01 October 2015

Brown-bag update

  • Umpqua Community College in Oregon: perhaps 10 people are dead in today's mass shooting; as many may be injured.
  • Terrified residents of Kunduz, Afghanistan, are reportedly in hiding as Afghan and U.S. troops battle for control of the city.
  • Signe Wilkinson, Source.
  • In Syria, an evolving alliance of government forces, fighters from Iran and Lebanon, and Russian air support, faces at least two distinct enemy groupings ... one of which is supported by the U.S. See chart at right for instant analysis.
As I try to make heads or tails out of this chaos, I'm at least comforted by the fact that Moscow Meeting's clerk has come back safely from his fact-finding visit to the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine and will be talking to us about this at our next meeting.

I suppose that the possible discovery of water on Mars ought to be at least a diversion, if not a comfort. But as my way of confessing a total lack of wisdom on any of these topics at the moment, let me provide a brief update on my new laptop -- the one I bought a couple of months ago from Dell with a factory installation of Linux instead of Windows.

I'm disappointed to report that it didn't take me long to break the operating system, or at least render it frustratingly clumsy. When I updated Ubuntu to the newest version, it booted up into a "kernel panic" -- the unresponsive computer's caps-lock light was blinking but no login screen appeared. Rebooting took me to a recovery screen that allowed choosing an earlier kernel, which then loaded fine. But this long and clunky two-step process, which other users were also reporting after updating Ubuntu, was intensely frustrating. I can't imagine how someone even less familiar than I am with debugging Linux installations was supposed to cope with this sort of complication. After having praised Dell and Ubuntu for a consumer-friendly Linux laptop, I was not pleased.

To be totally fair to Ubuntu, I really didn't need to update. The installed version was a LTS (long term support) version, for which five years of security and maintenance updates were guaranteed, and it was working fine. For me, it's just temperamentally difficult to know there's a newer version out there that I don't have!

After doing some research online, I decided that the crashes probably weren't caused by a fatal hardware flaw, so I didn't send back the Dell laptop. Instead, as I anticipated when I wrote the earlier "brown bag" post, I replaced the hard disk drive with a new Toshiba 256 GB solid state drive (SSD) for about $100. With the new drive installed and tested, I replaced the original operating system with Linux Mint 17.2 Cinnamon edition, using a bootable USB flash drive I had prepared in advance. (Search online for "creating a bootable USB drive" and just follow the most intelligible set of instructions you find.) I'd already backed up the relatively few new files I'd put on my new laptop.

After six weeks of strenuous use, the Dell laptop with Linux Mint is working fine. I use it as a portable laptop in my classes, and -- with an external monitor, keyboard, mouse, and speakers -- as an office computer. I'm not sure what will happen eventually when Linux Mint (which is based on Ubuntu) is updated -- will those kernel panics happen again or will things have been sorted out upstream by the programmers by then? In any case, in the meantime I'm enjoying three of the benefits that solid state drives claim: faster performance (including much faster boot times: 15 seconds to the login screen, about 15 more to full operation), a quieter laptop (less heat, so the fan is rarely on, and the SSD is completely silent), and longer battery life between recharges.

Now, thanks to a smoothly running laptop and good Internet access, I have to face the real world again.

All Nadia Bolz-Weber could do was "cry for all my inconsistencies."

Why white churches are hard for black people.

Sean Palmer: Your pastor is not as edgy and provocative as your favorite blogger or writer, and that’s a good thing.

Quaker Vs. Goliath: A leading political periodical profiles Kate Gould of the Friends Committee on National Legislation.

Tom Engelhardt: It's safe to be paranoid in the U.S. (Latest link in my "perpetual war watch.")
If you were to isolate the single most striking, if little discussed, aspect of American foreign policy in the first 15 years of this century, it might be that Washington’s inability to apply its power successfully just about anywhere confirms that very power; in other words, failure is a marker of success. Let me explain.

Hans Theessink and the Valentinos, performing a song I'll always associate with the immortal Junior Wells.

