Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Being a NonQuaker Friend

All this started, some time ago, with the Jews. As it happened, they came to consider themselves a people uniquely chosen, to serve God’s purposes in the world. Then, as the Christian sect became increasingly estranged from the Judaism of their time, Christians began to consider themselves to be the ‘real’ Jews, to be a people called to take on the duties and especially the rewards of being God’s people.

The Hebrew Scriptures are an account, by some of the People of Israel, of what they believed occurred in the course of being chosen by God, falling short of God’s intentions, continuing to live, whatever their personal inclinations, under God’s care and discipline. The Christian Scriptures apply this idea, from a people largely defined by ancestry, to considering themselves a people defined by common beliefs.

Early in Quaker history, George Fox on Pendle Hill felt he was being shown “a great people to be gathered.” There were other early Friends with a similar sense of what it meant to be a Quaker; Chuck Fager has a fine online article documenting this in some detail, and considering what it suggests: “...that the Religious Society of Friends is a people raised up to bear witness to the universality of the divine light in all, and the priority of the spirit and truth as the basis of religion over forms, hierarchies and doctrines....

“Again,” he says, ”we’re not the only chosen people, and like the Israelites we weren’t chosen because of our righteousness[. B]ut for purposes we don’t fully understand, the spirit formed this people, gave them/us a distinct character, even if part of that is a refusal to pin it down into a creed. It’s still something that new attenders can recognize, and in which some can hear a divine calling to them as well.”

Okay. Now what if someone shares this sense of divine calling, but feels at odds with some of its manifestations? The people of Israel changed their beliefs and practices over time; Christians have certainly done so, and so have the Friends. However divine our inspirations, then, we have not received them in some final, infallible form, forever beyond development or criticism.

By our nature as a people, we are not defined by the belief system of our founders. No religion, despite the best intentions of later generations, really is. Judaism has to include the beliefs of contemporary Jews; Christianity likewise can not be limited to how it seemed to Christians of the past. We Friends continue to compare ourselves to our founders, but if we often seem dwarfed by the comparison, we do not consider ourselves called to be like them, but to be ourselves. There seems little point in seeking a definitive statement of ‘Quakerism’ apart from ‘what contemporary Quakers believe.’

Here’s where the trouble starts: If we are a people, chosen by God for divine purposes, that calling imposes quite another standard. We can’t define ourselves by the words of some founding leader or document; but neither can we settle for pointing to a sample of contemporary Quakers and saying: “There! Like that!” We may think that adherence either to traditional or to contemporary beliefs and practices makes us Friends; instead, it is God (whether or not we agree with human descriptions of what that designates) who tells us who we are meant to be.
Another complication: Here’s a scenario which I expect must happen quite frequently. An idealistic outsider learns about Quakers, likes what he hears, and forms an image of us in accord with his ideals. After some experience with actual, live Friends, he goes off muttering that we aren’t even close to who we ought to be.

Something like this started to happen to me, in the late 1960's. I mean I’d been introduced to Meeting in high school, in my atheist days, had visited the Berkeley Meeting a few times since–but in Isla Vista I was suddenly struck by a daydream of us courageously marching off together to right all the wrongs in the world. This might well have led to that very sort of disappointment. Instead, when I first sat down with the local college’s worship group, I had a sense of an invisible presence in the doorway. “Why Forrest,” it remarked. “What are you doing, trying to hide among the good people?” Busted. I got up, left, stayed away for years.

From time to time I revisited local Meetings, went away feeling that I had little to offer them. (I think that was a mistake, probably a common mistake, that we should try harder to prevent! New people come in, hear accounts of exemplary service, hear requests to financially support various good projects-- and if they don’t feel capable of doing these things themselves, why shouldn’t they just go home, study and meditate alone? What we really need... is for people to come in and sit with us, to continue to sit with us, to do no more nor less than that until God-- not some yearning for personal heroism-- leads them to do more.)

In 1991 I was drawn into a friend’s campaign of activism in support of homeless people. I told him, “You should approach the Quakers. If anyone’s still trying to practice Christianity in the good sense, it would be them.” I was surprised to find myself crying. That told me how much I wanted to go back. It was a little late, I thought, to be laying my depreciated carcass on the line, but as I now had less to lose, that should be more doable. I still thought I was joining God’s nonviolent shock troops!

