Monday, April 30, 2007

"Cat...It's Beltane."

So a sick day--two, actually--is not really a traditional way to celebrate the Pagan holiday of joy, spring, and fertility. But for me, it's not a bad choice, really.

Here's the deal.

Yesterday, I was supposed to "hold" meeting for worship in the morning. "Holding" worship is a Mt. Toby thing--I'm not sure all unprogrammed Quakers think of it the same way. A lot of meetings will have an appointed closer--the one who tracks time, and provided there appear to be no messages rising in the meeting at the time, signals the end of our hour by beginning the handshakes. But "holding" also means arriving a bit early, and settling into worship in order to "hold" the space as people enter it and settle into their own worship. And the one holding worship tries, through being deeply centered him/herself, through an awareness of the meeting as a whole, and through our own worship, to encourage the meeting and those who give vocal ministry especially, to center down and stay open to the guidance of Spirit during worship.

We also were scheduled to have the memorial meeting for one of our elders, who died this spring. Since many of the members of the Ministry and Worship committee had schedule conflicts, it seemed especially important that those of us who could attend do so. I had intended to go in any case--a Thanksgiving dinner conversation with Francis and Becky, in either the first or second year of attending Mt. Toby, had been an important touchstone for me, personally. But, more than that, I had been asked to bring cookies to share after the memorial meeting.

Let me explain about the cookies. I am the kind of person who takes responsibilites very seriously. OK--I'm actually a trifle grim about the whole Duty thing, well past the point where it's helpful, and into regions of grey-faced nuisance. For instance, I had to give up being the one to bring soup to meeting for worship (on the weeks when we have meeting for buisiness after worship, our meeting provides a big kettle of home-made soup for those who stay) because, though I love making soup and sharing soup, having left a pot of soup on the stove to heat in the kitchen completely disabled me in meeting for worship. All I could think about was the damned soup--was it scorching? Should I have added more salt? Was adding cabbage a mistake? Etc, etc, etc...

I might as well have skipped the meeting, and sat in worship in the kitchen. That would actually have been meaningful for me. But short of that, there was no way I could contribute both soup and worship in the same meeting.

I was very stressed about those cookies.

On Saturday, I was just really, really tired, and I certainly wasn't going to bake any home-made cookies or brownies. So Peter picked up a couple of packages of fairly nice bakery cookies. And I began to obsess about whether or not to take them out of the packaging and put them on a plate or into some tupperware. To make them look home-made.

Truthfulness, much?

*sigh* I was really ashamed of bringing store-bought cookies to a memorial meeting. As if anyone would care! But the over-responsible part of me can get worked up over the oddest things...

Then I went from tired to sick. I'll spare you the details, but we're not talking a high fever, go the ER sick... just under the weather. Sick enough to know that you're sick, but not so sick that you couldn't get up off your sick bed and perform some vital service. You know, like spreading an intestinal bug to the aging members of your meeting? Hey, to do me credit, I did recognize right away that, no, I was not going to that memorial meeting to share that particular kind of love. It was harder to decide what to do about being scheduled to hold worship that morning.

No kidding. I actually hesitated to call another member of M&W to ask them to take over for me. After all, I had a (say it thunderingly) responsibility here. Right?

And then it happened again... that helpful little voice from the past: Peter's voice in my ear, saying the magic words, "Cat... it's Beltane!"

Long, long ago, when I was not yet a new Quaker, but instead a new Pagan and newly in love with the man I am married to today, I belonged to a group called the Church of the Sacred Earth. And we had scheduled a weekend-long Beltane camping retreat and business meeting, at a member's home in northern Vermont.

It was the morning after the night before; the ritual had gone off perfectly, the feast had been feasted, and Peter and I had spent a very cozy night in his tent together... and then awakened to still more morning coziness. (For anyone who has not snuggled in a tent in the morning light with someone you're in love with, permit me to recommend it to you. It's an experience that ought to figure somewhere in everyone's lifetime.) It was one of those blissfully happy times that happen early in a really good love affair, and outside the tent there were birds singing, leaves sighing, and, on the whole, nature itself seemed determined that we would have a very good time.

Til I glanced at my pocket watch. Crap! It was already 11:00 AM, and the business meeting was set for 10:00!

I forget whether I was on the Board of Directors or the Council of Elders that year, but I do remember that the business meeting clearly could not start until I was there. In a sudden sweat, I began frantically rummaging through the tent, looking for my clothes, ranting imprecations all the while at my irresponsible, thoughtless self--

Til Peter caught me gently in his arms, held me close, and whispered the magic words: "Cat, it's Beltane."

Oh yeah. Right. Love and bliss and springtime, and taking the time to enjoy them, are what we were there for. Oops.

I got myself together, slowly and sanely, and got up to the house where the business meeting was to be held, and found everyone else sitting on the porch, dreamily sipping their coffee in the morning light, utterly contented. Score one for the Beltane spirit--what point was there in my fuss and worry?

I try to remember this. I try to remember it in Quaker contexts as well as Pagan and personal ones. Friends work to be spirit-led. And one thing I'm quite sure of--while I am busy obsessing over duty and responsiblity, Spirit can't get a word in edgewise. My worry takes over everything, and I couldn't hear Spirit if it were shouting my name. Except, wait, oh yeah--it did, and I did... Peter's voice, all those years ago, reminding me that grey-facedness is not faithfulness.