24 September 2015

Francis' hooks

But first ....  Arriving home today from my visits to Friends House Moscow and the Baptist seminary nearby, I eagerly went to my desk to check the news. What did Pope Francis tell the U.S. Congress? Have European leaders made progress in addressing the refugee crisis?

Instead, on the BBC Web site, devastating news from Saudi Arabia: "'Dead bodies stretch as far as my eyes can see,' said Bashir Sa'ad Abdullahi, the BBC's Abuja editor, who is in Mina."

I'm filled with grief for those people of all ages, who met their end while engaging in an act of devotion to their faith. I hope we can pause to honor that devotion, and those men, women, children, whose time with us came to an end in the midst of that act.

My prayers are also for those who have stewardship of these holy sites and who must now answer for the adequacy of the Hajj arrangements, and for those who are ministering to the grieving families. Finally, I can't help hoping that this awful disaster can interrupt the hate-mongering and enemy-imaging that we sometimes call Islamophobia. Look! -- these too are fragile human beings loved by the same God who loves you and me.

Update: Saudi king orders safety review.

What did Francis tell Congress?

You can find transcripts and competent summaries in many places, so just let me give one reflection based on a hope that I expressed in these words at the time he was elected Pope:

It's a mysterious and (hopefully) fertile anomaly that the titular head of a Christian confession automatically becomes a world leader, entitled to visibility and influence in an otherwise severely secular and often ruthlessly pragmatic circle. By design, Providence, or both, John Paul II became a hugely important figure on the global stage in his own time. He created and exploited disequilibrium in Eastern Europe on a mass scale. What I hope for Francis is that he will create and exploit disequilibrium in a more specific realm: the "world leaders" themselves, in how they envision leadership, the image of leader, the "God-bearing" quality inherent in spiritually grounded leadership. By helping them, consciously or unconsciously, "confront the gap between their espoused values and lived values," he might help accomplish a shift that is just as important as adoption of this or that policy. ("Simon and Francis.")

So far, Francis has not disappointed me. Today he used his unusual moment of visibility to address his audience as a teacher. He spoke directly to the important people gathered in the House chamber and told them (1) what their jobs really are, and (2) what the stakes are. He did it winsomely, with a measured amount of flattery for his host country, but without platitudes.

People who define themselves as important can often shrug off the wisdom of a teacher. My hope is that, by providing such an eloquent and substantial lesson before the whole world, full of deft rhetorical hooks, Francis has equipped us to keep reminding our elected servants that "the yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us." And again: "We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place." And not least, a simple but powerful reminder: "We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome."

James Carroll describes his own experience of "when popes confront the political world."

Stephen Colbert and Paul Ricoeur?

Changing the face of American Jesus.

3.5 million words later, this Quaker taxation economist is finally getting listened to (and sometimes credited). (Thanks to quakerquaker.org for the link.)

The problem of the resurrection of the wicked.

A rare thing: a newly published recording of Vladimir Vysotsky from 1979.

All Cedric Burnside knows:

Cedric Burnside "All I Know", acoustic performance from Koffler Pictures on Vimeo.

17 September 2015

We must, must we?

Source: Nina Yakushova's slideshow "Let's Learn Modal Verbs!"
Apparently I get distracted easily. I read through this interesting article, "Church Unity? Four Prerequisites for Young Evangelicals," and I found myself counting the number of times the author uses the verb "must."

This is not a criticism of Brett McCracken's writing, more a self-diagnosis of my own contrariness. When I see the word "must," I almost automatically want to ask "WHY?"

This irritation isn't helped by the fact that, as a defective modal auxiliary verb, "must" doesn't have an infinitive, it doesn't have a past or future, it doesn't allow partner verbs to have infinitives ... all the more fun when I'm trying to explain this verb to my students here in Russia.