What I was being drawn into, instead, was a people. A people will have various ideas about itself, many of them mistaken. A people will include the old, the young, and the sick. Some of its members will struggle between atheism and the absurd theological notions many people mistake for faith. And some of its members, probably the majority, will be smug about their identity.

I felt right at home, a prodigal son returning after long absence. I wanted to spread The Word (okay, The Silence) to all the poorsouls still out there struggling in The World. One didn’t need to believe 12 impossible things every day before breakfast. One needed only to sit attentively, and God–who had guided me this far–would do the rest.

Why didn’t we move the Meeting to a poor, black neighborhood? Why didn’t we launch a campaign, as Early Friends had done, to let people know we existed, were available, had something more to offer than pop religion’s desperate choice between fundamentalism and despair?

I raised these concerns at Business Meeting. They were accepted politely, discussed and formally considered–and they were not considered at all! My people were simply not the ones to do such things! They thought themselves too old, too tired, too ailing. In vain I called for faith, that if they moved to a poor neighborhood and tried to help, the helpers they’d need would come. They wondered instead, would a pamphlet campaign at a nearby college attract some nice students?

The year I formally joined the Meeting, I was enlisted to help write the State of the Meeting report.

I’d been demonstrating with homeless people, being threatened with arrest for helping serve illegal food lines–was eventually arrested for a sleep-in at City Hall. This was the year the police shut down the Salvation Army’s morning coffee line, when they resumed arresting homeless people for sleeping, when heads of City agencies told downtown service providers: ‘Stop serving homeless people or we’ll yank away your use permits!’ Other members vaguely approved my efforts, but none seemed to think the issue important. It was merely “my concern.” To them it was something like a personal Good Cause hobbyhorse for me to ride while they applauded. I couldn’t get them to see what I felt: that this was “What you do to the least among you.” This came from deep in the roots of what it means to be religious at all! [It was years later, when I was feeling utterly forsaken, dissed and dismissed (one of the Meeting’s resident crazy-folks)- -that this sweet old member came up to me, gave me $20, and said, “You’re doing this for us, you know!”]

I wanted to put all that into the report. I wanted to say that we weren’t being what we were called to be. Whatever faith and power Early Friends had found, we didn’t want it!

While a few individuals were deepening their spiritual lives, their messages beckoning us like the tail-lights of cars far off down a darkening highway, others were lost in a secular mist, as proud of their ignorance as if it’d been knowledge. We were a nice little church for low-rank academics, and wanted to stay that way, benignly indifferent to people suffering public persecution, without basic necessities, a few miles away! Dave Neptune, an older committee member who’d been a lively activist in his day, kept talking me out of saying so. Hadn’t members of the Meeting been doing good things? Wasn’t Meeting For Worship a source of strength and peace for my own efforts? Weren’t the members all good people?

About this time I had another arrest.

It happened at the arraignment of a friend in the same demonstration. I’d been rereading George Fox’s Journal: “"When the Lord sent me into the world he forbade me to put off my hat to any, high or low; and I was required to 'thee' and 'thou' all men and women, rich or poor, great or small. And as I traveled up and down, I was not to bid people Good-morning, or Good-evening, neither might I bow or scrape with my leg to any one.” This was traditional Quaker practice for a very long time, and although it needn’t bind a modern Friend who failed to see the point of it, it made perfect sense to me. Wasn’t the Spirit of God in me? Should that Spirit have to bow and scrape in fear of a human, secular judge? Did I, and this courtroom, belong to “The People of the State of California”?–or did all belong to God?

As our proceedings were being postponed from day to day, I kept trying to explain, in writing, to the bailiff and the judge, while the bailiff kept asking me, and my hat, to please step out to the corridor with him, and I couldn’t object to that. But when my friend’s arraignment was going forward, and the bailiff led me out of the courtroom, of course I came back in.

When I told the Clerk of the Meeting, a very nice atheist, about all this, she thought I was out of my mind. She said I should ask for a ‘clearness committee’ (which would have been the right procedure, had I been unclear, before deciding to commit “civil disobedience” in the first place.) I had no such doubts, myself. but decided to do whatever I could to reassure her. The people I spoke to at Meeting seemed to think I’d been following some ancient absurdity; and so I went to the committee feeling the sort of dread I’d bring to a heresy trial.

The actual meeting was a total surprise! There was a loving delicacy to the process, the complete opposite of the secular court and its coercive ways. Whether or not anyone there considered me bonkers, their purpose was entirely to help me clarify issues to myself: what I’d been doing, why, whether I should continue in it.