So yesterday morning, with that long-ago message in my ears, I took a turn for the sane. I called Janee, who immediately accepted the task of holding in my place, and sent Peter off with the cookies, still in their little plastic trays.

I confess to both being relieved at the respectability of someone who was ill sending store-bought cookies... as opposed to someone who was just plain tired... and to obsessing a little over the slight breach of ettiquette involved in delivering the cookies during meeting for worship rather than just before the memorial meeting itself. But no one ever said that being faithful to a leading (even a leading to stop being so bloody responsible) was going to be easy.

In fact, I took my faithfulness to the spirit of Beltane so far that today, I am home sick from school as well, having left my students with only the dreaded "stick a video in the slot" sub plan for the day.

For me, this is a grand accomplishment... and a testimony to the power of spring.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

Sometimes, the universe throws you coincidences that are too good to go by that name--synchronicity sounds so much nicer, doesn't it?

In any case, just at the time when I was corresponding with a group of Pagan and Heathen bloggers I admire about this wonderful tool that the "Quaker Blogosphere" had for itself in the brainchild of Martin Kelley, QuakerQuaker: A Guide to the Quaker Conversation, Quaker blogger Chris M. was suggesting it was high time for a QuakerQuaker blog carnival.

Pagan readers may have a sense of the importance that QuakerQuaker holds for Quaker bloggers, if I compare Martin Kelley to Fritz Jung or Wren Walker at The Witches' Voice, though the two pages are very, very different. Where Witchvox has become an enormous community forum and news page, with thousands upon thousands of regular visitors, the scope of QuakerQuaker is far smaller--and more focused. QuakerQuaker is not an attempt to bring its readers the whole of the Quaker world... just the parts that will really get us thinking and talking to one another. And as much as I admire Fritz and Wren, I have developed an equally great admiration for Martin Kelley (and the rest of the regular contributors at QuakerQuaker).

Chris asks fans of QuakerQuaker, "How did you find QQ, or Quaker blogs generally? What was a post you found through QQ or Quaker blogs that really moved you, spoke to your condition? Or, what was one of the most engaging conversations you've found?"

I don't remember how I found QuakerQuaker. I think that possibly it found me--that my first hint such a thing existed may have come about after one of our early posts was picked up and featured as a link. Other Quaker bloggers began to stop by and leave their comments on our blog, and of course I followed the links back to their own blogs... and then the links to other blogs that they linked to... and so on. Very quickly I was hooked--to use a negative-sounding term for what has been an overwhelmingly positive experience for me. I learned how to use web tools like Bloglines so that I could subscribe to many of my favorite Quaker blogs, and then how to create a blogroll so that I could direct my readers on to blogs I thought they would like, too. I learned how to edit the html of my own blog so that I could reformat my sidebar in ways inspired by the blogs I found.

All that is superficial, though. Some of the comments left by visitors in this Quaker conversation have meant the world to me. I feel welcomed and supported by bloggers like Lorcan Otway, of Plain in the City, lovingly eldered by Liz Opp at The Good Raised Up, and by Marshall Massey of Earth Witness--and by Martin Kelley, the Quaker Ranter himself, of course. I've been exposed to ideas from seasoned Quakers from portions of the Quaker movement that I might never have been exposed to otherwise, and I've really come to relish what happens when Quakers with different backgrounds share wisdom. And none of these beloved voices were known to me one year ago.

In the midst of this conversation, I've begun to read and to write differently. Well, OK, I still use way too many dashes and parenthetical phrases. But I write from a different center now. Having been exposed to Cubbie's extraordinary sincerity and openness in his spiritual journey, or Liz Opp's carefully discerned and spirit-filled writing, to the seasoned patience and hospitality shown by blogger Will T. at Growing Together in the Light on recent conflicts between Friends in FUM, I now have a higher standard for myself. I at least attempt to write in my blog and in my comments on others' blogs with the same open-heartedness I see in so many Quaker blogs. In a very real sense, blogging and reading blogs has become a major part of my weekly preparation for worship.

As I hinted earlier, the influence doesn't stop with my own blogging and learning. Just as I feel myself consciously trying to write from a spiritual center in my blog, I've begun actively seeking Pagan blogs with a similar quality, and, if Erik of Executive Pagan was being frank as well as kind, perhaps inspiring more spirit-led blogging in that community, too.

Whether or not that is the case, it is definately the case that the Pagan blogging community, starting with bloggers Yvonne Aburrow and Jason Pitzl-Waters, has taken up the idea of a home for the Pagan conversation something like QuakerQuaker.

It's a long way from full-grown, but the seed has been planted. QuakerQuaker has been so important, not just in the world of the Quaker blogosphere, but of the religious blogosphere in general, that imitation is at least being tried. We've got a long way to go... but, for those who are interested, QuakerQuaker has a new little sister, just about a week old now, in The Pagan Portal.

Here's to many more long and fruitful conversations all around. Thank you, Martin.