I remember one of the first times my patience boiled over with too much "must" ... it was an editorial in the New York Times, from which I quoted back in 2010:
"Mr. Karzai's Promises"--note the string of wishful "must" statements: "Afghan and American government contracting procedures must be streamlined and made more transparent. Afghan institutions must be strengthened. Programs must be audited. And leaders more interested in good governance than self-enrichment must have a place at every level of Afghanistan’s government." Again: WHY? Whose "musts" are these, anyway? (And we peace people are accused of being unrealistic!) Do they represent our requirements for staying in Afghanistan, or our requirements for leaving Afghanistan? Is there an "or else"?
While "must" is near the top of my list of overused verbs (along with "get" and "went"), I don't object when people use it about themselves:

... I must take care of my little sister (an acknowledged obligation, as in the chart above);

or when describing a neutral fact or situation:

... If she said so, it must be true.

... It must have happened just after I left.

No, the problem arises when someone is trying to tell someone else what he or she believes they (we!) must do.

Brett McCracken says, We must focus our time and energy on a particular local church rather than trying to fix The Church. I agree with him, remembering Shane Claiborne's line that "We're going to stop complaining about the church we've experienced and start working on the church we want." McCracken's emphasis is a refreshing corrective. Still, there is a place in our division of labor for those with a vision for what The Church could be.

McCracken provides an opening for this vision task with his very next "must" ... We must encounter, listen to and learn from other churches and other Christians. Here he reminds me of Justo González's article, "Of Fishes and Wishes" ... in which González has a "must" of his own:
We must learn how to trust the church — unfortunately, this is the weakest link in the chain. By this I mean the church universal that hungers with the dispossessed in Ethiopia and with the uprooted in El Salvador. What was happening in the Philippines was known and decried for over two decades by Christian leaders all over the world. Yet most church people did not come to believe it until they saw it in the network news. By then, thousands of Filipinos had died as a result of our disbelief! If we are to combat the causes of hunger in Mozambique, in Korea and in Chile, we have to begin by listening to our brothers and sisters in those countries who know what hunger is all about.
It just makes sense to me that some people will be more gifted and suited to this kind of alertness, and to the task of passing it along to the rest of us, while others are gifted and equipped to translate these wider imperatives into locally-focused discipleship. In God's economy, all of these tasks build the Body, locally and universally.

One more example from McCracken's post. We must give up the idea of a "dream church" and instead embrace and commit to a local church, even if it's awkward and uncomfortable. I agree with his criticism of the hyper-consumerist approach to selecting and changing churches, but I'm going to make a distinction. Unfortunately, abusive churches and leaders do exist, and if your church is not open to correction, then there is no "must" that should prevent you from leaving. The next church you select will not be perfect, either, of course. You and I will always have the challenge of applying the same critical examination to ourselves that we are applying to our church, but you and I are not trapped.

Really, all we must do is pay taxes and die. Everything else is negotiable -- or should be.

Oxford Dictionary blog on "must, should, ought."

"Something Is Missing from the Cultural Toolkit: Evangelical Congregations and Inadequate Responses to Poverty." A lecture at George Fox University on October 1. (For those who are allergic to Facebook, here's the notice on the George Fox calendar.)

Amy Peterson says farewell to the missionary hero.

Christians need to be more conservative, not less. (Thanks to Gil George the Younger for the link) ...

... And is this a case in point? -- a biblical argument for Bernie that emerged from Bernie Sanders' visit to Liberty University.

Hitler's world may not be so far away, according to Quaker historian Timothy Snyder.
Perhaps the experience of unprecedented storms, relentless droughts and the associated wars and south-to-north migrations will jar expectations about the security of resources and make Hitlerian politics more resonant. As Hitler demonstrated, humans are able to portray a looming crisis in such a way as to justify drastic measures in the present. Under enough stress, or with enough skill, politicians can effect the conflations Hitler pioneered: between nature and politics, between ecosystem and household, between need and desire. A global problem that seems otherwise insoluble can be blamed upon a specific group of human beings.
Answering the call to radical faithfulness at Pendle Hill in Pennsylvania.

