09 May 2019

Digesting 2011

That's right, 2011! Today as I sat down to write my weekly post, I decided that I needed a break from observing the attempted slow-motion coup apparently underway in Washington, DC. Looking back on Barack Obama's first term, it almost seems like a more innocent time. To be honest, of course, the cracking and shifting in the body politic, now so scandalously evident, were already well underway.

Anyway, it's been bothering me that the series of annual digests I began in 2010 had skipped a year. Nobody else knows or cares about that gap, but maybe it would be fun to sample what kinds of things drew our attention in 2011 -- our third full year in Russia.

January 2011: Submission

In general, my own family didn't do religious things half-way. Much of my family, including my father and mother, rejected the church altogether. (My father became an Eastern Orthodox Christian shortly before he died; my mother remained estranged from the church until her death.) In my extended family, those who did get involved with the church, however, seemed to plunge in deeply. One fellowship in particular seemed quite totalitarian in its demands; with caution and humility I'd say that the results were not necessarily healthy.

Too often in the religion industry, "submission" is a heretical concept of asking some to minimize themselves so that others can enjoy more power or convenience. I once heard Pope Paul VI quoted as telling a group of Catholic women religious in South America that only a person who is genuinely free can truly choose submission -- I think that's profoundly true. I'm grateful to be in a fellowship that may have found that healthy balance.

(Full post.)

February 2011: Dialogue with Orthodox volunteers

Just as equality is not understood mechanically, neither is unity. There may occasionally be times when a [Quaker] clerk finds that a decision has been adopted even though there may not be perfect unanimity, although a clerk who overrules objectors lightly will quickly lose the trust of the community. We talked about the role of the Bible, the discernment of the community, and the application of accumulated experience of the Church throughout history as factors in discerning the veracity of leadings and ministries.

One participant with experience in Protestant circles asked what we do when we have incorrigibly disruptive people in our meetings. We had no perfect answer for this one, although we agreed that it was important to remain centered in the faith that God is at work and will prevail, making it unnecessary to take hasty, defensive actions. Conversation on this topic continued during tea after our meeting, and it was clear to all that no formula would substitute for patient and direct engagement with the supposed troublemaker.

(Full post.)

March 2011: Life is not a short story

"Life is not a short story. I am not the star." [Pete Greig.] To me these words link directly with one of the central invitations of evangelism: "Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." (Matthew 11:28 -- see context.) One perfectly valid way of seeing this invitation is to focus on the individual recipient -- the person who, by doing you the amazing honor of believing your testimony and accepting this invitation, steps over the threshold of conversion. If you have testified with integrity, you will not have implied that Jesus' "rest" involves a quick supernatural escape from the hazards and temptations of this life.

But I also find it incredibly helpful -- and also incredibly poignant -- to focus on the word "all": "Come to me all who labor and are heavy-laden... you will find rest for your souls."

(Full post.)

April 2011: Holy days

Jesus, you knew full well what we are capable of, but you didn't call your army of angels; you put yourself into our merciless hands and we tortured you to death. Though you forgave us, you died without any illusion that this sacrifice would make us magically into nice people. ("If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead." Luke 16:19-31.) And, indeed, we are not, as a species, all that nice -- we're armed to the teeth, fond of trashing the planet, looking for every possible way to feel superior to others; even those of us who acknowledge you as our Lord and our Saviour often seem more concerned about one-upping each other than making your promises real to the rest of the world.

You asked us to take up our crosses and follow you. If you don't mind, I'd rather follow you without taking that first part too literally.

(Full post.)

Tikhvinskii Convent, Buzuluk
May 2011: Why are we here?

[Sergei] Chapnin talks about the dangerous ways the vacuum he describes can be filled -- using myths and conceits drawn from both crude nationalism (processed in a Soviet matrix) and Soviet-era civil religion with its pagan overtones. Meanwhile, that generation of Russian Orthodox leaders whose faith and practice comprehended both their specific tradition and universal love is aging and dying out.