The Grey Bonnet

Some dreams aren't much of a challenge to interpret...

I dreamed that I was working to make myself a grey coal-scuttle shaped bonnet. In the dream, it was clear to me that this was a Quaker bonnet I was sewing for myself. I was having a couple of problems: there was some kind of metal stay built into it to hold the shape. I kept trying it on and taking it off and making small adjustments to it, because the metal piece squeezed against my temples uncomfortably.

I was interrupted in this work several times by people walking through the space where I was. Each time someone came in the room, I would awkwardly hide the bonnet in my lap... sort of the way I keep turning the title of Lloyd Lee Wilson's book away from people when I have it out in public to read. Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order is actually a really cool book about Quaker worship and community processes... but, oh, that title is a painful squeeze!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Our Birthday Present, Precious...

I received this beautiful gift in the mail from our good friend, Judy Harrow, HPs of Proteus Coven, and the chair of the Pastoral Counseling Department at Cherry Hill Seminary.

So next All Snakes' Day, both the blog and I will be ready, with some trendy jewelry to balance all those shamrocks.

It has been a while since we've gotten together, but it's nice to know that time and miles don't matter so very much. Thanks for celebrating our anniversary with us, Judy! Blessed Be.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Happy Birthday to Us--A Little Bit Late

Hey! I missed our birthday! Oops.

Quaker Pagan Reflections turned 1 year old on April 12. Not only that, but we've managed to post 60 entries over the year--a little better than the post-a-week goal that my serious blogger friends recommend.

So hooray for us. And thank you for reading.

Blessed be!

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Joy, Ministry, and Embarassment

It doesn't feel entirely like a First Day if I don't feel torn, rushed, and stressed after meeting for worship, by the need to zip home, grade a huge stack of papers, and batten down the hatches for another week of teaching.

That said, I will say I am not complaining.

Ours was a sleepy and somewhat restless meeting today, if I'm any judge. Still, I had a good meeting. Sitting in worship, listening to the sound of sleety rain beating on the roof of the meeting house, I kept hearing the "Ode to Joy" chorus from Beethoven's 9th Symphony going round and round in my head.

It's not a piece I know well enough to quote from memory, so plainly it was for me, not a message for meeting in any way, but I'd like to share those half-remembered lyrics with you here:

"...All creatures drink joy
At the breasts of nature;
All the good, all the evil
Follow her roses' trail.
Kisses gave she us, and wine,
A friend, proven unto death;
Pleasure was to the worm granted,
And the cherub stands before God.
Glad, as his suns fly
Through the Heavens' glorious plan,
Run, brothers, your race,
Joyful, as a hero to victory..."

Schiller's words (and Beethoven's music) just seemed very on-target for me today. I found myself thinking how joyful it is to be living. What? I thought. For everyone? Yes, I thought, everyone has reason to be joyful. Even the child who dies after only a few days of life? Even the widow left alone at the end of life? Yes. Everyone. Every being on the earth, however much the pain and terror we experience... Each of us has received this incredible free gift from the Universe, beyond anything anyone could ever earn: we live. We live in a world that has joy as its sap, rising from root to crown.

And I felt very glad.

D.C. rose at one point, and shared briefly that he had been feeling a lot of heaviness over situations in the world this week, and that he had asked one woman engaged in a struggle he is also engaged in how she can bear to continue, to stay where she is and keep trying. "Where else would I be?" his friend answered. "This is my home. Where else would I stand?" And he said he felt a real opening and a lightness, and he shared with us the words, "The yoke is easy, and the burden is light." And I think D. is right. I think that when we are where we need to be, doing what we are meant to do, the burden is light. It's when we're resisting a call, or persisting in an action that isn't really for us, that burdens get heavy.

I'm pretty sure that the real work always involves joy--even if it also involves sorrow, terror, and exhaustion. Or at least, so it seemed to me this morning in meeting.

I'm trying to remember in whose blog I read, recently, about a woman who found herself crying in meeting when worship gets deep for her, and I was so glad to read it. She wrote, too, that she wishes she didn't--she said she chooses to sit in the balcony in her meeting so as to be as unobtrusive as possible, and the tears that come make her feel painfully visible. It was freeing to read this, because I feel that way, too. Not always, but often enough I also find tears running down my face. (They were during Beethoven's 9th today, for sure.) And I always feel awkward about it, as if it is some kind of boast of specialness, or posturing for attention.

Hm. More accurately, I'm afraid other people will believe that of me.

It's good to remember how often Quakers are tender people. Last week, for instance, I shared with A., in my meeting, the story of the encounter between Soul Force and George Fox University. I knew that I had been moved by the story. But to watch A. respond with brimming eyes and a face full of tenderness... I was moved by how readily he was moved.

It was good to remember that this is not an unusual thing, among Friends. More than once, of late, I've struggled to hide my emotion, only to look up and see plenty of other eyes welling up, too.

So I'm trying not to be embarassed about the fact that, at least some of the time, encounters with God lead to mucus. Not attractive, maybe, but true! So when R, sitting next to me today, reached out to me at rise of meeting, because he'd noticed my tears and feared that I was troubled, I was able to just gladly and happily hug him back, and let him know without embarassment that actually, it meant the opposite: it meant I had been especially joyful. ("As a hero to victory?")

