Monday, December 20, 2010

The Saga Continues

Ah, me of little faith.

I learned yesterday that Stillwater has provided for the family--a husband, wife and three young children-- who showed up in need a week ago with little more than a borrowed car to their names. Currently, they have moved from a motel and are living in Morland House, the Ohio Yearly Meeting's retreat center. That should be an ideal resting spot for them as it has three bedrooms and ample living space. However, since it's already booked for quarterly meetings, retreats, etc., they can't stay there permanently, so they are on the lookout, I'm told, for another home. In Barnesville that's an affordable prospect: A modest house can be rented here for less than $400 a month.

The husband may get a maintenance job at the Walton, the local Quaker retirement home, and the wife also may get work helping there and/or doing housecleaning. The children are enrolled in the local public school, so all is well at the moment for one family. There is, however, an undercurrent of grumbling by some longer-term Stillwater members about their own needs for job and money, their own dire straits, getting less attention.

I am impressed, all the same, with the kindness and generosity of Stillwater meeting. The issue of being aware of and sensitive to the needs of others who may be reluctant to ask for help emerged with the Fifth query, and the meeting answered it well, articulating a concern to notice people who may never step forward.

I do feel the cumulative weight of need all over and sometimes it feels overwhelming. But when I stay in that spirit of love and light described by early Quakers like George Fox, Isaac Pennington and Margaret Fell --what I (and they) would call the Holy Spirit--I am reassured, against all the visible signals to the contrary, that everything will be fine, and I should be at peace. However, it is easy to step out of that circle of light and witness a world that seems to be falling apart and a country that seems to be spiraling into decline. At these times, the story of Peter walking on water becomes a useful parable.

I also have to remind myself that I am not personally responsible for solving the world's problems. All of us are simply ordinary people with little to no control over the larger destinies of nations. As the Abbess implies, we do what we have to do, one person at a time. (However, I do support a strong government safety net, am willing to pay taxes for it and hope our country will maintain, improve and strengthen it.) One family in need doesn't mean a thousand families behind them will suddenly appear, all lining up at tiny Stillwater, clamoring for help. And I have to trust, were that to happen, resources would emerge. Here, I can lean into the story of the loaves and the fishes.

What other spiritual touchstones might there be for finding our way through economic times that are hard on many people? And since people need practical resources, not just temporary charity and well wishes, what else can we do?

Monday, December 13, 2010

How do we help?

Sunday at Stillwater, a man who had never attended the meeting before stood and told a disturbing story. When he'd first come in, I'd assumed he was a plain dressing Friend because of his white shirt and suspenders; however, he was a Pentecostal who had recently gotten interested in Friends. He told us he'd been working in a barber shop in Pennsylvania, cutting hair. If I understood the gist of his story correctly (this, at least, is how I pieced it together), he was laid off some months ago after his employer learned that he done prison time.

The man lost his apartment next door to the barber shop, and he and his wife and three young children headed for help to Pentecostals they knew of in the deep south. The man said he'd been credentialed as a Pentecostal minister but that the Pentecostals in the south could do nothing for him. He then left with his family and stayed with someone in North Carolina, who eventually took him to the Eastern Shore of Virginia, where he and his family stayed with yet another person. Somewhere in the narrative their vehicle--I'm not sure what kind--broke down, and they eventually borrowed a van to come to Ohio. But before that, the wife earned some money picking tomatoes.

The man said, having researched Friends and discovered Stillwater, he came to Ohio, thinking he and his family might settle in the Barnsville area. The man spoke of his criminal past, of a crime he committed at 19, and for which he served five years in prison –in part, because, if I understood, he couldn't afford a private lawyer. He indicated that the past was the past, and mentioned that God transforms hearts. He said he was already in trouble here in Belmont County with child protective services for letting his children sleep in the van in the cold. He was now using his wife's tomato-picking savings to room the family in a motel.

I had to leave before he was finished, but his story has stayed with me, for the following reasons:

Right before he spoke, a meeting member, a very lovely and distinguished woman, had talked about the injustices in the criminal justice system. Public defenders, for whatever reasons, often don't have the time to prepare an adequate defense for their clients, and thus the system, which is supposed to serve the poor, is often stacked against the poor.

I don't think God acts by accident, and I can't believe it was simply chance that caused a man, poor and with problems related to the criminal justice system, to arrive on our meetinghouse doorstep the same morning a member felt moved to speak of her concern about the plight of the poor in the legal system. What we are supposed to make of this, I don't know, but it is on my mind.

Next, this man's story stays with me because of my mixed reactions to it. Part of me thought, "It's the Joad family from The Grapes of Wrath, displaced by the economy and forced on the road, living hand to mouth out of their (borrowed) car. This is a story of our times, a story of how the most marginal are the first to be fired and thus the first to suffer the brunt of the recession. Where can he get a job? Will anyone hire him with a criminal record?"

However, another part of me said: "This man is a con artist. Why was his wife picking tomatoes? Why wasn't he? Of course he could get a job... so why is he forcing his children to wander around? What kind of education are they getting? Why are people constantly "pushing him on" down the road?"

Then, I thought, why am I so judgmental? Do I know anything, really, about his situation? Perhaps there's some good reason he can't pick tomatoes. And with jobs in short supply for everyone, it's not such a stretch to imagine he really can't find any work. Where is my heart?

The man, with his wife and children in our meetinghouse, made a strong emotional impression on me: they raised my compassion and my alarm. I kept weighing: should we help him? Shouldn't we? As Roger said, the decision is, do you help people regardless, even if you know you might be getting conned, or do you not? Most of me says, yes, of course, you help people, and you don't ask questions. But on the other hand ...

I keep thinking too, of the larger debate in our society now about who should provide the kind of aid this family needs: housing, food, a job. Should it be the government or should it be churches, meetings and other faith-based organizations? The argument, and I hear it from people I respect, is that the aid should emanate from the church and local community, one on one, based on developing relationships with the people in need. This family, by singling out our congregation, represents exactly the right model. We see their faces, we hear their voices and press the flesh of their hands as we help.

But I shy from this because inevitably, if charity is based on a personal relationship, even a brief one, in essence, I--or my meeting--is sitting in judgment on another person. Who am I (the "I" standing for my meeting) to judge? How can I judge? And yet, inevitably, in this situation I have to judge, because in the real world, our meeting lacks the resources to meet every need of every person. And maybe we don't need to meet all needs--maybe only as many as we are able to help will come to door. But it's hard to trust in that.

My impulse is to want to direct this family, these strangers in our midst, to the government social service agencies, even frayed as they are right now. I feel the agencies have more know-how and more resources than our meeting. I also want to turn to them because I believe they are objective--that they are not evaluating each person individually or emotionally, but by applying a set of standards that are used universally to determine need. This family may not get their every need met by the government, but they will be treated impartially.

I fear a system in which how much help a person receives is haphazard and dependent on his or her ability to convince my faith group that he is of the worthy poor, that he deserves aid. This is what I fear--know--will happen if we dismantle government services. People who are personable--or able to grovel sufficiently--or seem enough "like" us or enough lacking in the vices we disapprove--will receive our help. Because we can only help so many, we'll help the favorites. Then the outcast, as they always are, are left to the too few saints. I don't wish for that.

I fear it already happens in our broken health care system. As a journalist, I would sometimes cover local silent auctions or other fundraising events to help a family needing money for cancer treatments for a wife or a child's operation that wasn't covered by insurance. These were warm and bonding events for the communities involved, but in every case, what was emphasized to me was what good people we were dealing with. Good people. How much Jane Doe had contributed to the church over the years! How well-liked the parents of little John Doe who needs an operation! Always, without a fail, it was this way, and I would often wonder, what happens to the people who don't help out at church or who are disagreeable or disliked or simply not known? Do they die or go bankrupt? I don't know.

So I am troubled. I would prefer to pay taxes and have the government impartially take care of people's basic needs. Then I can develop relationships with the people who come to my church or cross my path without them on their knees, begging.

What would you do in this situation? Give money? Send the family to social services? Something else?

Hildegard of Bingen

Yesterday, Roger and I saw the movie Vision: From the Life of Hildegard of Bingen, directed by Margarethe von Trotta. Hildegard was a 12th century nun and mystic, known for her visions.

The movie juxtaposes a 1950s-style Hollywood technicolor "Catholic" aesthetic with a feminist portrayal of a nun. The convent/ abbey is a somber place--lots of gray stone and women swathed in identical habits marching down corridors holding thick lit candles or surrounding the beds of dying like blue-clad vultures. Hildegard, who becomes its abbess, is a strong and serious leader and also an herbalist and healer. Some scenes show her in the convent garden gathering herbs with her nuns as she sternly quizzes them about which herb heals what ailment. In a feminine divine moment, the nuns act out Hildegard's play, Play of the Virtues, with the nuns playing the virtues, Hildegard as Anima, or the soul, and a friendly priest playing the Devil. The young nuns and Hildegard, their hair free and festooned with flowers, dressed in soft white shifts like May Day dancers, defeat the Devil and tie him up. An old nun who refuses to participate condemns the women for showing their hair.

