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!)

14 April 2016

True shorts

This site uses "true sizing." Source.
OK, I'm determined to keep these "shorts" on the topic of truth to no more than three or four paragraphs. That way I can go back to bed as soon as possible and continue feeling sorry for myself. (Bad cold.)

The government uses euphemisms? How can that be?!

Yes, I know it feels like a never-ending slog, but we owe it to our children, our Christian testimony, and our civilization, to keep challenging these violations. Instead of succumbing to cynicism, let's fill whatever space is available to us, to challenge doublespeak and the sins that it covers.

These are the Web articles that provoked me this week: A dictionary of euphemisms for imperial decline. (That item also fits my rubric of perpetual war watch.) And an introduction to Israeli Newspeak.

Lots of news Web sites have been covering the story of the Russian warplanes that "simulated attack passes" near (very near) the American destroyer USS Donald Cook earlier this week. The videos properly impressed me with the apparent aggressiveness of the air maneuvers.

After I watched a few of the videos, I wondered whether there were similar incidents in or near U.S. waters. (The Cook was not far from the Russian port of Kaliningrad.) Given that the Russian military presence outside Russia is microscopic compared to the worldwide scope of U.S. installations, I was wondering if a double standard was operating: it's only wrong when "they" do it. After Googling the topic of Russian vessels near U.S. naval installations and similar phrases, I was amazed at, no matter how I worded the question, Google wanted to tell me about Russians being aggressive to Americans (and allies) rather than the reverse. I was a bit mollified to see moderate language coming out of Pentagon mouths: "'So long as they are operating in international waters -- as, frankly, we do around the world -- and are behaving in a responsible way, they are certainly free to do so and it doesn't cause any alarm within this building,' press secretary Geoff Morrell said at a Pentagon news conference." (Source. My italics.)

Here's a little side-item concerning truth. Compare these two treatments of the same story -- a Russian "research" vessel gathering information near a U.S. submarine base and transit routes. Version one with an actual picture of the vessel. Version two sounds a lot scarier: "Navy Spotted Russian WAR SHIP Near Georgia NUCLEAR SUBMARINE BASE!" In prominent place under the headline you will see, not a photo of the ship in question, but a Russian destroyer bristling with guns. In case you're wondering what the true meaning of Russia's maneuvers are, the article comes complete with a helpful hint: "Could this be a sign that Russia sense Obama's weakness, especially after the pathetic approval of the dangerous Iran nuclear arms deal?"

In the meantime, in Russia itself, things seem to be going from bad to worse for the beleaguered Jehovah's Witnesses. (I've covered this story before; in this post, I quote Vitalii Adamenko's opinion that conscientious objection is a major reason the authorities don't like this church.)

Anton Chivchalov, in his article in Religion and Law, "Russian law enforcement plants evidence on Jehovah's Witnesses," speaks eloquently about the social degradation that results when police are forced to plant evidence:
The more widely it is practiced, the less room remains for honest people. When you are required to plant evidence on innocent people or to convict them, you are forced either to lay your badge on the table or fulfill a dirty and immoral order, inevitably compromising your own conscience.
Every once in a while, the subject of official corruption comes up in our classes -- never at our initiative! (As I've said before, I'm from Chicago; I have no illusions that Russia invented political corruption!!) A few weeks ago, we took an informal poll of our students: "Raise your hand if you think that bureaucrats are something like 75% honest, 25% on the take. Or 50% - 50%. Or 25% honest and 75% dishonest." Not one student agreed with me that most bureaucrats in Russia are honest, though this has been my own observation. (The pat explanation: "You're a foreigner, they treat you differently.") Here's my question: If you are a government worker and you're trying to do a good job, how does it feel to have most people assume you're compromised? Even when cynicism sometimes seems justified by reality, it is still spiritual poison!!

Another truth issue: being honest about the cost of leadership. I was very impressed by something in Alan Amavisca's most recent newsletter from his North County Project. Here's his article, not subject to my four-paragraph limit because I didn't write it!
The Cost of Leadership

"As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry." - 2 Timothy 4:5

A friend of mine has ministered in a semi-closed country, even planted a church there. He recently told me the church he helped plant has been closed down by the authorities.

The church became a victim of its own success-too many people responded to the gospel. The congregation jettisoned their invisibility and consequently became a target of the police.

"What will they do now," I asked. He responded by showing me a photo he had received. The church's small group leaders were being prayed over and commissioned as 'pastors' of their new little churches.' This was their response. The decision to shut down one church resulted in the birth of twenty new ones!

