27 December 2012

What was I thinking? 2012 edition

Our Institute at 9:20 this morning.

What I really want to write about is asceticism, both within Russian Orthodoxy and in Russian Orthodox stereotypes of those joyless Protestants! But I'm too undisciplined to write about discipline tonight--or maybe it's just too much cold medication. Maybe next week.

Instead I've decided to steal a leaf from my end-of-year post two years ago, and try to chase a few scattered threads from my blog posts during this year that is about to make a full escape into the past.


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.

February--Diffident no more

Transparency and transformation should be a wonderful purification from elitism: there is no basis to claim superiority when we're standing before God without the filthy rags of prestige or privilege or even years of committee service! But caution caution! our sheer exuberance in this discovery should not become yet another elitism. I almost titled this post "Quaker machismo" (as an echo of "evangelical machismo" part 1 and part 2) but decided not to risk the gender overtones. Still, what I said about the athleticism that seemed to be coming into fashion among evangelicals still seems important to say. Most of us will never become superstars of transforming faith, dazzling others with our ability to be on fire with the Gospel. I want to be yoked with those who are also quiet, modest, uncertain, struggling. Some of us might be almost ready for transformation, but still dealing with addictions or social entanglements. Others are much farther on the path than I am, but their spiritual gifts or temperaments are simply far more private; for now they haven't yet found the way to beckon us alongside. (Oh, please try!) They too are Friends.

March--Being wrong is not the same as being evil

I want to be in fellowship with people who think I'm wrong, and who I believe are wrong. I cannot stand the suffocating feeling that I get among those who prefer mutual admiration of their advanced political views. I also want to keep a lively curiosity about why some persistently choose paths that seem inconsistent with our shared faith or even their own interests. What are they seeing that I'm not? And what connections are they not making between faith and practice that I could, through love and persistence, encourage them to consider? Being wrong is not the same as being evil--in their case, and in mine.

April--It is impossible that no offenses should come...

Part of the criticism of Pussy Riot is the offense they caused to the feelings of believers. I think that within the international Body of Christ it is legitimate to ask, humbly, what exactly it means to offend and be offended. We are not responsible for the actions of Pussy Riot, or, for example, an artist who seemingly mocks the crucifixion ... or draws a cartoon of Mohammed. But we are responsible for our reactions; we are not helpless victims. Is being offended a genuine concern for the reputation of the Gospel, or a cheap path to righteous victimhood? Are there mature Christian leaders that are able to ask this question tenderly among their outraged parishioners, inviting them to listen to the actual content of the offenders' messages, or at least to consider their immortal souls? Does the temptation to throw the book at offenders actually represent the mind of Christ? These questions are particularly acute for the church when it is in a position of power--because power corrupts even the church, rendering it more or less incapable of treating critics fairly.

May--Signs, part three: signs and wonders

The peace testimony--a life lived in obedience to the Prince of Peace and in defiance of the massive historical reliance of peoples and nations everywhere on violence--is to me a confirming sign of the reality of the Gospel. We don't practice nonviolence just because we're nice people or clever people, nor do we practice it because we don't believe evil should be confronted. I'm passionate about upholding this testimony because it is evidence that we've put our trust in the promises of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. We have not become Christians to make our lives convenient for the principalities and powers of this world, but to keep company with Jesus and with all those who believe what he says. I have no use for a cerebral, miracle-free faith, but the daily walk of peace is actually a daily miracle.

June--Dangerous God

When we enter the household of faith, we may or may not face new physical dangers. We certainly get no guarantee that the dangers faced by every creature on the planet will no longer apply to us, and, furthermore, we may find out that our attempts to live an ethical discipleship attract hostile attention. But we face these dangers in solidarity with the Body of Christ. I'm serious. Literally every congregation I've ever belonged to has made my life better, even as their teachings have seriously screwed up any chance I had of a conventionally successful career path.

July--Grace to you

"Grace to you," we sang, "God's great grace to you." Nate Macy was playing and leading his song as we opened the last business meeting of Northwest Yearly Meeting's 2012 sessions. We would not have been able to sing, "Perfect closure to you, perfect closure to you," because the thorny issues (specifically, same-sex relationships) were not resolved. But we had opened and faced the conversations graciously. We had absorbed the pain of some and the impatience of others--and a variety of other strong emotions--without buckling as a community.

August--Is Christianity under attack?

...I don't think Pussy Riot, or Madonna, or Western liberals, are anywhere near the danger to Christian civilization that graceless authoritarians within the church are. What made me angry about the whole spectacle is the church missing a huge opportunity for global evangelism, by choosing to whine and pout about offense instead of recognizing a golden teachable moment--expressing humor and forgiveness and the joy of the Lord in full view of a skeptical, cynical world. OK, I'm not a Russian, but I am a member of the Body of Christ, and I get to have my little say about what redemption looks like. Promoting a persecution complex that will end up costing three young women their freedom and safety is not acceptable.

