19 November 2007

Healing the Wounds of War

On Friday, my husband and I went to see a movie and slide show presented by a Vietnam vet who has spent the last 15 years working with the people of My Lai, Vietnam to try to heal the wounds of war. His work is sponsored by the Friends Meeting in Madison, Wisconsin.

We were deeply touched by the presentation and the good work that these folks are doing. It started with a Peace Park on the site of the My Lai massacre, with trees planted by Vietnam vets and Vietnamese people working together. Mike Boehm went on to work with the Quang Ngai province women's union to determine what sorts of
projects are needed by the people of the My Lai area.

Since that time, the group has built a clinic, three schools, and a fair number of houses in Quang Ngai province. They've also been running a micro-loan program for the women of Quang Ngai province, serving almost 3000 women and with a payback rate of 98%.

Mike's group is the only NGO working that the Vietnamese government trusts to work with ethnic minority groups in central Vietnam. The ethnic minorities live in remote areas in extreme poverty (even more extreme than the poverty in the rest of Quang Ngai province).

This group seems to be doing a great deal of good on very little money. Their goals go beyond economic aid, to the empowerment of Vietnamese women, improved relations between the Vietnamese and Americans, and a hope that we can find ways to build peace in the world.

Our family is planning on including this work in our holiday giving this year. I strongly encourage anyone with a little extra to give to consider giving to one of the My Lai projects.

Even if you don't have any extra money to give this year, take a look at the site anyway. It's wonderful to know that there are people doing this sort of work in the world.

04 November 2007

What are we doing here together in worship?

This morning in worship, Meeting seemed awfully wiggly. I tried to reach down into the Well where we gather, but my Friends mostly didn't seem to have made it that deep. Or, perhaps, they were in a part of the Well that I wasn't able to get to. Whether it was them or me or a combination, that old gathered Meeting thing wasn't happening.

I thought about Brooklyn Quaker and the Manhattan Meeting's joy in the energy that flowed through their Meeting. This morning, we didn't seem to have that upwelling of joy. We weren't having ministry either, so I thanked God for that blessing and tried again to go deeper.

"What are we doing here anyway?" I thought, "Are we really waiting on God? Are we striving to listen for our marching instructions? Or are we sitting here, sifting through the problems in our lives, trying to find the solutions to our own small problems? Do we have the self-discipline we need to do this?"

"What you are doing," said a familiar deep rumble, "is waiting on ME. And you will LISTEN when I speak and SPEAK when I tell you to."

"Oh no," I thought, "I'm not sure I have it in me to speak in Meeting this morning."

"You will SPEAK when I tell you to."

"Okay. Am I to speak now? What am I to say?"

"You will SPEAK when I tell you to."

Obviously, I was meant to listen. So I did.

I was led on one of those magical mystery spirit tours. I saw places where people had gathered in the spirit, and how the spirit had moved them and moved through them. They built things and they struggled and they lived with the fire in their bellies and then the spirit moved on. I saw the spiritual communities of my own life, how the spirit had been alive in each of them and how the spirit had led me to move on. I saw a great dance of spirit, moving people and moving through people and moving on. Always moving on.

I saw how difficult it is to let the spirit move through you, how hard it is to stay open to the spirit and give your life into its hands. I saw my Meeting, hearts half-open and half-closed, not quite willing to make the gift outright of themselves to the spirit. I saw myself, holding onto my separateness, my pride, my ego, my principles, only half willing to step into the holy flame.

Just when I thought I would have to speak, a Friend rose. He talked about the early Friends and how the Light had come up in them and burned away their veils. He prayed to the Holy Spirit that it would shine in our Meeting and burn away our veils. He was praying for what my soul had been longing for all during worship. My heart joined his prayers, and I felt the whole Meeting sink, together, into the Well.

And there we were. Perhaps we were still half-hearted, wounded and halting, half-blind and half-deaf. Perhaps we were still wrapped up in our little lives and our small concerns, but there we were, deep in communion with the spirit, open for that precious moment.

Other Friends spoke, calling for us to be brave and to answer the call of spirit.

I used to pray every week to be made into a strong vessel for the work I was called to do. That prayer was answered. Maybe it's time to up the ante, to pray for courage to tackle big things.

01 November 2007

Growing Up Among Friends

A couple of weeks ago, our First Day school class discussed the Quaker value of Unity. My 12-year-old son illustrated Unity like this:

It's a strong and hopeful image, reflecting a child's view of a world I'd like to live in. The people, and two tigers, are all holding hands all around the world. In the ocean, two narwhals are touching tusks.

Quaker Unity, however is a concept that's not easy for a child to grasp. Even adults have difficulty with the Quaker concept of unity, substituting "consensus" for something that is at core far more mystical. Unity is more synergistic than consensus, more an expression of the Meeting as a whole, more otherworldly in origin. It's not simple intellectual agreement, but rather something that emerges from the core of the gathered Meeting.

I'm not surprised that a 12-year-old couldn't capture that ineffable quality in a drawing.

I was closing Meeting that morning. It's our custom to ask the children to tell us what they've been doing in First Day school. On this particular morning, my 8-year-old son had chosen to sit in Meeting instead of attending First Day school. As I listened to the report, I thought about the child who sat with us through Meeting, and how the Quaker education he received by sitting in worship with us was at least as valuable as the discussion in First Day school. I asked him for a report as well.

"Well," he stammered, nervous and struggling for words, "it was like waiting for God."

A soft "Ah!" went around the Meeting. A reminder, from the mouth of a child, of what it is that we're doing when we gather for worship.

After Meeting, a few curious Friends asked my son whether God had shown up at Meeting. The answer was "Yes."

08 October 2007

The Call to Joy

My spiritual life has been in ferment.

My father continues to battle valiantly with brain cancer. I spent a week with my parents in Manhattan just being a daughter. It was a lovely precious week, a piece of joy frozen in time to hold in my heart forever.

While in Manhattan, I was able to worship with 15th Street Meeting. I was a little nervous entering my first East Coast Meetinghouse. It was a big, imposing structure with wooden benches arranged in a square. I thought that the Quakers who worshipped in such a setting must be squarer, weightier, more solemn than our West Coast variety. I wondered whether I'd be able to dig deep enough to join them in worship.

As soon as I sat down, however, I sank easily into worship with this new group of Friends. They felt familiar, almost as if I was worshipping with my home Meeting. They wore different faces, but their hearts were gathered in the same worship I know so well.

The ministry came thick and fast. If we'd had a Meeting like that in Santa Cruz, Worship & Ministry would have talked it over at our next committee meeting, trying to figure out how to get the Meeting to slow down. In New York, however, the wealth of ministry seemed a measure of the energy of the Meeting. There might not be much space between messages, but the ministry came from the heart.

I went home resolved to be more accepting of the popcorn in my own Meeting. I love the silence in worship, and often long for more of it. The Manhattan Friends showed me that lively worship can also nourish the spirit.

Back home, I felt less at home. Our Meeting is still unwinding some difficult business from the summer. I was deeply involved in this business. It was sensitive, and many of the facts were confidential.

I became aware that there was a lot of gossip swirling around the Meeting, and that many people had an inaccurate picture of what had happened. People were angry and hurt.

Gossip is always tough. It's like fighting shadows, because you don't know who has heard and believed inaccurate stories. I asked a few Friends to help me find guidance, but we didn't receive anything that seemed particularly helpful.

On Friday, I received a copy of a letter that a weighty Friend had sent to the Clerk. In her letter, she repeated the gossip and expressed her outrage at the injustice that had been done.

Well, now I was hurt and angry in my own turn. I talked to a few of the others who had been involved, and we were all upset that this Friend had believed the gossip and taken public action as a result of it.

I didn't want to go to Meeting yesterday. I mentioned this to my 14-year-old daughter, and she said, "But, Mom, you need to go and face up to it. You need to confront these people with the truth. I'm sure it will all work out."

I was not at all sure, but I accepted her wisdom and went to Meeting.

I did not sink immediately into worship. It took longer than usual to settle down and let go. I felt ill-at-ease with the weighty Friend who had written the letter and suspicious of many of the other Friends who sat there.

I did my best, though, and was able to join in worship.

A Friend rose to read the monthly queries, which zinged to the heart of the issue facing our Meeting. Tears of gratitude crowded my eyes as I listened again to the distilled wisdom of other Friends. During the reading of the queries, I felt the Meeting sink together more deeply into worship. Forgiveness filled my heart, and I felt the hearts around me soften as well.

I was moved to hold each Friend who believed the gossip into the Light. I noticed that most of them weren't present.

