09 August 2017


Hartwells Locks, Rideau Canal
Photo by Tom Heyerdahl

What the president is doing is sending a strong message to North Korea in language that Kim Jong Un would understand....

These words from U.S. Secretary of State Tillerson remind me of this ancient and totally misplaced trust in "messages," invoked whenever a leader can't explain the actual content or logic of a statement at face value.

A few years ago I examined the related use or misuse of the terms "mixed messages" and "mixed signals." At the time, we opponents of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were told that our opposition gave our "enemies" mixed messages rather than the united message that would presumably shock and awe them into submission. Every major theme in this ephemeral cyber-world of blogging eventually cycles back, and so once again I'm looking at the wishful thinking about the messages our leaders are supposedly sending.

Of course the North Koreans are aware of the cluster of messages and subtexts represented by the U.S. president's "fire and fury" message and the commentaries of his associates in the U.S. government:
  • The threat itself: be afraid of our weapons
  • The possibility that it is all bluff and bluster, given the evident limited range of Trump's strategic imagination
  • The insult contained in Tillerson's commentary, that North Korea's leadership would not be able to decipher a calmer, more straightforward message
  • The possible challenge to call the U.S. bluff
  • The functional assumption that North Korea will respond with more wisdom and maturity than the U.S. side is exhibiting.
North Korea is a difficult case, no doubt. It's not easy to communicate with a leadership that seems so paranoid and defensive (however we understand the background to that stance). But the standard advice for communicating with "difficult people" is to say the same reasonable and true and sustainable thing over and over, patiently and clearly, no matter how provocative the other side's rhetoric might be. They're already perfectly aware of the resources available at your disposal -- diplomatic, economic, military, and, most importantly, time. There is absolutely no need to goad them and thereby destabilize the situation and possibly lose the support of the rest of the world. And there is no need to fall back on "signals" and "messages" that are actually just transparent poses.

All you need to say is simply 'Yes' or 'No', said Jesus. Anything beyond this comes from the evil one. (Matthew 5:37.)

Yesterday was Judy's and my 37th wedding anniversary. Instead of worrying about North Korea, we enjoyed time with our Ottawa relatives, including a wonderful walk around the campus of Carleton University, where I studied Russian back in the '70's. We also walked along the Rideau River and the Rideau Canal, whose ancient mechanical locks seem to work as well as ever.

Today we travel to Maine, retreating for some weeks to the village of Raymond (and its Internet-equipped library) before returning to Elektrostal.

A language we'll soon be learning (I hope): the language of transition.

Hiroshima: an anti-transfiguration.

An interview on a new Christian movement characterized by multi-level marketing, Pentecostal signs and wonders, and post-millennial optimism.

Is Canada dealing with a new wave of refugees?

Controversial (?) Palestinian professor breaks his silence.

Meanwhile in Moscow ...

03 August 2017

"They stand condemned" ...

Ottawa, Canada: The Heyerdahl/Maurer corner of Chapters bookstore.

The second edition of the Atlantic Monthly podcast Radio Atlantic, discussing the theme "One Nation Under God?", refers to an exchange between U.S senator Bernie Sanders and Russell Vought, nominee for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Sanders quoted these words from an article that Vought had written to defend Wheaton College in the controversy over professor Larycia Hawkins:
Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned.
The senator went on to ask, more than once, "Do you believe that statement is Islamophobic?" Vought responds that, no, he's simply stating the Christian convictions that he holds in common with Wheaton College.

The Radio Atlantic panelists discuss this exchange and the clash of worldviews that it seems to reveal. (For example: Did Sanders really not know that Christians believe in the exclusive role of Christ in salvation? Was he imposing a religious test on the nominee, in violation of the U.S. Constitution?) Panelist Emma Green distinguished between "intolerant pluralism" and "tough pluralism," both of which defend a religion's self-conceptions but differ in their ability to engage with people outside their communities.

What grabbed my attention was the word "condemned" in Vought's article. There is so much wrong with using this word! There is no technical use of the word "condemned" that outweighs its ugliness outside a very specific context. From any small-o orthodox Christian viewpoint, people who are not Christians are to be cherished and highly valued, not regarded with condemnation.

