26 May 2016

Kelly and Grits in conversation...

About a year ago, we Moscow Friends agreed that each Sunday we would try to arrange some kind of spiritual conversation after meeting for worship. In recent months we've used the joint declaration of the Pope and Patriarch for this purpose, as well as the epistle from the Friends World Committee's world plenary gathering in Peru.

Several of us enjoy looking for interesting texts in Russian to propose as good starters for these conversations. For example, I wondered how our meeting might react to the essay by biblical scholar Ilya Grits that I translated recently for this blog, "What does the 'people of God' mean in the context of the 21st century?" (Russian here as PDF file.) A few weekends ago I printed up some copies of the essay and handed them out during tea time. The first comment was positive: "This essay is the very essence of Quakerism!" The second commenter expressed less enthusiasm: "I much prefer Thomas Kelly's 'The Blessed Community'." (This talk was originally published in September 1939 in The Friend, then included in the book A Testament of Devotion.)

A third person asked, "Why do you prefer Kelly? What do you think Kelly would say to Grits?" We decided to schedule a discussion at a future meeting: we would read both essays and comment on how they spoke to each other. The Kelly fan, Misha, promised to lead the discussion. Along with the Ilya Grits handout, we had plenty of copies of Thomas Kelly's book, A Testament of Devotion, in the late Olga Dolgina's beautiful Russian translation.

We had some time to prepare -- our meeting place wasn't available on Victory Day weekend, so we gathered again in mid-May for our conversation. Only seven of us participated in the discussion, but it was lively and went on longer than I'd dared hope.

Among the points we made about the two essays, or about how they related:
  • "Can we really include terrorists and sociopaths in Ilya's definition of the 'people of God'?"
  • "There's really no conflict between these authors. They both evoke images of concentric circles around the central trunk, God. But Kelly's concentric rings are in order of spiritual intimacy, while the 'People of God' circles are defined by the various covenants between God and God's people."
  • "Kelly is strongest in describing how we recognize the people who become our deepest spiritual friends. Sometimes those people come from social ranks different from our own. His circles don't conform to the circles defined by habits of elitism. In this he's not far from Ilya Grits."
I'd love to know: what food for spiritual conversation in your church have you found recently? Have you tried bringing two different authors together for comparison?

One of the recent entries on Micah Bales' blog, "Even I Have My Limits," reminded me of words we read from Thomas Kelly's "The Blessed Community" during our Moscow meeting's conversation:
Not only do our daily friendships become realigned; our religious friends are also seen anew. Many impressions of worth are confirmed, others are reversed. Some of the most active church leaders well-known for their efficiency, people we have always admired, are shown, in the X-ray light of Eternity, to be agitated, half-committed, wistful, self-placating seekers, to whom the poise and serenity of the Everlasting have never come. The inexhaustible self-giving of others of our religious acquaintances we now understand, for the Eternal Love kindles an ardent and persistent readiness to do all things for, as well as through, Christ who strengthens us. In some we regret a well-intentioned, but feverish over-busyness, not completely grounded in the depths of peace, and we wish they would not blur the beauty of their souls by fast motion. Others, who may not have been effective speakers or weighty financiers or charming conversationalists or members of prominent families are found to be men and women on whom the dews of heaven have fallen indeed, who live continuously in the Center and who, in mature appreciation, understand our leaping heart and unbounded enthusiasm for God. And although they are not commissioned to any earthly office, yet they welcome us authoritatively into the Fellowship of Love.

More about scholar and translator Olga Dolgina. We miss her!

As a followup to Alexei Yurchak's Everything Was Forever, Until it Was No More (reviewed here), I've just started reading Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich's Secondhand Time. Excerpt here. (Caution: it was this excerpt that caused me to buy the book.)

Cherice Bock looks toward an ecotheology of critical hope. She summarizes her article as published in Cross Currents and provides the original text as submitted to the journal.

Central Asia, the Panama Papers and the myth of the periphery:
Whereas oligarchs from outside the west operate from a logic of "demand-side" corruption seeking discreet locations to launder money, the west operates from a logic of "supply-side" corruption.
Is there a health benefit to church attendance? Cautiously interpreted, maybe so!

Here's a song we'll probably never use for a classroom gap-fill exercise! "Clothes Line," lyrics by Kent Harris. (Historical background on this song here, but it's become a Nightcats crowd-pleaser; I've never seen them not perform this song.)

19 May 2016

The hammer

Patriarchal Choir of the Danilov Monastery in performance today at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations

"Bomb-blessing has no place..."

Gifts included hammer for damaging nuclear warheads

Gift of a Plowshares banner (quoting from Isaiah 2:4)
I had a glimpse today of what the future of the church could be, but I'm not exactly hopeful that it's coming soon. I can't deny that it is really, really hard to wait.