"Perhaps they too are feeling at odds with Meeting. You need to labor with them, Heather, and help heal their hurts."

I bowed my head in humility.

A Friend rose to give ministry. He spoke about following the love in difficult situations. Another Friend spoke about unreasoning joy, and how Friends are called to it.

My heart filled with grim purpose, and I felt a small measure of joy.

After Meeting, I approached the weighty Friend and thanked her for sending me a copy of the letter.

"I was quite distressed to read it."

"I imagine you were."

"The letter contained one side of a complex situation, and it doesn't match my memory of what happened." I explained what I had been trying to do, the constraints on me, and what I had actually done.

"It must have been so difficult for you," she said, and my heart lifted. We proceeded to have a heartfelt discussion of just what it was like for me. She said that she had found it difficult to believe that I had acted as others claimed I had, and that she had been hasty in writing her letter.

I felt much better after talking with her, and better yet after talking with other Friends. There was a general striving to heal the rift, to work things out in community, to create peace in our Meeting.

Joy is calling, and I have more faith that I can find it by walking through the dark spaces with only a dim candle of love to light my way.

I am grateful, once again, to be among Friends.

03 September 2007

The Blessings of Service

I was feeling down last week because we got some bad news about my dad's health. I spent a couple of days down in the dumps and then tried to rouse myself.

A Friend was moving to Pennsylvania. She asked me if I'd take her three younger children for an afternoon so she could pack in peace. The three children ended up spending two days with us. We had a great time: swimming, playing games, chatting, and just plain playing. I was far too busy to feel sorry for myself. The needs of the seven children under my care grounded me and cheered me. When the mother thanked me, I returned her thanks. The opportunity to care for her children lifted me and blessed me.

Some years ago, the following message wove in and out of my worship during Meeting:

Every request is a gift.

At the time, I still had two quite young children who made frequent requests of me. It was not always possible to see their requests as opportunities, let alone gifts. The message served as a reminder that it was a gift to be asked to change diapers, pour juice, fix toast, listen to problems, admire creations, and clean the paint off the floor. It reminded me not to rush through the small services I provided, but instead to slow down and connect with the child as I did my job.

In Meeting this First Day, I looked around at all the dear Friends whose lives have been filled with acts of service. I thought that each of them must know the joy that comes from doing simple services for others. I wondered whether they sought opportunities for service in order to experience the joy I was feeling. I felt blessed to be sitting in the circle with them.

I had been feeling overwhelmed. How is it that, by almost doubling my burden, I could have my burden lifted from me? It's a small miracle. For a moment, I thought I could see some of what lies behind the joyful, compassionate eyes of our Meeting elders. They know this secret! They know that service lightens our hearts and makes it easier to bear our burdens. They know that walking through life with an open heart calls blessings forth.

26 August 2007

Virtue on the Bias

My children have a toy horse named Vain Pride. Vain Pride is a beautiful chestnut mare with a white mask and white stockings. She is also an insufferable herd-mate, constantly bragging and worrying about her appearance.

There's another Vain Pride, one who lives in my heart and mind. She thinks I'm precious beyond belief, and it matters desperately to her that I look good. She goads me to excel at all I do, and she spends all of her time in front of a mental mirror replaying my best moments.

There was a time when vanity and pride were considered serious sins. They've fallen by the wayside, along with other classic sins: jealousy, envy, greed, gluttony, anger, lust, and sloth. We think about mistakes and character flaws differently these days. Some sins, vanity and pride among them, have been air-brushed into virtues.

I combat my own vanity with a self-deprecating sense of humor. "It's just me, playing down to expectations. Gee whiz, aren't a funny clown?"

I caught myself at this a couple of weeks ago. Was my self-deprecating humor just another way of looking good, and hence an offering at the altar of my vanity?

I pondered this for days. Then, while driving in traffic in San Francisco (not a good time for epiphanies, in my view. Would you mind awfully, God, holding off on blinding revelations until after I've negotiated this lane change?), I got a nudge.

Maybe my problem really isn't vanity after all. Perhaps I've been practicing humility so long that I've gone too far. Perhaps my real problem is lack of confidence.

Maybe I'm afraid that people will be angry with me.

I remember being confident, sometimes to the point of arrogance. I remember being an assertive person who knew what she wanted.

I've changed myself. I can feel the weight and complexity of the alterations I've made to my thinking, the ways I've tweaked myself to become what I am now. I'm not sure if I went too far or if I used the wrong approach entirely. I wish I knew how to run diagnostics on my own brain to see if it's doing what it ought to do.

The answer is not usually at the extremes, but somewhere in the middle. There's a point where it all balances beautifully. All I need to do is feel my way towards that place at the dead center of my soul, the fulcrum that balances the load of my life.

24 August 2007

My Life as a Spiritual Clam

A couple of weeks ago, a Friend called to ask if I could close Meeting. I agreed, put on my wristwatch, packed up my family, and arrived at Meeting feeling prepared for whatever the day might bring.

A Friend spoke about her struggle to remain open to God. She talked about how she could open herself to God and walk a short way along her path open to God, but then she closed up again.

As she spoke, the words "happy as a clam at high tide" sang through my brain. In a flash, I saw a great insight into my own spiritual nature.

I am a spiritual clam. I open at high tide to receive God's wisdom, and then close at low tide to digest my blessings.

There's nothing wrong with being a spiritual clam. I might rather be a spiritual eagle or redwood tree, but God in his wisdom made me a clam. Early Quakers encouraged us to be lowly, to walk humbly. Clams are lowly, and they drag their single feet through the tidal mud. Clams are patient; clams move slowly; clams know how to wait in silence. When the time is right, they open to the sea. When the time is not right, they close up and wait.

In the high tide of Meeting for worship, I opened up and received the blessings God showered on me.

I forgot utterly that I was supposed to close Meeting, that I was wearing a wristwatch, that there might be people in Meeting who had other things to do on a fine summer First Day. We'd run ten minutes and two messages late before God shook my shoulder and said, "You're supposed to close Meeting, Heather."

I shook hands with the Friends around me and said, "Good morning."

When I stood to go through the post-Meeting wrap-up, I said, "Well, Friends, this morning I remembered to wear my watch, but I forgot to look at it. Despite my best efforts, we're running on God's time again this morning."

Even though we were running late, I was prompted to ask for after thoughts, those messages that didn't quite rise to the level of ministry. Two Friends shared rich tidbits, and my spiritual clam took them in.

There were no visitors (an unusual occurence, especially in the summer time), so I was able to skip many of the closing items. We only had a few short announcements. Despite our late break from worship, Meeting rose earlier than it usually does.

The clam closed and went to work on digestion.

20 August 2007

The Now Sound of Quaker

On lazy summer afternoons, I've been taking my youngest son to the swimming pool for lessons. I'd while away the hour with my knitting as he learned his strokes.

Other mothers would strike up conversations. We'd chat about children and menus and all those things that moms talk about at their children's lessons. I participated lazily, one eye on my son and the other on my knitting.

One day, one of the other mothers hesitantly asked if I thought she could learn to knit.

"Absolutely," I replied.

Her grandmother had tried to teach her, but she was left-handed and it hadn't worked out.

"I'm left-handed," I said.

She really wanted to learn to knit, she said, because she was trying to quit smoking and she needed something to do with her hands.

I told her I'd be happy to teach her to knit. I loved the idea of helping a human soul free herself from the false god nicotine. A simple act of service, and all I needed to to was to share something I loved.

After I'd taught her to cast on and form her stitches, we sat in my living room and knit companionably. She started talking about her belief in a Higher Power and asked me if I went to church.

"Yes," I said, having learned that it is simpler to call Meeting "church" when talking to non-Quakers, "we're part of the Santa Cruz Quaker Meeting."

"There are still Quakers?" she asked, "What do you believe?"

"Well," I said, sifting through my mind for a concise-yet-essential description, "we believe that each person has a direct relationship with God. We sit in Meeting together and wait for God to speak to us, in our hearts."

"But that's what I believe!" she said, "Are Quakers Christians? Do you follow the Bible?"

"We started as Puritans," I explained, "The early Quakers believed very much in the Bible, but they also believed that Christ had come to teach his people himself. That inner teaching, that direct connection with God was very important to them. Over time, Quakers have become more universalist, but our roots are very much Christian."

I did not get into the different varieties of Quakers. If I'm given the opportunity to proselytize my Quaker faith, I'm going to speak that bit of Light that's been given to me, and not worry overmuch about representing Quakerdom as a whole.

