04 February 2016

Plan B

"Don't forget to mention us."
As an incorrigible idealist, I want my ideal presidential candidate to excite me with a vision of a better USA. How will empathy increase, environmental stewardship improve, international cooperation be strengthened, and the most vulnerable citizens and residents be protected on his or her watch? What political and spiritual values drive this person? If he or she is a Christian, how will their bedrock faith translate into blessings for every citizen and resident, including those who don't share that faith?

Those ideals and values are an important part of how I examine candidates. But it's only half the picture. The other half, Plan B, is how I anticipate they will govern even if absolutely none of their vision for a better USA can be implemented.

For example: The Guantanamo prisons are still in operation; the announced "end" of American military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan is being rolled back; thousands of immigrants of irregular status are still in limbo.

So idealism has its limits. And still the day-to-day welfare of millions of people -- the whole country, really -- depends on competent functioning of the executive branch. So, dear candidate, even if everything and everyone -- Wall Street, the entrenched bureaucracy, a paralyzed Congress, a lack of resources, even your own inability to convince others -- combine to block your vision, will you at least be a competent Chief Executive?

Of course, competence cuts both ways. Barack Obama has apparently been quite competent. He's nominated and appointed good people to high cabinet and other posts; he's managed most crises calmly; he's followed his own rule of "don't do stupid stuff"; he's even remained calm under attack by relentless well-financed campaigns of slander and false witness. But he's also "competently" run programs I'm utterly opposed to, such as the ongoing drone-based attacks in several countries. So I have mixed feelings about technocratic competence, but I cannot imagine voting for a candidate who can't cover the normal workload of our country's chief executive offer, totally apart from lofty visions.

According to Hillary Rodham Clinton, you campaign in poetry (her concession to the inspirational qualities of Bernie Sanders) but you govern in prose. As we examine our 2016 candidates, is it too much to ask for some evidence of both?

On the level of ideals and vision, I wanted to say how delicious an irony it is that, despite all hype to the contrary, the most Christian candidate so far this election cycle is a secular Jew. But delicious ironies, however intriguing, are not enough. Choosing the right president might be the difference between poverty and reasonable prosperity, even life and death, for thousands of people, so it doesn't behoove me to be glib.

Something like thirty years ago, British Friends put out an outreach poster with words something like the following: "Tired of organized religion? Don't throw out the baby with the bathwater." (It was the inspiration for this post ten years ago.) Since my main grievance with liberal Friends has been the removal of the Baby in favor of ever-more-agreeable bathwater, I was interested in this recent post, "On Throwing Out the Baby Jesus with the Bath Water," from a United Church of Christ commentator.

The Very Worst Missionary claims that you can't give what you don't have. She's right.

True or false?: Being "well-travelled" deludes you into thinking you know yourself (and the world, and people in general) better.

Ten Religion Stories That Went (Mostly) Missing in 2015.

Bravo, Richmond, Indiana ... my first contribution to Atlas Obscura.

The changing (and perversely increasing) significance of the word "liberal" in Russia.

Don't just believe me about the virtues of Linux Mint 17.3 over Windows and Apple OS. Believe Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols.

Again, Jason Ricci...

28 January 2016

Christian politicians and Rosemary's ice cream

Several of my friends posted links to an overheated essay by John Pavlovitz, "Maybe I'm Actually Not a Christian After All," on Facebook today. Here's his point:
As our American political process unfolds, and as respected and high-profile evangelists and preachers and Christian speakers endorse candidates and take to social media with ever more bigoted, hateful, alarmist claims—and as millions of pledged Jesus followers gleefully rush to celebrate and defend and accompany them in their crusades, I’ve come to find myself estranged; pushed to the furthest periphery of "God’s people".

And I think it’s my fault. I think I’ve been deceived.

You see, I’d been led to believe that the greatest spiritual aspirations I could ever have, were to love God and to love others as I desired to be loved; fully, sacrificially and without condition. I must have been mistaken, because that doesn’t seem to the prevailing theory ruling the day.
I say "overheated" because it's obvious that Pavlovitz isn't about to grant that "the prevailing theory" ought to determine his attitude toward his own faith. His observations are right, of course; it's just that, generally, a sarcastic response wears thin pretty quickly.

