21 July 2016

Trail shorts

Columbia Gorge trail
Spokane River Centennial Trail
Overlooking Dufur, Oregon
Cape Lookout main trail
Short Beach (Oregon Islands nature preserve)
As an earnest, idealistic disciple and veteran Quaker operative, I probably should be spending these days in constant prayerful attention to political events and the worldwide cycles of violence, and even trying to squeeze out a few words of wisdom for this blog. Yearly Meeting sessions are just a few days away, and I have responsibilities!

Instead, I have been enjoying amazing hours on various trails in Oregon and Washington, as Judy and I (and, more recently, our friends Natasha and Elizabeth as well) have come across one spectacular vista after another. Layered bluffs and scarred cliffs reveal the geological processes that built these beautiful landscapes. Snakes and anemones animate the trailsides and tidal pools. Rightly or wrongly, mayhem in city streets and convention halls seems far away and incredibly ephemeral compared with the beauty we saw today just a few miles away from Netarts, Oregon, our last stop before heading for the Northwest Yearly Meeting sessions in Newberg.

Thanks to the all-present Internet, we're not totally shielded from the world's open wounds, of course. In all the controversy around the shootings of armed motorists by police, I had a vision of a terrifying future: the more we citizens claim the right to "open carry" and "concealed carry" their guns, the more we put police officers in impossible situations. Without blaming victims in any tragic episode of police overreaction, isn't it inevitable that police encounters with more and more armed citizens will more frequently result in innocent lives lost?

It's completely correct to point out racial disparities in these awful outcomes. Black citizens who are lawfully carrying guns should not be in any more danger from police than white citizens lawfully carrying guns. The more general point is this: the national romance with guns cannot help making police work even more dangerous, for the police themselves and for everyone else. How is this danger factored into our gun control discussions?

By the way, "More children are victims of Chicago's gunfire..." (a painful reminder to me: my fourteen-year-old sister Ellen was shot to death in Chicago back in 1970).

Nearly a year ago I registered my surprise at the negative reactions to the "Black Lives Matter" movement. Thanks to a recent Trumpcast interview with Nick Confessore on white nationalists' affinities with the Donald Trump presidential campaign, I may have gained a few additional insights into these negative reactions.

One thing that came out in the Trumpcast conversation was the popularity of the "reverse racism" charge. Confessore: "It is now a truism on Fox News that when somebody makes a charge of racism, that charge is itself racist. It's 'playing the race card'." Black people, by this logic, must never make claims of being victimized by racism, and must be perfectly color-blind, long before our society as a whole has shown itself capable of ensuring safety for such behavior.

I think to myself: at this very time, after the nation has been repeatedly shocked by a long series of racially suspicious shootings by mostly white police officers, why in God's name should any nonwhite person give up the healthy habit of being cautious around white people?! As a white person, I feel terrible about this, but until Black Lives Matter just as much as my own, my tender white feelings are entirely irrelevant.

Elaine A. Heath asks the church, "Can we get over ourselves?" Her question is a very good one, but I have a slightly different context for posing the same question. Some of my friends believe that religious freedom is diminished when Christians are not permitted to discriminate in business on the basis of faith. (A famous example is being asked to provide a cake for a lesbian wedding.) I have mixed feelings about the legal trade-offs involved, just as I do about not paying war taxes. However, I want to say to that aggrieved baker, "What relationship does not providing a cake have to any sort of winsome proclamation of the Gospel?" Are Christians to be known for whom we won't sell to, and what holiday cliches we insist on, rather than for the good news we claim to represent?

"The worst prayer I have ever heard." (Caution: political content!) And while we're at it, "Carson, Clinton, Colbert, and ... Lucifer?"

Rethinking apostolicity: Myles Werntz reviews a new book by John G. Flett.
By allowing apostolicity to be reconceived as a process to be undergone rather than a historical-cultural substance to be replicated, Flett convincingly argues for a postcolonial way forward for ecclesiology. The lingering question of ecumenicity remains, however: if the relationship between old and new church is no longer that of host and colony, what is that relationship?
The question on God's lips.

Blues dessert from the late Lynwood Slim:

14 July 2016

Faith, commitment, and aspiration (repost)

I originally posted this on March 14, 2013. Now that North Carolina Yearly Meeting of Friends (FUM) seems to be shuffling toward a similar arrangement as Friends in Indiana, and my own dear Northwest Yearly Meeting gathers shortly to reconsider the cost and value of unity, I felt led to repost these modest thoughts.

