Sunday, March 22, 2009

Gazing in the Eyes of God

Do you remember falling in love?

Do you remember how it is, to be able to spend hours, gazing into the eyes of the beloved? Oh, yeah... you're talking about politics, or pizza, or the movie you just saw. Or maybe you're talking about nothing, just sitting near each other, maybe holding hands, and looking at one another.

Just gazing into one another, stoned on love.

Remember that?

That's worship.

I don't mean I worship my husband. I love him an awful lot--but I wouldn't exactly call it worship. (Though I am inclined to think of him as one proof of the existence of God.)

What I mean is, that sense, that feeling of deep and timeless immersion in the beloved...that's it. That's what happens, on a good day, when I worship.

I arrive, I center down, I look up--or in, or something like that--and there's God. And I just... let go, and look, and love.

Week after week, I feel the most intense relief when I enter meeting for worship. All week long, I struggle with this dilemma or that; I guilt myself out, worry myself sick, and forget what I'm supposed to be doing. It's as if, after worship, I come down off the mountaintop, and the air is thicker and it makes it harder to think and harder to feel. I get lost, and I forget Important things about how the love at the heart of the universe sees us, and how I want to see us, and how it is possible to treat other people.

Or maybe it's like being married for a long time--how you can just forget how amazing the other person, the one you fell so deep in love with, really is. You get caught up in the daily round, and you forget to slow down, find time, and just look: to look into the eyes of this miracle you are married to.

But then there are those moments you get reminded, by joy or by loss or by a certain song on the radio or a certain smell in the air, and it all rushes back. You take your beloved by the hand, or they take your hand, and then... you look up.

And there they are. And you remember that you love them. And you remember the miracle of it, deep down in your bones (not just your heart).

And that's what I mean about worship.

Worship is the time every week when I don't have to be smart, I don't have to be brave, I don't have to be strong, and I don't have to be wise. I have this amazing, unearned gift of being loved without earning or striving or willing things. All I have to do is... look up, and there She is: the Beloved.

And I figure out all over again, that that which I have been yearning for has also been yearning for me. And that which I have been longing for is right beside me, loving me right back.

Oh! I realize. That's right!

I am my Beloved's, and my Beloved is mine!

And for a little while, I can forget the foolishness I lose my way in every week, and remember the miracle. And every time I remember it, I think I'm gradually beginning to remember also how to love a little bit better, and to see just a little more clearly, with a little more grace.

This is what it feels like to be in love with the universe. This is what it feels like to be in love with God.

I am my Beloved's, and my Beloved is mine. What do you know? There it was again! How wonderful... this is what it feels like to be in love.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Quaker Batman

Literal Truth Department disclosure here: Batman is not a Quaker.

Not that that's a surprise to anyone familiar with the Dark Knight's career. Though he does not take life, he is a violent vigilante; and even in his life as Bruce Wayne, his life is not only a testimony to luxury, waste, and conspicuous consumption, his corporation, Wayne Enterprises, has numerous contracts with the Defense Department and the C.I.A.

So, lest anyone get the wrong idea here, let me say it straight out: Batman is not a Quaker.

Nonetheless, he attends New England Yearly Meeting of Friends on an annual basis, and Peter, at least, would be lost without him.

What I mean is this:

I've written before about how deep and rich Peter and I have both found the worship at NEYM, particularly in the Meeting for Business. The "Bible half-hour", too, despite a title that kept me away for the first two years attending NEYM, turns out to be gathered, rich, and full, and if I am not a convert to Christianity, I am a convert to attending this time of worship at Sessions each year.

Last year, in particular, I felt like even the casual conversations between workshops and over lunch were challenging me to find new depths within myself. I was aware of the Presence that gathered us together almost the entire time I was awake, and I found myself dreaming Quaker dreams at night. There was a lot of prayer, a lot of breathtaking song, and just a lot of feeling caught up and gathered into God going on for me... for both of us.

Spend too long at an unaccustomed altitude, and a newcomer to the mountains can get sick. Spend enough time deep enough in the oceans, and it's best to surface only very gently and gradually, to keep nitrogen bubbles from forming in your blood.