Setting a bleak tone, the movie opens with villagers huddled in a cold church on New Year's Eve, 999, awaiting the end of the world. However, as we know, the world does not end--nor is Hildegard born for another 98 years. Following that, the opening sequences show flagellations juxtaposed with the young Hildegard being taken under the wing of the saintly and somewhat saccharine "mother" Jutta, the abbess, scenes which could easily have been lifted from a church-approved 1950s film. Not long after, Jutta dies, and we find that she has been mortifying herself with a metal mesh sash tied around her waist and working its way into her flesh under her habit.

Hildegard's visions serve to forward her own agenda. She is powerful and determined. But while she achieves her goals within the larger church hierarchy, such as establishing her own convent apart from the men, she is thwarted when her favorite nun and protege, from a noble family, is taken from her to become abbess of her own convent. Hildegard fights the transfer with all her might to no avail. This adds to the complexity of Hildegard's character. She undoubtedly is in love with the nun and selfish in wanting to keep her, as the young woman points out to her.

The film, a German production, is in German, and for anyone post-Nazi (ie., all of us) the emphasis on order, hierarchy and faceless uniformity, not to mention "mountaintop visions," carries a chilling layer of reference and serves as an implicit condemnation of the Catholic church. I have to imagine this was deliberate on von Trotta's part.

The movie was beautifully filmed, well acted and despite a slow pace, seemed shorter than it actually was.

I'm ambivalent about it however. Is it a cliche to add flagellation to a movie about medieval nuns and priests, especially when its not integral to the plot--and when flagellation did not burst into vogue until after Hildegard's death? Is it a cliche for a nun to fall in love with her protege in a strange, repressed way? Or are both realistic? Does anyone know anything about Hildegard? As a mystic, she seems a person who would be of interest to Quakers.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Thrift store fashionista

How to dress for less in this recession. Between the Salvation Army store and Gabe's (Gabriels), Roger has been able to dress at bargain prices. The moss green suede jacket was a Salvation army find. At $20 this Weatherproof brand jacket was expensive by Salvation Army standards--but in perfect condition and a perfect fit. He wore it to Pittsburgh today in a light snow, so it keeps him warm. The heavy wool REI ribbed zipper sweater underneath also came from the Salvation Army--for $6. The pumpkin tee shirt beneath that was $2 at Gabe's. Roger guestimates his light brown Gabe's jeans came in at $10. So he achieved the layered look--with a jacket that works in winter weather--for $38 total. Take off the jacket and his indoor wear comes in at $18 for three pieces. Not bad.

The photo also shows our Barnesville kitchen, remodeled two years ago when we moved here. I tend to like everything made of natural materials, but I love this pergo floor.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Ambrose and Day

I have not blogged for awhile, and that has been weighing on me. I've been censoring myself since I wish to blog about "the state of the United States"--ie., politics (inevitably), and yet, I hesitate because politics are divisive and lead to misunderstandings. As a person who at least attempts to stay spiritually grounded, I understand that truly lasting and Spirit-led political change comes from a deep place of compassion and unity. On the other hand, I find myself distressed and worried about the state of the union.

In seminary, we read about Ambrose and John of Chryostom, powerful fourth century bishops. Both believed that God created an abundant earth for the benefit and use of all humans and that the rich are stealing from the poor when they allow people to go hungry and homeless. I was encouraged by the compassionate theology of sharing of Ambrose and John; I was saddened when, doing a little more research, I found them labeled "Christian socialists." I wonder why every sort of sharing is labeled with that term. They were simply stating that the rich have a moral obligation to share with the poor because their goods are not "theirs," but God's. Jesus seems to have said something similar to Peter: "Feed my sheep."

Dorothy Day, in our century, also made a central mission of sharing the world's good with the poor, setting up soup kitchens, homeless shelters and Catholic Worker farms. She wanted to combat what she called the "dirty, rotten system," understanding that many people become poor because the system is stacked against them. But whether they were the so-called deserving poor or the unworthy poor, she opened her home to them all, because she believed this was what the gospel preached. Interestingly, especially in light of our times, her Catholic Worker cofounder, Peter Maurin, was what we today would call a libertarian. (Day called him an anarchist.) Day and Maurin couldn't have been farther apart politically: He was highly distrustful of government, feared government tyranny, and believed in one-on-one, personal charity rather than government programs. Day, on the other hand, worked to change the system and establish government programs to help ordinary people. Despite their differences, however, the two were able to work together, respected each other deeply and pooled both sets of ideas and opinions to create a whole that was bigger than either one. Is this possible today?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Arriving in a Lear jet

Sometimes an image jumps out. Here's this from the New York Times (

The share of national income held by the top 1 percent of American families has doubled in recent decades to 20 percent. That’s a huge shift. I spoke to Doug Severance, a Vietnam vet who’s a hotel employee in Aspen, Colorado. "When I moved here in 1984 we were all family,” he said. “Now either you arrive in a Lear Jet or you’re a servant.”

“Now either you arrive in a Lear Jet or you’re a servant.”

Unfortunately, this seems all too true. I've thought about this often as I ponder the state of air travel ("as if" I do much of it) and wonder if it would be in this state (even first class, I hear, is a mess) if the rich actually still flew on commercial flights.

In Maryland, our family lived in Columbia, a planned community developed by James Rouse, a visionary who wanted to mix all races and economic classes, back at a time when segregation was still legal, and who thought, rightly, that this could be done by the private sector at a profit.

A few years ago, the Columbia Historical Society (Columbia goes back all the way to 1966!) had a tour of early homes, including those of James Rouse and one of his corporate cronies (and neighbor) Padraic Kennedy. They moved to Columbia in the 1960s. Their houses crystallized the opposite of the image of the rich arriving in Aspen in private jets and the rest of us (and it IS the REST of us) arriving as the "help." Rouse and Kennedy lived IN their communities, in houses that were slightly (but not much) bigger than the average single family home, beautifully custom designed and on a lakefront--but a block away from townhouses and apartments. These "big executives" were not removed from their communities in gated enclaves. They were not living in MacMansions. By the standards of today's rich, their homes were beyond modest--small lots, four bedrooms, a combined living/dining room in the Rouse home--comfortable but not ostentatious. And the Rouses opened their home frequently for parties to which the entire community was invited. This was just 40 years ago. Even 35 years ago. Black women my husband used to ride the commuter bus to Washington to work with joyfully remember attending these parties.

It's almost unimaginable now that chief executives would live that way. Now they seem more like royalty, completely removed from everyday life and the average trials and tribulations of the rest of us. I remember the heads of the auto companies flying to Washington two years in private jets to receive their bailouts. They seemed entirely clueless about how this level of privilege might look.

This kind of disparity in wealth does not reflect the Quaker equality testimony or simplicity testimony and ultimately sows the seeds of war. Yet there's a rhetoric that supports this inequality running through our culture that we need to push back against. It's not "socialism" to ask for social justice. How do we, in the words of Dorothy Day, create a society where it's easier to be good? How do we sow love (not fawning) for the very rich and in the very rich?

John Woolman writes:

When I ate, drank, and lodged free-cost with people who lived in ease on the hard labor of their slaves I felt uneasy; and as my mind was inward to the Lord, I found this uneasiness return upon me, at times, through the whole visit. Where the masters bore a good share of the burden, and lived frugally, so that their servants were well provided for, and their labor moderate, I felt more easy; but where they lived in a costly way, and laid heavy burdens on their slaves, my exercise was often great, and I frequently had conversation with them in private concerning it. Secondly, this trade of importing slaves from their native country being much encouraged amongst them, and the white people and their children so generally living without much labor, was frequently the subject of my serious thoughts. I saw in these southern provinces so many vices and corruptions, increased by this trade and this way of life, that it appeared to me as a dark gloominess hanging over the land; and though now many willingly run into it, yet in future the consequence will be grievous to posterity. I express it as it hath appeared to me, not once, nor twice, but as a matter fixed on my mind.

Woolman's point is that a few living in too much ease on the backs of the miseries of others has a corrupting effect on the rich that makes them unhappy as well.

And this, which speaks to our condition of high unemployment today:

In my youth I was used to hard labor, and though I was middling healthy, yet my nature was not fitted to endure so much as many others. Being often weary, I was prepared to sympathize with those whose circumstances in life, as free men, required constant labor to answer the demands of their creditors, as well as with others under oppression. In the uneasiness of body which I have many times felt by too much labor, not as a forced but a voluntary oppression, I have often been excited to think on the original cause of that oppression which is imposed on many in the world. The latter part of the time wherein I labored on our plantation, my heart, through the fresh visitations of heavenly love, being often tender, and my leisure time being frequently spent in reading the life and doctrines of our blessed Redeemer, the account of the sufferings of martyrs, and the history of the first rise of our Society, a belief was gradually settled in my mind, that if such as had great estates generally lived in that humility and plainness which belong to a Christian life, and laid much easier rents and interests on their lands and moneys, and thus led the way to a right use of things, so great a number of people might be employed in things useful, that labor both for men and other creatures would need to be no more than an agreeable employ, and divers branches of business, which serve chiefly to please the natural inclinations of our minds, and which at present seem necessary to circulate that wealth which some gather, might, in this way of pure wisdom, be discontinued. As I have thus considered these things, a query at times hath arisen: Do I, in all my proceedings, keep to that use of things which is agreeable to universal righteousness? And then there hath some degree of sadness at times come over me, because I accustomed myself to some things which have occasioned more labor than I believe Divine wisdom intended for us.