Later, as I was thinking about this exchange, I thought, "We're not the early Quakers. It's a bit fusty, really, to cling so much to words from the 17th century." The tune to a song from my childhood called The Now Sound of Christmas went through my head. "What we need is The Now Sound of Quaker."

"We are the Quakers," I thought, "what can we say?"

My authentic experience doesn't read like a travelogue through 17th-century England. I don't have the epiphanies they had, the leadings they had, or the struggles they had. I sometimes question my small leadings, wondering whether they're really Quakerly enough to be called leadings. I am led to help women kick the habit, protect children from abuse, promote breastfeeding, promote home birth, and give away canvas grocery sacks. Can any of those things really count as 21st century Quaker witness?

If not, what can? What constitutes the now sound of Quaker?

12 July 2007

Load-bearing Exercise

Twelve and a half years ago, I dislocated my femur rollerblading backwards. My hip has never completely healed, and for many years I walked with a noticeable limp. I had limited mobility and learned to live with constant pain in my hip and back.

Week after week, I sat in Meeting with the prayer "Make me a strong vessel so I can do the work you have given me."

Two years ago, I was diagnosed with multiple food allergies. Eliminating the problem foods lessened the inflammation in my hip and back. Exercises strengthened my muscles and greatly reduced the pain. After a year, I no longer woke up each morning because it was too painful to keep sleeping. I was able to move more freely. I went days at a time without pain.

This last fall, I had recovered enough to start working on the weight I'd gained when I was partially disabled. Now 30 pounds lighter, I find that I'm busier than I ever have been. As I've gained strength and energy, my responsibilities have expanded as well.

My prayer, it would seem, has been answered.

In recent weeks, I have been under the weight of a leading. My path has been unmistakable, winding along the edge of a cliff. I haven't had to wonder whether I'm doing the right thing, and doing the right thing has been difficult enough that I haven't had time to appreciate the clarity of the leading.

I've been thinking a lot recently about those whose leadings have taken them out ahead of everyone else. How difficult and lonely it must be to carry the Light alone into the darkness. Were their feet guided inexorably on a path they didn't want to walk? How did they hang onto their leadings in the face of condemnation and persecution?

I don't think I could carry a load like that. I have enough trouble carrying my small burdens.

My recent experience has shown me areas where I need improvement. I have not been asked to do anything that I can't manage, but I've been shown the places where I am still weak and inexperienced. The Light has shone on my flaws and said, "You'd better work on this, Heather. You'll need to be able to handle twice the load on the road ahead."

Fair warning.

I meet each month with a group of women Friends in a prayer circle. I feel especially blessed to share this intimate time with some of the older women, Friends who have grown deep in compassion and wisdom. This last week, our theme was forgiveness and healing. As I sat in worship with these Friends, I thought about the horrible tragedies they have experienced in their lives. I marveled that they had come through those dark times in their lives and emerged with so much serenity.

I thought about my own small burdens. I thought about my recovery from my hip injury, and how I've had to work at increasing the weight in my exercises over time. Bearing a small load now enables me to bear a larger load later. Each time I up the weights in my exercises, I increase my capacity to carry weight.

Maybe our spiritual practice is like that, too. Each time we faithfully carry out a small leading, we are exercising our faculties to prepare ourselves for larger leadings. By conditioning our spiritual muscles, we increase our capacity to carry our spiritual loads.

A Friend once shared ministry that said that God could give any of us great gifts when we needed them. I've come to think that those great gifts will only be given to those who are prepared to receive them.

One of the early Quaker beliefs (heretical to other branches of Puritanism) was the perfectibility of human beings. Yes, we humans are weak vessels and prone to sin and fear. As we live in the Light, however, we have the capacity to learn and grow, to perfect ourselves, to more and more fully live our Christian witness.

I have been blessed to join a community where this kind of striving is commonplace, and where many Friends have much to show for their lifetimes of faithfulness. I am starting to see the sorts of challenges that have helped shape them into the weighty Friends they have become, and I am humbled. I cannot follow their path on my merits or through my efforts alone, but only by yielding to leadings I don't want, wouldn't choose, and have difficulty following.

I would appreciate your prayers, Friends, and news of your progress on this shared journey.

26 June 2007

Responding to Comments

One of the things I miss about mailing lists (as opposed to blogs) is the ability to respond to a comment when the response is ripe. I'm going to try the experiment of responding to comments in blog posts instead of or in addition to responding to comments in situ.

In Listening in Tongues, I mentioned my ongoing struggle to balance my individual worship with my corporate role as Meeting closer. At the last Worship & Ministry meeting, I asked the committee members to share their thoughts on the role of the closer. We did a round of worship sharing on closing Meeting. One of the things that I cherish about this committee is the quality of depth and tenderness that Friends bring to our work together. In our sharing, we seemed to approach the truth of what we are called to do when we close Meeting.

One of the things that has stuck with me is that the closer is essentially clerking worship. We are not just there to discern when worship has ended, but also to tend it while it happens. We are also responsible for handling any emergencies that might arise (health emergencies, disruptive individuals, problems with the sound system for the hearing impaired). The closer is the designated driver, there to keep the Meeting safe in its journeys. The closer is in worship, too, but mindful of her responsibilities to the Meeting as a whole.

When I closed this last Sunday, we ended "late" again, but right on God's time by my spiritual watch.

In Children in Meeting, Honey asked how my boys did in worship and what they said afterwards.

Both boys did well in worship and seemed to enjoy it. They got restless a few times, but they seemed to sink into the peace and love in the room. My youngest told me that he liked worship, that it felt good. My 11-year-old didn't say much, but he's a deep thinker and will share his opinion in the fullness of time.

After Meeting, the clerk came over to my younger son and told him how nice it was to see him in worship. They talked about worship for a few minutes, with my son sharing his opinion of a few of the messages. I appreciated the clerk taking the time to welcome a child to worship and his willingness to talk with him so naturally about my son's worship experience.

A Crooked Trail

Recently, I've been finding my way along a narrow, crooked trail. I've found myself handling a very sticky, very confidential issue on behalf of the Meeting.

I haven't been able to share this issue with the Friends I usually rely on to help me find my way in the Meeting's work. I haven't been able to pass this off to the clerk or the appropriate committee. I have needed to work with a few Friends on this issue, but have had to hold much of the information about the situation in confidence.

This has not been easy for me. I'm very much an open process person. I believe that groups work better when everyone knows what's going on. In Meeting, I have come to rely on the wisdom of the community, the strength of seeking truth in Quaker process among Friends.

In this case, I have had to trust to my own wisdom and my own leading. The leading part hasn't been so hard. Each step of this path has been laid out clearly before my feet, with walls and cliffs on either side. Each step has been tricky to negotiate and emotionally difficult, challenging my compassion, my ability to stay centered, and my ability to avoid polarization. Along the way, I have often thought that this task ought to have been given to someone else, someone with better skills and more experience. Let this cup pass from my lips.

In the past few days, however, I have accepted that I might just be the best person for the job. There's a generational shift in the leadership of our Meeting, and many of the wise Friends who might be better suited for the job are no longer up to it. This situation was an opportunity for the new generation to develop some of the skills that will make us the wise and seasoned Friends for the next generation.

This task has given me renewed appreciation for the way Friends usually handle difficult situations. It's much easier to be part of a committee laboring over a difficult issue, where tasks can be shared with those best able to perform them. It's much easier to handle difficult situations when you can test your discernment by meeting with weighty Friends. It's much easier to move forward when you can feel the Meeting behind you.

In worship on Sunday, Friends talked about the support we get from God (or our inner guides or the Light) when we walk through the darkness. A Friend talked about Jesus' faith on the cross. Another Friend talked about the faith of the Jews in the concentration camps. Several Friends talked about how they had been lifted out of their own personal despair. Sitting in the Meeting, I felt my own heart lift. We might not always be able to share the details of our struggles, but we still support one another.

I think I often put too much faith in the power of words and forget the value of silence. Worship reminds me to go deeper, beyond the words and into the experience.

14 June 2007

This Path Under My Feet

I've recently read two very different views of Left Coast Friends: David LeShana's Quakers in California and A Western Quaker Reader edited by David Manousos. LeShana details the history of Western Friends from the pastoral point of view. He tries to be fair about the Beanite portion of California Quakers, but he is part of the evangelical Quaker church, and he clearly believes in the rightness of that point of view. I felt a bit at sea in his world view; it is not the story of Californian Friends as any of the Quakers I know would tell it.