Later, in talking things over with a young woman from the Public Defender’s Office, she had a significant comment. First she said, “You have a very interesting case!” And then she thought for a moment. “Oh!” she said. “You’re a Quaker. You aren’t going to plead guilty to anything!”

Obviously she’d heard of us! No plea bargaining!

But there’s more to it than that. Friends were, from our beginnings, a Perfectionist sect. Other Puritans taught that people are born into Sin and never escape it this side of the grave. Fox insisted that this doctrine was a cop-out, that the Spirit of Christ not only forgives, but enables people to live in innocence.

Whereas traditional Protestant guilt stems from a deeply ingrained belief that people are innately rotten, Quaker guilt arises because we think we can do better! We can’t just blame it on our evil nature, have a beer, relax, let it go. If it’s wrong, it’s got to be fixed!

Modern life, with its proliferation of wrongs that can’t be fixed, makes Quakers crazy. It makes everyone crazy, but when a Quaker sees something he can’t fix, he needs either to convince himself that it’s okay, or do something. It is much easier, much of the time, to convince ourselves that the way things are, and the way we are, must be basically alright.

And so, when we write these reports, we’re torn. The Testimony of Integrity says that we must tell the truth, in and out of court, throughout our lives. And our unwritten code says: Friends don’t let Friends write negative things about us.

Okay, our blogs can be negative–That’s individual opinion, and it doesn’t count. But if a modern Quaker body makes an official statement, it will normally need to be approved--or at least accepted--by everyone involved. ‘Negativity’ will almost certainly offend someone. If a critical report actually is presented, a Meeting will very seriously consider it... but people will ask, “Can’t we soften this a little?” So State of the Meeting reports, as I’ve said many times, are typically exercises in collective denial.

And so I’m torn. I’m dissatisfied with the state of my Meeting- -and of myself. Dealing with that sort of disjunct- - between what we are and what we are called to be- - is the obvious purpose of having us produce these reports. And we resist it with of all our God-given power, compassion, intellect and cunning. We ain’t guilty and you can’t prove it!

Naturally I’ve done all that I could to stay off that committee. If they propose a document with some actual semantic content, if the Quaker prose doesn’t wax too sweet and vacuous, I’ve been eager to approve the damn thing and be done with it. The natural result, of this sort of irresponsibility, is that my Meeting stayed in a rut and I kept wondering why!

A few months ago, I was suddenly reminded that this year I’d let them recruit me, and it was coming on time to write that report! My partners were: 1) a personal friend I’d introduced to Quakerism a few years ago, and 2) a woman with considerable experience in East Coast Friends’ meetings, but little time among us here in San Diego. I was the senior member; in case of disagreement I was equipped to outbluff them!

I was determined, this time, not to be responsible for yet another cheerfully bland betrayal of the birthright we could claim, if only we knew it was there for us, if only we knew there is a God here to teach us and heal us and guide us beyond the fields of decorum and prudent retirement.

Neither did I want to draw up an indictment. These are a very nice group of people!

The good people, you may recall, were the ones whom even Jesus couldn’t get to repent. Now Marcus Borg, in _Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary_, says something I hadn’t known about that word ‘repent.’ The roots of the Greek term “suggest an additional meaning; to repent is to ‘go beyond the mind that you have,’ to go beyond conventional understandings of what life with God is about.” That’s what I want us to do. I want us to repent!

The first thing I did was to suggest that we follow La Jolla Meeting’s practice, as we’ve done at least once before: hold a talking meeting to consider the state of the Meeting. This is, as it turns out, closer to what our _Faith and Practice_ says than our own custom (which it also authorizes) of having a committee write something to be kicked around at business meeting:

"The State of the Meeting Report is prepared once a year by each Monthly Meeting... The State of the Meeting Report should be a self-examination by the Meeting and its members of their spiritual strengths and weaknesses and of efforts to foster growth in the spiritual life. Reports may cover the full range of interest and concerns but should emphasize those indicative of the spiritual health of the Meeting...."

