Thursday, June 05, 2014

On Activism and Ordinary Acts

One of the dangers of being Quaker--or Pagan--is a privilege at the same time.

Quakers and Pagans share a somewhat counter-cultural view of our society.  In slightly different ways, most Quakers and most Pagans believe that human society is flawed in bitterly destructive ways that must be confronted and changed.  We look out at a world burdened by the selfish exploitation of whole nations of human beings, and of the ecosystem itself, and we know that things as they are are not OK.

David Shankbone 2011
The privilege and the danger that arises from this is that of associating with activists.

It's a privilege, of course, to have a chance to be inspired by those who are willing to risk imprisonment or even death to be faithful to their spiritual convictions.  This inspirational force is excellent for warding off complacency and the kind of internal self-congratulation that degrades possessing a moral compass into mere spiritual materialism and self-worship.

When I have done some small thing outside the norm for our consumer society, friends outside my spiritual communities are likely to comment on it, if they know.  "Oh, you're so good," they say.  "You're so kind."

What they mean is, I'm a moral freak.  I act in accordance with my compassionate urges; I trust my spiritual leadings enough to do... anything, anything even moderately inconvenient to myself.

What they mean is, "You do it, Cat.  I'm not going to--because I'm not 'good' like you are.  I'm not a saint."

And I get impatient with that.  I get impatient with it firstly because by praising simple acts of ordinary faithfulness, my secular friends are tempting me to think too much of my own "goodness" (which is, paradoxically, fatally destructive to actually noticing those small promptings toward doing right that got me to act in the first place).

And secondly, I get impatient with it for much the same reason my activist friends probably get impatient with me: because I hear the "opt out" in their praise, and I dislike it.

I admire deeply the principled activism of men and women like Tim DeChristopher, Sister Megan Rice, and Jay O'Hara.  I recognize the sacred nature of their work.  I hold them in the Light.  I hold them up as models to myself.  I sign petitions, circulate stories, and make donations where that's possible.  But I am not following in their footsteps.

I am not the one blocking an illegal BLM oil and gas rights auction; I am not the one breaking into a nuclear facility; I am not the one obstructing the delivery of coal to a highly polluting coal plant.  I'm not participating in Occupy Our Homes or Moral Mondays.

From the perspective of many of my friends who are activists, I'm sitting on the sidelines, cheering when I should be joining the team.  Some of them tell me so outright.  They want me with them, on the barricades along with every other warm body they can muster, because the world is in desperate danger right now, and I'm doing my laundry and posting pictures of my garden on Facebook.

So I get challenged by my activist friends. This is difficult, but useful.  I should be challenged.  I should be uncomfortable.  I should be bothered by the prophetic voices around me.  That, after all, is what prophets are for.  That's not the danger.

The danger is in listening too hard to their voices, lending too much recognition to their faithful work, and not staying grounded in my own.

If I join in their work, who will do mine?

I don't just mean, who will do my job and pay my mortgage--though I'd be lying if I said I didn't care about that. 

But I also know, in a deep place that I sometimes forget to listen to if I allow myself to feel too overshadowed by my prophetic friends, that there is work that is being asked of me, and I'm doing it. 

My work is small.  You will not see my photograph in the papers for it.  And it's implausible as hell I'll ever face jail or serious persecution over it, too.  What is my work?

I'm the one who teaches high school English in a small town in Massachusetts.  I'm the one who calls students on it every time they make a homophobic comment in my hearing.  I'm the one who teaches my freshmen what the Bechdel Test and Spike Lee's Magical Negro critique are when we watch movies in class.  I'm the one who hangs in there with a kid with a miserable attitude, until the day they do something right in class, and I can let my face light up like a lamp.  I'm the one who is trying to live in a consistent, every-minute-Zen sort of way, showing respect and compassion for every pain in the ass student, canvasser, dog-walker, or store clerk in my day, and when I fail, I do fail trying, and then I try again.

And I'm the one doing very ordinary acts of very ordinary faithfulness.  Recycling.  Writing my Congressmen.  Holding a friend while she cries. Cooking supper.

Does that even matter, in a world where climate change is made only more inevitable by the increasing inequalities that corrupt our political system?  Does that even matter, in a world where species are dying off at a rate unparalleled since the extinction of the dinosaurs?

Yeah.  Weirdly enough, it does.

I even know it does, when I dare to hear the small voice of truth inside of me.