Here's what happened. I was fascinated by Jeremy Varon's account of Dan Berrigan's funeral mass, "The Death Stops Here: The Death and Resurrection of Daniel Berrigan," so I found the video coverage provided by the Jesuit periodical America.

[You can watch the funeral here: Part One, Part Two.]

I put the videos on my tablet and took them with me to Moscow today. On the bus to Moscow I watched most of the funeral; on the way home on the train, I watched the rest.

In between -- that is, while we were in Moscow -- we attended a benefit concert for Big Change, whose programs for orphanage-leavers we support enthusiastically. The concert took place in the auditorium of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations ("MGIMO") and featured the Patriarchal Choir of the Danilov Monastery, performing a mixed program of sacred and folk music centered around the Easter troparion. The central text of this short verse (which the choir sang in Greek, Russian, English, German, Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese, French, and Old Church Slavonic) consists of the most important assertion of our faith:

Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs
Bestowing life!

Of course I couldn't help making connections between this song and the funeral mass I was in the midst of watching on my tablet on bus and train. Christ has trampled down death, and is bestowing life. The works of death have no claim on us, his followers, because he has made a way for us. It seems to me that the church still has much more to do to proclaim and implement this astounding truth, this astonishing freedom.

The church we actually have, of course, is full of mixed messages. The beautiful choral songs we heard today, proclaiming Christ is risen from the dead, were followed by Cossack songs romanticizing killing and death on the battlefield. In one particularly famous and lovely song, a brave soldier dies "from the second bullet," the church deacon sings him off to eternal life, and I sat there taking it all in, including the reality that the dead soldier's comrades are surely about to cause the same scenes of grief among the so-called enemy.

Well, is there someone who should always mourn even the enemy's dead?

Who else but the church?

Back on the train, I rewound the funeral recording a bit and confirmed that, for those of us who believe in the resurrection, the Easter troparion and Dan Berrigan's funeral really meshed so beautifully. Christ is risen from the dead. He tramples down death by death. Or, as Stephen Kelly put it in the funeral homily, "Bomb-blessing has no place in Jesus' self-giving."

An extraordinary moment in the funeral mass: the people present their gifts. Children come to the altar with gifts for the table that all have a connection to Dan Berrigan. A young girl brings a hammer, which is added to the other gifts at the table; you catch glimpses of the tool lying there on the tablecloth throughout the remainder of the service. A hammer! Christ is trampling down death by death, and his people dare to attack nuclear warheads with a simple carpenter's hammer! (Specifically, Dan and his brother Phil and six others did this, at a General Electric armaments factory in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, September 8, 1980.)

We often hear the stern voices of Christian celebrities defending family values and warning us against liberal decay. I am so hungry to see the day when that sort of passion for truth wakes up and notices our heretical complicity with the death-worship that is commanded by the powers that be. The Christian church, reclaiming our resurrection freedom, can finally rise up in unity to defy those unclean powers, and as a united Body, set about trampling down death by death, beating swords into plowshares, and refusing to learn war any more.

We are free! What's stopping us?

About five years ago we heard this same Danilov Monastery choir when it visited Elektrostal. I wrote about that visit and its effect on our students here.

Ok, journalists, who actually checked the weeping icon?

Bonhoeffer's answer to political turmoil: Preach!

Nicholas Terpstra writes a revisionist account of the Reformation.

Why B.B. King sings the blues. (See article, "A theology of popular music, arts and culture.")

12 May 2016

Political discipleship today

Not so "promptly" in my case.... The local postmark reveals that the ballot arrived at my neighborhood post office on April 19; I finally voted yesterday. 
Yesterday I voted in the Oregon state primary election. With only a few days left until election day, I didn't risk ordinary airmail -- I sent in the ballot by e-mail, with gratitude that Oregon provides this option.

If you've been paying attention to USA's remarkable presidential election season, you already know that, for the Republican party, there seems to be no need to wait for the last primary to determine that party's candidate, Donald Trump. The reactions among Americans have varied from ecstasy to maximum consternation. Those on the "consternation" side include not just Democrats but many Republicans, third-party voters, and independents. Rarely have we had a presidential candidate entering the general election race with unfavorability stats higher than Donald Trump's -- although, this year, Hillary Clinton's negatives are close.