As I said when we last tried this, at an afternoon potluck: “We found the meeting sharply divided between ‘Our Meeting is just fine, so please shut up!’ vs ‘We wouldn't know a “spiritual condition” if it bit us!’ ”

This time there was a much smaller turnout. But we still had that nagging question: “What do we mean, ‘the spiritual health of the Meeting?’ ”

I mean, we’re modern Americans! We aren’t trying to discern, “Are we all bound for Heaven? Or are we going to Hell?” But then, what is it that we mean? And what are we to do about it? If it’s a problem, after all, we must produce practical measures intended to ‘solve’ it. “What?- -We have to depend on God to show us? How are we going to do that!?” I brought this up, but had the impression that no-one else saw it as a difficulty. We can’t help being modern Americans!

I brought up the way we start Meeting. If God is our teacher, what kind of students are we?- -coming to class and making conversation, right up until the bell rings! Is this “coming to Meeting with heart and mind prepared for worship?” as _Faith and Practice_ advises? The book tells us that its Advices and Queries may be used as a basis for annual reports on the state of the Meeting, but we didn’t want to use that one in our report. “We’ll do better when our new meeting house is completed; we’ll have someplace for people to talk outside the meeting room.”

A fairly new, busy-minded attender started producing suggestions, “Why don’t we post Quaker quotes on the walls, give newcomers more clues as to what we’re about?”

Other Friends thought this was a horrible idea! (I rather liked it, myself. Our first meeting place, a kindergarten most of the week, had had messages on the walls, which added a kind of charm: “We use our quiet voices. We use our walking feet.” But I could imagine some potential for fuss- -Whose favorite quotes would we use?)

Still, it was a reassuring meeting. After that awful past-year’s potluck, we had adopted some practical measures and the effects had helped a lot!

I had notes from two people, both of whom had missed things which I, not taking notes, found interesting. I wrote it up- -and included my own reservations. Aren’t I a member of the Meeting? Don’t my concerns rank with what other people said on one occasion?

And what about the many people who’ve found our Meeting disappointing, and left us? Some of these people like to complain at me. Didn’t their dissatisfaction say something about our state? If our estrangement stemmed largely from their personal quirks, couldn’t we still have handled things better? Had we honored their concerns, or merely given them Due Process?

The Meeting didn’t like the report. They called it “beautifully written,” but they didn’t like it. A deeply conscientious member, one whom I’d never thought of criticizing, said it hurt her feelings. Hadn’t we improved a lot lately? I took the few suggestions I was given, considered them, made a few changes... and next month people liked it even less.

The Meeting was pissed, as you might say in less Friendly circles! How could I think?---asked a respectable woman---that “Some of us feel our members are too easily content with accustomed ways of understanding and dealing with the world?” She had, after all, been helping people struggling with the US immigration system, and it was making her quite radical about border issues. Another objected that “It sounds too much like one person lecturing us; it’s supposed to be a document written by the Meeting!” Okay, yes, I had felt the joy of violating a taboo: A Quaker document must not say anything whatsoever simply because the author knows it.

All right, I told them, I’ve ‘drafted a preliminary report for searching consideration by the meeting.’ Now someone else can write you a better one.

Next week, a woman from Nominating Committee approached me. “We’d like to put you on the State of the Society Committee again next year. You give us interesting things to think about!”

About a month later, the rump of the committee was sending me a new version and asking what I thought. Much of what I’d tried to say was missing, but okay, it’d been available for consideration; the considering part was up to them. The new version was disjointed; and some additions were close to meaningless. And fixing that was, after all, my responsibility. So was putting in what did demand to be added: “One of us feels strongly that we seem (for the needs of the times and our own best possibilities) insufficiently concerned with deepening our connections to the Spirit---not only for its role in motivating and guiding such efforts, but as essential to our lives.”

The new version was approved with little comment. “This is the way these reports should be prepared, not by expecting the Meeting to be a State of the Meeting Committee, but by taking care of all that before we have to look at it.” I couldn’t disagree more (silently)!

Do I adore Quaker Process? Do I think we’ve got this matter of being Friends right yet? No.
But do I belong with this crazy people? Guilty!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Kingdom Strategy

How should Friends respond to ____?

I expect that you, like I, approach such questions by thinking.

That is, your first impulse is to look at the (probably ghastly) situation, consider the position of the Society of Friends within existing political structures, try to deduce upon which levers we might best fling our massive bulk.

We aren't massive? Well, okay, so how are we going to Save the World?

Guess what? We aren't.

If the world is going to be saved, God's going to have to do it. Probably using Friends for the purpose, among other good people. And we aren't forbidden to use our minds in the process.

