.

Mystery makes us uncomfortable. Mystery, unexplainable, is an ant at a picnic -- snuffed out or about to be, undesirable. Mystery, unexplained, is failure.

I agree with the scientific approach. I am fully vaccinated against covid-19, and against every other disease on the CDC plan for my age group. I am not anti-science! I believe that covid-19 is NOT a hoax, I believe that ivermectin is good only to treat parasites, etc, etc. I just don’t believe that science is the only important way of understanding the universe.

It’s as if we are in the audience in a play. It’s a long, long play, and we discuss it with each other and with each passing year, we understand more of it. However, some of us hear bumps and noises or smell things that contradict what we perceive is happening on the stage, but we assume those noises aren’t not important because, well, what we don’t understand doesn’t really exist. Or that in the decades to come, science will be able to explain all that is important. If anyone in our little discussion groups in the audience focuses on those bumps and noises and smells then we say that these people are nutcases. We can’t even prove they are hearing those things! So they must not exist. Oh, if you want to believe they are real noises, go ahead, it won’t do any harm, pat-pat-pat on the head but don’t expect those noises to explain anything about the play or have any substantial impact on life.

We in this audience, especially those sitting in the west side of the theatre, want to think of ourselves as rational and analytical. We are confident that the only way to understand more about this play is to test and observe, to collect data and analyze it. If it's not testable and observable, then it’s not happening, or at least is not very important to the play.

And I’m here to whisper to my audience members, “you forget that you are seeing this play with your limited human mind. We have to test and observe with our limited human minds. Maybe there is a whole different way of knowing that is not limited by a human mind. Maybe we should just sit with the great unknowables and admit we can not now, and probably never will be able to, explain them. And let us enjoy the mystery, enter into it, let it inform our beings, our lives.”

After a few years of adjusting, and getting to know Russians, I found myself sitting in the Russian section of that audience. Russia and its section is somewhere between East and West, not fully either but fully itself.

Russians tend to be comfortable with the unknown and the unknowable. For them, all the bumps and smells and noises we can sorta see and feel but can’t possibly understand are an integral part of the play. Science is also considered an excellent way of understanding the play. I once gave what I thought was a difficult question on an exam after showing our class a movie on Einstein: “Explain time in the context of the theory of relativity.” Every single student explained it concisely and accurately, in English, a non-native language. I learned that while foreign language instruction in Russian public schools is below even the level in the United States, which sets a remarkably low bar, science instruction in Russian schools has historically been excellent. Remember Sputnik, and how in the early years of the space race, the Soviet Union pulled way out ahead of the US?

But, the western reader protests, I believe in God! I can’t prove God exists, but I believe! The problem is that many of us believe with our Western, only-what-can-be-measured-is-real minds. We miss so much! For example, consider the feeding of the 5,000, in which Jesus has compassion on the crowds that have followed him out into a desolate land. He takes a boy’s lunch of five small loaves and two small fish, blesses it, and it feeds the whole crowd -- of 5,000 men and an uncounted number of women and children.

I’ve often heard argued in progressive circles that Jesus was only encouraging the crowd to share their own lunches. Think about -- in a society in which community is paramount, and hospitality is considered a sacred responsibility, is getting a large crowd to share their lunch really anything to write home about? Much less write in all four gospels? If the crowds had been Americans, with our emphasis on individual rights and lives, then yes, it would have taken a miracle to get us to share. But not a communal society in an arid land.

We westerners like to brush aside the miracle. Instead, let’s descend into the miracle, into the mystery. God is mystery, and what God does is mystery. On this side of heaven, we as humans will never fully grasp God and God’s mystery, but we are given glimpses. Let's admit that what our human minds can not measure, analyze or even confirm can still exist, and be a major part of life and the universe.

Matthew 9:35 says, “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.” Jesus went through Galilea, teaching, preaching and healing. One third of what he did was healing. Are we to deny the reality of a third of what Jesus did?

-- Judy Maurer

Judy and I taught English, American studies, and mass media in Elektrostal, Russia, for nine years. Judy is a member of Camas Friends Church (Camas, Washington, USA) and Moscow Friends Meeting (Moscow, Russia), and a recorded minister in Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends.

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