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.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Friends in the Next 100 Years

To answer my own query... (is one allowed to do that?)

I feel like what we're called to do is listen to God together. I wrote somewhere on my own blog when I was talking about George Fox's Journal that it seems like a lot of times Friends got together and sat in silence until they heard what they were supposed to do, then they went out and did it. Silence wasn't an end in itself or a nice difference from normal, busy life. It was a way to listen together that preceded action.

So I think we should listen together and figure out what we're called to, which I think would include being "the voice of liberal inclusive Christianity," as Forrest suggests, but that doesn't just mean talking to people about Jesus. That means as we hear what Jesus calls us to, we do it--including things that might get us into trouble, as they did the early Friends.

I think we're too comfortable with being liked as Friends, with having a history that others revere, so we don't want to do anything now that might ruin our reputation.

Some ideas:
  • war tax resistance (in an organized fashion)
  • doing good research so we can boycott companies who produce their goods unjustly, and buy from good companies (and being willing to go without if there are no good companies that produce certain things)
  • alternative transportation (biking, walking, not using any form of transportation that leads to ecological problems or conflicts over resources)
  • fighting racism/classism in America (because that's where I'm from) and egocentrism on the part of America
  • proactively working for peace rather than just protesting wars and violence after it's begun
So how can we start working on these things? Which ones are we most drawn to as a community? What small steps can we take to start working on them? What things in the 21st century will show that we're Quakers like wearing gray in the 18th and 19th centuries, because we're standing for what we believe without compromise?

Monday, June 18, 2007

The Conversations:

What Are the Most Important Questions Facing the Society of Friends Today?

What Are We Called to Do, as Friends, Over the Next 100 Years?

What Does (or Should) "Christianity" Mean to Us as Friends?

How Do We See "NonTheist Friends" Among Us?

How Might We Best Form Communities of Service?

High Expectations vs Self-Acceptance
, for Other People and Ourselves.

Please feel free to comment--And if you'd like to be a member here and add your own posts on questions
like these, please email Forrest (at the address given in his profile}, including your email address and whatever we ought to know to help us decide that.

"No-Fault Living"

Can Love Be Truth?
Okay, a Question

What Are Friends Called to Do?

To Be the Voice of Liberal Inclusive Christianity
To Seek to Be Guided Together

The Basic Questions for Friends Today?

Cherice's Queries
Forrest's Version

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Christology 101 (or why I'm not Unitarian)

I HAVE been exercised of late on the issue of Christology. By "Christology" I mean that set of questions such as Who was/is this Christ Jesus fellow anyway? or Is/was he really God incarnate? and What do we really mean by God Incarnate anyway? and Why does it matter? And what tense should we be talking about the guy (was/is)?

This isn't to say that I think there is one and only one TRUE answer to any of those questions or that where you stand on any of them should in any way mark you as a good Quake or a bad Quake or even as a good Christian or a bad Christian. But I think I might say there is a range of responses to those questions which we might say are more appropriate expressions of Quakerism and of Christianity than other possible responses. In other words I think our answers to such questions may actually be helpful in the formation of our communities and in the making of corporate (and even personal decisions. I think that may define me outside the "liberal" fold.

And here it gets REALLY technical. I think that this hypothetically appropriate range of responses needs to include the Theopaschite amendment to the Council of Chalcedon: Unus ex Trinitate passus est (meaning "One of the Trinity suffered in the flesh").

Gaak! What am I saying? I'm saying Jesus was a child of God in a way we are not. In traditional language, he was the only begotten son of God while we are God's kids by adoption.

And its important because? Because when they nailed him to a tree Jesus suffered and when that happened it was God suffering in Jesus because they are One. And God continues to suffer and be vulnerable.

The liberal Quakerism I know doesn't think this is important. In fact the notion this might be important is down right threatening to a whole mess of folks who without office or election or recording are pretty much setting the tone for what Quakerism is and is becoming. It is also pretty much irrelevant (ironically enough) to conservative Christians who if not in profession certainly in practice prefer the conquering Messiah returning on clouds of glory to the notion that God Almighty is vulnerable and suffers.

