26 March 2015

The ecstasy of worship is connected to pure intention

I spent most of my birthday right beside Judy ... on three different airplanes as we returned from the Midwest to Oregon. Here we're leaving Los Angeles en route to Seattle.

Photo: Marisa Borg, from Dwaine's Facebook page.
More about ecstasy and intention below. First, we want to pay tribute to our dear friend Dwaine Williams of Spokane Friends Church, whose death this past weekend was the first piece of news to hit us as we returned from the Midwest. Dwaine and Becky really understood our love for Russia and supported us in so many ways we can't count. As a gifted physical therapist, Dwaine had a striking ability to combine the spiritual with the practical. Having lived in Southeast Asia, South America, and Jamaica, he also knew the rewards and challenges we face in our transcontinental lives.

Maybe a little later we'll have more words to express our sense of loss, but I didn't want this post to go online without at least a few words right away, in honor of Dwaine. Despite our sorrow, I can't help smiling at the image of Dwaine the musician enjoying the "new, new song" of heaven.

"The ecstasy of worship is connected to pure intention." I found these words, without commentary, in one of my odd lists of possible future blog post themes. The trouble is, I can't remember where I got them from. They sound vaguely like Kierkegaard, but Google gave me no clue. But today I came across two items on the Internet that drew me back to those words.

The first item was Ben Pink Dandelion's QuakerSpeak video on "The Difference Between Quaker Meeting and Other Christian Services."

Ben is careful to specify that he's talking about his own tradition of unprogrammed worship, conducted in silence except for unscripted vocal ministry that can be offered by anyone present. Given my own caution about hints of Quaker superiority over liturgical tradition, I was glad that he says, "We do have a liturgy: it's a silent liturgy." That's exactly what my Quaker "godmother," Deborah Haight of Canadian Yearly Meeting, taught me. It's something she learned from the years she lived in Ottawa before the advent of the Quaker meeting she helped start. During those years she attended an Anglican church.

Ben reports the reluctance of many Friends in his yearly meeting to say anything too definite or certain about faith or God. For example, he says,
One of the differences, say, between Quaker meeting and other Christian services is that we're really not sure. We're not sure what we're going to experience in meeting, and we're also, in some curious way, not particularly sure about what it is we're finding in our experience. I think this should be tremendously popular in today's society. There are a lot of people out there who are spiritually hungry, who may be slightly cautious about organized religion, and what we Quakers are offering is a space to explore our spirituality.
Ben has visited Friends all over the world and is completely aware that the majority of Friends worldwide are not offering a space to explore our own various spiritualities but a space to gather around Jesus as the head of the meeting and learn from him. But he's accurately expressing the way many British Friends are positioning Quakers in the religious marketplace--a marketplace that is shaped by secular trends of caution and skepticism.

I found it fascinating to contrast Ben's presentation with a blog post by Rachel Held Evans, "On Going Episcopal," describing some of the ways evangelical Christians have reacted to her adopting an Episcopal church as her spiritual home for the present. I was struck by the breathtaking arrogance of some who have reacted negatively to her decision, and their glib assumptions about what she's given up. (She only quotes a small sample, but I've seen a lot more of the same on various Christian news sites and blogs that have commented on her move. I don't feel any obligation to link to them here.)

As a Quaker, I cherish our low-overhead approach to worship and church life, as I experience it in Ottawa Friends Meeting and Reedwood Friends Church, and in just about every other corner of the Quaker world that has been my extended family ever since I became a Christian. Whatever my role in a particular meeting for worship, or in the church structure, and whatever I'm going through in my own life, when worship begins, I'm in a very special zone of reality, for which the word "ecstasy" is not too strong a word. I would like to think that this experience is linked to my faith that I'm there, with my co-worshippers, to meet with God. Nothing more, nothing less.

It is this pure intention that is the center of Quaker simplicity in worship, but isn't it also at the center of every other worship tradition that has integrity? I may worry that too many rites and procedures might weaken this pure intention, or that a corrosive skepticism may discourage those who are actually hungry for this meeting with God, but it is not for me to say that your tradition (liturgical or militantly unprogrammed) does not allow you to express that same intention that fuels my life.

Will you be in Chicago on March 31? Hear John Lewis and his colleague Andrew Aydin present a program on the second volume of John Lewis's graphic biography, March: Book 2.

Becky Ankeny on the lessons--or the imperatives--Jesus has for us when he cites the story of Jonah and Ninevah.

Unusual for me, an instrumental:

19 March 2015

Ohio Byways


Stillwater Meetinghouse, Barnesville, Ohio

Quaker Scenic Byway public presentation. (Christine Snyder
at right.)