Opposition and persecution are trademarks of church life in my friend's country. When their churches have camps or retreats they often include a special service with an invitation to ministry.

As a part of the invitation campers are reminded that pastoral ministry means being "the last to leave when a church is raided"-in order to insure the brethren escape. It also means assuming you will be jailed - or worse.

He told me brothers and sisters always come forward at these services despite the warnings regarding the high price of the pastoral calling. Pastoring, as Christians in this country understand it, means doing time in prison.

What price am I willing to pay for the privilege of serving God?

In building a trustworthy Quaker church, there is no more precious role or service than sensitive eldership. In our era of hyper-individualism, is this still possible? And what do we do to help elders when their role drifts into a sort of executive committee of the church? These are some of the thoughts that came to me in reading Craig Barnett's blog post "Spiritual Eldership." (Thanks to quakerquaker.org.) Be sure to read and consider answering the questions at the end of his post.

Why we (churches) pick terrible leaders.

Sarah Ruden on Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley: Women and the Ironies of Providence. The full article may be behind a paywall, but this site is one of only TWO that I pay to access. Worth it!

Down By the Riverside from Playing For Change on Vimeo.

07 April 2016

What is the Quaker movement? (Utterly personal answers to rarely asked questions)

In the service of my ongoing love/hate relationship with Quaker exceptionalism, here are some arguments:

What was the Quaker movement? Back in 17th-century England, scattered groups of people who took Jesus seriously decided to follow him as simply and directly as possible. Abandoning church establishments, ceremonies, and protections, they waited on his promised Holy Spirit to direct their meetings and their lives. They helped each other learn the devotional and ethical consequences of this way of life. They developed a simple, concentric relational structure for mutual accountability, but steadfastly refused to appoint hierarchs. As they linked to each other and inspired their neighbors, they grew rapidly, soon expanding beyond the British Isles.

What is the Quaker movement now? Good question. I see many examples of groups of people taking Jesus seriously, and deciding to follow him as simply and directly as possible. Many of those people understand "following" as the early Friends did, rejecting enmeshment with the world's ways of leadership, ownership, elitism, and false witness concerning "others." Some of these groups arose within established structures, some outside, and in some cases these new groups identified with the emerging church movement. But I see very few examples of this approach among those actually calling themselves Quaker.

What happened? Drawing on the parable of the farmer and the seeds (Luke's version here), I think that the early Quaker movement was an examples of seeds that yielded an abundant crop. But there's never a guarantee that, as we in turn scatter new seeds, some seedlings won't get nipped in the bud by evil, or fail times of testing, or get seduced by the world's values. Ironically, we now have our own Quaker establishment that can smother new seedlings.

How have we smothered new seedlings?

We forget that our sole reason for being Quaker is to follow Jesus as simply and directly as possible, and helping each other learn the devotional and ethical consequences of being his followers.

We get overly fond of the social advantages of being Quaker, the feeling of being special -- whether that means being well-thought-of in one context, or marginalized in another.

We abandon the radical hospitality of discipleship. Rather than finding our unity in Jesus, we base it on secondary features: coming from the right schools or tribes, having or disliking specific cliches, sharing allergies to someone else's religiosity, emphasizing one or another of our Quaker subcultures.

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.

We don't display the infectious joy of being united in Jesus, nor the sorrow and passion of his urgency in freeing others from bondage, nor the signs and wonders of his spiritual power operating through us, so our outreach becomes stilted, mannered, consciously or unconsciously calibrated to attract people more or less just like us. Please don't rock the boat!

We're so ready to make excuses for our lack of spiritual power and credibility that we forget that Jesus is ready to welcome us again as warmly as he did that first generation of Friends.

How do we prepare the seedbed for new growth? Here is a pathetically inadequate list of ideas, presented in the hope that others will make big improvements!

Decide that an essential part of our stewardship of institutional resources is creating or supporting spaces where the George Foxes and Margaret Fells of our time can focus on the Quaker movement rather than the Quaker establishment. (I'd love to see this kind of encouragement for Micah Bales and his creative associates. Who else is praying and working along these lines?)