And I'd like to argue with the idea that the demagogues' Christianity actually prevails and rules the day. Maybe it will, however, if the rest of us just shrug in our private faith and become passive. This is not the season for passivity.

Politicians wrapping themselves in piety and patriotism is not a new phenomenon. (Although I also remember when John F. Kennedy had to assure voters that his Catholic faith would not compromise his performance as the U.S. president.) Any particular politician's actual relationship with God is that person's own affair, but we often seem to see politicians calibrating their religious persona for political advantage. Knowing that reality in advance, our first response might be to stay centered in our own relationships with God, and to pray for the politician whose representation of our common faith seems distorted to the point of heresy.

But, according to our gifts and discernment, we can't stop there. Not necessarily for our own sakes; we may have to grit our teeth sometimes when we see centuries of Christian social teaching and our own Quaker values dismissed in favor of civil religion drenched in pious cliches, but we'll probably survive. My bigger concern is the politician's impact on non-Christians and "nones" -- who already have plenty of evidence of the sort of Christianity that comes (borrowing from Mark Twain) "with its banner of the Prince of Peace in one hand and its loot-basket and its butcher-knife in the other." Christian politicians (or anyone, for that matter, we included) who forget the evangelistic imperative in favor of enemy-baiting have much to answer for. With humility and persistence -- and without engaging in the same savage rhetoric -- let's require those answers, in full view of the public.

Back in the Friends World Committee's 50th anniversary year, 1987, several weighty Quakers from various parts of the world traveled in the ministry all over North America. As a staff member, I served as host and driver for several of them. I'll never forget hearing Rosemary M. Elliott speak on Christian witness in South Africa. Among many other things, she challenged us to confront the apartheid South African government's claim to be a bulwark for democracy on its continent. She said (paraphrasing from memory), "You already know what ice cream tastes like. If the South African government gives you a bowl of something white and calls it ice cream, you have a perfect right to taste it and decide for yourself. It's the same with democracy."

We may be properly shy about judging someone else's faith, even a politician's, but in this present political season, it is the politicians who have made public claims about Christian faith and put them on the table. If we taste nothing of that sweet faith that has torn down the walls of enmity (Ephesians 2:13-16; context), we should say so. And to the limits of our ability, we should combine to say so as far and wide as the lie has gone.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Treasury Department has gone on record with a BBC reporter to say that Russian president Vladimir Putin is corrupt, as shown by his massive wealth and crony-centered governance style. I watched that reporter's BBC Panorama documentary today, and was disheartened by the way the BBC tried to make their case.

I'm not a fan of any power politician, Putin included, but the topic was important enough that a television program (by the mighty BBC, even) ought to be scrupulous about presentation. Instead, we got the same sort of "exposé" treatment we've come to expect from the main Russian channels: flashy graphics and caricatures, ominous music, quick glimpses of supposedly incriminating documents, testimony from Putin's opponents without any serious inquiry about the axes they might be grinding, gratuitous shutter-clicking of fake surveillance photos, wiretap recordings, and so on, and a complete absence of a serious interview with anyone who might have an alternative view.

Every allegation in the program might be true for all I know, but the production values screamed "propaganda." BBC, you can do better.

Terry Mattingly on the coming and going of the Washington Post's heretical hyphen.

Why the church is a bad sport. ("... The morality of the collective is justice.")

Gary Wills on the triumph of the hard right. ("To be on the right is to feel perpetually betrayed.")

If Matthew MacWilliams asked you what most defines Donald Trump supporters ...

Ann Jones on why we're not Denmark and other areas of possible American ignorance.

The holy and great synod will take place on Crete in June 2016.

Once more on religion in Russian public schools.

Kirill Medvedev: Let’s not view each other as wretched sovoks and obnoxious kreakls. ("The main thing is to not take cultural and stylistic differences for class conflict.")

A rerun.... "Let me be your harber, give you shelter from the storm." Two of my favorite songs, performed by Hans Theessink, who wrote "Shelter from the Storm." ("Way Down in the Hole" begins at 9:09.)

21 January 2016


The Great Moscow Circus on Vernadsky Prospect. 
Up until this past weekend, I'd never been to the circus in Russia, to the horror of some of our friends. On Saturday I corrected this deficiency. I still have some nagging questions about circuses in general, but it was very impressed by the art and spectacle here.
In the world of business, "rightsizing" is sometimes a euphemism for the unpleasant prospect of "downsizing" -- for reducing the workforce. But in the context of American politics, maybe "rightsizing" could be exactly the concept that could unite both conservatives and progressives as a goal for government reform.