But for me certainly, the notion of a vulnerable and suffering God is at the centre of any hope that Christianity might be relevant in this world. More important than those gospel formulae about how we're saved by his sacrifice. And if Quakerism is to be relevant in this world, it needs either to embrace a Chacedonian kind of Christianity or it needs to jettison the whole Christian enterprise and find an entirely different way of engaging this world.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Why Atheism Is Found Among Friends But Not In Quaker Doctrine

A lot of confusion about this stems from the Christian concept of "faith." In its beginnings, Christianity was (like all other religions of the time) a political religion, based on Jesus's claim to represent God's power over Israel. One "believed in" him and acted accordingly, risking an unpleasant death from the established authorities, or one disbelieved, a choice that Jesus and his followers naturally found inconvenient. Christianity remained politically subversive and risky after Jesus's death, if only by opposing the official cults that were held essential for the Empire's continued success; and while a great many versions of Christianity circulated, the leaders who took control of the movement were naturally people who put a lot of emphasis on group solidarity and enforcing standardized doctrine.

Largely as a result of this legacy, church members have tended to think of "believing" as virtuous and "disbelief" as an offense against God--and that remained the social norm for a long time, until roughly the mid 20th Century in much of this country. Public atheists were outsiders wherever church activities were a major part of community social life. By typical church doctrines, God intended to punish most of the human race forever for various misdeeds--while offering "salvation" (from this alleged fate) only to those who could believe 1) that God would do such a thing and 2) that God wouldn't do it to them if they believed that Jesus died to keep God from doing it to them and 3) that Jesus had in fact died for that purpose. For anyone who couldn't believe, period, that God existed--there was no escape. For churches of Calvinistic flavor, a lifelong atheist was not just a doomed person, but one whom God had always intended to be a hopeless case.

I gather there are still churches where people think this way. A lot of us even grew up in places where other kids thought this was what they probably were supposed to believe, even if they didn't.

Shouldn't Friends meetings welcome these poor, psychically-rumpled refugees from religious bigotry, treat them kindly, make grateful use of their talents and good intentions? Well of course! Are they bad people? Well, no, a bad person would find Quaker process rather boring. (I know I do!)

Are they Quakers? What if they want to be Quakers? What if they study Quaker process until they know, far better than I, the proper Quaker procedure for every occasion?

Are we going to impose a credal test on them?--exclude them from membership unless they're willing to use the "G" word?--or some equivalent description?

Robert Griswold's Pendle Hill pamphlet on 'Creeds and Quakers' (although Friends are not, of course, required to believe it) can be very helpful in sorting these things out. Friends originally, he says, were not people who believed certain doctrines, but people convinced that they were intimately acquainted with, their lives directly under the power of, the God whom those doctrines spoke of. They objected to creeds--certainly as an imposition on spiritual liberty--but not primarily for that reason. Someone could uphold the accepted Christian beliefs--be a "professor [of Christianity]," as George Fox would call him--and lack that intimate acquaintance. If someone wanted to test his spiritual "condition," a creed would give him a false reading, direct his attention to his beliefs rather than to his internal communion with God, which was the real point of it all. (In Quaker theology, it isn't what you know, but Who you know!)

All right, here we are in another century. Early Friends aren't here for us to ask: Who should and who shouldn't belong to our meetings? We aren't sure we'd want Early Friends in our meetings; they were so argumentative and fanatical and impolite! And who we are!--We're people who joined meetings according to the practices and standards of 20th & 21st Century Friends' meetings. Some of us have occasional mystical experience, and beliefs informed by such experience, and even though this makes us odd by contemporary standards, we're tolerated and even respected to some degree. But we don't set the norms. The best instinct of our membership-clearness committees has been to let in everyone who seemed sincere, well-intentioned, sane enough to know what he was getting into and still willing to join.