Why bother even writing about denominational politics when there are so many fresh wounds in our human family? Answer: it is precisely those wounds that demand our urgent attention, our unity, our undistracted rededication to the kind of prophetic evangelism that confronts violence, racism, and elitism in the name of Jesus. 

I've not written about the schism in Indiana Yearly Meeting of Friends.

I was present at the adoption of the 1982 minute on homosexuality; I was a member of Indiana Yearly Meeting for nearly twenty years; I was recorded as a minister by that yearly meeting; I've been following the breakup story since it became public; and still I find myself without words. 

(Lucky for you!)

And I won't start now. The story is too huge, and too petty. Too tragic, and too trivial. And in the midst of everything else, there's my total certainty that anything I say will be misunderstood.

Instead, I am thinking about what drives Christians apart --particularly my tribe, the Quakers. I used to think (and still do, somewhat, despite Indiana's sobering reality check) that Quaker unity is a matter of depth. We are at our most united, across our divisions, when we remember that we were gathered in God's power -- once upon a time in the 1652 era, and at every occasion since when we truly yielded to God. On the other hand, our divisions are most obvious when we look at our favorite parochial counterfeits -- one group hiding in silence, another in flavor-of-the-month evangelicalism, another in affluent inner-flashlight individualism, just to risk a few caricatures. In hyping our own group's specialness, we often resort to selective applications of beautiful antiquarian flourishes from early Friends -- and hide the extent to which our wider contexts, the surrounding mass cultures, have distorted us practically to the breaking point.

Our politics are equally ugly. Maybe this is what has truly broken my heart. To be sure that our special group isn't contaminated, evangelical Friends are fond of beating the unity drum by quoting Scripture and invoking the presence of the Holy Spirit, but are those who question the application or invocation, or who call for a season of discernment, listened to? Isn't such questioning often labeled as evidence of contamination? (And consider the source!--someone from X College!) When contamination control becomes our definition of finding unity, then politics based on whisper campaigns, parking-lot understandings, enemy lists, venomous labeling of the "other" becomes normal. But does the Holy Spirit truly bless these scenes? I believe that when we use Holy Spirit language to deodorize our politics, we're in real danger of committing the unforgivable sin. It's not that I believe we don't need to discern error (yes, error exists!!) but no theological or political formula can ever replace daily actual real-time discernment and real-life eldership.

Liberal Friends do the same sort of thing, just with a different set of signals. I have watched several yearly meetings grapple with the challenging task of revising books of discipline, and it has sometimes looked to me like a process of finding the lowest common denominator. Whether it is doctrinal content or sexual ethics or yearly meeting authority, don't include anything that makes anyone squirm. Early Friends knew that "... it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come." [2 Corinthians 1:22; "He"/"his" per NIV translation; God is not male. And also see the great news in Ephesians 1:13-14.] I believe that Friends can continue to live by and experience this "guarantee" -- but do we teach and believe this? Is trust in God (rather than hierarchy, politics, violence, wealth, social distinctions, intellectual cleverness) still our central testimony?

Let's be honest: no Quaker group, probably no Christian group lives up to our full potential. Many of us love to sing Frances Ridley Havergal's hymns; one of my favorites is the very Quakerly "Lord, speak to me that I may speak / In living echoes of Thy tone...." But when I sing another of my favorites, "Take my life and let it be," I always come to a screeching halt (so to speak) at the line, "Take my silver and my gold; not a mite would I withhold." I would withhold quite a bit, actually! What would I need to do to be able to sing that line without blushing?

On the other hand, I have truly tried to "lay down my sword and shield down by the Riverside" of baptism. (Notes on baptism--#1; #2.) My understanding is that, once we've been in that river, Jesus has taken the choice to kill away from us. I cannot understand how Christianity and military service can be reconciled. We Friends, in the words of the Richmond Declaration of Faith, "... feel bound explicitly to avow our unshaken persuasion that all war is utterly incompatible with the plain precepts of our divine Lord and Law-giver, and the whole spirit of His Gospel, and that no plea of necessity or policy, however urgent or peculiar, can avail to release either individuals or nations from the paramount allegiance which they owe to Him who hath said, 'Love your enemies.' (Matt 5:44, Luke 6:27) In enjoining this love, and the forgiveness of injuries, He who has brought us to Himself has not prescribed ... precepts which are incapable of being carried into practice, or of which the practice is to be postponed until all shall be persuaded to act upon them."

So this aspiration ranks very high with me, but perhaps a total God-centered financial stewardship has conveniently been ranked a bit lower. However, maybe other disciples, even ones more mature than I am, have reversed these priorities.