A few years ago I quoted Stan Thornburg on the movement to protest Madonna's performance that included a mock-crucifixion on U.S. television. His words seem applicable today:
With tens of thousands of innocent (let me emphasize innocent) civilians being slaughtered in Iraq, tens of thousands of innocent people being raped, displaced, murdered in Darfur, unimaginable suffering in the Middle East, TV Evangelists ripping millions out of the hands of seniors citizens, all kinds of suffering supposedly in the name of Christ and what do I get all upset about...MADONNA?! A pagan who mocks Christ for a living? What else would we expect from her? Where is the outrage because CHRISTIANS ARE MOCKING CHRIST?
I can almost hear C.S. Lewis. When Christians are not Christ-like, there's not much need for Satan to spin external conspiracies.

September--Lost and found

In a post I wrote about six years ago, I wondered a little about the function of Christian books. After all, apparently it was possible for many generations of believers to be Christian without ever having read such worthies as Teresa of Avila or Thomas Kelly. What lesson do I now draw from the fact that, for centuries, Christian leaders have used Paul in the service of their own priorities rather than to shape a life of freedom and equality in Christ? Evidently the Bible has no magical power to require the most life-giving interpretations or prevent its own misuse. Maybe this is one way to state the lesson for Christian leaders in drawing upon biblical authority: beware of any institutional agenda we bring to biblical interpretation. Let the Bible express and serve the promises of God, not the political priorities of humans.

October--Meditations on sectarianism

We Quakers do not proselytize. We are not trying to sell our spiritual community at the expense of another's: our responsibility is strictly limited to informing people about our faith and experience, and making the doorway accessible to those who want to test and see whether what we say is true. Furthermore, as a teacher, I believe that I have the responsibility to (as Douglas Steere put it) "confirm the deepest thing in another," and if that deepest thing is his or her Orthodox faith, I will do nothing to weaken it. If anything, I'd seek to make it stronger!

Keeping that doorway open, however, remains crucial!! Without the refreshment--and the scrutiny--of new people, we run the danger of stagnation, of becoming a chaplaincy for a small self-absorbed group. There's a question that some Quakers seem to pose whenever we suggest putting more energy into evangelism: "If we get new people, how do we know they are really Friends?" I love the way Jane Boring Dunlap of Wilmington Friends Meeting in Ohio responded to that question in a discussion: "Why do we assume that new people would be dumber than we are?"


Adrenaline and anger are both addictive. They're both deceptive, fooling us into thinking we're stronger and more righteous than we are. Worse, they obscure the larger context, the secret that the principalities and powers hope we don't notice: often we and our apparent enemies are actually on the same side of the Lamb's War. In Micah's example--predatory real estate investors--those investors are caught in a false reality, playing out cruel parts in a rigged game that will ultimately poison their souls. If we confine our understanding of the evil to these individual players, demonizing them with satisfying invective and objectifying them just as they objectify vulnerable owners and tenants, we're also trapped. We need to confront those predators with a brick wall of reality, through solidarity with those in danger, through demonstrations, lawsuits, and other tactics, but the rigged system is the greater enemy.

December--Cult 45

God is in every school and can never be removed. Every believing pupil and student, supported by every believing family, has many ways to be faithful witnesses to the reality of God. Believers serve on probably every school board in the country. Voluntary school-church partnerships abound, and not just in the Bible Belt, but even in "secular" Portland, Oregon. But the psychological weight of the school must not be used to trespass the boundaries of students' consciences, neither with some specific locally dominant creed nor with a homogenized civil religion that would never be admitted into any church.

This past Sunday, the Quaker community here in Russia lost one of its true elders, Galina Orlova. Her health had been weak but apparently stable and her death came as a shock to all of us. We're gathering materials to pay tribute to her; more soon.

Northwest Yearly Meeting's resources for January, Peace Month 2013.

If your heart hasn't already been broken by the impending ban on U.S. adoptions of Russian children, this quintet of links should do the job. Documents from jurist.org's Paper ChaseGuardian: "Ban on US families adopting Russian children moves step closer." NBC News: "Boy's Christmas wish: adoption of little brother caught in US-Russia spat." "The Kremlin's criminal treatment of Russian orphans." Global Voices: "Who Supports Russia's Ban on American Adoptions?" And if you read Russian, you may already have seen this passionate column by journalist Alexander Minkin.)

"Why Swedes move to Norway and why I tagged along." (Thanks to Andrew Sullivan's "Dish" for this morsel.)

The U.K.'s Royal Mail honors Dr. Who.

"Jesus Is Going to Fix It"--Linda Hornbuckle at the 2012 Waterfront Blues Festival, Portland, Oregon.

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