13 June 2024

Happy 20th birthday ...

... to this blog.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related: The blogging rules I usually break.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

06 June 2024

Rocket science: two suspenseful mornings in a row

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I could breathe again.

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

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

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

Among the major findings:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kate Bowler offers a blessing for everything we cannot buy.

"The Ice Queen"—Sue Foley.

30 May 2024

Stepping out of the boat, part two

Sierra-Cascades founding session (2017, George
Fox University); and 2018's annual session (Canby,

In my first Stepping out of the boat post, I gave a personal account of our new Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting's early development as an independent Quaker association of churches.

Among the tasks still ahead of us (I said at the time) was the development of a book of discipline—a book that many yearly meetings call Faith and Practice. Such books often combine content that helps express the spiritual commitments and culture of the community, with content that describes organizational details and processes.

Six years later, we are still working on how we will describe our spiritual values in this book of discipline. However, several of our committees have been hard at work developing polices and practices that will eventually be collected in our book, so our overall progress is encouraging. And our experiences and mistakes as a yearly meeting—and as individual churches—are also contributing to our task, as we build our to-do list of areas we need to work on. For example, we have done a lot of work on the recognition and recording of ministers, but have not done as well as we would like in supporting our existing pastors and others who offer public ministry.

In that earlier post, I summarized the balance that we (at least in my personal view) seek in daring to describe our spiritual culture and commitments:

Step two, building our identity: Here we really had to decide whether we as a body were in fact walking toward Jesus. Some of our churches are uncomplicatedly and unaffectedly Christian, culturally indistinguishable from other evangelical Friends congregations, except for the refusal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. None of our meetings identify as non-Christian, but some have more experience providing spiritual hospitality to people who have survived encounters with authoritarian religiosity. Those churches are particularly careful not to use Christian language in ways that could come across as glib and domineering. At our Canby sessions, this issue came up in considering what to require of applicants for membership. Rather than asking applicants to use specific language about themselves, we agreed to describe who we are—a Christ-centered community—and leave it up to applicants to decide whether this kind of community was something they wanted to join.

(Related: The Quaker high-wire act. A Quaker discipline.)

After a number of false starts and after many, many conversations, here is a sneak preview of what our Faith and Practice Committee will lay before our 2024 gathering in eight days. Among our challenges to ourselves: we wanted to draw on the values we explicitly expressed in our founding years' business minutes, and we wanted to be brief and use plain English. I'd be glad to hear your comments, and to know that you'll be praying for us as we consider this latest draft:

Your Faith and Practice Committee proposes the following paragraphs as an introduction to the draft Faith and Practice we will be compiling with your help. We plan to present it (with some background information) on Friday of our annual gathering, with time scheduled for your comments on Saturday.

The Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends is a voluntary association of Quaker meetings, churches, and individuals whose worship, ministry, and service are centered in Christ, guided by Quaker testimonies and experience, and committed to the full participation of LGBTQ+ people in all aspects of the life and leadership of the Yearly Meeting. We see these three values as interrelated and mutually reinforcing.

We understand the Quaker testimonies as a call:

  • to live simply and sustainably;
  • to seek nonviolent responses to conflict, and refuse participation in war and preparation for war;
  • to speak the truth and keep our promises;
  • to make common decisions based on our community’s practice of prayer and discernment rather than majority rule or force of personality;
  • to regard each other—and all people—with a commitment to equality and equity, rejecting all false distinctions based on social, cultural, or economic status;
  • in the wider world, to support, advocate, and initiate efforts toward peace, justice, care of Creation, and relief of suffering in ways that are consistent with these testimonies;
  • in all things, to put Love first.

As we set forth these values and commitments, we acknowledge that they are to some extent aspirational, not an inventory of our successes as of today.

We also understand that we have a variety of faith languages and experiences among us. We do not require of each other, or of newcomers, any standard interpretation or test to be part of our community. We are committed to listening and learning together, building trust in God and each other through the ways that we worship, conduct business, guard each other’s reputations, and resolve conflicts tenderly.

