Saturday, August 30, 2008

Too Much Love?

I guess when you have to complain about an overabundance of love, you don't have too much to complain about.

As Erik of Executive Pagan commented recently, the world of Pagan bloggers "is a mini-community." This makes me particularly happy, as one of the editors of Metapagan, since my purpose in contributing to that project has been to encourage the kind of blogging community I see in the Quaker community, thanks to Martin Kelley and the editors at Quaker Quaker.

I would like to thank the bloggers who nominated Quaker Pagan Reflections for the Blog Love award: Erik, Yvonne, Cosette, Mahud, and David Miley. Perhaps you'll be relieved to know: I'm going to pass on the opportunity to post the award here four times, or to put up an additional 28 links to more blogs I love.

Nor am I simply going to turn around and toss this Valentine into the Quaker ring, now that it's made the rounds of so many of the Pagan blogs I love. Instead, I'm going to try to nominate blogs you really, really should try for yourself. So I'm speaking to all my readers, Quaker, Pagan, and other: if you haven't been to these blogs, go there.

Some have huge readerships, and some are nearly undiscovered. But these blogs all have authors who are doing amazing, wonderful things, and your life will be richer if you read their words.

Here are my nominees:
  1. Fake Plastic Fish. This blog will change the way you live, if you let it. Please let it--the earth needs your care.
  2. American Pilgrimage. OK, this is cheating--I already nominated Matt's blog for the Metapagan list. But it's not just for Pagans--or Quakers. Matt is currently on a bicycle pilgrimage to experience religion across the USA, and he brings to his observations a depth of compassion and openness to each person that is as breathtaking as the photos he posts along the way. A professional writer by trade, there is little doubt that these essays he is posting will find a publisher at some point if there is any justice in the world. But, just in case, go read them here, because to have missed them would be a preventable crime.
  3. Dykes to Watch Out For. This is one of my favorite author blogs. The cartoonist behind Fun Home, Alis0n B@chd@l has a knack for telling Truth with a capital T with humor and style. Her long-running comic strip is also a work of genius, and I hope you all have read it. If not, not only can you check out the archive, but there's a massive anthology about to come out. Not a glbtq activist? Doesn't matter. You need not be a lesbian to be in love with her mind and her blog: trust me on this--just someone who enjoys dry wit and the creative process. (Warning--lots of short videos and graphics make this slow to load.)
  4. A Silly Poor Gospel is simply the best spiritual writing I have ever read. I don't care what you believe--to read Peggy Senger Parson's blog is to hear the words of a soul deepening in all that is right with the world, and to have a chance to go there with her. (And to any of my readers tempted to caricature Christianity as a right wing conspiracy against logic, love, or nature, for the love of all the gods, read Peggy. This is what Christianity looks like, when it's lived for real.)
  5. Neil Gaiman is not just a devastatingly prolific writer, he's a devastatingly prolific blogger, which is why I do not currently subscribe to his blog--it was causing me physical pain to delete unread so many delicious entries. If you had a best friend who was traveling the world, coming up with amazing creative projects, and writing you witty and sensitive letters home about his adventures, this is just what it would sound like. (Provided your friend was a genius writer, I mean.) Oh, yeah--his kids make pretty funny guest bloggers from time to time, too. It's wonderful how your teenager is never truly impressed with mom or dad's fame...
  6. Quakerthink's Kevin Roberts is often entertaining on Quaker subject, but most of all, he's entertaining. Just his profile comments, on the difference between goats and bees, make clear the sort of writer he is. Quaker or not Quaker, you should read Kevin because he's funny. And, again, real.
  7. In the Spirit of the Earth. If you have yet to read this online account of Andras Corban-Arthen's trip to attend the Encuentro Mundial Interreligioso of the Parliament of World Religions, you really should. Excellent writing about important interfaith work!

The original rules are:
  1. Put the logo on your blog.
  2. Link to the person from whom you received the award.
  3. Nominate at least 7 other blogs.
  4. Put links to those blogs on yours.
  5. Leave a message on the blogs nominated.
However, I am officially changing all five rules to end with the phrase, IF YOU WANT TO.

I know many of the bloggers listed here are insanely busy, and no one should feel burdened by this award. (Think of it as a special dispensation from the Blogging Without Obligation movement.)

I suppose that courtesy should be extended to readers as well as writers. And if you really, really don't have time to read another blog post, well, I promise not to nag. (Much.)

But if you enjoy my blog, I will be quite surprised if you do not also enjoy the blogs listed here. So go forth, my people--read and be pleased. (Cat waves in mock regality from her throne.)

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Pagan Theodicy and the book of Job

They probably should never let Pagans own Bibles, much less read them. (Too late now.)

I'm up to Job. Though this post is going to be more inspired by an excerpt from Archibald MacLeish's play J.B., based on Job, than by the Biblical text itself. Bear with me.