So: do some of our divisions arise from our different aspirations and priorities? Maybe we could have a humbler and more productive conversation about spiritual unity and divisions if we acknowledged our (perhaps subconscious) prioritizations, aspirations, and even our failures. Especially our failures to trust.

Back to 2016 ...

Just a week ago: Nekima Levy-Pounds addresses a plenary session of Friends General Conference. (Her address begins at 18:00.)

Kendra Weddle Irons gives a response to Dallas. "Have you noticed the one constant that lies at the heart of the violence we continue to witness?" Fair or not?

Women in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine break the oppressive silence on sexual violence. Natalia Antonova; RFERL.

Forum 18 examines new legislation with huge implications for evangelism and house churches in Russia. Christianity Today's background piece, Russia: The Other Christian Nation.

Betsy Mikel on the nourishing benefits of silence. (Thanks to Bill Smith for the link.)

Face to Face: Vail Palmer's book on early Quaker encounters with the Bible is on the press.

"I thank God for giving me a vision." A voice from my Chicago childhood comes back to help me now.

07 July 2016


Ottawa Friends Meetinghouse (today), where I became a
Friend in 1974
Ottawa Friends signboard
So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. (2 Corinthians 5:16; context.)

When we're in your classroom, it's like we're in a different world. (One of our students in Elektrostal, Russia.)

If we wanted to regard Russia from a "worldly" point of view, we would have no lack of material, both positive and negative -- a sublime spiritual heritage, for example, which is reflected in elemental human decency, hospitality, incredible capacity for friendship ... and a deeply dysfunctional relationship between ordinary people and the structures of power and wealth.

But we're not in Russia as political scientists -- we serve as educators and believers. We want to see the country and its people in a way that is somehow connected with the way God sees God's beloved creations. Furthermore, we want to do this not just when we're listening to incomparable choral music, or walking through the State Tretyakov Gallery, but even in our most routine and tedious daily interactions.

To develop this capacity, the first step is to learn how to regard Christ himself. The early Quakers (among others) understood and asserted that Jesus, God with us, is NOT a figurehead, trademark, brand, or symbol wholly owned by the religion industry. Christ does not represent a technique or metaphor or model to reach up the mountain to God, alongside any number of other metaphors or models. We are not dependent on ceremonies or priests or subtle adepts of any kind to accept his offer of reconciliation with God. He is already at our door, knocking, waiting for us to hear his voice, so that he can dwell in us and we in him. He actually wants to use us, the reconciled, to continue his reconciling work among those who might not yet have heard his voice.

Being able to see Christ first-hand in this way was not the work of a day. Coming from an atheist family, I had no practice in seeing Christ in any way other than a figure of other people's piety, at best a distant historical figure, until the day I felt him tell me that I could trust him. (Story here.) I believed him immediately, but actually putting weight on that trust took much, much longer. Learning to keep regarding him, listening to him, believing his promises more and more, has been the work of most of my life.

But it's been that process of learning that I now draw on to "regard" Russia. Here's an example. I regularly have to bring documents to immigration officers, who must approve those documents in order for us to continue to work in Russia. Sometimes these documents are incorrect because the laws have changed -- but, no matter how gruff those officers appear initially, they always turn out to be kind and understanding. The last time, we actually received our visas before some required translations had been completed, on the strength of our promise to make up the deficiencies as soon as possible. With each unexpected kindness, I'm confirmed in my intention not to regard officials and bureaucrats from the worldly, cynical point of view that often prevails in Russia.

But it is our students who give me the best practice in not relying on a worldly point of view. Through eyes that I'm training to regard Christ, I try to learn to see students' strengths, weaknesses, and potential, to cherish the time I spend with them, to  sharpen my ability to evaluate their classroom progress in ways that improve my teaching. When they graduate, I rejoice that the world will be a better place because of their competence, cross-cultural sensitivities, and dedication. They are highly unlikely ever to become Quakers (we do not proselytize in the classroom!), but they too will likely be influences for reconciliation in this fractious and combative world.

Remembering Elie Wiesel, who inspired Kali Rubaii to write about Palestine.

The bridge of Christ in the heart's prayer...
Awakening can be enlightening and exhilarating, but the really shocking aspect comes from awakening to the fact that it will ultimately entail a death of some kind. Some part of the old familiar self must be given up and its abandonment can be as traumatic as death.
... Those missing Muslim voices denouncing terrorism.

Another fascinating Sean Guillory interview: The stillbirth of the Soviet Internet.

Another thing that you will never see
Is a monkey builds a fence around the coconut tree.