When I was in university in Canada, zero-based budgeting was just coming into vogue as an important principle in Canadian public administration. But the "zero" doesn't mean reducing the government to zero in accordance with some ideological talking point, it means that every line item must justify itself rather than coast from year to year. It means that the resources allocated to the government must be sufficient to pay for the tasks assigned to the government by the people through the legislative process -- no less, no more.

In practice, even with the help of computers, starting each budget cycle at zero for each of the thousands (millions) of federal government budget lines is impractical, but every program and office can sooner or later take its turn to face something like the following grilling:
  • Is this program doing what it should? How do we know? Does it need to continue?
  • Is this program leaking money or resources? Is it trustworthy or does it resist examination?
  • Can its functions be integrated with another program, another department, a public-private collaboration, without sacrificing accountability? How do we preserve the expertise it has built up while not just letting it coast?
No doubt many such questions are already asked, but how do citizens find the answers? Most taxpayers don't begrudge taxes well spent, but debates that polarize around "tax and spend liberals" and "drowning government in a bathtub" avoid tackling this central question: slogans aside, how exactly do we gain and keep the taxpayer's trust?

Let's remind ourselves why we have a government at all. In the words of the U.S. Constitution, the institutions it sets up are intended "... to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity...." These are not inconsequential goals. Even if they can be met in part simply by maintaining a right division of labor with the constituent states and the people themselves, there is still plenty for the federal government to do on behalf of the whole country. But how do we keep trust and proportionality in the process?

Here are some of the ways I'd love to see this theme influence our debates on government:

Am I just a total idealist, or can we in fact use budgetary discipline to build bridges between conservatives and progressives? Where are our pilot projects? How can we creatively harness the skepticism each group has about the other, and the ways we can correct each other's blind spots, so that neither cynicism nor complacency wins the day?

Can we take a more inclusive and systemic approach to "the general Welfare"? For example, let's take the health care financing and health insurance. Disease and trauma hit every single person at some point, so why should medical care not be classified as a social benefit just as fire and police departments, schools, and public libraries meet similarly near-universal human needs? Somehow we have defined fire departments and public libraries as suitable for public support, but the far more expensive institutions of health care have been defined as mostly reserved for private markets. Only public health  (screening, contagion, and some mental health and addiction concerns) and health insurance for retirees are recognized as requiring at least some fire-department-like attention. I really don't understand why we should trust the enormous bureaucracies of private insurance companies, given their financial incentives, to be more honest and caring than a well-run government. And if a government isn't well-run, if it doesn't serve us well, then that is the problem we need to sort out.

Critics of single-payer health care financing point correctly say that taxes would have to increase to cover a centralized system, and defenders say that the savings from eliminating the huge private bureaucracies and cost-calculating systems now in place would more than cover the cost. But do these critics and advocates actually confer with each other rather than shouting at external audiences? If they do, please help me find the conversations, because this is a major issue in the current presidential campaign, and I hear almost nothing now but one-upsmanship.

What is the proper role of government in regulating our "militias" well, including guns held in private hands? In most of the world, for better or for worse, it is long-settled practice that the government has a monopoly on lethal violence. People are of course allowed to hunt, but not each other. Our Constitution protects gun ownership, but how we buy and sell guns, and of what type, and where we carry them, is of immediate and understandable interest to law enforcement -- those whom we expect to maintain that lethal monopoly. How do we have a thoughtful conversation about our expectations of government to regulate a better balance between gun-owners' rights and the protection of the general public?

There's a lot of dishonest rhetoric around these functions of government. For example, we already have a fair amount of gun control in place at various levels of government: rules about buying guns, carrying them on public transport, prohibiting many kinds of weapons altogether, and similar common-sense "infringements," but because civility on this subject has broken down so thoroughly, we can't even begin systematic improvements to this patchwork approach. As a result, there is nothing "well regulated" about our government's function of keeping us safe from guns. Can we ever establish an arena to compare our different understandings?

