30 December 2010

What was I thinking?

Elektrostal's icestorm--
the next day
Photos by Judy Maurer,
27 December 2010

A picture of me
by one of my students.
Today was the last day of classes for the New Humanities Institute and the Foreign Language School. We ended the day with a wonderful program of hilarious skits and songs performed by the School's students, directed by Gennady Utyonkov. Among the public service announcements between skits was a plea on behalf of mistreated computer mice.

At the end of the evening, we sang Abba's song "Happy New Year," a song that we've heard here more than once. Thinking about its rather grim lyrics,
No more champagne
And the fireworks are through
Here we are, me and you
Feeling lost and feeling blue
It's the end of the party
And the morning seems so grey
So unlike yesterday
Now's the time for us to say... Happy new year ... [end sample]
... we asked a friend if this was an example of Russian pessimism. She laughed and said, "No, not exactly. Most of us understand 'Happy new year' but not the rest of the lyrics!" (OK, translations here.)

Well, I for one am not feeling lost and feeling blue, but I am feeling rather introspective. What can 2010 say for itself? Or, more to the point for this blog, did I say or pass on anything at all this year that will serve as reminders of the year, for better or worse?

Or is it all "nothing more
Than confetti on the floor"?

January: Haiti's agony.
I see that my own emotions go back and forth. Part of me simply grieves. Part of me tries to pray my way through the day--for example, when I made myself a cheese sandwich, it became a prayer for those waiting, waiting, waiting for some food and meds in the earthquake zone. And part of me kept prodding the rest of me: stay in the game. Don't give in to despair. Statistically, it's still one death per person, despite the spiked and unjust mortality rate; the only thing you can do for those still alive and in distress is keep your wits about you, pray, contribute (in our case, to Mennonite Central Committee), and advocate the hell out of injustice.
February: "Intentions and results." I commented on Brian Fikkert's and Steve Corbett's book When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor...and Ourselves:
Along with keeping their writing crisp and simple, Fikkert and Corbett accomplish a great balancing act: they tell the awkward truths about harmful help ... while avoiding shaming the reader, who may have (or whose church may have) done exactly the sorts of things that the book advises not to do. As the authors candidly admit, they themselves made these same errors!
March: "Meeting Jesus halfway."
So ... we haven't always made it easy for fair-minded seekers to consider trusting us enough to make us their spiritual home. But, on the other hand, I'd like to make a friendly challenge to our critics--can you meet Jesus at least halfway by taking some of the skepticism that you've directed at us and our Savior, and applying it to our critics as well?
April."Gathering to meet with God."
As Anthony Bloom teaches in his wonderful talk "Prayer Is a Meeting" (Russian original here), we cannot have a true meeting with others if we are on guard or hiding behind pretense; and this is just as true as we meet with God. To me, the best of all worlds is meeting with God in the company of others doing the same.
May: On the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of a foundational event of the charismatic movement ("Happy birthday, charismatics,") I gratefully quoted Luke Timothy Johnson on the relationship of the public-order dimension of religion and its inner-experience dimension:
Because everything in religion must be measured by God, mysticism insists, and because God is not a controllable or even a fully knowable entity, religion must always be measured by a reality beyond definition. Asserting the ultimate reality and power of this invisible presence, and willingly sacrificing pleasure in this life for the sake of a future life with God, mysticism reminds the exoteric that it too is called to a service larger than itself.
June: "The illusion of control" and the Gaza "Freedom Flotilla."
Right now, I'm not sure that the word "adult" truly fits those making decisions in and for the Middle East. But while we're waiting for those adults to appear, a lot of people are suffering. And nine people have died in a risky, imperfect attempt to relieve that suffering.
July: "Who owns the Quaker brand?"--
The radical hospitality implied by Jesus coming to teach his people himself also requires us to confront our temperamental biases. What right do some Friends have to drive away anyone who is ready to make a strong and enthusiastic commitment to the living God, rather than only a nuanced and conditional commitment to personal exploration? Elitism, unconfronted, guarantees our permanent marginalization.
August: Thinking about the proposed Muslim community center in the "Ground Zero" neighborhood of New York City--"Americans! Can we please stop feeling sorry for ourselves?"
There is absolutely no political or civic "upside" in allowing the campaign of fake outrage to subvert due process and prevent the building of the community center. But it would be consistent with a pattern that was described in Tom Engelhardt's important book, The End of Victory Culture, a pattern embedded in American history that encourages us Americans to see ourselves as victims of ambush who are thereby entitled to strike out at the bad guys with righteous retribution--with violence, either rhetorical or actual.
September: "Faith and certainty, part three," on the influence of mentors.
As for that indefinable quality of being "venerable," inhabiting the senior ranks of quakerly "weightiness," I'm sure Carl Henry had it in spades. He played a major role in breaking open the closed world of mid-century fundamentalism and aiding the birth of modern humane evangelicalism. He is rightly credited with helping the reunification of the social justice and doctrinal emphases in American evangelicalism. The fact that he did not break away from patriarchal captivity simply proves the incompleteness of the evangelical dialogue without the witness of Friends and others who have experienced breakthroughs that he did not. But thank God those breakthroughs did happen; otherwise I can't imagine where I would have found a spiritual home where I could cherish the Scriptures and breathe the clear air of Gospel freedom, peace, and equality.
October: "Is self-flagellation ever engaging?": Can church marketing campaigns based on clever self-deprecation work--and should they? ("Proclaiming or pandering?")
Yes, it might be helpful for the world to know that Christians are capable of honest self-examination. (I assume we are!) But what's more important--letting the world know that we know we've not lived up to our ideals, or doing a better job of mutual accountability within the Christian movement? I have a preference for the latter, especially when it is done transparently and publicly, so that the rest of the world can listen in, when it cares to. (Example here.) Perhaps there's no conflict; some Christian communicators are working internally, while others are reaching an external audience. I'm interested in honesty, whichever path is chosen.
November: Two posts on prayer (1, 2); and "Ofer and Uri," a review of David Grossman's To the End of the Land.