My daily ration of Internet traffic is full of dire warnings that a Trump presidency would be a national and international disaster. Bitter exchanges between nobody-but-Sanders advocates and "get real! Vote for Clinton to avoid Trump" campaigners are another major feature of the season. Here are some reflections and suggestions on behalf of spiritual and political sanity between now and the general election.
  • Pray for the candidates, and particularly for those you dislike.
  • Think before circulating snarky comments about candidates or about their supporters. By exercising restraint, you do your part in restoring civility to our common life. Don't hesitate to say why you support your favorite candidates, but say it in your own voice, with respect for the intelligence of your audience.
  • Even so, you might feel called to flag the dangers of a Trump presidency (or substitute the name of your own least favorite candidate). I honestly don't think alarmist rhetoric is persuasive to those whose behavior you hope to influence, although it might be enjoyable to those who already agree with you. What might be more persuasive would be to point to Trump's apparent incompatibilities with values you and your audience hold dear.
For myself, I'm determined to exercise a sort of calm vigilance. I do not want to be under the spell of fear or alarm, but I also want to exercise a daily watchfulness. Hitler rose to popularity in modern Germany in part because of middle-class complacency as well as class grievances and poisonous nationalist resentments; now is no time for political laziness in the USA.

Finally, a reminder to those of us who feel democracy is in a fragile state in today's USA: let's not make Trump a convenient villain to distract us from other dangers, especially those dangers that are not so easy to personalize. Prime examples: the power of great wealth to distort both elections and governance; and the mushrooming growth of the national security state with its watch lists, surveillance, entrapment tactics, mercenary contractors, drone attacks, elite strike-force teams, and secret budgets. No matter who becomes the next president of the USA, these dangers will continue to demand prayerful, focused responses from disciples of the Prince of Peace.

Another poignant remembrance of Dan Berrigan, with some good links. (Thanks again to Jim Forest.)

A fascinating take on Julian of Norwich. (Thanks to Bill Samuel for the link.) Here's a particularly apt diagnosis, to my mind:
Julian had a single word for this opposition to God’s love and life. She called it wrath. While she was clear that there was no wrath in God, and thus no movement of God against us, there is a great deal of wrath in all of us, what she also called a contrariness to God’s peace and love. This is not the whole of who we are, but it is a part of our fallen condition.
Tomgrams continue to be my regular, reliable bulletins in the perpetual war watch. Today's example: Washington's military addiction.

A virtual experience of solitary confinement.

Amnesty International and others confront punitive psychiatry in Russia. (Late word is that authorities in Moscow may intervene on Vorobyovsky's behalf.)

"Kneeling there in deep contrition, help my unbelief" ...

05 May 2016

Division of labor, part two

Moscow dresses for spring holidays

Red Square: GUM Department Store
Red Square: Historical Museum (left); Judy Maurer, Mimi
Kamergerskii pereulok: kids learn traditional dances across
from the Moscow Art Academic Theater
A few months ago, I wrote about how my ideal church would operate: instead of simply getting on each other's nerves, our prophets and pastors and administrators would support each other, and (imagine this!) liberals and conservatives would admonish each other and faithfully pray for each other. Everyone in the church would enjoy the strengths of their specific spiritual gifts and their perhaps dramatically different temperaments, and together they would consult on "how truth prospers" in their part of God's world. We wouldn't fear conflict, because even in conflict we would stubbornly keep each other's well-being as our top priority.

Have I ever experienced a church that actually operates this way? It's sad to report that people in Friends meetings sometimes seem as tempted to categorize each other, be irritated by each other's different temperaments, and take political shortcuts in church governance, as anyone else. But I've seen glimpses of something much better. I've written before about the example of First Friends Meeting in Richmond, Indiana, agreeing to counsel and support war tax resisters back in the 1980's. The tender process by which First Friends grappled with the challenge of supporting law-breakers who insisted that God, not Caesar, should have the last word, was inspiring. It was a great example of a functional division of labor: by far, the majority of the church did not feel called to this form of conscientious objection, and some likely remained skeptical, but they were still able to discern that the few who did hold these convictions were maintaining a valid witness that deserved the support of the community.

A few weeks ago, I referred to a more specific division of labor -- this time in the area of evangelism. This was the axe I was grinding:
We place a higher priority on welcoming intellectuals who are afraid of faith commitment than welcoming more diverse audiences who are ready to make a faith commitment but lack a trustworthy place to do so. With a more creative division of labor, we wouldn't have to choose.
Brian Young at Berkeley Friends Church asked me to consider saying a bit more. Gladly! I define evangelism as "...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." The key word here may be "honesty," in the sense that we are testifying to what we as individuals and as a community have actually experienced.

This honesty, this "actual experience," is at the core of the evangelistic division of labor. I've mentioned the British Friend who told me that he is now a Christian, but if at the time he first came to faith, the doorway to Friends had been framed in obligatory Christian jargon, he would never have entered. Based on his own experience, he is exactly the right person to speak to the yearning skeptic who is allergic to Christian jargon and happy-talk but nevertheless feels the tender pull of the Savior.

