Monday, May 24, 2010

The Practical Part is Called For

"A doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed." James 1:25

"Now the practical part is called for. For people must not be always talking and hearing, but they must come into obedience to the great God of heaven and earth." George Fox, From Mind the Heavenly Treasure

Knobby Dragon Skin

My cyber-friend The Abbess writes: "It takes Aslan's [the lion who is Jesus] powerful and sharp claws to sink into that thick, knobby dragon skin and peel it away and release our true selves from bondage." The Abbess is alluding to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis and talking about the armor that we develop to protect ourselves from others.

I like The Abbess's images. I can almost physically feel the relief of being freed. This differs from the more ethereal concepts we often use to picture the entrance of Jesus or the Holy Spirit or the Divine into our lives, such as light or living water. Are there other images of the incarnation that you particularly like?

Sunday, May 23, 2010

A good novel

I recently read Every Man Dies Alone, by Hans Fallada. This novel about life in Nazi Germany was written in 1947, but apparently not translated into English until very recently. It's based on the true story of a working class couple, Otto and Elise Hampel, who became so frustrated with Nazism that they started dropping postcards denouncing Hitler all over Berlin. This seems a fairly innocuous action in a country with free speech, but in Nazi Germany it was a death-penalty crime--and the couple knew it.

The couple eluded police and Gestapo detection for two years.

The book is gripping and a page turner. It's well-written, even in translation (there are some word choice oddities however) and puts you inside the world of the characters with great immediacy. The story, of course, is compelling.

More importantly, for all the books I've read recently on everyday life in Nazi Germany for a paper on Bonhoeffer, nothing captures the experience of living in a totalitarian regime like literature. Novels such as this one and George Orwell's 1984 bring totalitarianism to life in a way no amount of delving into Gestapo archives, compiling lists of facts and figures, or discussing repressive legislation and Nazi social programs can do. As a person who loves and values both history and literature, I am happily reminded of how well the two complement each other. We can't fully understand literature if we read it in a vacuum; likewise, we can't fully grasp a historical period without entering it imaginatively--often best led by someone who witnessed the era and can transform that witness into art.

I also very much appreciated the novel's depiction of most of the women characters as strong, independent, resourceful women. More often than not, it's the women holding things together, from households to earning income. This corroborates the histories I read, where, despite Nazi propaganda about sending women back to the home, women tended to be employed in large numbers, both because they worked for less money than men and were more docile. Of course, once World War II began, the government depended on women's labor to fill in for the men at war. Whatever the reason, I very much appreciated Fallada not reducing his females to sex objects or stereotypes.

There's also nothing like literature to communicate the "total" in totalitarian: the people in the book live in a world of black and white. Either you are entirely loyal to the system in every way or you are a traitor. There was almost no gradation, no "I'm Ok with this part of National Socialism, but against that." As a Quaker, I am struck that there was no conscientious objector status: you either went to war when you were called or you were given the death penalty. People apparently pulled strings all the time to be kept from the front, but the concept of objecting on the basis of conscience was not tolerated. The idea of having an inner life that differed from political policy was not tolerated. It's difficult to imagine what it would be like to live in such a world, but the novel goes a long way towards filling that gap.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

50 unusual churches

There are some truly interesting churches here (HT:SM):

Ivy: Let it grow, let it grow

Despite all the critics who told me ivy would "ruin" our walls, I planted ivy on either side of our front door in Maryland seven or eight... or nine ... years ago. I planted a clipping from a friend's house in Oil City, Pa. Over the years, independent lawn contractors have approached me once or twice and offered to "get rid" of that ivy for me. Friendly eye roll. It's an aesthetic thing. Now, I feel vindicated:

"In a three-year project, Oxford researchers analysed the effects of ivy growing on buildings in five different parts of England and discovered that the plant plays a protective role. They found that an ivy canopy was like a thermal shield, combating the extremes of temperature which often cause walls to crack.
English Heritage commissioned Professor Heather Viles of Oxford University's School of Geography and the Envrionment to analyse the effect of common ivy (Hedera helix) to guide them in their important role as the steward of hundreds of historical sites. Professor Viles’s research team monitored the effect of ivy on walls situated in different parts of the country with varying climates and challenges.They found that ivy acted as a thermal blanket, warming up walls by an average of 15% in cold weather and cooling the surface temperature of the wall in hot weather by an average of 36%. The ivy was also found to absorb some of the harmful pollutants in the atmosphere. Walls where ivy was growing were less prone to the damaging effects of freezing temperatures, temperature fluctuations, pollution and salts than exposed walls without ivy.
Professor Viles said: ‘Ivy has been accused of destroying everything in its path and threatening some of our best loved heritage sites. Yet these findings suggest that there are many benefits to having ivy growing on the wall. It not only provides colourful foliage but also provides walls with weather-proofing and protection from the effects of pollution.’" (

I would note that I have learned that it's best to plant a native ivy or ivy-like vine rather than invasive English ivy (if you are outside of England).