But where are we putting our faith? In God's ability to put our minds to use?--or primarily in the strategic use of our minds?

I'm not just saying that this comes close to being a dangerous form of idolatry, and that you people need to watch out for it! I'm not just formally including myself as part of the problem, out of an effort to be fair! When I'm presented with a problem, the first thing I do is to try to figure it out.

I'm trying to figure this out now... Okay, God, how should I put this? What's going on that I should try to explain? (& Who's doing the explaining here, anyhow, my mind or Yours?)

I've read, and believe, that it's a good practice to ask, first. That God's mind sees farther than ours can--and that we can atune our minds to God's, via striving to make a habit of asking.

But if I'm not watching myself constantly, that isn't what I do!

Friday, October 5, 2007

You Don't Exist

"Huh? Of course I exist! You're sitting there writing to me, aren't you?"

Actually I'm quite sure you do exist. But according to typical attempts to scientifically "explain" your behavior, you are merely "an emergent phenomenon" caused by a tangle of little nerve cells tickling one another.

That isn't the doctrine of some eccentric individual. True, I've oversimplified a vast array of variations of this idea tremendously--But when anyone whatsoever tries to explain consciousness as the result of a physical process, he necessarily concludes that there isn't any such thing. He finds only those physical processes which he can potentially observe from outside.

"Yes! But I'm here! Right here sitting at my terminal, reading this drivel!"

Please be quiet; this is Science, and you are not! You only imagine that you exist, because little waves of electric charge are running down your nerve fibers and making them produce neurotransmitters which diffuse over to nearby nerve endings and stimulate them to go "twang!" One of those twangs was the thought that you exist; that's why you just thought so! But you were wrong, of course.

I'm making fun of some very smart people here. If I wanted to design a machine for the purpose of mimicking human behavior, some of their ideas might be very close to how it should be done. So far as we can tell, it seems to be the way Nature does it!

What I find bizarre about this is that people have constructed an elaborate, well-reasoned, even creative explanation for human consciousness... that ignores their most fundamental data: the fact that they experience themselves as conscious.

"Yes, but Science has proved that the experience of consciousness is merely an emergent phenomenon caused by a suitably-connected array of neurons diddling one another! To imagine anything else would open the door to the absurd notion that something in the world is supernatural!"

Well, actually scientists have made an effort to see how far they could get on the assumption that consciousness is all done by physical events. They've found out marvelous things about the physical processes associated with consciousness. But they haven't proved their assumption; some of them merely assume they've done that because they've done such a marvelous job of explaining everything they can observe. Except for their own odd notion that they exist.

But let's construct one of these machines--in imagination, because that will serve perfectly well for my purpose. Crank it up--that little wheel on your right, thank you!--and let's see what it does. Hmmm... Little waves of electical charge are going in here, running around and interacting with one another in the middle, and here's the output: "Of course I exist, you ninny!"

Of course WHO exists? I don't see anyone; there's just that tangle of fibers, with no place whatsoever for "I" to affect anything they're doing.

I can get my computer to print out "Hello world!" That's the beginning assignment in a lot of introductory programming classes. But there's nobody inside the computer greeting the world, just a pattern of electrical circuits that make any message we choose appear on the screen. Just like your little twangy bits can make a message appear on my screen, stating your delusion that you exist!

This is all extremely unsatisfactory, and until my disfunctional circuits are finally thrown in the Quality Control 'reject' box, I intend to go on insisting that I exist. I'll vote for you, too, if you vote for me!

How, then, do I get all those little fibers to do what I want? How can I even "read" them?

I can't. If they're all mechanically laid out according to specification, doing precisely what they're supposed to do--no matter how chaotic that might be in practice--There's no room in there for "me" to make them do anything, and no place for me to sit while they tell me what they're doing!

What can I conclude from this? I have to conclude that this mechanism we're talking about is itself imaginary--just an illusion we might experience if we poked me full of electrodes and ran certain procedures on me. But it's nothing as real as me, sitting at this keyboard.

I'm uneasy about that idea also--It isn't just that some people's neurons automatically reject it; there's something about it bothers me too:

If not physical laws, what causative rules are at work in my consciousness? If there were none, there'd be no connection between one moment and another; my experience would reduce to chaos. It doesn't. But are the workings of my mind a deterministic system? Have I gone through all this thinking, freeing myself from a physically determined existence, only to find myself at the mercy of deterministic immaterial powers? Or am I somehow freer, because the connections between one thought and the next don't always make a whole lot of sense? I'm so glad I don't have to figure that out!