Commit ourselves to building a transparent and trustworthy church:
  • leadership accountable to the community, and community accountable to the leadership
  • meetings for business in which the central question is "God, what do you want to say and do through us?"
  • a clear path from newbie to participation in leadership
  • no gossip
  • biblical literacy without coercive legalism
  • honest self-reflection concerning elitism, racism, sexism
  • joy, sorrow, tears, confession, prophecy, silence -- all expressed without shame
Individually and as a community, ask Jesus to be in the center of our church once again, and commit ourselves to being guided by the Holy Spirit in our meetings and our lives. Dare to dream prayerfully about what we might have to do to help each other as these dreams come true.

Why haven't I dressed up this post with sweet quotations from earlier Friends? (Like I did here?) If revival depended only on dredging up our favorite quotations from early Friends, it would certainly have come a long time ago. On the one hand, those beautiful testimonies are precious evidence that we're not pursuing empty dreams. On the other hand, sometimes I wonder whether we let those eloquent quotations reinforce an idolatrous Quaker exceptionalism rather than let them make us turn directly to Jesus for the conversion, commitment, and empowerment we need today.

Martin E. Marty comments on James McWilliams' article, "How to Save your Soul in a Digital Age."

Lee C. Camp on the politics of Easter.
"These are not good people, kill ‘em, shut them up" — this is the glib way the super-power killed the true human. But at least some, through the ordeal of that Good Friday, saw the conceited, bombastic display of power for what it was.
Last week I mentioned the recent death of Sergei Esenin's son Aleksandr Esenin-Volpin. Esenin's contemporary Vladimir Mayakovsky also had a child who became an American scholar -- Patricia Thompson (originally Elena Mayakovskaya). She died on April 1. Here's an article from Russia Beyond the Headlines, with a link to an interview with her.

Last week's Culture Gabfest podcast was full of reinforcement for my intention not to see the recent Batman v. Superman film. But one the best moments in the podcast came during a conversation about Samantha Bee's new television program. Here, Stephen Metcalf talks about political satire on TV:
"I may have reached my limit for 'let them eat satire' ... the debasement of the culture and especially the political culture as raw material for the late night shows.... I've kind of reached the end of it in a weird way. I want rage and political action; I don't want to laugh, no matter how on point the satire is."
Vatican to hold first-ever conference to reevaluate just war theory, justifications for violence.

Why openDemocracy doesn't publish articles about Putin.

Canadian content! Blues dessert from Vancouver, BC. If you're wondering about these Lee Dorsey lyrics, see this delightful article by poet John Skoyles.

Harpdog Brown & The Travelin' Blues Show Live At The Blues Can from Mountain Monk Productions on Vimeo.

31 March 2016

Trust, the first testimony (now it gets personal)

For years, I've been claiming that the number one Quaker testimony isn't peace, simplicity, equality, integrity, etc. -- it's trust. Without trust in God and each other, we'll continue to employ the world's time-honored methods of violence, greed, elitism, regardless of our denominational mythologies.

About four years ago, I tried to sum all this up in a blog post entitled "Trust, the first testimony," in which I argued that trust is "the crucial link between faith (or conversion) and discipleship." I want to apply that assertion to a particularly tender area of our lives: sex.

What drove me to make these few observations was a pair of articles sent to me by people close to me:

1) "Girls Just Wanna Be Heard: In her new book, Nancy Jo Sales explores how teenage girls on social media provoke attention—but fails to show how they also demand respect."

2) "Is This the End of the Important, Inappropriate Literary Man?"

Both of these articles (and many of the links embedded in them) are important on their own merits. They reveal some of the sharp dilemmas involved in reporting on how sexual intimacy is solicited, resisted, imposed, and exposed. These articles helped me realize that, even as a teacher of teens and young adults here in Russia, occasionally entrusted with glimpses into their nonacademic realities, I have lived a sheltered life for decades. May these articles provoke many helpful conversations, even conflicts where needed.

As a Christian, and specifically as a male Christian, I see a major untouched area in these conversations. I want to understand how to add this underrepresented element -- you guessed it, the element of trust -- not just into insider Christian conversations, but into the wider secular conversation. If it's already there and my sheltered situation keeps me from hearing about it, I'd like to know.

And here's why: trust is not just a discipleship issue, it is (I believe) wonderfully erotic.

Rhetorical question number one: Isn't it true that when lovers trust each other, their intimacy gains freedom and passion? After all, they are in putting themselves in situations of incredible physical and emotional vulnerability. Doesn't safety and security count for something? When risks are taken, can't they be taken more readily if communication is utterly open and forgiveness is already part of the covenant?