The argumentative tone in that excerpt indicated by Sanders is actually understandable in the context of Vought's original article and its use of John 8:19 and 3:18, and Luke 10:16. But the use of the word "condemned" for whole groups of people, most of whose individual members may never have received a respectful Christian invitation (never mind having "rejected" it in any meaningful sense), is repulsive. And Sanders was entitled to wonder whether a nominee using such language about whole categories of people is capable of treating those "condemned" people with enthusiasm and dedication.

Am I simply being a "good American" for whom etiquette outweighs truth, who doesn't have the theological backbone to say "condemned" when necessary? Here I'm going to repost some related thoughts from back in 2009....

Last week [January 1, 2009] I mentioned Charles Blow's New York Times article, "Heaven for the Godless?," reporting on a Pew Forum study revealing that many American evangelicals believe that Christianity is not the exclusive path to heaven.

Charles Blow permits himself a bit of sarcasm for evangelicals who are not sufficiently open-minded to please him: "After all, the Bible makes it clear that heaven is a velvet-roped V.I.P. area reserved for Christians." But he is probably at least partly right in his suggestions for why rank and file evangelicals in the USA might want to subvert the certainties of their leaders. On some level, "...Americans just want good things to come to good people, regardless of their faith." He also reports that the majority of Christians surveyed are not convinced that the Bible is the literal word of God.

Among those evangelical leaders in a "tizzy," as Charles Blow might put it, is the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Albert Mohler. The biography on Mohler's Web site, presumably written or at least approved by him, makes it quite clear that he is a heavyweight in the American evangelical world.

His blog includes two responses to the Pew study: "Many Paths to Heaven?" and "For Goodness Sake?"

I have some problems with Mohler's argumentation, which I think is both illogical and evangelistically unhelpful. But before getting into that, we do share a crucial certainty: Jesus is central to salvation. The Bible is clear on that, and I don't think any credible theory of the authorship, inspiration, or authority of the Bible to Christians can fudge that central point. The issue is the way we use this certainty -- do we understand this truth descriptively, or do we use it as an argumentative trump card on behalf of an authoritarian understanding of Christianity, one that claims the power to name whole categories of saved and condemned people? Secretly, surely we all know that no Christian authority has ever been able to convince a majority of all members of the Body of Christ exactly what constitutes sufficient literal belief to assure salvation.

So, yes, I believe that Jesus is involved with salvation 100% of the time. (The church, however, is involved at a lower percentage!*) I part ways with Mohler, and the many other leaders who argue along the same lines he does, on some lesser but still very important points:

Specifically, Mohler incorrectly analyzes Blow's approving summary of Christian flexibility, as documented by Pew.
Blow argues that many American Christians are rejecting the claim that Jesus is the only way of salvation for sake of "goodness." In other words, "good" people don't believe that other people are going to hell.

Here we see the ultimate confusion of theology and etiquette. The implication of Charles Blow's argument is clear. He believes that Americans are trimming theology to fit current expectations of social respectability. Socially respectable people -- people who are recognized for "goodness" -- consciously reject the clear biblical teaching that Jesus is the only Savior because it just isn't socially respectable to believe that your neighbors and fellow citizens who do not believe in Christ as Savior are going to miss heaven and go to hell.
I don't believe the implication is clear at all. Instead, people are being guided by an unconscious but powerful doctrine of the nature of God. It is the same doctrine advocated by Quaker theologian Robert Barclay, who cannot understand a God condemning to hell those who by historical accident never had an opportunity to receive the Gospel invitation. Or, more briefly, God decides who is saved, not Baptists or Eastern Orthodox, or anyone else. All we can do is try to describe what we have learned about God with some kind of reverent consistency.

That search for consistency is reasonable. If we cannot publish Truth coherently, with clear and public links to the evidence of divine Purpose that God has graciously granted us, we betray our prophetic responsibility. We imply that God's grace is either capricious or only knowable to the spiritually elite.