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Souls, Spirits-What's the Difference?

I used to think there was no reasonable distinction between the words "soul" and "spirit." I'm still unclear on how the two connect, but in the course of trying to read a newage version [bleh!] of St. Theresa's writings, I finally saw the issue involved.

One thing a soul is not... is our ticket to a cushy place in the Afterlife (Let's see, in which pocket did I leave that pesky thing?!) It is, as a matter of fact, directly connected to both afterlife & currentlife–Because it is, as a matter of fact, eternal. But it is, merely, "you". It is not a function of any of your personal talents, learned skills, ideas or qualities–But when you glare into your monitor and growl, "I don't know what in hell you're talking about!" that's exactly the person I'm talking about!

A "spirit" is something else, something less literally "in our face" while at the same time, much more easily pointed-to. A spirit does have personality, character traits, emotions, habits, appetites & intentions.

A "god" is a spirit. Early Christians called the Greek/Roman gods "demons" because that was the Greek term for "spirit," not necessarily the Wrong Sort of spirit but any type. Like other Jews, they considered that any spirit soliciting worship must be an evil spirit, because human beings should worship only God. And so "demonic" came to be a pejorative word.

You would be as incomplete without your spirit as if something drastic happened to your body. But it isn't you; it's the "psychological" form you take. As your body is the physical form you take.

Imagine some future technology comes along, able to grow a perfect working model of you in a vat. When he/she awakens, someone might mistake her body for yours–And her spirit too would resemble yours, as anyone could confirm by talking with you both. You, however, would be looking at this person from the outside. I see no reason to expect her to lack a soul, but that soul would not be your soul. She would look out at you, recognize you, no doubt feel a remarkable kinship–and know herself as "this" person, here, rather than "that" person, there.

Does "soul," then, mean merely "location"? Well, no, the two of you could certainly trade places without affecting the matter. "Location in space/time"? Well, no–and it's not even our feeling of "identity", or our feeling that we have a location at all. I get to move "these" hands, look out from "these" eyes, but all that's just a matter of the form I take. Looking, thinking, feeling... I do such things, via my body, mind, spirit–and my location here by my computer helps us keep track of which human of many this is–but my "soul" is the person doing these things.

Do I mean "a collection made up of my body-events, mind-events, emotional-events"? Well, no, I mean me. You can't see me. You can get evidence about my body, mind, and feelings. But only I–& God–get to see evidence of my soul. (And for us, that evidence is quite conclusive. People can disagree–& certainly I can be confused–about the relation between my soul & God. But I can't doubt that it's me!)

Those Powers & Principalities that "Paul" wrote about–and several theologians since, notably William Stringfellow and Walter Wink–would be examples of spirits, not souls. So when Wink talks about the word "Power" as referring to "the inwardness of an institution," he's talking about the inwardness of something that doesn't have one. An "inwardness," of you, me, or anyone–would be a soul.

Monday, August 13, 2007

What about when "Jesus" is a swear word?

I'm incredibly encouraged by Forrest's last post entitled "Taking back Jesus," and I agree whole-heartedly.

The problem is, what do we do with those who don't believe in Jesus, or at least don't believe in Jesus in the way I want them to?

That's one major problem with the group of Friends with which I'm affiliated, Evangelical Friends. There are lots of people who are interested in visiting a Quaker meeting where people come meet in silence and speak upon a strong impulse but don't have to believe any specific thing. There aren't so many people who are really interested in visiting a programmed Friends meeting, unless they're already Christians or interested in Christianity. Why? Because going to an unprogrammed meeting is non-threatening and sounds intriguing and open. Going to a programmed meeting is just like going to church, and lots of people have already experienced "church" and it hasn't been a good experience.

So how do we "take back Jesus" and not run out those who are seeking an authentic spiritual experience but have been hurt by the name of Christ, or Christians, or the Bible used as a weapon?

The easy answer is to live as Christ lived, but that's easier said than done...and everyone has their own idea of what that would look like. So what would it look like for you?

Friday, August 3, 2007

Taking Back Jesus

I can always expect that yearly meeting will bring an intense experience of the Spirit, but can never predict what form that experience will take.

This week at Pacific Yearly Meeting, the significant event was an interest group on 'Taking Back Jesus.'