Job is probably the central book of the Bible for Pagans, whether we've read it or not. However monotheists might come to terms with it, Job cannot satisfy the polytheistic Pagan mind.

Job, of course, is the story of the long suffering and faithful man whose trust in God is put to the test by God--and thereby, indirectly, the omnipotent, omniscient God himself is tested. And (theoretically) vindicated. Theodicy: "The vindication of divine goodness and providence in view of the existence of evil," says my Oxford American Dictionary, though "suffering" is probably a better word, to my mind, than "evil".

The intellectual problem, as Archibald MacLeish had his version of Satan put it, is that
If God is God, He is not good;
If God is good, He is not God.
This morning I didn't even know the word, theodicy. Now I know that this idea is what drove me away from monotheism when I was still a young child, walking alone in the woods for spiritual sustenance. Even as a girl, the idea of an all-powerful, all-good, all-loving, and all-knowing supreme being had holes in it I could have driven a truck through, if only my feet had reached the pedals.

And, after years of struggle to find a way to relate to the numen of the world, in a society that recognized only omnipotent monotheism as a legitimate religious possibility, I finally encountered Pagan expressions of love for the sacred, and a way forward. I found a way to embrace the gods--not omnipotent, not omniscient, and not moral absolutes of goodness, either; rather, beings that are good as existence is good, as a waterfall or a rock or a star is good.

Nora, Peter's grandmother, was a lifelong Protestant who lived with us both for years. Whenever she heard us explain that we found the divine within nature, she would quote Tennyson, and remind us that "nature is red in tooth and claw."

Yes. Nature is red in tooth and claw. The hawk destroys the mouse; the virus kills its host; all things die.

And yet, all things have life, have Spirit, have a rightness and a sacrality in their being. The virus that may take my life one day is no less entitled to its share of life and existence than am I; the greatest galaxy no more a miracle than the volvox swimming in my pond. I can honor them all, rejoice in them all, even as I do not abandon the importance of my own small life in all this sea of being.

I do not see any individual god or goddess as a personified, purposeful author of this, apart from and in control. When I refer to God in this blog, I am thinking, not of an individual intelligence, with or without a long white robe and beard, but of a glowing coal of Life, of Joy, deep within the heart of all things. (Talking about the Light, or the Ain Soph, or the Ground of All Being, is a more accurate reflection of what I understand by the word "God," and sometimes I'll use those words, for accuracy's sake. But it has recently come to seem cumbersome and even a bit overly precious to do that, so I've given myself permission to be inconsistent.)

But I don't recognize a single, separate, all-powerful being.

So I don't have to face the problem of Job in my theology. Instead, I think of my Pagan friend Roxanne, who, when faced with the cancer death of a member of her family, reflected that "the only thing worse than the idea that this death has no purpose would be the idea that it did."

I could never forgive a God who deliberately inflicted suffering in order to produce a particular outcome. I could never love an all-powerful intelligence that moved us around on a chess board in such a fashion.

But I don't have to. My God is not outside of creation, but within it, and part of it. I will die and I will suffer, not for a reason outside myself, but because it is my nature, part and parcel of being who I am: of being at all.

Death and suffering are what it costs, but not to please an arbitrary and omniscient God beyond the world. Death and suffering are what it costs to live at all. I will die because I live. I will suffer because I feel. I do not need a rationale to make this better.

And here's the MacLeish passage that blew me away, and made my heart stop for a moment in awe:

J.B., the Job character, has lost everything, as in the Bible story. But unlike in the Bible story, the moment of acceptance and relief comes, not from a God who restores lost wealth and (unpardonably) lost children with more of the same, but from his wife (named Sarah in the play):
Sarah: You wanted justice, didn't you?
There isn't any. There's the world...
Cry for justice and the stars Will stare until your eyes sting. Weep,
Enormous winds will thrash the water.
Cry in sleep for your lost children,
Snow will fall...
Snow will fall...

J.B: Why did you leave me alone?

Sarah: I loved you.
I couldn't help you any more.
You wanted justice and there was none--
Only love.
This seems deeply true to me, and beautiful. "You wanted justice and there was none--only love."

The passage concludes with J.B. remarking, "He does not love. He Is," and his wife replying, "But we do. That's the wonder."

And there I differ from MacLeish. For me, Sarah is speaking for God, for Spirit, in her love.

I recognize this love, because I have experienced it when I have stood within the warm embrace of the gods of nature, and felt their love. And I recognize it because I have bathed in the limitless sea of love that is the Light of Friends, and I know that, personal or not, individual intelligence as I, a human, can understand it or not, there is love at the heart of things.

I find that the dilemma J.B.'s Satan expresses, that the word theodicy was coined to address, does not bring me anguish any more.

I find that I can do without justice, having let go of the notion of an omnipotent puppet-master deity, separate from creation. I can let go of needing to see "justice" in a world where death is just how life is fed...

Because I have learned that I need not do without the love; that that love, that Light, is there at the heart of all things: the hawk, the mouse, the virus, the stars, and the tiniest beings in the most ordinary places.