Monday, September 27, 2010


This makes me very sad. Must we work librarians to death for profit? I love librarians. To me libraries are sanctuaries, places of calm and peace and good cheer ... and a Quakerly quiet, and librarians are the key to maintaining that atmosphere.

But the bigger picture is perhaps the lack of imagination that allows us to be willing for librarians or any workers to be harried and rushed and overworked. People are already strained with commutes and bills and childcare, eldercare, the many complexities of navigating life these days, and perhaps every job doesn't need to be turned into a treadmill. I don't begrudge librarians or any other worker some time to gather their wits on the job or a moment to say a few kind words to a client. Are any of us going to be happy or at peace in a Gradgrind world of endless toil? Are libraries going to be come as crowded and unpleasant as airplanes have?

A second thought. People, according the article, still volunteer--more than ever--at these for-profit libraries. I am all for volunteering, truly I am, but I do wonder at volunteering where the money is padding the pockets of somebody who, apparently from what he said in the article, doesn't care about the worker. Especially in these times of high unemployment, I think we need to be careful not to do volunteering that takes jobs away from people. It might be better, as the paid librarians are going to be worked into the ground anyway, to challenge these libraries by not volunteering, so that the actual cost of labor is reflected in paid labor. But I struggle with this too, because work should be intrinsically about dignity more than pay, and volunteerism exemplifies that spirit. On the hand, I don't think librarians make all that much money that the owner of the for-profit library company couldn't pay a few more to do the work of the volunteers and make a profit that is real. What do you think?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

On Burning the Quran

I am glad the Quran burning has been called off.

Burning the Quran is a bad idea. It does not love the neighbor. It does not love the enemy. It is arrogant and rude, the opposite, Paul tells us, of what love is.

Also, it would be pointless. Should all the Qurans in the world be burnt, its words would live on in the heart of Muslims. Further, I can't imagine even one Muslim being moved to convert to Christianity because we destroyed their holiest text.

However, that being said, I am sorry for all the attention paid to this event. God is stronger than one angry man. Yet this proposed act diverted attention and energy from more pressing, systemic problems. For instance, workers at Dr. Pepper/Motts/Snapple plant in New York state are striking because the company, although profitable, wants to reduce their wages from an average of $18.50 an hour to $14.50. The company argues that the lower rate is what the other bottling plants in the area pay. That's a race to the bottom and a betrayal of the implicit promise that says the rising tide of business should raise all boats. I wish we would pay more attention to these issues. I wish business owners' hearts would be changed to feel compassion for the workers. Even my dear, beloved friends who I know disagree with me on this issue--I would love to know your thoughts as only through prayerful discussion can we come to best solutions.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Quakers and the age wars

Micah Bales posted a blog at which made good points about the way Quakers (and other denominations) need to change to be relevant and attract membership. Like him, I agree that Quakerism needs to become less institutionally bound and more open to community (more missional) and transformational in order to attract new members. I too deplore that lack of younger Friends. However, I also regret the lack of Friends my age (late Boomers) and the lack of early Boomers and the lack of older-than-Boomer people who are alienated from Quakerism and other faith institutions for the same reasons as younger people.

Below is the comment I posted at Micah's blogsite, cleaned up but not polished, so I hope you will respond to raw thoughts. I also want to say that my comments in response to your comments keep disappearing into the ether, but I will continue to try to respond.


I enjoyed and resonated with your post, which was thoughtful and held insights. We do need change, but perhaps need changed hearts, not changed generations.

Although I am statistically a late Boomer, like many of my cohort, I think like an emergent (in fact, the emerging church movement was started by disaffected Boomers), so I don't believe that a generational explanation is the best explanation for the lack of change, growth and vitality you see. It may be more that the people who seek--and hence get--fixed, institutional power with strong boundaries and privileges have a certain mindset that is identified as "WWII" and "Boomer" because these are the people who happen to have by this time worked themselves into the institutional power positions. In other words, certain ways of thinking aren't necessarily distinct to certain generations as much as they are distinct to certain people within generations.

Unfortunately, our society works to divide people along lines of color, ethnicity, political affiliation, etc., and age is another way increasingly used to pit people against one another, especially now that we have largely arbitrary labels for different age groups. Does someone born in 1963 (a "Boomer") has more in common with someone born in 1946 than someone born in 1969? I believe we need to be careful about not fostering divisions. I have noticed in my life that in any time period I have studied or lived through, the same attitudes crop up again and again. Dorothy Day, eg, who was born in 1897, in the 1930s held much the same attitudes as many Generation Yers do now. Luckily for her, the dark powers and marketing forces had not yet stamped a label on people born between say, 1888 and 1902 that marked them as different from anyone else. She was able to gather around her like minded people of all ages. And so must we.

I believe we are increasingly sliced and diced into generational groupings by powers that would like to pit us against one another. "Boomers" are pitted--unnecessarily-- against the generations that follow when it comes to programs like Social Security, as if we are not all in this together. Divided we fall. I believe the powers of darkness would love an intergenerational war between Quakers that would divert us from the larger and more important concerns of loving God and neighbor with all our hearts, minds and souls.

Dr. Pepper/Snapple workers still striking

Monday, September 6, 2010


We have a beautiful field of sunflowers just beyond our front yard, along with rows of corn and squash. Roger took a picture of one of the sunflowers, which you can see here.

It's hard not to think of Van Gogh when viewing a field of sunflowers. (Can we equate Barnesville with Provence?)

I remember that Van Gogh started out to be a preacher, but when he gave all his money away and showed too much solidarity with the poor, he alarmed his evangelical superiors. Eventually, sadly, because he lived the Sermon on the Mount too literally, he broke with the church, and became an artist. Yet in becoming an artist, pouring himself into and out through that creation, he became a blessing to the world. So, in the sunflower, I see Van Gogh and God, human creation illuminating God's creation.

The weather has been beautiful and it has been easy to enjoy the hills, the orchards and the views around Barnesville. A few nights ago the sky was moonless and lit with thousands of stars. We could see the Milky Way clearly. These are the times I love living in the country, with the view of Olney Friends School across the lake, and I think of what a gift it is to the students to be around all of this nature.

Things Hidden in Plain Sight

In an essay on a Vermeer painting,Woman Holding a Balance, literary critic and Bible commentator Mieke Bal moves us toward the navel.

She discusses the stillness of this painting, of a woman in blue and white standing before a window in front of a set of scales, and how, because it is so still, so serene, so fixed on a particular moment bathed in light, critics have seen the painting as descriptive rather than narrative, a still life rather than a story.

The painting shows an obviously pregnant woman standing with scales—weighing what?— her apparent assessing mirrored in the painting of the Last Judgment—another weighing of worth—hanging on the wall behind her. Critics have wondered at the meaning of these juxtaposed images. The woman’s unworthy judgment versus the judgment of Jesus?

Bal provides a new reading—the pregnant woman in blue, her head covered in a white veil, is the Virgin Mary. Bal also brings us to a nail hole, carefully painted and lit, in the wall above the woman’s head. Is this just Vermeer’s slavish adherence to creating versimilitude or does he want to draw attention to this nail hole?

Vermeer, Bal argues, wanted to reveal that he moved the Last Judgment painting. This movement disrupts the idea of the painting as still or merely descriptive—it points to a narrative, to a story, a sequence: Something changed, and that change is documented. The painting has a beginning, a middle and an end, but you have to study it carefully to see it.

Bal also interprets the nail hole as a navel. She repeats the traditional theory about text: the pen/brush is the phallus, the ink/paint is the semen, the page is the body/canvas on which the semen is spilled, resulting in creation, new life (form), the work of art, and the underlying message that creation corresponds to maleness. Text is masculine, text reveals. Derrida counters this image with that of the text as the hymen: something that conceals, something that repels and resists penetration, something that would hide its own meaning, something feminine. Bal, looking at Woman Holding a Balance and a Rembrandt nude, locates the symbol of the text in the figure of the navel, be it the navel on the nude or the “navel” as nail hole—the text as revealing what is hiding in plain sight. We never think about navels but they are always there, signifying the dependence of the male on the female.

Bal is being playful, but also, I think, offering profound insight into how often we miss what is in plain sight. Quakerism, in part, is a response to this: God will reveal to us what we need if we only stop and listen. Further, by not being attentive, we unthinkingly repeat what might be a mistake: I am thinking in this instance at a series of paintings of Eve, mostly from the Renaissance, that I looked at in conjunction with a class I am taking on women in the Old Testament. In almost all of these paintings, Eve is, first, presented as a sexual seductress, which is inconsistent with the text of Genesis, but also, depicted with a navel--which also, arguably is inconsistent with the Genesis account--she was not born of woman but created by God from dust or from Adam's side. Perhaps God did fashion her with a navel, but the point is, none of the painters seemed to have the least concern with this issue. Bal, in pointing us towards navels, points us towards attentiveness.

She also brings to mind the question: What else are we overlooking?

Monday, August 30, 2010

Cats and Caring

A few weeks ago my daughter brought home a stray kitten, which we dubbed Junior Cat, as he is a miniature version of our current cat, a gray tabby.