The same Quaker meeting that empowers him to speak to the skeptic can also empower those who actually love Christian language to proclaim their message with wild abandon. This entry in Micael Grenholm's blog shows what that might look like.

First Friends Meeting in Richmond, Indiana, the meeting who counseled tax resisters, also provided examples of this kind of breadth of ministry: among First Friends members were several who were academics and were most comfortable with a fairly abstract approach to describing faith. They were the right ones to meet people who came to Friends as refugees from authoritarian religiosity. At the same time, we had other Friends who wanted to go door-to-door to survey spiritual needs right in our meetinghouse's neighborhood (at the time, 15th and East Main), and to throw barbecues and ice cream parties right on the church lawn to attract newcomers. I was so delighted that we had this range of approaches in the meeting, because just a few years earlier, we didn't seem to have that breadth. A new couple had begun attending who were enthusiastic about door-to-door evangelism. They were told, politely, that they might be happier at Lynn Friends Meeting further north, a church where they did those sorts of things.

The dialogue between these different approaches can be very fruitful. There's no reason not to challenge an evangelistic approach if we have doubts about it -- if, for example, it seems to rely more on theatricality than genuine testimony to experience, or on the other hand, utterly denies the place of emotion in conversion or spiritual growth (or denies that conversion is even something to be desired!).

Similarly, there's the ancient controversy over whether evangelism should emphasize the Christian basics and avoid those off-putting Quaker "peculiarities" ... or, on the contrary, should base its appeal on the power of Quakers' social testimonies (peace, equality, simplicity, and so on) to build credibility for the core message. Why choose?! Some of us are best at the first approach, others are strong advocates for the second. Their lively debates simply help to keep both groups honest, not to establish a monopoly of one approach over others.

Ten years ago I quoted George Fox on "quenching the spirit." It isn't too soon to repeat:
All Friends every where, in the living spirit, and living power, and in the heavenly light dwell, and quench not the motions of it in yourselves, nor the movings of it in others; though many have run out, and gone beyond their measures, yet many more have quenched the measure of the spirit of God, and after became dead and dull, and questioned through a false fear: and so there hath been hurt both ways. And therefore be obedient to the power of the Lord, and his spirit, and his spiritual weapons; war with that Philistine that would stop up your wells and springs. Jacob's well was in the mountain, (read that within,) he was the second birth. And the belief in the power keeps the spring open. And none to despise prophecy, neither to quench the spirit; so that all may be kept open to the spring, that every one's cup may run over.

For you may all prophesy one by one, and the spirit of the prophets is subject to the prophets. ‘Would all the Lord's people were prophets,’ said Moses in his time, when some found fault; but the last time is the christian's time, who enjoys the substance, Christ Jesus; and his church is called a royal priesthood, offering up spiritual sacrifices; and his church are his believers in his light. And so in the light every one should have something to offer; and to offer an offering in righteousness to the living God, else they are not priests; and such as quench the spirit cannot offer, but become dull. ‘I will pour out of my spirit upon all flesh, in the last time,’ saith the Lord, which is the true christian's time, God's sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and old men shall dream dreams; ‘and on my servants and handmaids I will pour out of my spirit in those days, and they shall prophesy.’ Now friends, if this be fulfilled, servants, handmaids, sons, daughters, old men, young men, every one to feel the spirit of God, by which you may see the things of God, and declare them to his praise; for with the heart man doth believe, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation; first, he has it in his heart, before it comes out of his mouth: and this is beyond that brain-beaten-heady stuff, which man has long studied, about the saints' words, which the holy men of God spake forth as they were moved by the holy ghost: so the holy ghost moved them, before they came forth and spake them. And therefore, as I said before, do not resist the holy ghost...
(from epistle CCLXXV, 1669)

Let all our evangelism flow from "every one's cup" running over -- but each person's testimony will always be a bit different from others, and will be suitable for a different audience. Prayer, mutual affection, and honest conflict can help ensure that, in all our different ways, we're all serving a thirsty world the same Living Water.

The New Yorker's "Postscript" on Daniel Berrigan, by Paul Elie.
Berrigan, in my opinion, was the "last of the fathers" of twentieth-century American Catholicism, the longest-surviving associate of a cohort of gifted and engaged Catholic writers, among them Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and other lesser-known figures such as the Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray and John Kennedy Toole....
Anton Chivchalov continues his spirited criticism of the persecutors of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia.

There's a blog post that I was tempted to write but didn't and probably won't ... because these two writers have already said it... (and in the second case, rather overstated it): The Pharisee and the Trump supporter. The smug style in American liberalism.

