28 December 2017

Digesting 2017

January: Grace and mercy

"There's NO happiness in life!" "There IS!" "There IS!"
"There IS, there IS!" Aleksei Merinov, Moskovskii
Komsomolets, via vk.com.
[Writing about our visit to the Dormition Cathedral in Vladimir, Russia...] In those moments ("That's what we mean by 'church'") and in that specific part of the cathedral, I felt I was experiencing the warm heart of the Orthodox heritage. It was a complex joy, because I felt surrounded by evidence of the spiritual paradox that is Russia: an ancient Christian faith that preaches mercy and grace, simplicity and avoidance of judgment, contrasting with centuries of relentless violence, conspiracy, invasion, aggression, suspicion, and mass-scale cruelty. Furthermore, that impulse to cruelty sometimes even tries to cover itself with the terms and symbols of Christian faith.

[Yes, I understand that Russia is not the only place where that last bit happens.]

February: Faultlines, part two

[Commenting on the upcoming division of our Northwest Quaker family....] I specifically mean that we were unwilling as a yearly meeting to examine what biblical authority means to us, and why it means different things to different Friends. In my more jaundiced moments, I felt that it was more important to some influential Friends to maintain a stance as heroes of biblical authority than to grant grace to those who cherish the Bible equally but come to different conclusions on controversial issues. I cannot find any other reason to rush the process along other than the threats of such Friends to pull their churches out of the Yearly Meeting if the day of reckoning were to be postponed any longer. So: to avoid losing those angry churches, dissenters were seen as expendable.

March: Do we realize how we sound?

One of the opening frames of Lord, Save Us from Your Followers.
When we Christians are at our most obnoxious in public, could we stop a minute and think honestly about what audience we're addressing? Are we actually speaking to the people we want to bless? Are we actually in direct contact with those who need the Good News, and can we make it our first priority to provide access to the community formed by that Good News? ...

Maybe, if we're honest, our audience really isn't "unreached" people at all. Maybe we're actually trying to impress our own communities. Maybe we're afraid of crossing our group's own thought police, a feature of far too many evangelical subcultures. Maybe we're actually addressing our individual selves, using conspicuous righteousness to compensate for our own unresolved addictions. These sorts of proxy audiences would explain a lot of the anti-evangelistic public messages that come from supposed evangelicals.

April: "On the vocal ministry"

I'm speaking with my Ottawa Quaker mentor Deborah
Haight around the time of this story.
. . . It was the closest thing to a baptism I'd ever experienced among Quakers, and it happened about forty years ago. ... During the worship, a local Friend stood up and gave ministry that included a reference to the oil crisis that had started a year or so earlier. I was suddenly overwhelmed by the power of God -- and was given a phrase or two that I knew I had to say out loud. Nothing more than a dozen or so words came to me, and I was given no time to rehearse or elaborate in the safety of silence. Up I stood, as if pulled up by my armpits. One corner of my consciousness was observing myself with surprise as I began speaking about a Power that wasn't subject to shortages, that could not be embargoed or rationed, unless we ourselves blocked or rationed it.

May: At the head of the table

Both George [Fox] and Margaret [Fell] had been condemned to be "out of the King's protection" for refusing oaths of allegiance and religious supremacy to the king. In one legal appeal mentioned by Margaret, even habeas corpus was ruled as unavailing in the face of this condemnation, known as praemunire. But, according to Margaret's testimony, her original crime was not refusing the oaths, but allowing her home to be used as a meeting place for dissenters and dissenting congregations, namely Quakers.

So, the founding generation of Friends collided directly with the collusion between church authorities and government authorities (in other words, the people who were then "at the head of the table") to repress free expression of Christian faith. The texts, vocabulary, rites, and structures of those claiming to represent the Gospel had been scandalously re-purposed for bondage.

June: It's hard to believe in Jesus

My crucial encounter with Jesus in the pages of the Bible, 43 years ago, led to my decision that I could trust the One who said, "Love your enemies." As I sat on my bed reading the Sermon on the Mount, trying to process the effect that those few words were having on my whole mind and body at that moment, I realized that it really must be God. Only God could speak this command into my life with such heart-stopping authority. After seeing violence destroy my family and poison my nation, I had thought that my capacity to trust had been robbed from me, but that day it was restored.

What was strange to my 21-year-old self was how few others seemed to understand my excitement. As a student at the Institute of Soviet and East European Studies at Carleton University, I was immersed in the world of the Cold War, and I was aware of the empires and neocolonial structures on either side of that big divide. I was also aware of how my own family had been formed in the postwar chaos following World War II. On the one hand, war seemed like the ultimate absurdity; on the other hand, the world seemed to consider the ideals of nonviolence equally absurd, and its advocates (at their best) sweet but marginal eccentrics.

July: A good Quaker is hard to find

Nowadays, among some Friends, "that of God in everyone" is sometimes used as a self-contained summary and explanation of what we Friends believe. For that purpose, it's cultish and inadequate. It avoids saying anything about the Friends movement that is awkward in today's skeptical culture: the Bible, Jesus, the cross.