I have the sense that many militant gun-rights advocates feel the government is not trustworthy in this area any more than it is in budgeting and taxation. But again, sort that out separately; your private gun collection, or your off-balance neighbor's, is more likely to cause local mayhem than a renaissance of good national government. And please be honest: no politician on the national scene today wants to take anyone's legally-acquired and safely-stored weapon away from them.

Finally, can our country's worldwide imperial pretensions be rightsized? As a Christian pacifist, I have some predictable prejudices in this area, but even setting that dimension aside for a moment, I want to know when and where we can ask (for example) questions about the $65 billion we've spent on Afghanistan's military forces and $25 billion on Iraq's, neither of which seem ready for prime time. These are not Golden Fleece-sized scandals -- these sorts of unaccountable expenditures dwarf most of the welfare programs that seem so dispensable to many politicians. As with health care financing reform, incremental approaches to our worldwide military expenditures probably won't work. We need to figure out how we fit into the world community generally and how to pay for the space we take up in that world system. In the meantime, it seems to me that there's still an important place for war tax resistance. One Christian family's taxes pays for only a few moments of this permanent war, but if a significant proportion of the evangelical community decided it had enough....

Nicaea II ... will it happen?

All Christians are refugees.

Richard Ostling and Terry Mattingly and the same old question: do journalists (and does anyone) understand who evangelicals are?

Today the ruble sank well below the 80-per-dollar mark. In the meantime, Russians face economic uncertainty with, among other things, a national treasure of a different kind: humor.

My previous gun control proposal -- free guns!

Jean-Rene Ella performs a Skip James song ...

14 January 2016

Why are you still here?

Mikhail Nesterov's painting "The Philosophers" (1917)
Pavel Florensky (left) and Sergei Bulgakov (source)
The Moscow region's frigid weather didn't keep me from taking the train to the big city on Monday evening to hear a lecture and discussion on "Russia's Leonardo da Vinci," Father Pavel Florensky (1882-1937).

Until Monday, all I knew about Florensky came from Father Alexander Men's book of lectures, Russian Religious Philosophy, published posthumously and available online. (Russian only, so far.) Alexander Men's lecture was enough to make it clear why Florensky -- mathematician, botanist, physicist, theologian, poet, historian -- was a subject worthy of ranking with da Vinci. After refusing more than once to follow other intellectuals into foreign exile in the years following the October Revolution, Florensky met his fate on an NKVD killing field near Leningrad on December 8, 1937, at the age of 56. His family knew only that he had been "deprived of the right to correspondence."

Alexander Men' points to the bitter pathos of this story:
Fifty-six years old. Here's a person who, just a few months before these events, in hellish labor-camp conditions, was continuing to carry out his scientific work; a person who lived a deeply spiritual and intellectual life, who was able to pass along his wealth of knowledge to his children (until 1937, he was permitted to correspond, and there were even times when his family could visit him); this is a person in whom any civilization could take pride. He stands at the same level as Pascal and Teilhard de Chardin, with many scientists and thinkers of all eras and peoples. And he was shot like a total criminal -- this completely innocent man!
Pillar and Ground of Truth: An Exercise
in Orthodox Theodicy in Twelve Letters
(Source: mobi edition)
Innocent -- and even somewhat unworldly. For most of his adult life, Florensky was stubbornly apolitical, even at times collaborating with the communist government's historical preservation program and later (with Trotsky's support) in the national campaign to expand access to electricity. His research on electrical capacitors resulted in a patent. He worked on imaginary numbers and the geometry of Einstein's relativity. As a convict, he isolated iodine from local plant life. For all of his work, whether in church settings, or in communist government offices, he wore his priestly cassock, to the amazement of some and the irritation of others. And insights from almost all of these spheres found their place in his major theological book, Pillar and Ground of Truth -- which I have only started to read. In Russian it is available from here in a .mobi format with modern orthography, or read it online at that same page. In English it's available here, but apparently not in electronic-book form. 

At Monday's lecture, Elizaveta Vereshchagina added fascinating details to the 35 pages or so of Alexander Men's chapter -- how Florensky's work with imaginary numbers fit in with his theology; how startled people were to see the uber-revolutionary Trotsky together with priestly Florensky; how he began excerpting his own will and testament to his family already twenty years before his death; and, most telling to me, how he admitted to totally nonsensical charges of anti-Soviet activity in a calculated effort to get his friends off the hook. Really, I'm only scratching the surface of a superb presentation.