I'm going to try not to be embarassed about this bit, either. I want to talk about being encouraged and helped by some of Mt. Toby's elders today. I'm feeling a little shy about it; I'm a bit afraid I'll come off as full of myself, arrogant, or callow. I'm afraid of being judged for speaking publically about a private thing--my meeting does not currently record ministers, for instance, I think at least partly for fear of distorting ministry though too-public a recognition of it. And just writing about this is a kind of claiming of a ministry on my part, and, well, that's a very squirrelly feeling. But, as I told Cubbie on his blog recently, I think one thing that blogging can offer is a look at a process of spiritual unfolding. If I'm making an ass of myself here, it is surely part of the story. So, friends ("F"friends and otherwise), here goes:

After meeting, I received some eldering--not in the sense of admonishment, but in the sense of seasoned members of the meeting reaching out to me and giving me feedback in a way that nurtures whatever gifts I may have. In the first instance, G. thanked me, not for the message that I'd given this week--which is always a good thing to hear, especially from a weighty friend--but for "being a conduit" for a message that (he said) brought the meeting to a deeper point in worship. Coming from G, that's almost humblingly encouraging. The words he chose conveyed a sense that the wated didn't taste too much of the pipes--that I'd really managed to carry it faithfully.

Who doesn't like to hear when they got something right?

I do not remember the message, by the way. Not in the sense of trance amnesia, as many Wiccan HPs have for Drawing Down in ritual. (Pagans sometimes use that kind of amnesia as a yardstick of authenticity of _our_ messages in worship--though, on its own, it's a fairly unreliable one, I fear.) Just... it really wasn't my message, so I don't really remember what it was very well. Which is cool.

A little later, R. approached me to pass on a more general, but also really affirming comment which came out of the State of Society meeting he'd attended, where my name apparently came up as someone whose presence contributed to worship in a good way. And again, that was good to hear in ways that are so rich that it's almost scary.

The third piece of eldering came after meeting for business. It was really just a friendly reminder of a sort of procedural/boundaries issue; it wasn’t even critical—more empowering: a reminder of the fact that Ministry and Worship has the job of discerning a number of things on behalf of the meeting, and that we can do that with a fair degree of independence. I’d been very careful, in helping to craft the State of Society letter this year, to try and keep my personal flashes of wisdom or folly out of the writing. D. and I both worked, in our drafts, to reflect what we were hearing from Ministry and Worship and Care and Counsel as clearly as we could. Which was probably good… but when the meeting for business saw a need to add a missing piece to the whole, I got very nervous about doing it outside the careful process that we’d set up. Happily, D. remembered material I’d forgotten that _had_ sprung out of the process… but J's point seemed to be that, had he not, it would not have been an emergency. M&W is entrusted with being able to come to a good number of conclusions about the health of the meeting on its own.

The interesting thing is that, even though the communication was a very non-judgemental sharing of information, I really had a hard time hearing it. My initial feeling was one of defensiveness—something I hadn’t felt at all while the meeting for business considered the report, thank goodness. I often feel really inadequate about my lack of understanding of some of the more subtle and esoteric bits of how the Quaker world functions—in spite of a growing realization that no two meetings work quite the same way. And I sometimes hear sharing of information as if it were a rebuke of my ignorance—as if I should have been born knowing all I’d ever need to know in life! I know it’s silly, but I still feel like that at times. And J. is weighty enough in my eyes, that anything from her seems huge, for good or ill. It’s at moments like that that I most miss the feeling of weight I built up in my years as a Pagan. I know where I _am_ as a Pagan! I no longer need to wrestle quite so hard with my personal insanitites...

It’s as if I were a boat. In the Pagan world, I have a keel: you can praise me or educate me or critique me, and I’ll be able to take that wind into my sail, but keep sailing on course. In the Quaker world, I have no keel yet, so every shifting wind makes me veer off course. I don’t know what is right or wrong, who to listen to, or when to take things in with a grain of salt. It’s the curse of the newbie, and I’m endlessly off-balance because of it.

That’s the cost of being new, being open, letting myself be changed. That's the price tag, in other words, of finding Beginner Mind again. Lucky me.

I will eventually know how to take in eldering without losing my balance. I hope so, at least! Every puff of wind, from every weighty Friend, really ought not make me feel so disoriented. Still, I get homesick sometimes for the more familiar territory, where I was the elder, trying to gently and kindly direct newcomers in the way they ought to sail.

Ah, the awkwardness of growth…

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Waging Peace in All Things

For Quakers, the most topical part of this essay is probably going to be towards the end, where I'm going to try to say at least a little about the current contretemps about the discriminatory FUM personnel policy, and how Quakers, as a community, are dealing with it. For Pagans, the most interesting bits may be some thoughts about creating peace even in the face of injustice. I'll try not to ramble much, guys, but the issues are complex. Anyway, I'll start with a news story that caught my eye and got me writing this morning:

Cruising through the excerpted blogs at QuakerQuaker, I came across this account of a visit of a group of Christian GLBT activists to George Fox University--an evangelical Quaker college with a policy that, alas, discriminates against gays and lesbians. I'm impressed with the "Equality Riders," of course, but that's not what made this post resonate so strongly with me. Instead, it is the actions of the administration, faculty, and students at George Fox that stand out for me.