But, too often, consistency is confused with certainty by those who want to be in religious authority over us. Rather than saying, "God has made us ambassadors of reconciliation, to plead with you on behalf of the message of grace, which we've experienced in our own community in these ways ..."--in other words, emphasizing what they've learned from God's dealings with them -- they begin to presume to know what God will do with (to) you and me and those others. That is beyond what they literally do know, and any biblical argument to the contrary is based on selective proof-texting -- motivated in part, I suspect, by the emotional need to defend their kind of certainty. God is not trapped by human chains of logic, whether it be the logic of liberalism or conservatism.

The tizzied response might be, "But we must warn people of the danger of damnation; if they go to hell after we neglected a chance to dissuade them, it's on our heads!" True, not providing an invitation to the joy and truth of God's promises in Christ, and the incarnation of those promises in Christian community, is a dangerous sin, assuming we ourselves even have a clue about what that means, but I disagree that such fire-insurance methods constitute either an accurate or an effective Gospel invitation. In any case, arguing from effect is not logical. We must argue from what we truly know, and God's own sovereignty should make us humble about what we do and don't know.

The idea that God may save whomever God wants to save does not let us off the evangelistic hook. The "Great Commission" still stands. We just don't get to use smug certainty or false reasoning to lure/scare people into our camp, or, more likely in these postmodern times, repel them away. Those Pew respondents who have a wider than authorized understanding of salvation may need to be challenged on exactly what constitutes "right sharing of spiritual resources" -- it may be a more demanding aspect of discipleship than they realize--but, in their implicit rejection of a category-based understanding of salvation, they're also posing a very important challenge to their doctrinal guardians.

* "The church is involved at a lower percentage!" I don't mean to pass by this huge aspect of the topic with a glib throw-away line. Maybe later!

Back at this post, I defined "evangelism" this way: Evangelism is the persuasive, experience-driven communication of spiritual truth, combined with an invitation to experience a community formed by that truth. Without the invitation, evangelism is never complete.... However, I also cannot believe that, in the ministry of reconciliation, God is completely trapped by our limitations, either now or for eternity.

It's ironic that sometimes those who are proudest of being Quaker are the most reluctant to embrace evangelism. How would they even be here if the invitation had not somehow been kept open all these generations? For those who judge evangelism harshly by its imperialist distortions, saying "by what right do we impose our beliefs on others?" (yes, "imposing" is wrong), I like the way Vincent Donovan puts it in his important book Christianity Rediscovered: An Epistle from the Masai: He asks, what right do we have to withhold this treasure from anyone?

[End of archival stuff.]

Related: Six heretics who should be be banned from evangelicalism.

"I think the academic posturing of 'taking x seriously' delineates who can (and who cannot) participate in conversations."

A heartbreaking story that makes me realize what a sheltered life I lived, even in Russia: Why adolescents are selling self-created porn.

This week's challenges for Russian civil society.

Noam Chomsky on finding common ground with (among others) evangelical Christians.

Blues dessert today: from Denmark, another version of the song I may have used more than any other over these years. "It Hurts Me Too."

28 July 2017


Judy and I were talking with some Friends at the start of Northwest Yearly Meeting sessions at George Fox University. I expressed shock at the meanness of today's politics. "Yes," answered one experienced Friend. "All over the world, the bullies have been empowered."

We've had bullies ever since Cain and Abel. Bullying is micro-scale terrorism. Sometimes the bully is simply a sociopath; other bullies are serving an agenda of some kind -- such as Cain's resentment of his brother.

Sadly, sometimes bullying reflects society's perceived license to make someone's life miserable. The victim might be distinguished by race, religion, or any other feature that makes it obvious (to whom?) that he or she is an outsider.The outsider, whether a political or economic rival or some other kind of apparent threat, might at first be redeemable, but eventually becomes permanently estranged from those on the inside. Eventually the pattern of bullying becomes embedded in the culture, even to the point of genocide.

Donald Trump and his gang are examples of contemporary bullies. Their crude organized-crime-style ruthlessness is something new on the American national stage, and we don't know what to do with them. I think their vulgar and aggressive behavior represents a spiritual problem, the pervasive residue of damnable us/them patterns going generations back, and requires (in part) a spiritual response. As believers, we have the authority to confront this confusion, this residue, this alienation, and to raise our voices and bodies in a strong rejection of bullying. (The uprising against the artificial crisis of health care financing is an example of this rejection.) We have the right to bind the bullying spirit and require that it give way to the Holy Spirit.