The group was initiated by John Pixley of Claremont Meeting, a man with a whole-body speech impediment; we often see him zipping about here in his motorized wheelchair--and in meeting, we occasionally strain along with him as he strains to articulate: those of us who've best learned to understand him calling out our guesses until we arrive at last at his message. Last year, his friend Charleen Krueger says she had to make about 10 guesses before she realized he was saying "Jesus." And so they agreed that something needed to be done, and that she should join him in it.

Here is his (typed) statement:

Taking Back Jesus:

Last Fall, a young man that I hired as an attendant would often show up to work wearing a blue hooded sweatshirt, on the front of which he had sewn a picture of a Hindu goddess. I was intrigued by this and told him I thought it was cool. He suggested that I have a picture of Jesus Christ sewn into the bib of my coveralls. "That'd be dope!" he enthused.

Jesus on my bibs! That would be cool, if not dope, I thought. Those who know me know that overalls are what I wear, that they are very much a part of my life. Jesus is also a big part of my life. Most likely because of my significant, in-your-face disability, I have long been attracted to his message of love for the different, the outsider, even the enemy. Why not have Jesus, whom I admire--indeed, love--and try to honor in how I live my life, close to me, on my bib, for all the world to see?

But then I got worried. If I went around sporting a picture of Jesus, people would get the wrong idea about me. Never mind that they would think I was out to convert, or "save" the world. People would think I am a right-wing, fundamentalist nut.

People would see me with my picture of Jesus and think I was saying that women shouldn't be able to get abortions, that gays and lesbians are bad, that it is not only acceptable but honorable to go to war and even start wars, that it is okay to torture people.

This is what many people think of when they think of Jesus--or at least of Christianity. The sad, shameful fact is that Jesus has been taken by conservative Christians, the Christian right, and used as their exclusive spokesman. This man who preached and demonstrated radical love and inclusiveness, who showed it to the world, has been hijacked and made to say that women and gays shouldn't have equal rights, that war is good, that torture is fine.

Jesus has been made to say and condone things that he never said or condoned. How else can President Bush, who is against same-sex marriage and a woman's right to have control over her own body and life, who sanctions war and torture (not to mention the death penalty) not only claim to be a Christian but also claim that Jesus is his most-admired philosopher?

This gives Jesus and Christianity a bad name. Earlier this year I saw 'Jesus Camp', a documentary about a summer camp for Christian fundamentalist kids, and I was struck by how the audience at the college screening was laughing. While much of what is said in the film is outrageous and funny, I came away concerned that Jesus has become a laughing-stock.

Jesus has been used in other hurtful ways. Since I was a young child, people have stopped me on the sidewalk to tell me that if I believe in Jesus, I will be healed. I have even been told that I will walk if I pray to Jesus! The message is less about Jesus and more of a judgement--that in being disabled and in a wheelchair, I am not a complete, whole person, but in need of healing and not worthy (in their eyes, if not Jesus') until I am healed.

I have no doubt that all of these people are sincere and well-intentioned, which makes what they do with Jesus quite disturbing. (Indeed, the director of 'Jesus Camp' said at the screening I attended that Christian fundamentalists have embraced the film.) Is it any wonder that, especially as a disabled--and now gay--man, I have become wary of Jesus or at least of any talk of him? I am sad to say that I am all but ashamed to say that I love Jesus. I notice, when I'm with my gay friends, that they get frightened and angry when I mention Jesus. This is a tragedy.

I wonder how many people who would otherwise consider themselves Christians have been scared off or driven away from Jesus by the way he has been appropriated and misrepresented. Could this be why some or many of us in Pacific Yearly Meeting feel more at home with our safe, warm, universalism than with the old-time, Christocentric Quakerism of George Fox?

It is time to take back Jesus. I want to embrace him as the man of peace and love that he truly was. Indeed, I want to wear him and show him off proudly on my gay, disabled body. I dare say that he, with his world-changing message of all-inclusive love, would like it.

Some thirty to forty of us, gathered in a conference room Wednesday night, resonated with this in our many ways. Our understandings ranged from that of one man who thought of Jesus as merely 'a teacher' to a woman who'd seen Jesus appear before her in a Buddhist meditation hall. (When she asked, what was he doing there, he'd said he needed her to be a Christian!)

