29 September 2011

Cold shorts

OK, it's only been a week since summer technically ended here, and already 7 degrees C. seems balmy. Judy and I both have colds; even our cats are sneezing. Our guest Liz from Germany, just arriving from the airport, was barely in the door when she offered to make us tea! Well, I'm going to sniffle my way through a few short (but, to me, urgent) items, and then call it a night.

We spent last weekend at the Baptist seminary near the charmingly-named Chaussee Entuziastov ("Highway of the Enthusiasts") and the offices of Big Change to participate in the board meetings of Friends House Moscow. We now need to put our minds to the task of raising funds for the fascinating work that Friends House Moscow does. One of the most dramatic reports we heard was a first-hand account of traveling in the Caucasus regions to give Alternatives to Violence seminars. Services to conscientious objectors also await fresh funding.
  Irina Ryazanova, director of Big
  Change, speaks with FHM board

Maybe the best testimony to the power of modest funding for worthy startups is the story of the organization that hosted us, Big Change--providing vital services to residents and former residents of orphanages. We were among their very first funders, and now they are much bigger than we are, attracting support from government and big business.

We also enjoyed the comfort and warm hospitality of the Baptist seminary. This is the second time the seminary has hosted Friends House Moscow board members.

These days, I'm enjoying David McCullough's book The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris. McCullough opens his book with vivid portraits of the American scholars and artists who began flocking to Paris just a generation or two after the founding of the American republic. I'm using the word "republic" deliberately, referring to the self-consciousness of these Americans as representatives of a new nation founded on specific political ideals. Even as they admired the depth of culture and the breadth of scholarship available to them in France, they were also patriotic carriers of a "republican" identity--that is, a consciousness of egalitarianism, a rejection of aristocratic and militaristic patterns associated in their minds with Europe. Artist and future inventor Samuel F.B. Morse, talking about James Fenimore Cooper:
I admire exceedingly his proud assertion of the rank of an American ... for I know no reason why an American should not take rank and assert it, too, above any artificial distinctions that Europe has made. We have no aristocratic grades ... and crosses, and other gewgaws that please the great babies of Europe.
I was immediately reminded of the first generation of true-believer Bolsheviks after Russia's 1917 revolutions--proudly and self-consciously marching under a proletarian banner into a classless future--and, if necessary, concealing any streams of clericalism or aristocracy in their past.

It was interesting that these early American expats encountered certain hints of a more inclusive democracy right there in France. In 1838, Charles Sumner observed how "well-received" black students were at the Sorbonne, and noted in his journal, "It must be then that the distance between free blacks and the whites among us [at home] is derived from education, and does not exist in the nature of things." In McCullough's fascinating chapter on medical education in Paris, Wendell Holmes attends lectures by obstetrician Marie-Louise La Chappelle, who was "a shining case in point of why women should not be excluded from a medical education."

Two years ago I gave my students an exercise in writing six-word stories along the lines of Ernest Hemingway's famous example: "For sale: baby shoes. Never worn." (Inspiration for the exercise came from this Wired feature.) I recorded some of my students' efforts here (scroll down past the main item).

Last Sunday, one of the Moscow Meeting attenders brought in a bulletin from a Catholic church in Moscow. She pointed to the printed summary of the homily, on the theme of "the last shall be first and the first shall be last," and said, "Look how simply this is written. Why can't we Friends write things that are as easy to read?"

Would we gain anything from an exercise devoted to six-word Quaker statements of faith? Actually, I doubt it, but it made me think about the ways in which our expressions might begin to approach the actual simplicity of our core faith and practice. My suggestion for the first line is actually six words (in English, that is), from Jesus (Mark 15; context):

"Repent and believe the Good News!"

These six words beg a lot of commentary, both devotional and learned, but right there in those few words are the rhythm and passion of the appeal we make to the world. The Quaker corollary is like unto it ... in these eight words from George Fox:

"Christ has come to teach his people himself."

(In Russian, you can say this in just six words! "Христос сам пришёл учить свой народ.")

Jesus is the real thing--God's direct provision for reconciliation, forgiveness, and new life. But the religion industry, especially post-Constantine, worked overtime to privatize repentance and monopolize God's good news. Encountering layer upon layer of regulations, licensing mechanisms, and hierarchies, early Friends said "Enough!" Fox's principle cuts through (or ought to cut through) all that. In the service of this essential and radical simplicity, it's worth working to provide appropriately simple ways to communicate, and thereby, to invite.

Many Quakers would say "It's impossible to reduce a living faith to mere words; that's why we won't adopt creeds." Of course words alone are not enough. Even Jesus's "repent and believe" required parables, signs, wonders, and ultimately murder and resurrection to intersect with your life and mine. But words are a start. Too often we allow the insight that "words aren't enough" to trump the discussion. Equally wrongly, we assume that our only audience (especially in the "West") is those who are nervous about faith language--and maybe for that reason many of us pander to that nervousness by being as vague as possible about what has made life meaningful for us. In doing so we forget about an equally important audience--those who are ready for faith, who hunger for words of life, and who deserve to hear that they don't need the religion industry because Christ has come to teach them himself.

Here's Lewis Benson's commentary on George Fox and "Christ has come....", thanks to the New Foundation Fellowship.

In anticipation of the upcoming World Conference of Friends, here are a number of Salt and Light events.

"It's not 'class warfare,' it's Christianity."

Is this article fair? Why or why not? ... "Wall Street protests reveal slice of America's barely tamed brutality."

And I find it almost impossible to believe that this article is about the USA ... but it is: "Former Pennsylvania judge sentenced to 17 1/2 years in federal prison" for accepting more than $2.6 million in return for sentencing teenagers to two private juvenile prisons.

In Moscow? You have another couple of weeks to see this photographic exhibition on Manezh Square near the Kremlin. (Or see it on the Web site.)

You're not the only one who wonders why female cartoon and video game heroes are so woefully under-armored.

Once again I'm using this song, Eva Cassidy's version of "Time After Time," in my high school classes this week.

Eva Cassidy - Time After Time silvere_vlc

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