I believe that we should pray for our eyes to be opened to the places where hatred and the spirit of bullying are embedded -- outside us and inside us. Let's prayerfully confess whenever that spirit rises up in us. Let's also do the prayerful work of understanding and exposing the rationales given for dividing and punishing people and let's repent wherever we can trace our own complicity. Let's pray for opportunities to intervene when bullies are attacking us or anyone. And let's figure out how to spread the news that every church and meeting has the gifts needed for this analysis and this confrontation.

Friday PS: Already this morning I am reading reports that the American president is encouraging police to rough people up. Just what I wanted to hear at a time when our students witness routine roughing-up of people being arrested at protests against corruption.

My conclusion: the president's public rhetoric is nothing less than a near-constant stream of verbal abuse. Is this an overstatement? He threatens and bullies his political enemies, his political allies, his own co-workers, his audiences (including children and immigrants), his country. His newest communications director seems ready to serve as a compliant amplifier.

We need coping strategies. Some advocate simply taking a sabbatical from mass media. Fair enough, please do what you need to take care of yourself ... but that won't work for many of us. We also need tough strategies to identify, muzzle, and marginalize this behavior, and to remove its author from the White House. Fortunately we don't all have to do everything. What part can you play? What part can I play?

Today's reality is so outrageous that I am fairly hopeful that it will eventually constitute a historical zone of illegitimacy that will not outlast Trump himself. I can imagine a future in which transgressing politicians will be politely but firmly told, "We're not going back to that era!" Is that too optimistic?

Even if I'm right, it will require a persistent and passionate effort to reweave the diverse relationships he has slashed, and to address the underlying elitism, racism, xenophobia -- all of which predated Trump but made his abusive behavior easier. This is a task that can unite liberals, conservatives, progressives; it's a mission we advance every time we refuse to look at someone else as "other."

Bob Henry; source.
Yesterday a new Quaker yearly meeting was born, the Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends. The short version of the story is in their epistle.

The church split, and suddenly I was an outcast.

Russia orders the USA to reduce its diplomatic staff. And Friday PS: How do you collude in Russian? Michele Berdy answers.

The country where no salaries are secret.

This Sunday, Judy and I will be visiting Reedwood Friends Church in Portland, Oregon. Come if you can! (Meeting for worship at 10 a.m., followed by Forum class.)

On a different note, Samantha Fish and her cigar-box guitar:

20 July 2017

Adopt a politician

Reichstag fire, 1933; source.
"Adopt a politician." This idea isn't original with me; the Friends Committee on National Legislation has urged us for years to build relationships with our legislators. But I have a slightly different meaning in mind.

The occasion for this exhortation is the extraordinary interview with U.S. president Donald Trump published yesterday by the New York Times. Aside from noticing the president's lapses into incoherence, almost every commentator I have read concerning this interview has pointed at his constant orientation of all topics around himself. As Benjamin Wittes says, listing all the Justice Department people who Trump claims have let him down, "They’re all, in different ways, not serving him. And serving him, he makes clear, is their real job."

Over the past year and a half, Donald Trump and his movement have been compared to fascists. Although there are some interesting behavioral links, there is no evidence that Trump adheres to fascism or any other systematic ideology. His fixation is with himself, his own sense of efficacy, and his desire to lead a country worthy of himself.

While the Trump phenomenon may not be classic fascism, it still has the seeds of authoritarianism. His vision seems to involve his own direct personal, heroic intervention on behalf of the millions of voters whose hero he claims to be, backed by his unprecedented understanding and unique public acceptance. (Not only did he win the popular vote if you don't count the cheats, he has even won over Poland and France.) In the service of this vision, he seems to want to build a top-down corporate state whose ministries and legislature ought to do his bidding, or he will know the reason why.