Patricia Dallmann on the gift of Scriptures. Thanks to quakerquaker.org for the link.

Here's a peek into our classroom: Group 401's listening comprehension exam.

Because if you let him ride, he'll want to try to drive...

28 April 2016

An end to coercive Christianity

Or, more realistically, let's provide a robust, passionate, God-honoring alternative to coercive Christianity, because, let's be honest, some people seem to prefer being coerced.

What sparked these reflections? It's all Melanie Springer Mock's fault (oh, and her co-author Kendra Weddle Irons). Reading their book If Eve Only Knew, I realized again that, in my beloved little corner of the Quaker world, I've lived a sheltered life, where men who want to marry seek brides who are intellectual companions, where women know their true strength, where churches choose leadership based on spiritual gifts rather than social status, and so on. All around me (and even in my personal experience) I see contradictions, but somehow those contradictions don't hit me the way they should.

What broke through? This book! -- and its evidence that, whatever I might have optimistically assumed, cultural Christianity still plays a major role in oppression in the lives of millions. It was the data about Christian bookstore sales that reached me: the "biblical womanhood" industry is profitable. There's a lot of money invested in telling women lies about their roles and limitations in God. As Melanie says in the introduction,
Despite the voices of Christian feminists offering an alternative understanding of Scripture, gender, and God's call on our lives, messages about biblical womanhood continue to dominate Christian culture. Such messages provide easy answers to the messy, complicated question of who God wishes us to be, but they are also quite lucrative. According to the CBA (formerly Christian Booksellers Association) state of the industry report, in 2009 Christian products sales were reportedly $4.6 billion. Women assume a significant portion of this market share. Speakers such as Joyce Meyer draw large audiences -- and large sums -- by ironically preaching in mega-churches and to mega-audiences around the country about the primacy of women's domestic domain.
Years ago, I worked for a CBA bookstore in Charlottesville, Virginia (helping put Judy through graduate school!). Though I suppose we stocked our share of nonsense, the owner of the store, Florence Skove, had her boundaries: she would not put stuff on the shelves that trivialized women. (If you insisted on buying them, you could order them.) Florence Skove was an active member of a conservative Presbyterian church; she laughingly told me that some of her friends called her "our fundie friend Flo." But my so-called fundie boss also asked me to wear an "ERA YES" button while on the job, supporting the campaign for Virginia to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. It wasn't hard to convince me, although I'm sure we raised a few customers' eyebrows.

Flo wouldn't stock this book because she
said that the luxurious fur coat would be
a "bad witness" to nonbelievers. Source.
Among my excuses for being so oblivious are also the following: (1) My mother was a university professor. I never saw any sign in my parents' marriage that she subordinated herself to my father. Our family had more than its share of dysfunctions, but that wasn't one of them. As I looked to my own future, I never expected that my eventual marriage partner would be some version of that Biblical Womanhood ideal described in If Eve Only Knew's first chapter. Interestingly, most of the guys I knew in high school (admittedly in an experimental program that, already in 1970, had a course devoted to feminism) also seemed to assume that the ideal woman had brains and confidence equal to their own.

(2) When I became a Christian, my very first spiritual home was Ottawa Friends Meeting in Canada. There I came under the influence of Deborah Haight, about whom I've written several times. As she told me stories about her childhood in Norwich, Ontario, in what was then Canada Yearly Meeting (Conservative), she described an upbringing and a subculture which took it for granted that girls would learn carpentry and other farm jobs, and later would be exposed to science and theology, and (in the unprogrammed Quaker context) would be recorded as ministers, on the same basis as boys. It's surely no coincidence that Emily Stowe, Canada's first female doctor, came from Norwich.

Since making my home in the pastoral and evangelical Quaker world, I've found some contradictions a little harder to ignore. It was a memorable session of Indiana Yearly Meeting when (then) superintendent David Brock asked us, with obvious impatience, when we were finally going to implement our testimony to men's and women's equality. Part of his job was helping meetings find new pastors -- but why was it (he asked) that, of all the female candidates he offered, one third of the meetings seeking pastors would ignore them completely, one third of the meetings would put their resumes on the bottom of the pile, and only one third would take them seriously?

It's this aspect of Christian practice that I'm labeling "coercive." It's fine for you to have an interpretation of Scripture that's different from mine (though if you label it more "conservative," expect an argument). My problem starts when you use that interpretation to limit someone else's freedom in Christ, with no right of argument or appeal. When you tell girls that they can't be leaders (or, as If Eve Only Knew documents, attribute all our social woes to Eve's sin or Adam's passivity), and prescribe for them a life whose boundaries must be defined by men, that's coercion. It's bondage reinforced by social sanctions that seemingly can only be broken by disloyalty to God. What's more sorrowful and frustrating as we face an unbelieving world, this approach is profoundly anti-evangelistic. "Welcome to the household of faith," we say. "You are born again, your new life is just beginning! Rejoice!" And then the bait-and-switch: it turns out that you are asked to take on new bondages that seem remarkably similar to the tired old bondages of the world.

