27 December 2018

Digesting 2018

January What's so urgent about sex?

As we survey the wreckage left by boundary-violators and the huge outpourings of outrage and counter-reaction greeting every new celebrity scandal and every new debate about "consent," there's something I just don't understand, and this may reveal what a sheltered life I've led. The mystery: why does it seem so important to have sex with someone before you know that person well enough to understand their boundaries? I ask this because every discussion of determining what constitutes "consent" seems to presuppose that having sex is so urgent that those boundaries ought to be measured and crossed (with whatever form of consent the pundits finally agree on) as soon as possible!!!

February The Quaker movement: decline and persistence

... I suspect that there will always be a small but persistent market for what I've perhaps unfairly called boutique Quakerism -- tiny groups with progressive political ideals mixed with a savory blend of self-help spirituality and old Quaker cliches. Their marketing will probably continue emphasizing how doctrinally undemanding they are, how optional their linkages to anything remotely biblical.

Another persistent group will emphasize how safely they cling to cultural evangelicalism in its white North American manifestations, shielding its adherents from any exposure to the dangerous diversity of the worldwide Quaker family, accusing dissidents of betraying biblical standards.

March His eye is on the collateral damage

There are many other examples of collateral damage in Biblical texts -- whether the victims are forces opposing Israel, or Israelites themselves. Just consider the fate of Korah and his friends, including "wives, children and little ones," Numbers 16.

Which explanation do you prefer?
  1. These people's sufferings were inconsequential to God in comparison to the value of teaching the rest of us a lesson.
  2. God's biblical chroniclers did not understand God well enough at that point in history to record God's provisions of care to those whose death appears cruel to us.
  3. These incidents did not happen exactly as they're depicted in the Bible; in reality, no innocent people suffered just for the sake of shock and awe.
Which is it? Did God drown and burn and crush people ... and is it the very same God whose "eye is on the sparrow, and I know he cares for me"? (Scripture; song.)

April Games, sports, comedies...

... The general point comes through clearly: all of these worldly recreations threaten to crowd out the awareness of God. Not that [Robert] Barclay is against rest and relaxation, but I suspect he feels that rest and relaxation are a concession for our weakness, and if we were not in vessels of clay we would be at maximum reverence and sobriety 24/7. Just think of what passes for relaxation in Barclay's sight: geometry!!

So here I am, reading detective novels, getting massages, listening to blues, and grieving the death of Harry Anderson. Are my recreations evidence of the degradation of society (or of Friends) in the centuries since Barclay? Or am I uniquely corrupt? Or is there a way I'm actually honoring his cautions despite the greater freedoms I claim in choosing ways to relax?

May When grief just won't come

... There is progress of a sort. With the advantage of decades of counseling (both giving and receiving), classes in pastoral care, and conversations with others who've had similar biographies, I'm better able to think about the social contexts that formed and controlled my parents' choices. It used to irritate me almost beyond endurance when people said, "Your parents did the best they could." It never seemed that they put much effort into doing the best for their children; they had other priorities, and we mostly raised ourselves. I interpret that cliche a bit differently now: my parents had little idea of what the "best" might be. Racism, atheism, alcohol, the culture of obedience ... all combined to rob them of tools that might have given them more choices and a higher vision.

June Sowing in tears

In the meantime, we may weep but we still do the work. We sow, knowing that every seed (every work of kindness, of faithfulness, of persistence, of honest testimony) bursts with the potential of life and resurrection. At a Baptist seminary in central Europe, Judy and I met a young Russian pastor whose grandfather had become a Christian while in German captivity after World War I. German Baptists had ministered to this former enemy soldier, who was eventually repatriated and formed a church back in Russia. Exiled to the western border of Siberia by the new Communist government, he formed another church in Chelyabinsk. When he was cruelly killed (sprayed with water in midwinter), his wife became pastor and continued the work. The kind and dedicated man we met would not be serving now if they had not kept sowing.

July Reverence

The Quaker approach to ceremony does have its advantages. When you don't have architecture, furniture, and expensive special clothing and hats to reinforce dignity, you may be less tempted to enlist the forces of political and social control to guard the stuff and maintain order. Furthermore, you might be able to reduce church politics because you don't need all the licensing and quality control mechanisms that are the delight of the church bureaucrat.