It is enough. Mine is a God who Is--and who loves.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Lions at the Door

One of the conversations I didn't get to have at NEYM this year was with Will T., who said at one point that he'd like to talk with me about my relationship with Herne.

I'm pretty sure Will is not looking at converting to Paganism anytime soon. Instead, I suspect that his me.
Mountain Lion. by Julie Langford
interest was meant as a friendly conversation-opener, since he knows that Herne is important to

I like Will, and would be happy to talk about almost anything with him. This conversation didn't happen, though, and that's maybe just as well.

It's hard to talk about Herne. It's hard when I'm among Pagans, and, yeah, it's probably a bit harder among non-Pagans, but for some reason, it's difficult at any time. I am not sure why... I know that some Pagans have the habit of adopting any "cool" sounding spiritual this-n-that. You know the type: they meet a shaman who speaks of their relationship to, say, the Elk spirit, and right away, they have an Elk spirit. As if relationships in the Otherworld were fashion accessories.

Herne the Hunter
For what it's worth, in case any such Pagans are reading this: Herne is not really his name, guys. I mean, not only not his name, as in, humans don't know the True Names of our gods, but not his name as in, he's not the mythological figure referred to by Shakespeare in The Merry Wives of Windsor, OK? Or rather, that myth is one of the doors into his metaphor, but it's a back door, to a very small, lesser set of rooms and passages.

And I'm not giving out directions on how to find him for yourself. If he wants you, he'll find you. (In my experience, the gods find us, not the other way around.)

I'm public enough with my Paganism. But, odd though it may sound, given how open I have been in discussing so much of my spiritual journey online, I feel shy of speaking of my god too freely and directly, as if I owned him, or understood him or something. "Witnessing" is right out.

It's private. Not private, the way talking about our sex lives is private... more like, private, the way talking about the ways the deep love and knowledge that develops within a marriage is private. Unless one is a poet, how can one even begin? Were I to attempt it, I fear I would reduce my beloved to a list of his favorite foods, or a few entertaining anecdotes. I would make what is round and full of life sound flat and ordinary. Some things just cannot be spoken, at least by me.

Notwithstanding, Will's friendly remark has managed to echo inside me for quite some time. In fact, I dreamed about it the other night, a haunting dream that has lingered, too. I keep turning it round and round in my hands, but I'm not sure of its meaning even yet.

In the dream, Will's remark was a question. "What can you tell me about Herne the Hunter?" And in some way, the dream itself was me, trying to answer that question to myself. Not only that, but it was me, trying to answer that question, having returned from sessions feeling, for the first time, not like a Pagan among Quakers, nor like a Quaker Pagan among Quakers, but simply as one Friend among many. I am growing easier and easier in my relationship with the God of Friends--and even, for the first time, finding myself connecting with Bible as a result of my summer quest for literacy with that mythos.

So the mystery of this dream operates on a whole lot of levels for me.

The dream took place, as many of my dreams do, in a wholly unfamiliar building that was somehow my home. As in many such dreams, my house, my home, most probably represents my spirit, my self.

In this case, the house was not any place I have ever seen in my waking life, but it was definitely my house, my home. It was long, and irregularly shaped, and large, and rambling, and it was surrounded by beautiful wooded countryside. Behind the house was a ravine. I think I had just left a deck on one side of the house, having had this conversation with Will there--or perhaps having materialized within the dream there, in response to the echoing question--and I was circling around behind the house to the back door, when I glanced across the wooded ravine, and saw three lions. (Or were there four?)

At least one was a male African lion. Two were either lionesses or nearly mature cubs, or mountain lions, such as we have in this country. The male lion, with its clear, recognizable mane, was seemingly disinterested in crossing the little gully at the bottom of the ravine, but the other two lions seemed much more interested and aware of my movement.

My response to all this was awe and pleasure at seeing lions--but also sensible fear and a sense of urgency about getting indoors. I was not panic stricken, by any means, but neither did I want to encounter these lions any closer up.

However, just as I hurried up to open the back door into my house, one of the lions came surging out of the woods and rushed up to me. It half-stood, half-leapt up onto it's rear legs, claws out, grabbing for my head or my shoulders or my neck.

Still, I was not panicked. I was frightened, but also resolute. I held up my hands to ward off those grabbing claws, and grappled with the lion. In a contest of strength and balance and will, I grabbed for the lion's face and his or her vulnerable eyes, working to push the lion backwards, off of me, to overbalance so that I would be able to step through the door and shut it behind me.

In the moments that my hands were raised to ward off the lion's attack, his/her claws actually went all the way through the palms of my hands, piercing them completely. The entire rest of the struggle took place with the lion's paws sealed to my palms by those claws, until I succeeded in driving the creature backwards, and the claws pulled out of my hands with a slight burning sensation, and I was free to slam the door between us.

