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 things 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."

02 May 2024

Looking back at 1968, with the help of Doris Kearns Goodwin


For the last three or four days, I've been captivated by Doris Kearns Goodwin's new book, An Unfinished Love Story: A Personal History of the 1960's. "Captivated" isn't too strong a word for my reading; I've resented nearly every interruption.

The book is structured around an intellectual and emotional adventure that historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and her husband Richard Goodwin undertook together: systematically exploring the 300 cartons containing documents and memorabilia of Richard's participation in the election campaigns of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Eugene McCarthy, and Robert F. Kennedy, and his speechwriting for presidents Kennedy and Johnson. 

Among the fascinating episodes (described by quotations from the documents and the lively conversations between husband and wife) are Dick's involvement in the creation of the Peace Corps, the shaping of Johnson's civil rights campaigns and the War on Poverty, and the painful end of their powerful alliance when Dick rejected Johnson's Viet Nam policies. Not only did Dick have to turn his back on Johnson after devotedly serving Johnson's "Great Society" vision with all his heart, soul, and superlative communication skills (Jack Valenti called him "the most skilled living practitioner of an arcane and dying artform, the political speech"), but then he also had to abandon presidential primary candidate Eugene McCarthy, whom he greatly admired and whose youthful campaigners he adored, when his personal friend Bobby Kennedy entered the 1968 primary race.

All of this drama might make for absorbing reading in the hands of any competent historian. But Doris and her husband had deep emotional stakes in retelling these stories for each other—and now Doris for us. They were eleven years apart in age, and at times their disagreements reflected their deepest political and personal allegiances—Richard to the Kennedy family, for example, although the example is an oversimplification; and Doris to LBJ. Many times they had different recollections or interpretations of important events, and their conversations seeking a fuller understanding are part of the sweet essence of the book. They recreate a half-generation of American politics where passionate advocacy for economic and social justice (despite all the hardball political maneuverings they recall together) was worth putting one's whole career on the line. Equally challenging for both of them were the times they had to insist on saying goodbye to a titanic political figure simply in order to reclaim one's own life.

I've read about 70% of the book, so I shouldn't give any sort of final assessment. However, I've just made it through the chapter devoted to 1968. I'm ten years younger than Doris Kearns Goodwin, so at the time she was working in the Johnson administration (first as an intern, a member of a year-long program called the White House Fellows), I was just beginning high school. My diary, which I started on January 1, 1968, recorded my first awareness of the events of that year—events that filled many of those 300 boxes Dick and Doris were exploring together.

Honestly, I have fewer than 10 boxes, just a file cabinet of correspondence from back in the times of paper letters, and these 55 diaries, most of which are locked up in a bank. Even so, it's interesting to me to take my 1968 diary and correlate the echoes I received as a fifteen year old high school student with the great events that these authors witnessed or participated in. The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, threw President Johnson into one of his episodes of despair and depression, no doubt made worse by the fires of Washington, DC's riots. When Johnson recovered, he decided to seize the crisis to push housing legislation through Congress to honor Dr. King. My diary recorded the assassination and my own family's crisis at that time, but didn't make the connection with Johnson's legislative response.

A few events made it into my diary that weren't mentioned in Doris Kearns Goodwin's book: the loss of the submarine USS Scorpion, for example, the suppression of the Prague Spring, the flights of Apollo 7 and 8, and the North Koreans' seizure of the USS Pueblo. Their inclusion in my diary reflected my own increasing interest in the Cold War (an interest that actually started with the Cuban Missile Crisis when I was nine years old) and space exploration. The Goodwin selection process for their joint exploration of the documents, and for this book, reflected their personal involvements, and the memories called up by their joint exploration of Dick's archives.