Anyone who feels drawn to our community based on these values and testimonies, and the ways we live them, will be joyfully welcomed.

What was behind Norway's decision to recognize Palestine as an independent nation?

We keep hearing new reports of people in Russia getting arrested for what seem like almost trivial expressions of dissent. The British organization Rights in Russia has a new program to support dissenters in prison: Write to Russia. And Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen talks about the consequences of getting onto one of those punitive official lists ("foreign agents" and worse) in this episode of the radio program This American Life. "Act Two," Gessen's part begins at 32:35. Thanks to Norma Silliman for the link.

"To me, writing is listening." Friends Journal's Sharlee DiMenichi interviews Norwegian writer Jon Fosse, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2023.

A Live Coal (Isaiah 6:1-8): Ashley Wilcox's message last Sunday at the celebration of the recording of Wess Daniels as a Friends minister.

Beacon Hill Friends House in Boston, USA, is looking for a Program and Engagement Manager. If interested, look into it right away; they'd love for this new staffer to begin this summer. Much of this person's responsibilities were among the things I did when I was on the staff of Beacon Hill Friends House back in the late 1970's.

Today is the Feast of Corpus Christi in the Roman Catholic calendar and some other confessions as well. This feast reminded me of the years of protests that were set off when the U.S. Navy decided to name a nuclear submarine Corpus Christi.  I mentioned those protests in this post: Worship and protest.

Here's a rerun, a video we used in class in Elektrostal. Wonder if we could do this now....

Down By the Riverside | Playing For Change | Song Around The World from Playing For Change on Vimeo.

23 May 2024

Pleading for Gaza: First Principles


AFSC staff in Gaza have shared horrendous accounts of starvation used as a tool of war. Children in Gaza are starving to death. The World Health Organization predicts that up to 80,000 more lives will be lost to disease and starvation if no immediate action is taken. This crisis surpasses anything many of us have witnessed in our decades of responding to disasters worldwide.

... Immediate action is needed so that killings and suffering can end. That starts with a permanent ceasefire, the release of hostages and prisoners, and unrestricted humanitarian access in Gaza.

—from Quaker organizations share a vision for peace in Palestine and Israel

We call on the US government to end its military aid of the Israeli government and to fully restore UNRWA funding to aid Palestinians. The US government must stop sending the Israeli military more weapons.

We call on the Israeli government to grant access and safety to United Nations and humanitarian agencies to fulfill their duties. We need immediate humanitarian access for Gaza and adherence to international humanitarian and human rights law.

—from Minute on Ongoing Devastation in Palestine, Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends

As the ongoing devastation, bombing, and ground invasion in Gaza continue into their sixth month, Palestinians, including our Palestinian Christian siblings, cry out to the world, asking, “Where are you?” World leaders have responded with empty rhetoric and political volleying about addressing the “humanitarian crisis” in Gaza while ignoring the direct causes of the catastrophe. Those causes are the daily bombing and ground invasion by the Israeli military, in addition to the shutting off of basic life-sustaining services to more than two million people who are suffering the consequences of crimes not their own.

... The horrific actions Hamas committed on October 7th in no way justify the massive deaths of tens of thousands of civilians in Gaza at the hands of the Israeli military.

—from March 2024 Global Christian Leaders Call for Permanent Gaza Ceasefire, Churches for Middle East Peace

Steve Breen's cartoon, and readers' reactions.
Hebron, November 26, 2019. (My photo.)

All over the world, faith communities have struggled to put into words their plea to world powers and leaders to respond with some actual effectiveness to the spectacle we witness on a daily basis in the Gaza Strip (and not only there) as Israel destroys homes, hospitals, schools, churches, and people. The three examples above all reflect this plea. Unlike the boilerplate activist rhetoric of some past campaigns, these voices are raw, urgent, as balanced as this terribly unbalanced situation allows ... but so far, it's hard to judge their impact.

