Saturday, November 22, 2008

Fox: You Could Lose Your Condition

From "Mind the Heavenly Treasure," the thoughts of George Fox, for Nov. 22:

"The care of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the word, and he becometh unfruitful." Matthew 13;22

"For if ye should settle down in the earth, and have plenty, and be full, and at ease for a time, and not keep in the power and spirit and service of God, you would quickly come to lose your condition." George Fox

What do you think of this? How do we not do this?

Friday, November 21, 2008

To family or not to family, that is the question

I have a question:

In "The Last Temptation of Christ," Jesus' last temptation is to get down off the cross and live a calm, happy, private life with Mary Magdelene and their children, working as a carpenter. In an episode of Millenium (did anyone else watch that TV series from a decade ago?) an emissary from the dead, presumbably from the devil, tries to persuade the series hero to retreat from his work fighting evil and embrace a quiet life with his family, his head buried in the sand. The apostle Paul, while saying it's better to marry than to burn, advocated the single life as the higher course. This path was embraced by the Roman Catholic church and led to people like St. Francis of Assiss and Mother Teresa, who did immense good in the world. Clearly, from its earliest days, the Christian church has understood the "happy family" as a stumbling block to serving God fully.

Yet, at the same time, the family is valorized in Christian circles. Nothing is more important than building strong families and putting your family first. How often is "I have to take care of my own children" accepted as an excuse, even if the "care" is frivilous, such as taking one's child to soccer on Sunday morning? In the early 19th century, Quaker meetings criticized Elizabeth Fry for throwing care of her 12 children onto the meeting while she pursued God's calling her life of prison reform. Would we be any different? Would we be worse? Would Elizabeth Fry today actually BE in prison for child neglect instead of doing God's work in the world?

I'm certainly in favor of strong families, and I understand that 35 percent of children are born to single mothers and that divorce rips families apart. However, and here's my question: How do we reconcile the message of family as a "temptation" that prevents us from doing God's work with a notion of family as all important? Do we make an idol of family? And if we do, how do we support strong families while not turning that goal into an idol?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Another Amish visit

Recently, I once again saw my Amish acquaintance "Sarah" and had a conversation with her about the economy. I asked her if the Amish were likely to feel the impact of the economic problems in the wider world or if they were insulated from that shock.

At first, she didn't know what I meant, but as we talked it became clear that the Amish were worried about the larger economy. Those who own stores or businesses are bracing for a downturn in business. The community may have to bail out some members who have gotten too far into bank debt. Some in the community fear that "our people" (the non-Amish) will steal from them if we have no jobs or money.

I told her that perhaps what the Amish own are not the first things thieves would desire, but she didn't seem convinced.

On a lighter note, Sarah showed me the apples she was drying over the wood stove in her living. Her living room is just like her dining room, except it doesn't have a long table or a sink. It was evening, and she turned on the kerosene lamp, which dimly lit a part of the the room. As for the apples, she had cut them up and placed the slices in a wooden box with many flat drawers. This box fits over the woodstove. The apples stand in the heat for about 48 hours, at which point they are transferred to jars.

Sarah also showed me the beautiful quilt she is making, and the stacks of wooden benches piled against one wall. She said they were used for the Sunday meeting for worship, which was held recently at her house. Tweny-eight families attend and most are young, with lots of children, she said.

Sarah is the kindest and gentlest of people. When I leave her house, I have to remind myself that she and her surroundings are real. She seems so perfectly conformed to a storybook image of the Amish, as does her house. Yet, it's real. Then, I wonder, as I drive along her rutty driveway back to the real world, how do I know I'm not imagining all this, because it is all so perfectly how I might imagine the Amish? I ponder the story of the Chinese philosopher who woke up from a dream of being a butterfly and wondered if he were a man dreaming of being a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming of being a man. I remember, in the end, though, that there is enough trouble and vexation in the world, even here in the hinterlands, to convince me that this is real life, Amish and all.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Sacred Compass 7: leadings and individualism

I enjoyed J. Brent Bill's Sacred Compass: The Way of Spiritual Discernment, which is an accessible and readable introduction to the Quaker concept of leadings. Leadings are the persistent pushings, nudgings and guidance of God in our lives, bringing us to places where we can do his work in the world in ways we might not have imagined.