Dilemmas are resolved (if they are ever resolved!) not by theories and advice -- least of all, advice imported from abroad -- but by example and story and abundant grace. I'm under no illusion that the presence of expatriate idealists like me solves any of these puzzles, even microscopically. It's my privilege to witness, not advise. But I'm more and more convinced that my top priority is to love.

(Full post.)

June 2011: Do I really need to forgive?

My biggest challenge of all in the forgiveness department: Tyrone King, the man who was convicted of murdering my sister Ellen. But that task of forgiveness was inextricably tied up with forgiving my parents, for (in my earlier jaundiced interpretation) causing my sister to start running away from home in the first place, over and over, to the point where she even could have been found in a Chicago south side bar by Tyrone King. In addition, I had to forgive myself for surviving her -- and that was not easy. Although Ellen was two years younger than me, I saw her as more creative, more interesting, more deserving of a long and productive life. Forgiving myself was one of the hardest things I've ever done -- and by "hardest" I mean hard and disciplined work of recovery and learning spiritual self-discipline. In some ways, life as a self-blaming victim was easier, believe it or not.

This isn't the first time I've mentioned my struggle with forgiving Tyrone King, but the crucial point that occurs to me now is that forgiving him for the unrestorable wound of the past is NOT the same as saying that his crime was in any way justifiable or a result of his environment. I am simply aware that both Tyrone and I are accountable to God, and it's up to God to figure out what to do with each of us.

(Full post. Part two, forgiveness, families, and Crazy for God.)

July 2011: Innocent Norway

First of all, Norway is not an isolated land of noble primitives. For over a century, Norway has had one of the world's largest privately-owned merchant navies (presently ranking number 6). The German conquest of Norway in World War II led to armed resistance and Nazi reprisals. The treasonous Quisling was a Norwegian, and the Nobel-prize-winning novelist and national treasure Knut Hamsun refused, even at war's end, to renounce his admiration for Adolf Hitler. After the war, Norway joined NATO. Norwegian forces have fought in Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Norwegian politicians know how to play hardball with each other, as in the recent case of the nasty fight over choosing a new fighter plane for the air force.

Murders are rare, but not nonexistent. Ditto for domestic violence, public alcoholism, suicide, hate crimes and (as I've seen myself) racist and neo-Nazi vandalism. There is no aristocracy in Norway, and many Norwegians share an aversion to immodest displays of wealth, but class tensions do exist.

I'm presenting this very miscellaneous bag of behaviors simply to say that Norwegians are neither ethereal angels nor completely unacquainted with violence.

(Full post.)

August 2011: Anthony Bloom speaks to Friends

This month, I'm helping with a Bible study at Moscow Friends. Rather than plunging directly into a biblical theme, we're going to explore how we understand the Bible and its role in forming us as individuals and a community. I remember a very helpful Wednesday evening discussion along these lines at North Valley Friends in Newberg, Oregon, USA, and I'm eager to see how a similar discussion might go here. A new translation of the Old Testament has recently been published and has been widely discussed (see this item for a bit of an introduction to the discussion), making now a perfect time to choose this theme.

For our first discussion, I chose several scriptures on God speaking to us, through the Bible and through Jesus -- including the well-known passage from 2 Timothy. On a hunch, I also went to a book of sermons by one of my favorite Russian Orthodox writers, Anthony Bloom (the bishop of Great Britain and Ireland at the time he died). There I found a sermon specifically addressing what it means to be a biblical people. I was struck by how close his sermon on the Bible is to the classic Friends view. Anthony Bloom is consistent: he teaches honesty in prayer, in our relationships with each other, and in our relationship with the Bible....

(Full post. Follow-up: Bloom speaks and we listen.)

