30 August 2007

Labor Day shorts

Offending and defending Jesus:
Previously I've mentioned uproars over offensive depictions of Jesus in the mass media. (Here, for example.) Assistnews.net provided another case in the news story, "Jesus Caricature Draws Flak in Malaysia." The offending newspaper is in "hot water" with angry Christians and angry Muslims alike.

According to the story, "The daily apologized for the publication, but [Malaysian Indian Congress] deputy president G. Palanivel urged the country’s internal security ministry to act against the newspaper for hurting the feelings of Christians in the country."

When Jesus was in the very process of being cruelly executed, he asked the Creator of the Universe to "forgive them, they don't know what they are doing." But his followers and admirers want the coercive forces of the government to "act against" offenders. Isn't there a more imaginative way to respond? What about asking the newspaper to host a panel discussion on what to do when people are offended? Or submitting another cartoon in response, showing Jesus reading a newspaper with yet another "violence in the Holy Land" headline and saying, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing."

How hard it is for us to understand that Jesus is not an object of austere reverence, but a loving brother, the firstborn of God's heirs, and we're right in there with him. Only with Jesus by our side, not on our wall, can we have the perspective to challenge the same forces in our time who objectified and tortured and murdered him 2000 years ago.

And those forces, luring us into arrogance and objectification of the other, are partly inside us! We don't overcome those forces by turning right around and practicing that same objectification, that same impulse to punish, that led Jesus' executioners to wish to delete him from the human family.

If we don't learn this lesson, we earn the derision we get from principled religion-haters like Bill Maher. When I watch a Maher clip like this one (New Rule: "Orwell that ends well"), I cheer for the passion he displays, but somehow he cannot see that for many of us, the ground for that passion is the crucified and risen Savior who opens our eyes to the cost of torture.

Like thousands of others, I was captivated by this article in the New York Times about Mother Teresa's dark night of the soul--and grateful for Peggy Parsons' beautiful reflections on these revelations about her.

I'm truly of two minds about whether Mother Teresa's instructions about burning her papers should have been followed, but that very discussion presupposes an extremely important dimension of her reality: she was in a community, and her personal wishes were not the ultimate value held by that community. If Teresa of Avila had not been commanded to write, we might never have had the incredible teachings that caused her to be recognized as a Doctor of the Church. In this case, the command seems to have been made posthumously, but our modern Teresa will not suffer from the process; indeed she now has the advantage of all of us!

This kind of obedience is a mystery to many of us autonomous Americans. As I thought about this aspect of Mother Teresa's story, I remembered reading about icon-painter Liudmila Minina, and, happily, just now I was still able to find the book that features her art: S.V.Timchenko's illustrated collection, Russian Icons Today, published in 1994 by Sovremennik.

Timchenko introduces her work with a brief biographical sketch. Minina wrote poetry all through her youth: "...she very early felt the need of creation."
Having graduated from Moscow Art College she worked as a scene-painter at the Dramatic Theatre in Kazan. After her son's birth she stayed at home a long time and earned her living by needlework. There was a period when she got seriously interested in oriental mysticism and philosophy. She didn't give up painting, painted in water-colours. But like many of her generation her understanding of God and true spirituality were still vague. Enlightenment came suddenly when she was already past 30.

--I even remember the place where it happened, where I felt God,--she says.

A year later Lyudmila was baptized and entered the spiritual world of Church with a firm belief that her future life could only be in it, that there's nothing outside this world.

In Orthodox Church she realized for the first time that she was Russian--and suddenly opened the spiritual depth of this world... [ellipsis in original]

She stopped writing poetry, feeling that after prayers and divine service at the cathedral there was nothing more important left she would like to say.

I find very few if any comparable events in my own life
. In my early adulthood, shortly after I'd said "yes" to Jesus and subsequently joined Friends, I visited Toronto and got to know Ruth Morris, who was then the staff for Canadian Friends Service Committee. I was impressed that Ruth would take the time to visit with young long-haired me, and therefore I really took it in when she told me to prepare for serious service with Friends. Later, I got similar messages from a couple of other Friends I respected (Jim Lenhart was one of them, I remember). In retrospect, I feel very fortunate to have experienced a sort of eldership that may have since gone somewhat out of style.

Then, around twenty years ago I was practically commanded to take on the clerkship of the meeting of Ministry and Counsel at First Friends in Richmond. This was not something I wanted to do or felt aptitude for, but I think I was persuaded because of my intuition that the person doing the persuading had inner authority.

These examples are not exactly in the same league as Lyudmila Minina, because I never believed or was told that, henceforth, my public voice would passively serve as the trumpet of the Church and its doctrines. However, in my private life as a writer, there's a semblance of such subordination: almost all my paid output is on behalf of schools and colleges and nonprofits, for whom I write marketing materials in which my name never appears. What counts is not my ego, but my faithfulness in creatively expressing the essence of the client's values. (Happily, we only have clients who actually have very worthwhile values!) Furthermore, my output does not appear unfiltered; I have co-creators who edit me (and whom I edit), and who fold word and image together, resulting in a far more rich and complex message than I could ever put out on my own. At the end of the process, there's nothing that I can point out to and say, "That's 100% mine."

Maybe the closest I get to the true marriage of community and personal voice is in unprogrammed Quaker worship, and especially when we speak during worship. The experience of preparing sermons during my time as a pastor was a close second: time after time, I would sit down on Sunday morning at 5 a.m. and begin to outline the apparent message that had been growing in me during the week. In my prior speaking experiences before becoming a pastor, I would nearly always speak from sketchy outlines. What was remarkable about my experiences of sermon preparation--in stark distinction to almost all other times I prepare talks, and it didn't even always happen for sermons--was that words, whole sentences, whole paragraphs would tumble out, demanding to be written down verbatim, and it was all my poor fingers could do to keep up. This was not "automatic writing"--my brain was very much engaged--but I definitely felt like a co-creator rather than a soloist. Time and time again the story arc landed in a place I'd not intended or expected.

Righteous links: Is your meeting one of those congregations where some prefer traditional hymns, some prefer contemporary choruses? Read Mark Labberton's Leadership article, "The real worship war: Forget about choruses versus hymns—what about justice?" ~~~ Peter Guralnick defends Elvis Presley from charges of racism. ~~~ The Friends International Library has updated its Web site--revisit it and tell us what you think. Our Power of Goodness project has just received a warm endorsement from the Minister of Education and Science of the Chechen Republic. Among other things, he writes, "The publication of collected stories for children on tolerance, kindness, and compassion for people is a part of that help that the children of Chechnya especially need. On earth, where cruelty and callousness have continued to dominate for decades, the people, the children, yearn for kindness, the spirit of charity, and creative work. For this reason, those who took part in this noble work deserve special appreciation."

Muddy Waters tells a Danish audience that "blues and trouble keep on worrying me." [Original video was deleted by YouTube, so here's the set it came from, cued to this song. Maybe you'll want to watch the whole set. Copenhagen, 1968.]

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