Reading A Western Quaker Reader was like coming home. For one thing, I kept running into the names of Friends from my Meeting. For another thing, the narrative is not presented as a single thread told by one voice, but rather a narrative pieced together from many points of view. Different individuals relate their own first-hand accounts of events in Western Quaker history. Members of each yearly meeting tell parts of its stories. The whole thing doesn't hang together, but it does give a flavor of what it is that we do in the Beanite part of the Quaker family.

A few weeks ago, I was reminded that the word "liberal" means "free." A liberal arts education is designed, according to the Greek model, to prepare the citizens of a democracy to take part in the work of governing the state.

I've been thinking of this meaning of the word "liberal," and also of how responsibility is the flip side of the coin of freedom. Freedom without responsibility is mere license. Freedom with responsibility is an integral part of our American/English/Roman/Greek/Western heritage.

Freedom, and its concomitant responsibility, is also a deep part of our Quaker heritage. Each individual is answerable, not to a presbytery or the local priest, but directly and personally to God. We are a religion of clergy, each of us taking responsibility for our worship, our property, our community, and the earth itself. We need no hireling ministers, no paid clergy; we do the work together. Like members of a family. Like the citizens of Athens. Like the apostles.

How do we do this? Where are our models? We're the only Christian church I know without a hierarchical structure. We're deliberately decentralized, with power and responsibility retained by Meetings, committees, and individuals.

We're not efficient. We sometimes fumble our responsibilities. Things fall through the cracks. The editor of the newsletter (that would be me) makes at least one major error every single month. The Worship & Ministry committee (that would also be me, at least in part) wakes up to discover that we don't have a functioning Children's committee (a committee under our care). We learn that there are problems with the children's program. (Er, and my children are a big part of the First Day school class.) The bulk of the last two Worship & Ministry meetings have been concerned with belated oversight of the children's program.

This is all, I suspect, part and parcel of how we do business. Our quality varies. We discover things later than would be optimal and deal with them more slowly than would be ideal.

And yet I, and liberal Friends wherever we exist, would not trade our slow, inefficient system of governance for a crisp, efficient, hierarchical system. There is something precious in our very slowness, our very inefficiency. We can't just barrel ahead with solutions as soon as we think of them. We have to wait for our slowest, most methodical, most deliberate members to get there.

Still, it would be nice if someone had told us sooner that the Children's committee was struggling. And it would be lovely if the newsletter editor had more time to double-check her work before publication. And if we were all a little more proactive and efficient. The engineer in me chafes under the inefficiency and unprofessionalism. Our Quaker performance is rough, unpolished, as plain as spilt salt.

In our slowness and inefficiency, we build relationships. We have to pay attention to the details of how our Meeting is run. We can't depend on the minister or the church board to take care of things for us; we have to lend a hand, attend our committee meetings, carry part of the burden. We labor with one another, both over the work at hand and over our different points of view.

At our Meeting retreat this year, a new attender told us that he thought we could use more of some sort of activity.

"Great!" I chirped, "Would you be willing to lead it?"

"But you're Worship & Ministry!" he protested, "You're the ones in charge of the retreat."

"We might be serving on the Worship & Ministry committee, but it's not all up to us," said another member of the committee, "We're a religion of clergy. We Quakers didn't do away with the clergy, we did away with the laiety."

He looked a bit flustered. I felt a bit apprehensive. Maybe we'd just given him more reality than he could handle. Later, I found myself on the path with him and apologized for being so abrupt.

"No, it was a good reminder," he said, "That's one of the things I like about Friends, that everyone is equal."

That's one of the things I like about Friends, too.

31 May 2007

Children in Meeting

My 7-year-old has recently decided to come into worship with me instead of going to First Day school. Last week, his 11-year-old brother (who has occasionally joined us in worship) also sat in worship with us.

My boys are half to a third of the First Day school class. I let the teacher know that they were going to join us in Meeting. I felt a bit bad about taking her students away from her, but I also want my children to experience worship for themselves. Worship, after all, is central to the experience of being a Quaker.

I feel a bit uncomfortable with the idea of First Day school (and also with teen programs that meet during worship). Our culture is always pushing children off to one side instead of letting them participate fully in community life. Children are warehoused in schools and kids' programs with other children their age while the adult world gets on with the business of living.

Throughout most of human history (and, if the behavior of our ape cousins is anything to go by, all of our primate history before that), children have spent most of their time in the mixed-age world of family and community. Only in the last century have children been removed from the larger community and sent to spend most of their time in groups of their age mates.

I don't think this is a good way to raise children. Children need relationships with people of all ages. They need to have contact with babies, with children of different ages, and with adults of all ages. Children can't easily learn the social skills they need from a bunch of children their own age; they need older children and adults to help bring them along.

The flip side of this is that children view the adult world as alien. Having been excluded from most of adult life, they don't apply themselves to learning what adults do. They apply themselves to learning how to get around schools, playgrounds, sport teams, and the other activities they are asked to do.

So, when a Meeting raises its children in First Day schools and teen programs, we're not bringing them into the adult Meeting community. We're preparing a place for children to be while their parents do boring adult stuff.

There's a need for this place, especially for very young children. Forcing children to sit through worship will probably not make kids want to grow up to be adult Quakers. Parents need to know that their children are safe during worship.

There are also other ways for children to connect to the Meeting community. Meeting activities for all ages allow kids to make friends with adults in Meeting. When Friends visit one another's homes, children have the opportunity to connect with people in a deeper way.

Children can also get a taste of worship when their First Day school class joins the adults for the first or last part of worship. First Day school activities and children's programs at Meeting retreats and quarterly and yearly meetings can also help them learn about what the adults do.

Still, I think that we could devote more thought to our children's spiritual development and on how to bring them into our Meetings.

My own inner guidance on this (and, where my children are concerned, my inner guide can be loud and insistent) is to encourage my children in every step that brings them deeper into Meeting. If my 7-year-old wants to sit in worship with me, my inner guide tells me to focus on the opportunity to parent him through Meeting. Yes, my own worship probably won't be as deep if I'm parenting an active boy at the same time. My son, however, will be gaining valuable early experience of worship. He'll start to get a sense of what Friends do in silence, and of the sorts of issues that are important to adult Friends.

It's difficult to both create a separate space for children and still welcome them into adult spaces. In my heart, I hold the truth that our children grow up to be adults, and that they need to explore the adult world as they are ready to do so. The things that adults do are neither so complicated nor so boring that children cannot experience them in small doses.

30 May 2007

Pssst! Pass It On!

Liz Opp of The Good Raised Up included this blog in her list of Blogs That Make Me Think. Thanks, Liz, for giving me the nod. It's encouraging to know that someone is reading and appreciating what I write.

The game goes like this, as in the original post from The Thinking Blog:

If you’ve been tagged, here’s how you play:

1. If, and only if, you get tagged, write a post with links to 5 blogs that make you think;
2. Link to this post at The Thinking Blog so that people can find the exact origin of the meme;
3. Optional: Display the ‘Thinking Blogger Award.’

I would have given Cat Chapin-Bishop the nod, but she gave it to Liz and so is probably not ready to think of five more blogs that make her think.

Here are five other blogs that make me think:

Richard of A Place to Stand writes long essays that move me to consider my identity as a Friend, my connection to the global community of Friends, and my own religious philosophy. Richard is willing to engage deeply and lovingly with folks with different viewpoints.

Zach of The Seed Lifting Up makes me think mostly in his comments on other blogs, but I like the way he thinks and the way his ideas get my brain going, so he's getting the nod anyway.

Franklin of The Panopticon is a man who is not afraid to knit lace. He also writes beautifully, has an active fantasy life, flexes his humor muscles regularly, and draws great cartoons starring the sheep Dolores. Franklin makes me laugh and encourages me to keep knitting, so he's on here.

Cognitive Daily is a couple's blog about how we think. Thinking about how we think definitely makes me think. I think.

Stefani of Reading While Knitting is an old friend, and I love her to pieces. She writes about life in the trenches with kids in a way I would never even dare think about. I think a lot of things while reading Stefani's posts, things like "What would I do if my kids did that?" and "With four kids and a teaching job, she has time to spin and keep bees?" and "Is that woman entirely sane?" and "I want to be just like her when I grow up, only a lot more relaxed."

27 May 2007

Listening in Tongues

At worship this morning, an older Christocentric Friend stood to deliver ministry. She spoke about how nontheistic Friends have always puzzled her, and about how she had taken the opportunity to attend a gathering of nontheistic Friends at Quarterly Meeting.

