12 January 2012


Winter's progress,
on mobile phone,
part two:
Our neighborhood

We were having a Christmas meal with some friends not long ago. The topic turned to faith and religion. One friend found it hard to understand why people need religion when, to her, it seemed that everything essential about our relationship with God can be found within.

I have a great deal of sympathy with this way of thinking, which (despite collectivist stereotypes of Russian people) I encounter here fairly often. Since my parents and many of my Northern European relatives grew up utterly rejecting the religion industry, this viewpoint helped form me, too, except that in my parents' case, they didn't believe that there was anything inside, either.

When I meet a person who has found a loving spiritual home in a structured and hierarchical setting, or who seems on a positive path toward that setting, I would never seek to divert them. But for those who seem to know God exists but resist organized religion, I feel a warm connection with that resistance. That is my story. But I still gently challenge the false binary choice: either you choose the whole apparatus or you're condemned to be a church of one. If God has set your spirit free, how can you work out all the implications of that freedom on your own? And one implication is this: others might be hungry to hear about that freedom. This seemed to be the case at that recent dinner, where other people around the table  were intently listening to our conversation.

At its worst (we noted), religion becomes yet another form of bondage, where words that claim sacred power are used to lash and control people on behalf of someone's own agenda. But at its stripped-down best, religion seeks to make a liberation that is centered in God communicable and portable and accessible, and gives us a way to meet each other at last in a place where we can take off our masks. We can cry and laugh and sing and be silent. Together we might honestly, unaffectedly ask Jesus what might be the next step in our newly-born desire to bless our neighbors in his name.

As we considered our friends' arguments that God is within and that churches are essentially crutches for weak people with inadequate internal guidance, we realized there was another missing dimension in our friends' experience: multi-generational churches. It's just assumed that you grow up secular; to choose a church is to fill a need (and meet others filling that need), and if you don't have that need, you don't make that choice. It follows that churches are filled with people who are otherwise inadequate. (Of course that's not entirely false!--but not in the way they mean.) They don't take into account what is normal in much of the world: churches whose cultures have been formed by generations of people born and growing up inside the church, whose ability to function autonomously was helped, not hindered by that church upbringing. Yes, I personally made a choice to leave atheism and join a church, but, thank God, the church was already there to receive me, and its core community was built over generations. For many people here, those sorts of generational ties, even within the Orthodox stream, were cut during the decades of official atheism. Of course I knew this history intellectually, but these conversations helped me to understand at a deeper level why the phenomenon of church community is so hard to explain.

I've learned that we cannot be too glib in describing the Quaker ideal of church as a community of people voluntarily gathering around Christ as the head, supporting each other in learning how to gather this way and working out its disciplines and ethical consequences. Can such a flimsy structure really bear the awesome weight of being God's people? And Russians (Orthodox and Protestants alike) sometimes feel that the atmosphere of a church should be solemn, for example. Prayers should represent the saints and councils, not just our own thoughts. Scripture should be studied with a priest or pastor present and guiding, not just in any old miscellaneous setting. The apparent "Jesus and me" superficiality of much Western Protestant culture is not our ally in our communication.

Another conversation, a few days later: We asked a friend whether she was planning to be at the next big political meeting "for honest elections," scheduled for February 4. (I always approach this topic carefully and with humility--as intensely curious as I am about how our Russian friends and acquaintances feel about these meetings, we are not here to push people either toward them or away from them.) She said that she had no faith in large meetings; they change nothing. "What good does it to to tell these men that they are thieves? Don't you think they already know? 'Oh, thank you for telling me that I'm a crook; I had no idea.'"

To me, there is no such thing as a trivial conversation. But I must say that the proportion of conversations that drift into very deep matters--whether it is God or the fate of the country--seems to have gone up dramatically over the past two months. There's a new intensity, a focus, a sharpness in the air. I hope I'm gaining in my ability to listen and pray accordingly.

Rachel Held Evans gives us a glimpse into the wave of evangelical conversations about marriage and sex, some stirred up by a recent book by a controversial pastor whose book I'm not planning to talk about since I'm not planning to read it. Evans also challenges me in a way that I don't plan to take up personally, although I totally agree with her: "... perhaps we egalitarians need to be a little more open about what our relationships actually look like." It's always amused/frustrated me that the evangelicals who criticize homosexuality so bitterly have nothing nice and inviting to say about heterosexuality. But that's a different conversation.

Further to the conversation about the charges of Western church superficiality ... "Clothing Matters: What we wear to church." "We deceive ourselves when we breezily claim that God does not care what we wear to church. God cares about our hearts, and what we wear is often an expression of our hearts. So what does our relaxed worship attire say about us?" My counter-argument concerns the church persona that people may be putting on along with their church attire, distancing themselves from both God and their own daily reality, and reinforcing the shame of the unchurched who believe they're not good enough to be "in church." But the discussion is well worth having.

This is Peace Month in Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends. You can see individual days' peace-themed readings on Facebook.

Joe Boyd's personal "Occupy" confession. It doesn't take as much wealth as you might think to be among the worldwide 1%.

"The cost of serving Portland--and Jesus--as an Oregon politician."

A couple of Russia-related links: "Crime and Non-Punishment" and "Navalny's Tenuous Coalition." The latter article, which is a thoughtful exploration of Alexei Navalny's ties to Russian nationalists (and which nationalists?), mentions Boris Akunin's correspondence with Navalny. A translation of those Navalny/Akunin interviews is being published by opendemocracy.net/russia.

"Ron Paul and the Liberal Interventionists": Shock therapy for those who feel a toxic overload from traditional political categories, but are still brave enough to explore some of their tangled roots. Also, see the January 9 comment, "Why can't the right produce their own thinkers? They keep raiding our side."

Openculture.com never fails to deliver wonderful treats. "An uplifting surprise for Dave Brubeck in Moscow (1997)."

Now really is the "Needed Time." A song you might remember from the film Sounder. These musicians refer to Lightnin' Hopkins, whose version Taj Mahal incorporated into the film's soundtrack--so I've included Hopkins' version in this week's blues offering.


Joe Boyd said...

thx for the link to my blog...


Jeremy Mott said...

Jeremy Mott said.....
Judy and I also are filled with enthusiasm when we watch or hear
Ron Paul giving an anti-imperialist
speech on television. At long last, we say, an anti-war Republican. Obama has been such a disappointment that we often hope we will have a chance to vote for Paul, though we know that this is very unlikely. I also think that Ron Paul's criticisms of the Federal Reserve are well founded, for it creates not only money but inflation---and thus, war. My late father, a banker, liked Hayek, and now I know why.
I do wish that Ron Paul took the criticisms of his past racism much more seriously, rather than brushing them off as unimportant. I wish he would follow the examples of Sen.Robert Byrd and Justice Hugo Black when their youthful Ku Klux Klan membership was brought up.
Ir'a also a pleasure to see and hear Eric Bibb on this blog. I "discovered" him only a few months ago, on a recent Transatlantic Sessions series. He is a magnificent bluesman, usually playing quietly, sometimes making an enormous sound, as you will see if you listen to him on youtube.
Jeremy Mott