As Brent pointed out in an e-mail, the book is aimed at non-Quaker Christians, since for most Quakers, the book's concepts will be familiar. However, probably even most Quaker readers will find new insights or ideas in the book to ponder. For instance, as I think about either employment, going back to do graduate work, and the overarching question of "what to do with the rest of my life," I find myself, as a result of the book, paying much more attention to how my body physically feels when I contemplate one course or another.

Fundamentally, however, I wonder if the way we understand the concept of leadings in contemporary society is too focused on the self. In a graduate course I took once, the professor, an Episcopal priest, believed that Quakers spend too much time on self-examination and on hair-splitting matters of faith and belief. He contrasted Quakerism with the Anglican tradition, in which people corporately affirm their faith through liturgy and then essentially go about their business, not having to scrutinize every action. Anglicans, he said, believe the liturgy and communion put them right with God. He recommended a book called The Doubting Disease, which he believed spoke to a neurosis of overanalysis and second guessing inherent in Quaker theology.

Clearly, as a Quaker, I come down on the side of self scrutiny. However, I also understand that a corporate liturgy can act as antidote to obsessive concern over individual conscience. I also believe that endless parsing of one's thoughts and beliefs can create paralysis. I have seen this in some Quakers. My theory is that overanalysis, coupled with the empiricist ideology of the educated classes has led to some of the "non-theism" in liberal Quakerism. I believe some Quakers get so caught up in parsing whether or not they "believe" in God with unshakeable certainty every second of every day, that they fall into nontheism. Or they are so consumed in knowing exactly what God is (which we can't know) that they back into nontheism.

That being said, I believe it's also a mistake to see weekly recitation of a liturgy and drinking and eating a bit of wine and wafer alone as the key to putting ourselves right with God. By themselves, these are empty rituals that can create in us an illusion of safety-- or a "pass" not to examine our lives-- unless they are the outward signs of an inward transformation. In other words, like a good Quaker, I believe outward change follows from inward change. Actually, it works both ways, that inward transformation leads to a life that is outwardly changed and also that willingly adopting new outward habits and behaviors can cause inward change. However, I would put the preponderance of weight on the power of inward transformation to effect change. Thus I would put more of my effort into self examination and changing my heart before changing my behavior, knowing the changed behavior would follow a transformed heart.

A good companion piece to Sacred Compass is Blackaby's Experiencing God: Knowing and Doing the Will of God. While acknowledging that we are all individuals who can't follow someone else's "success with God formula," Blackaby emphasizes that following God is not primarily about "me." Following where God is leading is seeing where God is at work around me and joining God in that work. This shifts the emphasis way from "me" as at the center of the universe to me as a worker in God's universe. I move toward the center of that universe as I join with God's work. I don't have to have a particular plan for me (which is what Brent also says) but I do have a responsibility to discern where God is and to work there.

So what do you think? What is the relationship of the inward self to the outward self? Do Quakers (and others) suffer from "the doubting disease?"

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Obama tidbits

In a recent newsmagazine article, it became clear that the French are having Obama envy. He is just so cool they can't stand it. He should be French!

Much has been made recently about how people identify with Obama for many different reasons. One reason cited was that he's appreciated for daring to sound intelligent and for using good grammar. Yes, yes, yes. I identify with that! Especially the good grammar part.

I also identify with Obama, as I've stated previously, for being close to me in age. I also identifited with Sarah Palin for that reason too, as well as for the way her life path has been similar to mine and to that of many women of our generation, who have "made it up" as we've gone along.

Will Obama be able to change anything or will he merely act as a servant, a quiet Jeeves, to a supra-national capitalist class that is above any national control? Maybe, but I want to believe that Obama's position as President holds power and that he has power in grassroots support. Am I naive?