Since this meeting, the Spirit has been moving in her life. She realized that her use of the word "God" had been getting in the way of her spiritual experience. She talked about letting go of belief in God and embracing her own agnosticism. She stressed her continuing faith in Jesus as teacher and her ongoing commitment to living by his commandments. She spoke with puzzlement and amusement about being a born-again agnostic Christocentric Friend.

This Friend's ministry touched many hearts, including mine. Several Friends who rarely speak in Meeting rose to share their own stories about identity and their relationship to the Meeting. They spoke about the challenge of setting aside judgment and listening for that of God in everyone's words, and about how that challenge helps us move more deeply into the Spirit.

Towards the end of Meeting, a Friend rose to observe that today is Pentecost, the day on which the disciples spoke in tongues to the people of Jerusalem. He quoted Acts 2:16-18 In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.

He went on to say that he has often thought that Quakerism is a deeply Pentecostal faith, a faith that puts its trust in the guidance of the Spirit. He then observed that we don't so much speak in tongues as listen in tongues.

I closed Meeting a little late, reluctant to emerge from the communion with my dear Friends. My heart was full and tender, and I felt deeply blessed to be with this extraordinary group of people. I felt awed by the power of the Spirit to work in every heart in the Meeting, humbled by the honest words that Friends had shared about their own spiritual journeys.

What a gift we have been given, the ability to listen in tongues. Each soul in our Meeting gathers to try to listen to the Truth beyond our words. We strive to listen with our hearts, not our minds. We strive to tend that of God in each person, even when we don't understand it.

Namaste, Friends.

22 May 2007

Do You Call This a Religion?

At worship this week, we had about a dozen newcomers, several of whom were environmental activists. It was exciting to have so many new folks join us for worship.

One of the customs of our Meeting is to invite newcomers to introduce themselves before the rise of Meeting. When the closer ends the silence, we greet those near us, the children report on what they did in First Day school, we have newcomer introductions, and then various people make announcements.

The closer ends the silence by turning to the person next to hear, shaking hands, and saying, "Good morning." It was months before I realized that the morning greetings were not spontaneous. After several years as an occasional attender, my husband asked me how we all knew that worship was over. He thought (as I had before him) that we were all so spiritually attuned that we knew when to end the silence.

We invite the newcomers to share their names, where they're from, and a little bit about themselves. These newcomers got into the spirit, and many of them shared their previous Quaker experience and/or why they were interesting in Quakers.

Towards the end of introductions, a woman said that she'd always heard about Friends, and that she was interested in exploring our religion. Then she stopped, confused, and said, "Do you call this a religion?"

The Meeting was filled with merry laughter. I love it when we laugh together like this right after worship; no other laughter feels so free or so full of joy as post-worship laughter.

The closer affirmed that we do indeed call this a religion, and we went on to announcements.

It's a good question, though. "Do you call this a religion?" We are the Religious Society of Friends and yet many people seem confused about our status as Christians or even a religion. We don't use the outer forms that other religions use: no minister, no choir, no cross on the altar. Our chairs are arranged in three concentric ovals (we're soft chair Friends; some visiting Friends have intimated that this is sinful while others have threatened to take our chairs back to their home Meetings). How would anyone know that we're a religion instead of a meditation group or a group of people who just happen to like to sit together in (mostly) silence on Sunday mornings? Most of us don't even wear funny hats, and the funny hats we do wear don't match.

"Do you call this a religion?"

Thinking about this question later, I am reminded that we shall know Christians by their fruits, that people will know we are Christians by our love. In a similar fashion, I think that people will know our Meetings are a religion by the power of the Spirit who joins us in worship. It's part of the strength of our style of worship that people can attend Meeting with very different ideas of the Divine and still gather at the same well to drink from the same cup.

The other thing that makes me think that our Meeting is a religion, and a worthy one at that, is the example set by the older people in the Meeting. They are an extraordinary group of human beings, deep in love and compassion and wisdom. Whatever practices they follow have obviously borne fruit, and I yearn to grow into their kind of Light in what remains of my life.

I don't worry too much about whether others call what we do a religion. What does the name matter? If we earnestly try to turn our hearts to God, to sit together in waiting worship, and to follow the promptings of the Light revealed to us, then it doesn't matter what we're called.

I thought of the many other times and places where I feel the sense of worship: around trees, in meditation, at concerts, in acts of service, walking, dancing, in the presence of the ocean, listening to a child, making love with my husband, experiencing sudden natural beauty, doing mundane chores, knitting, sharing a cup of tea with a friend. I am reminded that it's all sacred, that God is everywhere, and that all I need to do is open my heart and be where I am, right now.

God bless you all, Friends.

My Canvas Bag Ministry

When I go grocery-shopping, I grab several canvas grocery bags from a hook in my kitchen closet. They ride in my shopping cart while I gather my bread and vegetables, and then hop onto the checkout stand to hold my groceries.

The bags are homely: rumpled and stained, their kid-painted designs worn off by years of hard use. Some of my favorites, the canvas bags I first started using back in the mid-80s, have worn-through bottoms and can only handle light loads.

When I first started using canvas bags, most of the grocery clerks thought I was weird. They'd ask me if I wanted paper or plastic, and I'd tell them that I want my groceries in these rumpled cloth bags. I had to encourage them to pack them full, and not to wrap certain items in disposable bags to keep them separate from other items.

I started using canvas bags to save trees, but came to find them more convenient than disposables. They hold more than a conventional grocery bag, stand upright more easily, and have good carrying handles that don't easily rip. I can carry more groceries using them. In the early days, before we had curbside recycling, my grocery bags took bottles back to town for recycling.

So, after more than 20 years of using canvas grocery bags, I asked the clerk at our local, quite hip, organic grocery how many shoppers use reusable bags. She estimated 15%.

I felt discouraged for days after that. I've been singing the praises of reusable bags for 20 years, giving them to friends as gifts, encouraging perfect strangers to give them a try, and yet, even at the most environmentally aware spot in my town, hardly anyone uses them.

Other reusable items that could be used by a lot more people include cloth handkerchiefs instead of paper tissues, cloth rags instead of paper towels, cloth napkins instead of paper napkins, commuter mugs instead of to-go cups, cloth diapers or elimination communication instead of disposable diapers, and reusable food containers instead of disposable ones.

For many years, I've been disappointed when I read articles that promised to show me 10 easy things to do to save energy or help the environment. I was hoping to learn something I didn't know, to hear ideas that haven't been part of my life for decades. Lately, though, I've started getting excited about environmentalism again. After years of seeming-stagnation (and, in the SUV-crazy years, backsliding), I'm starting to hear new ideas and new enthusiasm for old ideas.

This shift is reflected in Meeting, too. Several years ago, we had an active Peace & Social Order committee and a sleepy Friends in Unity with Nature committee. Now the situation is reversed: FUN has picked up and P&SO has dropped off. There's talk about putting solar panels on the roof of the Meetinghouse. The Meeting passed a global warning minute a few months ago, and Friends are actively talking about things we can do as a Meeting to help the environment.

27 April 2007

Advices and Queries: Reaching Out

Many of the members of my Meeting believe that the Queries (some would leave out the Advices) are the heart of Quakerism. They say that earnest and consistent attention to the Queries has deepened their faith and caused them to examine the integrity of their practice.

Here are the Advices and Queries my Meeting is considering during the month of May (from Pacific Yearly Meeting's Faith and Practice):

Advices and Queries

Reaching Out

Friends’ fellowship begins and is nurtured within the home and Meeting. It reaches greater fulfillment as we carry our beliefs into the wider community.

Share your Quaker faith. Take time to learn about other people's experiences of the Light and, as you learn, give freely from what you have gained. Respect the experiences and opinions of others, but do not be afraid to say what you value. Welcome the diversity of culture, language, and expressions of faith in your Monthly Meeting, the Yearly Meeting, and the world community of Friends. Encourage discourse with Friends of pastoral and programmed traditions, and with members of other faiths.

Friends have a long history of involvement in public and private education, sharing our values with the world and nurturing future generations. Be mindful of the needs of children in your community and of avenues for deepening understanding between peoples.

• How does my life reflect Friends beliefs and thus encourage others to be interested in the Religious Society of Friends?

• Do I respond openly to inquiries about Quaker experience and belief?

• What does our Meeting do to make others aware of Friends principles and practices?

• What are we doing to help people of various races, cultures, and backgrounds feel at home among us and we among them?

• How do we encourage newcomers to return and participate in activities of the Meeting?

• In what ways do we participate in the life of the interfaith community and in the wider fellowship of Friends?