Pagans on the east coast of the United States may be unaware of the fact that there are such things as Quaker evangelicals, much less that numerically, they are the majority of Quakers worldwide. (They evangelize, after all!) I know that, before I became Quaker, I thought that Quakers were all members of what I now know are the liberal, unprogrammed meetings that I was familiar with.

Needless to say, there are some major differences between evangelical Friends and liberal Friends like me--starting with the fact that evangelical Quakerism is a Christian religious group, plain and simple. There is no question whatsoever that I would not be accepted for membership among evangelical Friends.

Nor is there any question that, to an outward eye, at least, evangelical Friends would seem to have more in common with evangelical Christians everywhere than with liberal Friends. As Thomas Hamm says, in The Quakers in America, "The rise of issues like abortion, homosexuality, and school prayer has moved many Evangelical Friends to identify more closely with the corresponding wing of the Republican party. Typical is one EFI Friend who described the Republicans as the party of 'Christian ideals' while the Democrats are the party of 'humanism' which is 'Satanic.'" So it is not surprising that a group like the Equality Riders would put George Fox University on the list of Christian colleges that misuse "religion to sanction the condemnation and rejection of any of God’s children." The shoe of homophobia fits--in theory, at least.

But the experience that met the young members of the Equality Riders at George Fox University was very different from the reception they had had elsewhere... for instance, at Bob Jones University, exactly one day before the visit to George Fox University. Instead of facing arrest, and crowds of angry protesters carrying signs that read, "God Hates Fags," the Equality Riders "were greeted by a cluster of faculty, administrators, student hosts and one sign that read FREE HUGS." Concerns that all this was simply prolog to a day of condescending "passive condemnations" gradually faded, as one group of people committed to peace met another.

I was so moved by Brandon Kneeful's account that I find I must post it here verbatim:

We were immediately paired or tripled with our host(s) and began a day of shared meals and deep discussions. For the first time since the ride began, the Equality Riders were formally dispersed throughout the campus. We called on our knowledge, intuition, and stories to address concerns and answer questions. Some Riders served as panelists in formal discussions, some were invited guest speakers in classes, some met with administrators and boldly addressed issues of LGBT inclusion, and some just mingled with the George Fox student body by attending pottery classes and telling their stories of faith and sexual orientation.

Often times, Riders were alone in knots of students who seemed to be drilling for answers. My first two one-on-one conversations happened in succession as one gentleman shared his ex-gay testimony and challenged my stance, followed by another gentleman who shared his story of being abused as a child, and challenged me with logic and scripture. After taking in their accounts, I began to sit with them and listen. I listened with peace and an open mind and did not attempt to defend myself. Throughout the conversations, they kept asking me (indirectly, of course) to reevaluate my position on being gay and Christian, and as the conversations ended, I walked away having heard one request: please help me find peace on this issue. I was called to George Fox University for these two men, to show them that God affirms a gay man and uses a gay man for good. I think every Rider had at least one moment like this. After six Equality Riders shared their coming out and faith stories with a class, one student shared that she saw them as incredible models of what Christians can and should be.

As the day ended, hosts and Riders gathered back into a debriefing room. I sat near a professor who, earlier in the day, cried in front of his Human Development class as he realized the struggle that LGBT Christians experience. During debriefing, we received continual thanks and blessings. One faculty member said that he has been changed by our visit; another student felt overwhelmed with love for us and privileged to have been in our company today. A consensus throughout the hosts was the intention to continually grow in understanding of this issue.

This incident speaks to me so powerfully in part because I have always, from the time I was very young, had a particular concern for the injustice of discrimination against gays and lesbians. I can hardly say why this issue has always carried so much force for me, but it has, more than almost any other social issue of our time. But mainly it speaks to me as a Quaker who became convinced through the peace testimony; I had what I can only describe as a conversion experience to the peace testimony (and, in time, to Quaker process as a vehicle in the world for the peace testimony) as a result of 9/11.

The peace testimony is about more than opposing war. It has to be, or it means nothing. The peace testimony is about waging peace, actively crafting peace, and, when done correctly, it is my understanding that that is precisely the point of Quaker process.

See, back in the days when I believed in something I might have described as a "rational use of force" doctrine, I believed that, though war and violence were Bad Things, human beings were stuck with them, for the forseeable future, because we were not wise enough to avoid them.

I still believe that. The difference now is that I believe there is an alternative to relying on our own wisdom alone.

To my eyes, the endlessly repeated collapse of the two towers of the World Trade Center became an icon for what human beings could now do to one another, armed with no more than human wisdom...and half a dozen box cutters. The rational, wise human response to that terrible violence would be, of course, more violence, and more, and more... Gandhi said it better: "an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind," and that is where I saw human wisdom taking us.

Quaker process--listening together, to one another, AND to "God" (which, as I've often said before, I have no definition for)--offers one way out of the box. If human beings can't craft peace on our own, well, hell, let's see if there's Anyone out there who might be willing to act in partnership with us to that end.

