23 March 2023

Regarding, part four: closer to home


Today is my 70th birthday. Just for fun, here (above) is the book prepared for me by colleagues and students of the New Humanities Institute in Elektrostal, Russia, for my sixtieth birthday. Not so long ago, but so much has happened since.

For the online version, I added the English-language translations and the explanatory page two. Coincidentally, the cover theme with Shurik is drawn from the same movie that was the source of last week's illustration: Operation Y and Other Adventures of Shurik.

Over the past thirteen months of this blog, I've felt free to lament the incalculable losses of the Ukrainian people, and the consequent postponement of "the beautiful Russia of the future." But nothing can take away my wonderful memories of the community that gave me this birthday book.

Regarding, part four: closer to home.

In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul describes how the death of Christ shapes our lives and ministries: (2 Corinthians 5:16-19, context)

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.

In this text, biblical commentators often focus on our ministry of reconciliation, a ministry that is very congenial to Quakers. Not only do we try to reconcile "enemies" with each other, we also seek to reconcile the whole human family to our Creator.

Stepping backwards in the text, this all seems to be made possible because when we’re in Christ, we’re new creations, and everything has become new to us. Among those things that have become new is the way we look at things.

Before we ourselves were in Christ, we may have seen this man Jesus as all sorts of things: a legendary ethical teacher, the central figure of a powerful myth, a man whose title, Christ, became the name and brand of a religion. These observations are not wrong. If we try to project ourselves back to Jesus’ own time, we might add “wonder worker, exorcist, itinerant prophet, charismatic leader," and finally, political hot potato who had to be stopped.

Once we realized that Christ was God-with-us, reconciling us with our Creator and continuing that reconciliation through us, how could we continue regarding ourselves and others through that purely human point of view?

In my first post on the theme of "regarding," I applied this question to our experiences living in Russia. In the second post, I applied it to the way we saw Donald Trump's election as U.S. president. In the third, just weeks before the full-scale war in Ukraine began, I wanted to challenge "the grip of power politics on the world's imagination." 

Today I want to apply Paul's teaching about "regarding" a little closer to home. For example, how would learning to regard "not from a worldly point of view" apply to the way we see our own meetings and churches?

Here's a story I've told before, but maybe not in this context. When Judy and I moved to Richmond, Indiana, back in 1982, we had no car, and Richmond's public transport on Sundays was minimal, so we looked for a Friends meeting within walking distance. That turned out to be First Friends Meeting, which at the time still gathered for worship in its enormous downtown edifice. Though many (most?) members of the meeting were twice as old as we were, or older, they immediately made us feel at home.

One Sunday we stayed for meeting for business, and the talk turned to the subject of the meeting’s decline. In living memory, it had had 1500 or more members, but by 1982 it was down to two or three hundred. Looking at Judy and me, one Friend said, “What we need are more young couples.”

As I thought later about that comment, it occurred to me that the first thing they needed was to see themselves as God saw them. As I tried to do that, I saw a community that was full of life-long experiences as people of faith. Frances Peacock, then 80 years old, had a lifetime of concern for racial justice and reconciliation that we only found out about accidentally. Jim Rupe sold cars and was known for his honesty, ethics, and generosity. Helen Alexander watched over the nursery with apparently infinite love. The meeting was probably predominantly Republican and certainly very respectable, but when a few of us asked the meeting to consider supporting our stance of not paying the military portion of our income taxes, they barely blinked an eye. To make a long story short, what they needed was to see themselves as God saw them, and to be a bit more forthcoming about the gifts they already had.

This same meeting had young people who once challenged the meeting, through a Sunday School teacher, "Some of you have been Quakers for 60 years. Why can't you tell us more about why you became Friends and what you've learned about God in those years?" One of the responses was: "Our generational culture is very private." That privacy was not something to be ashamed of, but it needed to be worked on.

I think God would love for more people to see our communities the way God sees them. When God looks at your congregation, what sorts of ideals, legacies, struggles, and visions might God see that would give you new hope and new realism?

Another case study is so close to home that I hesitate to share it, but maybe you have a similar story, or know of someone who does. It involves my mom, and how God might regard her.

The flesh-and-blood memories of her that I have from my growing-up years, especially my teenage years, are painful. To avoid making an inventory of what caused that pain, I’ll just say a couple of things: one, she referred to me by several insulting nicknames; she was openly racist and antisemitic; and when I finally told her I’d had enough, a few days before my high school graduation, she threw me out of the house.

Who was my mother, really? In the normal way of regarding her, I saw an angry alcoholic woman who didn’t seem to be on my side at all, who rejected her pre-teen daughter for having a Black friend, and who seemed to neglect her younger daughter altogether.

For most of my life, that's what I saw and what I recalled. What did God see?

As the years have gone by, I have gained some clues. As a girl growing up in Kobe, Japan, my mother went to a German school that received support from the Nazi party, and where Nazi ideology was part of the daily program. She saw her city bombed by American planes. After the war, the U.S. occupation forces deported her and her family to Germany, where they had to begin life all over again.

Somewhere she began medicating all that trauma with alcohol and Librium. She became incapable of dealing with any references to mortality, sickness, or religion. None of this could possibly have been God’s intention when God created her in God’s image. But the face she turned to me in my pre-teen and teenage years, the face of my memories, was often a face of anger and insult.