December: The wikileaks story ("Leaks") is still unfolding. And I doubt that this is the last such story.
If three million people have access to a body of sensitive information, sooner or later some of that information leaks, just as water leaks, rivers flood, and neglected dikes collapse. But here's my theory: when a nation departs from the path of righteousness and becomes a nervous, defensive empire with serious control issues, the pressure on the weak spots becomes that much greater.



Two important posts on Friends and covenant: one by Susanne Kromberg, and one by Micah Bales. Their thinking is fueling my own meditations on submission, which I hope to ... submit soon. In the meantime, if you've not read Ben Richmond's excellent book Signs of Salvation, please consider doing so--it's one of the best books I know on the covenant community.

Lawrence Rosen, "Understanding Corruption" (PDF format). Thanks to David Brooks and his "Sidney Awards Part II."

BBC News provides a glimpse of "celebrity science."

John Wilson (Books and Culture) lists his favorite books of 2010.

One of Helena Cobban's favorite books: David Swanson's War Is a Lie. I haven't seen the book yet, but some of the arguments summarized by Cobban are both original and urgent.

Sufism is an important element of Islam in Russia, so I was interested to see this item: "Quakers and Sufis."



New Year's greetings to you! I'm celebrating with some tight blues from Brazil...the Igor Prado Band with Lynwood Slim on harp and Donny Nichilo on keyboard. See more from this great group of musicians by visiting youtube user chicobluesbrasil.

2 comments:

'Mela said...

Interesting post, Johan!

I also offer my congratulations to Judy, for her gorgeous photos!

And Brazillian Blues?

Not just confetti on the floor,
red balloons in the air!

Johan said...

I'll tell Judy what you said. Thank you!

And thanks for reminding me about the red balloons.

Christmas (and upcoming birthday) blessings! I hope your 2011 has started well. Now I'm off to play the video/song on your blog....