Selwyn Birchwood's guitar playing is not a strict imitation of B.B. King, but there are some tasty similarities. It's a worthy tribute. (From the B.B. King Blues Club, New York City.)

10 September 2015

Theological mathematics

In the summer of 1939, just weeks or perhaps days from the opening guns of World War II, Thomas Kelly was staying at an Episcopal monastery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. While there, he wrote some reflections that were published posthumously among the essays collected by his son Richard Kelly in The Eternal Promise.

Among other reflections, he wrote:
Outside the shadows of the evening are falling upon the quiet, friendly garden where a few moments ago three of us, two Fathers of the Catholic tradition and a Friend, were speaking of the sacraments. There was much talk of the "covenanted channels," of the seven to which Catholics hold, of the two which Protestants practice. So long as questions of theological mathematics were upper, of seven or of two, there was a danger which we tacitly avoided. It became evident that I, an "unbaptized" Quaker, was not a Christian, except for the saving provision which allowed one to be a "Christian by desire."

Yet as the conversation moved to the love of God, to the need of Christ being formed in us, to the outgoing love of the Nazarene, to the blind and lame and wounded in body and soul in these days, the conversation became a sacrament where the Presence was as truly in our midst and He is in the Mass within the chapel walls. For the time being, Sacramentalist and Quaker were one, in the fellowship of the Church Universal.
The phrase that struck me forcefully: theological mathematics. Kelly is gently putting the question of sacramental observances in perspective, but I sat there wrestling with a different arithmetic: subtraction. We serve such an amazing God, we are led by such a luminous Saviour, the world is so demonstrably in need of authentic Christian hope, that I'm having a hard time with all the public Christians who seem intent on telling us (whether crassly or with endless theological subtlety) why this person or that should have the church's door slammed in their face.

It's not that we shouldn't have boundaries. Apparently many people are, at any given moment, not attracted by the Light we ourselves have found irresistible; they are entitled to their choices. But our invitation must remain honest and real and the door must remain open, fully lit. What we can't tolerate is a false welcome, an ostensible invitation with hidden screens to be sure nobody we're uncomfortable with stumbles in. Yes, we will have healing work to do; wounded people are not entitled to remodel the household of faith to suit their allergies and addictions. We will have to struggle, together with newcomers, over different understandings of the ethical consequences of conversion, whether the sharp edge of the struggle is sex or money or the obligations of citizenship. God knows, we're dealing with all this ourselves. But, the point is, when people come to us and say that they're ready to embrace Jesus, we then face these problems, even these conflicts, together.

The conflicts between theological conservatives and theological liberals in our evangelical corner of the Quaker world are not to be dismissed or taken lightly. At our best, we challenge each other's pretensions and false heroism, and keep each other honest. But I fear that when we let those conflicts take up too much space, we lose our perspective and our priorities. It's not that we need to conceal these conflicts in order to avoid scandalizing potential converts. People aren't stupid, they won't be surprised that we "mature" Christians are just as human and fractious as they are. But woe unto us if we diminish Christ's ability to create unity where the world would predict, even encourage, division.

If I begin to tell my Quaker brothers and sisters that Jesus is not the Christ, that the Bible is not what it says it is, that evangelism and social justice are unimportant, and that the processes of group discernment don't apply to me, I expect them to approach me kindly and suggest that I might be in the wrong community. Short of that, I hope they understand ... they're stuck with me. And I with them.

A few years ago, a group of young Friends was visiting Moscow. At the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, one of the members of the group was not allowed to enter because he was wearing shorts. The sensible-tourist side of me understood that places that have been invested with sacred significance often impose traditional ways of defining reverence, and we have no choice but to bend courteously to these traditions. But another part of me was shaking with outrage: if this place represents itself as the LORD's, then it must also represent the LORD's welcome! I was shaken with a visceral empathy for George Fox's inability to reconcile himself with "official" Christianity.

A few more words from Thomas Kelly, from the very end of his book: "Our fellowship groups are small, but they can be glorious colonies of heaven, cities set on a hill. It is a great message which is given to us -- good news indeed -- that the Light overcomes the darkness. But to give the message we must also be the message."