He wants credit for populist sensibilities -- finally exalting the people who resent the elites, who resent political correctness -- but he also believes millionaires are the best people to put in charge of making the national economy great, because they have a passion for wealth. "That's the kind of thinking we want." But the important point is, don't get in his way.

Timothy Snyder has warned us of the catalytic danger of a Reichstag fire in the slide toward authoritarianism. An equivalent event may indeed happen, thanks to North Korea or any number of other wild cards. I sincerely believe a different sort of fire has already started, a stealth fire that is stealing oxygen from the American democracy. The president does not plan to wait for an external crisis; he is already taking the steps needed to undermine the rule of law. The Times interview signals the distinct possibility of authoritarian moves to come -- for example, yet more firings at the Department of Justice to follow Preet Bharara, Sally Yates, and James Comey.

Yesterday, as we followed the progress of the health financing fraud unfolding before our very eyes, we also witnessed the president's lunchtime hints that "my friends, they might not be my friends much longer..." and specifically addressing Senator Heller ("He wants to remain a senator, doesn't he?"). We already know that well-financed pressure groups are ready to translate these hints into serious political attacks. The people there at that lunch laughed. Threats and public humiliation have become normal operating procedure. As Heller himself said, it was "just President Trump being President Trump." Exactly.

To be sure the elections of 2016 will not turn out to be a fluke, Trump has to make sure that his popular-vote "victory" is never again in doubt. Therefore (I am theorizing, true!), he has arranged for his favorite voting-fraud conspiracy expert, Kris Kobach, to convene a voting-fraud commission. Ironically, the commission's first meeting was not open to public attendance. With the U.S. Congress and a majority of state legislatures in Republican hands, the potential for mischief is obvious.

Wittes' article prescribes the antidote for this kind of creeping authoritarianism: "... the principle protection is having people with backbone who are willing to do their jobs and stand up for one another in the elevation of their oaths of office over political survival."

This is where we come in. I take the prayer factor seriously. I hope that every politician at that lunch, Heller and Trump included, has been or will be adopted by praying people -- people who will pray for their backbones, for their wisdom and protection, for their growing awareness of God's perspective. Let's not limit ourselves to our district's legislators; what about judges, governors, bureaucrats, journalists? Whom do we know in these lines of work? Are you and I praying for them? Their day-in, day-out competence and knowledge of God's grace and sovereignty can restore balance.

Prayer-based resistance doesn't mock. It doesn't rejoice when those we oppose are embarrassed, doesn't hope for our opponents to fall into scandals. We simply want to chase down persistently any evidence of corruption, self-dealing, betrayal, or incompetence, for the sake of the well-being of all of us, whatever our party. We hate elitism and triumphalism when it hurts those we love; we should hate it equally when it begins to infect us. We need to hold the politicians accountable for lapses in values and norms, but we need to hold ourselves and the so-called "resistance" accountable as well. Fear-mongering is no more acceptable among Trump's opponents than it is among his supporters. Prayer is our answer to fear as well as self-deception and false heroism, rooting ourselves in the Comforter who personifies Jesus's promise never to abandon or forsake us.

To pray against fear is not to choose the opposite extreme, passivity. It is to anchor ourselves in a reality far deeper than any desire to please one side or another. It's a spiritual preparation for a new kind of vigilance: one that is prepared for any kind of Reichstag fire, determined to reverse the harms already done, but not invested in being proven right if (thank God!) the threat of democracy's collapse turns out to be a false alarm.

On Sunday, our Northwest Yearly Meeting annual sessions begin at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon, under the theme "When Grace Happens."

If the chronology of separation plays out as planned, these sessions are our last ones as a united yearly meeting. Part of me expects that our true theme will be "When Grief Happens." I have to make myself address a more fertile question, "What does grace look like in this situation?"

If I'm truly grace-oriented, I have to confront my anger. The churches who forced the separation seem to me (but I might be wrong!) to have placed a lower value on unity than the churches who are being required to leave. However, the path of grace doesn't require these kinds of calculations. Instead, I want to envision a separation that is so kind and conciliatory that (in the nineteenth-century footsteps of Indiana Yearly Meeting of Friends and Indiana Yearly Meeting of Anti-Slavery Friends), some day a reunion might be possible.