Toward the end of the discussion period, moderated by literature professor (and writer, critic, poet) Dmitri Bykov, someone at the back commented, "Lots of others left the Soviet Union in those years -- for example, those who took the 'Philosophers' ships' into exile. Why didn't Florensky?" Vereshchagina answered (I'm paraphrasing from memory), "At the time he wasn't in any particular trouble, and he was hard at work in his lab, so he saw no reason to leave." A few minutes later, the same questioner pushed a little harder: "His occupation really won't do as an answer. There must be something deeper going on." In the discussion, it emerged that even after Florensky's arrest, he was offered chances to join the exodus, but he categorically refused all such suggestions. His deliberately chosen fate was to remain in his homeland. Bykov added, "For that matter, why are you still here? Why are we all here?"

On the train back to Elektrostal, my mind was still in a whirl of thoughts from the evening. For one thing, it was amazing that, on a cold winter's evening, a lecture on a dead philosopher could fill an auditorium. In how many places around the world would that be true? I spent a few minutes thinking about what Florensky and David Bowie (who died the day before) might have in common. I don't think it is an absurd comparison: both men were stubborn defenders of the right to define one's self and one's boundaries. In Florensky's case, his mannered modesty and alleged priestly affectations irritated his famous contemporary Nikolai Berdyaev, who made catty comments about Florensky's "artificial voice," according to Alexander Men'.

The other comparison that came to me was early Friends' doctrine of Gospel order. Florensky gave a very high value to Church as the community of believers who sought God together -- but Church is more than a community of contemporaries. It's a coherent phenomenon that participates in the mysteries of Heaven. Florensky the mathematician, scientist, and Symbolist/Christian Platonist worked out the implications of Gospel order further and in a more metaphysical direction than early Friends went, even anticipating process theology with his explanations of how earthly paradoxes relate to the unity of heaven.

In view of how we ourselves, as Friends, fail to reflect the Gospel order of heavenly unity, here's a final comment on Florensky from Alexander Men':
Men', Russian Religious Philosophy
In 1923 he [Florensky] wrote some brief commentaries about Orthodoxy. One of them is called "A comment on on Christianity and culture." Father Paul wrote that division among Christians doesn't come about because there are different dogmas, rites and customs, but because of the absence of true faith, true love.

"The Christian world," he writes, is full of mutual suspicion, ill feelings, and hostility. It's rotten down to the foundations, because it does not have active faith in Christ and as a whole does not have the courage and candor to admit the rottenness of its faith. ... Church offices, church bureaucracies, and church diplomacy cannot breathe the unity of faith and love into places where it doesn't already exist."

Sergei Chapnin on Orthodoxy without Christ. (I quoted Chapnin in this earlier post.)

On David Bowie: What do we learn from the complicated legacy of a beloved icon?

Ron Sider looks at books on the early church and war.

Hope against hope? (Thanks to Natasha Zhuravenkova for the link.)

Tina Turner welcomes a guest ...

07 January 2016

All the difference in the world

Creche in Bethlehem's Manger Square
Today is Christmas Day here in Russia. And now for a quick survey of Christmas Day news headlines:

'Dozens dead' as Libya police targeted ... Fake life vests marketed to desperate refugees ... Man shot on Charlie Hebdo anniversary ... Gunmen fire on tourist coach in Cairo....

Once again, my favorite Quaker text on Christmas. (George Fox, 1657)

We must not have Christ Jesus, the Lord of Life, put any more in the stable amongst the horses and asses, but he must now have the best chamber, the heart, and the rude, debauched spirit must be turned out. Therefore let him reign, whose right it is, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, by which Holy Ghost you call him Lord, in which Holy Ghost you pray, and by which Holy Ghost you have comfort and fellowship with the Son and with the Father. Therefore know the triumph in the Seed, which is first and last, the beginning and ending, the top and cornerstone.

In front of Ramallah's Holy Family Catholic Church

What difference does Christmas make in the real world, with insults and bullets flying in all directions? To put it more personally, how does Jesus's birth change the way I view the prospect of yet another year of this violence?

George Fox's words (quoted in the sidebar) are a help. First of all, the holy birth must be something I know personally. God is in the world, offering reconciliation to a world that often doesn't seem to want it. So: Do I want it? Will I turn out the rude spirits and let Jesus into my best chamber?