Bob Schieffer: "Do you believe God uses weather to send
people messages?"
September 2011: "Every kind of sickness and disaster"

The specific issues that grieve God are very clear: large-scale abandonment of faith in favor of idolatry, immorality, and unjust treatment of poor people and foreigners. It would take a very, um, liberal interpretation of these warnings to make them cover budget deficits -- but if they did, wouldn't they be aimed at people unwilling to pay taxes to serve the common good just as much as at governments spending more than the people had contributed? Rarely, if ever, do we see biblical disaster warnings directed against the advocates of specific policies; they are broadly directed at the whole nation that has (often with the exception of faithful remnants) completely abandoned their covenant faith. Those nations who are outside the covenant are not threatened at all with biblical disasters unless they have mistreated Israel.

(Full post.)

October 2011: I ain't no stranger here

A few weeks ago I mentioned reading David McCullough's The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris. I've always loved visiting Paris -- my first memories are from an ocean crossing on the S.S. United States to Le Havre and Paris at age 10, on our way to grandparents in Stuttgart and Oslo -- and so it wasn't hard for me to close my eyes and imagine the life of an American expatriate. In 1977, I went from Oslo to Paris the long way -- by train and ship, via Bodø, Narvik, Kiruna, and Stockholm. By the time I crawled off the train in Paris, it was a relief to be back in a familiar place. In Paris, I walked for hours and hours, just as McCullough's American visitors did, and in much the same places. I experienced some of the same intoxicating experiences of galleries, architecture, culture, delicious tastes, and, above all, books.

My September visit to Paris, which combined Russian visa formalities with seeing our son Luke, brought back those memories of half a lifetime ago and more. Too soon, the visit came to an end. I got on an Air France plane to Moscow, took the Aeroexpress train from the airport to Belorussky train station, took the Moscow circle line metro to Kursky train station on the east side. There I found my green elektrichka commuter train to ride most of the rest of the way home.

(Full post.)

November 2011: The Gathered Meeting, part two

The gathering of Russian-speaking Friends, supported by the European and Middle East Section of Friends World Committee for Consultation, took place two weekends ago in Kremenchuk, Ukraine. Judy and I were both able to be present. Judy reported on a European Friends gathering in Tolna, Hungary, the previous weekend, and (as promised) I led a discussion on Thomas Kelly's "The Gathered Meeting."

In my session, I began by telling the story I mentioned two weeks ago, about how I first encountered this inspiring essay. It also seemed important to acknowledge the chain of relationships that made this essay even more alive for me. At the Friends World Committee triennial in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1976, I was helping Gideon Juma of Pemba Yearly Meeting by pushing his wheelchair around the McMaster University campus. The wheelchair, and my resulting relationship with Gideon Juma, allowed me to be places and see people I might otherwise not have dared approach in my timid status as a recent convert.

(Full post.)

View from Room 8, 9:34 a.m.
December 2011: How to write about Russia

About four years ago, we took the electric train from Elektrostal's downtown station to Noginsk's downtown station, a journey of about 20 minutes. Elektrostal's station has no turnstiles, so it is possible to get on the train without a ticket. But Noginsk's station does have turnstiles, so you need a ticket to exit. OR you get off the train, jump down onto the tracks, and walk down the tracks about twenty meters, to where the station's perimeter ends, and clamber back into town. The vast majority of the passengers chose that path to free transportation. As one of our friends says, "The government's job is to build fences. Our job is to find the holes."

(Full post.)

Other digests: 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2010

A grief shared: coming to terms (or not) with the death of Rachel Held Evans. Ruth Graham. Emma Green. Jonathan Merritt. Sarah Bessey and Jeff Chu.

John Mark N. Reynolds on a Hell of a thing to learn.
I was arguing for the necessity of Hell when he corrected me. He agreed that the Church taught that somebody went to Hell, even many somebodies, but did not insist that any particular person, saving perhaps Judas Iscariot, would be there.
Crown Prince Akihito, also known as Jimmy.

Cherice Bock's whirlwind year.

Journalistic ethics and the unmasking of a popular Russian blogger.

B.B. King in Stuttgart, Germany.

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