To me, it seems a clear case of mislabeling. To call someone a "Friend" implies his friendship with God. If we simply admit, "It doesn't mean that anymore," our Society is saying nice things about "being inclusive" but we've taken our real message off the sign.

Our real message? The "gospel". The truth that God is real, good, accessible to everyone--and wields ultimate rule over this world and our fate. I don't require anyone to believe this. But it's a good thing to know, and it's something we can know. How? We ask, wait, be willing to believe Life's reply.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

What are we called to as Friends?

I attended the World Gathering of Young Friends held at Guilford in 1985. We were very divided from each other during much of the week. Some unprogrammed Friends were pretty freaked out when some Bolivian Friends essentially made an altar call.
I was on the "epistle committee" and we tried very hard to discern what we shared in common. You can read the epistle at

I would differ very slightly from something Cherice said, I think, in her Beacon Hill talk. I think she said that what makes us unique is that we try very radically to hear and be obedient to God's voice. (I may have misquoted you, Cherice - I don't have it in front of me right now.)

I think that is true, but many Christians (as well as those of other tradtions such as Jews) also try hard to practice this. What is MOST unique about us, I think, is that Friends discovered in the traditional Meeting for Worship a totally unique (in my experience) way of hearing God's voice and experience God using us as God's mouthpiece. I have experience unprogrammed Spirit-led worship in pentacostal settings and it is powerful and the Holy Spirit is undoubtedly present but it simply is NOT the same at all as a Meeting for Worship in which the hearts of worshippers are knit together in God and in which some are led into Spirit-led vocal ministry. Sadly there are many many unprogrammed Meetings that never experience this kind of worship - many unprogrammed Friends have told me they have no idea what "gathered" worship is and many unprogrammed YMs have run away from even an intention much less realization of limiting spoken ministry to messages that are under the leadership of the Divine Voice of the Inward Christ.

And as much as I respect and even cherish the leadership of many Friends pastors and the good spiritual work that happens in many pastoral Friends' services, I personally have not experienced programmed services, even very good ones that I have attended such as at Reedwood, as being this same type of Christ-led worship.

I also believe we discovered what is (at least in my admittedly limited experience) unique vessel or tool in the traditional Meeting for Worship with attention to business - as a way in which a faith community can seek to be guided together into Christ-directed decisions for their community. I have not attended meetings for church business in any pastoral YMs so I cannot say whether they experience this type of Christ-leadership. Sadly, I think it is even more of an "endangered species" among unprogrammed Friends than truly gathered, Spirit-guided worship. But I have experienced it at work. I have read about something similar to this being practiced among other Christian groups such as the group that was seeking spiritual discernment to begin the Jesuits and certain post-Vatican monastic communities that were attempting to move away from having their superior make all of their decisions - but again I have no direct experience of whether these groups practice anything at all like Quaker business process at its best.

Between the move away from Spirit-direction in pastoral Quaker traditions and the move away from the Living God in unprogrammed Quaker meetings, these 2 unique vessels of God work nearly disappeared. I think they have a great deal to offer both Christianity and the world.

Saturday, June 9, 2007


[Commenting on my development of Cherice's queries, RichardM suggested we stick largely to "brief & focused posts" (while mine was all over the map, as I tend to be.) I'd like to have him posting for himself here, but since he hasn't asked yet, I'm giving his brief & focused point its own space for the discussion I think it deserves.]:

"So--with that as prelude--here's a point. What is the mission of the SoF to the world in the next 100 years? We are to be the voice of liberal inclusive Christianity that will show the world how to talk WITH not PREACH AT people of other faith traditions. We will not lapse into silly pointless relativism. We will have our own clear perspective on truth but we will show how you can do that and GENUINELY hear the real insights into truth that come from other faith traditions."

My Own Queries, from Cherice's

Are we called to be more "Christian"? What does this mean, or what should it mean? Should that imply being less Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish or Islamic?

How many of us have any assurance of being here–or having family members still alive in this world–over the next 100 years? Are we assuming continuity? Should we be, are we, expecting instead a world crisis with massive loss of life and/or destruction of our social world?