There was no blood coming from my hands at all... but there were holes that bored all the way through. Small, teardrop shaped holes. I held them up to the light coming from the window, and I could see daylight through them, and a small amount of clear seepage. That, and the slight burning sensation were all the evidence of the struggle.

I heard sounds in the house, and realized the other lion was already inside. Exploring the house from the inside, I found the second mane-less lion by an open window. A similar struggle to the first occurred, perhaps more violent, as this time, I actually had to put my thumb into the beast's left eye--I felt it pop beneath my gouging. Oddly, the eye was blue. (Why blue? Are there even any lions with blue eyes?)

There was no sense of malice, or anger, or hate in any of this. A prudent sort of fear and urgency, but no panic: the lion, though attacking, was not my enemy. Having defeated the second lion or lioness, and thrusting him or her out through the open window, I glanced out across the ravine, and there was the African lion, still watching calmly and idly from the woods.

The wounds on my hands were still there. They seemed less like wounds than like markings, however. This is not to say the cats would not have eaten me, if I had let them. But the sense was not of pain or terror, but of calm acceptance of something that was not out of place.

I made my way to a large room in my home--almost ballroom sized, and with a number of levels, a staircase to a balcony area, and many waiting friends from the Pagan community. No one seemed remotely alarmed (including me). Peter was there somewhere... I think my friend Kirk was there. Rayna was there. Her husband, Canu, another dear Pagan friend whom I hardly ever get to see any more, was expected any minute--Canu who has often acted as Herne's priest for me.

I think I was pondering the question, what can I say of Herne? and perhaps discussing it with Rayna, when I woke up, palms still tingling with the remembered wounds.

Holey hands. Holy hands. Holes that the Light shone through.

When I told the dream to Peter, he immediately thought of stigmata. I agree that the dream seems to mix Christian and Pagan symbolism in ways that are hard to track, but the equation with stigmata seemed a bit pat. There was no blood, and, anyway, I've never been Catholic, and the wounding did not seem in the least Christ-like or like a crucifixion to me. Hands and the palms of my hands are more likely, for me, as a Reiki practitioner, equated with healing and with spiritual presence than with Jesus.

The lions, though... Those are a truly ambiguous symbol. Lions certainly can be Christian, or at least Biblical. Studying the Bible this summer, I've come across any number of references to lions. Aslan, in my beloved Narnian books, is both a lion--a large, African lion--and a symbol of Christ.

And, though the dream took place in a northern deciduous forest, like the ones I grew up in in New England, there was at least one African lion watching me from the trees. A stranger to these woods, an immigrant, as Jesus is an immigrant to both the land spirit of North America, and, I suppose, to my own "shores".

But lions are often symbolic of Herne for me as well, despite his more common depiction as a stag or a man with antlers. Herne is hunter as well as hunted, and reflects the fierce and fearful side of life as well as the self-sacrifice that is sometimes necessary to live honorably and well. And I have spoken of him as a lion at times--in explaining the ways that Pagan gods, gods of nature, are not always to be models of human behavior, I have spoken of the way that what is right for the lion is not always right for the man; though it is right for the lion to run down the deer and tear her living flesh, it is not right for me to do so. Herne is the god of necessity, and he does not hunt for sport, but for need. Only where I, also, like the lion, act from need and from my deepest, best nature, may I take this violence as an appropriate model for my own life.

But the connection between Herne and lions goes deeper than that, to a fall weekend years ago, when I was fasting and focusing on an upcoming Samhain ritual, and also specifically deepening my relationship with the god of the hunt.

I actually met a lion--a mountain lion, a fully grown lioness, who had been raised by humans and lived in a cage. I was given the chance to pet the lioness, knowing that she had once been tame, but might not be entirely so any longer. And I deliberately set aside my fears--no, accepted them for the realistic understandings they were, that this was a large and wild animal who could certainly cause me significant injury if she wished--and put my hand into the cage to pet her.

I can still feel the sensation of her rubbing her jaw up against my knuckles, exactly the way a domestic cat will rub its face against the hand of a human.

I don't remember if she was purring or not.

This was a weekend dedicated to Herne, during which I was deliberately attempting to see with Otherworld vision for as much of the time as I could. Herne, the god of "act, and accept the consequences," is forever interwoven with that moment, for me: the moment I stroked a lion's jaw.

(The happy ending was not that the lioness did not harm me. The happy ending was that, knowing she could, I chose to risk that touch.)

So: lions. I do not believe, as some do, that Herne is Jesus. But the lions, as symbols, belong to both. Which leaves me with the question: whose lions were they, that I was shutting out of my house?

Does the shutting out of my house stand for a rejection of spiritual learning? Or does the marking indicate progress in that learning?

In the dream, Canu as priest of Herne was not yet in evidence. I suppose I should give the flesh and blood Canu a call, and see if he has anything to add to this mystery, of symbols upon symbols.

Because it is a mystery. I am not at all clear on what this means--but, given the way the dream has lingered on, it may well mean something worth trying to hear.