I was dismayed at this acquisition: With everyone in the family very busy, we can barely manage one cat. I was clutching my head over two cats.

However, since Barnesville is overpopulated with stray cats, I resigned myself to devising some sort of outdoor shelter for this cat when winter came, getting it neutered and feeding it forever after.

A happier ending came when our new Olney Spanish teacher, Hannah, saw the kitten and has adopted it! I am delighted. The kitten is very sweet and loves people, and needs a real home.

The lesson I draw from this is that responsibility--and hospitality--can be temporary and beneficial to all parties.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


The semester is ready to begin at Earlham School of Religion and I am again welcoming the combination of the intellectual, creative and spiritual that the school offers as I prepare for classes in Bible and Christian history, writing and spiritual formation. I have never attended a school quite like this and find the synergy exciting and energizing.

I have stumbled across the Dutch thinker Mieke Bal, who I vaguely remembered as an art history critic who wrote an essay I once read about Vermeer and the navel. She's also a specialist in narratology and has written a book about women in the Bible called Lethal Love. The book is old, dating to the late 1980s, I believe, but I am playing catch-up. Bal is "out there"--and I don't agree with her reading of the Adam and Eve story-- but it is precisely her challenge to everyday thinking that I find stimulating and provocative.

A quote from her chapter in Lethal Love on Eve speaks to my heart (and, as I realize she theorizes about "quotation," I recognize that I am re-contextualizing her):

The alternative readings I will propose should not be considered as yet another, superior interpretation that overthrows all the others. My goal is rather to show, by the sheer possibility of a different reading, that "dominance" is, although present and in many ways obnoxious, not unproblematically established. It is the challenge rather than the winning that interests me. For it is not the sexist interpretation of the Bible as such that bothers me. It is the possibility of dominance itself, the attractiveness of coherence and authority in culture, that I see as the source, rather than the consequence, of sexism.

What do you think? I love the idea of a space of equality and integrity, for the play of ideas without a "winner;" I fear the "too neat" package (why I am ever railing against formulations such as "religions are different paths up the same mountain"); I also fear (as do Bal, and Derrida, whom she is reacting to) a mindless chaos, an anything-goes individualism, a Tea partyism gone off the deep end.

Saturday, August 21, 2010


A lovely--and apt--poem about repentance by Jon Karsemeyer. Unfortunately, I can't seem to hold his spacing ...

Birthday Cake/Chocolate Chips

Repentance means turning
from denial and error. If
you've tried it you know
it's a really really good idea.
If you never made a mistake
you may not know. Some
actually, too many!
believe that they could
not be mistaken.
I've tried that too.
... Sorry

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Telling the Story

Having just finished a two-week intensive at Earlham School of Religion in "Writing the Story"--in which I wrote a short story--I have been thinking about the importance of story. Of course, "everyone" for the past decade or so has been focused on narrative, because narratives contain nuance, irony, particularity and layers of meaning that can't be captured when one reduces their ideas to axioms, propositions or laws.

In our class, we read an anthology called Faith Stories, edited by C. Michael Curtis, which contained, with a few exceptions, a rich array of short fiction.

I wonder why it is that in this particular cultural moment we are so focused on the story. I'm delighted about it, because story cuts across political and religious divides. It's not left wing or right wing and is embraced by both religious conservatives and religious liberals. It seems to me a way we could, possibly, cross divides and possibly start coming together again as a culture. And it seems a safe way to examine our flaws.

I am interested, however, in why the story now?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Women's Work?

I wanted to highlight what Hystery wrote on another blog:

I see how access to money and gender are so often linked. In natural disasters, women are more likely to die because they are more likely to stay behind or be slowed down in their attempts to save children, elders, and the disabled. Even today, women often find themselves in this caregiver role. Those women (and men) who are in this role become like Martha in the kitchen while Mary and the disciples spend time with Jesus.

Like Martha, she may feel separated from the spiritual work of the meeting by her own and other Friends' conscious and unconscious expectations of her role as a woman as caregiver, cleaner, cooker, and fusser over others' physical well-being. These issues become more complex when we add social class. A poor woman cannot afford to bring her loved ones with her nor can she afford to leave them at home. I see how access to money and gender are so often linked.

My personality is rather more of the "Mary" rather than the "Martha" variety so I noted the difference in how I was treated when I became a mother. I noted that my husband, although he is actually more willing than I am, was rarely expected to look after children or leave a discussion to engage in cleaning up or setting tables, or whatnot. Suddenly I was "Martha" and I didn't like it at all. I can recall my mother's reaction to that biblical story. "If Jesus and the disciples got up and helped Martha with the meal, then they all could have talked together!" lol

Friends could use a little CR.

I too often felt--especially when I had young children--that I was expected to fill the Martha role. I remember once being at meeting for business--held at night--where the babysitter did not show up. Of thirteen of us, two had children. Only one of the 11 who did not have children would help with childcare. While I knew that my children where nobody else's responsibility, I still can't get over that only one person would offer to help. As I have gotten older, I have continued to notice that women do take on more of the hospitality and nurturing roles in meetings I've been part of. I would especially like to see men take on more of the nurturing roles.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Quakers and the War Disconnect

On July 4, our family went to an Independence Day party at a lovely home on a lake. Part of the evening entertainment was a fireworks display.

My almost 16-year-old twins helped unwrap the hundreds of fireworks, but when they were asked to light them with a blowtorch, I thought this was much too dangerous, as did the one twin who shook his head at me vigorously to say no. Luckily, the boys were able to back out graciously.

My twins likely would have come to no harm, but my mother's heart was nevertheless still having palpitations when another, older male began lighting firework wicks with the blowtorch. Much of my thinking involved comparisons between the laws in freewheeling Ohio and safety-obsessed Maryland. You can't have these kinds of fireworks in Maryland! What are they thinking in Ohio? And people in Maryland have to wear helmets on their motorcycles! In Ohio, you see people all the time on motorcycles with nothing protecting their heads but bandanas! It's harder for a teenager to get a driver's license in Maryland than in Ohio! And what about car seat laws! (I actually know nothing about them in Ohio, but in my mind's eye they're much more stringent in Maryland.)

Ohio is a wonderful state, but I was filled with the jitters just thinking about my almost 16 year-olds in conjunction with a blowtorch.

The realization struck me that in two years, when they turn 18, they could legally enlist in the army and be put in danger so acute that lighting fireworks with a blowtorch would seem like the child's play it isn't to me. I felt overcome with fear. I had to sit down on the lovely lawn sloping to the lake, where the fireworks were bursting overhead in arrays of stars and colors.

I think I was seeing stars. How can we live with this cultural disconnect, I wondered? How can we have so many laws to protect our children in minute ways and then, the minute they turn 18, be "OK" with sending them into horribly dangerous war zones halfway around the world? My sons, because they aren't quite 16, can't use a lawnmower in their summer jobs with the state, because it's not safe, but in two years and two months could be sent to Iraq (of course, we are supposed to be out of Iraq in a month) or Afghanistan, where they could be blown up at any moment? Could be allowed to wield machine guns and rocket launchers? Not to mention the fact that they would be killing other humans. How do we tolerate this?

In Maryland, new public playground swings have to be suspended from T's, so the children can't trip over the inverted V's that used to form swingset supports. Children are in booster seats in cars until age 8 now, I believe. Let your seven and ten month old child come home from school unattended for 10 minutes and you can be arrested for child neglect. A 17-year-old in Maryland can't drive a car past a curfew. I support these laws but how do we square this almost choking, compulsive concern with safeguarding our children with our total willingness, after age 18, to throw them into the worst kinds of danger?

How, as Quakers, are we not protesting the wars more than we are?

When I lived in Maryland, and we went to Baltimore or Washington and we had occasion to drive through the poorer parts of those cities, I would often notice children playing on playing on basketball courts amid broken glass or young children squatting in trash-filled gutters by the sidewalks in front of their houses. There was nowhere else to play. On hot summer days, when the doors to the old Baltimore rowhouses in the slum neighborhoods were opened (I know we don't use the word slum anymore, but I'm using it deliberately) I would see into houses with holes punched through the walls, rat-gnawed doors, missing railings up the stairs, dangling cords, sofas losing their stuffings ... taking a gander, I would imagine these "homes" would not pass standard safety inspections. I would also imagine that the children I saw milling around the streets lived in these houses ... and we middle-class people, who are so worried about every hair on the head of our own darlings, seem to tolerate this. I understand too that the military recruiters come to the poorer neighborhoods.

I struggle with the draft. The last thing I want is a draft, not with children of 19 and almost 16. Yet were there a draft, would we be in these wars? Would we allow our middle-class darlings to go? I think not. I know that were a draft to begin, ending the wars would be a front and center concern in my life. Now .. oh well, it's not really my problem because "my" children--at least in my illusions--are "safe." Of course, I'm "against" the wars in theory, though let me hasten to say, like everyone else, I support our troops. But do I do anything to support them, by say, working to end the wars in any urgent way? No.