Ruth Brindle presents the Quaker Scenic Byway project.

Cranes fly above Quaker Heritage Center.

The cross that survived the Nagasaki bomb. Peace Resource

T. Canby Jones Meetinghouse, Wilmington College.

T. Canby Jones Meetinghouse, interior.

Routes of the Underground Railroad.

"Who sends thee?" Isaac and Sarah Harvey. Sculptor: Alan
Cottrill. Photo by Christine Hadley Snyder.

This week, my Ohio "scenic byways" began at Barnesville, where I was attending the spring gathering of the Friends of Jesus Community. Micah Bales talks about the weekend here.

Next stop was Wilmington, Ohio. On our first evening, Christine Hadley Snyder took Judy and me to the municipal building's committee room to a public meeting on the Quaker Scenic Highway, currently under development within the Ohio Scenic Byways program of the state's Department of Transportation.

I knew this area of Ohio had a lot of Quaker history, but until I saw the inventory of locations proposed for the Quaker Scenic Byway, and their historical significance, I had absolutely no idea how dense that history is. Looking at the grand sweep of world history, Friends seem like a tiny, marginal presence, but in this corner of Ohio, the impact of the Friends movement is impressive. Thousands of individual Friends, hundreds of homesteads that can still be located, and dozens of Quaker meetings (many still in existence) settled all around Clinton and nearby counties. Quaker schools and businesses were established in nearly every meeting and population center. Their records (and furnishings and wardrobes) still provide a rich source of social and cultural history for the region.

Yesterday we saw some examples of current stewardship of these treasures. Christine Snyder showed us the family-maintained Hadley homestead/museum on Lebanon Road where many exhibits are carefully preserved. Along with the evolving Quaker architecture, we saw such specific examples as a general store account book from 1846, and a beautifully preserved Quaker plain dress from around the same period.

Later we visited Wilmington College, which was a huge part of our life a quarter century ago, and which now has a large and impressive Quaker Heritage Center. We also visited the Peace Resource Center with its moving Hiroshima-Nagasaki Memorial Collection. With my own family's connection to the Hiroshima tragedy in the back of my mind, I was moved to see the 1500-plus origami cranes hanging from the ceiling of the Quaker Heritage Center.

Four interrelated thoughts struck me during this dense exposure to this region's Quaker heritage:

First, the cumulative impression I got was of an amazing testimony to what might be called "domestic discipleship"--the artifacts and social evidences of several generations' attempts to live a simple and faithful life. Nowadays we might best remember those Friends for their testimonies against slavery and for peace, but their homes, schools, and businesses also show how discipleship and piety shaped their daily lives. No doubt their lives also included shadow elements that are less flattering, but somehow the testimony still shines through.

A second impression: the role of prophecy in this history. Two examples:

A Friends minister named Zachariah Dicks traveled among Friends meetings in the south in the early 1800's, preaching against slavery. The bicentennial history of Springfield Friends Meeting (Wilmington Yearly Meeting) quotes the story of Zachariah Dicks from an article by H.E. Smith in the Ohio Archaeological and Historical Sociey Quarterly (vol. 31, 1928), as follows, excerpted:
He was born in Pennsylvania and went to North Carolina about the year 1754. He was therefore, not a young man when he preached with remarkable power to the Quakers of the Southland. He visited Wrightsborough, Georgia, and Bush River, South Carolina, in 1803, and urged Friends to leave their homes. He prophesied "an internecine war within the lives of the children then living." Bloodshed and destruction were to follow. The cause of this devastating warfare, which he foretold in vivid language, was slavery. The Friends at Bush River, a short time previously, a commodious and substantial meetinghouse which they had expected to occupy for many years. To the number of 500, they had frequently assembled there for worship.

On one occasion, when they had gathered there, Dicks concluded a stirring appeal with the words, "Oh, Bush River! Bush River, how hath they beauty faded away and gloomy darkness eclipsed thy day." He traveled southward repeating his startling prophecy to Friends who heard with alarm. The result is a tribute to his power of prophetic appeal. In 1800, the Quakers had become well established in South Carolina and Georgia. By 1809, nearly all of them had departed for the West. They "sold their lands, worth from ten to twenty dollars an acre, for from three to six dollars, and departed never to return." They came in great numbers to this section of our state.

