Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Birds and reaching out

The other morning, I went to the basement to do laundry. Our cat, Andre, came racing excitedly out of the unfinished, roughed out "bedroom." I looked to see what was going on. Outside of the "bedroom" window, two birds, one bigger and one smaller, were hopping and flapping their wings frantically. They were below ground level, in the little semi-circular space outside the window.

The larger bird managed to hop onto the ground, then hopped right back into the semicircular hole. I didn't know if he was being a bird brain or trying to show the other bird how to get out. The other bird continued to hop and flap, but was unable to rise from the hole.

I considered trying to save the smaller bird, but thought, he's close to getting out, and I'll just scare him. However, when I went back down to check laundry, he was still there, desperately flapping, and his companion was gone. (As a bit of background, due to some early childhood experiences, I tend to be frightened of animals.)

OK, I thought, I'll find something to scoop him up with. So I put on my coat, found a basket and small wastecan and headed towards the side of the house. I realized my reluctance to do this was not so much that I knew I would scare the bird half to death as that I would end up being startled by his unpredictable movements. My experience in these cases is that a bird will sit very still, then all of sudden start flapping and flying crazily at you, so you have to brace yourself for the commotion.

When I circled around to the side of the house, the bird was gone. I scooped out all the leaves in front of the submerged window, but no bird was among them, dead or alive. I could only imagine hearing me coming had terrified him enough to give him the adrenaline surge he needed to escape. Needless to say, I was relieved.

It occurred to me as I got involved in this bird salvation mission, that one of the things I I fear most is fear in others. I would rather avoid an encounter with a fearful animal or human that could veer into something unpredictable, into a great flapping of wings flying at me at any moment, into an encounter with chaos and misunderstanding, than get involved.

However, I also realized that when I can't avoid it, I will act. It would have been a bungle, but I would have gotten the bird free. So I am trying to remember that even awkward acts to reach out are better than doing nothing. I am trying to keep to a mindset of reaching out. So my question is, how do you overcome your fear of the other -whatever is other to you--enough to act? How do you allow yourself to be vulnerable?

Words that have power

I have had some difficulties again posting to my blog, so I am a little behindhand! But here goes:

Third month (March) 29, From "Mind the Heavenly Treasure," a devotional based on the writings of Quakerism's founder, George Fox:

"Walk as children of the light," Ephesians 5:8

"... keep close to the light in you, and do not look forth at words that proceed from a vain and light mind; but at the power of words. For the words of God, that proceed from him, are powerful and mighty in operation."

As I was pondering Fox's words, I received a Quaker Ranter post quoting from Luke:

"But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again ... Give and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom" (I've also read "lap" for bosom)


" ... why call ye me, Lord, Lord and do not the things which I say? Whosoever cometh to me and heareth my sayings, and doeth them ... He is like a man which built a house, and digged deep, and laid the foundation upon a rock. But he that heareth, and doeth not, is like a man that without a foundation built an house upon the earth; against which the stream did beat vehemently, and immediately fell; and the ruin of that house was great."

Are there words today having power for you?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Reading the Bible in 20 months:violence

One thing that struck me while reading the Bible straight through during a 20 month (supposedly one year) period was how saturated it is in violence. The levels of violence are truly mind-boggling, from Jael hammering a tent peg through an enemy's head to mass slaughter, genocide, murder, mass murder, rape, child sacrifice (this is after Solomon, when the Israelites have lost their moorings), mutilation ... the head reels after a time.

Most, if not all, of the revered figures in the Old or First Testament, are violent: Moses murders a man, Saul slaughters the Amalekites, David kills people for insbordination at the slightest provocation, slaughters his enemies, has his friend killed so he can marry his wife ... Elijah kills the 450 priests of Baal .... To be a player, a leader, as opposed to a prophet or observer like Isaiah, almost inevitably seems to involve hair-raisingly barbarous behavior.

And then, in the New Testament, it stops. Jesus is clearly a player, not a prophet, and is explicitly embedded in a Moses-David-Elijah narrative. He's seen as the second David, the new Messiah. Yet he is nothing like anyone who came before. I don't think I "got" this fully until I read the Bible straight through. People often point to Jesus' throwing the moneylenders out of the Temple with a whip of knotted cords as proof that he was willing to engage in violence, but this action is nothing, nothing!!, in comparison to do his predecessors. Not one person is killed and nobody, apparently, is serioulsy injured. In fact, it's possible nobody was injured at all. Jesus scares people and knocks over tables, scattering a crowd. After the bloodbath of the Old Testament, this is like tapping someone on the shoulder and asking them politely to leave to room.