I agree with those who say that the true Kingdom is built far away from centers of political power. Any thoughts on where we begin or have begun? I ask that because I think when people make those kinds of statements, they can be abstract and others might not know what exactly is being talking about. What are we talking about?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Sacred Compass 6: Helping others and following God

At the end of the Sacred Compass, J. Brent Bill's book about discerning and following the will of God, he urges us to help others on their journeys of discernment. In good Quaker tradition, Brent shows that we need to use our wisdom not to tell people what to do but to help them discover for themselves what God is calling them to do. When we help others discern their leadings from God, we have to carefully listen to our own leadings. If God is telling us insistently to say something to another person, we should do it, even if it makes us uncomfortable. But more often, we need to follow the leading that tells us to keep our mouths shut and listen deeply.

Brent discusses Quaker clearness committees as a way to help discernment. Normally, a person seeking clarity about a leading will call a clearness committee, composed of a few trusted people, who will listen to what the person has to say and ask questions that help the person explore the leading more fully. The idea is not to tell the person what to do, but to support the discernment process.

In the last chapter, Brent talks about obeying God. At its core, following a leading is obeying God, even when you don't understand why you are being asked to do so. Following leadings means trusting the voice of God in your life even when it doesn't make sense.

I struggled for a time with the idea that loving God means more than "having a good feeling" toward God. When I recognized that loving God means obeying God, I recoiled. Obedience was a word I associated with following orders blindly and acquiescing to structures of power because you have no choice. Obedience in my mind was what led to death camps and to people violating their moral precepts to "follow orders." I also associated it with capitulating to the will of a charismatic but twisted leader.

As I continued to read the Bible, however, I discovered that obeying God means something completely different. As usual, Jesus is subverting the language and ways of the world. In the 13th through 17th chapters of the gospel of John the obedience that Jesus stresses is not the same as the world's obedience. Jesus' obedience is surrounded by and saturated with love. It's a free choice: you don't have to obey, but you choose to do so because of the great love and trust you have. You follow because you want to. The closest analogy, as many have pointed out, is a human love relationship. We follow our beloveds to places outside our comfort zone because we want we to be near them and we want to please them. We may not want to do the particular tasks in question, but being close to the beloved is so important, so beneficial and so treasured that anything we do for the beloved is worth the price.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Blenheim Palace and Ham House

In my blog. "Take Heed of Greed," I mentioned Blenheim Palace and Ham House as typical of the type of excess Geroge Fox and other early Quakers might have reacted against. Actually, Blenheim Palace, above, was built circa 1710, so George Fox would not have seen it, as he had died about 20 years earlier. However, many of his younger contemporaries probably would have been aware of it. Ham House, the brick building at the top, was built circa 1610. What do you think? Blenheim Palace is really quite the "pile," (an example of wretched excess) as they used to say, right?

I have to repeat the question, as I think it's THE question: is the covetousness these houses represent inevitable? Can people learn to see them as prisons rather than palaces? How?

Take heed of greed

"And covetousness, which is idolatry ..." (Colossians 3:5)

"And take heed of greediness and earthly mindedness, and covetousness, which the apostle called idolatry; for it is a great spot and blot of the world that lieth in wickedness."

From "Mind the Heavenly Treasure," which offers thoughts of George Fox for every day of the year. This one is for Nov. 15.

Having just witnessed the economic meltdown, attributable mostly to greed, I find Fox's words especially relevant. In fact, having lived for a year in England and been stunned at the size and granduer of some of the great houses, I would have to say greed is a recurrent phenomenom and something which connects us with the earliest Quakers.

Two houses stand out in my mind: the first is Blenheim Palace, home of the Dukes of Marlborough and birthplace of Winston Churchill. I had never seen a place so overwhelmingly grand in my life, not only huge but set like a jewel on thousands of acres of stunningly beautiful English countryside. I remember how huge the rooms were, how tall the ceilings, how everything was on an almost non-human scale. It was somewhat like the palace Charlie Chaplin lives in in the Great Dictator. I remember having a visceral sense of the class system, and I would argue we really have nothing comparable to this home in the United States (or didn't). I also had a sudden realization: Winston Churchill came from the highest of rarified circles. I had a sense of the huge gulf between people like him and people like me. In essence, the palace did what I imagine it was intended to do: it made me feel small and insignificant.