Many prophecies have been unfulfilled and forgotten; but the prophecy of Zachariah Dicks had an awful fulfillment in the cataclysm of the Civil War, which our ancestors, who fled at the warning cry, and their descendants, did not wholly escape.
Another very specific instance was the story of how Isaac and Sarah Harvey were seized by a leading to travel to Washington, DC, to plead with Abraham Lincoln for the emancipation of the slaves. As the plaque before their statue at Wilmington College tells the story,
"One day while plowing I heard a voice, whether inside me or outside of me I knew not, but I was awake. It said 'Go thou and see the President.' I answered 'Yea, Lord, thy servant heareth.' And unhitching my plow, I went at once to the house and said to mother, 'Wilt thou go with me to see the President?' 'Who sends thee?' she asked. 'The Lord,' I answered.

In September of 1862, Isaac Harvey, Quaker farmer, and his wife Sarah Edwards Harvey, traveled to Washington D.C. to speak to President Lincoln on their concern for the emancipation of the slaves. At the conclusion of their visit, he gave them a note, which ended with these words: "May the Lord comfort them as they have sustained me."

The Emancipation Proclamation was announced on September 22, 1862.

Isaac Harvey (1809-1883), and his wife Sarah (1812-1902) were members of Springfield Friends Meeting and lived on Lebanon Road, Adams Township, Clinton County, Ohio.
Third: It's interesting to think how the visibility for Friends gained through the Ohio Scenic Byways program and the exhibits in and near Wilmington College can open up our outreach beyond the usual pathways by which people find us. Dare we anticipate that casual encounters with these landmarks might lead tourists and others to want to know us better, find out what motivated these fascinating ancestors, and picture themselves living this kind of domestic discipleship? I'd love to think that one result would be a wider social range of people drawn to us than we often see now.

The fourth thought was actually a question: How do we fully enjoy and appropriate this rich heritage without getting sucked into the cult of quakerishness? For the most part, we no longer live in the cohesive communities that supported the piety and lifestyles of those earlier Friends, and I worry that pride in their accomplishments might be an artificial substitute for finding equivalent ways to support each other in discipleship today? How do we harvest the lessons without idolizing the teachers?

Anna Rose thinks it's easy to lose track of how stimulated we are as a culture.

Is Chicago "one of America's most segregated cities"?

Pope Francis: Reality is superior to ideas....

How to survive a human apocalypse.

Marco Marchi & the Mojo Workers, with warm thanks to David Finke.

12 March 2015

Grace and leftovers

Wayne County, Indiana  
I'm spending about two weeks visiting Friends in Indiana and Ohio. I've not seen some of these people and meetings for at least seven years--and haven't been at First Friends Meeting in Richmond, Indiana, for almost fifteen years. It's been even longer in the case of Wilmington Friends in Ohio, where Judy and I will be on the 22nd. In these dear communities, aging and death have taken their toll, but already I've enjoyed many joyful reunions over the last few days.

Last Sunday at First Friends Meeting in Richmond, Indiana, the Scripture lesson was one of the stories of the multiplication of loaves and fishes, from the Good News according to John, 6:1-14 (New International Version):
Some time after this [context], Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick. Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. The Jewish Passover Festival was near.

When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.

Philip answered him, “It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!”

Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?”

Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there). Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.

When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.

After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.”
First Friends pastor Derek Parker drew our attention to the "test" that Jesus was giving Philip. Derek suggested that this test was not the kind that was meant to set Philip up with a trick question and subsequent punishment. Jesus is in fact testing everyone present, and us as well. After all, how likely is it that just that one child came with some refreshments tucked away?

I resist interpretations that seem intended to avoid miraculous explanations in favor of a safely "natural" interpretation. But in this case, a generous human response to Jesus' test seems very reasonable. It doesn't prejudice the possibility of miracles in other times and places in the biblical record. (Not to mention the possibility that getting people to share their stashes might have been miraculous in its own right.)

During the adult forum after the meeting for worship, I mentioned that I was struck by another element of the story. I'm sure it's not original with me, but I was intrigued by the twelve baskets of leftovers. If Jesus was truly concerned about waste, he must have had the ability to cause the right amount of food to be produced. Maybe the excess was intended to make this demonstration of his authority more convincing. But my personal feeling is that those twelve baskets of leftovers represent the inability of many of us to accept fully the grace God offers us. We just can't absorb that much grace; we prefer the security of hoarding, or the reassurance of a royal messiah to tell us what to do.

I would like to think that, if I had there, I would have been ready to act truly hungry and truly trusting. The disciples would have had fewer leftovers to collect.

Why Ana Marie Cox is coming out as a Christian.

Peter Enns is preeeetty sure his version of Christianity is right and yours is wrong.

