18 September 2014

New martyrs

"The Beheading of John the Baptist": "Michelangelo Caravaggio 021" by Caravaggio - The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In my Russian context, the term "new martyrs" has a specific meaning: those who died for their faith under Soviet rule. But the world continues to generate martyrs--as I was powerfully reminded by an article by an Orthodox writer, John Parker: "An Orthodox Christian Response to Beheading By Muslims."

A completely different sort of "Christian" response to the ISIS beheadings has been the unauthorized circulation of private e-mails from Iraq with unsubstantiated claims of systematic slaughter of children. The truth is bad enough; why overdramatize if not to whip up anomosity? We already have plenty of experience telling us that, these days, Muslims are many Christians', and many Americans' favorite enemies.

In any case, the situation for Christians in Iraq is truly awful ... and not for Christians only. Those of us watching from a supposedly safe distance, whose responsibility includes helping to mobilize a world response to the crisis, may not feel that discussing the meaning of martyrdom might not be our highest priority. But we should also face the truth: some of us are going to be called upon to exercise this gift.

Martyrdom is a "gift"? I never thought about it this way until back around 1982, when our adult education class at First Friends Meeting in Richmond, Indiana, was studying Peter Wagner's book Your Spiritual Gifts Can Help Your Church Grow. Wagner includes martyrdom in his list of biblical gifts and explains why. Even so, in the safety of a comfortable church classroom in a middle class American community, martyrdom seemed even less relevant than the gift of celibacy to a class of young (then!) married couples.

Now Judy and I live among people whose country lost millions of people during the Stalinist repressions, not to mention 27 million more untimely deaths in World War II. Among those people caught up in the mass cruelty of those years, many thousands died one way or another for their faith in Christ. In this context, ideas of safety and security take on a new and much more fragile perspective. The choice to prioritize faithfulness or our own lives (and that of our nearest and dearest) is not theoretical. This is more dramatically true in some parts of the world than others, but there's no place where we can justify blissful ignorance.

How does martyrdom relate specifically to Friends discipleship? R. W. Tucker, in his "Revolutionary Faithfulness," distinguishes "cult pacifism" from the cross-shaped testimony of early Friends:
Cultishness is the first and most conspicuous face of Quaker pacifism today. A prospective new Friend is likely to meet Quaker pacifism first in the shape of the dear old lady who rises in Meeting for Worship to speak to the children about why they ought to be pacifists. She tells homely little stories about pacifists who won through to victory in some worldly dilemma. Such cult pacifism is pretty easy to debunk. It is false doctrine in obvious ways. It discounts the Cross, and the whole bloody history of martyrdom.
In contrast, Tucker urges persistent and costly faithfulness, and by persistence he includes faithfulness in the face of clear evidence that many people are not nice, and will not become nice just because we are (at least in our own eyes). We remain peaceable, in other words, when we might have to pay for it with our lives. No wonder the late T. Canby Jones told us that a crucial step in understanding the peace testimony is coming to grips with our own mortality.

Friends do have a powerful heritage of martyrdom--and it goes right into the present day when we take into account the Rwandan genocide of 1994, and the death of Christian Peacemaker Teams' Tom Fox in Iraq. But as we see from John Parker's "Orthodox Christian Response," the history of faithfulness unto death goes back to apostolic times. In the larger family of faith, this too is our heritage. As Parker says, "We stand proudly with the martyrs, whose blood is the foundation of the Church. And we beg God to grant us equal strength when we have to face what they did."

This post is first and foremost addressed to myself.

A "Statement of Conviction" (PDF) originating with Christian Peacemaker Teams' participants in Hebron in 1996. "We reject the use of force to save our lives should we be caught in the middle of a conflict situation or taken hostage. In the event that we die as a result of some violent action, we reject the use of violence to punish the people who killed us."

Wess Daniels, "Learning the Art of Sketchnote Preaching." "... When I get stuck in a writing project it may be helpful to change tactics...." Delightful and useful!

Thanks to Mark D Russ, here's a fresh glimpse of Beacon Hill Friends House in Boston, the place where Judy and I met.

"Conversations that could change your life." Friends Summit 2014.