Can we hope our world might find a new awakening to the Spirit anytime soon? If so, should we hope or expect this to take place within, or serve to swell the membership of, the Society of Friends?

How might the Society of Friends best work to promote such an awakening? Should we make such an effort in hopes that God will help make it fruitful?

If so, can we do it while "holding the tension between being both inclusive and firm in our convictions about Truth?" Do we, as a Society, have at least significant consensus as to what Truth we have to offer? Significant consensus that we do have such a Truth? An intelligible way to put it to people, and to give them good reason for joining us rather than following some other path?

If we want to tinker with forms of worship: What is worship? What forms should we practice to further and embody that state among us?

Why is there so little vocal prayers in "unprogrammed" meetings? Is this good or bad or neither?

Where do the Scriptures come into this? The scriptures of other religions? The writings of inspired individuals, historical or modern?

The Quaker way of life, like the Quaker form of worship, has changed considerably over the years, generally in the direction of becoming more individual-centered. Should we, must we, encourage a change toward a more communal, group-centered way of life? Should this be, at least in part, more rural and connected with the Earth? More urban and connected to the poor and despised among us?

What trends among us should we see as significant hints of the Spirit at work, and which of them might best be dismissed as cultural noise? Conversely, which traditions represent a spiritual legacy and which, if any, are best left behind?

Friday, June 8, 2007

Some Quotes From Cherice's Talk

Okay, I tried to get us started with a question about something I'd read that day. So far, no response.

One reason I'd particularly invited Cherice to post here was because of a talk she gave recently, (see Cherice's talk ) which raised questions many of us have been struggling with for as long as we've been Friends.

These queries from the end of that talk, in fact, sound the subjects I particularly hoped to take up when I started this:

"What do you sense God is calling the Society of Friends to focus on in the next 100 years?

"Where in your life do you notice places of resistance to living out your calling more completely?

"Are you willing to let go of traditional Friends practices and forms in order to follow a prophetic new calling as a Society? What might this look like in your own life?

"How do you feel called to hold the tension between being both inclusive and firm in your convictions about Truth?"

Can we begin to take these up here?

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Okay, a Question

Now that we're starting to be "we" instead of "me," what do we think of this?

Alan Lew again (_This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared_):

"... What would happen if every time we did something we disapproved of, we opened our heart to heaven? What would happen if every time we felt an impulse we didn't like, we acknowledged its divine origin?...

"Please don't misunderstand me. I'm not suggesting that it's all right to keep on being mean to people. I am saying that if you keep beating yourself up for being mean, your meanness is just going to keep striking back, getting stronger and more vicious with each blow. If on the other hand you were to fill up your meanness with attention and presence, it might just begin to cool down...

"When we experience ourselves exactly as we are, we sense our oneness with everything and we realize there is no such thing as a mistake. When we pay attention, everything enlightens us, even the things we think of as mistakes."
Or maybe another version half-remembered from Robert Aitken: "Zen is the perfection of character; it is not the perfection of someone else's character." And: [also not necessarily exact] "Our bad qualities are also our good qualities."

Or William Stringfellow's idea that when God "redeems" a person, this does not mean changing who they are so much as putting their flaws to the right use.

What do we know or think about this?

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Can Love Be Truth?

When we recently visited a meeting in LA, we met a woman who thought that being a Quaker meant being "positive," and striving to see "the positive" in any given situation.

This is obviously wrong, and obviously an element in many Friends' outlooks and beliefs--and not altogether wrong.

Yesterday, my computer threw me a quote from Ambrose Bierce, that being "positive" meant "being wrong at the top of one's voice." And then later, reading a meditation book by Alan Lew (_Be Still and Get Going_) I found a story about his daughter, how she'd gone into fullblown rebellion and driven her parents to desperate, punitive anxiety... Nothing working, they had finally realized that she could be viewed with the same compassionate detachment they'd apply to people who mattered less to them. Once they stopped (Lew says) trying to impose their ideas of how she should be, strove to see her as she was and love her precisely as she was, she rather rapidly moved toward a more constructive way of being.

