31 December 2015

What was I thinking?!

Our last evening in Ramallah. (December 28.)

Monthly highlights ... my personal choices:

January: "Don't look for enemies! Look for friends!"

"Don't look for enemies! Look for friends!" Source.
Peace demonstration in Moscow, September 21, 2014. 
This may be important advice for all of us at a time when every major controversy seems to demand villains. And it was a wonderful, very welcome reminder to see this slogan on the streets of Moscow, where the photo [at right] was taken, when peace advocates were being attacked as traitors. But in a world where "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," where false communities based on authoritarianism and identity politics are common, it's worth thinking about what "looking for friends" really means.

February: Choose curiosity

My fantasy is, that when I grow up, I'll be able to sink into this calm place and let go of the need to prove I'm right and they're wrong. (Even when it's obvious!) I'm sure I'll add years to my life and stars to my crown when I get to this place.

But here's an intermediate step: asking myself why we differ. No matter what the facts, no matter what the underlying facts are, there must be a reason why my dear relative thinks that the president of the USA is a Muslim who is letting his terrorist friends infiltrate the White House. I can learn something from her. Even if I don't learn more about the president's faith and friends, I can learn about the forces operating to influence this person, and the forces influencing me.

March: Boris Nemtsov 1959-2015

Back in 1994, when I was working for Friends United Meeting at its Richmond, Indiana, offices, Bill Wagoner and I visited Richmond's sister city of Serpukhov, Russia. We met a wide range of citizens in Serpukhov, including teachers, librarians, artists, and representatives of the city's Vysotsky Monastery. We were even interviewed by a local radio station.

One of the local citizens we met on that trip was a young journalist. She asked us about Richmond, about how we saw Russia, and what our motivations were for visiting. I had a chance to ask her one of my own standard questions: who or what were her sources of hope.

She didn't take long to give me a name: "Boris Nemtsov--he's the governor of the Nizhni Novgorod area, and he's carrying out all sorts of marvelous reforms. A lot of us hope he's got a future at the federal level."

April: Home
"Minute" from pastors' conference

Today Becky Ankeny, our superintendent, spoke about the preciousness of home -- whether it's our church, our yearly meeting, our vocational community -- and about the risk of letting that beloved home become an idol, obscuring the reality that our only true and constant home is in God. It can be incredibly painful when we're separated (by our choice or by someone else's) from one or another of the places that we've grown to call home, where we've found shelter and anchored our identity, but which ultimately cannot be home.

For me, this year in the USA, away from our home and work in Elektrostal, has made me think about what home means to me. I'm not a nest-builder and could live pretty much anywhere there are books, music, and friends. (Judy jokes, with some justification, that I really define home as "where Judy is.") I've lived in six countries and seven states. My father was Norwegian, and my mother was a German born and raised in Japan, so I come by my portability honestly. What makes things complicated is that all of these places have claims on my heart.

Also: Home, part two: our kitchen! Home, part three: my nomad status

May: Other people's patriotism
Peace doves at Catherine Park, Victory Day 2015

At its best, patriotism is a positive quality, providing an emotional investment in learning the best qualities of one's own country and seeking to preserve and extend those qualities. Here in Russia, I tend to worry more about students who don't seem to have any patriotism at all than about students who are "too" patriotic. And, again, maybe all countries have their share of super-patriots who prefer to see the world in terms of us-and-them rather than thinking about how to bless the global community. We have our messianic Americans, and Russians have their own equivalents, each seeing the outside world as threatening sabotage and contamination. But, parades and politicians aside, Russia on May 9 looked a lot more like the USA on July 4 than you'd guess from news clips.

June: "My sin is always before me..."
Farmers' Shopping Center, Elektrostal - source.

There are lots of ways we demonstrate our preference to look at the motes in others' eyes rather than the planks in our own. In the USA, one of the favorite ways is to compare our current degraded state with the good old days when life was simpler, children could play in the streets freely, and (according to the song "Those Were the Days") "girls were girls and men were men." In reality, all we've done is reshuffled the lists of prevailing social and personal sins. For most people without wealth or power, there was not as much good in the old days as today's middle-class nostalgia might imply.

When I'm tempted to compare people or countries or historical epochs in terms of sinfulness, I try to remember Charles Spurgeon's great line: "The virus of sin lies in its opposition to God." Whether we're trying to carve out space for personal self-indulgence or for national-scale oppression, or simply prefer to shut our eyes to others' misery, we end up setting ourselves against God.

July: Quakers' best-fit market

I've always resisted the idea that Friends faith and practice are for special people. Since we welcome anyone who yearns to live with Jesus at the center of the community and learn with the rest of us how to live that way (including its ethical consequences), there is no limit on what "kinds" of people -- sophisticated or unsophisticated (who's to say!?), calm or emotional, of whatever race or nation or culture or even religion -- could potentially feel at home among us.