Last week I made some comments about the assassination of Boris Nemtsov. I absolutely have no clue whom to believe about the murder and investigation, and refuse to speculate or to link to the self-serving speculations of others. But I thought this article was helpful in surveying what Russians are saying.

An ecstatic music and a struggling genre ... what will it take to revive the blues market? Suggestions from Richard L'Hommedieu.

A hard-edged presentation of an old classic. (If you don't already like the blues, this might not be the first sample to choose!)

05 March 2015

Boris Nemtsov 1959-2015

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

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

She didn't take long to give me a name: "Boris Nemtsov--he's the governor of the Nizhni Novgorod area, and he's carrying out all sorts of marvelous reforms. A lot of us hope he's got a future at the federal level." (I'm recalling from memory.) I wasn't sure who she meant by "a lot of us," but I had the impression she was referring to her peers, young professionals who in the chaos of those early post-Soviet years were able to perceive a hopeful, "normal" future for their country.

I thought of that journalist a couple of mornings ago when I was watching the memorial meeting for Boris Nemtsov held at the Sakharov Center in Moscow. A reporter was interviewing people waiting in line to enter the assembly hall. One middle-aged woman, Valentina, came to the microphone and said that she was "a person of the 1990's. In those years we had enormous hope, simply enormous. And of the people of that time, he [Nemtsov] remained. Many of them--of course, not all--now work in the system. He was one of those who continued the struggle for freedom."

My point here is not to assess whether Nemtsov always worked correctly or effectively for freedom, or whether those who went into the "system" are all against freedom. Those kind of glib generalizations I'll reserve for paid commentators. But what struck me was that this woman, Valentina, could have been that same young reporter twenty-one years later; in any case, they were contemporaries. I found that Serpukhov reporter's intelligent optimism very attractive, and it's easy for me to believe that there must be thousands, maybe millions, like her in Russia who now are united by a common grief. It's not necessary to analyze all the politics of this difficult moment to acknowledge and respect that grief.

At the site of Boris Nemtsov's murder, one of his prominent friends within the system, Anatoly Chubais, pleaded for all sides in Russia's political life to calm down and cool their rhetoric. As a modest contribution to that effort, here are a couple of calm links I found through Sean's Russia Blog, both from the commentator Mark Galleoti: Known Knowns and the Nemtsov Murder, and If the Hit on Boris Nemtsov Was Meant to Intimidate, It Failed.

Unfortunately, Chubais's plea has mainly been ignored. Here in the USA, coverage of the tragedy has quickly focused on suspicions of Kremlin villainy. There is nothing wrong with serious and sober analyses of the factors and forces that might have led to Nemtsov's death, but the relentless and sanctimonious Russia-bashing of the West, as Tim Black observes, "... makes mature diplomacy, in which opposing interests are calibrated, and compromises struck, increasingly impossible." Heartfelt grief, yes. Honest and persistent demands for justice, yes. Telling the truth about the power politics of any nation, certainly. But the "easy demonization of Putin's Russia" doesn't really serve these causes.

Video of the memorial meeting and the line outside the hall (Russian).

For Boris Nemtsov: blues by Bach, via the incomparable Mstislav Rostropovich:

26 February 2015

Choose curiosity

Curiosity. Source.  

This is my ideal ...

Psalm 131 (New International Version)
1  My heart is not proud, Lord,
      my eyes are not haughty;
    I do not concern myself with great matters
      or things too wonderful for me.
2  But I have calmed and quieted myself,
      I am like a weaned child with its mother;
      like a weaned child I am content.
3  Israel, put your hope in the Lord
      both now and forevermore.
My fantasy is, that when I grow up, I'll be able to sink into this calm place and let go of the need to prove I'm right and they're wrong. (Even when it's obvious!) I'm sure I'll add years to my life and stars to my crown when I get to this place.

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

From now on, I'm going to try to replace peevishness with curiosity. I'm going to try replacing an incredulous "What??!" (and its many colorful variants) with an honest "Why?"
  • Why do we see the world the way we do?
  • Why do we define our ultimate goals so differently?
  • If our ultimate goals are in fact the same, why are we so unable to tolerate a diversity of methods and paths?
  • Why do I think it's up to me to answer these questions?
Thinking about the advantages and limitations of curiosity, I remembered a story Hugh Campbell-Brown once told at Canadian Yearly Meeting. Hugh was the son of Presbyterian missionaries in China. He and his wife Mary were the founders of the Friends meeting in Vernon, BC. The story took place (if I remember correctly) at Pacific Yearly Meeting sessions, during which a Christian missionary in Asia gave a presentation on her Christian faith. After she spoke, a young Friend stood up and said that he found Buddhism to be a more fruitful path. Hugh was impressed that the missionary did not begin a debate on the advantages of Christianity over Buddhism. Instead, she responded, "Tell us what you've learned."

