28 December 2023

Digesting 2023

Giant's Stairs Trail, Bailey Island, Harpswell, Maine, USA. 

As the year 2023 makes its way into the New Year's Eve harbor, it's impossible to ignore the wreckage it left in its wake. I'm having a hard time remembering the hopes and ideals with which I started this year's voyage. Many of them seem to have been drowned out by physical and verbal violence.

That's all true. But even so I want to think carefully about what to take aboard with me as 2024 prepares to get underway. As I try to refresh my stocks of hope and idealism (without ignoring today's realities here, for example, and here), I've been finding inspiration in a novel and a podcast.

The novel is Sun House by David James Duncan. Even though I've been reading it on and off the whole of this month, I'm only halfway through it. I find that this 775-page rollicking manifesto for love, ecstasy, healing, unpretentious mysticism, and honesty, and against (sooo against) cynicism, is just what I needed. But I cannot read it for too long at one sitting. I have to take some deep breaths and move, and chat about whatever, and then I can return to the book. I don't think a book has affected me like that since Daniel Stein, Interpreter, by Liudmila Ulitskaya.

As Judy and I sailed into the Norwegian fjords back in 2016, I remember thinking, these scenes are every bit as beautiful as they were advertised to be. Likewise, in the case of Sun House, those happy readers' paragraphs on the author's Web site do not exaggerate one bit.

Link to podcast's second season.
The podcast is the BBC's 13 Minutes to the Moon, season two, a detailed but wonderfully conversational series telling the story of the Apollo 13 flight to the moon in 1970, and the onboard explosion that not only cancelled its moon landing but nearly killed the astronauts. The inspiration comes from the constant parade of life-threatening complications that the crew, mission control staff, and hundreds of backroom staff had to confront.

Many of these crises were unanticipated even in the rigorous simulation sessions that people and equipment had to undergo before flight, and most of the solutions had to be read up to the astronauts through the hiss and crackle of the radio connections, and copied down by hand. I had already listened to every minute of the Apollo 13 flight director's loop, but until I heard this BBC podcast, I really did not understand how risky the post-explosion journey was. Only the collaboration of a huge network of utterly dedicated professionals, all willing to fight the odds, and the prayer support of a whole planet, could have resulted in the amazing outcome of Apollo 13. It seems like a lesson needed now more than ever.

Finally, in preparing for 2024, I will refresh my commitment to Gospel Order, as we Friends refer to the way we pray and work to shape our reality into something resembling God's will for all of creation. We don't know exactly what it will look like when God's "will is done on earth as it is in heaven"; we can only take the steps we're shown, one by one, as we work together to build trustworthy communities that demonstrate Norval Hadley's vision of Quaker discipleship: 

"The body reflects the beauty of the Head."

Here's some of last year's freight ....

JANUARY: Pure intention, part two.

As I hinted last week, I'm curious about whether my own Christian chronology (conversion as an adult after growing up in an anti-religious family) helps explain why my faith and my doubts haven't yet led me through a deconstruction experience. If I wasn't socialized as a Christian in my earlier years, maybe that helps explain why I'm not disillusioned now. After all, I didn't have any experience of church politics, religiously-driven culture wars, pressures not to ask awkward questions, biblical malpractice, or most of the various alienating factors mentioned in McLaren's book. [Brian McLaren, Do I Stay Christian?]

However, this doesn't really let me (or the church) off the hook, because a church that teaches you unsustainable things is not really a trustworthy place for you in the long run. And if it's not trustworthy for you, then it's not trustworthy for me, even if I don't go through the same disillusionment.

Full post.

FEBRUARY: The Gospel according to Al Sharpton.

After nearly six decades of activism, Rev. Al Sharpton has lots of admirers, and also many critics. The comments on the YouTube page with the trailer for [the film] Loudmouth include a sampling of typical reactions to this divisive figure. The Internet has an ample stash of harsh criticisms of Sharpton, some of them probably justified, but I see Loudmouth as a fascinating, coherent, very worthwhile presentation of his own side of the ledger—in the context of a country where racism, though weakened, remains embedded as a satanic stronghold. As a Christian minister in the Quaker tradition, struggling to reach the mountain top, I see Sharpton—with all his complications—as a mutual ally. His errors and excesses may be partly his own, but (for example, in the Brawley case), I see them also as an aspect of the smoke and chaos that racism continues to generate, that obscures the view and frustrates the designs of activists and observers alike. I'd rather have imperfect prophets than none at all.