"Loose Canon" Giles Fraser ... Christian politicians won't say it, but the Bible is clear: Let the refugees in, every one of them.

... and the Quaker Council for European Affairs, Andrew Lane: We CAN choose loving and effective responses.

Thomas Edison's recordings of Leo Tolstoy.

Dessert: from London's Los Pacaminos, a delightful reworking of the garage-rock classic "Wooly Bully."

03 September 2015

Elektrostal shorts

Election rally: the view (above) from our corner of the courtyard. Below: the candidate notices my camera; a kids' activity.

"Give your children love. Leave the rest up to me."

That's a rough translation of the signs on either side of Anton Kotov's mobile campaign stage. Kotov is a candidate for city council in Elektrostal's fourth precinct. For me, this rally in the courtyard of our housing complex was an unusual glimpse of retail-level election campaigning in Russia. I include it here because I suspect that most Americans (and others?) probably don't get many opportunities to see politics at the grassroots in Russia.

The crowd was a respectable size for a political event. Attenders listened good-naturedly to Kotov's speech, which was organized around the theme of education. (A natural choice -- Knowledge Day, the national holiday opening the new school year, was just two days away.)

Kotov is the Liberal Democrat candidate for this precinct. As he spoke, campaign workers for the United Russia party were working the crowd with brochures for their candidate, Vitalii Shaparnii. The elections, for municipal and regional legislatures in dozens of locations around Russia, will take place September 13.

Registering "my arrival as a foreign citizen in the Russian Federation" -- a chore utterly familiar to every expatriate living here (or their employers) -- took up nearly a full day, including assembling the forms and copies and signatures and then taking them to the Federal Immigration Service office in the familiar yellow building at the corner of Lenin and Polyarni prospects.

Usually, the process goes pretty smoothly, but not the last two times. In my previous visit, it emerged that not only did I have to register, but by a new rule that went into force last February, my contract, and Judy's also, had to be registered. In fact any contract for employment made with a foreign citizen by any employer must now be registered with the government within three days of the signing and dating of the contract. By the time we found out about this, two of the three days had already elapsed, and the immigration office was unable to supply a copy of the crucial blank or any relevant instructions.

After considerable searching, I found the blank online. Filling it out correctly was a matter of trial and error, and only my third attempt received approval. Any Russian would smile knowingly at this story, but I also need to say that one of the office employees showed me great kindness in going over my first draft in detail and explaining obscure points. The more normal practice is to refer clients to an immigration lawyer. The office also let me return multiple times outside the normal hours set for receiving such forms.

Today, I ran into a different problem -- a first in my many years of registering. I arrived 30 minutes before the start of the appointed hours, and was therefore high up on the list that established the order in which we supplicants would enter the office. (This list is normal practice for queuing up at government offices; it is organized by those who are waiting, not by the office itself.) But for some reason the process was unusually slow today, and the office closed just after the person ahead of me -- representing the British School -- made it in. The officer in charge told me "Go and register at the post office."

Mir street post office. Source.
The post office! Why not? I had done that once before, seven years ago, when the procedure was simpler, not requiring a power of attorney from the Institute or a copy of my contract. Also, the post office doesn't have all the prior records that the immigration office has, so errors wouldn't be caught right away. But it was worth a try; I have only one more day remaining in the mandatory registration period, so making another attempt in tomorrow's slot in the immigration office seemed too risky.

I walked over to the post office on Mir street near the Institute. There was one window open for requests like mine, and it was also the window for selling stamps, receiving packages, selling magazines, and giving out registered mail. I was second in line. The friendly but slightly worried clerk said, "I normally don't handle registrations for organizational employees; I'm not familiar with the regulations." I assured her that I'd been sent there directly from the immigration office, that I had registered successfully many times with the exact same documents I was giving her, and that the only reason I was not going directly to the immigration office was that they were simply too busy -- that's why they'd sent me to her.