As has happened before, no sooner had I posted this blog entry than I learned of a new Mythology Synchroblog--on the Otherworld. For those who might be interested in pursuing that topic a bit farther, I give you the participants (thus far) in this Pagan blog event.
Other participants:

Photo Credits (order of appearance)
dcumminsusa. "Aw, Look the Puma Wants a Human Toy." 5 December 2007. 22 August 2008.Ainsworth, Harrison. "Herne the Hunter." Wikimedia Commons. 2007. 22 August 2008.
ekai. "Mountain Lion Safety." 12 April 2007. 22 August 2008.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Mere Damaged Spiritual Feelings

"...[T]he diminishment of spiritual fulfillment – serious though it may be – is not a 'substantial burden' on the free exercise of religion." (9th Circuit Court of Appeals)

What do you suppose the reaction would be if someone wanted to pour treated sewage onto the steps of a Catholic church, a Protestant mega-church, or a consecrated cemetery? Outrage, perhaps?

Well, but those actions would be offensive to actual spiritual beliefs of, um, you know, like, actual religions. As opposed to spraying treated sewage onto a mountainside sacred to Native Americans. That, by contrast, results only in "mere 'damaged spiritual feelings.'" It's like, not the same, dude.

I am just so angry about this.

I don't ordinarily get too bent out of shape by the jostling and shoving that often results from our attempts, as a society, to find a way to live with creating a truly pluralistic society. Wish me a Merry Christmas or a Happy Kwanzaa, even in August, and I just wish the same back at you. But this kind of transparent rationalizing over religion, pretending that a legal decision is being based on constitutional considerations when, in fact, it's simply privileging the dominant religions (and money, oh, most especially money) in this country at the expense of the minority and earth-based religions gets me quite hot and bothered.

Go. Read about it for yourself--either at The Wild Hunt, where I first found it, at the Save the Peaks Coalition page on the decision, or (for the truly strong of stomach) download and read the 9th Circuit decision for yourself.

Apparently, when it's sprayed on some people's sacred spaces, shit don't stink.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Peter on God and the Gods

I’ve become quite lax in the last few weeks about throwing around the word “God.” I talk about “the light of God” and I don’t really stop to ask which God. Quaker worship and Quaker conversations tend to encourage that. The Light that we experience in meeting really doesn’t announce itself by name, and the Biblical names for G*d that Christ-centered Quakers like to use simply do not map onto Quaker experience (at least not onto my experience) or onto the Biblical narrative with anything like one-to-one correlation.

When I first became Pagan, when I tried for the first time using a polytheist perspective in thinking about the divine, I asked myself What are the Gods? And what do they want of us? I don’t claim any Revealed Truth on this question, but the tentative answers that I came up with twenty years ago still work for me.

I imagine a thundercloud, and lightning striking the ground. The clouds are undifferentiated and cover the entire sky (God is one, infinite and unknowable) but lightning bolts touch the Earth in
Image from NOAA
specific places (The Gods are individual; they are drawn to us and touch our lives).

I also find the Kabalistic image of the Tree of Life to be helpful. The Tree (at least in the post-Elizabethan High Magic traditions that have made use of Kabalistic imagery) can be described as a map of creation. Ten Sephiroth, or spheres, describe ten stages of manifestation beginning with pure undifferentiated spirit at
Tree of Life
the level of the divine and ending with concrete manifestation here in the material world. Along the way, creation passes through stages of increasing particularity. You don’t need to know all the details to get the idea of more individual at the bottom and more archetypal at the top. The traffic ticket on your windshield might be a far cry from the Platonic ideal of justice, but the one is ultimately grounded in the other, and along the path between them you find governmental systems and own constitution, and then laws and executive structures established to carry out those laws, reaching on down to the police force in your own town. You can deal with the ticket at the level of manifestation and just pay the fine, or you can fight it all the way to the Supreme Court where you call upon the highest principles of justice that have shaped human laws all through history, or you can stop at any of the intervening levels.

The individual Gods and the one unknowable G*d are like that, I think. An unusual rock or a pool of water may call to mind the awesome powers of creation, and a worshiper may fall to his knees and pray to it. A philosopher of religion may write a treatise on That Being Greater Than Which Cannot Be Conceived, but never feel the stirrings of awe in his heart or in his belly. Yet both are engaging with the same divine reality, just at opposite ends of the Tree.

So, during and after a week-long gathering of hundreds of Quakers, I find myself tossing around the word “God” as if I were a monotheist, and not worrying about it too much.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Cat on NEYM: Love and Grief

(Note: this entry may be of little interest to non-Quakers, unless you find the ways Quakers do business of interest. It also may make little sense to anyone who isn't somewhat familiar with the story of the tensions with and within Friends United Meeting over its position on the hiring of gays and lesbians. I have posted a separate summary of how I see that situation to fill you in if you are interested.)
So, sessions is over and done for another year. Unlike in past years, I've really been unable to post during sessions. And while I'm still in Smithfield, RI, until such time as the f/Friend we're carpooling with completes her business and we can head home, the campus is quiet now--not empty of Quakers, by any means (Deb Humphries just walked past, and the Permanent Board is still in session) but quiet.