But as the heart of Friends evangelism and missiology, "that of God" is crucial. Rather than presenting seekers with a set of propositions, we encourage them to turn to that witness of God's love and truth already within them. It's a message that is made credible [or not!] by how our own community lives in light of that witness.

August: That "evangelical" label

"Evangelical" is a link to my own conversion to a personal faith in Jesus, my resistance to cerebral and relativistic substitutes. But that personal dimension might not be obvious to anyone else, especially those burned by authoritarian counterfeits. The irony is that genuine evangelicalism exalts evangelism, but the authoritarian counterfeits are generally repulsive to a skeptical world ... except when they hook those who are vulnerable to promises of total confidence.

Maybe the key point is not to invest myself emotionally in the label as a flag to be flaunted, or as the proud badge of a righteous gadfly. Instead, it's up to me to build a relationship with you or any other audience, a relationship that's able to carry -- in both directions -- the substance of what we want to say about faith.

September: Your obedient servant

My skepticism about obedience only increased when I read the collection of articles in War: The Anthropology of Armed Conflict and Aggression, (see brief excerpt here). This book revealed the zoological realities behind our behaviors and our pretensions. All of the elaborate social and political mechanisms we've build up to organize, conduct, and pay for warfare, recruit soldiers, and justify their actions and outcomes, are just extensions of animal behavior.

It seemed to me, a brand new Christian at age 21, that the obvious response was to demolish all this pretension by directing people's attention to the Biblical vision of peace and the Savior who mobilizes us into the Lamb's war. No longer do we need to fear and mobilize against each other. Instead of obeying, we should be evangelizing.

October: Boredom for dummies

Trackside at Shelby, Montana.
In a moment of unguarded boastfulness, I once said that I was never bored. That claim didn't stop me from preparing for the transatlantic flight and the train trip by loading my Amazon Fire with episodes of Doctor Who and the Vietnam War series, along with two novels, two books of theology, a history of Protestant missions, and two autobiographies -- by Norwegian politician Gro Harlem Brundtland and American astronaut Scott Kelly. But much of the time, day and night, I just watched the country scroll past the window. I felt no pressure to savor or memorize or store up -- I just let the planet be the planet and me be me.

November: Becoming the church we dreamed of, part one

Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends approves its name.
My fondest wish -- that Northwest Yearly Meeting would remain united -- did not come true. It was tempting to grieve that rupture indefinitely ... and, to be honest, the grief is not going away soon. However, it is a wonderful comfort to realize that nothing so far is blocking my existing friendships and actual collaborations with Friends in Northwest Yearly Meeting, and I plan to hold on to every relationship I possibly can. In the meantime, I look at developments in Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends with the attitude that Shane Claiborne expressed in his book, The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical.
... [W]e decided to stop complaining about the church we saw, and we set our hearts on becoming the church we dreamed of.
Part two.

December: Seeing Red, part two: On the other hand, ...

We should constantly defend and promote our values, whether we're demanding accountability for domestic surveillance or for the way we treat other countries. Asking for accountability from our own agencies and politicians doesn't contradict being utterly realistic about threats from elsewhere, and analyzing those threats for both method and motive.

I don't argue that we're no better than other countries who spy and hack, but I really hate the imperial mentality that says that, when we Americans do something, it's automatically ok because God bless America etc.

Russian commentators who are essentially sympathetic with democratic ideals sometimes caution us with yet another nuance: Don't credit Putin and his team with more sagacity or strategic vision than they actually have. To do so just plays into their hands, amplifying their own efforts and fitting right into the "Make Russia Great Again" agenda.

Thanks for putting up with this annual exercise. Next week, the usual format with the usual serving of righteous links. New Year's blessings!

Favorite blues video of the year -- a self-serving designation, since this is the only music video I made this year. Performers: a rockabilly group we ran across in St. Petersburg, Russia, in June. We still don't know their name. If you recognize these musicians, please update us!


Bill Samuel said...

Thanks for this roundup. Truly gems! It reminds me of why I never want to miss your weekly post.

I also want to comment on one sentence here. "Maybe we're afraid of crossing our group's own thought police, a feature of far too many evangelical subcultures." I understand you were writing this in an evangelical context, but it should be noted that this feature is not at all limited to evangelical subcultures. It is also a feature of far too many "progressive" religious subcultures as well, for example.

Johan Maurer said...

Here's an interesting comment from Christina Edmondson: "Folks desperate to be right (not faithful) live in the poles. This is why the personality traits that require litmus tests w/in progressive and conservative thinking/theologies are so similar."

See this tweet.

Johan Maurer said...

PS to Bill! Thanks for your kind comment. New Year's blessings!!

David H Finke said...

A refreshing review of some real gems, from one of my best teachers and comrades. Thanks so much, Brother Johan! I look forward to sharing this with others, who can then follow the links to the original articles. A nice calm, reflective way to close out the year. By the way, if we pretend we are Russian can we celebrate yet another Christmas?

Johan Maurer said...

David, thanks for the yummy helping of encouragement. And you don't have to pretend, join the celebration! No law against jumping from one calendar to another to honor the Prince of Peace and enjoy fellowship with another corner of his community. (Anyway, that's my line and I'm sticking to it. It helps that my social networks will be filled with reminders from former students and colleagues.)