The overarching theme of those involvements, and those memories, was a yearning on both their parts and among their colleagues during that era, to rebuild a politics of justice and fairness. It's a theme reflected in Bobby Kennedy's aspirational speech in the Ambassador Hotel on June 5, on the night he won the California primary. It was a speech he gave a few short minutes before he was fatally wounded. Dick Goodwin had never heard the speech until he and Doris played the recording together, fifty years later:

I think we can end the divisions in the United States ... the violence, the disenchantment with our society; the division, whether it's between blacks and whites, between the poor and the more affluent, between age groups, or the war in Vietnam.

Suddenly Dick rose from our couch. "I can't watch this anymore," he said. And with that, he quickly left the room. I stayed on to listen to a voice that did indeed seem capable of bringing us together.

We are a great country, an unselfish country and a compassionate country. And I intend to make that my basis for running...

Thank you for indulging me in these reminiscences from 1968 with the help of Doris Kearns Goodwin's book. I've mentioned my diaries in other posts, including: Diaries. Radio shorts. Amtrak to Washington, DC: October 1973.

Do you also keep a diary? If you're from this same era, what are your memories of 1968?

Many Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter this coming Sunday. Here are a couple of articles on the dating of Easter: Preparing the Orthodox for the Date of PaschaSome Common Misperceptions about the Date of Pascha/Easter.

Walid S. Mosarsaa: What does it mean to say Jesus is Palestinian, and why do some object?

Who Is Afraid of Degrowth? Visit this page to download Celine Keller's graphic treatment of the idea of degrowth, and how its critics misunderstand it.

Nancy Thomas has also been looking through old journals.

Mike Farley on the contemplative journal and the human condition.

... Explanations and arguments appropriate to the rational, discursive mind so often skip over the surface of our deep selves, over the waves of grief and longing, the currents of desire, like stones over the sea; it is only when they have worn themselves out with bouncing that they will sink out of sight.

Remembering Lazy Lester ... with guitarist Eve Monsees at Antone's Records.

25 April 2024

"Is there fire under the ashes?"

Coventry Cathedral (Cathedral Church of St Michael)—the ruins remaining from World War II and the new cathedral building, consecrated in 1962.
Provost Richard Howard had "Father Forgive" inscribed behind the altar of what remained of the cathedral after the Luftwaffe bombing of November 14-15, 1940. Later he participated in building a relationship between Coventry and Kiel, Germany, which had suffered similar bombing.

Last week, Judy and I visited Coventry Cathedral. The ruins left by the worst night of the Coventry Blitz of 1940 still remained for visitors like us to walk through, trying to imagine the horror of that night.

In the days and years since then, this extraordinary cathedral was reborn as an international center of reconciliation. Is it too soon to ask whether a witness to reconciliation will arise from the ashes of the Gaza Strip?

That may seem unlikely now, but imagine how unlikely it must have been in the heat of World War II's mutual destruction to envision the Coventry Cathedral of today. Just listen to these crushing words from that war:

Adolf Hitler, Germany: The other night the English had bombed Berlin. So be it. But this is a game at which two can play. When the British Air Force drops 2000 or 3000 or 4000 kg of bombs, then we will drop 150 000, 180 000, 230 000, 300 000, 400 000 kg on a single night. When they declare they will attack our cities in great measure, we will eradicate their cities. The hour will come when one of us will break – and it will not be National Socialist Germany!

Arthur Harris, Britain: The aim of the Combined Bomber Offensive ... should be unambiguously stated [as] the destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers, and the disruption of civilised life throughout Germany ... the destruction of houses, public utilities, transport and lives, the creation of a refugee problem on an unprecedented scale, and the breakdown of morale both at home and at the battle fronts by fear of extended and intensified bombing, are accepted and intended aims of our bombing policy. They are not by-products of attempts to hit factories.

But despite the terrible cruelties they inflicted, their voices did not prevail. The very day after the destruction of Coventry Cathedral, its provost made a commitment to forgiveness and reconciliation—a commitment that, by human persistence and God's mercy, survived the hatred and revenge of total war.