I'm not saying that the choice to live a modest life devoted to caring for children and home is wrong! The evil is in coercive boundaries, not freely-made choices. It may be that, if we somehow removed all the ideologies and polarizations that limit our children, a majority of boys and girls would still choose traditional roles and divisions of labor. But, at least within Christian communities, they would be making these choices in prayerful communion with Christ and each other, much as Deborah Haight described her childhood in Norwich.

Realistically, we're not going to put an end to coercive Christianity soon. People will still organize around those bondages and propagandize for them in CBA bookstores, in Christian celebrity mega-events, on Christian TV, and so on. What cheers me up is books like If Eve Only Knew and all the other ways we can and will proclaim a wonderful alternative vision of freedom in Christ for women and men alike.

This alternative does not depend on faking perfection or hiding contradictions. I dearly love Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends, where I've met so many wonderful role models of functional egalitarianism and humane evangelicalism. We are wrestling with our own dilemmas around issues of sexuality, and the outcomes are uncertain. But we're doing this all out in the open. Our difficult discussions undermine any pretense that we can impose a single model of Quaker holiness on our children and newcomers. Our various models of discipleship are formed in conversation, debate, even conflict, but at the same time they are also formed in something approaching transparency, and in love.

This is Holy Week here in Russia, and Easter is in three days. As I do every year, I'm re-reading Emmanuel Charles McCarthy's The Stations of the Cross of Nonviolent Love (PDF file). In light of my ideal of alternative Christian community, here's a page I thought I'd highlight for today:

Not many links today! The Web site I use for preserving links, delicious.com, is in the process of shifting back to its old site and a previous generation of software, and seems unavailable today. (They promise to return shortly at del.icio.us.) But these links seemed especially urgent to pass along....

Tim Stafford on Cities of Refuge.
Bernd Wustl pastors a church of 500 in the German border town of Freilassing. He is a Teddy bear with a full white beard, who worked as an engineer for a local manufacturer before he joined fulltime pastoring at the age of 47. He says that ten years ago his church sensed God directing them to pray on the bridge that links Germany to Austria—the same crossing that Napoleon took to conquer Austria, and that Hitler followed in the Austrian Anschluss. The church held several open-air Sunday services at the bridge over the course of two years, but they never understood why they were praying.

Then in April of 2015 the refugees began to cross that bridge by the tens of thousands. Wustl's church decided to call a conference for all the local churches. "There was an unreal fear. What's happened with Germany? [At the conference] we taught people how to handle fear, so they could be freed for ministry."

The German church has two choices, Wustl tells me. "Either we wake up, open our doors and speak the gospel. Or we close doors, and forget about the German church."
Stop calling it "short term missions." Here's what you should call it instead. (Note the invitation for comments and ideas.)

Easter blessings, with help from the Oslo Gospel Choir: "Holy Is the Lamb."

21 April 2016

Your license to insult ANYONE is hereby revoked

Pastor Pavel Begichev outlines the history of attempts to
define Christian boundaries.
Detail from his challenging and sometimes poignant
Ilya Grits, the founder of the Bible College "Nasledie" (Heritage), wrote the following paper back in 2011 for the seventh annual Bible Reading Forum in memory of Alexander Men'. The paper was circulated again among participants in a Russian Orthodox-Protestant gathering in Moscow last month, and I was told that an English translation would be very welcome.

Why is this paper so utterly charming, inspiring, lifegiving? At the same time, why is there something in me that resists, at least a bit, its inclusive conclusion? Why exactly would I or anyone else ever want some people to be classified as remaining outside the "People of God"? We better have a good reason.

In any case, during this period of savage division and wholesale false witnessing, there is something about Ilya Grits's essay that feels like a welcome shower of grace.

So ... I submit for your discussion:

What does the "People of God" mean in the context of the 21st Century?