All three statements refer to the International Court of Justice and the provisions required of Israel to avoid a judgment of "genocidal intent." Since these statements were published, the International Criminal Court has received a prosecutor's request to consider arrest warrants for major figures of both warring parties. Neither initiative has made any discernible impact on anyone's behavior, but I see the first hints of a positive development: a crack in the trance-like captivity of the major Western powers when it comes to Israel. They've been in a spell for many years; they don't regard international law as having any application to Israel's action, and they collaborate with Israeli propagandists who equate any criticism of this magical status with antisemitism.

The Israeli state and U.S. policy, as well as popular opinion in both countries, have not always lined up quite as they do now. Dahlia Scheindlin, in her Foreign Affairs article, "Can America’s Special Relationship With Israel Survive? How Gaza Has Accelerated the Social and Political Forces Driving the Countries Apart," contrasts the comparatively balanced situation during the Jimmy Carter administration with today's complex polarizations. Israeli public opinion, and Israel's strongest defenders in the USA, both prefer a future president Trump over a second term for Biden, despite Biden's fierce loyalty to Israel over his entire political life. 

Concerning Israel's right to exist, a huge percentage of USA poll respondents remain strongly in favor. On the other hand, when it comes to the current war, Scheindlin points to a generation gap:

A February 2024 survey by Pew found that 78 percent of older Americans (over 65) see Israel’s reasons for fighting the war as valid, whereas just 38 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds do—a 40-point gap. And although students in the Axios survey overwhelmingly agreed with Israel’s right to exist, nearly half of them—45 percent—supported the campus protests “which seek to boycott and protest against Israel,” whereas only 24 percent were opposed. (The remainder were neutral.) The Harvard CAPS / Harris Poll from April also found that respondents between 18 and 24 years old were almost evenly divided between those who believed that Israel was mostly responsible for “the crisis in Gaza”— 49 percent—and those who held Hamas mostly responsible—51 percent. By contrast, among people over 65, just 14 percent blamed Israel.

What can our well-meaning, even urgent and passionate statements say that can slip through these polarizations and affect hearts? I thought about this question this morning during a Friends' organization's video conference partially devoted to the war in Gaza. We were considering whether to sign on to a statement on this conflict and its human cost. (It was one of the three statements posted above. We didn't consider the other two; I added them here this evening for the sake of discussion.) Ultimately we decided to give this decision more time. Our key concern was simply this: would associating ourselves with this statement and its source complicate our colleagues' and partners' situations on the ground in Palestine and israel?

I'm not close enough to their situation to have a judgment. But if I were to write my own statement from scratch, what would some of my guiding principles be? Are these hopelessly idealistic? ...

  • No state or organization is beyond accountability. International law and the expectations of human decency apply equally to all. The actions and decisions of international tribunals are judged solely by their adherence to law and due process, not by their supposed "symbolism" or "message" or implications of "equivalence."
  • No population has the exclusive right to territory based on a religious belief or a sacred book. No person, family, group or nationality can be forced to move from their family/ancestral homes because of someone else's religious claims. Conflicting claims can be resolved through a process that gives conflicting parties equal weight.
  • There is no theory of "defense" that allows treating occupied territory as a legitimate military target, or that justifies terrorism in any form. (Terrorism is defined as the use or threat of violence for coercive political purpose, regardless of whether it is committed by states or non-state actors.)
  • Rhetorical flourishes such as "we demand," "we condemn," or "you/they must" should be used very sparingly. The main purpose of a statement is to persuade, to touch hearts, to open a dialogue, not to express hostility, even when that last purpose might gratify one's own emotions or one's own partisans.
  • The best form of Quakerly neutrality is equal openness to dialogue, equal readiness to listen to all concerned, and a rejection of all forms of exaggeration. Neutrality does not require pretending that all sides are equally innocent or guilty, or have equal access to the resources needed for a fair outcome.
  • I would hope to make a statement that reflects my own Christian faith, particularly in the doctrine that everyone everywhere is created in the image and likeness of God, and that wars and conflicts take place in a spiritual context where all sides may be caught in sinful systems of principalities and powers and evil in high places. Therefore we should be persistently seeking resolution and reconciliation instead of resorting to carnal weapons and deceptively attractive zero-sum solutions. Ephesians 6:12.