But I also like the challenge of marketing, or to put it another way, the challenge of communicating our welcome and making sure that there is actual fair access to our community. Ethical marketing communicates its invitations in the form of honest presentations of the host community's deepest values in ways that help those who find those values attractive to try out our community. Creativity in marketing involves making those values shine in the midst of the world's noise, but it never involves pretending something that isn't true.

August: War noises
Separated at birth?

To me it seems that this mutual enemy-mongering is absurd. Both countries have much to gain from friendship, and in the long run, less than nothing to gain from conflict with each other -- and acknowledging this reality doesn't require us to like either the imperialism of one country or increasing repression in the other. (My vagueness is deliberate and intended to be instructive.)

The enemy talk between the USA and Russia is not symmetrical; the differences are interesting. The USA seems most concerned about the potential restoration of the Russian empire on the western periphery of today's Russian Federation. American officials don't spend as much time defending human rights as they seem to blame Russia for not cooperating with American-led arrangements for global security. On the other hand, Russians don't see the American threat as one of outright expansion outside the USA's borders. The concern, as summarized in this article by Serghei Golunov, is that the USA and other Western countries are sources of conspiracy and subversion, bent on undermining Russia.

September: Theological mathematics

It's not that we shouldn't have boundaries. Apparently many people are, at any given moment, not attracted by the Light we ourselves have found irresistible; they are entitled to their choices. But our invitation must remain honest and real and the door must remain open, fully lit. What we can't tolerate is a false welcome, an ostensible invitation with hidden screens to be sure nobody we're uncomfortable with stumbles in. Yes, we will have healing work to do; wounded people are not entitled to remodel the household of faith to suit their allergies and addictions. We will have to struggle, together with newcomers, over different understandings of the ethical consequences of conversion, whether the sharp edge of the struggle is sex or money or the obligations of citizenship. God knows, we're dealing with all this ourselves. But, the point is, when people come to us and say that they're ready to embrace Jesus, we then face these problems, even these conflicts, together.

October: Evangelism or proselytism?
"Russia's largest circus" comes to Elektrostal

By any objective statistical account, we Friends in fact either don't believe in proselytism, or we are highly ineffective in practicing it. Philadelphia is one of the historic centers of Friends, but there are three times as many Catholics in the Philadelphia archdiocese as Quakers in the whole world. Rather than admitting to sheer communal incompetence, I prefer to believe that we actually resist trying to lure people away from their settled spiritual home into ours.

However, Quakers do evangelize.  Or, that is, we ought to. Anywhere there is spiritual seeking, spiritual questioning, or spiritual oppression, people ought to have access to the Friends message: "Christ is here to teach his people himself." Evangelism is not an attempt to hook people who already have a good relationship with their Creator in their present spiritual home. It is simply a winsome expression of our Christian testimony, coupled with an invitation to experience the community formed by that testimony. It utterly depends on honesty, accessibility, and hospitality.

Also, Evangelism or proselytism, PS: the grey zone.

November: If Jesus only knew
Christ and the Sinful Woman,
Elena Cherkasova (Luke,
chapter 7, verses 36-50)

When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner." ...

First, I tried (and will continue trying) to put myself in the woman's place in this scene. I've been forgiven, and I would like to wash Jesus' feet with my tears and wipe them with my hair. No, not literally, but I can work on this question: what prayer and what action would be an equally worthy thanksgiving for the grace that turned my life around and gave it meaning? How can I thank God sufficiently for my new family? ... by which I mean all the people in the world who are also figuring out how to live with God at the center. And, if "sufficiently" is not possible, can I at least abandon all pretenses and all worries about the rest of the audience as I pour out my honest tears?

The second point is more or less the reverse: I put myself in Simon's place. Whom have I examined and found wanting?

December: Division of labor
Opposing Views (Facebook); vox.com via Facebook   

God's plan doesn't require unanimity. Instead, we have a division of labor. Those of us who are gifted evangelists and teachers can persistently open up the space in our cynical cultures to teach the value of life. However, we won't be heard if we're busy throwing rhetorical grenades at those in our churches whose priorities, rightly or wrongly, are different. The value of life is a wonderful spotlight on hypocrisy, reminding us to beware of cheapening it by appearing to value only life that is unborn, or born with the wrong parents, sex, color, capacities, geography....

Our gifted prophets also have their hands full. Whenever politicians cover the protection of wealth and privilege with fast talk and patriotic slogans, we need to compare words and deeds; we need to follow the money trail; we need to expose the consequences of unjust decisions and backroom deals. Those who are really good at this are probably in constant danger of slipping into unfair and overheated rhetoric, and need to be reminded that all life has value, even jaded politicians!

While our meetings and churches try to keep up with their evangelists and prophets, someone has to mind the store....

My favorite blues video of the year -- from the post "Grace and leftovers," my return to Richmond, Indiana, last spring.

No comments: