29 April 2021

Digesting 2007, for better or for worse!

It's a great relief to be sorting through old material for today's blog post, especially after last week's sad and intense post. This time I'm putting together a selection of posts from the year 2007, the year I became an instructor at the New Humanities Institute in Elektrostal, Russia.

There's just one problem: I'm not quite the same person that I was back in 2007. I'm not sure I would make the same judgments about Friends United Meeting's sexual ethics policy, for example. However, that old post really does represent my thinking at the time, and therefore must go into an honest time capsule. That, in general, was how I selected these items from that year: I looked for items that convey a sense of the time, whether it's my then-persistent defense of Friends United Meeting (a theme that has almost disappeared in recent years) or my naivete about working in Russia.

I'm aware that this occasional exercise of assembling annual digests is 100% self-indulgent, although I hope you'll find something that is interesting or amusing, or that reminds you of things that drew your attention that same year. Aside from the gratification and mortification involved in re-reading stuff I'd long since forgotten that I had written, it gives me a chance to clean up the formatting, replace some of the dead links and lost videos (where possible) and restore photos formerly hosted by Photobucket.

Before getting to the chronological part, here's an item out of order:

April 2007's Quaker Blog Carnival was my contribution to a tribute that a bunch of us Friendly bloggers paid to Martin Kelley and his quakerquaker.org hub, a service that expanded our audiences and promoted inter-Quaker conversation way beyond the traditional institutional channels.

Back when I was involved with Quaker Life magazine, I wrote an editorial nearly every month. [Now a quarterly, in those years Quaker Life was published ten times a year.] I didn't realize how addictive that form of expression would be! For me, maintaining a Friendly weblog has allowed me to indulge that need, with the very important added benefit of receiving almost immediate feedback.

Cherice and Chris have wonderfully summarized many of the blessings of the world of Quaker blogging and the Grand Central Water Cooler of the community, quakerquaker.org. I agree with everything they've said. Not only do we discuss important ideas and leadings that cumulatively help us be more faithful people, we also give each other glimpses of our personal worlds and generate new ties of mutual care. (I certainly experienced that when my mother died.)


January 2007: Worship seeking more understanding.

In part, I was confronting my inner curmudgeon: "I shouldn't pretend that my settled views on a subject have been settled all that long!"

...[I]f it were up to me, worship would be outwardly pure and austere. In my fantasies, the community gathers in subdued joy, simply and reverently sits and waits on the Holy Spirit, responds with sincerity and mutual forbearance to the Spirit's inward and outward manifestations and our often fumbling attempts to be faithful, and at some ripe moment recognizes that meeting for worship is over. Before or after that adventurous hour (using the word "hour" loosely), we also gather for "education"--to help each other understand the issues of being a biblically-informed group of disciples who want our practice to match our faith, and who want to design processes of access for children and newcomers to be in possession of all the information, and all the models, that we have drawn upon for our encounters with God.

At our regular meetings for church governance, we would, as a community, prayerfully agree on what additional elements might be added to the worship period to serve our primary hunger to entrust our worship to the Holy Spirit.


February: The unbearable lightness of being Quaker.

I served as general secretary of Friends United Meeting for seven years, 1993-2000. During those years (and for many years later), I often found myself writing in defense of FUM and the ways Friends misunderstood or even misrepresented it. I've included a couple of examples of these essays in this digest, starting here:

Among its many other wonderful qualities and shadowy sins, FUM is still paying for the decades it spent trying to pretend that it was truly "united," served by a staff and a leadership caste that, by and large, was highly invested in presenting the best face to each end of the spectrum, trying to be good friends (and actually succeeding miraculously often) with people who were often not friends with each other. Among the survival tactics: publishing a magazine that was as inoffensive as possible, therefore hardly ever carrying any substantial news, and publishing two lines of Quaker curriculum, Living Light and Living Word, for a market that was so small that it could barely sustain one.


March: Rootless.

When my immigrant mother died in February 2007, I was in the midst of reading a series of books about immigrants.

Actually, I didn't plan this theme; I didn't see the connections until she died. Only then did I think of her story -- born in Japan, involuntarily exiled to Germany, choosing to emigrate to the USA, but never reconciled to American pluralism -- in light of those books.

All of these books are excellent; I'd be hard put to rank them. The first one is Philip Marsden's The Bronski House: A Return to the Borderlands. It is a part biography and part travelogue, but as a hybrid it is seamless, with the wholeness of a wonderful novel....

Dubravka Ugresic's edgy but deeply humane novel The Ministry of Pain is superb at portraying the cost of separation from one's homeland, coupled with the aching confusion of seeing one's homeland become a battle of violently competing identities--the situation faced by every refugee from the civil wars of the former Yugoslavia....

The last book I read was the one that affected me most deeply: Nikolai's Fortune by Solveig Torvik. Like The Bronski House, this book is based on fact: every major character of the five generations populating this historical novel actually existed, and all of the major events really happened....


April: The hyphen within.

Frustratingly, I could not find the original blog post by "quakerboy" that kicked off these reflections. I hope I've included enough context to make up for that deficit.

Paradoxically, who we are is a people of hospitality and tender ears. This is precisely why some of our meetings and churches receive people who have allergies and grievances, or who are by nature skeptical. Those people are precious! Among other things, they keep us honest, they keep us from getting stagnant, and they deserve our attention. If we don't exercise a stewardship of our testimonies and learnings, obtained over the course of centuries, we have nothing to offer them but secondhand cliches (whether liberal or evangelical) delivered in a sort of quaint, antiquarian container. Our guests deserve generous hospitality, but they also deserve stable hosts -- hosts who provide loving access, but who maintain that stewardship, while not forgetting that the process of going from guest status to host status must be available and transparent.


The hyphen within, part two.

May: Why it's hard for me to criticize biblical literalists. [Even though I do!]

Here I'm reflecting how different cultures read the Bible in different ways, cutting across neat divisions of literalism vs liberalism.

Donald Miller and Joel Carpenter ... speak about the role of the Bible in specific social contexts, Miller in what he calls "new paradigm" churches in the USA, and Carpenter in what used to be called the Third World.

Many of us in North American and European Quaker circles are accustomed to arguing about the legitimacy of mining the Bible for rules and models and debating points. Some of us get devotional goosebumps from its ancient eloquence, and experience being drawn closer to the Holy Spirit by the experience of meditating on the Bible. Some of us are comfortably caught in a mesh of linkages between doctrine and Biblical passages. We may even assume from habit that a passage means a certain thing when on its textual face it may not. I gave an example here recently -- the passage that is often cited as proof of the Bible's plenary inspiration and inerrancy, 2 Timothy 3:15-17, makes no such claim. More than that, of course, our present Bible was not even assembled when Paul wrote those words, and literalists rarely seem to acknowledge that a lot of work by human committees had to be done before that assembly was completed -- with some variations in the resulting canon among different broad traditions of Christians.


June: Recording ministers, calling pastors.

Some questions and answers (?) on two separate (if often related) Quaker practices: recording ministers, and recruiting pastors.

In recording ministers, aren't you setting up a hierarchy, implying special status, or putting people on a pedestal? In theory, no. Our doctrine of the equality of all persons is not threatened by saying "this person has a public gift, and we feel led to confirm it publicly." However, if gender or social status or other irrelevant criteria entered into the process, smoothing the way for some and blocking others, that would compromise the practice of recording. Also, if recorded ministers were treated with undue deference, or were given any privilege other than being permitted to exercise their gifts, that undue deference would also be a problem.

The denial of recognition of public ministry, especially when denying people who by social stereotype are not seen as carrying spiritual authority, can represent the opposite problem--a form of marginalization. I remember one example of a modest but spiritually gifted woman being considered for recording, in the face of opposition by men who used the equality argument despite their own prestigious credentials in their work settings. Moreover, the absence of explicit recognition of public gifts does not prevent elitism and power plays. When criteria for recognition are not explicit, those who want recognition or influence for the sake of their own agendas will still find ways of getting it, but without transparent criteria and accountability.


July: Absurdly happy.

A blog post inspired by Colin Saxton and David Niyonzima at Northwest Yearly Meeting sessions.

Just as the brightest, most unfiltered light we can see comprehends all colors, the children of the Light must comprehend all conditions. Together, we must be ready to shine the light into places where unspeakable horror is hiding. We may be personally sheltered from those realities in ways that David Niyonzima has not been; as a teacher, he witnessed the massacre of all of his students. And, individually, we vary in our capacity to see those things, both by location and by temperament. But together we can see, and we can shine. For me, happiness and joy are names for that experience of shining together, and are subversive of the shadows in which the principalities and powers conceal themselves to do hideous things to God's beloved creation.


Also ran: The FUM retreat: what did we accomplish?

Absurdly happy, part two.

August: What is really wrong with Friends United Meeting.

A post that starts out (defensively?) with what is not wrong! How many of these alleged virtues and defects are still accurate? Which observations might you (or I) make differently almost a generation later? 

But now the walls of suspicion may simply be too high for such dialogues to be institutionalized in organizations such as FUM. When significant groups of Friends in the more liberal yearly meetings use the language of money (as in threatening to cut off funding) to communicate with FUM, and when individual meetings in the more evangelical yearly meetings threaten to leave their yearly meeting if it doesn't cut ties with FUM, then it's time to be honest about the alienation we're witnessing.

There were once substantial centrist groups that held FUM together, groups who believed that love is a bridge that doesn't require the opposite shore to be symmetrical to theirs. I don't know how much of that constituency still exists. From the liberal side, the most pro-FUM message that I hear seems to be that by staying engaged, "we" can change FUM. What qualifies them to change FUM is not specified--by all indications it's not passionate support for FUM's central goal, which is to energize and equip Friends for evangelism.

More, including many interesting comments.

September: Gospel order revisited.

This post was originally written as a sermon, in response to a request to address accountability and discipline in the church.