I think I may have a touch of re-entry syndrome when I get home this year. This was an intense week, for me and for a lot of other people.

Our theme was War: God Help Us.

I'm not a big "theme" fan--not in my own life, not just around Quaker gatherings. I always feel as though they are artificial and I generally have difficulty relating to them. However, I did hear a number of people express the strong wish many Friends have, seven years into an aggressive war that shows no signs of stopping, to focus this year explicitly on working together for peace. I also heard a number of Friends express unhappiness that, as concerns about the FUM personnel policy continued to receive a lot of time and attention during sessions, there was little time to focus on efforts to end the war, stop torture, or work for peace. There was at least some disappointment with that.

I, however, was grateful for the focus on the peace testimony, and for the ministry on it we received this week, that kept pointing us back to the deep spiritual ground of it--not a testimony of the brain and ideas, but one that burns in the bone, placed there by Spirit. We needed this reminder, because we found our ability to remain in peaceful and loving connection with one another deeply challenged this year.

I was saddened at the lack of tenderness I saw a number of Friends show for one another during discussions relating to the FUM Personnel policy, particularly at last night's meeting for worship for business.

Several Friends expressed a strong sense that they needed to individually opt out of paying that portion of their dues to NEYM that goes toward FUM. Others felt that it is important not to be seen as using money coercively--given that so many of the members of FUM live in very poor countries, it seems imperialistic to some to use money as a means of communicating. Others reminded us that we committed as a yearly meeting last year to exploring our own sexual ethics--a project Peter and been pursuing quite diligently within the Ministry and Counsel Working Party on Spirituality and Sexual Ethics, as have many others--and to revisiting in our monthly and quarterly meetings, a minute from the Connecticut Valley Quarter from 2005, which affirmed our support for same sex marriages. (I long for the day my yearly meeting is in unity to adopt that minute or a similar minute!) Many spoke of the importance of listening to one another tenderly and lovingly, and of reaching across differences in theology, in culture, and--most excruciatingly, between us as we labored with this issue.

As some spoke, I thought I heard a seed of Spirit within their messages; as others spoke, I at least could not discern that seed, that Light, and it seemed to me that many who began speaking from a deep prompting did not stay close to the root, but drifted into rhetoric and argument. I saw that from people I personally agreed with, and I saw it from people I personally did not agree with. I think that at least some of us were making idols of our individual consciences and ideas, and stopped hearing the small, still voice of God.

I know I did, for long periods of time. Gratefully, I had seen enough of the pain and hurt that was coming out of attempts at eldering and prophetic ministry that did not emerge entirely from a Spirit of love and tenderness that I was at least able to keep my own damn mouth shut. And I did try to stay low, stay tender, and to rest in that Light.

It was extraordinarily hard. There are absolutely Friends I am struggling to love today. And given how very powerful the love and tenderness that was expressed among us this week was--and it truly, truly was!--that is really saddening. Because there were times this week when I was better able to find that sweet and generous place inside than ever. There were times of really wonderful unity and joy this week.

And that's the impression that a number of Friends that I have talked to since last night's meeting took away from it, in fact. While, for whatever reason, I seem to have felt most intensely the pain and the missteps, others felt most the deep tenderness which many Friends did continue to show to one another. There was a lot of love there. There were many members who remained deeply open to God and tender with one another.

Indeed, I am made both humble and proud--not the contradiction it sounds, somehow--when I reflect on the faithfulness and patience of many of our gay and lesbian members in particular. Year after year, this issue gives them extraordinary pain. As one woman put it, we have a process right now, in place since last year, to work together to unite in support of the glbtq members of our yearly meeting, by engaging in the work of the working party and by working together at the monthly and quarterly meeting level to season a minute on same-gender marriage.

The minuted sense of the meeting was to have the Permanent Board develop the mechanism by which those with deep individual objections of conscience to financially contributing to FUM can avoid doing so, while continuing in the work we began last year, and while continuing to engage with FUM. There were angry voices, however, from individuals that felt that this did not go far enough. More than one person felt that their anger should have been reason enough for the yearly meeting to take more radical action immediately.

It was a hard, hard meeting.

One piece of vocal ministry given this morning by Deb Humphries really captures my sense of our labor together: she spoke of sensing that God is grieving, deeply grieving, for us and with us, because we have not been able to follow Her as far as She is ready to lead us. And, right this second, I'm just really feeling the grief.

I think that we could have been more faithful to one another, to God and to our covenant, our communal body. I feel bowed down with sadness that we lost the chance to be more with one another, and to trust more deeply in the Light that leads us and weaves us together.