Then the hard part: will I go on to let him rule? Will I "know the triumph in the Seed..."? Will I bear witness to this triumph even as I also witness what we humans keep doing to each other?

Knowing the triumph means something very concrete: I must not participate in this reduction of others into objects, targets, collateral damage! This is the difference I myself can make.

Back when I was preparing for being on Father Yakov Krotov's talk show on Christian responses to the Paris attacks, I was reviewing Paul's teachings in 2 Corinthians chapter 5 on the ministry of reconciliation. At the heart of the passage is this amazing call to public witness:
...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
But this time, as I read, another claim from verse 19 jumped out at me as never before: So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. We regard no one as outside the bounds of reconciliation. And no one is allowed to force us to regard people as so hair-raisingly awful, scary, other, that we are freed from the ministry of reconciliation.

When God, through Paul, defined our charge (the ministry of reconciliation) and the parameters (we no longer regard anyone from a worldly point of view), oppression, occupation, terrorism were all daily realities. Jesus, whose birth we celebrate, had himself been publicly humiliated and cruelly executed. There is beauty in the incarnation, there is amazing hope in the very idea of Godly reconciliation ... but there is nothing sentimental. If you and I persist in letting Jesus determine how we look at others, and refuse to see them as enemies, refuse to become afraid of them, refuse to participate in targeting them, life will become more ... well ... complicated.

But we're not alone! As ways open, let's talk to others about whether Jesus is inviting them into ministries of reconciliation. Hopefully, we're not stupid: the Lamb's War is no joke. We know that some of those we formerly saw as enemies from a worldly point of view really do mean us harm. But together we can figure out how to confront the rude, debauched spirits that animate hostility, and distinguish those true enemies from the people they hold in bondage. We can learn together what it means to make room for Jesus. In the midst of today's serious but passing alarms, this is work that is for eternity. That is worth both risk and celebration.

And every Christmas we can take time to remember the birth of God's offer of reconciliation, now embodied by us!

I'm serious about doing this together. What is the right scale, the best forums, for consulting on this task of turning out the rude spirits, learning to see others from God's point of view, and giving Jesus the best place in human hearts? Can yearly meeting structures still serve?

Micah's New Year's pledge.

Here are two commentaries on the Wheaton College controversy over Larycia Hawkins and her witness of care for Muslims ... casting a balance in slightly different ways, but both helpful: Karen Johnson, Mark Woods. Is this controversy (among its other serious dimensions, including the professor's own job prospects!) a laboratory for the work of reconciliation?

What do people think they mean when they call for Islamic reformation?

The Syro-Phoenician woman meets the living Word of God.

Whose Christmas rites? (And the town with three Christmas days.)

Fair or unfair? ... How to decode evangelical testimony.

Linux and open source have won, so get over it, because apparently Microsoft and Apple have.

How the Soviet Union sent its first man to the Internet in 1982.

How Delia Derbyshire created the original Doctor Who theme.

"I said 'get back Satan get out of my way,' I heard the angels singing ... just when I thought my soul was lost, I heard the angels singing ..."

31 December 2015

What was I thinking?!

Our last evening in Ramallah. (December 28.)

Monthly highlights ... my personal choices:

January: "Don't look for enemies! Look for friends!"

"Don't look for enemies! Look for friends!" Source.
Peace demonstration in Moscow, September 21, 2014. 
This may be important advice for all of us at a time when every major controversy seems to demand villains. And it was a wonderful, very welcome reminder to see this slogan on the streets of Moscow, where the photo [at right] was taken, when peace advocates were being attacked as traitors. But in a world where "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," where false communities based on authoritarianism and identity politics are common, it's worth thinking about what "looking for friends" really means.

February: Choose curiosity

My fantasy is, that when I grow up, I'll be able to sink into this calm place and let go of the need to prove I'm right and they're wrong. (Even when it's obvious!) I'm sure I'll add years to my life and stars to my crown when I get to this place.

But here's an intermediate step: asking myself why we differ. No matter what the facts, no matter what the underlying facts are, there must be a reason why my dear relative thinks that the president of the USA is a Muslim who is letting his terrorist friends infiltrate the White House. I can learn something from her. Even if I don't learn more about the president's faith and friends, I can learn about the forces operating to influence this person, and the forces influencing me.