The question that is raised by the title of this paper corresponds 100% with the general theme of this year’s Readings ["The People of God in the 21st Century"]. It makes sense to be a little more precise: not “What do we mean by the people of God?” but “Who is included in the people of God?” We can be even more precise and put it this way: “Who may we (or should we) place among the people of God in the context of the 21st century?
The very concept of “people of God” – as it became clear in our attempts to understand the terrible lessons of the 20th century – is a dynamic rather than a static concept. This means that in every century, if not in every generation, this question must be posed again and again: who today is included among God’s people?
The 20th century is remembered as a century of enormous, horrible tragedies for many, many peoples: the Jews, Gypsies (Roma), Crimean Tatars, Chechens, Kalmyks.... Many of them came to the very edge of total destruction. In any case, that was the intention of those who made the decision and worked out the technical details to accomplish this destruction.
I'm absolutely certain that, for the organizers and perpetrators of the policy of genocide, this whole horror was directly connected to the question behind the theme of this paper: If these specific people don’t belong to the People of God, are we obliged to consider them as human? Wouldn’t it make sense to classify them as “subhuman”, with all the consequences of that classification? Wouldn’t it be correct and even humane to wipe them from the face of the earth?
Of course this isn’t what those 20th-century people – such figures as Beria and Eichmann – actually said. They talked about the master race, about enemies of the people, and so on. But they undoubtedly thought this way. After all, the people who decided, planned, and organized the destruction of millions of people, were not themselves aliens from another planet; they were people who had been raised in, and were well acquainted with, Christian tradition, the language of the Bible, and the Church.
Thousands of people involved directly or indirectly with planning, organizing, and carrying out the destruction of those “subhumans” undoubtedly rationalized their decisions more or less along these lines, seeking to soothe their consciences.
We cannot argue that, when the 20th century ended, this way of thinking also came to an end. It is enough to take a look at contemporary publications, Web sites, slogans, to understand that even now significant numbers of people regret that the “great” European cannibals were not able to bring their “cause” to a successful conclusion.
Nowadays we can meet a good number of perceptive people who assume that the new 21st century might be just as bloody as the previous century. Indeed, it seems quite possible. All this makes the theme before us, “Who is included in the People of God in this new century?”, that much more relevant.
It goes without saying that we will attempt to understand this theme not from a political, ethnic, or any similar viewpoint, but from a biblical viewpoint.
For this we distinguish two criteria:
  • People’s relationship to God
  • God’s relationship to people
... which we will consider in that order.

1. The Bible shows that a community of people can be called the People of God if, in their lives, they believe and trust the One God and Him alone, considering Him to be their Lord.
Therefore we must consider that, first of all, Israel – as a people, as an ethnic group, as a state in the final analysis – have been, are now, and always will be the People of God to the end of the ages. Some people might be pleased by this, others not at all pleased, but neither attitude affects the reality: the promises of God are irrevocable. Nobody can cancel or replace them.
I'm not particularly eager to argue or even to theologize on a topic that remains so very pointed, even after the passage of two thousand years. It’s better to give the floor to the great apostle of tongues:
Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. As it is written: I have made you a father of many nations. He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not” (Romans 4:16-17 – all citations from NIV).
What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise” (Galatians 3:17).
I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, and in this way all Israel will be saved. As it is written: The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins. As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies for your sake; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable” (Romans 11:25-29).
Israel is an integral part of the People of God, His historical and spiritual foundation, His rod, or “trunk”, following the apostle Paul’s imagery.

Secondly, of course, the People of God include Christians – formerly found among the lawless, but now grafted to the main trunk of the olive tree. It should be emphasized that we are not talking about some separate church existing in history, but about Christianity as a whole, about every Christian community that confesses Jesus as God’s son and acknowledges him as their Messiah, their Saviour.
We have a sufficient basis for this understanding in the confession of faith made by Peter, and the faith confessed by the whole apostolic community of disciples of the Lord – and in the very warm and decisive approval Jesus himself gave to this confession: “Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus replied, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven’” (Matthew 16:16-19).
Over several centuries, Peter’s confession became a sufficient basis for identifying followers and disciples of God’s Son.
After almost a generation, John, the last remaining apostle, the great apostle of love, exhorts Christ’s disciples with these words: “Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son” (2 John 1:9).
Thirdly, the boundaries of the People of God cannot exclude those who worship and confess faith in the One God to the exclusion of all others.
Of course here we’re referring to Muslims. I know perfectly well that a great number of people would not like the inclusion of Muslims in the People of God, or would consider it completely unacceptable.
But in the end, our personal preferences, fears, prejudices, phobias, have no bearing on the subject.
If we use the language of the Bible – the Book of God’s Covenant with humans – we first have to name those people whose Covenant relationship came through Moses. Secondly, there are the people of God whose Covenant relationship was established through Jesus, the Son of God, the Messiah; and then, thirdly, there are those who became the people of God through God’s covenant with Abraham, the great prophet and the chosen one of God.
But of course even this list does not cover all of the various communities that we must include among the People of God.
Fourthly, this family includes a great many people who accept and carry out the commandments of God contained in God’s Covenant with Noah.
This covenant covers a huge number of people, many of whom don’t even suspect the existence of such a Covenant but live in strict conformity to it.
Sometimes these people who live by God’s Covenant with Noah are simply called decent people – without hesitation they fulfill its basic commandments: they don’t steal (in practical terms this means they always pay their debts); they don’t commit adultery; they don’t kill; they honor their parents; they don’t drink blood; they respect the courts; they fulfill their promises to anyone and everyone.
The English are accustomed to call these kinds of people “gentlemen”. Here it’s worth recalling G.K. Chesterton’s well-known, oft-quoted, but too-rarely implemented thought: “Before baptising a man, you must make a gentleman of him.”
I think that we don’t dare cast these kinds of people out of the boundaries of the People of God. At least, that was the judgment of the ancient sages of the Torah, who asserted that “the people who keep the commandments of God’s Covenant with Noah will participate in the life to come.”
Beyond a doubt, the first Apostolic Council saw things the same way. In considering the basis for former pagans who had received Christ to become candidates for baptism, the Council decided to require that they should follow the commandments of the Covenant with Noah: “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood” (Acts 15:19-20).
A little further along, this ruling based on the Covenant with Noah is stated once again: “As for the Gentile believers, we have written to them our decision that they should abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality” (Acts 21:25).
But we are not finished yet. So far we have used only one dimension as a criterion: “from the bottom up” – how people relate to God.