The subtitle says it all: "Churches without the broken are broken churches."

After a concert at Reedwood Friends Church back in 2006, Derek Lamson picked up his guitar and played his (then) new song about Tom Fox:

11 September 2014

Heroes, true and false

Poster by Sally Wern Comport; this copy
found at Friends Community Church in Fresno.
Read Micah Bales on "Who Are the Heroes?" Micah contrasts the world's expectations of a hero with the hallmarks of true heroism.

Micah's essay is positive and useful. Forgive me for presenting a slightly sour counterpoint: what are the hallmarks of false heroism? During my years as a denominational worker, I've seen perhaps more than my share of this phenomenon. True heroes motivate us to greater compassion and faithfulness, but the antics of false heroes can result in toxic church politics. Here are some of the signs:

False heroism points to danger and poses as our defender. The dangers are sometimes very real, but a false hero emphasizes fear. Radical Islam is taking over the world. The U.S. Federal Emergency Management agency knows something we don't!!! And there's the ever-popular whisper, "Our church's / denomination's / organization's leadership is taking us in the wrong direction."

False heroism demonstrates operational atheism. False heroes theoretically agree with established norms and processes in public, but behind the scenes they may be conspiring the same old way, talking with trusted allies, lining up all the ducks in a row to pre-empt the decision-making process, as if the Holy Spirit can't be trusted to work through the larger body. Among Friends, such heroes may support the classic disciplines of corporate prayer-based discernment for making decisions, but as one dear Friend told me, "Avoid calling meetings if you don't already know the outcome." (Another told me who is likely to get their way in his yearly meeting's committees: "It's the first one who quotes Scripture.")

False heroism builds community through shared enemy lists. You're considered "sound" if you say the right cliches and quotations, come from the right church or seminary, have the right friends, are the right sex / age / color. Others find that they may not be invited to those behind-the-scenes conferences.

In the short-term, false heroism may get results. The right people might be hired or removed, the scare-based fundraising campaign might succeed. But after a while, the false heroes may find themselves more and more alone as others leave that church or organization and choose a more trustworthy one, ... or none at all. This has been my bitter experience. Even if you can fool some of the people some of the time, you probably can't fool their children.

I once heard Os Guinness talk about the supposed "clash of civilizations" between Christians and Muslims. Instead of whipping his audience into a panic, Guinness presented a vision: let's strive to outdo one another in mercy. In a related, more recent comment, he said this:
The sad fact is, that while the Christian faith is the world’s first truly global faith today, Christians are the most numerous faith in the world, the church is the most diverse community on Planet Earth, and the Bible is the most translated and translatable book in history, Islam today is the strongest faith in the world in one crucial sense: What it requires and what it receives of its believers is beyond what most Christians are giving back to their faith. [source (pdf)]
We know that without a vision, the people perish. But a vision built on the Gospel rock has no shortcuts, no power cards to play, relying instead on honest, modest, courteous, full-time faithfulness. Are we willing to give what our faith requires? If not, don't blame the so-called enemy.

Friends of Jesus Fall Gathering, Barnesville, Ohio, October 10-12, 2014.

Christian student ministry leaders in the USA face a challenge: "Will InterVarsity Losing Cal State Standoff Be Tipping Point for Campus Ministries Nationwide?"

"How Corrupt Are Our Politics?" David Cole, reviewing Zephyr Teachout's new book, Corruption in America, comments,
In the end, there are no simple solutions. There is a genuine and inescapable tension between First Amendment values and representative democracy—between free speech, which guarantees everyone an equal opportunity to speak but not the right to equal influence in any particular debate, and the franchise, which guarantees each person one, and only one, vote.
Once again, a plea to teachers and students to help me with my research on cheating by completing the survey here (Russian version here).

Dessert from Anson Funderburgh, Charlie Baty, and Mark Hummel.

04 September 2014

Silent worship: "I wouldn't last five minutes."

Have you wondered about attending a traditional Quaker meeting for worship but are a bit put off by the prospect of sitting in silence?