In any case, I hope the resulting bodies are not poisoned by resentment but instead enjoy an ongoing relationship of mutual blessing. Both groups possess the spiritual DNA of one of the most generous and well-rounded communities of Friends I've ever experienced. Division could in fact lead to new fertility, new modes of evangelism and prophetic action, new doors of access for people who've never heard of us but who'd thrive among us.

However, conflict also has its place. Our separation is rooted, I'm convinced, in harmful forms of biblical interpretation which have already led to deep personal wounds. But when we are separate bodies, how will we confront this harm; how will we hold each other accountable? To oversimplify for the sake of discussion, will the liberals be held hostage by wounded people? Will the conservatives be held hostage by people who feel betrayed and defensive? Without the loving challenge of the "other," could both groups become spiritually and intellectually lazy?

Maybe the best we can do, for now, is encourage the individuals of each group who are not content to let the estrangement solidify and become permanent. I hope that there will be some individuals and families who simply refuse to divide. Otherwise, the tendency to bear false witness against each other's faith and discipleship -- behaviors which have already undermined us for the last few yearly meetings -- will, among other grave costs, continue to disillusion our young people.

Baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson's faith is finally getting the attention it deserves.

Speaking of increasing access to our community: addressing our frequent use of Quaker terminology without context.

A fresh look at evangelicals and the evolution dispute.

The difficulties of rehabilitation for Russia's ex-prisoners.

Memphis in Moscow....

13 July 2017

A good Quaker is hard to find

Gordon Browne used to tell this story on himself:

One day Gordon and another teacher took a high school group to see an amateur production of a Shakespeare play. It wasn't exactly the highest-quality production Gordon had seen, and as he and his colleague were leaving the theater together, he pointed out some of the defects. But his colleague saw it differently. Pointing to their happy students, he said, "Yes, you're probably right -- but look at their faces!"

When I hear overused and misused quotations from early Friends being advanced to describe us (number 1 being "that of God in everyone"), and my inner curmudgeon kicks in, I remember Gordon's story, and reflect back on when I first learned about Friends -- that is, when, for me, those same quotations were fresh and powerful.

Nowadays, among some Friends, "that of God in everyone" is sometimes used as a self-contained summary and explanation of what we Friends believe. For that purpose, it's cultish and inadequate. It avoids saying anything about the Friends movement that is awkward in today's skeptical culture: the Bible, Jesus, the cross.

But as the heart of Friends evangelism and missiology, "that of God" is crucial. Rather than presenting seekers with a set of propositions, we encourage them to turn to that witness of God's love and truth already within them. It's a message that is made credible by how our own community lives in light of that witness.

Two things got me going on this train of thought.

First: Micah Bales has written one of those "I wish I'd said that" blog posts, "Are Quakers Guilty of the Sin of Pride?" This uncalled-for pride has been an irritant to me for years, and I've vented about it more than once (here's an example where I also reference Micah!), but never as effectively and persuasively as he does here. The heart of his provocation:
To repeat for clarity: A sense of our own sinful unworthiness is native to the Quaker tradition. But we seem to have lost it. We’ve traded it in for a self-congratulatory sense of Quaker-led historical progress.
... and this important warning: The skeptical world is unimpressed with people who think they’re wonderful.

Second: Earlier today we heard a completely straightforward and sincere question from a new Friend: "Where do I find out how to be a good Quaker? I'd like to be one." It reminded me of a new attender at Moscow Friends Meeting about five years ago, who couldn't contain his joy at finding our little group: "I love you all and want to be more like you."

Whatever we do to diagnose and address our identity issues, I hope we cherish the idealism of people like these. Maybe they're detecting the very heart of our discipleship when we've become weary of the ways that discipleship has sometimes become routinized and stylized and trivialized into a private subculture.

What about this as a functional definition of a good Quaker? ... Someone who is wholeheartedly involved with their Friends meeting or church. Period.

The advantage of this simple definition: putting the accent on mutual accountability and discernment rather than promotion of a set of behaviors and legalisms. However, do we trust our churches to be "good Quaker meetings"?