Those that oppress us had the nerve to try and advise us on how we ought to try to get free from them. We are intelligent enough not to let you tell us what tactics that you are comfortable with…. (1986)

Full post.

Also this month: Ukraine: A blogger's recapitulation.

MARCH: Thinking twice about the "Billy Graham Rule."

Shurik and Lida study for exams. Operation Y and Other
Adventures of Shurik
; screenshot, source.
I don't know of anyone who questions Graham's original intention—to shut down even a hint of the kind of impropriety that had obviously tempted many other public figures in the religion industry. (My term, not his!) However, over the years, the rule has come in for much criticism. Women have pointed out some of the implications of the rule: the not-so-subtle hint that women are temptresses, for example; and the professional and personal cost for women in public ministry because this theoretical risk has robbed them of mutually advantageous mentoring and collaboration; and finally and oh-so-familiarly, once again, men try to set all the ground rules.

In turn, others have noted that the rule reinforces the idea that men are so selfish and predatory that they must make unilateral rules to overcome their own weaknesses. Even if I intend to behave perfectly in my relationship with a woman friend or colleague, the onlooker might still assume "boys will be boys." Kristin Kobes Du Mez's book Jesus and John Wayne documents how this view of man-as-selfish-predator even served the cause of telling evangelical women to cater to their husbands' sexual whims: quoting from the LaHayes' book The Act of Marriage, "Few men accept bedroom failure without being carnal, nasty, and insulting." Really?

Full post.

APRIL: Kind words.

Two cautions about giving and receiving compliments that should be acknowledged but should not be controlling: 

First, let's be real about our motivations. Compliments should be given out of genuine appreciation; there should never be a manipulative or ingratiating intent. 

The second occasion for being real: learn to receive compliments with directness and appreciation and then getting on with life. There's no need to be self-deprecating or to minimize a sincere compliment, just as there is no need to develop an unhealthy dependence on getting praised. There will be times when you and I get no compliments precisely because we said or did the right thing at the right time.

Screenshot from Muscle Shoals.

Kind words can change lives. About two years ago, in the links section of my blog, I wrote about the Swampers' drummer Roger Hawkins, who had just died. I linked to the point in the film Muscle Shoals where Hawkins and his fellow musicians reminisced about the time Hawkins received this compliment from veteran producer Jerry Wexler:

Wexler: Roger.

Hawkins: Yes, sir.

Wexler: Roger, you're a great drummer.

Hawkins [to the interviewer]: And all of a sudden  it just, I just kinda relaxed, and became a great drummer, just like he said I was.

Full post.

MAY: T. Canby Jones on George Fox and "the Light."

Our [discussion group] topic yesterday was an essay by T. Canby Jones, published nearly fifty years ago in Quaker Religious Thought: "The Nature and Functions of the Light in the Thought of George Fox."

It's not a long article, and it's well-organized, so if you have a few minutes, please take a look at it. You may enjoy it so much that you forget to come back to this blog post, which would be a very satisfactory outcome! ...

Canby exemplifies a typical Quaker approach to theology: it's often functional. He doesn't spend time defining "light," he finds the distinction between "natural light" and the Light of Christ unhelpful; he doesn't cling to or generate doctrines. Instead, he describes how the Light of Christ actually seems to work in our lives.

In linking Light with spiritual diagnosis, exposure of sin and evil, repentance, and so on, Canby doesn't associate Fox's teachings with any sense of primordial depravity. There's no shaming us, there's simply the bald fact that without the Light we wander into disobedience, but we are not trapped there. We always have the choice of turning to the Light, which has the power to graft us into unity with God and each other.

Full post.

JUNE: Grace and peace.