I realized that I owe a lot to people who have approached my flaws and quirks in a similar spirit. They've helped make me the person I am today! (Don't laugh, okay? I've been worse!) I also remembered an old friend of Anne's, continually finding cause for indignation, constantly angry and proud of it. One day I gave up on her, decided she would never change--and that's when she suddenly turned around and did something utterly new and uncharacteristic. Probably it wasn't "giving up on her," as I'd thought, but giving up trying to make her more like I'd thought she should be. (At her funeral, a few years later, a large number of people showed up to say how much they'd loved her, and how impossible she'd been!)

I still think we do better see things as they are: to call our filthy rotten system "a filthy rotten system" and our psychopathic tyrant "a psychopathic tyrant" rather than to pretend he means well (at least not in any meaningful sense. Obviously he thinks that helping his class of people loot the country and devastate the world is a good thing; so he has been doing what he thinks he should quite effectively, and it's all been thoroughly evil in the only sense I comprehend, making life unnecessarily harsh and punitive for those who can least defend themselves.) Not that we do any good by loving to hate the guy, gloating and dwelling on each new abomination... Probably he, and the nation that tolerates him, is beyond our help. Not beyond all help, just beyond our help, which we should continue none-the-less (but with all the critical insight we can muster.)

Caesar has always been Caesar, sometimes "better," sometimes "worse," not a bad guy but he'll crucify you without blinking if you ever get in his way.

We need to recognize the inhuman nature of the political/economic/social system we inhabit, not imagine that we "govern ourselves" or ever did, not imagine that we can make this world the Kingdom by "working from within." Not saying there aren't good human beings trapped in The Mechanism, working miracles of mercy and courage--just pointing out that the biblical assumption that the kingdoms of this world belong to the Devil is all too apt.

But so is the biblical assumption that God is the ultimate power over it all. What?--Is this like a peasant's belief in the good Tsar, who would make his vassals treat us right if only he realized what they were doing? Well, no, I'm saying that miracles happen despite and even through the world's mechanisms of torment, that those mechanisms are not the ultimate reality but as illusory as our dream of "Returning To Normal Life." To remember God's power and good will is merely to put our hope where it really belongs, to stop fussing ourselves unnecessarily. Tragedies happen, but when the curtain comes down the actors get up and bow. Life happens as it does because it suits us, as we have been so far.

How to become better? To love ourselves as we would like others to love us. It's always a good time to get up off our deathbeds and bow. How?--What?

My father knew I was physically inept, with a book-addict stoop and my mother's tension. One day he told me to lie on the floor and relax. "Not like that! Let your fingers curl up!" It wasn't a matter of holding them straight or holding them in fists, but in simply letting them be--but I had no idea what he was talking about. Another time, he told me I had a good, straight back--but it wasn't true then and didn't become true. I don't know if he ever gave up wanting me to be different... He was such a pill! Much later he showed me a video of himself speaking at a City Council meeting, and we were both appalled at how much alike we were. This is the kind of truth we need to see, accept, love and be as we really are.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Can We Do This?

Anne and I have just finished a two-week stay with the Catholic Worker people in Los Angeles. It felt like a good step to take; it's a great relief to be returning home; and I'm hoping this comes to more than an exhausting, wonderful vacation.

In case you're not familiar with the Catholic Worker movement, it began in the 1930's with a young radical named Dorothy Day, dissatisfied with her contemporary socialist organizations, who converted to Catholicism and started a newspaper dedicated to traditions she'd found worthwhile from the ancient Church: "We admit to being fools, and wish that we were more so. What we want to do is to change the world, to make it easier for everyone to feed, shelter and clothe themselves as God intended."

For some time we've been receiving a newsprint magazine called The Catholic Agitator, written and published by the Catholic Worker house in Los Angeles. They stand up for the poor, protest the war, discuss the mismatch between ideals set forth in the Bible and our contemporary abuse of fellow humans. Like any Catholic Worker house, they offer hospitality to people in need; they also host a needle-exchange program and offer meals for Skid Row homeless people several times per week.