25 April 2007

The Beam in My Eye

Things have been rough around here. Our four children had to adjust to having their mother go back to work fulltime in September, their father find a job again in November, and both parents working outside the home until my contract ran out at the end of March. The children soldiered on with homeschooling and keeping the household running, something that was especially hard on our 14-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son.

In November, my dad was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, a very aggressive form of brain cancer. My husband's father had been fighting prostate cancer for 6 years, and it had moved into his bones.

My folks have a wonderful support community. They are close with family, and have many friends willing to go the extra mile for them. My mom insisted that I focus on my family and my job, and that I leave the heavy lifting to those bearing lighter burdens.

My father-in-law was a different story. He's spent the last 30 or more years estranged from all of his relatives. He was estranged from my husband for 23 years, and only picked up the relationship because my husband started writing him. My father-in-law lived by himself in his camper in the desert, as far from human beings as he could get. When his cancer grew, he had no one to turn to except my husband.

I never met him. Although he twice consented to a visit from my husband, he was not willing to meet me or the children. He was a very unhappy person, probably mentally ill. He cut himself off from family and community every way that he could. He stood alone, allowing no one close except his little poodle.

He cared deeply for this poodle. One of the reasons that he consented to see my husband was that he was afraid of what would happen to his little dog when he died. He wanted to make sure that the dog had a good home, and he trusted my husband to give him one.

When my father-in-law's condition worsened, the little poodle came to live with us. He was truly alone then, and my husband and I worried about how he was managing, alone and ill in his camper.

He was not an easy person to help. He didn't want to accept help, and often balked at arrangements that he had agreed to earlier. He hated being caged up, and would check himself out of hospitals and hospice facilities when he couldn't care for himself.

While this was going on, my job ended and I came back home to be a fulltime mom. All of the unmet needs that my children had been holding for many months suddenly exploded out of them. My youngest was the most extreme in this regard, being extremely demanding and then bursting into long-lived rages.

Since infancy, this child has had a tendency to cut himself off and shoot himself in the foot when he gets angry. Right when my father-in-law was going through his most difficult time, my son was echoing his behavior right here in our house. I became fearful that my son would grow up to be as miserable as his grandfather.

During my working time, we fell into some bad parenting habits. We instituted negative consequences for destructive behavior, and we applied those consequences without trying to get to the root of my son's unhappiness. My son was quite willing to up the ante, and we were having frequent showdowns.

One evening, I got the message that my behavior was part of the problem, and that the older children were also sowing bad behavior in their little brother. I told my son that I was taking the negative consequences away. I wanted him to stop fighting with his siblings and to curb his destructive behavior, but I was going to stop punishing him for it. Instead, I would work with him to help him find constructive ways to handle his anger.

I got an extra snuggle that night at bedtime. Things began to turn around. I started seeing more of my son's sunny, helpful, cheerful, and creative side. His rages became shorter and less intense.

I learned a lesson here that I have learned before, but one that I forget during times of stress. I can't fix other people. No matter how much I criticize, argue, and even threaten them, they won't change unless they choose to. The more I criticize, argue, and threaten, the less likely they are to change.

When I start looking at what I can change in my own attitude and behavior, though, I create the space where other people can change. When I work on getting the beam out of my own eye, people are more willing to get the motes out of theirs. When I look at them with love and appreciation rather than judgment and criticism, they are moved to live up to my expectations instead of down to them.

Whenever I have a problem with my Meeting or with individuals in my Meeting, the best way for me to address it is to work on myself first. I need to examine my own hard judgments, my lack of charity, my impatience, my lack of grounding. I need to admit fault first (even if I think the other person is more at fault than I am).

I am often reluctant to do this, and frequently surprised at how well it works. Even in deeply polarized situations, the shift from judgment and criticism to love and compassion can melt conflict. It's like having a magic wand. Make that shift and zoop! zoop! everyone's back on the same team and working together to resolve the situation.

Jesus told us not to judge one another and to forgive one another when we trespassed against one another. I think that this is one of the more profound truths in Jesus' ministry and one of the most difficult to live. We humans are quick to judge others and slow to forgive.

It's important to remember that this Christian stuff is not just a collection of lofty ideas in a book somewhere. This stuff really works for creating the best possible world here and now, on Earth. It's not just for fancy dress parties and flashy public actions. It works in the lowliest, most mundane, ugliest personal disputes.

It works in our Meetings. It works with the most irritating and least spiritually adept attenders at our Meetings. It works with the folks who natter too much in worship, the people who say the wrong things, the ones who bullheadedly insist on pulling the Meeting in the wrong direction.

Most of all, though, it works in my heart, to make me a better Christian and a better Friend.

My father-in-law died early Monday morning. I feel deep sorrow that he spent his life planting ice and harvesting wind, but I am glad that he is at peace at last. I am grateful for the difficult lessons he taught us, and appreciative of his care for the little dog who now lives at our house.

Oh dear God, forgive us, as we forgive each other. Teach us to forgive and to extend that hand of compassion and friendship 70 times 7 times. If I learn nothing else in my life, may I learn that one lesson well: to love my neighbor as myself.

19 April 2007

QuakerQuaker: Challenges and Community

QuakerQuaker.org takes me out of my own comfortable world of Santa Cruz Friends and challenges me with Quaker viewpoints that I don't encounter in my own Meeting. I have a new appreciation for the variety of Quaker faith and practice in the world. These different viewpoints challenge me to examine and deepen my own ideas. You're helping me grow in many ways, Friends, and I thank you for that.

The posts I like the most describe how Friends in other areas do things. I find great value in reading how different Meetings organize themselves, and the many different ways that Friends resolve issues.

I have also discovered a vibrant online community of Friends. I am glad to be among you, and am learning to love and appreciate many of you.

When I first heard of this blog carnival, Chris suggested that I might not feel warmly towards Martin. It's true that I disagree with Martin on many particulars, and that I have not yet connected with him on a level where I can appreciate his gifts. Chris' invitation, however, encouraged me to think again about what it means to be in a Christian community. Jesus did not command us to love those who are easy to love. No, our call to love goes deeper than that. We are called to love those who irritate us, those whom we initially dislike, those with whom we have profound and ongoing disagreements.

This brings me back to the center of what it means to be a Quaker, what it means to be a Christian, what it means to live according to God's will. We are called to love one another, in community, to forgive one another 70 times 7 times, to extend our hands to our brothers and sisters and to labor over our disagreements. QuakerQuaker.org gives us another way to extend our hands to one another and to labor together.

I am profoundly grateful, Martin, that you had the vision to create this gathering of Friends and that you are willing to do the work to sustain this community.

16 April 2007

Marriage: a Difficult Witness

Last week, my dad told me that my brother had broken up with his girlfriend of 10 years. I listened to the second-hand story, aching for my brother and his former love. Inside, a little voice was saying, "Couldn't they have worked things out? Couldn't they have at least found a way to separate without so much bitterness?"

As my husband and I got ready for bed that night, I shared the family news. He expressed sympathy and regret that these two people who mean a lot to us have created such suffering for one another.

"When I hear that people are breaking up," I said, "I try not to be judgmental. There's some part of me, though, that wants to stand up and say, 'Can't you work things out? Are you sure this is the best decision you could make?' If there are children involved, it stands up and screams, 'What about your kids?'"

But I don't say these things. I hold the grieving in my heart and I listen. Marriage can be difficult at times. It takes commitment, hard work, compassion, humor, maturity, and a certain amount of luck. I can't know the challenges that other people face in their marriages. I've had friends who were divorced against their will. I've known women who divorced to escape abusive situations. I have a friend who spent years trying to keep things together with his mentally ill wife before throwing in the towel.

That little voice, however, won't be still. It reminds me that divorce has serious negative consequences, consequences that our popular culture tends to whitewash.

Our culture views divorce lightly. If two people are incompatible, if they aren't happy together, if they aren't in love any more, then divorce will cure what ails them. If one of them falls in love with someone else, then surely the new love will make a better partner. If you discover that your mate has been unfaithful to you, your marriage has been irreparably harmed, and you'd be better off on your own. Children are resilient; they'll recover quickly and be happier in a household where the parents aren't fighting.

In real life, though, divorce is much harder than the image our culture projects. Divorce is hard on everyone emotionally, and it does serious financial damage to both partners. Divorce hits children especially hard, with emotional and financial consequences that continue into middle age.

Due to good fortune and the maturity and common sense of my husband, I haven't been divorced myself. My parents divorced when I was 11. For most of my life, I believed that their divorce was especially acrimonious and that I was overly sensitive to the negative effects. After reading the experiences of other children of divorce, I realized that my parents' divorce and my own reaction to it were typical. It was the cultural narrative that was off.