Peter on a Spirit of Peace

On the floor of New England Yearly Meeting Sessions, in the middle of a discussion of the ongoing controversy over NEYM’s affiliation with Friends United Meeting, someone rose and read a passage from the Richmond Declaration of Faith, written in 1887 and recently reaffirmed by FUM. It included the line, “We disavow all professed illumination or spirituality that is divorced from faith in Jesus Christ of Nazareth.” The speaker pointed out how this directly contradicts the Quaker testimony of continuing revelation. He urged NEYM to make a complete split with FUM, saying that we could continue to engage with them as we would with any other Protestant church, but they are not really Quaker. The comment was hurtful to a lot of people in the meeting who are Christ-centered and identify with FUM and also consider themselves very much Quaker.

The same day, a commenter on this blog told me that “Quakerism is founded in Christ. … With respect, you can no more be a pagan quaker than a virgin mother (with one notable exception!)”

The light of God is in all of us, and if we listen, the light of God can speak through any of us. Two years ago, I’d have broken out in hives over these doctrinal statements by people who seem like they want to shove each other out of the boat. This year, I’ve found myself much more at peace with the fallen and fragmented language we use to describe our spirituality. The language matters, but it matters so much less than the willingness to sit together in the presence of the divine and experience the light of spirit within each other.

When the violence erupted in Kenya last fall, we lit a candle for peace next to the statue of Athena on the Pagan alter in our living room, and we put in front of it a picture of our friends Eden and Jim Grace, who are Christ-centered FUM missionaries in Kenya. The Graces are at the extreme opposite end of the theological spectrum from the Cat and me, and yet our friendship is grounded on our shared experience of faithfulness to the Divine. As Eden put it, “We’ll just keep loving each other until someone tells us to stop.”

Sessions as a whole did not do so well at staying grounded in that kind of love this year. Meeting for worship for business became quite rancorous last night, as discussion of the budget exploded into debate over NEYM’s affiliation with FUM. I am sad and exhausted this morning, and struggling with some very harsh judgments I’m feeling towards people who did not hold one another tenderly last night. I’m waiting for a leading on what to do with that, but I have so much more faith than I did two years ago, that the Spirit will be patient, and that we are led by more than our own wisdom.

Cat on NEYM: Footnote on the FUM Personnel Policy

Skip this entry, please, if you've heard all you care to for the next hundred years on the FUM personnel policy. Or read it if you'd like a somewhat simplified and subjective primer on the issue. It is intended as a companion piece, a sidebar and footnote to my first set of reflections on NEYM.

Here's a mini briefer for Pagan readers and Quakers who may not be familiar with this controversy: Friends United Meeting, or FUM, is a large assembly of Quakers. It includes meetings like mine, which historically united both liberal Quakers who might or might not describe themselves as Christians and more traditional, Christ-centered Quakers. FUM also includes meetings that are wholly Christ-centered, and its mission is explicitly Evangelical. Inquiring minds might want to know why I am myself quite passionately dedicated to remaining in relationship with FUM. If you do, stay tuned: the question of "what's a nice Pagan girl like you doing in a hotbed of Christianity like this?" deserves attention I'll give it later. Suffice it to say, though, FUM is a very large tent, and it is doing some exciting and humanizing work in the world, especially in Africa, where the majority of the world's Quakers live.

And practice, typically, a very enthusiastic and not especially liberal Christianity.

The FUM personnel policy includes a proviso which refuses to hire gays or lesbians who are not celibate (or heterosexuals who engage in sexual relationships outside of marriage). It breaks the hearts of willing, loving and sincerley Christian gay and lesbian Quakers on a regular basis.

It also reflects a step forward for a worldwide organization that--at least in theory--practices unity, not mere majority rule in policy setting, in that it does explicitly recognize the rights of gays and lesbians to live free from violence and discrimination (assuming they are celibate).

It is a terribly flawed document, but it is what we have currently, and it will only be possible to change it by changing the culture of hundreds of thousands of people around the world--a worthy goal, it seems to me, when we are speaking of human rights. We cannot change the policy without changing hearts--and changing hearts will take a very, very long time.

So many Quakers who are strong advocates of equality for gays, lesbians, bisexual, transgendered and queer people are very, very uncomfortable with contributing to this organization. I consider myself a strong--or at least passionate and committed--advocate also, but I do not share this view; I see many reasons to remain a supporter of Friends United Meeting, not the least of which is that, unlike many liberal Quaker bodies, FUM seems to me to promote realistic, practical, and human-sized interventions in troubled parts of the world. I see their work as the best kind of "good news"--what Eden Grace calls FUM's ministry of"cross-cultural exchange," combined with real respect for the spiritual autonomy of the people it serves.

In my view, despite its Evangelist mission, FUM is not imperialistic or colonial. It also seems to me to be practical and real in ways that I am convinced more liberal Friends' often symbolic actions may not be. Not that we can't have both, or support both! We can.

I happen to be very glad that, in NEYM, dually-affiliated as we are, we do.