More questions: what are the long-term implications of trust? I remember Mary Cosby telling an audience at Wilmington Yearly Meeting that biblical teachings on sexual faithfulness had nothing to do with God wanting us not to have too much fun: it was more analogous to the signs that warn us, factually, that BRIDGE FREEZES BEFORE ROAD SURFACE. As much as we might like to believe in recreational, unattached sex, are we truly ready to deny the devastating effect of betrayal, whether or not that impact was anticipated by either or both partners?

What struck me forcefully in those articles I cited above is our culture's failure to tell men (and I suppose not only men) that their desire to have sex at any given moment is NOT SACRED. It in fact CAN BE RESISTED. No matter how strong our personalities, no matter how accustomed we've become to being flattered and even seduced, no matter how much we enjoy projecting our influence through specifically sexual channels, we have no more right to manipulate anyone into disadvantageous sexual situations than we have to drive our beloved sportscars through town at 150 mph.

Are there things we can teach sexually energetic people that respect their personalities and give them honest guidance about how to manage the task of being trustworthy sexual beings? When I joined the staff of Friends World Committee back in 1983, my colleague Gordon Browne told me that, when I traveled in the ministry, opportunities for recreational sex would pop up, often as a side-consequence of being seen as a safe mediator in local congregations' difficult situations. If I hadn't been alerted in advance to the seductiveness of the visiting-hero role, I would likely have found out about it the wrong way.

Working a twelve-step program in light of my family's legacy of alcoholism also proved very helpful in managing sexual yearnings. Just as my father hid stashes of alcohol around the house, I learned that we can develop human "stashes" ... people who serve in our minds as fantasy candidates for future sexual adventures, should the opportunities present themselves. These insights don't at all guarantee sainthood or prevent temptation, they're simply tools to reinforce the deliberate work of being trustworthy.

Let's put it all a bit more positively: there doesn't seem to be a lot of teaching or testimony on the wonderful outcomes that resisting gratification can have in the long run. Isn't the best form of seduction -- if that is what you want to call it -- the cultivation of honest mutual trust? This is where discipleship and eroticism meet: the lifelong task of being trustworthy, in all its daily challenges and recovery from failures, leading to relationships that far exceed any "conquest" in sheer passion and enduring sweetness.

We should also be honest about the appetite for novelty that is part of the mythology of unbounded recreational sex. Sorry, it's not a lifestyle; it's an addiction, plain and simple. Novelty is just one facet of sexual experience, but its exaggerated importance leads to depression, jail, or death, just like any other fatal addiction -- not to mention the consequences for partners, assuming you're not a total sociopath.

So this might be the proposition that the disciple can discuss with the secular conversation partner: deferring gratification for the sake of building trust has a huge long-term erotic payoff. Just as with every other aspect of Quaker discipleship, we are going back through the flaming sword into the paradise of God, where there was no hierarchy, greed, or violence, and where we were naked and unashamed.

Friday PS: A bit more on that issue of men (or anyone it pertains to) learning that their desire for sex isn't sacred:

What seems to be happening is that we no longer tolerate the assumption that "boys will be boys." I remember the crushing disillusionment that came when I heard about charges that some male Friends in Canadian Yearly Meeting were behaving as sexual predators. Not very many, true, but in those very first years I was a Quaker, I had this giddy impression that Canadian Yearly Meeting was some kind of idealistic alternative world. OK, I was naive (and my personal life was not at the saintliest level, for that matter), but I wasn't entirely wrong. My mentors and most of the people I admired were just as wonderful as I thought they were. But not everyone.... Being male, I was not a target of the behavior at the center of the complaints. I was clueless and oblivious. As it turned out, generations of Quaker daughters had been told the same thing that girls were being told in the secular world: the best response to predatory behavior was to endure, avoid, and pass the warnings quietly along the grapevine, rather than making a fuss. But the historical moment had arrived when that conventional wisdom was finally rejected.

When anonymous reports of predatory behavior are published, or borderline predators are accused on social networks, such as the Jezebel article above describes, injustices are bound to happen. Not every accusation will emerge from a 100% clear-cut predator/victim encounter. My point is that sexually aggressive people are now living in a far riskier world, and they have to face the question of whether their preferred lifestyle and image are really worth it.