The other great house that struck me was Ham House, located in or near London. It's a much smaller house, more on the scale of grand houses I've seen in the U.S., and growth has surrounded it, so it's not set in the midst of vast acreage. What struck me was the silver everywhere. Because of colonial plunders, the family which owned Ham House had vast amounts of silver. To preserve it, they melted it and had it made into big tables, in part to make the silver difficult to steal. So in the midst of, in the 20th century, a still relatively low standard of living, sat these vastly wasteful tables. I almost couldn't get over it.

Now that I'm a Quaker, it strikes me that both these house were built (or begun) in the late seventeenth century (I will check this out). So Fox and his followers would have seen these monuments to greed in the midst of great poverty. And they would have seen a concentration of wealth making ordinary people feel small. Thinking about this, it's easy to see why they pushed so hard for addressing people as equals and for equality itself.

But let's not dwell on the past. If we heed Fox's advice, how do we steer clear of greed and covetousness. Do we simply have to accept it as inevitable?

Thursday, November 6, 2008


I've spent the last days processing the Presidential election.

I've mostly stayed out of politics in my adult life. I have too many friends across the political spectrum who are sincere, compassionate, thoughtful, intelligent and good people who want with all their hearts to make the world a better place for me to say that my poltical way is the only way. In fact, I've found that regardless of political orientation, most of us have almost identical goals --peace, strong families, prosperity, social justice, caring communities -- but simply believe different paths will get us there faster and more fully. When I understood that, I could no longer hang on to a "my way or no way" political partisanship. (As an aside, it's interesting to note that some of the people I know who are the fiercest advocates of all religions representing different paths up the same mountain would never, ever extend that tolerance or inclusive point of view to people of a different political party or persuasion.)

Despite my apolitical predilection, I got involved in this election, working as a volunteer for the Obama campaign even though I disagreed with him on several issues. I attended training sessions, made phone calls and knocked on doors, asking people to vote for Obama. This is everything I don't like to do. I also don't like to be identified with one politcial party or the other, because I dislike the stereotypes that are associated with party affiliation. I'd rather not be hated or misunderstood over something, that in the end, isn't that important. (Again, this makes me the flip side of people I know who militantly identify with one poltical party but don't want to alienate anybody by adopting a religious affiliation.)

I was not an Obama supporter initially. But even before the economic meltdown, this election seemed to matter more than most. Perhaps, for me, it was simply moving to Ohio that made the difference.

I was grateful when Obama won the election. And when Obama won Ohio, the people I was watching the returns with burst into applause.

I stayed up late to watch Obama's speech, because, as so many have pointed out, this was a historic moment.

I was a bit surprised, however, when the next day all the papers played up the election of the first black President. I'd almost forgotten Obama was black. For me, what made the election historic was the message from the voters that our country needs to head in a whole new direction.

As I watched the election drama, I was struck by the contrast between Obama's acceptance of the Presidency and Clinton's in 1992. I remember the Clintons and the Gores lined up on a makeshift stage together, smiling, holding up their arms and seeming overjoyed and connected to each other as "Don't stop thinking about tomorrow" played in the background. The atmosphere was festive, triumphant and delighted.

In contrast, Obama seemed alone, even when his family was with him. And despite the much larger crowd, Obama appeared more somber than Clinton. Maybe it's the weight of the times we live in, and how bad things are, but Obama seemed on a different plane than other politicians, less frivolous, more conscious of the enormity of the task at hand. For that moment at least, he seemed like a great President, a transcendent President, a Lincoln, a Washington, a messianic figure who could lead us out of Egypt.

That's a lot of weight to carry. He's not a messiah, but how many Americans are pinning those kinds of hopes on him?

When, alerted by the newspapers I turned my attention to him as the first black President, I began to realize what a weight that is to bear, in and of itself. He and Michelle and their daughters already seem to be replacing Martin Luther King Jr. and his family as mythic figures in the black community. When I recognized the levels of reverence towards Obama and his family, I began to fear for him. I hope he will do everything he can do to protect himself.

And while I am trying not to expect too much, I hope he can rise to the occasion and become a great leader. And I continue to be glad to have borne witness to a joyful moment around the world. But what about you? Did you vote for Obama? Do you think Obama can bring the change we need?