There's something simple, Biblical and earth caring about this finding. Creation works. Plants protect. Ivy warms.

This was a case of following the heart. I know we have to think with our heads as well as our hearts, but are there times you wish you had or hadn't followed "prudent" advice, such as don't grow ivy on your walls? Or something more important?

Friday, May 21, 2010

Keep Tender

"Because thine heart was tender ... I have even heard thee." II Chronicles, 34-27

Give no occasion of stumbling; keep tender; for hardness of heart is worse than an outward plague, for that brings destruction in many ways."
George Fox, Mind the Heavenly Treasure

Since Fox would have witnessed--or at least been alive during--the last of the plagues, the strength with which he believed in "tenderness"--what we might call compassion or sensitivity--is immense. I think of the common use of the f-word and how that word alone tends to coarsen us. It is so easy to get callous. It's interesting that in a world that continues to encourage both a physical and pyschic swaggering and toughness ("get the f. out of my way!"), just as it did in the seventeenth century, Fox, from the great beyond, directs us to put a premium on ... lovingkindness. I believe he is asking for a giving up of self for other, an embrace of vulnerability, and a truly countercultural point of view that values and does not ridicule earnestness and sincerity. Around now, many people are probably asking: who would want to live in that kind of goody-two shoes world? Probably a lot of people who are suffering right now and wouldn't mind an earnest word of kindness. Also, we do remember that people like Fox and Fell are hardly namby-pampy halo heads--their writing is alive with their anger and indignation at what they saw all around them. They were quite interesting and outspoken livewires--but what moved them arose from tenderness. Or so I think. Do you?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Desire the Lord's Blessing on All

As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men. Galatians 6:9

"We are not against any man, but desire that the blessing of the Lord may come upon all men, and that which brings the curse may be destroyed; and in patience do we wait for that and with spiritual weapons do we wrestle and not against any man's or woman's person. For amongst us, Christ is King."

George Fox, From Mind the Heavenly Treasure, compiled by Gary Bowell

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Habits and Quaker Hospitality

One blog leads to another. My cyberfriend Hystery writes:

I often think about how difficult it is to feel close to other Friends ... Hospitality is a great spiritual gift. I do not refer to the hospitality in which people try to impress each other with fine homes and fine foods, but the kind of hospitality in which hearts and homes are open with a genuine generosity. Could we model that with each other so that Friends' children grew up in a family that extended beyond their biological and/or adoptive kin? We could then model that for others in our communities. How well do we know each other? It is not enough to share an hour of silence followed by polite conversation and a cookie. We have to make ourselves more vulnerable to create a beloved community. That is a difficult and a frightening thing to do for many of us including myself.

What can we do to extend hospitality, especially in a world in which "natural" hospitality seems to have retreated?

A recent blog offered me the gift of remembering that I had a friend in junior high school--as we called it then--who, looking back, I now realize was going hungry. How did I miss it then?

A. I was a child, and it was difficult for me to understand that, in fundamental ways (I understood window dressing differences) other families saw things differently from my own.

B. My friend lived in a bigger house, took better vacations and her father owned a more expensive car than we did. Her home was "done" by an interior decorator, so it had early 1970s glamor items, such as wall-to-wall shag carpeting and pop-art on the walls. It wasn't an environment that cued one to think "hunger." Though I should have seen it, as it was right in front of me, I didn't realize that the family was putting forth an image they couldn't afford, and then "affording" it by not buying food. (These were the days before easy credit.) It wasn't the right frame for me to think of deprivation.

C. My friend never said she was going hungry and encouraged me to think of her worcestershire sauce sandwiches and bird seed eating as quaint eccentricities.

When I remember her, I am reminded that people around us can be suffering physically, emotionally and spiritually, and we might not recognize it because they're the last person/family we would expect to .... fill in the blank or because we can't imagine a certain thing (such as literacy) being a problem.

I am reminded, once again, to be gentler, less judgmental and more open to the people right around me. This doesn't mean unwarranted intrusions into people's privacy, making assumptions, feeling superior or expecting to find things "wrong" behind every facade. Those behaviors make it difficult for any of us to be vulnerable.

I believe the best way to offer the hospitality needed is simply to offer general hospitality. When my childhood friend came to our house, we fed her, not because she was hungry, but because that's what we did. Thus, because we did that, we fed a hungry person. In a sense, we fed Christ. These behaviors were natural and extended to anybody. And we were not a particularly "great" family by any stretch of the imagination.

I do think too, however, that we need to be on the lookout for places where people could be expected to need help, instead of putting the burden on people to "ask." I have been in religious environments in which the whole issue of helping others was dismissed with the statement: "If people want help, they need to ask for it." However, in my experience, often the people most in need of help are often the least able to ask for it. I say this aware that I am terrible at seeing needs that should be obvious, which is where developing better habitual behaviors of hospitality could come in handy.

I believe, because of the testimonies, Quakers are well positioned to offer hospitality in a very natural way. We can respond to the people who, for whatever reason, cross our paths or whose paths we cross. We could make our simple meals, our events and our homes warmer and more open to others, and thus gradually expand our ability to serve.