And that's exactly what Quaker process--meeting for worship for business--is intended to be, it turns out.

Now, my jury is still out on whether or not it works. Quakers are fond of looking back at the divisions and schisms that have arisen among us at various times in our history, and pointing to failures in "good Quaker process" as to blame. This may be correct, but I am not yet seasoned enough to say.

I do want to say, however, that when I look at events like those described at George Fox University, I am vastly encouraged. Here are two groups, with radically different ideas about what it means to be "Christian," and both sides with some pretty clear and clearly opposed ideas on the subject of homosexuality. For the gays and lesbians in the group, the stakes could hardly be higher--this is the right to life, dignity, and religious fellowship we're talking about here. This visit could so easily have degenerated into cloying condescension, screaming matches, and acrimony cloaked as "God's love."

But it didn't.

Instead, two groups committed to nonviolence, and one committed to Quaker process--listening together for God's Truth and each other's--met and heard one another.

George Fox University has not yet changed their policies. There has been no immediate, outward change at all. But can anyone doubt that continuing dialog of this sort _will_ eventually change hearts and minds? The consensus, "the intention to continually grow in understanding of this issue," was not empty. Change will come. And, as for me, I am powerfully convicted that no one who listens to the God of peace can avoid, over time, coming to an understanding that sexual orientation is not a moral issue--but homophobia and discrimination are.

Again, I remember--it took almost 100 years for Quakers to figure out that owning slaves was morally unacceptable. Which only put them about 100 years ahead of everyone around them.

All of this--the willingness on the part of the George Fox University community to listen deeply and honestly, and to risk learning of a need for change, and the willingness of the Equality Riders to speak softly, listen to those who question their deepest values, and risk a _lack_ of change--this risky openness to the way of peace, stands in dramatic opposition to what is happening internationally to Friends on this same issue.

Bear with me. I've been struggling to find a way to write about all this that _I_ can understand. Let me tell it as if it were a children's story. (But please, don't read into my story either condescension or sarcasm, Ladies and Gentlemen, because they are not there. I'm just trying to find the words to explain this matter to myself.)

I'll begin it the traditional way: once upon a time.

Once upon a time, there was a Quaker organization known as Friends United Meeting. Friends United Meeting (or FUM, for short) was not a liberal Quaker body. It was not a conservative or an evangelical Quaker body. It wasn't on the left, and it wasn't on the right... and its members thought that this was just right. Because they were all Quakers, and Quakers should all be able to get along.

Some of its members were pastoral meetings, who hired ministers. Some of its members were unprogrammed meetings, who did not. Some of its members worked in places all around the world, bringing food or shelter or schools where they were needed, and some of its members evangelized. And soon, there were meetings that belonged to FUM all around the world, in Africa and India, in Central America; yes, and in the United States of America, too. And everyone was very happy, because everyone was Quaker, and so everyone knew they would be able to get along. Oh, there had been problems Long, Long Ago, but those problems were over now, and everyone knew how to live happily ever after.

But then, one day, a cold wind blew across the land. And the name of that wind was...CHANGE.

Change was disturbing. And Change was unsettling. And Change did not always come in packages that made it easy for different kinds of Quakers to know how they were meant to act together. And one day, Change came in the form of a clash of liberal values, that embraced the idea of full equality for gays and lesbians; with conservative values, that believed that homosexuality was morally wrong.

Some Quakers believed that the Bible would always tell them what was right. And the Bible, it seemed to them, said that homosexuality was bad. And they adopted a personnel policy that did not ban gays and lesbians from membership among Friends, no, but kept them from certain positions of leadership.

Some Quakers believed that the Bible was often helpful, but that it was the Inner Seed that would tell them what was right. And the Inner Seed, it seemed to them, said that homosexuality was neither good nor bad, but discrimination was unjust and needed to be ended.

Some Quakers believed that they already knew what was right, and (whether or not this was true) they were impatient with the other Quakers who did not agree with them. The issues were clear: Quakers were Christians who followed the Bible first. But wait! Other Quakers said that the Bible had never been used as a single source of authority before, and, besides, Quakers didn't have creeds. And other Quakers said, yes, Quakers in FUM did so have creeds, and if people didn't agree with their creeds, they should just go home and let the real Quakers go about their business. And other Quakers said obviously, some Quakers are homophobic and disregarding Quaker process. And still other Quakers said that the real issues here are about economically privileged, liberal meetings in North America trying to use money as a lever to push the far more numerous and generally conservative Friends in the rest of the world into line. And other Quakers said that Quakers didn't decide things by numerical counts anyway, and others said they were not sure their monthly meetings or yearly meetings could support FUM any more financially.

Some said that discussions of homosexuality were doing nothing to feed hungry or sick people, and others noticed that the hungry or sick people in places like Africa didn't seem to be very visible to the liberal Quakers of North America. Some said that the problem was that Quakers were no longer accepting of Christ, or that the problem was not paying attention to the Richmond Declaration, or that the Richmond Declaration was being used to punish Quakers who didn't agree with the majority --

--in short, all hell broke loose, and lots of Quakers became very, very unhappy. And they wondered if they could even be Friends with one another anymore.