On the other hand ... in many traditions, the tension between social control (dignity and the mechanisms that reinforce it, such as disciplined ceremony, ancient symbols, a spiritual aristocracy of one kind or another) and powerful spiritual content is a drama all its own. That was part of what made Michael Curry's sermon at Meghan's and Harry's royal wedding so fascinating. All the scripts and trappings of tradition cannot contain the revolutionary potential of love. When we Quakers minimize the container, do we risk dissipating the content?

August George Fox on overcoming corruption

As I sit still and follow Fox's advice, the first thing that comes to me is that there is no special corruption or villainy in Trump's captives that is not potentially present in me as well. They are the same biological species, they are subject to the same signals of territoriality and group mobilization, the same patterns of identifying "ours" and "theirs" and the same tendencies to ascribe evil to "them."

Being honest with myself and God that I'm not categorically better than "them" doesn't have to cause a paralysis of shame or uncertainty. I have made decisions and commitments in my life that I would like to count on to keep me from being trapped in those patterns; and when I stumble or fail, I have already put myself into the hands of a church community that has the right to teach and elder me. The challenge is to stay in the "light that discovers" rather than jump back into those old patterns and shortcuts. Thanks to family and community and prayer, I don't undertake this challenge alone.

September Being perfect, part three

In last week's post, both the Protestant and the Eastern Orthodox writers seemed to agree that ideal disciples are centered in God -- their acts (the Protestant emphasis) and their identity (the Orthodox emphasis) are completely God-oriented. How is this possible? In a demanding and competitive world, where our family's welfare may seem to depend on choosing the lesser of many evils, how can we afford mystical union with the Divine? How can every decision be an act of worship?

Alone, I will never be able to know perfectly whether my choices (for myself and in relation to others) are God-centered. I need a community with others who are struggling with the same questions, some of whom have more experience than I do, and who make it safe to share successes, uncertainties, and failures.

October Quakerism of the future

I totally understand that we're not all mystical, and we don't elevate mysticism as some super-subtle elite key to understanding Friends. But right from the start, we've honored the spiritual gifts that George Fox and some of his companions had -- a particular sensitivity to the inward movements of the Holy Spirit. They didn't exalt those "openings" above the confirming testimony of Bible and community, but those inner confirmations anchored the movement in spiritual reality above earthly hierarchy, above social status, above the claims of wealth and power. In our own day, as authoritarians and their sophisticated technologies confront angry skeptics and anarchists, all with their own competing mythologies demanding our loyalty, we need those God-given anchors. We need to take the time to listen deeply inside ourselves, seeking and finding the inner witness of God that the mystics correctly tell us is there.

November "Don't skip to the end"

Kate Bowler's story has very little outwardly in common with Ray Hinton's. She's a young respected author and seminary professor, a Canadian transplant in North Carolina, and not a convenient suspect in a racially-compromised murder case. But she too faces a lethal deadline: the universe has conspired to impose an untimely death sentence in the form of cancer.

The cruelties she experiences are different from Hinton's, but they're real. Cruel irony: as an academic, she's a student of the prosperity gospel movement. More than just an "objective" scholar, she has immersed herself in churches shaped by this heresy (my word, not hers) and as a result is subjected to all the ways that movement explains non-prosperous outcomes. Even though she herself is anchored in healthier theology, she can't help hearing the exhortations and accusations: Everything happens for a reason. All things work together for good. God has a better plan. Our God is a God of victory. And the constant invitation to self-doubt: It's me, isn't it? There must be unexamined sin.

December Have we seen his glory?

What did John the Evangelist mean by asserting that "we" have seen his glory? Was it John referring to being present at the Transfiguration? Or are you and I included in the "we" by virtue of the previous verse, where "to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God..."?

I'd like to assume that John meant the second interpretation, the one that includes me. But then I'm face to face with the challenge: have I in fact seen this glory which he refers to? And what is "glory," anyway? Augustine defines it as "brilliant renown accompanied by praise." "Glory" can be associated with God or with humans (and if we're addicted to it, it becomes "vainglory"). In either case, glory seems to refer to qualities that are so amazing and transformative that they rightly evoke gratitude and praise.

Patricia Wild in Friends Journal on Sweet Baby Jesus.

Ron Synovitz's keyboard is OUTRAGED!!!

Public domain day is coming!

Rule number one: Know your enemy.

Trump-related link of the year: Nihilism and the empty core of the Trump mystique.

The trustworthy church survey is running through Monday. Thanks to all who have already participated.

My favorite blues track of the year: Back in January 2018, to the sorrow of his many fans, Terry Evans died. Here we can enjoy his collaboration with Hans Theessink:

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