One of us confessed a fear that he would have to resign his membership in the Society of Friends. "How can I be faithful to my Lord, if I can't freely say his name in a message?" (I wanted to offer the man all the reassurance I could, but at the end of the meeting he was already surrounded by people comforting and embracing him.)

We still have no answer to Pixley's question; I'm just immensely grateful to him for finally bringing it forward in our yearly meeting. We've needed to do this for a very long time, and now we know.

I myself have wondered for many years, what to make of Jesus. But I like what Charleen Krueger had to say. "I claim the pre-Christian Jesus, the person in whom those around him saw that of God. He met the divine by being fully human, by seeing beyond the boundaries of our fear, by opening his life to all that God means, by being open to life, open to love, open to the work of the Spirit. He calls us to translate his full humanity into a new and inclusive life for ourselves and everyone. I accept his call to share the life-giving power of radical love that knows no boundaries."

Saturday, July 7, 2007

A Voice of Radically Liberal, Radically Inclusive, and Radically Christian Christianity!

Whether or not you happen to like 'The G Word', or "believe in" whatever you think it means, it points to "something" real--to something intrinsically real, real in a more absolute sense than anything we may think of as the "real" world.

That's what we need to learn from, quite literally. Our lives are our message--not a message to other people about how good we are or how good they ought to become, but a message directed specifically to us. In the course of "hearing" the word that is our life... we are teachers of those we meet, and they are teachers to us--and all of this urgently depends on us remaining attentive students.

Last week I made a mistake that led to me having to drive more places than I'd intended, and in the course of that the car took a pleasant long-cut, which brought me so close to a certain library branch that I stopped--finding a fantasy sequel I didn't know was out yet (but had been looking for hopefully.) Back home a few minutes later, several books were expiring so I naturally returned them to another branch. There I found _Take This Bread_ by Sara Miles. It wanted me to read it!

Miles is a fellow former atheist who got "Zapped"; in her case it was a communion service that got to her. Not a routine service, but a service performed by a group making free with the liturgy, trying to break loose from the deadly churchliness that people expect of such things. I don't think this is a matter of finding "better" "forms of worship"; church is not for God's needs but for ours, and I doubt God cares about it for any other purpose. This worship worked because certain people were letting God lead them into doing something more free, so that Miles found herself unexpectedly moved. What moved her was the bread; it was full of Jesus.

Now that's weird! I don't know what it means either! (but here's what I think):

John D. Crossan believes that the meals Jesus ate with people were, in fact, a significant part of his practice. No wafers or sips, but a full Jewish dinner with the customary ritual blessings--and absolutely everyone welcome.

The food is important, and the welcome is important. We don't do that; virtually nobody does; Crossan speaks of the idea as "frightening." If Foul Ole Ron shows up with his thinking-mind dog, you make them welcome. If Dick Cheney shows up, you do your best.

Miles eventually started a "food pantry", a food distribution service for poor people. Her new-found church fought like hell against the idea; you can read the book to find how that turned out, but my point is that it was frightening to everyone involved, no matter how "innovative" or "welcoming" they'd wanted to be!

But when you actually do things like that, you learn that The Poor are us! You learn that The Wicked are us!

Okay, you've probably been brought up respectable; and probably you haven't done any war crimes, or even wanted to... Why am I lumping you with the Unworthy Poor and the Doers of Evil? Bear with me, please! I'm not trying to be pejorative... or saying that it doesn't matter whether we smell bad or hurt people.

What I'm trying to say is that if it's a human being, what's good about it is what's good about you; what's bad about it is what's bad about you; that person is God Incognito and this ain't just some theoretical notion--It's what you see if you look at people the right way, even if you'd want to take a person's knife or its smart bombs away to feel quite safe around it.

We all eat and we can all feed each other. We all bleed and we can all ask for healing. It isn't just literal bread that feeds us; and that may not be the particular form of service anyone is called to give. But you might think of it as a valuable remedial practice, something well worth a try! Many people are hungry, for literal food as well as other kinds...

What Early Friends had was not some particular practice, not even silence, but a radical, in-your-face demonstration of This-Is-What-The-Gospel-Looks-Like. It scared people! It threatened to subvert all "order." Their radically spiritual understandings of the Bible have since been taken up by Christians of many denominations, even taken further by people like Dorothy Day. But The Gospel is still radically upsetting to everything people (us, for example) normally take for granted.

No, I haven't quite found my way to practice this. But this is where we're being led.