After Coventry, we had a wonderful visit with Diana and John Lampen, who promised to show us a cathedral of a very different sort. We were not disappointed. In the National Trust's Kinver Edge, just a few minutes' drive from their home in Stourbridge, we followed a trail that soon emerged into a space that took our breath away. Huge beech trees formed what really did seem like a natural cathedral—not only in appearance but in a sort of quiet grandeur that invited reverence.

Earlier that morning, the Lampens had given us a tour of the Stourbridge Friends meetinghouse, the main part of which dated back to 1689. The outward contrast between that beautiful little meetinghouse and Coventry Cathedral was impossible to deny, but the deeper kinship was also very evident. As soon as the four of us sat down in the quiet meetinghouse and entered into a meeting for worship, I knew that we were in a place where many generations of prayer had built an unquenchable flame.

(If you've kept up with this blog, you've seen the Lampens' names before, most recently in my review of their book Inner Healing, Inner Peace: A Quaker Perspective. We first got to know the Lampens when I was a new member of Reedwood Friends Church's pastoral team, back in the year 2000, and they came to Portland for several weeks as guests of Reedwood's Center for Christian Studies. For more about their interests, activities, and concerns, visit hopeproject.co.uk.)

The title of this post, "Is there fire under the ashes?", seemed to me to be very applicable to the spiritual fire that survived the ashes of Coventry, but the question is actually a quotation from John Lampen's novel, Hester and Sophie.

There are several reasons I'd very much like it if you would get a copy of this novel and read it yourself. (See the Hope Project's publications page.) In part this is because it would be hard to avoid revealing too much of what Hester will tell you in her own wonderful timing. But mainly I want you to experience the way Hester draws the reader into her life with her utterly believable thirteen-year-old voice—whether she is musing on the peculiarities of the Friends meeting her family attends, considering Ariane Grande's lyrics after the Manchester concert bombing, or trying to cope with the devastating loss of Hester's best friend Sophie.

At the beginning of her story, Hester wakes up from a vivid dream. Before she forgets the dream, she uses a blank book, a gift from Sophie, to write it down. She then locks up the book, but later that day, she goes back to read what she had written, and to her astonishment, the words "Is there fire under the ashes?" had been written below the dream...in Sophie's handwriting

Thus begins a crucial week in Hester's life. It's a week that she describes in her own engaging way, sometimes deadpan and sometimes wry, as she discovers capacities in herself and unanticipated depths in others, and a growing realization that Sophie is still in her life.

As I was reading Hester and Sophie, nothing made me stop and think, "Hey, this was written by an 80-year-old man!" But I wonder if you'll agree that, even so, John peeks out from the pages in the form of quiet little hints and maybe one very brief cameo appearance, gently linked to the concerns that he and Diana have devoted their lives to.

I began my own diary when I was just a year older than Hester. I didn't have mysterious writings appear in my diary's pages, but some of what I wrote in those first years of my diary had a similar combination of directness, receptivity, skepticism, and hope.

After I finished the last page of the novel, I found Hester's voice continuing to echo in my mind and spirit. It was a deeply refreshing experience.

George Lakey, at age 86, is still getting into "good trouble." Here's what that looks like to the Philadelphia Inquirer. (My thanks to Keith Barton for the link.)

Here's the latest epistle from Friends Peace Teams.

Rwanda's own experience of organized reconciliation, following the genocide of 30 years ago.

A fascinating, sometimes intense, video: Frank Schaeffer interviews Christian ethicist David Gushee. Normally I don't have the patience to watch long video interviews (I much prefer reading the transcript, if there is one), but this interview really drew me in.

More from David Gushee—on a gathering of the Post-Evangelical Collective.

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.

Voyager I is back in business. It's transmitting coherent data again.

"I can't stay at your house no more because you quit drinking." Buddy Guy and Charlie Musselwhite jam.

18 April 2024

Hostility, part two

Part one: Hostility "to the Christian faith" (September 2023)

"When I hear the word 'Christian,' I can't help remembering Donald Trump holding up a Bible."