How can I challenge the cultural narrative without judging those who divorced under its influence?

We hear a lot about the sanctity of marriage from the religious right, and yet they are largely silent on the matter of divorce. Demographically, they are more likely to divorce than any other segment of society. I yearn for Friends to take up the witness, not for the sanctity of marriage, but for the value of marriage.

A well-built marriage provides vital shelter and support for its members. Over time, as partners overcome difficulties together, a marriage can become stronger, more versatile, more stable. Partners provide balance for one another in times of trouble, and our ability to support one another improves with practice.

A marriage, even a fairly unhappy marriage, provides a stable emotional and financial base for children. Children are happier when their parents stay married, even unhappily, and married parents provide much better financial support for their children.

Marriage is tough. There are rocky periods and droughts in every marriage, times when conflict soars and love seems scarce.

What can we do to help people get through such times, to put their marriages on a better footing for handling the difficulties that life dishes out? What kinds of things can we say to encourage people to hang in there, to forgive one another, to admit their failures, and to move forward together with love? When is such an approach futile, and divorce a real solution to irreconcilable differences? How can Meetings serve the marriages under their care?

24 March 2007

Church Politics

Note: in the first revision of this post, I referred to "conservative" Friends. By "conservative," I did not mean to refer to members of the Conservative Friends Meetings, but more to the FUM/EFI evangelical side of Quakerism.

A couple of years ago, my daughters and I listened to the excellent Teaching Company course, The History of Christianity in the Reformation Era. The course covered the various movements in Christianity in the 15th and 16th centuries, both in the Catholic church and in the various Protestant groups that sprung out of it. Much of the material was new to us, and we had many discussions about the theological ideas behind the various schisms in the Church.

I was talking about this course with a Jesuit-educated friend of mine. "The Reformation," he said flatly, "was a failure. The reformers wanted to change the One True Church, but they only succeeded in splintering it. Every stream of Christianity already existed in the Catholic church; the Reformation broke up the body of the Church and left Christianity as a whole weaker."

I had never considered the Reformation in that light before. I'd always heard the Protestant point of view on the matter, and the Catholic point of view startled me. I grudgingly admitted that my friend had a point. When the Church schismed, the various streams of Christianity no longer had either the ability or the obligation to labor together to find the truth. Each sect could cling to its little truth and pat itself on the back for being right.

I'm not much for politics, myself. When people start fighting for turf, I slink down in my seat and head for the door. I don't like conflict. I feel much more comfortable in the role of peacemaker than in the role of warrior.

I've read many opinions in the Quaker blogosphere that imply that I oughtn't to call myself a Quaker. Indeed, judging from the crieria proposed, almost no one in either my monthly or yearly meeting would qualify. If we aren't willing to commit ourselves to the 17th-century faith of Fox, we have no right to be part of the Religious Society of Friends.

We're here. We've been accepted into membership in monthly meetings, and we feel that we are continuing the essential work of Friends. We don't always agree what that work ought to be, which is precisely why we meet to try to discern what our corporate direction ought to be. We labor together, as the body of the Church, to determine what God asks of us in the present.

The past can be a guidepost, but it's not meant to be a perfect template. We're not shackled to the revelations of the 17th century; we're meant to discern the living truth for ourselves in the present. Much has changed in the past 350 years, and I am glad that Friends have had the good grace to change to meet the challenges of their own times.

Imagine if John Woolman had accepted the Old Testament view of slavery instead of trusting to the Light that was given him. How much poorer would we be without the courage of those who followed their Light even when it went against the dictates of past generations.

Okay, so it's obvious where I stand in the old argument of Christ-centered versus Light-centered Quakerism. I'm from the Beanite branch of Quakerism, after all, in the very quarterly meeting started by Joel and Hannah after they were cast out by the revivalist Iowa Yearly Meeting. Who, not to put too fine a point on it, believed that they were the ones preserving original Quaker practice.

I want evangelical Friends to know that liberal Friends also think we're right. We have a version of history that indicates that we're the real heirs to George Fox's ministry, and that those who fell sway to the revival movement fell off the Quaker wagon at the same time. If anyone's entitled to the term Quaker, it's us, not you. We're tolerant and we try to be polite, but, deep down, we believe that we're following the path that God has laid out for us.

So we have several groups of Quakers who think that they're right (and that the other groups are wrong). And, collectively, we all think that the rest of Christendom (and probably all other religions) got things at least a little bit wrong.

What are we going to do about it? Are we lining up for another schism, after our tentative coming-together? Are we, one of the historic peace churches, so bad at dealing with conflict that we can't even work things out with other Friends? Are we going to allow the outer forms of language and variations in religious practice keep us from laboring together?

Jesus said something about the beams in our own eyes, and certainly we all have them. He also said some things about forgiveness, and the importance of working things out with your brothers. (Being from a sexist society, as he was, he didn't say anything about working things out with your sisters, but he would have if he'd lived in modern times).

I try, I really do try, to read your blogs about the importance of Quakers being more Christian. I try to hear what you're saying, even when you use language that makes me uncomfortable. It would be a whole lot easier if you didn't lead with your judgment about how my sort of Quaker is no sort of Quaker at all. I might not be your sort of Quaker, but my tradition goes back in an unbroken line to Fox, same as yours, even if it's kept different bits of his original ministry than yours has.

We might have something to teach one another.

22 March 2007

A Woman and a Friend

A couple of months ago, I sought counsel from a woman Friend who has done extensive hospice work. I wanted guidance on how to help my parents through these last months or years of my father's life. My Friend had much to offer: practical advice, reassurance, and a calm acceptance of death.

As I was thanking her for her generous support, we got to talking about Meeting dynamics. She made a comment about the increased Christian ministry in Meeting and how it seems to speak to many new attenders.

I heard hesitancy in her voice, so I asked, "And does it speak to you?"

She looked me straight in the eye and said, "I'm a woman."

Her words shifted something in me. I thought of my long struggle to make peace with the Christianity in Quakerism. I had even come to identify myself as Christian. I thought of how often someone on the Quaker blogosphere proclaims the need for more Christianity in Quakerism, and how uneasy that makes me feel. I imagine Quakers becoming so evangelical that they declaim homosexuality and insist that I cover my head, muffle my voice, and submit to my husband.

About a week after that, I ran across my copy of Starhawk's The Fifth Sacred Thing. I read Starhawk's inscription to me and remembered our time in jail together after being arrested at Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. I thought of all I had laid down in the process of becoming a Quaker. Perhaps it is time to pick it up again.

My thoughts simmered until my women's prayer group. l shared that I was uncomfortable with calls to make Quakerism more Christian, unless being more Christian means that we try to love one another better.

In worship, I can usually hear Friends' messages, whatever the language they use. The language of the Bible, however, does not speak to me directly. The Bible was written by men, from a male perspective. The Bible does not present either a rich or positive view of women and female spirituality. Women can learn to overlook and filter the negative, but we cannot find female voices in a medium in which they don't exist.

At our Meeting retreat, we broke into small groups and did an exercise to identify one another's spiritual gifts. One woman observed that I have a deep connection with the Earth, that I have learned to live in harmony with nature instead of in opposition to it.

Another puzzle piece snapped sharply into place for me. What we need in Quakerism is greater universalism, more connection with the Earth, more connection with the world's peoples, more connection with our bodies, and deeper attention to how we can live in harmony with one another and with the rest of creation. We need to spend more time listening to trees and watching banana slugs. We need to spend more time listening to those with different viewpoints and less time consolidating our own. We need to be more present in our bodies and spend less time abstracting away from our physical existence.

This I know experimentally: the Earth is sacred. The Goddess is immanent in creation. Every living thing on this planet is an embodiment of the Divine. Our salvation is right here, in these bodies, on this planet. How we treat one another matters. How we treat the Earth matters.

If Biblical language moves your soul, I rejoice for you. I just ask that you let the trees get a word in edgewise now and then, that you listen to the thrum of the living Earth, that you sink deep into your body and recognize that you too are an animal in the biosphere.

We are at a crossroads. The future of the Earth and all the living creatures on the Earth may very well depend on how we act in the next few years. Let's not waste our time squabbling about terminology. Let's go deeper, Friends, and do the work we are called to do.

18 March 2007

Faith and Practice

Santa Cruz Meeting had its annual retreat at Quaker Center this weekend. It was a good weekend, full of community, deep discussions with Friends, and moments to be held and cherished.