This is not "charity" as normally understood. In accord with Dorothy Day's thinking, they are not incorporated as a non-profit and they do not draw too hard a line between the servers and the servees; they serve their meals from a Health Department A-rated kitchen in a beautiful garden patio; they also pass out coffee, fruit, and dishes of oatmeal at a public street corner where the Forces of Gentrification haven't yet conspired to drive them off. They follow up their coffee line with an hour of standing war protest at a busy LA intersection; they follow their kitchen meals (three times a week) with a thorough clean-up and a long nap--because five or more hours of this is exhausting. And they pray. And they remind themselves to smile, to keep their works of mercy on a human-to-human basis.

This is done with less than a dozen full-time volunteers, supplemented with work and donations from a great many people who know of their work and want to be part of it.

When we stayed at Pendle Hill, we met a young student from a Catholic Worker house in England. I'd wondered why there wasn't something like a "Quaker Worker" movement; she felt we were constrained by invincible Quaker middle-class sensibilities: "Quakers like to come into the poor part of town, do Good Works, drive home at night to a house in a nice neighborhood." Probably most people would prefer that.

The LA Catholic Worker house is in a barrio; it's a lovely three-story wooden house at the top of a small hill, together with several smaller houses nearby; there is no air conditioning and the only heat in the house is from a large kitchen stove and a small gas heater in the living room. Stuck-open windows are caulked with wadded towels; and pigeons are filling the attic space with noise, pigeon shit, and baby pigeons. Something will have to be done soon about the pigeons.

Despite minor hardships and inconvenience, we are drawn to the Catholic Worker way of life because it "makes sense" where the so-called "American Way of Life" doesn't. I say that because Dorothy Day, despite a love of Catholicism which I can't share, was working out a coherent way of life based ultimately on Christ's teachings.

In the conventional world, we are urged to assume a "consumer" identity, which sets everyone competing for more than we need of scarce goods, devalues the public good and all intangible goods, tightens our fists and shrivels our souls. In a more Biblical concept, like Dorothy Day's, food and shelter are not commodities for somebody's profit, but God's provision for everyone, to be shared specifically with those considered "least among us." Contact with nature, art, religious study and practice were other needs Day considered essential to a human and humane way of life. I call her vision "coherent" because it connects us, implies that our life should cohere: in itself, with a community, and with the world about us. It answers Isaiah's call:

to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

The Los Angeles Catholic Worker house needs more community members: competent, hard-working people committed to a life of prayer and service. They're a delightful group of people and many Quakers might fit in well with them; Anne and I are still in the process of deciding whether that's something we're called to do.

It's a pleasure to stay with good people in a real city like Los Angeles; but we have yet to see if I can live there without my nose slamming shut; and we're attached to many good people in our own San Diego. My hope is that something like what we've found there can be done here, in our own dysfunctional urban heap, with the friends and Friends we know.

[1] Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them.
[2] And I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate than the living who are still alive;
[3] but better than both is he who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun.
[4] Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man's envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.
[5] The fool folds his hands, and eats his own flesh.
[6] Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind.
[7] Again, I saw vanity under the sun:
[8] a person who has no one, either son or brother, yet there is no end to all his toil, and his eyes are never satisfied with riches, so that he never asks, "For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?" This also is vanity and an unhappy business.
[9] Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.
[10] For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up.
[11] Again, if two lie together, they are warm; but how can one be warm alone?

Friday, May 25, 2007


I have found people I really like doing their separate quaker blogs here and there, but I don't catch all their posts or know if they'll see any particular post on my own blog.

That seems all too individualistic in the bad sense!

Let's meet here! If you like the idea, there's a pretty good chance I'll want you here too.

Suggested ground rules: "Playful" is good, but let's keep it mindfully, lovingly playful. "Serious," but not stuffy or hostile, if we can help it.

Subjects?--anything of religious interest to Quakers & other mystical sentient beings.