Related posts:  When do we shift from 'neutrality' to 'advocacy'? The rhetoric of righteousness vs the priority of humane effectiveness. Who wants to 'teach lessons'? Who wants to learn?

I've signed up for a Woodbrooke online course on Quaker Theology and Whiteness, part of this interesting lineup of upcoming courses.

Pope Francis calls for debt cancelation in Jubilee Year 2025.

Interesting case study of North American academic publishing: a "broken model"?

The video: this year's version of "Clothes Line" (Rick Estrin and the Nightcats). 

(And here's a link to the Little Charlie and the Nightcats version we used in listening comprehension classes in Russia. It was in good fun; nobody's grade depended on keeping up with Rick's rapid delivery!!)

16 May 2024

Barriers revisited (partly a repost)


THE Truth of God, being received into the inward parts, is found to be of a living, powerful nature, working mightily there for the cleansing and redeeming of the hearts. Yea, this is certainly witnessed, that as the mind joined to deceit is thereby defiled, so the mind joined to the truth of God is, by its power and virtue, purified.

Now, having felt this, and being filled with the love and good-will of God to the souls of others, how can we but testify it to others, who stand in need of God's truth (and its cleansing property and virtue) as well as we; especially being thereunto moved and drawn by the Spirit of the Lord?

— Isaac Penington, published posthumously in 1680; source. (My italics.)

In our meeting, we're frightfully private.

— Member of an unprogrammed meeting in Britain Yearly Meeting.

Yesterday I had my second cataract surgery this year, and I'm still getting used to the results. To reduce screen time on blog night, the solution is obvious: repackage an old post. So the second half of this post is an item I published back in 2016, near the beginning of our last academic year in Russia.

What reminded me of that post, "Barriers," was a conversation just a week ago with a British Friend. We were talking about whether Friends in her meeting felt freedom to reveal their faith. From her comments I gathered that, whatever the reasons, this kind of sharing rarely took place.

It may have been small comfort, but I replied that this sort of diffidence was not unique to unprogrammed Friends. (For a brief definition of "unprogrammed," see the sidebar here.) I particularly remember our beloved First Friends Meeting in Richmond, Indiana, forty years ago, discussing how to grow their rapidly-shrinking congregation. "What we need are young couples," someone said. (I'm sure I've told this story before!) My internal reaction was, "No!" What they needed was more confidence in their identity as God's people. It was a congregation with many mature disciples who had done amazing things with their lives. We found out accidentally that one of the harmless-looking older members had been a worker for racial justice in the South in the late 1940's! We were in great sympathy with the Sunday school teacher who asked those older Friends, "Some of you have been Quakers for 60 years—why can't you tell us more about why you became Friends and what you've learned about God in those years?" One of the answers she got was, "Our generational culture is very private."

In the first generation of the Quaker movement, there was little or no social incentive to be among us; you'd be risking legal danger and possibly mob violence, and you'd certainly earn the disapproval of the religious establishment. Either direct experience of God's power, or the desire to be among people who persuasively testified to such a direct experience, might overcome those dangers and lead you to throw in your lot with those despised Quakers.

What attracts people to us now? I've known Friends who reflect this same power, joy, and convincing conduct, but in my experience, our most attractive feature for many is a social atmosphere of gracious idealism and doctrinal vagueness that draws in seekers who are much like the people already among us. There are variations, of course; some of our churches echo the cliches of the (American) evangelical culture, but however pointed the preaching may be, the ethical consequences of that preaching (discipleship, or if you prefer, the Quaker testimonies) are often weak or absent altogether. If this seems unfair, let me know! (And what drew you?)

One explanation for our reluctance to testify to a powerful faith might be that we simply aren't experiencing the spiritual outpouring that shaped the first generations of Friends. The torch has been passed to others in the Christian movement who are living out a reality that we'd rather read about at a safe distance, for example in quaint ancient Quakerese.