Last year, in my "February shorts," I mentioned the Moscow Friend who told us that forty minutes is about all the unprogrammed worship that she can take. A few weeks ago, I was talking with a newcomer to Friends for whom even forty minutes might seem like an eternity. She was formerly a Baptist, and came to the evangelical Friends church I was visiting because she found out she had Quaker family roots and was interested in finding out whether we still existed. She was happy to find that church.

It emerged in conversation that she knew that there was an unprogrammed "silent" Friends meeting in town as well, but as she told me, "Everyone tells me that I talk constantly. They're right. Silent worship? I wouldn't last five minutes."

If you've been following this blog for a while, you know how much I resist the idea that traditional unprogrammed "open" worship is for a special sort of person and unsuitable or simply too difficult for most others. If you've tried this approach to worship and found it lacking, there is nothing I can or should say to persuade you that you are wrong! But if you've not yet given it a try, consider these thoughts:
  • Quakers don't sit in passive silence but in active waiting. We trust that the Holy Spirit will provide the divine companionship, guidance, and prophecy that we need. We listen in our own minds for guidance that we may be the ones chosen today to express something that others might need to hear; likewise, we wait to hear a necessary word from someone else in the group. On any given day, there may be no outward speech at all, but we have nevertheless been active in our attentiveness.
  • If you're new to Friends, you might think that all of us long-time Friends descend effortlessly into that zone of divine attentiveness, and the fact that for you it isn't effortless at all proves that "waiting worship" is not for you, or that you would make a bad Quaker. Not so! I love the journey into and through silent worship, but I certainly can't pretend it's easy. My particular path into that zone includes a list of 144 people or groups (I just counted for the first time) for whom I'm committed to pray daily. Often I find myself distracted by one person or situation in that list, and I have to pry myself gently away from that distraction and back into the stream. Only after those 144 prayers am I free to turn to God in unscripted waiting.
  • Maybe the person "who wouldn't last five minutes" thinks that it is her desire to speak that is the "problem," rather than an inability to listen. If so, then maybe we should reassure her that she can speak quietly directly to God. Quaker silence isn't meant to do violence to our personality, but to train us, to disciple us, into directing our efforts toward life with God rather than ourselves at the center. In fact, that's what we're doing when we gather--learning (however gradually, imperfectly) to live with God at the center of our lives, and encouraging each other in that adventure.

    All forms of worship involve some kind of training in discipleship. The practice of waiting is no more demanding; it may just be a bit harder to hide our unwillingness to learn.
  • We don't need or expect some kind of clinical perfection in our meetings. Children make endearing noises and keep us from worshipping the silence itself; the sound of the world outside reminds us that our faith is connected to real life and real neighbors; someone gets up and says something, either sublime or stupid, that reminds us we're not all at the same place in our spiritual development and never will be. Learning patience is not a bad thing! Neither is learning to be tender with ourselves and returning without shame back to the center--over and over if necessary.
  • A Friends worship service is usually linked with an educational hour--a Sunday school or First-day school that provides access to the teaching voice of Friends, and gives the biblical and historical background for what we experience in worship.
Speaking of the Bible: some Friends meetings provide Bibles within easy reach during the meeting for worship. Or you can bring one of your own with you. If you spend the time reading prayerfully, you will certainly not have come in vain; but next time, check to see that you're not hiding inside the book. At some point, close the book and let the words search you personally; invite the Holy Spirit who inspired the words now inspire you to see their application for you and for the whole group.

In all I've said above, my point isn't to say that unprogrammed worship is better or purer than the programmed worship I've known most of my forty years as a Friend. Friends who use music and preaching in worship are bound by the same disciplines of listening and waiting for the Holy Spirit, but we just exercise some of that discipline ahead of time as we prepare! (I hope we always remember to leave space for the Spirit to work through the whole assembled group, not just those serving in worship leadership.) My point here is a plea to anyone who has not tried silent worship: yes, it is different from what is offered by most forms of religion, but it doesn't require a different "special" kind of person. It's simply a different way of offering God the undivided attention our hearts already yearn to give.

(Also see Pierre Lacout and silence.)

Deborah Lewis, "Who wants to pray?" "... I began wondering about how we are teaching people to pray in context."

"Archbishop of Canterbury offers monastic gap year at Lambeth Palace."

In the USA's current political cycle, "Religious divides persist heading into fall campaign."