In two weeks, here in London, Charles the Third will be crowned king of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. If the model of the two previous coronations will be followed, at some point during the ceremony, Charles will be anointed with holy oil, while the choir sings, “Anoint and cheer our soiled face / with the abundance of thy grace.” In fact, God’s grace will be invoked several times during the coronation. What is this grace that they’re singing and talking about, that is apparently essential to sealing the deal for Charles to be the king?

When I was in seminary, I had Tom Mullen as my preaching professor. I have lots of Tom Mullen stories, and maybe some of you do, too. He was an excellent speaker himself, so of course we students were all eager to do well in his course, and at the same time knew we had a hard act to follow.

I think HE thought he was making it easier when he told us, “There is really only one truly Christian sermon theme, and that is ‘grace’—but that gives you enough material for a lifetime of messages.” I suppose I should have been comforted by the idea that I really don’t have to search for new topics every time I speak, but there really is a problem: thinking about “grace” is a little like looking directly at the sun. It seems much safer to skirt around the issue than to dare to look directly at God’s unconditional love poured out on us.

Full post. Part two. Part three.

JULY: More on biblical realism: Howard Macy and the prophets.

Howard's book represents a great expression of what I've called "biblical realism," the Bible's unblinking portrayal of reality in the light of God's love. There are at least two dramatically different obstacles to a deep encounter with the Bible: one is a sort of pious trance that causes our eyes to skate on the surface (I think this is Mary Morrison's metaphor) of those ancient texts, both familiar and puzzling. Another is the skepticism, even scorn, that can result from apparent contradictions within and authoritarian biblical malpractice without.

Howard gets us through these obstacles with his calm and very direct focus on the humanity of the prophets, a humanity that is a sufficient antidote for both the pious trance and the skeptic. Sure, there is a distance of two or three millennia and wide cultural gaps between then and now; there's also the concentrated lyricism of poetry and the intense drama of street theater, depending on the prophet and the occasion. After all, in the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, these are "some of the most disturbing people who have ever lived."

But the warnings and ethical demands of the prophets are not at all obscure....

Full post.

AUGUST: Silence, freedom, and trust.

Tatiana Pavlova.
Russian historian Tatiana Pavlova was the person around whom the Friends community in Russia gradually developed, starting in the late 1980's. She herself was strongly Christian (I interviewed her about her faith in Quaker Life magazine back in 1999) but the meeting did not require an explicit Christian commitment for participants, and its diversity reflected some of the spiritual ferment and experimentation that abounded in those early post-Soviet years.

Tatiana Pavlova herself was uneasy with some of that variety. Once she said, "When I sit in worship, I want to know that the person next to me is worshipping the same God."

I understand and sympathize, but I'm not quite ready to make the same sort of firm statement. On the one hand, I love the mutual inspiration and encouragement we can get from worshipping with a group of people who fully expect that (in George Fox's words) "Christ has come to teach his people himself." It's this experience that, to me, makes us Quaker, makes us ready to reject the world's reliance on power, violence, objectification of others, and social bondages of all kinds, in favor of trusting in God's leadership.

On the other hand, how will we provide access to this mutual inspiration and spiritual freedom if we don't dare let anyone in who doesn't already speak in Quaker terms? 

Full post.

SEPTEMBER: Yearly meetings, myth and reality, part two.

Once upon a time, I was a Quaker denominational leader, emotionally invested in our structures and their missions. One weekend, I was visiting a Friends church in an evangelical yearly meeting. I stayed with a delightful family in the city where the yearly meeting's office was located, and I went with them to their Sunday morning meeting for worship.

The church was impressive, both in the size of its building and the breadth of its programming. Aside from the variety of Sunday morning options for all ages, there were programs for every day of the week, ranging from Bible studies to family finance seminars to Christian aerobics.

My hosts were very knowledgeable about these programs, which clearly had become a social and spiritual base for their family. They gently let me know, however, that they had never heard of my organization. As it turned out, they also knew nothing about their own yearly meeting or any of its wider affiliations, even though the yearly meeting office was in their own city. The word "Friends" meant little to them beyond the fact that it was in their church's name, and the word "Quaker" even less.