She began the complicated task of preparing my papers for transmission (to the exact same office I'd just been in), but also served other customers while I waited to one side. This is where I got to see what her work life was like, and I was very impressed. One elderly customer wanted five stamps, but clearly her little pile of coins was not sufficient. The postal clerk patiently and kindly counted her coins, sold her two stamps, and gave her the change. A disabled customer came in for some magazines, and was confused about whether he had received the previous issues. Again she sorted out his anxious questions with patience and kindness. She found a plastic envelope for a customer shipping a huge box somewhere. Yet another customer needed to know how to send a money order to someone on vacation. Again, patience and reassurance along with clear instructions. In short, this postal clerk may have missed a calling as a pastor. At the end of the process, I left the post office with my stamped registration certificate ... and a feeling of admiration for that clerk.

You may wonder at this story, because you have likely seen the same sort of service at your own post office. But the Russian postal system is held in low esteem by its customers, who complain frequently about rude customer service and slow delivery times. I've personally never seen rude service at the branch we usually use (right on our own street), but this experience at another branch, where I requested a complicated task on a busy day, also seems to point to another side of the story.

Black Lives Matter. Finally, being in Russia doesn't shield me from USA politics and its peculiar zoology. I'm dumbfounded to learn that the slogan "Black Lives Matter" has evoked such negative feelings, to the point of suggesting that the movement that has gathered around this declaration is racist and even terrorist. I don't know which explanation would be worst -- lack of empathy, ignorance of history, or cynical media manipulation of white fear.

I don't understand the rejoinder that "All Lives Matter." In the abstract, all lives do matter, including every group whose members' lives are marginal to those in power. Palestinians come to mind. People on death row. People imprisoned without recourse at Guantanamo. Unborn babies. Families seeking to enter the USA or the EU so that their kids can eat and are safe from bombs. Why oh why isn't it obvious that the statement "Black Lives Matter" aims itself, by its very nature, at a specific target, a specific phenomenon: in the USA, for many generations, Black Lives have Mattered Less, and sometimes apparently Not At All!

When that situation is remedied, and not a moment earlier, the slogan can perhaps be treated as self-evident and consequently retired. In any case, those who have not honestly engaged with the situation that evoked it are not qualified to demean it.

P.S. One of the values that make me truly proud to be an American is due process (as in the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution: "No person shall ... be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law...."). It is extraordinarily urgent to keep flagging any situation where this wonderful value is subverted. The whole world is watching, including those leaders who love to see us fail, and thereby divert attention from their own lack of the same. In this crucial task for any nation claiming the rule of law and the equal protection of the law, citizens and police officers are actually on the same side. There is no contradiction between saying "Black Lives Matter" and "Police Lives Matter"; both sentiments are worth stating distinctly and clearly; neither trumps the other.

More from the political zoo. The media appetite for Donald Trump is being documented statistically, for example here and here. And it doesn't end at USA's borders. In my first cab ride in Elektrostal, late last week, the radio was carrying an analysis of Trump. I kept my mouth shut, mostly.

26 years ago, Oliver Sacks wanted to be remembered like this. (US Public Broadcasting's Newshour.)

From one of my favorite Russian cultural commentators: If American students are Hermione, Russians are Harry Potter.

Part two of James Tower's Quakers and Jesus series: Toward a Quaker Christology.

Several years ago we were in Oslo and had a chance to hear the Russian-Norwegian pianist Natalia Strelchenko rule the keyboard in a delightful concert at the National Library. (In this post, I had the nerve to compare her to the Funk Brothers' Earl Van Dyke; even so, she wrote to thank me for my comments.) Since then I've continued to collect her recordings and follow her career.

Natalia was attacked in her home in Manchester, UK, last Sunday, and died from her injuries. I sat here in front of my monitor in disbelief, reading the BBC News item, and tried to get the article to read some other way, but it stubbornly continued to report her murder. My heart goes out to her family, her son (apparently injured -- in the same attack?), and her many friends, colleagues, students, and fans.