2. However we cannot forget that there is and always will be yet another criterion: how God relates to people.
And here we must not forget one of the most marvelous thoughts of the Church Fathers, a thought that Metropolitan Anthony Bloom so loved to quote in the very last years of his life: “Just think – what happiness it is to live among these people. It’s not important whether they believe in God or not.
God believes in them!”
If we take this assertion seriously – and how else could we take it? – then it follows that every living person, every living being that God believes in, is in fact truly alive, which in the language of the Bible means that God hopes and relies upon that person. It is not possible to exclude any such person from the People of God.
Thus, it turns out that all of humanity, whatever essential features we might choose as classifications, must be included among the People of God.
Of course we realize that these features we have selected are not enough. This immediately raises the question – how do the various parts of the People of God (families, branches, offshoots, in the final analysis) – relate to each other? In other words, in addition to the “vertical” criteria, we still have to consider the “horizontal” criteria.
It wouldn’t be difficult to imagine this kind of picture, or visualization: In the center, as the trunk of the tree – Israel. Placed around Israel would be those who are included in Christ’s Church. Around them in turn – strict monotheists, Muslims. And around them, people who live by the Covenant with Noah. We end up with a sort of system of concentric rings.
And, finally, on the periphery, all other people in whom God believes, regardless of their faith.
The resulting picture is beautiful, but, alas, clearly inadequate. If we can put it this way, it’s too flat. It lacks volume, amplitude – something our “vertical” criteria cannot provide, but the words of the Son of God Himself can.
It’s impossible simply to bypass Matthew chapter 25; these are the direct words of Jesus himself.
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Matthew 25:31-45).
These words of Jesus ask precisely nothing about anyone’s faith, theology, dogmas, or canons, but only about the simplest, most vital actions that are possible for anyone to carry out, rendering any correlation of the various families included in the People of God, by whatever model or pattern, simply out of place.
The Lord has His own understanding of who belongs and doesn’t belong among the People of God. And to argue with this understanding seems, to say the least, unwise.
In conclusion, let’s pose this quite reasonable question: why, after all, are these considerations even needed?
Here’s how I answer: If I know that this person (or community of people), whom I find repulsive, is a part of the People of God just as I am, then I do not have the right to throw a stone at him/them, or even to speak insultingly about them.

And then there is hope that the 21st Century will not be the last in the history of humanity.

Lord ... send our enemies to lay hands on us. (Nadia Bolz-Weber)

Rare memorial [to conscientious objectors] inspires contemporary Quaker work.

Five observations from Ed Stetzer: the new era of Christian networks -- and what denominations need to learn.

Pope's rescue mission for Syrian refugees gets graceful media coverage.

Memoir as feminist testimony. (Katherine Willis Pershey.)

The apocalypse according to Bastrykin.
The vulnerability of Bastrykin’s Russia is quite easy to understand and not at all surprising, for, according to the article, the country has not been very lucky with its population. Bastrykin’s Russia is populated by two categories of people. The first are gullible and prone to react unreasonably to the most trivial things. The second are unprincipled scoundrels, ready to enlist in any intelligence service, extremist or terrorist organization for money.

Ashley Cleveland is ready to "walk in Jerusalem, just like John." (Caution: high energy!)