To educators: please help me research the topic of cheating by filling in as much or as little of this questionnaire as possible. (Russian version here.) I hope to tabulate the replies by about September 20. Heartfelt thanks!

Hans Theessink sings and plays his beautiful song "Shelter From the Storm." (And at 9:09 he sings "Down in the Hole.") You can hear Terry Evans and Hans Theessink perform their album version of "Shelter From the Storm" here.

28 August 2014

Calling all World Quakers...

What was your first reaction to this header (above) ... Positive? Confused? Worried?

Positive? Great. We have a special day of our own!! I hope you and your church or meeting use the day (October 5, 2014) to build community around our shared identity and heritage. Maybe you're in the same position I'm in--Friends were my first faith community, my first encounter with organized (?) religion, my first clue that the religion industry could actually care about linking faith and practice. Maybe you understand, with Hugh Doncaster, that the world "is dying, literally dying, for lack of Quakerism in action," and a special day might focus our urgency for evangelism and peace advocacy at this very time that they're so sorely needed.

The date is no accident: as the World Quaker Day site notes, "Both 2014 and 2015 dates coincide with World Communion Sunday, celebrating an even wider array of worship around the world."

Confused? At least in English, it's hard to know whether the first word "world" refers to the next word or the third one. Are we celebrating "World Quakers" or suggesting an international holiday? I'd like to suggest simply "Quaker Day" for next time. What do you think?

As for the device on the left, it looks vaguely like a biological symbol. Maybe someone will guide us to a discussion of how this design was arrived at, and why better-known symbols such as the Quaker star weren't adopted. There's no historical background for this event on the Web site, except that the Kabarak Call for Peace and Ecojustice is being highlighted and that Friends World Committee would like financial support.

Worried? Has anyone else noticed that much of the evangelical Friends world has begun shying away from the use of the word "Quaker" (preferring "Friend") while Friends who are more theologically liberal still embrace the "Quaker" brand with enthusiasm? I like both words, as long as neither word tempts us to think that we've invented a whole new religion--and that's my concern with too much quakerishness. Friends are no more and no less than a specific understanding of Christian discipleship, and a community formed by that understanding. Too much focus on how special we are without reference to that discipleship just smells cultish to me.

I worked for Friends World Committee for ten years, during which I felt more and more ambivalent about our organization's constant calls to "celebrate diversity." Diversity is a complicated and complicating quality, not something to be mindlessly boosted at the expense of clarity and honest boundaries.

May these reflections not dampen any initial enthusiasm that you may have felt when you first saw the graphic at the top. If there's one thing that we Friends can use more of, it's enthusiasm!

(See also "Diffident no more.")

Orthodox archbishop of Gorlovka and Slavyansk, Ukraine, says that "the intensity [of the conflict] is already such that we can only pray that this intensity be lessened and the bloodshed stopped. I do not see any human forces that would be able to stop it."

David Marples: The rhetoric of hatred describing the situation in Ukraine misses the point – Ukraine has problems that are not derived from Russia or the Putin presidency."

"Real Ministry, Real Friendship": "The more I get in touch with the reality of my own condition, the less I stop judging other people’s worthiness."

A friend of Friends, Jeff Halper, writes, "The Palestinian message to Israel: Deal with us justly. Or disappear."

From the Chicago Reader, a fascinating story of "How a mysterious box of photos sent an Evanston couple halfway around the world."

I just saw a review of J.P. Soars' new album, so I thought I'd dig out this old recording of Terry Hanck and JP Soars that I made back in 2009:

21 August 2014


The Unified State Exam season for Russian high school students is over, and once again educators are discussing the results. In a survey on the State Exam's official Web site, about 12% of survey respondents admitted to cheating, and another nearly 9% said that, in effect, they would probably have cheated if they hadn't been prevented by cameras or proctors.