But there's another explanation that may be less pessimistic. We have developed a barrier, an inhibition, that keeps our mouths shut. Maybe, if we dared, we might be free to share words and deeds (according to our gifts and temperaments, and always subject to the discipline of knowing when to speak and when to listen!) that would convey the love of God and the demands of justice.

I'll leave it at that. Here, with some minor edits, is that original "Barriers" post.

"How can I explain something to you if you don't even watch TV?"
A meme found on vk.com (original scene from late-era Soviet film Heart of a Dog, which I recommend).

When I was around eight years old, the subject of God came up one day in my grade school classroom. (There weren't the same restrictions on God-talk in public school then that there are now; that's another discussion.) Our teacher said, "Why should we be afraid to talk about God?" I was startled and panicky—in fact I was afraid to talk about God, and couldn't even imagine making my mouth emit the word.

I made a mental note of this reaction, but didn't analyze it at the time. Later, I connected it with the fact that, in my family, any mention of religion was absolutely forbidden, along with any mention of disease or death. Whatever the roots of this barrier, it blocked me from communicating with anyone about a huge part of what it means to be human.

Obviously, something happened between grade school and my decades of working for the church! But I'm glad that I remember that block. These memories came back to me the other day when I was talking with some colleagues about expanding our students' access to informal English-speaking opportunities. "Some of my students do a great job with grammar and vocabulary," said one colleague. "But when it comes to speaking in a group, they just can't open their mouths. There's that old psychological barrier."

These young people aren't exactly facing the same barrier in speaking English as I encountered in talking about God. (Or, rather, not talking about God.) There's no actual danger in overcoming the language barrier, but there are several hazards in crossing into God-talk territory. For me as a child, there was a safety issue within the family. But, on another level entirely, do we want it to become too easy to talk about God? Is there a place for some reluctance to become glib about the Ultimate?

We Quakers have a number of indirect ways of referring to divine realities—terms such as the Inward Light and the Seed, used generations ago to avoid an unseemly familiarity with holy realities, much as biblical Hebrew and its readers made substitutions for the Name. In my early years as a Friend, I remember hearing vocal ministry that referred to "the Author and Finisher of our faith" rather than naming Jesus explicitly. Nowadays Quaker terms such as Inward Light can mistakenly be used in the service of weakening our ties with Christianity, but that old impulse to curb our verbosity when referring to God still seems valid to me.

Even so, "faith comes from hearing the message," so there is something to be said for not letting psychological barriers get in the way of that communication. Part of our evangelistic task might be to confront the false barrier of cultural piety. Are we marked by a gooey sentimentality, a cloud of goofy cliches, or any other signals that you must, to gain entrance, turn off your critical faculties?

In John Updike's novel Rabbit Is Rich, there is a fascinating scene where the Episcopal priest, Archie Campbell, attends a family meeting to discuss Nelson's and Pru's intended marriage. The minister mildly defends "our brand of magic" while everyone else is trying to negotiate how much or little churchiness is necessary to accomplish the desired outcome—a respectable wedding. Rabbit's own defense of faith is not exactly zero ("Hell, what I think about religion is ... is without a little of it, you'll sink") but the church-wedding discussion is mostly about appearances, not reality.

As long as it seems that the religion industry is just selling one or another form of respectability, people will find their "magic" elsewhere. And rightly so. Maybe it's not a psychological barrier that blocks the audience from yielding—maybe it's a healthy boundary!

What exactly is the alternative that evangelists with integrity are offering? I think that there is no formula, no doctrine, no scare tactic, no magic that equals meeting someone who looks at you with God's love in their eyes, who offers access to a community that is shaped by trust in God. Some people in that community will know how to communicate this invitation quietly, with an assurance that doesn't depend on using loaded words. Others will know how to communicate with contagious enthusiasm, with generous love that covers a multitude of incautious cliches. There are infinite variations on this spectrum, and somewhere in God's economy, they probably all meet some blocked person's condition.