So in the New Testament, we get a new thing. Jesus' story, at the end of his life, is saturated in ultra-violence, but none of it is his doing. He is the willing sacrificial victim, modeling a new way of confronting violence and oppression. After his death and resurrection, his followers are also dogged by violence. We especially remember Stephen's stoning. Paul is pursued in violent ways. But as we proceed through the New Testament, we see the newness. Rather than being preoccupied with violence and how to protect and defend against violent aggressors (which is what most of the Old Testament is about, with the Jehovah God central to that protection), the New Testament shifts to focus on building a nonviolent community based on love, equality, integrity, compassion and imitation of Christ. The violence is out there, but it becomes increasingly peripheral to the concerns of this new community living a new covenant. It's not through the New Testament, but through other historical accounts that we learn that Paul is beheaded, Peter and Andrew apparently crucified, many ordinary Christ followers killed by the state in gruesome ways. These are not the central concerns of the New Testament writers. They are concerned with how to live out Jesus' gospel of love. It is stunning.

How did this happen? If you have read the Bible straight through, have you had illuminations?

Is this a twitter?

Good arguments in favor of nonviolence at cramercomments.blogspot.com.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

On Family photos

Someone recently asked me why I don't have a photo of Sophie on the blog. It has been on my mind since the photo of me with the boys went up that I need pix of Sophie and Roger, so that it doesn't look as if I'm effacing half the family. I just haven't done it yet. This is because Sophie lives on campus (a whole stone's throw away!) which means she's harder to get hold of than the boys, who live in the house with us. Sophie has a busy, structured life. Also getting to her means peeling her away from her boyfriend, no mean feat!

While it crossed my mind that the Sophie-less photo didn't "look" good, ironically, I think if I were worried about Sophie feeling left out, I would have been more scrupulous about appearances. In other words, being openly dysfunctional (I suppose if I were fully functional I would have gotten that pix up by now!) probably is more functional than trying to hide it. As it is, I find Sophie an amazing, beautiful and high-spirited 17 year old. She is a remarkable and well-loved (by me and others!) person.

I asked Sophie about posing in a photo with me. She is glad to be included on the blog but has been in no rush to be photographed. So we will get this moving along ... soon, I hope!

And as for Roger--love him too, good marriage, etc, even if he's not currently in a blog photo.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Remembering Agnes: A Lesson in Nonviolence

Recently, Jack Hoeffer, who I met at my recent Quaker retreat, sent me a pamplet about Margaret Hope Bacon, a Quaker and a conscientious objector during World War II. The pamphlet is a reprint of a portion of her book, "Love is the Hardest Lesson."

Margaret, her husband, Allen, and several other Quakers were sent to Springfield State Hospital in Sykesville, Maryland in 1944 to work in the tuberculosis ward and with what were then called mental patients. The work was difficult, but made more so by the hostility of coworkers who saw the conscientious objectors as cowards.

Agnes started in the tubercular ward but was transferred to work with the mentally ill and assigned one of the worst patients, Agnes. Agnes was violent and spent most of her time locked naked in a cell because she would rip her clothes off. Margaret would bathe her, dress her and care for her. Although she could not communicate with Agnes, who was in her own world, Margaret found working with Agnes the highlight of her day.

After a time, Margaret grew discouraged and questioned the power of love and her belief in "that of God" in every human when she met with relentless anger and hostility in the workplace, as well as manipulative behavior and cruelty in the wards. It was difficult for Margaret and the other COs to participate in subduing mental patients who resisted electric shock therapy. Some COs, hearing about the German concentration camps, joined the army, which also caused Margaret to question her moral stand as a CO.

As she puts it, "I knew I could not go on with this life I had chosen, a life based on the premise that human could learn to live with one another in peace, until I began to have a little faith in the good inherent in the human race, and in myself as well. I kept seeing only the worst in myself and others ... I needed to believe, I thought; and though I was not very adept at praying in those days, I prayed for a sign."

