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.