30 June 2016


"Love... is a heavy cross." Found on vk.com.
No, I'm not referring to Oregon, although right now it feels heavenly to be here! I'm referring to the place I glimpse in this cartoon.

I originally found this picture on the Russian Facebook-like social network Vkontakte a couple of years ago. I then used it in a post cautioning us not to engage in glib labels and assumptions.

This year, on Forgiveness Sunday, for some reason I felt led to post it again on my own Vkontakte timeline. One of our students (perhaps worried that I was condoning the blasphemy allegedly conducted by the Pussy Riot musicians) came up to me privately after class and asked why I had posted it. That's when it popped into my head: "This picture reminds me of heaven."

I know less than nothing about heaven, but I know it includes this scene. Here in our present lives we cannot know simultaneously all there is to know about the life of faith -- why, for example, what strikes one person as scandalous heresy is another person's truth. In heaven, these apparent contradictions resolve as we become aware of how rarely we understand the perspective of the other person.

The more dramatic our differences seem to be now, the sweeter the reconciliation. And, imagine this, we don't really have to wait for heaven to begin practicing now.

On going deeper with James Tower.
We cannot manufacture the work of God in ourselves. We are more like a plant than we want to admit. But even just looking at how living things are—finding the wisdom of the plant if you will—can tell us a lot about what is within our small sphere of work in the spiritual life.
Speaking of happiness.

Why these evangelicals welcome refugees.

Blues from Russia.

23 June 2016

"I didn't have the heart..."

Joshua Kaufman, with his daughter, Rachel Kaufman.
Photo by Andy Eckardt; source.
"Why I didn't talk: I didn't have the heart to raise children, to tell them what I became -- an animal, to survive."

The speaker was Joshua Kaufman, Auschwitz and Dachau survivor, explaining why it has only been in recent years that he has talked about his death camp experiences.

Kaufman was interviewed by Owen Bennett-Jones on BBC Newshour last Friday. (Podcast available here, episode title "Russia Olympics ban remains," but it may cycle off the site after today. I kept my copy.)

Among several other riveting exchanges, Bennett-Jones wanted to know what Kaufman felt about the five-year sentence given to Auschwitz guard Reinhold Hanning for his complicity in the murder of 170,000 people. Kaufman thought the sentence was nothing -- a "picnic" -- but he had no hate, no desire for revenge. All he wanted was, for the sake of future generations, for Hanning to go with him to Auschwitz and bear witness to what had happened.

Kaufman's words about becoming an animal to survive really hit me. What does that mean, exactly? I suppose it means being backed into a corner where being human was no longer an option. Kaufman worked at the gas chambers; if I had been in his place and they ordered me to empty the bodies from the gas chambers, as ghastly as the task was, as tangled up as the corpses' limbs might be, I'd surely shut down my brain to do it.

And not just my brain, my soul, too. I remembered Varlam Shalamov's Kolyma Tales, whose GULag characters descend to a state of bare existence that's so numb that even killing oneself seems like too much trouble, never mind troubling about the fate of others.

So Kaufman didn't want all this to  affect his children's upbringing. But now his adult daughter is in the know. Rachel understands and admires her father's ideals and helps him express them to the news media. Judging by press accounts of the witnesses at Hanning's trial, those ex-prisoners who still remain alive want the world to know about an evil so massive, so thoroughly organized, so intent on genocide, so heartless that those who fell into its grasp sometimes had to become animals to survive. It's pretty clear that, whatever state of subhuman existence was required for survival, the Nazi system's uniforms, power, perverted technology, and a cult of racial superiority had already formed a master tribe of beasts.

I understand the survivors' sense of urgency. The beasts of ruthless objectification still roam our planet. As Ilya Grits says, "even now significant numbers of people regret that the 'great' European cannibals were not able to bring their 'cause' to a successful conclusion." What do we tell our children -- and when -- to ensure that they don't fall under that deadly spell?

Christians, whose faith is sometimes labeled as a religion for the oppressed, have an additional responsibility ... never to let the beastly infection of elitism and objectification compromise our witness. How well are we doing?

Great Britain votes today in the EU referendum. One of the most balanced defenses I've seen for Britain's remaining in the European Union comes from an Anglican bishop, Nick Baines. A sample:
...The language of pure, selfish, tribal self-interest – economic, cultural, social and political – is not one that translates into my understanding of Christian identity or justice. When Paul the Apostle wrote to the Christians in Philippi that they should “have the mind of Christ” and “look not to their own interests, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves”, I don't think he was indulging in other-worldly piety. A confident people is strong enough to face this, not to close it down.
David Williams is not preaching about Trump.