Yet Margaret found several occurences redemptive. First, the mental patients responded well to the lack of fear and friendly interest of the COs. Where it had once taken five men to run a ward, soon three or four--and sometimes two-- COs could be left in charge. Further, when Agnes had a lobotomy and afterwards was able to speak coherently for the first time in 22 years, she talked about Margaret as her only friend. Bacon writes the following:

"... wave after wave of reaction swept over me. The love I felt for Agnes because she had helped me overcome my fear. Perfect love had cast out fear instead of the reverse. I hadn't known before that, imperfect as I was, I could be the channel of such love."

I'm interested in stories about conscientious objectors during World War II, because unlike the Viet Nam conflict, that war had the almost full support of every American. As a result, their stories tend to be quite moving. More importantly, I believe that nonviolence is at the heart of what Jesus modeled and that violence is what he overcame. Of course, I'm a Quaker, so I would think that, and I know this blog is likely to be read by other Quakers. But I wonder what people think? What do you think of people who refused to fight in that war? Is the "inherent goodness in people" the right reason not to go to war?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Finding Vocation

"The vocation for you is one in which your deep gladness and the world's need meet--something that not only makes you happy but that the world needs to have done."
Frederick Buechner, from Bill Brent's Web site.

I seem to be blogging more frequently these days about job and vocation, perhaps because of the current collapse of the newspaper industry, where for some years I'd found a career, an outlet for my energies, a home, a way to earn a living and an opportunity to serve. Being at a crossroads now, with only a very slim amount of freelance writing, I am curious about how other people (re) find vocation. Have others been in the situation of finding a career they loved collapsing around them for reasons outside of their control? How do we find a new vessel for doing what we are called to? What do you think of Buechner's quote? How do we find that happy marriage of service and joy when our way of doing it no longer supports us economically?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Flagged for content?

This blog is now running a notice along the top that it's been flagged for objectionable content. Since I am careful to avoid objectionable content (whatever that means), does anyone know how I get rid of this label?

To go to retreats or stay home?

Recently, I attended a retreat at Friends House in Barnesville called "Speaking about Christ among Liberal Friends." While I found the retreat rich and meaningful, I came away unsettled. In this particular case, I had been led by the retreat's title to think that I would learn a vocabulary for expressing Christian faith to universalist Friends without offending them. This is important to me, because I do often unintentionally offend non-Christians with my language, and I don't want to do that. I also don't wish to use a vocabulary that is misleading about my own experience.

However, despite the term "speaking," this retreat was not about developing a vocabulary for talking to individual Friends but about infusing Christlike practices into our community. That was actually a deeper and richer topic--I especially liked the emphasis on community--but I wished the retreat had been named something like "Infusing Christ's ways into our communities" rather than "Speaking about Christ among Liberal Friends." As it was, I went out on a limb, because this subject is close to me, and thus I was more self-revelatory and vulnerable than I needed to be about my pain over the Christian/Universalist divide. I ended up feeling a bit unsettled at the end, in that I didn't need to say everything I said.

So good as this retreat was, I wondered about spending so much time in worship sharing that asked people what they wanted from the weekend, heard it and then basically said "OK, but this is what I came to tell you." Why not start at the end point, which is what I described in my prior post? Why not say "this is what I have to tell you" and move forward from there? Then there would not, for me, have been such a disconnect between the retreat's title and content. Especially when what Brian had to say was so good and helpful!!

The retreat also inadvertently made me more sensitive to the feelings of non-Christians, as the word "sin" was used at one point in a not helpful way. I could understand for the first time, not having been raised in a fundamentalist environment, how one could want to flee that kind of judging Christian discourse.

On a bigger picture note, I think I passed the point sometime ago where it's fruitful for me to sit in retreats talking about things. For some, they are the perfect place to be on the journey, but for me, at this point, I think need to be out more actively serving. Often the talk just saddens me, and seems to come out of ego, my own as much as anyone else's. Now I have no problem with ego--I don't think self-emptying into an egoless state is particularly healthy--but on the other hand, when too many people come already "knowing," it can be difficult to break through to the ostensibly desired "authentic" conversation. I tried to push through to that during the weekend, but felt I ended up disrupting an experience people had already decided was supposed to be a certain way. However, I did meet some wonderful, wonderful people, such as Gordon from Canada and Jack from Knoxville (among others).

I am curious about other people's experience with retreats and conferences and such like gatherings? Do you find them helpful? Disturbing? How do you cope when you begin to feel unsettled?

Retreat: "Speaking About Christ Among Liberal Friends."

I attended a recent retreat at the Morland House in Barnesville, led by Brian Drayton, called "Speaking About Christ Among Liberal Friends."

Near the end of the retreat, Brian asked the question: What are the aspects of the Christ life that are unique and have community dimensions? He answered as follows:

1. Nature of the Gethsemane experience. This is faithfulness without hope, when, like Jesus, you can't see at the moment the end result of your suffering. Drayton also called it "risk taking."

2. Canaanite woman story: In this story, Jesus at first refuses to heal, then is taught by the Canaanite. Drayton called it "teaching by being teachable."

3. Thankfulness--gratitude for blessings. This is not uniquely Christian, but a good thing to infuse into our church or worship groups.

4. The attitude of the footwashing: the teacher serving the student. Servant leadership.

5. The "foolishness" of the gospel: a willingness to follow a leading even if it feels naive or foolish to do so. The ability to risk looking ridiculous.

For living in Christlike community, Drayton suggested:

Following concerns that are prompted by the Holy Spirit.

Practicing conflict resolution. Settle conflicts rapidly.

Affirming gifts. Hold the group in prayer.

If I remember the Abbess's blog correctly, she advocates many of the same things. Now I am curious: What do you think about Brian's list of unique Christian characteristics that can be applied to community? Can you think of others? Do you have practical examples of implementing any of these?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


"The vocation for you is one in which your deep gladness and the world's need meet--something that not only makes you happy but that the world needs to have done."
Frederick Buechner, from Bill Brent's Web site.

I seem to be blogging more frequently these days about job and vocation, perhaps because of current collapse of the newspaper industry, where for some years I found a career I loved, an outlet for my energies, a home, a way to earn a living and an opportunity to serve. Being at a crossroads now, with only a very slim freelance writing career, I am curious about how other people find vocation. Have others been in the situation of finding a career they loved collapsing? How do you find a new vessel for doing what you are called to? What do you think of Buechner's quote? How do we find that happy marriage of service and joy when our way of doing it suddenly no longer supports us economically?

Jobs, jobs, jobs

I keep running across the theme of the "better-than-expected job." Shawna's job at McDonald's comes to mind (a link to her Mystics, Poets and Fools blog is to the right), as does a recent article I read in the New York Times about a freelance writer who took a part-time job in retail sales to keep her "sanity" and ended up loving it more than she imagined. And then there's me, enjoying my college English teaching much beyond expectation.

The recession seems to be a time when people are reevaluating jobs, probably because they have to. I've heard adjunct college teaching touted as a great job (not really, unless you can live without benefits or job security) and plumbing (can't be outsourced to a foreign country) as long you don't mind spending time around the toilet. What about you? Have you or are you working in a job that's surprisingly less odious than you imagined? Are you contemplating such a move? Do you know of people in "unusual" jobs? Does this recession seem like a good time to explore the unusual?

Simplicity: the New Excess ... and men at home?

Since I can't seem to comment on my blog, I wanted to say hello to Lisa and Ted. Good to hear from you both.

I read a newspaper story about Atlanta socialites embracing simplicity as a "spiritual path" during this recession. They're wearing 10-year-old dresses and saving their money. Now, to me, in these times, such sudden frugality seems more sin than spirit. Now's a good time for those who have wealth to circulate it--thoughtfully--through the economy. This may mean a shift from the $5,000 handbag to supporting the local hurting charity or to installing some green technology into the mansion, but the rich, imho, need to do some spending. Do you agree?

I do hope our society of unsustainable excess does embrace simplicity as a result of this latest economic upheaval. I read somewhere that unemployment is hitting men harder than women, in part because contracting industries, such as construction, employ men more heavily than women. I wonder if, with fewer jobs, we'll got back to the one wage earner family? It seems, at least from stories in the newspaper, that a lot of families are keeping from disaster (as long as they bought their houses at the right time, didn't take out big home equity loans and didn't run up credit cards) because one spouse is still working. There's simply a lot less disposable income.

It's interesting to speculate what the world would look like if women become the primary breadwinners. How do you think men would contribute in that scenario? Do you think they would take over childcare and home-cooked meals? Or help the family economy in some other way, so the family could continue to go out for pizza?

Monday, March 2, 2009

Gone with the Wind

The New York Times ran a review of a new book about Gone With the Wind, called “Frankly my Dear: Gone with the Wind Revisited,” by Molly Haskell --www.nytimes.com/2009/03/01/books/review/White-t.html -- that defends the novel and its film incarnation.

I think it’s true that women from my mother’s generation --like my mother -- avidly admired Scarlett for her spirit and her “masculine” ability to fight the odds and survive. They admired her willingness to flout the rules and do what she wanted, which must have been deeply vicariously satisfying in times of greater social constraint. They also, I have to say, admired her willingness to push aside loving, nurturing motherhood as central to her existence in favor of a more robust engagement with the wider world. They also appreciated her sharp tongue and her willingness to tell people what she thought. In a word, Scarlett was a rebel. At the same time, she was a narcissistic rebel without a shred of interest in generalized do gooding: Whether it was to dance a reel or accept a new hat, she rebelled to make life better for herself.

So yes, I would say that for a generation of women (at least some) who came of age in the 1940s and 1950s, Scarlett represented a deep, rich well of water from which they could drink, an (unconventionally) beautiful girl-woman who was the vicarious fulfillment of their fantasies.

However ... fairly recently, I watched the movie with a group of students, some of whom had never seen it before. Some of the girls were taken with Scarlett’s spirit of survival. I was struck, however, with how much this was a film about the Depression, not the Civil War. Of course this book, published in 1936 and made into a movie in 1939, became a blockbuster. It replayed for people, at a safe distance, their own recent experience of devastating financial upheaval. After all, the war, despite a few powerful, dramatic scenes, is largely peripheral or a plot device -- this is a movie about survival when the economic rug has been violently pulled out from under you.

On this latest viewing, I was also struck by how much Mammy is the moral center of the drama. She has a common sense, decency and grace that none of the other characters can attain. Certainly not Scarlett, with her vanity, star persona, unscrupulousness, hot temper and overwhelming, greedy sense of entitlement. Certainly not Melanie, damaged as she is by the ideology of honor and the Old South, willing to condone Ku Klux Klan murders to uphold a flawed social order, starry-eyed about motherhood to the point she dies in the attempt to have a second child. Certainly not Ashley, with his longing for the happy slave days on the plantation, his self-absorption, his misguided sense of nobility, his weakness, nor Rhett, with his cruel streak and tragic fantasy that he can bend reality to suit the whims of his young daughter.

But Mammy. She survives without the calculating, clawing manipulations of Scarlett, somehow always serene, always the same. The war may have changed Scarlett, and it might have turned both Ashley and Melanie into self-righteous killers, but it flows around Mammy, leaving her as unscathed as a rock. She remains who she is. She sees people for what they are -- and remains filled with compassion for them. She’s not damaged by lofty notions or an overblown sense of self and destiny. She has fewer highfalutin' ideals than the others, and yet does more day-to-day good than anyone else in the film. The moral high point of the movie may be when she calls Rhett and Scarlett mules in horse clothing ... and when, nevertheless, she accepts from Rhett the gift of red taffeta petticoat. She takes it freely: Mammy is one character you know can never be bought. She is the one character, even more so than Melanie, who does nothing but good for other people. Without her, where would any of them be?

I think we miss seeing Mammy as the moral center, the exemplar, the model of the good in the film, because she’s a slave/former slave and because we take her to be a stock character providing a combination of nurture and comic relief. We see her as acted upon rather than acting. But nobody, in the end, acts upon Mammy except in the most superficial ways. She’s deeply, deeply centered, her depths unknowable. She has the stillness of a Quaker. You know from all her actions that she cares more about people than about things and can always be trusted. Going from slave to free hardly ruffles her, because, you know, whatever her legal status, that she owns she her own soul.

Mammy is played in order to comfort whites that blacks are there for them and want nothing more than to care for them. But Mammy should disturb us. She’s an ever present critique of the damaging and childish histrionics of the main characters. They misunderstand her as they rely on her. She represents something completely different. She is where the real survival occurs, quiet, without drawing attention to itself, unseen but in plain sight, doing what needs to be done.

Frankly my Dear also mentioned the perpetual adolescence of Scarlett. That’s a contrast to Mammy, who is perpetually the adult, perpetually wise, more of a mother to Scarlett than the ephemeral, and ultimately useless Ellen. But it also bring to mind the childlike quality of Bella, the protagonist of the bestselling Twilight series vampire books (I just read this book and was somewhat horrified). What is it about childlike characters that attracts us?