OK. I _know_ I didn't do this issue justice, for what it's worth. I've honestly been trying very hard, but I am not a well-seasoned Friend, and I'm learning about all this painful history for the first time. So let me apologize if I've stepped on anyone's toes here--please believe and trust me when I say to you that I have no intention of hurting or making fun of anyone. Well... maybe a little bit of an intention to make fun of human nature itself, as present among Quakers as among any of the world's people. I've added a section of links to writings by wiser Friends than I am to the bottom of this post, for those who would like a better-informed rundown than I'm able to give.

But here's my point. (Just when you thought I didn't have one, right?) As burning and real an issue as confronting homophobia is--and for those Quakers on the more conservative side of this issue, it's not a red herring, guys--we liberals really and honestly do lose sleep over this one, and we're not just being cranky--it does not involve dead children in the streets.

I'm not saying this to trivialize the issue, but to put it into context. I'm not saying that there are better uses of Quaker time and spiritual energy than to address this issue.

I am saying, if Quakers, the people who are attempting to let our lives speak and to be patterns for the world of a peace testimony, cannot find a way to emulate the community of and visitors to George Fox University on this one, what kind of a peace testimony do we really have? If we cannot risk listening together to one another and to God over this, and to trusting Quaker process to help us do that, what business do we have butting in to conflicts like that between the Israelis and Palestinians, or in the streets of Bagdad or Kabul? This dispute does not involve dead children in the streets. If we cannot hear one another over our own defensiveness and righteousness here, how on earth do we expect mourning mothers and devastated fathers to put aside warfare and wage peace?

We're Quakers, dammit. If it takes 100 years, I will hate every day that I live that does not embrace full rights and recognition for gays and lesbians within the Religious Society of Friends, in all its branches. But if it takes 100 years for us to listen our way into peace, then that's how long it takes.

I can't even remember where I read it, recently, online. Someone said that "Christ is not the leader of a faction." Hey, y'all. I'm not even a Christian, and I can dig that.

Whatever else, Friends, let's wage peace. On each other, too, please.

Related Links:

A somewhat more objective, and much better informed, summary of events surrounding the controversial FUM personnel policy can be found via South Eastern Yearly Meeting, in the pdf file "A History of FUM Policy Regarding Appointment of Homosexuals."

Three accounts by a seasoned Friend from New England Yearly Meeting appear at Will Taber's Growing Together in the Light. The first, is simply a personal expression of the heavy heart he brought away from te recent, and painfully contentious, meeting of the General Board of FUM: "Back From Africa With a Broken Heart," which, despite its brevity, elicited 27 comments from readers. That was followed by Ron Bryan's Observations, originally left as a comment in its own right, but posted by Taber in order to allow the points--points in some tension with his own, as I read the posts--to be considered more deeply. That post, too, generated many comments, most thoughtful, some a bit fiery. And finally, Will Taber responded to that post with another of his own, "Reflections on the Conversation Thus Far."

Perhaps the most reflective and thorough account of the General Board meeting in Kenya was posted by Lisa Stewart, of Palm Beach Monthly Meeting. I think it does a good job putting the issues into a broader context than is sometimes done, and I've found it a very helpful document to read. Again, this is a pdf file.

For those seeking additional information, the Richmond Declaration, alluded to in a number of the documents linked above, can be found online at the Friends United Meeting website. A strongly critical summary of some of the reasons why some Friends find the Richmond Declaration to be objectionable can be found at Chuck Fager's remarks at As I do not have a very deep grasp of these issues myself, I can only apologize if the choice of these links distorts the positions Friends hold at the moment; I've included them mainly for those who, like myself, have little background knowledge in this area, but feel the need for more.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Lloyd Lee Wilson, Herne, and the Sea of Limitless Light

More than anything, as a writer, I seem to be driven to find words for things for which I have no words. (To "eff" the ineffable, as I sometimes think of it to myself.) And words for the experience of Spirit are the hardest to find of any.

Pagans have a real poverty of writings on the subject of experienced religion, in spite of our immersion in it. Quakers have more, but it is all very hard for me to access, since most of it is couched in Christian terminology, and draws on the Bible to an extent that I find very tough sledding. Still, from time to time a nugget of gold shows up--a few words that convey something of what it is to live a spiritual experience--and that keeps me hungry and seeking both words of my own, and words from others.

It helps to be present when the words are spoken. If I had not been present for the Lloyd Lee Wilson address, "Holy Surrender," I probably would have found the title alone alienating enough that I would not have read further in it. But since I was in the room as he delivered the address, I had a enough of a sense of spiritual rootedness and integrity that I was able to trust him, and listen deeply. Much of what he has to say means a good deal to me, though I do have to wade through an awful lot of (for me) difficult terminology to hear it.

The reward is that I can move past the concerns--deep concerns--Pagans tend to have around Christian language of sacrifice and humility (which we perceive are often stalking horses for a kind of false humility that abases itself before "God," only to openly or covertly sit in judgement upon others). So I can read again Wilson's words, and have a fresh experience, not one tainted by my previous experiences with "Kristians with a K," as my daughter calls them.