Finally, what are some other ways to extend hospitality?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Then and Now

We all get to an age where we can look back over our lives and track change. I remember the 1970s in New York City, where we used to visit relatives fairly frequently. The city truly was grittier, dirtier and more chaotic back then. I remember high rises going up, relatives shaking their heads and wondering where all the extra people were going to fit in the city, the explosion in crime, and most of all, my mother's regret that New York was not the way she remembered it growing up.

I'm not usually a great David Brooks fan but enjoyed his column in today's New York TImes, which discussed crime in New York City in the 1970s and now:

My mother loved New York, loved the possibilities it presented for a young immigrant, the easily accessible arts and culture, the window shopping, the good educational system (including free college tuition for those that qualified) and the safety. As a teenager in the 1940s and early 1950s, it offered her a tremendous amount of freedom. She died in 1980, and one of my regrets is that she didn't live to see New York return to what I imagine is something akin to the city she remembered.

Who knew in the 1970s what would happen?

A few years ago I saw a play from the 1970s, set in NYC, that captured all the grittiness of life back them. It was set in an English class for foreign speaking immigrants, and its theme was that we continue to live in a tower of Babel of miscommunications. It was funny, but played on situations that seem archaic now, at least for NYC--a broken elevator, a lost contact lens. While it accurately described a world I remember, it might have been set a 100 years in the past. I thought of Laura Ingalls Wilder of the Little House books, who woke up one day and realized what was, to her as a child, ordinary life as a covered-wagon pioneer, was now the stuff of history books and movie adventures. I remember the jolt I had when I recognized that something as simple, natural and seemingly timeless in my childhood as a pick-up baseball game organized by neighborhood kids "sent out to play" was as exotic a fantasy to my son as traveling to the moon. I remember feeling a sense of loss ... who knew that this easy community and freedom of childhood, of all things, is what would go away? We never know.

Brooks traces the phenom of worried, helicopter parents to the fears of the 1970s, when the crime rate was high and people were fleeing to the suburbs or traveling nervously from their urban homes. I think genuine fear, love and anxiety does lead parents to hover, to the extent that we do, but I also take a darker view of the competition and triumphalism of some parents for whom "ultimate hovering" becomes a form of conspicuous consumption and a highly visible sign moral superiority. To the extent that it seemed not genuine (and I've certainly met the genuine), it bothered me, because it seemed to be based on the premise that "I can" do this or "we have the power." Often, it seemed a way to flaunt leisure time or status: of course "my husband" can time blocked out of his schedule to come to the little league game. How often did I hear, "I'm so lucky my husband can support me" or "Can you imagine being one of those mothers who let's someone else raise her children while she goes to work?" I would wonder about the women who had no choice (of course, the idea of "no choice" was pooh-poohed) but to work. Being in a situation of having to work--especially a low wage job-- seemed evidence of moral failure and hence "the sins of the fathers" was fitting retribution for the children. And a high school friend who had her child in her 40s reminded me of the pressure that a bullying Queen Bee mother can bring to bear even on her privileged peers--my friend wanted to tell off the tyrannizing younger woman who ran a preschool playgroup but didn't for fear her child would be ostracized. In my childhood--at least as I want to remember it--when children could make their own friends more easily, parents had less incentive to kowtow unhealthily to the "Nazi brigade." This kowtowing, while well meant, is not good role modeling for the children--our children. My friend knew all this, and yet felt helpless.

I'm glad crime has decreased and cities--at least New York City--are safer. However, I deplore living in a society where we're not in it for everyone's children, where there's such a push to protect mine and mine alone. Aren't we all supposed to be brothers and sisters? Isn't everyone's child in some sense my child? Isn't this what Jesus preached? It seems to me, looking back, that we had more of that sense when I was growing up. Of course, from what we know of history, at least in Western civilization, parents have always put their children first, but it seems to me that in the 1960s and 70s (and before, from what my parents would say) that there was more of sense of building bridges to other children to give them a hand, not pulling in behind the moat and watching for the safety of the ramparts as these families flounder. How can Quakers be part of the solution? Or am I misremembering?

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Women and the vote

My cyber friend Diana has an interesting blog on English suffragettes:

We forget how much women a century ago endured to open the door to women today having a part in the political process. Does anyone know if Quaker women in Britain were involved in the woman's movement there? I also wonder what would motivate a wealthy, aristocratic woman like Lytton to see so thoroughly through the eyes of the underclass--the view from below--that she would throw herself wholeheartedly into the woman's movement of her time.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

George Fox to BP

As the Lily, Ye All May Grow

He shall grow as the lily, Hosea, 14:5

Take heed, that with all your mind [you] may be kept up to God, who is pure; that as the lily ye all may grow, and receive wisdom from God how to use the creatures in their places, to the glory of him that created them."

George Fox, from Mind the Heavenly Treasure, p. 38

Amen, George.