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?