Charlie Kirk: "I do not think you could be a
Christian and vote Democrat." Source.
Do you sometimes hear comments along these lines? This is a sample from a conversation I have had in the last couple of days, but I frequently hear variations on this theme—with or without specific bad actors.

Quakers have often welcomed people into our communities who have become disillusioned with more conventional forms of Christianity, and those disillusioned people make similar observations about the word "Christian." My responses are complicated, since I totally believe that their observations are well-founded, and at the same time, Christian faith is what I've built my life around. It reminds me of a dream John Woolman had in a time of illness, as he related in his Journal:

I was then carried in spirit to the mines where poor oppressed people were digging rich treasures for those called Christians, and heard them blaspheme the name of Christ, at which I was grieved, for his name to me was precious. I was then informed that these heathens were told that those who oppressed them were the followers of Christ, and they said among themselves, "If Christ directed them to use us in this sort, then Christ is a cruel tyrant."

A contemporary variation on Woolman's "cruel tyrant" comes up in this thoughtful analysis by Brandon Flanery, "I asked people why they're leaving Christianity, and here's what I heard."

When it comes to the moment people first began doubting their faith, LGBTQ acceptance is the most common reason [21.71%], followed by the behavior of Christians [16.10%], and then things not making sense on an intellectual level [12.10%] (an example of this would be: I couldn’t reconcile how there can be an all-powerful God and evil).

Yes, a good number of my respondents were queer, and not being accepted by their congregations was a critical motive for leaving. However, the majority of respondents were straight and cisgender, and they ultimately started doubting Christianity when they were told they couldn’t support their queer friends and family. Unable to rectify their love of LGBTQ people with the church, they chose LGBTQ acceptance.

However these percentages strike you, I recommend looking at the full article and its range of links with an open mind.

Sometimes I wish that secular people would exercise the same powers of reflection and judgment toward the word "Christian" as they would, for example, toward selecting a refrigerator. They'd comparison shop, check Consumer Reports, ask advice from others, and would not reject the very idea of refrigeration because some refrigerators don't work as well as others. In fairness, those common-sense judgments about Christianity already happen often enough; lots of people visit hospitals and attend colleges founded by churches, go to AA and Al-Anon meetings in churches, admire cathedrals and Christian art, and so on. And as for Jesus himself, he remains admired by many who would never use the word "Christian" for themselves, and even by those who nevertheless consider him our imaginary friend....

I've gnawed on this bone of contention lots of times during my years of writing this blog. In the first "hostility to the Christian faith" post, I linked back to a campaign waged by some Christians against the NBC television network—a campaign that urged NBC to give Christianity as much respect as they give other religions. I asked,

Might it be true that Christians don't get the same respect as other religions? If so, what might be the reason? I wonder if there's an intuitive calculation going on in much of society: maybe we perceive religions as having both a Godward face (which we become aware of through glimpses of their devotional practices, personal disciplines, scriptures, and to some extent, their missions, charities, and so on) and a social/political face oriented toward their neighbors and the larger society. Briefly put, perhaps Christians have low credibility because the general public sees so much more effort put into our social/political face—our demands to be respected, to be influential—than into our Godward face.

A few more places where I've worried out loud about these themes:

October 2006, The golden age of evangelism (overlaps with the post just above).

Nothing could be better for evangelism than for evangelicals to acknowledge that society no longer gives us a free pass, and get over it. That free pass was never completely honest, anyway; even Karl Rove allegedly has contempt for his evangelical allies. It used to be that foreign tourists were allowed to visit such Kremlin sites as Lenin's tomb ahead of the Russians who had been waiting to get inside; now we have to wait in the same lines. More bother for us, maybe, but less grumbling from the rest of the line. In the unsentimental post-Christian world, it's no longer an advantage to be citizens of another Kingdom; we actually have to make our case to our neighbors one at a time.

October 2006, Can evangelicals reproduce?