To quote a song by Mister Rogers on anger: "I can stop when I want to, stop when I wish, can stop stop stop anytime. And what a good feeling to feel like this, and know that the feeling is really mine. To know that there's something deep inside that helps us become what we can." One of the most important tasks for our curiosity is precisely this: to know whether or not those strong feelings, those temptations to debate, those fantasies of heroic righteousness, are really mine.

Remixing the Quaker Tradition in a Participatory Culture... Wess Daniels' book A Convergent Model of Renewal is on sale.

Nathan and Richard Foster are making ordinary saints.

Parenting as peacemaking. (A "First Wednesday" event hosted by Beacon Hill Friends House, where Judy and I first met.)

Wendell Berry's special brand of sanity.

What Gary Shteyngart says he learned from a week of watching Russian TV. (But he didn't watch the "Culture" [Wikipedia] channel, I see....)

Starting tomorrow, visitors to Chicago's Field Museum will learn that Vikings did not have helmets with horns on them.

"Delta Blues Evening" in Moscow: Blues bassist Sergei Spitsyn and fellow musicians present "Mystery Train" ...

19 February 2015

Lenten shorts


Probably the only thing (other than the Bible) that I can claim to have read every year for over 35 years is Emmanuel Charles McCarthy's Stations of the Cross of Nonviolent Love. I try to remember to post a link to it every year during the season that the liturgical church calls Lent. The PDF-format edition is available here.

My one and only Lenten practice that I observe every year is prayerfully re-reading these few pages. Every year it touches me in fresh ways, and this past year of violent death, mass-marketed cruelty, and extrajudicial executions is no exception.

The very first station of Rev. McCarthy's booklet gives fair warning....

In this year's Upper Room Disciplines, Tim Whitaker begins his "Walking Through Lent" with a commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10. He asks the reader,
Isn't our deepest spiritual yearning not to miss the grace God has to give us and to become the person God created us to be? This is our true desire, but embarrassment about our need, fear of change, or hesitancy about making commitments have kept us from fulfilling our baptism for too long. Before it is too late, we can approach this Lent as our time, the time we need to renew our faith so that we do not walk in vain.
I don't know if I would put it exactly the same way ("to become the person God created [me] to be") but my idea is similar. I want to finish the work that conversion began in me, which was to know that I can trust God completely and don't need to fill in the gaps with my own cleverness. This is so simple in theory, and sometimes such hard work in practice.

Maybe the biggest gift I've received from living in Russia's hall of mirrors is to realize that no amount of cleverness could prepare me for life's unpredictability. Believe it or not, trust in the grace of God rather than cleverness or cynicism becomes the most realistic option!

In his next commentary, Whitaker adds these words--are they true in experience or are they, to put it gently, aspirational?
Our culture either encourages us to pretend we are OK or tries to destroy anyone who is exposed as a phony. Only before God can we learn to walk in truth, for God's love provides an arena of divine scrutiny of our real self where we are not only known but also accepted and forgiven.
"God's love provides an arena..."? I agree that this is what should be, but the word "arena" implies a place to which we can gain access. Where is this place? Who is responsible for providing the "enter here" sign? I'd like to think that the church is where we can reliably learn about this access, and where trustworthy guides will point the way and will model acceptance and forgiveness. Is it true? If renewing faith is our individual Lenten task, then perhaps renewing trustworthiness is the church's.

"In Sweden, people are leaving churches like crazy, so that statistically, if the drop-off speed would remain at this rate, there would be no Christians here in 2040." Mosaik's response.

How is it possible to forget the Germans? (Well, I confess I'm half German, which even I sometimes forget!)

Pulpit Fiction: My favorite commentary so far on the Brian Williams story. "At a time when the military receives a reflexive genuflection from every corner of the culture, war stories have become sermons of a sort, and sermons are often untrue."

What Roger E. Olson means when he labels someone "Liberal," "Fundamentalist," or "Evangelical" ... (A Quick Course in Prototype Theory).

Our "Opinionated Judge" delivers her verdicts on the best films of 2014. When I read her comments on films I've already seen and liked, our opinions often seem to coincide. For this reason, her lists become handy wish-lists for films I'd like to see in the future.

An invitation to join "calls for spirited action."

"But the world is big, big and bright and round, and it's full of folks like me!"

Nina Simone: Backlash Blues by ninasimonemusic