Along my own route, several people and incidents helped me overcome the barrier. Studying Asian civilizations in high school introduced me to whole cultures not shaped by the assumptions of Western materialism. The anti-war movement brought me physically into churches for the first time in my life. (It wasn't as weird in a church as I thought it would be. Specifically, it was the Ebenezer A.M.E. Church in Evanston, Illinois.) My high-school fascination with writers such as Dostoevsky and Alan Paton played their part. But I remember a much earlier crack in the barrier: a tract I happened to pick up off the floor of our apartment building's lobby, not so long after the incident with the teacher. This tract described someone's conversion. In the process of getting to know God, this writer would walk way outside of their normal routes to pass a church that had Christ's name on it. That Name had such an attractive power for the writer. Hmmm, that's interesting, I thought. Even though I didn't understand or respond to that tract's invitation at the time, I somehow understood even then what the writer was feeling.

If I have any ability at all to represent the Gospel effectively, I believe that in part it's because I still vividly remember being a non-believer who couldn't even say the word "God." But I am not permitted to define my path or emphasis as the only one. I'm glad to share the responsibility of communicating God's welcome with many others, some of whom have very different approaches to removing barriers.

(Originally published on September 7, 2016. To date there's one comment, from the late Vail Palmer, referring to Adria Gulizia's then-new blog: "That blog about suffering and God's suffering with us is so profound. What else would a God who truly loves us be up to?")


Right Sharing of World Resources has a new mailing address:

PO Box 2102
Richmond, Indiana
USA 47375-2102

Catch up with Right Sharing's latest news here. And learn more about the search for a new general secretary here.

Diana Chandler (The Roys Report) on the dwindling Christian presence in Gaza. 

How the Kremlin wants its audiences to think about Putin's cabinet reshuffle. (Meduza.)

Sam Adams (Slate) asks why A24 is burying its January 6 documentary.

The Fines have called their film nonpartisan, and in a less toxic political climate, its premise, that an election should not be disrupted by mobs in tactical gear assaulting law enforcement officers, ought to be one both sides could endorse without pause or equivocation. But....

Micah Bales asks whether we have been pruned.

From the perspective of our American individualism, this seems like a hard pill to swallow, but it is in fact good news.

Frederick Kaufman (UnHerd) on the mythical masculinity of Donald Trump.

“My power is great, greater than you believe, and I have gold and silver in abundance.” That was [Robert Bly's] Iron John’s promise to his acolyte. It is also Trump’s promise to MAGA and the manosphere. Thus do hordes of Redditers, Snapchatters, Xers, Instagrammers and sundry other amo-packing denizens of incel message boards feel the pain of the billionaire who now stands trial for hiding hush money payments to a porn star. And here, too, Trump will rely on truths Bly articulated decades ago — that much like infants, his followers will “refuse to remember ugly facts”, that they will “look away from disorganisation, abuse, abandonment."

The Open Culture Web site passes along playlists of the "3,300 best films and documentaries on YouTube." View the list at your own risk.

Nancy Thomas writes about choosing books to keep, Henri Nouwen, Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal Son, and a visit to ... us!

Jason Ricci, "Scratch My Back"—2024 (below) and nine years ago.

09 May 2024

"What does it mean to live life with expectancy?"


Hughes Auditorium, Asbury University. It's Thursday, February 16, 2023, eight days into what many were calling a "revival." In the words of Sarah Thomas Baldwin:

At almost midnight that night, I notice as a Hispanic family reaches the doorway. Bundled in hats, coats, scarves, and mittens against the cold, the family enters with their faces full of joy, rubbing their arms in the warmth. Grandpa in glasses, mama with three little ones around her and her husband, and possibly an uncle or two pause before starting down the aisle. This family captures my attention. I wonder at the late hour, knowing this family stood outside in the chill for at least eight hours with these young kids. Grandpa's glasses fog, and the children start spinning around in excitement. The usher directs them to seats at the very front of Hughes, since those emptied.

As the family moves down the aisle, the expectancy and delight shine on their faces. The mama unzips the kids' coats as they walk, and the uncles and husband untangle scarves and coats, and grandpa wipes his glasses and shrugs off his coat. As they reach their row, instead of taking their seats and folding their coats under them, the family rushes to the altar, dropping their coats and scarves behind them, the whole family immediately kneeling. Grandpa, dad, mama, kids, uncles, all facedown, foreheads to carpet, hands reach out to touch the wooden altar rail in total awe of the presence of God. I take in their expectancy to meet Jesus, their joy at the altar, their tears, their delight in being in Hughes.