Here's the survey along with another recent survey on the official Unified State Exam site:

"Did you take the exam honestly?" Responses, top to bottom:
  • "Yes, I completed and turned in an honest exam." (79.04% as of today)
  • "As it turns out, yes, because there were no opportunities to cheat on account of video cameras / proctors in the exam hall." (8.94%)
  • "No, I used crib notes." (5.74%)
  • No, I used my mobile phone." (6.27%)

"How do you feel about video surveillance at the Unified State Exam?"
  • "It doesn't bother me." (39.3% as of today)
  • "At long last my fellow test-takers won't cheat." (14.29%)
  • "Not happy at all; I won't be able to cheat." (30.71%)
  • "You're kidding--there will really be video cameras?" (15.7%)

In my own classes in Elektrostal, I've tried not to let the cheating issue spoil the classroom atmosphere. I usually encourage students to help each other ("but please do it in English") and consult dictionaries. After all, teamwork and research are adult skills, not crimes.

Homework assignments consisting of letters and essays are a bit of a different problem. If I thought students were helping each other and consulting reference materials, I would not be displeased. I'm a lot less happy when a student turns in an assignment that has been copied word for word from an online repository of such texts. We use a popular curriculum for our Unified State Exam preparation class, and texts (of wildly varying quality) have been uploaded for every conceivable topic found in all such curricula.

One method of reducing such online plagiarism is to take the time to compose original assignments not found in texts, or to ask the students themselves to create assignments. That doesn't eliminate mutual assistance among students, but it does reduce reliance on online banks of prepared texts. My other approach has been to teach students how to find and cite other authors properly. Want to use someone else's words? Fine--just make sure you tell your readers who said it and where you found it--and don't forget to tell us how this other author contributes to your own argument. Over and over, my students tell me that this skill isn't taught at the high school level.

As I try to weigh the importance of controlling cheating and introducing a higher level of ethical sensitivity, while still creating a creative and collaborative relationship with students, I've decided to write an article on this subject for our Institute's next conference, coming up in October. I'm going to conduct a brief survey (in Russian) for teachers of humanities subjects, along the following lines. If you'd like to respond to the English version below, please feel free! There are places for you to recommend your own questions.

Alissa Wilkinson: "Is Religious Journalism Haunted?"

Foreign Affairs: What role might the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe have played in today's troubles among Russia, Ukraine, and the West? John J. Mearsheimer. Mary Elise Sarotte.

"Russia Shutters 4 McDonald's for Poor Sanitation..." and the Runet responds. (Guardian story here.)

"Global warming slowdown 'could last another decade'."

Here's what Ruthie Foster does with a Johnny Cash classic:

14 August 2014

Uncertainty (again)

"Uncertainty," sings Isaac Slade, "is killing me." (The Fray, "Uncertainty.") And, not for the first time, uncertainty rates a mention in this blog simply because of the times we're living in. Will the Gaza truce hold and some semblance of recovery begin? What will happen with the Russian aid caravan to eastern Ukraine? (And what about the apparent Russian military convoy also spotted entering Ukraine?) Will truth prevail in Ferguson, Missouri? What will happen to Iraq's minorities? Can local quarantines finally stop the ravages of the Ebola virus?

All this goes on while Judy and I are in a retreat center in Fresno, California, where neither the floods to the west nor the forest fires to the north are a threat. (However, a long-standing drought makes water supplies uncertain.) To be honest, I'm very grateful for this respite from the tensions and information wars of our recent past. But I also feel frustratingly far from being able to keep company with our more directly affected friends and neighbors.

For now, I've decided not to search for an artificial certainty to proclaim, in the midst of all this global instability. If I feel any certainty at all, this doesn't feel like a time for a glib display of it. It feels like a time to hold this uncertainty in the light, to walk with uncertain people, to pray through the uncertainty, to honor the anxious questions we see in people's faces, and to remember the power of silence. Maybe for now that's as good a way as I have of sharing the Cross.

Are you by any chance in Sacramento, California, this weekend? Judy and I will be visiting Friends Community Church Sacramento on Sunday. A week later we'll be visiting Berkeley Friends Church.

Colin Chapman tries "to make sense of Gaza."

A letter from Jean Zaru of Ramallah Friends Meeting.

What Michael Brown's death and the ensuing protests look like in Russia.

"When Black Victims Become Trending Hashtags."

"Taking a break from work is a powerful time of refraining from power."

Alabama Shakes with Steve Cropper, "Born Under a Bad Sign."