To have two classes of children: those whose every hair is micro-protected with compulsive care and those who, from earliest youth, must take their chances, violates my understanding of Christianity. Didn't Jesus say that everyone who followed him was his brother, sister, mother, father, child? Aren't "those" children "my" children? Quakerism is a second layer, reinforcing the radical overthrow of hierarchy inherent in ancient Christianity. Where, I wonder, is our equality testimony? How do we live with these contradictions? And I ask that question of myself more than anyone else because I am first in line for apathy.

What should we do?

Monday, August 2, 2010

Peace, peace

"God promises peace peace (literal translation of the Hebrew) to those whose minds are stayed on him, as they trust in him (Isaiah 26:3). And a peace from him that passes our understanding, as we entrust ourselves to him in prayer and thanksgiving (Philippians 4:6-7).

Peace in scripture fundamentally has to do with the well being of all creation occurring through the new creation in Jesus. It begins in this old creation, groaning as it is impacted by the fall. Beginning in and through us in Jesus. But in this already/not yet present, this peace will ebb and flow, it will come and go. But the deeper and truer we give ourselves to God by faith through Jesus, the richer this experience of peace as in well being, and inward tranquility, will become."

The above is from my cyber-friend Ted Gossard's blog at I love the idea of peace in Isaiah actually being "peace peace," a doubling or deepening of the concept of peace, not just a superficial peace, but that deep peace which permeates the soul. I also agree strongly with Ted that peace in scripture has to do with well-being of all creation ...

Saturday, July 31, 2010


There were always in me, two women at least, one woman desperate and bewildered, who felt she was drowning and another who would leap into a scene, as upon a stage, conceal her true emotions because they were weaknesses, helplessness, despair, and present to the world only a smile, an eagerness, curiosity, enthusiasm, interest.
Anaïs Nin

I feel a weariness with arguments, about universalism versus Christianity or being Christian versus Pagan. All we need to do or are asked to do is love one another. A truism. But true.

And yet--I get pulled into the arguments. And I want to say, that language matters. Language--in the great discovery of 20th century philosophy, building on Nietzsche--is not a clear window pane into reality. Language is tainted. The early Quakers knew this. Women and minorities know this. Anybody who has been damaged by the culture knows this. So when people say, oh the God stuff, it's just the different words for the same concepts ... the words themselves are the concepts, we're caught in the prisonhouse of language, and context changes concept, and there's always context, always baggage, and if the words really don't matter, why don't we all use the Christocentric language of our culture?

i feel like telling you everything
talking until my words aren't a part of me anymore
they are part of the air
and suddenly they are not my problem
and i am free

So maybe that's why I'm "just saying." (These quotes come from a blog called paperdollblewsaway.)

Last weekend, Roger and I went to Toronto. We stayed Jaya's apartment. We visited an art museum, ate Thai Food (thanks to Jaya's parents), shopped in bookstores, went to an island where it rained and sat under umbrellas at sidewalk cafes.

In the meantime, a stray dog and a stray kitten have shown up at our house: Larry and Junior. Larry was a kind old hound dog who followed us home one day. Then he followed us around the lake, to the campus proper, hung out for awhile, possibly understood people were talking about the "pound," and wandered off again. Or maybe he's simply a wandering hobo of dog and it was time to hit the road again.

Sophie brought home the stray tabby kitten, who, we were told, would be put to sleep by the shelter should we take it there. Too many cats in the world. Junior, who is a minature version of our gray tabby, Andre (hence the name junior) is so quivering with the very life force of the universe, so full of intensity and joy, that we can't imagine the death sentence. We also can't keep him. Right now, he's living outisde--and before long, we'll have to figure out what to do. It is coincidence that these animals keep all of a sudden wandering into our lives?

Tomorrow I leave for a writing class Earlham School of Religion.

I will try to stay in touch.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

God's Initiatives

"Now the Lord said to Abram: 'Get out of your country, From your family and from your father's house, to a land I will show you..'" Genesis 12:1

"The most dramatic changes in your life will come from God's initiative, not yours. The people God used mightily in Scripture were all ordinary people to whom he gave Divine assignments that they could never have initiated. The Lord often took them by surprise ..."

From Experiencing God Day-by-Day: Devotional, by Henry and Richard Blackaby

Saturday, July 17, 2010

"All religions are the same"

I find Max Carter to be an excellent writer who, in his "On Faith" essay ( paints an appealing vision in which we all, whatever our religious backgrounds, are equally members of God's family, with God as father and mother, sharing the same DNA. Yes, I agree that we are all children of God, vessels made in the image of God, eikons of God, and I understand Max's emphasis on our commonalities.

However, I think the question Prothero is raising is not "Do we have the same spiritual DNA as humans?" but ,"Do all religions share the same spiritual DNA?" So I believe Carter is answering a different question.

I also see Carter putting himself in the God position rather than human position: He writes:

"Are all religions the same? Of course not. Nor are my three biological children [note the slide from religious institutions to individual children], even though they came from the same parents. While sharing many common characteristics, our two daughters and one son are as different as can be in many respects - religiously, politically, vocationally, temperamentally.
But my wife and I focus on our deep love of each, irrespective of those differences. We love no one of them more than the other; favor no one of them more than the other. We recognize the biological similarities, their common interests in living meaningful lives, their desire to be loving partners, and their devotion and love for us as parents. They have the same hopes and fears that any human beings have: anxiety about job security, health, their children's lives, the future....
I think of the world's religions in much the same way. "

In this analogy, Max puts himself in the parent/God position, looking down from above on his children/the world's religions. But we humans are not in the God position--we are not standing above the table of religion, looking down. As humans, we are at the table, constrained by time and place, looking across. And maybe because of that, our vision isn't so clear.

Thus, while I believe one can be a hyphenated universalist (and I am, in the traditional 17th century Quaker sense, a Christian-universalist), I think it is difficult to be a stand-alone Universalist, because, whether you mean to or not, that can easily slide into the false-for-a-human God position: "Yes, I am the parent and I love all religions equally. I am above the fray." But we are not. We are the fray.

At the end of his essay, Carter slides back into the "child" position. We can all be brothers and sisters, fighting and yes laughing, at the same picnic. It's a lovely picture, but I would argue we can't have it both ways: we can't be both parents and siblings.

I am passionate and perhaps a bit cranky about this subject, but I believe--along with people such as Marcus Borg--that we need to pick a faith and embrace it tightly, dig deeply into it, and acknowledge its humanity, including its deep flaws. We need to try to correct our faith's problems, but we can't do that if we don't have a faith. Further, we can't be "above" all faiths and then call our interfaith partners "brothers and sisters." We can't treat them with full respect as equals if we take the stance that we are the parents and they are the children. Or so I think.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Universalism: What do you think?

I'm interested in response to the piece below by Max Carter that ran in the WaPost at addresses Steve Prothero ... (Hat Tip to Tom Smith for emailing me this link)

and to the two other pieces below (HT to Scot McKnight's Jesus Creed blog at Beliefnet).

The third is a response to Max. The one sandwiched in between is a statement of Christian Universalism that seems to me close to the traditional Quaker position. This is more than I usually put in one blog, but not all that long.

Religions are siblings but not twins
by Max Carter
Q: Are all religions the same? The Dalai Lama, who just celebrated his 75th birthday, often refers to the 'oneness' of all religions, the idea that all religions preach the same message of love, tolerance and compassion. Historians Karen Armstrong and Huston Smith agree that major faiths are more alike than not. But in his new book "God is not One," religion scholar and On Faith panelist Steve Prothero says views by the Dalai Lama, Armstrong and Smith that all religions "are different paths to the same God" is untrue, disrespectful and dangerous. Who's right? Why?
Are all religions the same? Of course not. Nor are my three biological children, even though they came from the same parents. While sharing many common characteristics, our two daughters and one son are as different as can be in many respects - religiously, politically, vocationally, temperamentally.
But my wife and I focus on our deep love of each, irrespective of those differences. We love no one of them more than the other; favor no one of them more than the other. We recognize the biological similarities, their common interests in living meaningful lives, their desire to be loving partners, and their devotion and love for us as parents. They have the same hopes and fears that any human beings have: anxiety about job security, health, their children's lives, the future....
I think of the world's religions in much the same way. Products of human beings who are biologically descended from the same "parents" yet subjected to different cultural forces and even the whims of those "parents" at any given time, religions develop differently in response to those differences.
Yes, there are many similarities in the world's religions. As I developed a curriculum on world religion for a Quaker school in Palestine recently, I was struck by how many common elements each of the eight major traditions I included have. All religions have to deal with life and death, hope and desire, fear and the need for acceptance. And each has come up with a system to offer meaning to humanity in a world that ultimately kills us. The elements of that system are very different in many respects. Codes of ethics are often very different.
But as brothers and sisters, offspring of the same "parent," we can find common cause, celebrate the richness of each other's discoveries of meaning, share in each other's quest for more Light. Will there be family fights? Of course. Can there be reconciliation and a fun time at the family picnic? Yes.

Read more:

Piece number two
I Am A Universalist
12 Comments Published July 14th, 2010 in Uncategorized.
Reading Gutierrez’ “A Theology of Liberation” last week I realised that the best word to describe my view of the Christian Gospel is universalist. I believe in the universality of salvation.

Now, before you swipe my “Bible believing evangelical” credentials (or leper bells depending on your view) from me, let me assure that I still think that Jesus was telling the truth when he said “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.” I think salvation only happens through faith in Christ.