In place of my normal blues dessert, here's a video from a concert Natalia Strelchenko played in Norway in 2011, part of the Henie Onstad Art Center's Liquid Piano series. First, early Liszt, then late Liszt. I've never seen a serious pianist play serious music with such fun....

27 August 2015

Yearly meetings, myth and reality

Northwest Yearly Meeting's logo
Maybe we are lucky in Northwest Yearly Meeting. If you include children, somewhere between ten and twenty percent of the yearly meeting's population show up for the annual sessions at George Fox University. In addition the numbers of Friends involved in yearly meeting-owned camps, pastors' retreats, "Seminars by the Sea," Bible quizzing, and other events seems to show that, among Quaker institutions beyond the local congregation, ours has a lot of vitality.

The questions that Micah Bales asks in his blog post, "Is it Time to Get Rid of Yearly Meetings?", are still valid, even for our yearly meeting. To my mind, this is the heart of his post:
Is there something fundamentally unhelpful about the Yearly Meeting system as it presently exists? What if the best thing that could happen would be for us to release our institutional structures altogether, opening ourselves to a more organic, responsive way of being Christ’s body?
Disclosure: I'm a member of Micah's advisory group, so I'm not exactly a disinterested participant in this discussion. Based on experience, I'm inclined to give his thoughts a lot of weight.

Micah briefly describes some features of the missional Quaker network he's helped create, the Friends of Jesus Fellowship, and lists these important characteristics:
1. We empower individual leaders to operate in their gifts and unlock their potential as apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers. By emphasizing the giftedness and unique calling of each person, we come together as a body with all parts working together in harmony.

2. The Friends of Jesus Fellowship is rooted in spiritual affinity and shared calling by Christ. The Fellowship is most strongly based in the eastern half of the United States, but we are not necessarily limited by geography. We have friends and co-workers scattered from Berkeley to Baltimore, from Madrid to Moscow.

3. Our membership is based on shared commitment and mutual accountability. We are members of one another because we have come together as disciples, followers of Jesus who are engaged together in learning from Jesus himself. Becoming a Friend of Jesus isn’t a matter of clearness committees and paperwork. We’re not a club to be joined primarily for a sense of identity and belonging. It’s about doing the work, showing ourselves to be friends of Jesus by our love for one another.

4. Rather than preserving an institution, we are focused on igniting a movement. In place of nostalgia for the past – even the admittedly glorious past of the early Quaker movement – we are inspired by a vision for the new things that God wants to do right here, right now.
It's a bit too glib for me just to say, "Don't yearly meetings ideally have these exact same characteristics?" The Friends of Jesus Fellowship has formed around a particular set of people and their gifts and concerns, and a specific historical moment, and that's not the same as an organizational structure that has a cohesiveness that endures for generations and involves hugely varying levels of maturity and senses of calling.

Maybe the better question is, "Can yearly meetings be incubators and mutually supportive partners for such networks as the Friends of Jesus Fellowship? How? Can it be done without enmeshing each other in expectations that primarily reflect the conceits of one side of the relationship?"

Here, in no particular order, are some of my related reflections:

Does the theory of the concentric Friends structure, with its simplicity and lack of hierarchy, still have power for Friends? In this structure, the local Friends meeting or church is the inner circle. It is where we know each other best, exercise hospitality to newcomers, and learn to ask, "What does God want to do or say through us?" It's where people are born, marry, die; it's where we witness new believers crossing the threshold into the household of faith.

By appointment or interest or both (depending in part on the local culture), some of those local Friends report to and from the next concentric circle, traditionally the monthly or quarterly meeting, then the yearly meeting, then the larger associations to which this yearly meeting is affiliated. Most local Friends probably won't be interested or called to serve in these wider circles, and that's no problem as long as the connections are rotated and renewed often enough to keep the relationships real.