...The end of evangelical celebrity credibility might actually be a wonderful thing: young people are reduced to the necessity of finding faith through the direct ministry of the Holy Spirit; through relationships with flesh and blood mentors; and by encouraging each other.

March 2010, Meeting Jesus halfway

Years ago, when I was a new Christian, a newly-minted Quaker in Ottawa Meeting, I was asked (by another Quaker!) how I could justify calling myself a Christian after all the garbage Christians had perpetrated throughout history—the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, relentless anti-intellectualist campaigns against everyone from Galileo to Darwin, colonialist missions, endless religious wars, and so on.

Since that day, I've had 35 years [now 49!] to try to collect articulate answers, but that was then....

January 2016, Christian politicians and Rosemary's ice cream

...We may have to grit our teeth sometimes when we see centuries of Christian social teaching and our own Quaker values dismissed in favor of civil religion drenched in pious cliches, but we'll probably survive. My bigger concern is the politician's impact on non-Christians and "nones"—who already have plenty of evidence of the sort of Christianity that comes (borrowing from Mark Twain) "with its banner of the Prince of Peace in one hand and its loot-basket and its butcher-knife in the other." Christian politicians (or anyone, for that matter, we included) who forget the evangelistic imperative in favor of enemy-baiting have much to answer for. With humility and persistence—and without engaging in the same savage rhetoric—let's require those answers, in full view of the public.

May 2017, Mocking Jesus

Let's not play fast and loose with what it means to mock Jesus. When we present a compromised Gospel that actually mocks our enemies and trashes those who disagree with us, while conveniently propping up Caesar, it is damnably self-serving to charge that their response is somehow mocking Jesus. Maybe they're mocking us, and maybe it's not always fair, but chances are good that they might actually yearn for some evidence of a true Savior. We should at least be ready for the costly work of testing that possibility, and then doing what we can to respond. And in the meantime, bite our tongues!!

August 2018, Good news or bad news?

...The White House meeting and dinner again put a set of celebrity evangelical leaders in the national spotlight, in effect giving them a unique public setting to do the evangelizing that their label obliges them to do, in season and out of season. Instead, the main aim of the evening seems to have been to enlist them and their followers in the president's re-election campaign. If there was a peep of protest there, it never reached the public.

February 2020, William Barr, Max Boot, and "the vapor trails of Christianity"

Is it possible that both Barr and Boot don't pay enough attention to this "popular religiosity"? Barr wants to argue that the transcendent claims of religion impose limits on human waywardness that no laws or secular ideals can match. Is this in fact true? And maybe Boot's charts of religious and nonreligious nations also can't take into account whether the religions being cited all have comparable claims on the hearts and consciences of their adherents, or are often simply identity markers along with all other features of their cultures.

Pew Research offers five facts about religion and Americans' views of Donald Trump.

Darrin McMahon compares the words "equality" and "equity" and asks, "...What does 'equity' really mean and when and why did it emerge as a contemporary key word?"

Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends has invited Darren Kenworthy to speak to us at our annual sessions in June. Here's part one of Judy Maurer's interview of Darren.

Rondall Reynoso on the individualistic community of evangelicalism.

...I realized that this individual over-communal mindset is part of why evangelicals have such a hard time with the idea of systemic racism. We are conditioned to look at everything through an individualistic lens. In our minds, there is no such thing as communal sin and communal judgment. We may know that, biblically, there is such a thing but it is beyond the bounds of the lenses through which we view the world. If I’m not actively discriminating then how can I be responsible for broader issues? I’m sure there were Israelites who felt the same way when Israel went into captivity.

Friends Committee on National Legislation is collecting Quaker statements on the war in Gaza.

Chester Freeman writes in Friends Journal on prayer, illumination, and healing.

Blues from Dnipro, Ukraine. Konstantin Kolesnichenko (harmonica) and the Bullet Blues Band.

11 April 2024

"Are Quakers part of the Church?"


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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