But the quantitative universal question (who is in, who is out and how many people are saved which is typically how the word universalist is used) is not nearly as interesting to me as the qualitative universal question. I do not know if all will be saved and I am not certain that when 1 Peter says that Jesus went to preach to the captives in hell that this indicates that all humans ever conceived will be redeemed.

But I am certain that the whole testimony of the Bible proclaims that the restored union with God that is the “hope of the Gospel” goes far beyond simply gaining entry to heaven. I think it has universal consequences for the individual, for the community and well, for the universe. If it is true that through the forgiveness of sins the Christian has the primary relationship of their life restored to them, that is, union with God, then that must utterly transform how they approach every other relationship and interaction.

The way that I have understood this in the past is that the Gospel exerts a four-fold reconciliation. At the heart of my being I have been reconciled through Christ, in-dwelt by the Spirit and adopted by God.

This security is the basis for my second reconciliation, the internal one to myself. If the Creator of the Universe sees me as wholly holy and blameless then I must be willing to share grace with myself and accept and forgive myself.

Off the basis of this peace within myself over who I am, I am charged up for the third wave of reconciliation with the Other, the neighbour, any other human being I encounter. As someone at peace with myself and secure in God’s identity for me I ought to be able to embrace even the most tiring and draining of people, say rugby fans, with a new found ability to repent (healing old relationships) and embrace (building new relationships).

Then the fourth-fold reconciliation comes to bear as a community of people who have enjoyed the benefits of reconciliation with God, peace with themselves, renewed relationship with each other, take this new Creation energy and let it loose on the Cosmos. Whether in the ecclesial, political, economic, cultural or ecological environment, the reconciliation of God expresses itself here in regenerative action. As Tom Wright might say, we live in the now shaped by the sure and certain knowledge of God’s certain future. We join in with what God is about.

But the extent of that transformation was always limited for me. In each of those four quadrants I think that the Gospel extends universally, which may even mean infinitely. There is always more internal healing and peace-making to be done and the Gospel is always relevant. There is always more repenting with your neighbours to be done and the Gospel is the only way we can do that. There is always more re-creation to be enjoyed in the wider world and the Gospel sets us up for that in a way that transcends and perfects both hedonism and conservationism. Underwriting all this activity is of course our primary conversion – being captured more fully by the beauty of God.

So I may be warping Gutierrez entirely in this interpretation, warping or perhaps correcting (!) but there is much to dwell on in what he has to say:

Salvation – the communion of men with God and the communion of men among themselves – is something which embraces all human reality, transforms it, and leads it to its fullness in Christ: “Thus the centre of God’s salvific design is Jesus Christ, who by his death and resurrection transforms the universe and makes it possible for man to reach fulfillment as a human being. This fulfillment embraces every aspect of humanity: body and spirit, individual and society, person and cosmos, time and eternity. Christ, the image of the Father and the perfect God-Man, takes on all the dimensions of human existence.”

(The text he quotes is from the 1968 declaration of the Latin American bishops at Medellín)

Piece number three

Nobody has religion totally right, but some errors are more serious than others.

People are all similar. Reality does not change from person to person, but the interpretation of reality can be different. Nobody should be so "nice" they end up insulting other faiths by refusing to admit they make truth claims that cannot be sustained.

If one religion says that it is good for people to be poor and another that it is evil, then both cannot be right. The law of non-contradiction does not stop at the church door.

Just because a religion, or religious person, gets something wrong does not mean it gets everything wrong. Old and tested ideas, like all the great world religions, must get more right than wrong in order to have survived the hardest test of all: time.

Most great religions are mostly right, but "mostly" is not good enough. Making an error in physics, even a small one, can be fatal to the body. Making a metaphysical error, even a tiny one, can be fatal to the soul.

Christianity proves to be the best explanation for the world as it is: both the metaphysical and the physical. Some religions downplay the importance of nature and others downplay the importance of the spiritual reality. Both are too simple to explain a cosmos full of matter, energy, and personality. Mind does not come from matter and matter does not come from mind.

Christianity, with Judaism and Islam, gets this balance right, but Christianity also has an explanation for the life of Jesus. Jesus, so great nobody can ignore Him, stands at the center of history. His empty tomb demands explanation and His wisdom compels respect. Who is Jesus? Only Christianity adequately explains His marvelous life.

Christianity also built marvelous cultures. It can inspire Bach to his great Mass in B Minor and Newton to his science. It has built great churches in Ethiopia, hospitals in India, and colleges in Idaho. Every inquisitor inspired a Dostoevsky, bad bishop a Saint Francis, fundamentalist a Thomas Aquinas.

Christianity, though not always Christians, has been good, true, and beautiful. To the extent that any religion does not acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus it has gotten something dramatically wrong. It is not explaining all the data.

Or so it seems to me.

Metaphysical reality is, however, not different from person to person, so mature faiths tend to agree on many "big ideas." Love just is greater than hate. Libertine sexual values have never built a culture, but have destroyed many. Judaism and Islam particularly deserve our respect. Christianity owes its existence to Judaism and has learned much from Muslims. Both can sustain both science and high culture.

I have gained great insight into my life from other religions and from people who disagree with me. Even if Christianity is true, it does not contain all truths and many Christians have misunderstood the truths it contains. Any reasonable believer would also admit that he might be totally wrong and open-minded to other possibilities.

Studying the works of other Christian traditions or other faiths is never a waste of time. I have always learned something or enriched my own faith in the process. For example, I spent a profitable year studying the Book of Mormon. At the end, I did not think the Book of Mormon was the Word of God, but I did think it a work of literary genius. It was often compatible with my beliefs, it got much right, but the differences were important and real. The claims of traditional Christianity and Mormonism could not both be true. Reading it stretched me mentally and, even though I came to reject the truth of its unique religious claims, the sheer act of carefully reading Mormon apologists was good for me.

Faith is wonderful, because it allows you to wonder! You commit yourself to your faith and then you see.

There is only one group that does not deserve our respect: the extremist wrapped in certainty. From the jihadist to the Dawkensian atheist, a certain personality type is sure about the big questions. Their opposites are all fools or cads and they can dismiss every different religious point of view as wrong, obviously wrong.

These people lack faith, because all they have is certainty. Certainty leads to a loss of wonder, because there comes to be nothing to wonder about. Those atheists, theists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, or any other philosophical tradition that commit themselves, but are still wondering about things, deserve our respect and attention.

The journey to see the Good is long, but even if it lasted a thousand years I am convinced that if we are motivated by love and pursue it, then we will see Him at last clearly. Lord how I want to be in that number!

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Least of These

Having just read C. Wess Daniel's blog on John Woolman (there's a link through Quakerquaker below and to the right on this blog), I wonder if we can tie our Quaker witness to the following, which appeared in today's New York Times. Bob Herbert writes:

"Listen to the soft-spoken new president of the U.A.W., Bob King.

“My view of the labor movement today,” he said in an interview, “is that we got too focused on our contracts and our own membership and forgot that the only way, ultimately, that we protect our members and workers in general is by fighting for justice for everybody.”

The fundamental issue is that “every human being deserves dignity and a decent standard of living,” he said, “and the whole point of the labor movement is to help make that happen.”

In Mr. King’s view, the fight to organize workers and improve their wages and benefits is important, but it’s part of a much broader effort to improve the lives of individuals and families throughout the country and beyond. He is a believer in cooperative efforts and shared sacrifice, and is unabashedly idealistic as he outlines what can only be described as a new activism on labor’s part.

He promised his members last month that the U.A.W. would be marching and campaigning and organizing — for jobs, for a moratorium on home foreclosures, for civil and human rights and against the mistreatment of immigrants, and for peace."

I find myself responding to this unabashed idealism and a vision that is not narrowly "unionistic" but wants to make life better for everyone. What do you think?

Friday, July 9, 2010

Is it scary?

How do we get into dialogue with people like the following, named "Sky Blue," who made the following comment on a Jesus Creed thread about the topic of closing down public libraries:

Unfortunately, public education, as much as we love it and as much as it benefits our society, is socialism and so should have no place in our structure.

(Read more:

I would love to understand where he/she is coming from.

My feeling is, if public libraries and publicly funded education represent "socialism," sign me up for (Christian) socialism. I have trouble envisioning living in a society with no public sector and wonder what people are thinking. I really do. Can anyone help me understand this? Should I be as frightened of this mindset as I am?

I'm thinking much lately about how to structure a discourse in a way such that institutions can be publicly funded and yet not labeled "socialist." Is it possible to frame a positive conversation about public sector?

Strawberry Parable

"A man was wandering in the wilderness when a tiger appeared and began to chase him. Panicked, he fled to the edge of a cliff with the ferocious beast on his heels. Spotting a thorny vine rooted on the rock, he swung himself down over the chasm.

Above, the tiger howled and pawed at the rock; below, he saw the gaping jaws of a second tiger. Suddenly, a white mouse and a black mouse appeared and began to gnaw at the vine, but the man did not notice. He had found a plump, red strawberry growing on the face of the cliff. Holding onto the vine with one hand, he plucked the fruit with the other and popped it into his dry mouth. How sweet it was!