I don't know if it's because my work--the ordinary human faithfulness of an ordinary human being--is eventually going to open hearts and minds in ways that may turn things around.  I don't know if it's simply that somebody has got to hold the Center, some sort of place of connection and respect and compassion in the world. 

I just know that it's my work, put into my hands, and I need to do it right.

For now.  If my work changes--if I'm supposed to drop everything and go chain myself to the White House fence--I freely admit I'm going to be very resistant to that.  I like my life.  I like my work.  I like the sense of purpose I have right now, in my own small way.

I can't be sure I'd even have the strength to pray to be faithful to those leadings, if they came.

David Shankbone 2011
But the key word is if.  For now, I'm right where I'm supposed to be: teaching school.  Doing my laundry.  Writing my blog.

I will try to be awake if a different call comes through.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Praise Song

Praise the beauty of the world.

Up-tossed ancient lichened granite
Shaggy hemlocks' pools of shade
Spring explosions of forsythia
Matted needles under pines

Dark green rot from the first grass clippings
the neon green of seedling chard
Blush of green that tints the woodlot
Apple trees blooming among their thorns

Rabbit, black bears and turkey vultures
Shaggy horses beside the barn
Mice in the orchard, bees in the beehive
Raise your voices, raise your eyes

Praise the mud and rain and budding
Praise the beauty of the world.

Sunday, May 11, 2014


Source: Wikimedia Commons
Sitting in meeting for worship today, I had a notion come to me. 

I was thinking about all the ways, over time, that people have brought offerings to the temples of their gods.  That was the way it was long ago.  And that's the way it is today.  Pagans bring cans for a food pantry to a public ritual, Heathens pour blots, Wiccans set aside a portion from cakes and ale to offer to the gods, Christians put money in a collection plate...

And all of those can be quite sincere, of course.  But they are outward forms.  They can become empty forms, if we don't remember what it takes to fill them.

Thinking about the matter as a Quaker, I asked myself, what's the spiritual substance that informs those outward forms--at least for me, and in my life as a Friend?

That thought tumbled together with the idea of preparation for meeting for worship: the practices throughout the week that get us ready to share in meeting on Sundays.

I think there is a way that that is the offering.  It's not so much what we bring to worship once a week... it's the week that we live, in preparation for worship.

I don't mean time spent in prayer or meditation, exactly, though those can be part of how the real offering becomes possible.  Instead... I think I mean that our offering is made up of all the moments of faithfulness we have during a week, all the little moments of living fully into the Spirit of Love and Truth we worship on First Days.

  • When I looked up the other day to see a troubled student return to my classroom after an absence, and smiled, with a real and spontaneous upwelling of gladness to see her, in spite of our sometimes difficult relationship... that was part of my offering.
  • When I was able to respond to an angry confrontation with simplicity and presence rather than defensiveness or sarcasm... that was part of my offering.
  • When a friend made himself emotionally vulnerable by confiding something difficult to me, and I responded with a confidence of my own... that was part of my offering.

Some of the pieces were small, and no one, including me, consciously even saw them.  Some of them were large, and other people commented on them.  But each of those moments, noticed or not, was part of living in real unity with That Spirit I sense in meeting.

No offering I could put into a plate could possibly mean more.  I know that.  Maybe I know that because I'm a mom, and I know how it feels to be given the plain gifts of a child's heart.

In a week when I have done well, when I have remembered how to stay present with That Spirit, I am as happy when the time comes to make my weekly offering as any child would be, holding up a just-picked bunch of dandelions for Mom.

"See?" part of me is saying.  "See?  I made this for You."

I think She likes them.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Resources: On Social Media as Spiritual Practice

NOTES from a workshop on using social media as a spiritual practice:

pdf notes from workshop.

SOME QUERIES on social media and spiritual practice:
  • What are the spiritual uses I regularly find for social media? 
  • Can blogging serve as ministry?  Rise from worship?   
  • Does the Internet enter into my prayer life, and if so, how?
  • Does my use of social media benefit my spiritual community/communites?  If so, how?
  • What are the dangers social media pose to faithfulness?  
  • How am I addictive in my own use of social media? 
  • Where do I need more accountability in my use of social media, and to which parts of my faith community/communities? 
  • When and how do I outrun my guide in blogging? And how does that feel different from being faithful when I write?

Beyond the addictive qualities of Facebook's Upworthy videos and Grumpy Cat memes, I'm aware of the ways my writing can be influenced by my creaturely hope of admiration.