March: Boris Nemtsov 1959-2015

Back in 1994, when I was working for Friends United Meeting at its Richmond, Indiana, offices, Bill Wagoner and I visited Richmond's sister city of Serpukhov, Russia. We met a wide range of citizens in Serpukhov, including teachers, librarians, artists, and representatives of the city's Vysotsky Monastery. We were even interviewed by a local radio station.

One of the local citizens we met on that trip was a young journalist. She asked us about Richmond, about how we saw Russia, and what our motivations were for visiting. I had a chance to ask her one of my own standard questions: who or what were her sources of hope.

She didn't take long to give me a name: "Boris Nemtsov--he's the governor of the Nizhni Novgorod area, and he's carrying out all sorts of marvelous reforms. A lot of us hope he's got a future at the federal level."

April: Home
"Minute" from pastors' conference

Today Becky Ankeny, our superintendent, spoke about the preciousness of home -- whether it's our church, our yearly meeting, our vocational community -- and about the risk of letting that beloved home become an idol, obscuring the reality that our only true and constant home is in God. It can be incredibly painful when we're separated (by our choice or by someone else's) from one or another of the places that we've grown to call home, where we've found shelter and anchored our identity, but which ultimately cannot be home.

For me, this year in the USA, away from our home and work in Elektrostal, has made me think about what home means to me. I'm not a nest-builder and could live pretty much anywhere there are books, music, and friends. (Judy jokes, with some justification, that I really define home as "where Judy is.") I've lived in six countries and seven states. My father was Norwegian, and my mother was a German born and raised in Japan, so I come by my portability honestly. What makes things complicated is that all of these places have claims on my heart.

Also: Home, part two: our kitchen! Home, part three: my nomad status

May: Other people's patriotism
Peace doves at Catherine Park, Victory Day 2015

At its best, patriotism is a positive quality, providing an emotional investment in learning the best qualities of one's own country and seeking to preserve and extend those qualities. Here in Russia, I tend to worry more about students who don't seem to have any patriotism at all than about students who are "too" patriotic. And, again, maybe all countries have their share of super-patriots who prefer to see the world in terms of us-and-them rather than thinking about how to bless the global community. We have our messianic Americans, and Russians have their own equivalents, each seeing the outside world as threatening sabotage and contamination. But, parades and politicians aside, Russia on May 9 looked a lot more like the USA on July 4 than you'd guess from news clips.

June: "My sin is always before me..."
Farmers' Shopping Center, Elektrostal - source.

There are lots of ways we demonstrate our preference to look at the motes in others' eyes rather than the planks in our own. In the USA, one of the favorite ways is to compare our current degraded state with the good old days when life was simpler, children could play in the streets freely, and (according to the song "Those Were the Days") "girls were girls and men were men." In reality, all we've done is reshuffled the lists of prevailing social and personal sins. For most people without wealth or power, there was not as much good in the old days as today's middle-class nostalgia might imply.

When I'm tempted to compare people or countries or historical epochs in terms of sinfulness, I try to remember Charles Spurgeon's great line: "The virus of sin lies in its opposition to God." Whether we're trying to carve out space for personal self-indulgence or for national-scale oppression, or simply prefer to shut our eyes to others' misery, we end up setting ourselves against God.

July: Quakers' best-fit market

I've always resisted the idea that Friends faith and practice are for special people. Since we welcome anyone who yearns to live with Jesus at the center of the community and learn with the rest of us how to live that way (including its ethical consequences), there is no limit on what "kinds" of people -- sophisticated or unsophisticated (who's to say!?), calm or emotional, of whatever race or nation or culture or even religion -- could potentially feel at home among us.

But I also like the challenge of marketing, or to put it another way, the challenge of communicating our welcome and making sure that there is actual fair access to our community. Ethical marketing communicates its invitations in the form of honest presentations of the host community's deepest values in ways that help those who find those values attractive to try out our community. Creativity in marketing involves making those values shine in the midst of the world's noise, but it never involves pretending something that isn't true.

August: War noises
Separated at birth?

To me it seems that this mutual enemy-mongering is absurd. Both countries have much to gain from friendship, and in the long run, less than nothing to gain from conflict with each other -- and acknowledging this reality doesn't require us to like either the imperialism of one country or increasing repression in the other. (My vagueness is deliberate and intended to be instructive.)