Is this story, which appears in the book Fishing for the moon and other Zen stories, by Lulu Hansen, which my friend Alice gave me as a birthday present, another version of "sufficient for today are the evils of today?"

Is it about "mindfulness" or about how life is so terrible that all we can do is eat a strawberry before we ourselves are consumed? What IS it about?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Quakers and Univeralism

I have been saying this for years but Scot McKnight at Jesus Creed said it succinctly and well in reviewing a new book by Stephen Prothero.

A pastor once said to me that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam believe in the same God but just worship him differently. I said two things back: (1) Not true, for no Jew or Muslim believes in or worships God as Trinity, and (2) just try getting an ordinary Christian, Jew or Muslim to say they think that we all have the same God.

I have believed for a long time that touchstones are to be used but the only honest way to dialogue about our faiths is to tell the truth about our faith and tell the truth of what we think of the other faith, and then to listen to the other person say the same to us and of our faith. With love from first to last, but with the truth of love and love for the truth. The worst thing we can do is to pretend we are all really saying the same thing.

But the pastor's comment is common and widespread. For instance, Swami Sivananda said, "The fundamentals or essentials of all religions are the same. There is difference only in the non-essentials." To which Stephen Prothero, author of God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World--and Why Their Differences Matter , says both bitingly and truthfully: "This is a lovely sentiment but it is dangerous, disrespectul, and untrue."

I see this sentiment to which Prothero addresses himself in his new book to be a religious colonialism. It is a way of incorporating the beliefs of another into what one person believes and clarifying, for the truly enlightened, that after all these religions are all variations on a theme. Once you get the theme, and one must be exceedingly broad-minded to grasp it, you can see that we differ only on particularities. Prothero's book is designed to rebut the whole approach of religious colonialism. Here are a few of his opening statements:
He calls this religious colonialism "naive theological groupthink -- call it Godthink" (3).

"God is not one. Faith in the unity of religions is just that -- faith." It's "an act of the hyperactive imagination."

Karl Rahner once spoke of others in other religions as being anonymous Christians. Hans Kung answered back: "It would be impossible to find anywhere in the world a sincere Jew, Muslim or atheist who not regard the assertion that he is an 'anonymous Christian' as presumptuous."

Yes, Prothero says, the world's religions share one thing: they all believe there is a problem or something's wrong. But from that point on they differ, and often dramatically. The solutions show how much they differ. They are not all climbing the same mountain but they are on different mountains.

Read more:

I'd don't know how many times I've heard Universalist Friends say "All religions are the same." To my mind, this is modernist thought that arises from the same Enlightenment impulse that led botanists to classify plants into categories. There's nothing wrong with the Enlightenment, but we have seen its limitations and are in a period of paradigm shift. Also, as more than one postmodern thinker has pointed out, our understanding of "comparative religions" is heavily influenced by the worldview of those mid-twentieth century scholars who wrote the textbooks: primarily white Protestant males from elite East Coast college and OxCam backgrounds: not precisely a broad spectrum. What they give us, some have argued, is a distorted understanding of world religions to begin with.

I'm glad more and more people are challenging the truism that "all religions are the same." As both a Quaker and a religion reporter I chose to bite my tongue more than once when an older white male leaned over to me and said, as if revealing the secret of the ages: "Buddha and Jesus believed the same things" or "all religions are the same." After hearing the "revelation" about 50 times, I found myself having to suppress sarcasm: "Wow! Is that so? I never thought of THAT!" I've often wondered how otherwise intelligent people have gotten stuck on that groove or morphed the idea that some religions share some common tenets into a history-denying and specificity-erasing truth claim all faiths are the same.

It troubles me that so many liberal Quakers hold unreflectively to the "all the religions are the same" falsehood. The same people who deride the Christians who say with conviction "Jesus Christ is my personal savior" will in the next breath say with the same conviction that all religions are different paths up the same mountain--and if you disagree, will judge you with all the scorn of the fundalmentalist Christian towards the unsaved.

Is it "colonialism" to say that all religions are the same? Are Jews--fewer than .02% of the world's religious population--wrong to be worried about being subsumed or erased under thinking that throws us all into a common melting pot? Is a universalist worldview "dangerous?" Why or why not? Why are some Quakers so bent on this universalist worldview? Is there a way forward?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


It's so hot I can't think straight, and yet here in Ohio we're "merely" in the 90s, 10 degrees cooler than the record-breaking East coast. The East has gotten hit hard this year, between the heavy snow in the winter and the current heat wave.

As I mentioned on Facebook, we live in a campus house at Olney Friends School, which, like all the other campus houses (unless somebody is holding out on me!) has no central air. Even the Main Building, home to the administrative offices, lacks air, unless you count those rotating fans like flowers on stems. It's truly "green" living here.

It's also a touch of how people lived 50 years ago, and of how I grew up as a child in hot, humid suburban Baltimore. I do remember feeding a big square "air conditioner" ice cubes that would melt and blow out as cold air. We could hardly feed the ice fast enough, and it always ran out too soon, even when we bought bags of it at the local store.

So, although I still want to --and hope to--comment on the comments on the Russian mathematician who turned down the million dollars, my brain, hooked to a body soggy with heat, isn't functioning at that "deeper" level.

The heat is roosting in our house, despite ceiling fans, lots of windows (cross ventilation) and our "prospect" atop a hill (usually, that means breezes). Pre-air-conditioning architecture can only do so much. At Ohio University, where I'm teaching, the school shut off the air all through the long weekend and the classrooms are still warm. I comfort myself that the school is saving taxpayer dollars, as well as the environment, but it's difficult, in mid-afternoon, to teach in a sauna-like environment. Yesterday, we went outside to a picnic table under a tree, where we benefited from a breeze. Today, at the end of class, we moved to the basement vending machine room, which was cool, but lacked a blackboard.

I'm accepting all of this as participating in God's planned rhythm of nature, even if climate change is entering the mix. Yes, I am moving at a slow crawl and trying not to be anxious about all the things I need to get done, and yes, I wish I dared to shave my head to get rid of what currently seems a very thick head of hair bearing down like a wool hat and muffler on my head and neck, but I am taking all of this as meant to be a natural slowing in the cycle of life. Maybe it's good just to turn down the human engines for a few days.

On the other hand, from what I've read in the Baltimore Sun, when this weather hit in the pre-central air days, offices and houses would close as people headed en masse for the beach or the mountains--or at least an outdoor "bed" by a local lake. Perhaps, as we wean from fossil fuels, that's the model we should be looking to.

Or perhaps we should all be heading to another old-fashioned institution: the public library.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Ban Libraries?

FOX news floated the idea of getting rid of libraries: here is a
beautiful post--a piece of poetry, imho--on the value of libraries:

Friday, July 2, 2010

Wise or Foolish?

I read this in the New York Times:

Three months ago, a famously impoverished Russian mathematician named Grigori Perelman was awarded the prestigious $1 million Clay Mathematics Institute Millennium Prize for his groundbreaking work -- having solved a problem of three-dimensional geometry that had resisted scores of brilliant mathematicians since 1904.

Thursday, the institute announced that Perelman, known equally for his brilliance and his eccentricities, formally and finally turned down the award and the money. He didn't deserve it, he told a Russian news service, because he was following a mathematical path set by another.

The president of the Clay Institute, James Carlson, said that Perelman was a mathematician of "extraordinary power and creativity" and that it was he alone who solved the intractable Poincaré's conjecture. "All mathematicians follow the work of others, but only a handful make breakthroughs of this magnitude," Carlson said.

I'm awed by this man's integrity, in part because I would be hard put to refuse $1 million.

What do you think? Foolish or wise?

And yet, if more people behaved this way in disdaining money ... what a wonderful world it would be. Or would it? Does it expose as a lie that the only incentive for people to achieve is material? Or is this guy to be dismissed as an eccentric?

cell phone idea?

We are getting frustrated trying to renew our AT&T cell phone service. We'd like to keep the basic plans we have had. AT&T makes it very difficult to renew without buying extra services. All of our phones broke at the same time right at the end of the contract (I'd think conspiracy but I don't think AT&T has the technical know-how to so well fine-tune it's strategy.) Right now we have no phones. To make a long story short, it has entered my mind that we could sign up with a socially responsible cell phone service company.

Any suggestions?

Friday, June 25, 2010


"But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray." Luke 5:16

I came home from the beach early to begin teaching Freshman Comp, and realized I have spent probably more time alone these past six months than in the past 25 years. It's been a fruitful solitude, and Barnesville, where I am sojourning by myself at the moment, hardly fits the description of a desolate place-- it's bursting with all the fecundity caused by a rainy spring, including my abundant raspberry patch--but I am here alone.

I do miss Roger and my kids--and that's a good thing. It's a good thing when you can say you miss your teenage children and mean it!

This past semester at ESR, I was also in solitude often, as I rented a small apartment near campus and stayed there midweek to attend classes. Often, it was so bitingly cold that I hurried home to be in the warmth and do my reading. As spring came, I made friends, for which I am glad, but often was still alone with my work.

I realize my time in Richmond at ESR was a joyful, rich solitude, and quickly understood that my deliberately austere apartment was my version of Thoreau's cabin, a place stripped down to the essentials where I could "front" life. The solitude was creative and clarifying, though I would miss Roger terribly at times.