What kind of expectancy of God is this?

The deep part of my own heart ponders this, turning it over and over in my soul. What does it mean to live life with expectancy? Could my faith be this expectant, this joyful, this willing to wait on God for eight hours or eight years?

I want to live like this family at midnight, shrugging off my coat and scarf of the weather of busyness and distraction to get to the altar. I wipe away my own tears, knowing that I want to be full of expectation and joy to meet God at the place of surrender at the wooden altar in Hughes or at the altar of my heart even if the wait is long.

Sarah Thomas Baldwin's book, Generation Awakened: An Eyewitness Account of the Powerful Outpouring of God at Asbury, confirmed my happiest impressions of the events I first mentioned in this post back in mid-February 2023. Not only do I trust the author, but many other witnesses and reports reinforce those impressions. However, Sarah's account has huge advantages: her location in the very midst of the events, for starters. Also, her scope is the full event, beginning to end, along with sufficient context to understand similar events in Asbury's past, as well as some background notes on others involved in ministry and service during those February days. 

Near the very end of her book, she provides a fascinating description of what happened the day before this amazing awakening started: a powerful "witnessing circle" worship linked with Black History Month. Then, later that evening, the next day's worship leaders gather to prepare for the worship that would begin at 10 a.m. on February 8 ... and would continue, not for the customary 50 minutes, but for sixteen days.

Source: Facebook.

Sarah Baldwin does not claim to be an objective journalist. There is important journalism in this book: as in the sample above, many significant moments are carefully and vividly described. But she does not conceal where her heart is—namely with the students (she's vice president of student life at Asbury), and with the colleagues alongside her in ministry, and with the thousands and thousands of others who made their way to Wilmore, Kentucky, as word of this remarkable outpouring spread throughout the world, and with all those who shared the hopes and expectations of knowing Jesus among them (us) all.

Sarah's book is multidimensional. She describes events and their spiritual significance to her, but she does not leave out the emotional dimension. She relates how she feels overwhelmed at times; occasionally she just about hits the wall from exhaustion; tears come frequently; she misses her family during those extra hours she and her colleagues give up to serve the students and visitors. There's plenty of crisp realism: the fire marshall demands that the university control the numbers inside Hughes Auditorium or he'll shut it down. Food, toilets, trash, secondary locations for overflow crowds, coordination with police, and many other aspects of sustainability for an unexpected major event ... all these unromantic realities of those days are well covered in the book.

Notes I made while reading.

As Sarah recounts, the ongoing worship inside Hughes also required careful stewardship. It becomes a priority, a "plumbline," to protect the original nature of this outpouring (Asbury's leaders recommend reserving the term "revival" for future assessment) as the tender response of students to an unforced and unplanned blossoming of prayer and confession—the way it started on February 8. This means keeping "revival chasers," self-important Christian celebrities, and others with diverging agendas or more aggressive styles from pushing their way in, possibly hoping to exploit the opportunity. The path to the microphone was always monitored. Sarah and her colleagues faced hard decisions, balancing the free movement of the Holy Spirit with the safety of the students and visitors, and the physical limitations of the space. In order to give priority to Asbury students as the visiting multitudes threatened to crowd them out, Asbury instituted controls at the doors. Not every visitor could always count on getting into the auditorium. And those who waited hours for that chance, as the family described above had waited outside in the cold, needed care and attention, too. So did the increasing numbers of print and broadcast journalists, and the visitors who made their way to the overflow sites.

Parallel to the events and chronology, she is also meditating on their meaning for her, for her family, for us. On almost every page she has a moment of turning inward and pondering the wider and deeper implications of what she is witnessing. It's this quality of careful description leavened by reflection, prayer, and candid self-examination that makes the book so compelling to me. I too want to ask myself, what does it mean to live life with expectancy? Is my faith this expectant, and this ready to receive?