Full post.

OCTOBER: Al Ahli Hospital and the search for villains.

Israel uses the language of "war" as if the Gaza Strip were an independent, sovereign country, which it is not. The civilian population of Gaza depends on Israel for its security and well-being, and Israel's government has made it very clear that these people and their security and well-being have no priority in comparison to the rest of Israel's territory. Their lives don't count in the same way.

Screenshot from source

Israel's allies who see the danger of this moment for the people of Gaza are pleading for concessions such as the restoration of water and electricity (water alone is not enough; water pumps require electricity, water trucks require fuel) and the opening of the Rafah crossing point with Egypt. Whether or not any of these pleas get satisfied, the overall context remains: Gaza is still a zone where Israel corruptly believes it has the right to ignore international law.

Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and several other militant groups claim to provide the defense and protection that Gaza would have if it were a country. But they too do not carry out the function of a protective force within international law. In opposition to the  Palestinian Authority, they reject any collaboration with Israel, and in fact claim to be pursuing the mythical goal of eliminating Israel altogether. They too show no concern for civilian life. 

For Palestinians who are have little hope for a future under Israeli occupation, it's understandable that they might see the militants as the only people actually showing some resistance. For this symbolic comfort, they are apparently willing to let millions of their own neighbors suffer as the militants' fake armies poke Israel in the eye in the service of their myth. So they poke, and Israel bombs, and they poke again, and Israel bombs again, and innocent people die.

Full post.

NOVEMBER: Friends and Comrades: Sergei Nikitin and Quaker work in Russia, 1916-1931.

In 1947, the Nobel Committee of Norway's parliament awarded that year's Nobel Peace Prize to the Quakers, "...represented by their two great relief organizations, the Friends Service Council in London and the American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia."

In his presentation speech at the award ceremony, Gunnar Jahn cited Quakers' role in peace and relief work in many countries, including Russia: "It is through silent assistance from the nameless to the nameless that they have worked to promote the fraternity between nations cited in the will of Alfred Nobel." (My emphasis.)

At the peak of the famine relief work, over 400,000 Russians were depending on Quaker food rations to stay alive. 20,000 to 30,000 people a month were treated in their malaria clinics in Buzuluk. In the history of this campaign, many people involved will indeed remain "nameless." We will not know most of the people whose lives were saved from starvation and disease through Quakers' efforts, and most of those who provided prayer and money to this work will also remain unknown. Thanks to Sergei Nikitin's book Friends and Comrades, however, the full scale of this effort, and the names of many of its central figures, are made known and brought to life.

Full post. Part two.

DECEMBER: Collateral damage, part five: "We as a people."

But even if the shooting stopped this very night, from all sides, almost 20,000 (including victims in Israel and the rest of Palestine) have already died in this cycle alone. These people, the vast majority of whom were not soldiers or terrorists, have already paid the ultimate price for the lethal failure of national, regional, and international leadership to agree on a peaceful resolution of this running conflict and its utterly predictable eruptions, either through a genuine two-state solution or a non-discriminatory one-state solution, or some third path.

Yes, there's plenty of passion among activists and ordinary people in favor of peace with justice, but we have not found a decisive way to make it plain to decisionmakers that we have seen the cost of their inaction and obstruction, and they have lost their moral authority. I wonder if this most recent wave of mass violence in the face of the whole world is finally breaking through.

That breakthrough might bring some comfort to those grieving for those 20,000 and counting. I take comfort from Martin Luther King, who referred to the Book of Deuteronomy in a speech on the evening before his assassination: "I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land." 

Full post.

Greg Morgan tells the story of Tina and Tony. "Chaplaincy isn't a role, it's an attitude."

Talia Zajac on Ukrainian identity and changing the date of Christmas.

Simon Reynolds will never stop blogging.

And ... the last time (I promise) that I will make this announcement/plea: if you haven't told me whether you prefer the term "Quaker" or the term "Friend," here's the survey. I will stop counting in a few days, and see whether there are any interesting patterns to report.

Another rerun: Eric Bibb. A good admonition to take on board for 2024:

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