Moments to be cherished:
  • The hands of the oldest and the youngest at work together. At my Prayer Shawl Ministry workshop, I asked how many people had never knit. Eight hands went up. I then asked how many people knew how to knit well enough to teach someone else. A half dozen hands went up, including the hands of the three young teenagers attending the workshop. The teenagers taught some of the oldest and weightiest Friends in our Meeting how to hold the yarn and cast on.

  • The glowing faces of the teenagers as they carried out the lovingly prepared organic vegetables, lasagna with and without allergens, cabbage salad, fruit salad, and shamrock cookies for Saturday dinner. The teens had planned the meal, done the shopping, and chopped mountains of vegetables for the most delicious meal of the weekend.

  • Hiking up to the waterfall with three 7-year-olds, a 5-year-old, another adult, and a stalwart 2.5-year-old who marched the whole way with his boots on the wrong feet.

  • Seeing a Pacific Giant Salamander with the children.

  • Connecting with other woman Friends over our thirst for feminine aspects of the Divine.

  • Listening to Live Oak Preparative Meeting's musical rendition of their State of the Meeting report.

  • Walking the labyrinth silently with a group of about 20 Friends, journeying inward to the center and then back out again. Watching their faces as they centered inward, and seeing their unique beauty as they stood in silence after the labyrinth walk.

  • Having a long and heartfelt discussion with another member of Worship and Ministry about what the gospel of John did to Christianity and how Christianity might be different if we had the gospel of Thomas instead.

I had a good weekend and a busy weekend, but it was more a working weekend than a spiritual retreat for me.

In the final worship, however, we gathered quickly and the faith of my Friends pulled me down to the deepest worship I had experienced in a good while.

"I'm out of practice," I thought, "Why don't we talk more about the practice part of Faith and Practice? I say that I am a Quaker, but have I been doing my Quaker practice?"

I thought about the seasoned Friends I admire the most, and how their years of Quaker practice have built the spiritual gifts I most admire in them.

I have been under incredible stress these past few months. I've also been impatient with worship, having so much that I need to do and so little time to do any of it. Even when I've sat in worship, I've skimped on good practice. I haven't had energy to tend worship or to clear out my own spiritual detritus so I can be a pure well of Divine Light.

(Before worship, a dear Friend reminded me that I don't always need to be centered, that this is exactly why Quakers gather in community, so that we can help bring one another back to the Light when we stumble.)

During worship, I reflected on the importance of our corporate practice. Meetings, like individuals, learn how to be Quakers by doing our Quaker practices. I closed my eyes and tended my spiritual well, and then I opened my eyes and blessed each of my dear Friends, all the way around the circle.

I'm left thinking that I need to practice Quakerism much as the children need to practice the piano. I need to run through my Quaker scales, to exercise my Quaker faculties, and to gather with my Meeting for our corporate practices. Only then will I become the Quaker I can be, and the Quaker that my Meeting needs me to be. Without the practice, I'm a Quaker in name only, the outer shell of a Quaker without the inner Quakerness.

13 February 2007

Simple Gifts

Some years ago, I threw a barebones party for my younger daughter: park, children, string cheeses, orange wedges, juice, and cupcakes. A Quaker friend of mine turned to me and said, "This is a really simple birthday party."

I didn't know enough about Quakerism then to know that she was paying me a high compliment. Yes, it was a simple birthday party. I had three young children, including a baby, and I was also homeschooling and working 30 hours a week. Simple was all that I could manage.

Over the past 6 months, I have come to realize that simplicity is probably my major contribution to my Meeting. I find this somewhat surprising and somewhat ironic. I never imagined that I would become known for my habit of paring down plans for Quaker events to make them more manageable. Indeed, I might prefer not to have to continually look for ways to simplify my life.

The Great Woodworker has other ideas, and I look back to see how this "gift" for simplicity has been trained in me. I am an engineer by profession, and there's nothing like working with things that can break to convince a person of the value of clean, simple, elegant designs. I have four children, and there's nothing like mothering to force a person to focus on the essential rather than the merely necessary.

Simplicity, though. I've never been completely comfortable with the simplicity testimony. Life is complex, life is diverse, life is downright messy. For every complex problem, there exists a solution that is simple, elegant, and wrong. I've always been a person who delights in seeing the whole spectrum rather than neatly dividing experience into black and white boxes. I love color and variety: birds, flowers, trees, clouds, spices, people. Simplicity seems so stark and comfortless, a white cell scrubbed clean with only the merest of necessities.

I can only wrap my mind around simplicity when I shift my focus to the essential. When I fix my mind and heart on the essence of my faith, I can see that simplicity allows me to clear away the clutter to highlight the essential. It lets me cut through the dross to the heart of the matter, to cleave to the substance and not the form.

It's a continual challenge: to focus on the essential and not to get pulled off my path by all the distractions eager to absorb my time and attention. To turn away from the computer and give my attention to my youngest child. To stop in the rush to get to work and take the time to breathe and pray. To interrupt the flow of shopping lists and appointment reminders and really connect with my husband. To take the time to appreciate the young woman who carries out my groceries. To sit in silence and stillness waiting on the will of God.

Some years ago, I explored the meaning of negative space in art and in my life. I became convinced then that less is often more, that by creating emptiness, we clear space for new creation. I thought of this in terms of housework, in terms of free time for my children, and in terms of creating various spaces in my own life.

This then is my gift: nothing. I can give you an emptiness that you can fill. I can see where we can take things away to create more space. I can make dirty dishes clean and sweep debris from the floor. I'm a sort of spiritual cleaning lady.

04 February 2007

A Beacon in the Night

There's an old man in my Meeting who shines with Light. He has gotten very frail in the past year, but he attends Meeting regularly. The past month or so, he rises to speak every First Day.

His words don't usually sound like ministry, but his face glows with the ministry he lives. He doesn't talk about God. He talks about children and war and beauty and music and senseless death. His heart is full of love for the Meeting. Sometimes, I get the sense that he rises because he cannot contain his joy at being among Friends.

He stands in the larger world, too. He stands every week on a street corner as a witness against war. Sometimes he carries a sign with information about children who have died in war. Sometimes he carries a sign with photos of all the American servicemen killed in Iraq.

When he struggled to his feet this morning, I thought about the kind of Quaker that this Friend is. He doesn't quote the Bible or talk about God. He doesn't debate the finer points of Quakerism or argue about the color of the carpet. He speaks simply and with great love even when he is telling us things we'd rather not hear.

He is not, perhaps, the sort of Quaker that some people want in their Meetinghouse, but I am very glad that he is in ours. In his simple, straightforward way, he shows me more about the teachings of Jesus than any dozen Biblical or Quaker scholars. His heart is big enough to contain the joy of a child's smile and the pain of global conflict.

Every time this Friend rises, I am filled with joy and sorrow. I feel fortunate to see his life bear witness to the great beauty and the great evil in the world.

Growing in the Light

Today, my 18-year-old daughter (who will probably also blog about this) was welcomed into membership in Santa Cruz Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends.

In recent months, I have been grateful for the presence of Friends in her life. Her membership clearness committee has agreed to act as a vocational clearness committee for her as she grapples with her future. It eases my mind to know that she has such wise and supportive counsel to help her discover her path in life.

The members of the Meeting welcomed her with great joy (and a beautiful chocolate cake). At one point, I looked around the fellowship hall and saw each of my four children deep in conversation with an adult Friend. I thought how fortunate they are to be nurtured by the richness of our Quaker community, and how the support of adult Friends is helping them all grow into the Light.

In December, my 11-year-old son told me that most people don't know why we celebrate Christmas.

"And why do you think we celebrate Christmas?" I asked him.

"It's because of the life and the teachings of the man whose birth we celebrate," he said.

I thought about that for a while. I was struck by the word "teachings," and what that indicates about my son's understanding of Christianity. I was also struck by the fact that my son thought that he was sharing a bit of esoteric knowledge with me. He didn't see a connection between the secular celebration of Christmas and the life and teachings of Jesus. He imagined that most people don't realize that Christmas has anything to do with Christ.

When we were at the grocery store recently, my 7-year-old noticed that there were macaroni in the shape of peace signs and asked to try them. When he was unloading the groceries at the check-out stand, he told the checker, "In case you were wondering, I'm a Quaker."

Our Meetinghouse sports a peace sign. My son figured that the peace sign is a religious symbol like a cross or a star of David. He interprets every peace sign he sees as an emblem of Quakerism. For a brief second, I saw through his eyes and I was dazzled.