For me, the heart of Friends discipleship is learning to live with Jesus at the center of our community, and helping each other to live this way, including its ethical consequences. But for our churches to live this way, we have to learn to cope with our distractions. We have to practice the spiritual equivalent of zero-based budgeting -- paying the rent, changing the lightbulbs, painting the sign, but ultimately and constantly returning to the central interrelated questions,
  • What does it mean to live with Jesus at the center?
  • What does God want to say and do in this world through us?
If we stick with it, no matter how imperfect our amateur performance might be, someone (maybe even God!) might say, "but look at their faces!"


Compassion for one's oppressor: moral absurdity or genius?

Masha Gessen on why the con worked.
The cast of characters is also part of what makes the correspondence so shocking. A washed-up British tabloid journalist, a tasteless Russian singer with a filthy rich father bankrolling his career, a corrupt Russian lawyer, an American reality TV star running for president, his son, and a tacky international beauty pageant that binds them all together. This list reads like an insult to American democracy. It also provides some clues about what really happened.
Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia brace for court decision.

Jim Kovpak offers #TheResistance a little help when it comes to Russia....

American civil religion is dead, long live American civil religion.

Eugene Peterson's second thoughts on same-sex marriage. Was he put on the spot?

"The sun rise in the east, goes down in the west. I do believe one day every living creature would get some rest." J.B. Lenoir with Freddy Below.

06 July 2017

Blue shorts

Sunset on Panther Pond.
It's now been three weeks since we left Russia. I'm starting to get recalibrated again to life in the USA. It helped a lot that we were able to spend a few days in near-seclusion and mostly offline in Maine, where the best Internet connection was off at the village library, open three days a week. My life was far more in tune with real time, not schedules.

To get back to the west coast, we found that a one-way train ticket, senior fare, was reasonably priced ... as long as we were willing to travel in coach seats rather than sleeping cars. The three-day trip, watching the geography change and enjoying three beautiful sunrises, was part of my recalibration. From Boston to Chicago, we had Wi-fi connections to the Internet, but for the rest of the trip we were mostly offline, for which I was again (mostly) grateful.

Thanks to Judy's careful selection of train food, and to our friend Susan meeting us at the St. Paul station with a wonderful bag of goodies, we were able to avoid buying the expensive food offered on the train. The travel experience was very good, but it was obvious that Amtrak suffers from neglect. The equipment, while sturdy, was old and threadbare. Russians depend on their rail system far more than we Americans do on ours, and the difference in priority shows.

In addition, long-distance east-west services such as those we used (Lakeshore Limited and the Empire Builder) may be cut entirely in the next year or two. It's hard to imagine the strain of working for a system whose existence depends on the year-to-year goodwill of politicians, especially in a season when goodwill seems in short supply!

To sum up: We can still recommend Amtrak, but if you've been spoiled by trains in Europe and elsewhere, be prepared for somewhat different standards. Even so, if you love train travel, take that trip while the services still exist. And be sure to check whether there is track work going on along your route. We had to choose our dates carefully because track work between Boston and Albany meant that, most of the time, that portion of the Lakeshore Limited is served by buses. After our last experience with an Amtrak bus substitution, we were determined to avoid a repeat.

Here in Oregon, after a few days with family in Eugene, I got on an Amtrak bus for the trip to the Portland Waterfront Blues Festival. This year I ignored the large stages entirely. I spent four days at the Oregonian Front Porch Stage, where there is a larger proportion of authentic blues (yes, I know, who am I to say!?) than the big-stage acts who bring in the audiences and make the festival viable. So I didn't hear Elvin Bishop or Sonny Landreth, or even the Stax Revue with Booker T.

The very best performer I did hear was (once again, returning after six years) Brother Yusef. How one musician can produce so much wonderful sound is a delightful mystery. For a compact presentation of my four days of blues, I present this slide show and a video from Brother Yusef....

Just a few recommended links this week:

Roll away the stone of approval-seeking.

Karl Vaters is not going to look for reasons to doubt the sincerity of your faith. (Attention Northwest Yearly Meeting Friends!)

Scot McKnight believes these five things about gender differences. Is his list helpful? What has he left out?