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?