Last summer I had a dream about her, which I wrote about here. Most of my dreams about my mother have featured something that was burning. For example, in one dream, the ceiling above us was burning. In another, the wall behind her was in flames. But in this most recent dream, I was looking down at the street through the second-story window of our childhood apartment. I saw her walking down the street, heading for the front door of our apartment building. I had to decide: do I wait for her to come into the apartment, or do I hide and avoid her altogether? I think I caught a glimpse of her entering the apartment, but I woke up before deciding whether to risk being in her presence. Risk or avoid? ... the question has lingered. I know that if I do meet her, I have to meet the person God envisioned her to be.

Here’s another difficult case for me: How do I regard Tyrone King, the man who kidnapped and murdered my fourteen-year-old sister Ellen, and was convicted of the murder?

For years, I’ve had just one question for him: why? Why?! 

I never wanted him to face the death penalty. Aside from my convictions about capital punishment, I figured that, being a career drug dealer, he would not have great prospects once he was released back into the population, if he even survived his sentence. But I had little hope that he would be forced to answer my question and take responsibility for taking my sister, my co-conspirator in surviving a toxic family, away from me. To make things worse, King was Black and I’d been involved in interracial projects at school, so my mother was convinced that I was partly responsible for my sister being killed by a Black man. In regarding Tyrone King, I was in a stuck place for many years.

However, in 1995, shortly before my father died, he said something to me that began to change my heart. We were sitting in his hospital room, recalling the death of my sister and the trial of Tyrone King, which he had attended. During that trial, my father was approached by Tyrone King’s mother, who gave my father a Gospel tract and talked to him about Jesus. As I've said before, I don't know that her outreach to my father had an effect on him that day (though he remembered the story!) but maybe it was a step on the path that led to his eventual conversion through friendship with a Greek Orthodox chaplain. 

That story made Tyrone King real to me as nothing else ever had. Before all else, King had once been a baby, made in God’s image, and certainly not created to do violence to people, not created to sell narcotics, not created to kill my sister. What had happened to him on his path? Don’t get me wrong; I never want to avoid the fact that he could have chosen not to pull the trigger, and yet he did. But I still desperately want to know why he did, and I believe that God does know, and this faith gives me a place to rest, at least for now.

Finally, what has 2 Corinthians 5 added to the way I regard myself?

I look at myself in conventional ways as a sort of normal bag of skin, containing a not unusual mix of gifts, quirks, strengths, weaknesses, sensitivities, blind spots, and so on. But as a member of the body of Christ, charged with collaborating with our whole global family in reconciliation, I can have a peculiar mixture of authority and humility as I relate to that family. For example, when the Pussy Riot punk musicians sang their anti-Putin song in a Moscow cathedral thirteen years ago, and the church establishment called for severe punishment and jail time, I didn’t see the issue in primarily political categories, nor did I think I had to keep my mouth shut because I was a guest in the country. I was a member of the Body of Christ no less than those hierarchs who were calling for the book to be thrown at those women, and I had the humble authority to say they were wrong.

Recently, when I saw the film Loudmouth about Al Sharpton (see this post for my responses to the film), I suddenly realized that my relationship to him was not as a political observer, or through all the complicated categories of race. It was not for me to assess his status as a celebrity, either positively or negatively. Al Sharpton is a minister of the Gospel, and so am I. Al Sharpton and I are partners in ministry, as far-fetched as that may seem in real life, especially since he’s a lot more visible than I am. He’s done some things well in his ministry, and he’s made mistakes, too. Same with me! God regards us both as ministers of reconciliation, and it’s an honor to share this wonderful and complicated vocation with Al Sharpton, and with Tyrone King’s mother, and with you.

I based this evening's post on a sermon I originally gave at Spokane Friends Meeting last Sunday. As I ended the message, I proposed three sets of queries, in case they were useful for anyone during the period of waiting worship that followed.

  • How have we come to “regard” Jesus? Having listened to the voices around us (persuasive or skeptical) who want to tell us who Jesus is, what happens when we let Jesus tell us himself, by the Inward Light he placed in our hearts?
  • We may not always be able to reconcile outwardly with those who have treated us unjustly, or cruelly. Can our path toward some possible healing, even healing we can’t yet foresee, begin by asking God to help us regard them as God regards them?
  • Are you humbly aware of your own authority in the church as a co-reconciler alongside your diverse global family of faith, no less than others with more fame and visibility?

Was the Viet Nam-era peace movement more effective than we realized? Watch for this episode of American Experience on USA's Public Broadcasting: The Movement and the "Madman." (Thanks to David Finke for this news.)

Memorial: Russia targets its oldest human rights group.

What we have been learning about Russia's youth cultures, and how we've been learning.

The United Nations Water Conference began yesterday. The UN University offers us a guide to some of the issues: Global Water Security 2023 Assessment

Not looking forward to some task or meeting? Feeling disempowered? Try Wess Daniels' hat trick or let him know if you have similar devices of your own....

Liz Oppenheimer surveys how technology, from the printing press to the Internet, has (or hasn't) served Friends in gathering us as beloved and inclusive communities. Underneath all the specifics:

It is a form of spiritual violence to hold disdain toward someone who yearns to belong and to be in deep community with others and then to press them to conform, change, or go away. It is a form of spiritual generosity, on the other hand, to express care for someone who yearns to belong and then welcome them into deep community with us.

Derek Trucks Band: "Down Don't Bother Me" ...


  1. Dear Johan! As always are your posts/ideas/sermons of great importance for my worn out mind (and body too!)
    Not only you discovered a NEW ENGLISH LANGUAGE for me but filled the previous/conventional one with a new power!
    God save you and Judie and your sons!!!
    Best wishes from Olga, Arsentiy and me.

  2. Hello Anton! Thank you for your kind words.

    Warmest greetings to your family! When you have a chance, send me a photo of Arsentiy... I wonder whether I will recognize him!

  3. Операция Ы