Do we need to choose between structure and mission, or can we divide this labor according to our spiritual gifts? I'm reminded of the classic conflict within Friends United Meeting between those who defended our relationships with the National and World Councils of Churches, and those who favored "functional" ecumenism. Some Friends loved the ecumenical councils, which reminded them of Jesus's prayer for unity among his disciples, and which promised creative cross-fertilization among the different families of believers with their different cultures and emphases. Others were irritated at the councils' apparent claims on being the definitive ecumenical structures, or their tendency to take political positions at variance with our grassroots members. These dissidents often preferred "functional" or "missional" ecumenism, such as Christian Peacemaker Teams, the American Bible Society, Habitat for Humanity, or similar cross-confessional movements focused on particular visions of Christian service.

When I was serving Friends United Meeting, I advocated reducing our ties with the big ecumenical councils at the same time that I was encouraging FUM to join the Christian Peacemaker Teams. It seemed that the councils were causing us more grief than they were worth. In the end, we did join CPT but we didn't leave the councils. I hope that FUM is continuing to learn how to discern the value of each ecumenical relationship, not in terms of who irritates whom, but which relationships give scope to the gifts and missions and faithfulness of its members. The same can be true of the relationships and responsibilities we choose within our own Quaker structures, or with the alternate configurations that spring up when we respond to new visions.

Should our yearly meetings simplify their agendas? Northwest Yearly Meeting's annual sessions have at least two major aspects: the well-attended evening sessions feature speakers and worship leaders carefully selected by the yearly meeting elders and others, to address the vision and challenges that we face. During the day, a much smaller number of us listen to reports, ask questions, attend workshops, and participate in board meetings ... all with a view toward the stewardship of the yearly meeting's resources and monitoring our faithfulness to the decisions we've made in the past. But do enough of us see a direct connection between all these interactions and that basic community task that all Friends have? -- learning what God wants to do and say through us? Are we remembering to ask and answer honestly, in the full hearing of everyone, including our young people, "How does Truth prosper among you?" Do we have a chance to hear about our victories and failures among local churches and the broad sweep of yearly meeting programming, or are we too fragmented by the very nature of our agendas and compartments? How much our our stewardship responsibilities could be simplified or conducted by correspondence during the year? Would our yearly meetings benefit from a practice I've heard about occasionally ... abandoning business as usual in a given year, in favor of holding annual sessions that are unscripted, and wholly devoted to listening to God?

What about accountability? One of the justifications for old structures such as yearly meetings is that local groups and movements can easily go completely off the rails if there is no reporting relationship to a wider body and its enduring, shared expressions of Christian values. Having witnessed several times the unfortunate results that happen when a local group falls under the spell of a persuasive but misguided individual, I don't need to be convinced about the value of wider relationships as safeguards. But I've also seen organizations that become so pro-forma and agenda-bound that they seem to forget to pray. Maybe you have better experiences, but I've never seen any kind of formula, doctrinal or structural, that takes the place of live discernment. Sometimes that discernment is exercised by a formally-convened group of elders, sometimes by evolving networks of believers who modestly covenant to stay in touch with each other, flagging up both victories and violations. This isn't as stable or well-organized as I'd like, but reality is messy.

Maybe that's enough for now. My flight from Boston to JFK is about to board. By tomorrow I hope to be in Elektrostal ....

Here's a discernment issue: Overcoming the culture of nice. My question: When we fully deploy righteous anger, will we always know who the bully is?

Another conflict between institution and individual: Russian Orthodox activists vandalize a "blasphemous" exhibition. Report one, report two.

Quakerism as a charismatic tradition.

James Cotton!

Mississippi Blues Project: James Cotton - "He Was There" live at the TLA in Philadelphia from WXPN FM on Vimeo.
The legendary James Cotton Blues Band played the TLA in Philadelphia on September 6th for WXPN's Mississippi Blues Project. The Mississippi Blues Project has been supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.http://www.pcah.us/

James Cotton http://jamescottonsuperharp.com/
Mississippi Blues Project http://mississippibluesproject.org/
WXPN http://xpn.org/