My children being gone--either to college or boarding at Olney--has created much of this solitude. While I was glad the boys could board at the school last year, I also wonder if we should have kept them home another year. I developed a pattern of stopping at Sophie's college town en route to Richmond so we could have lunch together weekly, which was a good way to keep in touch.

I know people have different tolerances for solitude. I am glad Jesus went off by himself to commune with God and refuel. I wonder how other people deal with solitude and whether they find it helpful or not.

Monday, June 21, 2010


Right now, I am in a brief period--a few of hours--of transition between a week at the beach and beginning teaching my summer English class at Ohio University. The vacation-- at Chincoteague--was glorious in terms of weather, and it was a rare opportunity for family time with all of us together. I loved the marshes, the cry of the seagulls, the brackish smell, the unspoiled beach.

I look forward, however, to beginning teaching. My class numbers only six and that marks a wonderful opportunity for workshopping and individualized learning. I also redid what had become the weaker parts of the class and feel excited about trying some new ideas. On this longest day of the year I feel both stretched and centered, whatever that means.

"Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation." Habbukuk 3:18

How are you?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Quaker Education

Note: I started writing this before Jeremy's comment, which I will refer to later ...

When I was an education reporter, I covered home-schooling from time to time and couldn't help but notice that many home school parents wanted to do more than teach their children "at home" all the time. Many homeschool parents networked to provide enrichment for their children and a whole industry had arisen around providing classes to homeschooled children during regular school hours. For example, I did one story on a women who had made almost a full-time job out of offering Latin I through IV to homeschooled high schoolers--classes that enrolled anywhere from eight to 16 teens.

I realized that many homeschool parents were not rejecting the classroom model per se, but the constraints and problems of public and private education. Some homeschool mothers I interviewed would have liked a private school for their children, but either had too many children to afford it or too little income. Others homeschool parents tried private schools but found they mirrored too much of what they didn't like in public schools, such as discouraging substantive parental involvement or dismissing parent concerns or not teaching phonics. In other words, at least some homeschooling parents would have been glad to place their children in a school, could they have found an affordable school that lived up to their expectations.

At one point, I covered a homeschooler's "school," and I can't shake it from my mind. This school was parent run, started by two women who wanted more for their children then the loose homeschooling group they were part of. To make a long story short, they banded together, found some other interested parents, borrowed Sunday school rooms in a large church, chose a curriculum and held classes for their children two days a week, with the rest of the at-home school week structured around lessons arising from the classes. By the time I arrived, the school, which still met twice a week, had grown to cover grades 1 through 12, and enrolled 125 students.

Parents ran the school--there was no administration, though there was a parent board--and parents were clearly heavily involved in the day-to-day activities of the school. The school cost $1,000 a year per student, and students who created problems or who could not keep up with the curriculum were asked to leave.

I think about this school because it was as "out of the box" an enterprise as I saw during my time as a reporter. (There's one other one, but that will be a different post.) This was clearly a case of parents a school to fit their children's needs, not setting up a school the way a school "should be" and forcing children to fit it and parents to pay the price.

It dovetailed with other thoughts I have had over the years, chiefly involving Quaker education meeting Quaker family's needs. The biggest need I have seen is affordability. So I would suggest starting there. Find out what parents can afford to pay and work around that, rather than what a school "must" have at ... 10K or 12K a year ... or more.

I can envision a scenario in which, say, nine Quaker families decided they could each put $1-2K a year into a pot to educate their 15 elementary age children. Let's say they ended up with $17K, including donations from Quaker organizations, and some in-kind donations of supplies, etc. The first step would be for all the parents to become approved homeschool parents, and the second would be to get together and fashion a set of goals and principles. I would strongly recommend a first principle being "serving other people's children," to weed out the parents who are only it in for what they can "get" for their own offspring. Third, I would see how much collective education the 17K would buy and work from there. Maybe the parents could obtain free use of Quaker classrooms connected to a meeting. Maybe they could rent at very low cost, say $1,000 a year, from a church or community center. Maybe they would designate another $2,000 a year for supplies and opt to keep $1,000 in reserve for emergencies. This would leave $13,000.

While I don't know the details of all this or what insurance liabilities would be (and perhaps this would all have be done in homes ... I don't know) conceivably, the school could hire a part time teacher for 6K a year total--kind of an adjunct--3K a "semester" who would come in and lead school for 21/2 hours a day two days a week. This could be supplemented by a parent-run meeting for worship before the teacher began her day, and followed by parent-run recess and lunch. And to be part of the group, each parent might be required to offer a few hours of enrichment each year/quarter to all the students ... and that would be a start. Maybe a weekly service project would be another part of the school. Perhaps the rest of the money could pay someone to coordinate the school. Accreditation would not be a problem as all the parents would be homeschoolers. The key point is that it would start with affordability.

The main goals, I believe, for a Quaker school is transmitting Quaker values and serving Quaker children. Much thought needs to be given to what those values are and to what serving Quaker children means. I write this as someone whose children are past the need for this type of schooling--who are two years from high school graduation.

Jeremy Mott went on a similar track when he wrote: "Someone might try to get a little
grant from the Clarence Pickett
Fund---see website---to develop a course on Quakerism for
Quaker parents who are home-schooling their children (I think there are many of them now.) The course could also be used by any of the numerous new Quaker schools which have no Quaker teachers; but
that wouldn't be the emphasis, for Friends Council on Education already tries to help them. The
material might be based, in part,
on what Max Carter of Guilford
College has done to develop curricula on Quakerism and on world religions for the upper grades of the Friends Schools in
Ramallah in Palestine (You can
find this info in their latest newsletter on the web.) There have
got to be ways to make Quaker education less expensive, even in
the U.S.A."

What do you think? Would you be willing to trade in the "bells and whistles" for a school built around Quaker values? What should these values be?

Monday, June 7, 2010

Olney Graduation

Saturday saw the class of 2010 (19 students, 17 present) celebrate graduation at the Stillwater Meeting House. Friday was the annual almuni meeting at Stillwater, which is part of the graduation ceremony. Every year, the alumni meeting includes a roll call of classes. This year 13 out of the 21 from the 50th anniversary class (class of 1960) showed up and five from the class of 1940. We learned that oldest known living alumna is from the class of 1924, presumably 104, and still living independently.

When I watched commencement, the alumni meeting and, earlier in the year, Gym-Ex, I was reminded of how long it takes to build traditions and how they can't simply be replicated from scratch because they carry with them pieces of other times. I'm always impressed with the loyalty of the former students, and am glad the school has changed little and slowly, opting to keep to Quaker ways rather than embrace every new fashion.

I wish more Olneys could spring up around the country--small schools offering strong ethics, a safe community and excellent academics in a simple environment. In a time when many private (now called "independent) educational institutions (including many Quaker schools), have, like the rest of the country, followed the pattern of becoming the elite few separated from the deteriorating public sector, Olney is a refreshing reminder of an earlier time. The school offers a distinctly Quaker education in a setting that is still middle-class, not impossibly posh and elite. I really love that, and mourn that I don't know of more schools that follow this pattern.

Of course, Olney is still expensive, even with generous financial aid (though I imagine most people from the coasts would find, after aid, the entire cost of tuition and boarding less than the average Quaker day school) and the school has been pondering how to become more affordable. Perplexingly, the real cost of attending Olney has risen over time, even with salaries kept as low as possible (much compensation comes in the form of room and board) and a very careful eye on other expenses. The school will be having a summit in the fall to consider, among other things, ways to lower the cost of an education here. Those who can't participate in the summit can go to the Olney website and fill out a survey, and the school is looking for as much input as possible.

I sometimes worry that parents of potential students might be concerned that the school doesn't offer all the bells and whistles of an elite Quaker boarding school. We're struggling to put up the new activities center (gym) and in the meantime, parents drive past the old, disused tennis courts. I hope we can convey that something better is going on at the school--something more rare, more elusive, more difficult to find--than state-of-the-art buildings (though we hope soon to have a "green" gym).

While I have issues with the Harry Potter books, and know that Hogwarts is an over-used (and often false) comparison, Olney does have several things in common with the fictional boarding school. It's old, with a long tradition, and it builds strong community. Of course, it's Quaker and doesn't indulge in magic and occult. It's most like Hogwarts, to me, in not being visible to the average "muggle" eye: If you are looking for outward packaging or a particular kind of school, all you will see are old buildings and a school that doesn't offer 12 languages. It's as if it is disguised from the shallow and materialistic. But if you have the eyes to see ...

At graduation, we also saw our friend from Patapsco Meeting in Ellicott City, Ramona Buck, class of 1965. Johanna Danos, another Patapsco Meeting friend, whose son Elvin just completed his first year as an Olney student, arrived with her mother Helga, a healthy and glowing 83 year old who was much impressed, as I was, by the commencement address given by a recent humanities teacher.

As with most things in the "upside-down" kingdom, the school's financial struggles in the recent past (it almost closed a decade ago) are what have kept it true to itself. Now, however, with the economy down, the school could use more scholarship money as well as the rest of the funds for the new gym, but there's a trust that both will come as needed.

I hope the school will be more and more accessible...and that more people will be able to see that the school is an attainable goal for their children.