Wilson writes, "What does bring me peace is surrender: a relationship rather than a set of behaviors. One can be obedient at arm's length, as it were--but surrender places us in an intimate relationship with our Creator. When I give up to God, when that relationship in all its grace and mercy shapes my life, there is a peace that passes beyond all understanding or describing."

The whole motif of surrender and obedience is not one calculated to appeal to most Pagans. As a group, we object to notions that imply parking our brains at the door of the temple, like "surrender," and are not apt to give any deity unquestioning "obedience."

Which is a good thing--most Pagan deities are _not_ considered by us to be all-powerful, all-knowing, or all-wise. A personal aphorism of my own is that "we are responsible for the gods we choose to worship," which could also be expressed as a parallel to the sensible shaman's adage that, "just because they're dead, doesn't mean they're smart;" just because something is a god doesn't mean it's always "good" from a human point of view. Not only do Pagans worship powers of nature, but thinking Pagans do so with our wits about us. Surely there is a god of earthquakes, of volcanos, of typhoons. This doesn't mean that invoking such a being is always a Good Plan, however much a part of the natural balance He or She may be. So Pagans typically approach our religious experiences with eyes, as well as minds, open and alert. We're not comfortable with anything that smacks of submission.

But there's more to Wilson's words than the tripwires for Pagan discomfort, and, though they do not speak to my condition entirely, they do touch on something I've touched.

Wilson talks about surrender and obedience. In other places, he talks about the relationship of a worshipper to God and to a gathered spiritual community as that of a servant to a master--again, these are analogies a Pagan will have trouble with. But when he speaks about "giving up to God", and experiencing an uncanny sort of peace... well, I've felt something like that, particularly, but not exclusively in Quaker worship.

One of my favorite Pagan holidays is Imbolc, the feast of Brighid, Lady of the living flame, Lady of the holy well. One Imbolc, Peter and I celebrated the sabbat at East Heaven Hot Tubs. Before going in, Peter invoked the goddess. We blessed the water, and entered it as her sacred well. The tub was deep, wooden, and the room was very still and quiet.

Peter and I took turns cradling one each other in our arms, held, as adults can almost never be held, as if we were infants once again. It was not my husband holding me alone, but the sacred water holding me up and enfolding me, like the arms of the goddess. The sense of surrender and trust was sweet at a time when we both needed sweetness very much.

That's a time I've felt that kind of surrender--bhakti--in a Pagan context. (To the Pagans in our studio audience today--there: isn't it easier to hear in Hindu terminology? Turns out there are polytheist approaches to this experience after all.)

I've also felt it--often felt it--in Quaker meeting for worship.

Wilson talks about surrender as being something different from "obedient at arm's length," and as a relationship rather than a set of behaviors. And this does "speak to my condition." There is an intimacy to those moments of worship, and the experience that sometimes floods me in worship is of an intimate kind of relationship; the image that comes to me, again and again, is of myself, a young child, sitting cross-legged on the floor and leaning back trustingly against the body of my parent.

It's that feeling of utter trust and gladness--that's what comes to me when worship is working for me best.

What results, as Wilson says, is not a set of resolutions for "arm's length" obedience to a God. Instead, week by week, I feel a kind of quiet staying with me after worship, like a cool, deep pool with quiet ripples, or a shaft of portable sunlight inside me. I feel larger inside, and I am, bit by bit, less cynical, less pissed-off, and better able to feel that glad and quiet sense of presence throughout the week.

Please don't misunderstand. I am making no claims to sainthood here--I'm well aware my clay feet go all the way up to the hip. But it's just easier to live up to my better self through this trustfulness than through resolution, effort, and duty. And unlike those ways to try to drag myself into line, the trustfulness feels good. Better than good.

I don't have a name for this Presence that lets me lean up against its knees on First Days. In spite of the intimacy of the experience, I don't have a sense of any specific personality from it. To myself, I think of it as Ain Soph Aur--the Sea of Limitless Light, in Kabbalistic jargon. But that's just words. I don't really know what it is--only that I love it and want lean up against it as often as I get the chance.

I also love the Pagan gods, which seem to me much more personified and knowable. I was very glad, last summer at NEYM, when the sense that I was growing closer to that Light came with a sense that deepening connection was bringing me closer to, not farther from, the Pagan gods. In fact, the relationship I feel with Herne in particular seems clearer and less filled with my own self-doubts than it once did, for which I am also very grateful.

Having devoted a very long post to my experience of Quaker Godhead, perhaps I should do the same for Herne one day soon. After all, I knew him first, loved him first. (He is, to the perception of my inner eye, both different from and brimming with that Light I'm describing here. Superficially, he is totally different: Lord of the Wild Hunt, rooted in mortality, the body, sex, sweat, and being. Only his eyes, which I can never meet, reveal his measure of Light--greater than mine, and perhaps darker.)

For now, I'll close here with the flash of insight that came to me in meeting for worship last week: a sudden awareness that, if it ever were necessary to choose between the Lord of the Hunt and the Light I find in Quaker meeting, I can trust Herne not to guide me away from the path I'm meant for. He is the God of integrity--the willingness to act, and the willingness to abide by the consequences of action.
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