Hope that's not clear as mud... Wiser Quakers, feel free to clarify what I have left murky or made mistakes in reporting.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Afterward to Peter on Genesis: Why does it matter?

Part I: A freaky little book
Part II: A Convergent Conversation / Small Gods
Part III: The Human Face of God / And the LORD saw what He had made…
Part IV: A few things missing
Part V: An Evolving Covenant / The Initiatory Challenge
Postscript: The Expulsion from Eden
Afterward: Why does it matter?

I’m writing this from New England Yearly Meeting Sessions 2008. It’s been a bit of a whirlwind for the last two or three days, so I’ve been away from the blog for a while.

I’ve written six impassioned posts after an in-depth reading of Genesis and a perusal of several commentaries. I’ve gotten dozens of lively and intelligent comments. But I’m coming back to it now with a much broader question than any I’ve asked so far: What does it matter? Having learned what I’ve learned about J and P and E, and about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, what has that told me (if anything) about G*d, or about Quakers, or about my own spiritual life?

The Bible was written by writers, and I’ve long felt that much of what those writers wanted to say has been lost, crushed, twisted, and sometimes outright perverted by later so-called “Bible based” traditions. All religious sentiments aside, as a fellow writer I feel it is my calling and my sacred duty to read through the text, not for comfort or for inspiration or for edification, but simply to hear what it is they were trying to say.

The Bible is also a huge part of Quaker tradition, and even though I am a non-Christian Quaker, I feel it’s important to have a reasonable familiarity with it. Beyond that, listening to Christ centered Quakers has made me think that a lot of the allergic reaction I (and many people) have to the Bible doesn’t come from the Bible itself, but from the ways that it has been misused.

Walter Cronkite once said something similar about the American flag and the extreme right wing of American politics. It’s a great symbol; why let them have it? Liberals are patriots, damn it, and if words like patriotism and symbols like the flag become the exclusive prevue of right-wing nut cases, then liberals have lost something powerful and precious.

This seems even more true of the Bible. Those who would turn the Bible into The Infallible Word Of God make it into an abomination. The stories in the Bible breathe, and the people who lived them and who wrote them down are my brothers and sisters, and... Imagine a child king, snatched from his bed in the middle of the night, dressed in regalia and propped on a puppet throne by powerful factions he cannot comprehend, to be used to justify the tyranny of a regent. Like the voice of that child, the voices and experiences of the writers of the Bible are lost when their stories are decreed to be doctrine and dogma.

Leave the kingdom and its factions aside. Listen to the child.

My next few posts will be about Sessions, but I wanted to finish up this series on Genesis first.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Postscript to Peter on Genesis: The Expulsion from Eden

Part I: A freaky little book
Part II: A Convergent Conversation / Small Gods
Part III: The Human Face of God / And the LORD saw what He had made…
Part IV: A few things missing
Part V: An Evolving Covenant / The Initiatory Challenge
Postscript: The Expulsion from Eden
Afterward: Why does it matter?

Some readers questioned my describing the punishments of Adam and Eve as "relatively light." Marshall Massey and Tiffany both point out that compared to the easy life in Eden, a subsistence farmer watching his wife die in childbirth has a pretty rough time of it. And yes, I can't disagree, but I was comparing the punishment in Genesis to more modern conceptions of damnation. Take, for instance, this description by Jonathan Edwards:
We can conceive but little of the matter; we cannot conceive what that sinking of the soul in such a case is. But to help your conception, imagine yourself to be cast into a fiery oven, or of a great furnace, where your pain would be as much greater than that occasioned by accidentally touching a coal of fire, as the heat is greater. Imagine also that your body were to lie there for a quarter of an hour, all the while full of quick sense; what horror would you feel at the entrance of such a furnace! And how long would that quarter of an hour seem to you! And after you had endured it for one minute, how overbearing would it be to you to think that you had it to endure the other fourteen!

But what would be the effect on your soul, if you knew you must lie there enduring that torment to the full for twenty-four hours! And how much greater would be the effect, if you knew you must endure it for a whole year; and how vastly greater still, if you knew you must endure it for a thousand years! O then, how would your heart sink, if you thought, if you knew, that you must bear it forever and ever! That there would be no end! That after millions of millions of ages, your torment would be no nearer to an end, than ever it was; and that you never, never should be delivered!

But your torment in hell will be immensely greater than this illustration represents. How then will the heart of a poor creature sink under it! How utterly inexpressible and inconceivable must the sinking of the soul be in such a case!

--Jonathan Edwards,
"The Future Punishment of the Wicked Unavoidable and Intolerable"
The punishment of Adam and Eve was not damnation to eternal hellfire in the future; it was nothing more than life as we know it now. Yes, life is hard, and sometimes it's unimaginably hard, and compared to the imagined paradise of Eden it's pretty rugged indeed. But it's still life here on Earth. It's not damnation. (Unless you believe the Aldous Huxley quote: "Maybe this world is another planet's hell.")
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