17 November 2016

The Invitation

The door to our meeting room.
If Moscow, Russia, had its fair share of Quakers, based on the proportion of Quakers to the world population, we would have over 750 Friends in our meetings here. Instead we have about 40 on paper, of whom a smaller share attend a meeting regularly.

Why such small numbers?

One reality we share with other fellowships: small Protestant groups generally have a hard time establishing themselves in Russia, in the face of Russian Orthodox opposition to all such imports, on the one hand, and popular indifference to overt religiosity of any kind on the other.

Within Moscow, groups with adequate funds can rent facilities to meet and then advertise their events. Our group, dependent on meeting in low-cost alternatives hosted by sympathetic organizations, is essentially prevented from doing such advertising. Outside Moscow, Protestants and other religious minorities sometimes face far greater challenges.

Small groups anywhere in the world often run into another obstacle to growth: the character of the fellowship takes on the internal pecularities and tensions of its participants, no matter how individually sweet and wonderful they might be -- and consequently newcomers may find it hard to feel at home. There's no possibility of an anonymous trial visit for newcomers.

Without a commitment to attracting and empowering newcomers, a church can soon become a chaplaincy for the care and comfort of its existing participants. There might not have been any actual decision to take this path; it simply becomes harder to hear or even imagine a call from God to risk anything else.

Maybe we should be more patient? Friends in Russia have gone from one (Tatiana Pavlova) to 40 in a generation. Is this timespan about right? We may admire the explosive growth (explosive by Friends standards!) of the Friends movement in Kenya, but the growth of the first generation of Kenyan Quaker history was almost as slow. Yet, if truth be told, most of those 40 in Moscow were already among us ten years ago; very few have been added since then.

Finally, no matter how dearly we yearn to develop a truly Russian expression of Quaker faith and practice, the blunt truth is that our tradition is an import. How to manage the integration of the most important and prophetic insights of the imported tradition into a culture that has its own deep Christian heritage -- and even has important challenges for all imports to learn from -- is a question we've barely started to answer.

And it's not as if we foreigners have all had the same answers! Some of us have imported a bundle of compulsory Quaker folkways and vague, optional theologies that reflect the classism and the post-Christian allergies of our homelands and ignore the spiritual yearnings and capacities of Russians. Others emphasize encouraging a fully Russian Friends movement, only to find that actual Russians sometimes appreciate some Quaker features that are perceived as coming from abroad.

(For example, one Russian Friend says, "I'm not interested in being purely Russian. Why should I come to a Friends meeting if everyone there is going to be as aggressive as a typical Russian group would be?" I don't want to universalize this kind of anecdotal commentary, but we can't claim to respect Russian input in the abstract without listening to actual Russians.)

Tatiana Pavlova was a strong and insightful leader in the earliest years of the Friends movement, who made a start in encouraging an integrated Quaker movement, with a balance of imported and Russian influences. She was a historian of national stature in the field of 17th-century British history, which is what brought her into contact with Quakers; and at the same time she was deeply aware of her own heritage of Russian Orthodoxy and the long history of Russian Christian pacifism. Toward the end of her life, however, she sometimes expressed doubt that Friends would ever occupy a significant place in Russia. Since her death in 2002, no one has come forward to take her leadership place in encouraging an integrated Russian Quaker message.

I'm far from losing hope, but I'm not sure the answers lie in yet another sorting out of various existing Quaker ingredients, whether local or imported. I would like us to apply our prayer and imaginations to the creation of a fresh Invitation addressed to individuals and to the larger society. In essence, as an opening suggestion for the Invitation, I would want to invite you and your friends and neighbors to meet together with us for these simple, profound purposes: ...
  • to enjoy the presence of the Holy Spirit
  • to support each other in learning how to enjoy this presence
  • to listen to God's direction in what we are to say and do in the larger world.
For practical advice on how to do these things, we can draw upon Biblical and historical experience, including reverent and selective examples from the long tradition of Quaker discipleship -- from those practices that show us, for example, ways to reduce aggression and create space for discernment in our gatherings. But part of our purpose is to risk what's "Quaker" and "safe" in favor of actual faith that God's Holy Spirit is everything in reality that we claim in theory.

This won't happen by accident. We need sensitive leaders and elders (however informally organized) to take the lead in teaching and transmitting the tradition without letting it take center stage; and in recognizing when individual needs require individual attention. But, alongside the ongoing need to identify and prepare such leaders, I hope we can spend some time to shape this fresh Invitation. Once we have a draft, I'd love to see it circulated in our existing groups and in the social media channels that already reach hundreds of readers around Russia. I'd ask them, "Does this Invitation ring true for you? Would you want to experience this community for yourself? Would you want to invite others in your family and neighborhood and workplace to gather with you in this way? Advise us on the strengths and weaknesses of this Invitation, and on how it can be spread."

We could also ask, "How can we help you implement this Invitation? Would you like an experienced Friend to visit you and be part of your experiment in community?"

I don't expect that initiatives like this will take us from 40 to 750 Friends in Moscow in a short time. Maybe it will take another generation. But our times call for a renewed, even daring proclamation of the Lamb's war against the bondages of cynicism, hopelessness, elitism, and violence; what can we Quakers contribute? What are we required to contribute?

Friday PS: When I talk about a fresh "Invitation," I assume that we are actually seeking the best way to express the original challenge and invitation of Jesus to us all: "Repent and believe the good news."

But we're not just issuing a string of words; we're claiming that there is a group of people who gather to learn from him as directly as possible, and to support each other in that learning. We are not saying that nobody else does this, or that nobody else does it as well as we do.

In a sense, we have the advantages of being tiny ("My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness"). We further admit and claim that we have no impressive institutions. We don't use shaming, theatrics, or threats to increase sales. Literally all we have to offer (not counting a modest tea and goodies after worship) is our trust that God's promises are true. But by our three and a half centuries of marginal existence, we testify that this is enough to be church, and to speak to the nations, and to remain free of entanglement with any empire. (Friends: am I telling the truth?)

(I see that, over the course of 12 years of writing this blog, this theme of "invitation" is one I keep returning to one way or another. For example, "Gathering to meet with God," and "Signs." I doubt I'll ever be satisfied.)

On Christianity Today's podcast "Quick to Listen," the November 10 edition examines the role of evangelicals in electing Donald Trump as the next U.S. president. Many evangelical leaders advised against voting for Trump, but 81% of white evangelical voters apparently ignored this advice. Have those leaders simply "lost touch" with their constituencies, or were those leaders carrying out a prophetic role that simply didn't resonate? Listen to hosts Morgan Lee and Mark Galli interview Ed Stetzer (the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair for Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College) on what leaders should be learning from this experience. Related links: Conservative white evangelicals see Trump's win as their own; white evangelical leaders already distancing themselves from the "81-percenters." Trump won. Here's how 20 evangelical leaders feel.

One of the rawest, most moving essays to emerge from post-election reflections: An open letter to my immigrant father, who voted for Trump. As an immigrant myself, I felt something in common with this writer, despite the fact that my mother was vocally anti-semitic. I'm beyond positive that DT would have had her vote.

The Friends Committee on National Legislation's legislative priorities for the 115th Congress.

On loving your neighbor in Trump's America: Natalia Antonova. Adria Gulizia.

Two songs from Big Walter Horton.


Faith said...

I very much appreciate this post and the questions it asks. I don't really have any answers to the difficulties presented here, but want to affirm how valuable they are and how they are worth struggling with.

Johan Maurer said...

Thank you, Faith, for the encouragement.