Matthew’s Gospel and George Fox’s commentaries presuppose that these offenses occur among people who have roughly equivalent amounts of power, or the offenses involve a person’s public behavior that threatens the reputation of the church. When one person has power and control over another, the victim may not be at all in a position to confront the abuser privately. In the church, that’s what the elders are for—to provide the safety and healing that’s essential to keeping trust and obedience real. For anyone who has been betrayed, trust remains a nice abstraction until you—the church community—do what it takes to provide that healing and create that safety. That’s why the elders of that meeting with the sharp-tongued member could no longer dodge the issue. They appointed a pair of people who spoke with him, and he was also required to give up his church responsibilities for a season.

I love how Fox talks about the spirit in which we deal with offenders—“in the power of the Lord, and spirit of the Lamb, and in the wisdom and love of the truth.” That instruction to act “in the power of God” reflects how Gospel order constantly links back to the cosmic context, God’s purpose of unity in heaven and on earth. Just as the offender threatens that unity, a half-baked or politicized remedy may also threaten it.


From 2019: Out of order.

October: Gratitude.

Thoughts as my first Halloween and Thanksgiving  holidays in Russia approached.

One of my circuit breakers tripped the other day, and my neighbors didn't know what to do. I had no key for the breaker box. The owner of the apartment lives four hours away. After trying everything I could think of to get into the breakers, I thought I remembered some numbers stenciled onto the wall downstairs near the elevator. The stencils were inked onto a stucco-like surface and were almost unreadable, but if I looked at one of the words just the right way, it looked like it might say "Elect ..." Dubiously, I called the number, was given another number. I called that number and was given yet another. When I called that third number, success!! -- the dispatcher promised an electrician would visit me shortly. And so he did -- he fixed the ceiling fixture that had shorted, he reset the circuit breaker, and, after giving me a friendly lecture about not buying cheap fixtures, he charged me all of $4!

What if I'd succeeded in resetting the circuit breaker on my own? I probably would not have found out what caused the short in the first place.

In looking back over my many visits to Russia since 1975, giving up certainty and giving up control have been constant themes. For every loss of familiar procedures, familiar guarantees, there's been a gain: techniques and procedures are replaced by relationships and kindness. Both the exchange and the lesson have been invaluable. I'm sure that, before Thanksgiving rolls around, I'll have a fresh crop of examples.


November: The romance of war.

Putin's plan -- Russia's victory!
Patriotism Russia-style, or at least the tiny samples I got to see in Elektrostal.

My seven-year-old friend, who lives up Yalagin Street a short ways, is with his grandmother today. I can tell -- he's sending me a steady stream of text messages on her cellphone, asking me when I'll be stopping by again. I'll probably drop in on him and his brother this evening after my last class.

These days, whenever I visit, he's always eager to show me a new fighting technique. He loves to demonstrate how to slither along on the floor, holding his gun high so it doesn't touch the mud of his imaginary battlefield. He drops down from the top level of his bunk bed, cushioning his fall (as he solemnly explains to me) by bending his knees just right so that he lands soundlessly. His gun is slung over his back, his rubber knife is in his sock, his eyes sweep the bedroom for signs of the enemy. Now his back is to the wall and his toy grenade is in his hand as he edges toward the door, ready to peek into the corridor. His face is utterly serious as he sets out to capture singlehandedly the living room....


December: Elektrostal's hospitable artists.

An Edvard Grieg concert at the Paustovsky Central Library was a wonderful conclusion to my first semester in Elektrostal.

I sat there in the audience, simply marveling: here I was, a Norwegian-American and fan of Grieg's music, sitting in the obscure industrial city of Elektrostal, Russia, listening to this familiar music being played by Russian pianists and a noted violinist from Dagestan! Singer Antonina Yegorshina performed several of Grieg's songs, lovingly translated into Russian. And Zalmina Abueva, in her own remarks, praised the composer for his faithfulness to the spirit and natural surroundings of his native Norway. On the walls were my new friend Alexander Poroshin's paintings from his ongoing exhibition at the library.


I tried to pick an article or two from recent Russian Religion News postings to link here, but decided just to point out this resource once again.

Gary Abernathy: Why USA's conservatives should support reparations.

Friends World Committee for Consultation is conducting a search for a new general secretary to serve the World Office.

Margaret Fraser writes on receptivity, personality, transformation, and Eoin Stephenson's lecture at Ireland Yearly Meeting. She observes:

Saul/Paul was so filled with the righteousness of his efforts to persecute the followers of Jesus, that he needed a booming voice, a bright light and temporary blindness to stop him in his tracks. No gentle insistence to pack a spare tire for his chariot, or to rethink his mission; no invitation to breakfast would have stopped him in his tracks. He needed the entire works for transformation to happen. Fortunately, most of us can be reached by something gentler, if we are willing to open ourselves to listen.

More on Stephenson's lecture here.

I've posted several individual clips from this Muddy Waters/Otis Spann appearance at the Copenhagen Jazz Festival in October 1968. Here's the whole set, with Muddy Waters on vocals and slide guitar, Otis Spann on piano, Luther "Snake Boy" Johnson and Pee Wee Madison -- guitars, Paul Oscher -- harp, Sonny Wimberley -- bass guitar, and S.P. Leary -- drums. (Thanks to commenters for the lineup.)

No comments: