Wednesday, July 29, 2009

"59 is the new 30"

In his column "59 is the new 30" in today's New York Times, Thomas Friedman writes about Tom Watson, who at 59 almost won the British Open, a golf tournament.

The gist of Friedman's column is that Watson, a man with a hip replacement and an apparently less than buff body, is an inspiration.

As I have entered into my 50s, I have met many people my age who still feel as if they were 30. I do too. Like many Baby Boomers, I met 50 with a sense of unreality--how could this be happening to me? But what is this "this" but a frame of mind?

Though I don't follow golf, the Friedman column struck me, because, in my work on girls' series literature, I have recently talked with the husband of the late Marcia Martin, author of the Donna Parker series. At the age of 65, after completing a very successful career in publishing, he pursued a lifelong dream and earned a law degree. Now, in his 80s, he is still practicing law. I find that courage and faith on his part to complete a law degree in his 60s inspirational. It's particularly timely as I ponder "unfinished" educational business in my life, such as my dissertation, and wonder if "it's worth it" to finish it.

What we need to do is not try to parse the future, but follow where we're led, remembering we worship a God of abundance, not scarcity. How can we predict how much time we have? As the Biblical James said "you do not even know what will happen tomorrow." It is as much hubris to decide we won't have enough time as it is to assume we'll do something or be someplace next year.

"What Tom did last week was an affirmation of life," Friedman writes in his column, quoting someone quoting Leonard Bernstien. Indeed. I thought about the Bible too and the words about our sleep being multiplied, being given the wings of eagles and about love banishing fear. What do you think?

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Dorothy Day

I'm reading "The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day," edited by Robert Ellsberg. I have long been interested in the Catholicism and social justice leadings that led Day to publish the Catholic Worker and join in the struggle for worker's rights, so I am glad to have this book in hand. Can you think of people who are contemporary incarnations of Day? Who would you list?

In the book's introduction, Ellsberg quotes Day on writing, a timely contribution to the debate on blogging:

"Writing is an act of community. It is a letter, it is comforting, consoling, helping, advising on our part, as well as asking it [advice] on yours. It is part of our human association with each other. It's an expression of our love and concern for each other."


Friday, July 24, 2009

Are they different paths up the same mountain?

Many have said to me that all religions are simply "different paths up the same mountain." We're all on a journey that ends up in the same place. I'd love to move beyond this way of thinking.

I have heard this metaphor often, frequently said as a counter to a Christian claim that only way to God (up the mountain) is through Jesus Christ.

My experience has been that while I deeply respect devout people of other faiths, I don't feel I have exactly the "same" religious experience or understanding as them.

But are all paths equal, even if different?

I think not. The truism that we are all on "different paths up the same mountain" can be countered with the truism that "the journey is the reward." As apartheid has shown us, separate but equal doesn't work. Seeking the same goal is not enough. The path we take changes us and forms us. How we perceive God on the top of the mountain will in part be determined by how the journey has strengthened and/or weakened us, how we have dealt with obstacles on our path and the place on the mountain at which we arrive. We may be glimpsing the same God but, because of our different paths, our understandings of God will be different.

All religions are not the same and because of that, I wish we would look more critically at the "different paths" metaphor. The major religions may share many major precepts, including a belief in lovingkindness and charity, but that does not make them identical to each other. They have different histories and have intersected with different cultures. Each of the major religions also has fundamental differences from the others. Buddhism and Christianity have similarities but Buddhism has no concept of God and Christianity has a strong concept of a loving and involved creator God. Buddhists, as I understand, believe we must self-empty of all illusions, even the illusion that love holds the universe together. After that, in resignation, Buddhists act in loving charity. Christians believe that God is love and that love does hold the universe together as the strongest of all forces. Jews share many many beliefs with Christians, but do not believe Jesus was more than a great teacher. Muslims revere Jesus, but only as a prophet. The list could go on. These are not "minor" details.

I worry that some people who think "all religions are the same" will, metaphorically speaking, spend their time at the bottom of the mountain, transferring from path to path as soon as the going gets tough, convinced there is an easy way up the mountain. I have read of people who want an "easy, beautiful" faith--my favorite example is the famous playwright's daughter, who, after rejecting the patriarchy of Judaism, had herself and her husband-to-be helicoptered in for a few hours to an Indian reservation to be married. Native American spirituality, she declared, was more pure and meaningful than Judaism.

At least for an afternoon.

I know that people use the different paths metaphor as a gentler approach to religion than what they perceive as Christian exclusivism. I agree that saying "Jesus Christ is my personal savior" is not a magic mantra to guarantee a place in the Kingdom of God. In the first place, saying an incantation is a form of magic and magic--the attempt to control God--is utterly contrary to the teachings of the Bible, which specifically counsel subordination of our wills to God's will. Second, Jesus himself said that he would not recognize many who came to him crying Lord, Lord. In another story, he points out that he (or she) who does God's will is the obedient servant, not the person who says he will and doesn't.

I think that the "same paths" metaphor must come from the modernist view that wants to classify and compare all religions as if they were flora, and which wants to get the uncomfortable miracle and mystery out of religious faith. This method purports to boil religions down to their "essence" and hopes this will allow us to live in harmony. Of course, this way of looking at the world and religion was devised by white European men, usually from prestigious universities--in other words, the wishful view of an elite. But as history has shown, you can't distill faith down to a set of principles. Better to reject "different paths" and embrace the differences that separate us--and love each other all the same.

Why do you think the "different paths up the same mountain" metaphor is so popular, when it so easily falls apart under scrutiny? What could we replace it with?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

On Gratitude

A memory has been plaguing me for the last few months of a man standing up in Quaker meeting for worship to speak about his gratitude to God for all the good things in his life.

The man was humble and sincere. He was giving the glory to God.

And yet ...

I was troubled then and continue to be troubled by him, because this man's gratitude was individual and personal. While he was in no way trying to flaunt his good fortune, the whole focus of his gratitude was on himself. He was grateful for all the good things that God rained down on him in particular, all the good blessings that God had favored him with. Again, that's fine. But I couldn't help thinking that perhaps there were people listening who didn't feel quite so blessed. Maybe they were dealing with cancer or a loved one sick or dying or financial problems or divorce. How was this person's message, which, although he did not intend it to, boiled down to "look how lucky I am," help people who didn't feel so graced?

I thought too, of what I heard once--perhaps misheard?--that some Anglicans were upset with the revised 1979 Book of Common Prayer, which is the basis of their worship, because some collective responses were changed from "we" to "I," as in "I believe in..." rather than "We believe in." At the time, I couldn't understand how such a little change could cause such outrage, but now I think I do.

The outraged people, perhaps, recognized that we're not a collection of little "mes" worshipping side by side, but ideally aiming at becoming a "we," a body that transcends the individual self. We are part of something bigger that reaches back in time to tradition, forward in time to leave a better world to posterity and in the present all part of each other What good is my good fortune, if it's not shared with those around me? The world wants us to strive to be those special people who everyone else looks at with envy, to feel separate from and better than the mass of humanity. This can seep into our spiritual lives: We can long to be those people whom everyone looks at and says 'I want want he/she has' spiritually. God had, however, has something much different in mind, which is focus on others. How can I break my bread, so to speak, so that others can share what I have, so that eventually we can each feed 5,000? How can I expand my gratitude so that it encompasses my neighbor?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

My second blog

I have started a new blog at, called" Donna Parker, Jane Austen Nancy Drew Emily Bronte." As I write there, that blog hopes to be "the place where great women literary writers and their creations meet with girls' series books and their authors on level ground."

I thought long and hard before starting a second blog. I considered having a section of this blog devoted to discussing literature or simply moving back and forth between the two topics on this blog as the spirit moved me, but in the end decided that faith/Quakerism and girls'/women's literature were too dissimilar to mash together into one blog. Not that one doesn't inform the other, but I saw different audiences and different emphases.

I struggled with having two blogs because part of the reason I came to Quakerism was to be intergrated--to live as one person with all the strands of my life pulled together. Somehow, that seemed to me to translate into one blog. Apparently not.

I'm in an odd position right now--I plan to attend Earlham School of Religion next year, to earn an Mdiv with a emphasis on writing ministry, while I find myself more and more drawn back to Jane Austen and the Brontes. How this will all merge, I don't know. Right now, I feel somewhat bifurcated. It's also interesting to be in a position in midlife when the career I'd come to belatedly --journalism--is collapsing, and the future has the quality of discovering a new world.

I imagine people to have lives all revolving around the sun of one interest. Then I think of figures like Dorothy Sayers and JRR Tolkien, who juggled a faith life and a literary life.

I know there are some Quakers, especially Conservative, who would question any interest in the arts. However, I was reading Nancy Drew and Jane Austen long before Quakerism became a part of my life. I was formed in the kiln of reading and the best thing I can do now is to try to understand how that influenced me and others. We can't escape that we live in a media- and image-saturated world. The only alternative is to try to become Amish (or join some similar group) and I know that I, for one, would still carry around with me a lifetime of media sounds and images, from the Addams Family theme to reproductions of Da Vinci's The Last Supper. In the end, I remember too that the Bible is a work of poetry, prose visions and music (if we see the Psalms, for example, as songs) and that we experience God's creative power, as people often point out, through the arts.

My question, however, is this: Do you balance or juggle diifferent interests or vocations that seem to mesh imperfectly, and how does that work for you and your faith life?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Tom Wright on Episcopals and gay question

Tom Wright, Bishop of Durham and one of the foremost Biblical scholars, wrote the following piece on the Episcopal Church's decision to move forward in recognizing gay unions, despite warnings from the Anglican Communion not to do so: What do you think of his stance on sexuality?

Wright writes in his piece:

"The appeal to justice as a way of cutting the ethical knot in favour of including active homosexuals in Christian ministry simply begs the question. Nobody has a right to be ordained: it is always a gift of sheer and unmerited grace. The appeal also seriously misrepresents the notion of justice itself, not just in the Christian tradition of Augustine, Aquinas and others, but in the wider philosophical discussion from Aristotle to John Rawls. Justice never means “treating everybody the same way”, but “treating people appropriately”, which involves making distinctions between different people and situations. Justice has never meant “the right to give active expression to any and every sexual desire”."

What do you think of justice as "treating people appropriately" rather than "treating everybody the same?"

Mind the Heavenly Treasure: Out of the Kingdom

"And the disciples were filled with joy, and with the Holy Ghost," Acts, 13:15

"Keep in the power of the Lord; for if you lose that, you lose the kingdom that stands in power and peace and righteousness, and joy in the Holy Ghost; for out of the Kingdom is strive, and no peace." George Fox.

From "Mind the Heavenly Treasure: Thoughts for each day from the Scriptures and the eight volumes of the writings of George Fox," compiled by Gary Boswell.

Questions: How would you define "the power of the Lord?"

I grew up with the Holy Spirit called the Holy Ghost. Why do you think Holy Spirit is now the common usage and what differences are there between "spirit" and "ghost?"

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Do we pit Quaker children against Quaker education?

Do we pit Quaker children against Quaker education?

Ann wrote the following comment:

"I was told that to favor Quaker children, by offering them places first, and scholarships (for Quakers only) was against the equality testimony. Well, I'm trying to wrap my head about elite schools that cost more than college (well over five figures) meshing with simplicity!

Plus, a family with a stay at home parent was penalized when evaluating the need for financial aid. They were given an amount they 'could' be making, if they worked.

It's funny. Quakers have such difficulty with outreach, for fear of turning people off, or being pushy, or attracting the wrong sorts of people (not genuine 'seekers', might get some simple folk who just like the message) and so on, but they also have problems supporting a FULL Quaker lifestyle, including education."

What do you think? This post resonated with me, because, frankly, it sounded familiar. I know most Quaker schools charge what they do because, the way the system is currently set up, they have to. They also often (but not always!) lack the big endowments that allow liberal disbursement of scholarships. But still I can't help but see a conflict between the Quaker testimony of simplicity and the high cost of a Quaker education.

Sometimes when someone mentions that the high price of a Quaker education excludes some Quaker children, someone else will bring up the need to charge high tuitions to pay teachers a decent wage. Since most Quakers don't approve of exploiting workers and as nobody wants to look selfish and say, "I don't care how much teachers make as long as my child gets a Quaker education," teacher pay usually stops the conversation.

Clearly, we do want to pay educators as well as we can. And from what I can tell, because of the way the system is currently set up, most Quaker schools charge what they do as a matter of survival.

However, I can't help but think that rather than set parents and teaching staff in opposition, there must be a way to find a "win-win" solution.

I'm very sympathetic to the plight of Quaker schools. Having been "up close and personal" with one for almost a year, I know that they're, at least in one case, running on slim margins and need tuition money to survive.

How can we balance the needs? How important is it to make Quaker education affordable for Quaker families?

First, I've seen very few people embrace simplicity without lowering their incomes. High-pressure, high-paying jobs are seldom compatible with a simple heart. Often, one way or another, what people do when they embrace simplicity is free up time for themselves so they can serve. John Woolman is a good example of this. Yet, it appears as if at least one Quaker school wanted to penalize parents who were living on one income. I can understand a family in which the non-working spouse took a job to pay for Quaker education feeling it was unfair to give financial aid to a family that didn't do the same, but I also have to wonder at system that pressures people to take on a second job. It seems to buy into the notion that the answer to everything is to earn (or get) more money. And why stop at valuing in the cost of what a spouse "could make?" Why not penalize the two-income families that have not chosen the highest-paying use of their educations? Why not penalize the lawyer working for a social services agency who "could" be making five times as much in corporate law? Or the medical researcher trying to find a cure for cancer who "could" have become a plastic surgeon at a far higher rate of pay?

Assuming they can, should Quaker school cut amenities to become more affordable? Should they offer a preference to Quaker children in scholarship money? Where does the true value of a Quaker education lie?

Mind the Heavenly Treasure: George Fox speaks

"Those that say they abide in Jesus ought also to walk even as he walked." 1 John 2:6

"Now the practical part is called for. People must not be always talking and hearing, but they must come into obedience to the great power of the great God of heaven and earth." George Fox.

From "Mind the Heavenly Treasure: Thoughts for each day from the Scriptures and the eight volumes of the writings of George Fox," compiled by Gary Boswell.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Home from Vacation

I returned Friday evening from a trip to Lake Michigan with my almost-15 year old twins, Nick and Will. We stayed with friends in Glenn and visited South Haven, Saugatuck and Holland. The weather was ideal and the area was beautiful. I especially loved Saugatuck, an artist's colony of brightly painted frame homes, little shops and restaurants and many gardens. South Haven was a treat too, and we enjoyed the beach by Lake Michigan.

Like many East Coasters, my friends in Glenn and I marveled at midwestern places. Doug, one of our hosts and a Maryland native too, compared South Haven to what a Maryland beach resort might have been like 60 years ago. At first, I didn't understand what he was talking about as I walked around a bright and up-to-date downtown, but then I "got" it: no high rise condos or hotels, no tangle of traffic, no mobs of people. It was a pretty and prosperous-seeming place filled with framed cottages and small inns and hotels. We found parking easily and while, at the height of the season, it was definitely not empty, it was not overcrowded either. It was liveable, manageable, human scaled. I was a little surprised, as it is only about an hour and a half (I'm told) from Chicago and a watering hole for people from that city.

Anyway, we love the midwest. We were able to take a long, quiet canoe ride down the Allegan River and see the windmill in Holland, home of Hope College.

However, Barnesville also felt like home when we got here. After 11 months, it feels as if we live here and are not shell-shocked squatters. We're finally enjoying our acre of lawn. Roger hung the hammock and the boys built a swing. Last night, their friend came over and they all went swimming in the lake down the hill from our house. Because Quaker Music Camp is taking place at the school, we often here beautiful music drifting up the hill to our house.

In Michigan, our hosts commented "it's not the place, it's the people" that make you feel at home. I knew what they were saying--as their older generation of Michigan relatives die, our friends feel less drawn to travel 12 hours to their summer home in Glenn. By the same token, we miss the people back home in Maryland. On the other hand, a place can draw you.

I wonder what you think? I continue to be interested in the question of heimlich or homelikeness, and what makes a place a home. I would maintain its more than just people. But what else is it?

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Fourth of July

Bill Samuel published a link to an article questioning the need for the American Revolution--not the need for independence but the need to pursue it violently-- at

I think the article was pretty good, although I would argue that the author may have overstated the class issue: Common causes can allow people to transcend class, and there is absolutely no way the American class system was or is as rigid as the British. But that point aside, the larger question of whether a violent revolution, ie, a war, was needed to achieve independence from England is a good one to ask.

A few years ago, our family vacationed in Concord, Massachusetts. While we went there because of interest in Louisa May Alcott and Thoreau, we also visited the monuments and the museum dedicated to the battles of Lexington and Concord which kicked off the American Revolution in 1775.

What struck me most as I followed the events leading up to the battles was how primed for fighting the Americans were. The British, in contrast, seemed to be trying hard to avoid a violent conflict. My memory of the history in the museum is fuzzy, but apparently the Americans were so ready to go battle that they misinterpreted an explosion they heard as a British attack, and massed for battle, then shot at British troops, killing four soldiers before the British, in exasperation, returned fire.

I came away thinking, wait a minute, none of this ever had to happen and who exactly was the aggressor, at least in the micro-events on the eve of these battles? The Americans. They may have had legitimate grievances but they (we) are the actors who forced the bloodshed. And I took this away from a museum exhibit that could not have been more patriotic and sympathetic to the American side. The facts seemed to glaringly contradict the glowing narrative they were embedded in.

I am glad the United States became independent from England, but I wish we would examine more the idea that there might have been alternative routes to that independence. Does it threaten our patriotism to examine whether we could have achieved our goals peacefully?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Peace and Goring

Here is the quote from Göring:

"'Why, of course, people don’t want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally, the common people don’t want war… That is understood. But it is the leaders of the country who determine policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along… The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.'

There are endless debates about whether leaders “drag the people along” or whether they are puppets of forces which exist outside of themselves. This is the substance of Tolstoy’s theory of history outlined in “War and Peace” — the general’s delusion (it could be Göring’s or Napoleon’s) that he is in control of history when he is but a pawn. [31] History, when all is said and done, is enacted by all of us, not by a select few, and it is to the story of the collective to which I now turn."

From Errol Morrs's series the NYTImes, "Bamboozling Ourselves," part 5.

Are we "dragged along" or is history "enacted by all of us?" Well, of course it's, by definition, enacted by all of us, but to what extent is the common person initiator rather than responder?