The enemy talk between the USA and Russia is not symmetrical; the differences are interesting. The USA seems most concerned about the potential restoration of the Russian empire on the western periphery of today's Russian Federation. American officials don't spend as much time defending human rights as they seem to blame Russia for not cooperating with American-led arrangements for global security. On the other hand, Russians don't see the American threat as one of outright expansion outside the USA's borders. The concern, as summarized in this article by Serghei Golunov, is that the USA and other Western countries are sources of conspiracy and subversion, bent on undermining Russia.

September: Theological mathematics

It's not that we shouldn't have boundaries. Apparently many people are, at any given moment, not attracted by the Light we ourselves have found irresistible; they are entitled to their choices. But our invitation must remain honest and real and the door must remain open, fully lit. What we can't tolerate is a false welcome, an ostensible invitation with hidden screens to be sure nobody we're uncomfortable with stumbles in. Yes, we will have healing work to do; wounded people are not entitled to remodel the household of faith to suit their allergies and addictions. We will have to struggle, together with newcomers, over different understandings of the ethical consequences of conversion, whether the sharp edge of the struggle is sex or money or the obligations of citizenship. God knows, we're dealing with all this ourselves. But, the point is, when people come to us and say that they're ready to embrace Jesus, we then face these problems, even these conflicts, together.

October: Evangelism or proselytism?
"Russia's largest circus" comes to Elektrostal

By any objective statistical account, we Friends in fact either don't believe in proselytism, or we are highly ineffective in practicing it. Philadelphia is one of the historic centers of Friends, but there are three times as many Catholics in the Philadelphia archdiocese as Quakers in the whole world. Rather than admitting to sheer communal incompetence, I prefer to believe that we actually resist trying to lure people away from their settled spiritual home into ours.

However, Quakers do evangelize.  Or, that is, we ought to. Anywhere there is spiritual seeking, spiritual questioning, or spiritual oppression, people ought to have access to the Friends message: "Christ is here to teach his people himself." Evangelism is not an attempt to hook people who already have a good relationship with their Creator in their present spiritual home. It is simply a winsome expression of our Christian testimony, coupled with an invitation to experience the community formed by that testimony. It utterly depends on honesty, accessibility, and hospitality.

Also, Evangelism or proselytism, PS: the grey zone.

November: If Jesus only knew
Christ and the Sinful Woman,
Elena Cherkasova (Luke,
chapter 7, verses 36-50)

When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner." ...

First, I tried (and will continue trying) to put myself in the woman's place in this scene. I've been forgiven, and I would like to wash Jesus' feet with my tears and wipe them with my hair. No, not literally, but I can work on this question: what prayer and what action would be an equally worthy thanksgiving for the grace that turned my life around and gave it meaning? How can I thank God sufficiently for my new family? ... by which I mean all the people in the world who are also figuring out how to live with God at the center. And, if "sufficiently" is not possible, can I at least abandon all pretenses and all worries about the rest of the audience as I pour out my honest tears?

The second point is more or less the reverse: I put myself in Simon's place. Whom have I examined and found wanting?

December: Division of labor
Opposing Views (Facebook); vox.com via Facebook   

God's plan doesn't require unanimity. Instead, we have a division of labor. Those of us who are gifted evangelists and teachers can persistently open up the space in our cynical cultures to teach the value of life. However, we won't be heard if we're busy throwing rhetorical grenades at those in our churches whose priorities, rightly or wrongly, are different. The value of life is a wonderful spotlight on hypocrisy, reminding us to beware of cheapening it by appearing to value only life that is unborn, or born with the wrong parents, sex, color, capacities, geography....

Our gifted prophets also have their hands full. Whenever politicians cover the protection of wealth and privilege with fast talk and patriotic slogans, we need to compare words and deeds; we need to follow the money trail; we need to expose the consequences of unjust decisions and backroom deals. Those who are really good at this are probably in constant danger of slipping into unfair and overheated rhetoric, and need to be reminded that all life has value, even jaded politicians!

While our meetings and churches try to keep up with their evangelists and prophets, someone has to mind the store....

My favorite blues video of the year -- from the post "Grace and leftovers," my return to Richmond, Indiana, last spring.