A related issue: the disconnect between Christians in the Atlantic culture, primarily western Europe and North America and related nations, and Christians in the rest of the world. Sometimes the issue of homosexuality is the hot fault line in the breakdowns between those two broad camps, as exemplified by the tensions in the Anglican communion worldwide. But I think there are deeper issues relating to the different ways we understand the relationship between individual and community. For one thing, some societies whose majorities live at a subsistence level simply don't get the Western individualistic attitude toward sex as an unbounded recreational activity. I've heard Kenyan Quakers ask bluntly: "Why is sexual freedom so much more important than economic justice?"

The challenge doesn't go in just one direction, however. Sometimes I suspect that non-Western Christian leaders use morality as a rhetorical club when convenient for confronting Westerners who defend sexual and reproductive freedom, but they don't then turn around and scrutinize the behaviors of their own predators. Male-dominated leadership patterns are not exactly guaranteeing justice in their own territories.

Again, trust turns out to have a central role. If our only source of unity comes from finding out whether we have the same allies and the same enemies, we will remain divided. When we determine that the only unity worth having is in Christ, we can begin to let down our guard long enough to explore tenderly what that most precious unity actually looks like.

... from Matrimony in the True Church: The Seventeenth-Century Quaker Marriage Approbation Discipline, by Kristianna Polder:

Oregonian writer's quick thinking on Dutch Bros coffee story earned her a zillion hits. (And her original story.)

Greek Catholics respond to appeal of Orthodox intellectuals.

Earlier this month, the mathematician and poet Aleksandr Esenin-Volpin died. He was the son of the great "peasant-poet" Sergei Esenin. Among the many tributes to Esenin-Volpin, here's one that honors his civic courage.

While we're at it: A literary map to the Moscow metro.

Mother is it ok if I call you mama?
My own walked away when I broke the law
And standing on the bridge
Feeling like falling
Would you pray for me mama?
St. Teresa
Have mercy on my soul

24 March 2016

"To one fixed trust my spirit clings" (thanks to David Finke and John Greenleaf Whittier)

Awaiting spring on Yalagin Street (photo by Judy Maurer)

A couple of days ago, David Finke's message below arrived in my e-mail. I knew immediately that I would want to share it with my own readers, and he gave me the freedom to do so. Here's what he sent:

Beloved Friends,

        It is somewhat perilous to try to reconstruct spoken ministry after the fact, especially in my present case where on this Tuesday I find myself wanting to share what was given through me two days ago in worship at Columbia Friends Meeting. One steers through the twin obstacles of either forgetting something that seemed vital at the time, or else of elaborating into more words than were present in what should have been well-focused and concise. Bear with and forgive me, please, as I try yet to highlight what seemed fitting for more than my own devotion at that time.

        To the best of my recollection…


        When my mother died in 1997, my sister and I (cooperating with the pastor of our parents' local church) were responsible for drawing together a Memorial Service. In the course of that, I recalled snippets of a poem which I again found, and had printed on the back of the program bulletin. It's a quatrain from a much longer poem entitled "The Eternal Goodness," by the mid-19th century Quaker New England poet John Greenleaf Whittier. In considering the challenge faced by the inevitability of death, he said:

                I know not where His islands lift
                Their fronded palms in air;
                I only know I cannot drift
                Beyond His love and care.

        As I looked just now at the poem in its entirety, I see that there were at least 3 crises which, in faith, Friend Whittier was trying to address.

Gretchen Castle's Easter Reflection

       The first part of the poem summarizes part of a years-long polemic that he had in taking on the Puritan Establishment and its Calvinist theology and its "iron creeds." Although he addresses his intellectual and religious opponents as "Friends" and "Brothers," he then makes it quite clear how his experience of the Divine Presence encounters Love rather than a just retribution for the sins of mankind… which he says he knows all too well, if only by looking within. In all humility, he simply declares that we cannot know "the Eternal Thought," and dare not "fix with mete and bound the love and power of God." When you have time, I invite you to examine this poem (a simple google to "The Eternal Goodness" and "Whittier") and see the flow of his message.

        Another crisis, which may have been recent in his experience, was how to make sense of the loss to death, where he longs "for household voices gone," for "vanished smiles." He finds some assurance in trusting that God has "led my dear ones on, and He can do no wrong." What follows are further words of personal comfort in God's mercy, which underlies both life and death. And then he goes on into the quatrain which I recalled as I started these reflections.

        But there is yet another crisis, inferred in the middle part but which we know from the history of Whittier's time was very real, very threatening, very chaotic. It was the near-disintegration of the Federal Union over the issue of slavery, that massive contradiction in "The Land of the Free" which goes back to the compromises in its revolutionary founding, wreckage of which we have with us yet today. Elsewhere, he has left us a great deal of passionate poetic discourse about this blight on the Soul of America.