I am aware of a temptation to write what may be reblogged rather than what is deeply true or important, and the temptation to be overly strategic in blogging--thinking of blogging frequency and length in terms of what will drive traffic rather than what is faithful--or, I wonder, is that OK on some level?

To what extent is being strategic around traffic or readership an interference with being spiritually present within the writing, and to what extent is it a different kind of faithfulness?


"I Blog Because I'm Happy, I Blog Because I Care" from John Madsen-Bibeau's Like it Matters.
  • John, a friend who is a therapist and UCC minister, ponders these queries.

"12 Pieces of Advice for Quakers on the Internet" from Jon Watts' blog.
  • Jon Watts considers ways to make use of the Internet in ministry--and some of the pitfalls.
"What Is a Quaker Ministry? (What Isn't?)" from Jon Watts.
  • Jon Watts reflects on his art (music) as ministry, and some of the potential pitfalls in that.

"Writing Out Loud: Blogging as Worship" from the Online Journal of Christian Communication and Culture.
  • Reflections on blogging as an interactive diary, from humility rather than self-promotion.

"On Writing from a Spiritual Center" from Cat Chapin-Bishop at Quaker Pagan Reflections.
  • My own reflections on my process when I write from a spiritual center.

"Screen Free Week: Reflections and Next Steps" from Joanna Hoyt at Living as if the Truth Were True.
  • Quaker Joanna Hoyt on what an annual week without the Internet shows her about her use of it.

"Vi Hart's Guide to Comments" from Vi Hart's You Tube Channel.
  • A humorous look to how we humans respond to online critics. 
"Gastblogschaft" from A Heathen's Day and "Gastblogschaft" from A Pagan Sojourn
  • Two perspectives on the Heathen/Pagan concept of Gastblogshaft, the mutual hospitality owed between a blogger and a blog's commenters.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Ten Years Ago

So on the day that The Wild Hunt has covered the North Carolina freedom of religion lawsuit to overturn that state's ban on same-sex marriage, my copy of Boston Spirit arrived with its lead story, of course, on the tenth anniversary of the Goodridge case.

I look over the very ordinary, very middle aged photos of the plaintiffs, and I'm surprised at how deep my emotions run.

Why do I care so much?  Is it because I see myself in those couples' faces?  I, too, am past my youth.  I, too, have raised a child with a spouse I love.  Even the Goodridges, divorced as they are, posed with their now-grown daughter... I see myself in them.  I, too, am a divorced mom with a grown daughter.

I know there is so much to the story of growing up and living a life as someone who is gay, or lesbian, or trans, that is outside my experience or my empathy.  I was saddened, for instance, to read Heidi Nortonsmith's comments, on how, away from home when the Supreme Court overturned Section 3 of DOMA, her joy was not mirrored by those around her.
If I had been at home in Northampton, it would have been a nonstop celebration.  Instead I was back at my alma mater, 30 years later, feeling like on one hand we've come so far--and on the other, here I am having some of the same old experiences.  Everyone was talking about their kids and families, and when I mentioned mine, my partner in the program--someone I had been studying with, eating with, and getting to know for 45 days--heard what I said, turned on his heels and walked away.
I read those words, and I felt saddened... but I also felt surprised.

I'm a straight girl.  I get to feel surprised.

But also, I get to feel grateful.  The original story of the success of Goodrich v. Dept. of Public Health came at a time in my own life when I was struggling with health problems, a stressful new job and family issues that sometimes seemed beyond hope.  Goodrich was, oddly or no, one of the handholds I used to claw my own way up out of despair that year.  I was nourished by knowing that this one good thing had come to pass, the recognition of love as a thing my society should cherish.

I remember the tears flowing down my face, overwhelmed by joy in a season of fear.

The story of same-sex marriage isn't over yet.  Not just in North Carolina, but all across the country, all around the world, there is more to do.  And even when we have achieved marriage equality, there is more still--so many ways exist that people refuse to honor the sacred in one another.

Nor is the story my story--or, to the degree I share it, I am less than a footnote to the real story.
Still this is a story that has sustained me, given me hope in times that seemed very dark to me.  And maybe that's the place where I really come to feel joined with this story: I need to remember my own gratitude, and keep on working to secure that same gratitude and hope for everyone who is living through the darkness now.

I need to believe in hope.  I need to believe in love, and in the value of all its forms.  And I need to do what I can to pass them on.
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