Micael Grenholm quotes Christy Wimber on taking the Vineyard back to its roots. Micael's post includes a video of Jack Hayford speaking to a Vineyard congregation -- it wasn't hard to imagine him saying more or less the same thing to us Quakers.

From Poland: a tribute to Little Walter.

16 June 2016

"Keep your lamp trimmed and burning"

Early Sunday morning, Moscow time: I said goodbye to Judy as she got into the shuttle van to the airport terminal, then I walked through the light rain back into the hotel, and fell back onto the bed.

I awoke again close to checkout time, descended seven floors to the reception desk and handed in our keys. A half hour later I was on the train to Belorusskii station, still groggy from sleepiness. I couldn't quite grasp what my smartphone was trying to tell me: something about a nightclub being shot up in Orlando, Florida. Isn't Walt Disney in charge there? I transferred to the metro and then the train to Elektrostal, and kept looking for more details on this story. Time was going by ... Judy must be in Amsterdam by now. Twenty people dead in Orlando, but nobody would commit to that number. A gay nightclub. I dreaded seeing updates but couldn't stop refreshing the feed.

Elektrostal. I get in the door and sit down at my desk. The cats cling to me. They don't ask where Judy is; they've been on to us for days, as suitcases appear and get filled under the cats' watchful gaze. They probably even know that I'll be disappearing, too, in a couple of weeks. Online, I get more details from Orlando. But what's worse are the details they can't give -- the reporters describe the anxious questions of families and friends of nightclub patrons who haven't been accounted for. By the end of the day, we have some numbers -- fifty lives lost, even more wounded -- but many people still don't know what happened to their loved ones. It's an ancient agony haunting us yet again: what have you done with my beloved?

The next days bring no relief, as uncertainty about the dead and injured is replaced by uncertainty about the killer and his frequently-mentioned "inner demons," and dread and disgust over the rapid political exploitation of this tragedy. There's something else about the responses to this atrocity that I can't quite put my finger on, and it has to do with the oddly-shaped response of the churches. I was glad for Orlando's Baptists' generous expressions, and -- interestingly -- I heard that a Chick-Fil-A had opened their normally closed-on-Sunday doors to serve food to the blood donors and other helpers. I was grateful for our own Northwest Yearly Meeting superintendent, Becky Ankeny, and her tender expression of care, but the larger church as a whole came across to me as somehow strangely half-inarticulate. It could just be me; maybe it's just hard to discern from this far away.

A few of my friends went online to express more than sadness. There was anger, too. In one case, it was anger over the fastidiousness with which the sexual identities of those targeted in Orlando were not acknowledged, and in another, the constant unwillingness of our country to reform gun laws. Maybe I'll eventually get angry, too, or maybe, in the church's division of labor, righteous anger will not be my portion this time.

Instead, I was given this song, "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning." On Tuesday evening the regular e-mail bulletin from John Wilson of Books & Culture arrived, and he mentioned this new album, God Don't Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson. One of the eleven tracks is this song, along with other old favorites such as "John the Revelator," "Bye and Bye I'm Going to See the King," and "Motherless Children Have a Hard Time."

I downloaded the album, and let it do its healing work on me. Well, not healing, exactly, but keeping me company with its songs' gracious sanctified realism. "Keep Your Lamp" appeals to me especially -- it's not a message of passivity, but of patience, waiting, remembering that God doesn't change, and God's promises remain true. How I will be an instrument for God's promises in this present time isn't clear to me yet, but it's not my job to figure that out under my own steam. I need to keep my own lamp trimmed and burning. I need to do what it takes for me to stay facing the Light.

In bleak periods, I tend to fantasize about revival. And Mike Farley's post on Quaker renewal seems to fit with the song I'm listening to. Friday PS: Hye Sung Francis on Quaker revival. You rarely see the words "cheese, crackers, wine, and spiritual warfare" all in a row.

Prepare for some rough language as you read about what it's like to be a lesbian in Russia, the day after the Orlando massacre. (More here about the two men with the "Love Wins" sign.) I habitually wonder how the Good News becomes part of these situations.

Why we should not call Donald Trump a fascist. (Podcast.)

Eloise Hockett, president of Marafiki, describes what happens when your airplane becomes your neighborhood.

Last week I mentioned Russia Religion News as a way to keep up with developments on the Pan-Orthodox Council. For theological background, here's another resource: the Orthodox Theological Society in America's Special Project on the Holy and Great Council.

"Keep your lamp..." Here's a live performance by the musicians who recorded this track on the album.