        But without being specific to that particular social evil, Whittier here gives words which are of great comfort to me this morning:

                Yet, in the maddening maze of things,
                And tossed by storm and flood,
                To one fixed trust my spirit clings;
                I know that God is good!

        This past week has been one in which I've been increasingly and acutely aware of the "maddening maze of things" emerging in our present national electoral struggles. Some of the utterances and attitudes are simply jaw-dropping in their offensiveness and their disregard of the usual norms of civility in the public realm. We are seeing daily, before our very eyes, the disintegration of one of our major political parties, and also some crisis of identity in the other one, as new and often alienated constituencies come into both. And we're still only in the pre-convention primary season, with the better part of a year before us prior to a presidential election. I'm sure I'm not the only one who has had feelings of being "tossed by storm and flood."

        Just this morning I came to the painful inner awareness that *I* have to contend with what in Arabic is called my "Jihad"— the inward struggle, which, as Islam teaches, is greater than any outward struggle. The equivalent phrase and concept for me in the language of early Friends is "Exercise." What exercises me, and what I must struggle against — with God's help!— is the temptation to Hate — indeed to despise while trying to be dismissive of — those who utter such cruelty and ignorance. I know that we as Quakers, as Christians, as compassionate human beings, must be held to a higher standard than simply giving in to partisan hatred and righteous fury. But, it is not easy. It helps to be able to identify this as a struggle.

        Nor, do I think, our faith will let us just recoil in horror, look the other way, and retreat into either indifference nor a shallow "spirituality." I find comfort and guidance in knowing that my Teacher, the itinerant Rabbi from Nazareth, at the beginning of his calling faced a number of ways of encountering and dealing with the world — its suffering, its injustice, its crassness and cruelty. Sometime we might look at each of these choices, many of which are summarized in the story of Jesus' temptations in the wilderness.

        We know from the socio-political history of his time that one of the alternatives for a religiously sensitive person was to head for the desert and join the Essenes' commune, to separate out from a corrupt and perishing world and simply to experience being close to God. Although some speculate that Jesus may have spent some time in exploring this option, we know that he vigorously entered into this broken world, rather than seeking to escape from it.

        Similarly, we know that he rejected the political alternative which was the orientation of several who joined him: to become a militant Zealot and take up arms against the oppressor. In our day, the "revolutionary" impulse shouts the slogan, "By any means necessary," and shares a deadly penchant for violence with the defenders of the status quo. Elsewhere, we could examine more closely the other typological alternatives which it is clear that Jesus rejected as he formed and embodied his own kind of Revolution: He was neither an accommodationist ("Go along to get along") Sadducee, nor a self-righteous separatist Pharisee.

        So, I come back to my ongoing immersion in the "maddening maze of things" which is American politics. I know I cannot retain my composure and steady direction by my own will or wisdom, even as I try to incorporate half-a-century of political experience into what one of our hymns calls "The Living Present." Rather, I need a community of prayer and commitment, Friends like yourselves who seek to share "the cup of cold water" given in compassion, who give of their time and substance to relieve suffering and exemplify Concern as opportunity is presented locally and globally. I need the guidance of "The Lord of History" who leads people out of captivity and into a Land of Promise, a Good Shepherd who, as the early church testified, gives his life for his sheep.

        When it becomes apparent that, as another poet expressed it, "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold," may we find in faith a reliance on that "one fixed trust" — to know that God is good. As we gather here in prayer, I am once more reminded that all the perniciousness of the Human Condition cannot alter a fundamental force in our Universe — the Love, the "Eternal Goodness," which gives coherence and meaning and purpose, which if we will but stay attuned to it, may be Ultimately Reliable. When I can sense this, then the storm and flood of the maddening maze of things may lose its transient power. God help us!


The message above was spoken/written by David Hadley Finke of Columbia Friends Meeting, Missouri, USA (Illinois Yearly Meeting).

Erin Wathen: Escapist theology is a part of American culture.

Friendship and standing up crooked together.

Half-baked Christians with wafer-thin commitment. Is this really new?

Julia Duin on the new Pew Research study of gender gaps in religious observance. ("... There is no country where more men attend church than women")

The "terrifying" methane alarm and two assessments: re-assessing methane (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's blog); NASA on Arctic winter methane emissions.

Mahalia Jackson (after Arthur Godfrey's introduction):