Sarah's book describes how this widely-circulated photo came to be. Photo by Sarah Baldwin.  

In the context of the spiritual hunger evidenced by the Outpouring at Asbury, I found the following essay by Alan Amavisca very thought-provoking. Alan is the mission director of the North Country Project. Many thanks to Alan for permission to repost his essay here:

For Want of Hunger  

To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again, and be forgiven.—Mark 4:11, 12

A parable is not a delivery system for an idea…rather a parable is a house in which the reader or listener is invited to take up residence. The reader is encouraged to look out on the world from the point of view of the story… —Kenneth Bailey, The Cross and the Prodigal, p. 87

His teaching concluded, Jesus climbed wearily out of the boat and trudged up the bank of the Sea of Galilee towards town. He did not get far, however. Once alone, his puzzled disciples—along with others who shared their confusion—cornered Jesus. “What in the world do you mean with these parables, Jesus? Where are the divine rules and laws we seek? What do you expect us to make of these stories?”

His answer has troubled some readers and listeners for generations. Alluding to Isaiah 6:9, Jesus told them the parables served to keep the lost at bay. Or so it would appear.

I have read this passage hundreds of times and each time it troubles me anew. Is Jesus truly holding the door shut to keep people out? Then I recall the parable itself and the brilliant insight shared with me by a rural Guatemalan farmer and pastor.

I was in a mountain village teaching indigenous pastors how to do Bible Dialoguing. When we looked at this passage, one pastor commented, “This parable has never made sense to me. When I plant corn, I always shape a small cone, poke a hole in the top, drop in three seeds and cover the hole back up.” Then he mused, “I would never toss seed on the road or into the brambles.”

In that moment, my Guatemalan brother revealed the heart of God to me.

The sower did not scatter cautiously—the seed went everywhere…even among those without the least interest in the Good News of the Kingdom. I once heard a young woman announce after hearing the message, “Even if you could PROVE to me that God exists, I would not change the way I live!” But the Good News was preached to her nonetheless.

After Jesus preached, the confused but spiritually hungry sought him out and asked questions. The smug and self-satisfied shrugged their shoulders and wandered back to their affairs, unimpressed with the Nazarene storyteller. The former got what they were looking for (an explanation); so did the latter.

When I step into the “house” of this parable and look out the window, I see the spendthrift generosity of God spreading the message of grace everywhere—where both the spiritually hungry seize it, and the hard-hearted stonily reject it. I also see myself: sometimes hard and unyielding to the seed, sometimes choking it, sometimes (hopefully more consistently) allowing it to have its way with me. And on most days I also recognize myself among the confused but spiritually hungry, asking questions and waiting for His answers.

What stones or thistles in my own life suppress my spiritual hunger and so throttle my fruitfulness?

Young Adult Quakers are invited to gather at Jordans Friends Meetinghouse and Centre, August 21-25, at Beaconsfield, not far from London, UK. Information and registration form are here. Additional information (new since I last mentioned this event) is here: "Where Two or Three are Gathered." (PDF.)

"Are Nuclear Weapons Moral? In Search of Orthodox Christian Thought on Deterrence and Disarmament," with an invitation to Orthodox Christians to participate in a survey. (However, let's not forget the late Jim Forest, Orthodox friend of Friends.)

Another friend of Friends: Palestinian Christian leader Elias Chacour. Thanks to Daniel Wilcox for this interview with the archbishop. The full interview is here (PDF), starting on page 16.

Anat Matar remembers Walid Daqqa, a prisoner with a ‘heretical belief in life,’ who called Anat his Jewish sister. (With thanks to Sharon Gustafsson for the link.)

It’s hard to be optimistic and believe in life when there is so much destruction and death in our region, but the refusal of death is a fragile faith in life. And fragile faith is preferable to surrender.

Going to the Dogs: John Kinney of Spokane Friends Meeting, on Matthew 15:21-28.

Mavis Staples, with Rick Holmstrom on lead guitar, "Wade in the Water."