The spiritual world is like this, too. If I attempt to spend too much time in a state of spiritual profundity, I lose my balance. I start to get strange and distorted ideas of my place in God's (or the gods' if we're talking a Pagan context) universe. Up to a certain point, I can carry communion with the spiritual world gracefully, unselfconsciously, proceeding as Way opens, listening inwardly to the gentle tugs and leadings of the Light working on me.

Beyond that point, I get lost.

Communion with God in whatever form, after all, is largely about transformation of the self, changing to be in better, truer relationship with the Spirit. It's a deep and lasting transformation, from the inside out.

But, if I've been open to that Presence long enough, I start to outrun the quiet leadings that rise from that communion. I start leaning into my transformation, over-enthusiastically trying to second-guess what I'm meant to be and to do tomorrow. I start trying to hustle into being a better Quaker (or, back in the day, a better Pagan, a better worshipper of Herne or the Goddesss) from the outside in.

And that trick never works. It just makes me... stupid. Overexcited and stupid.

Or perhaps the difficulty is this: when I've been opened to Spirit long enough, strongly enough, I need to step away from all that brightness long enough to let the transformations within me... settle. I need to assimilate them into myself, so that they will stay and so that they will take the final shape they were meant to take, not mutate into something grandiose and unreal.

As plants grow and change in the night after their days of photosynthesis, ordinary human beings need a time away from the earth-shattering and soul-filling spiritual encounter. We need, at times, to remember our ordinariness.

And that's where Batman comes in.

Peter always brings a huge stack of comic books to NEYM. Me? I bring a laptop computer loaded with a silly, gaudy, addictive video game, filled with orcs and goblins and zombies for my pixilated alter-ego to hew down in droves.

Both of us, in other words, turn from deep reflectiveness and worship of the Spirit of Peace to comic book violence and mayhem.

So far, neither of us has been remotely tempted to bring all that violence into the dining hall at crowded meals. For whatever it is worth, we do not seem to need to introduce violence into the communal experience of Sessions in order to get our needs met.

But we do feel, both of us, a real hunger to step back from anything that feels remotely spiritual, at least for a few hours every day. And it's tough to get less spiritual than Batman, at least among Friends. (My orcs and goblins have to struggle to keep up... but we make do.)

I know there are those who are able to step back through music and the silly fun of the coffee house show; I know those who find it possible to get their breaks through a long bike ride or a hike. For me, these things, made as they are of the stuff of community life and communion with the natural world, are just other ways of seeing God. And sometimes, I find I must look away from God for a bit. I am not strong enough to bear Her presence, unbroken, for very long.

It was like that in the Pagan world, too, for those who are wondering. After a long enough time of ritual and retreat in the woods with Pagans, Peter and I would both begin to feel the itch for concrete under our feet. And the first junk food stop after a Pagan gathering was always deeply satisfying: the bright lights, the unnatural food, and even the cranky waitstaff were balancing and refreshing to souls that had had, somehow, just a little too much Nature than was good for us.

There's hope, however. I've noticed that not all Friends seem to need as much superficiality as I do to stay grounded and sane in the midst of spiritual encounter. The retreat at Woolman Hill, for instance, which felt so overwhelming and transformative for me, was at least deep and gathered for other attenders. And while I tended to stagger out of our sessions during breaks, feeling a need to slay an orc or eat some deep-fried processed potato food, I noticed that J, from our monthly meeting, was perfectly content to read in his Bible for a bit, and then re-enter prayer or worship alone.

J., in other words, was able to take advantage of the breaks in our work to deepen himself spiritually. He had acclimated to the altitude; or, perhaps it would be better to say that, like an experienced runner, he can run a marathon without needing to stop and walk every few miles.

Perhaps our human spirits, like human muscles, need to be strengthened before they are fit to run long with God.

I find it likely, judging from my own experiences, at least. And I will go on attempting to strengthen mine--I intend to become the best Cat I can for God. But, in the meantime, there's always Batman, ready to back me up when my strength begins to flag.

I will dare to be ordinary as I seek to grow into the Light.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Another Kind of Lectio Divina?

I've been doing a lot of thinking about ways to deepen spiritual experiences lately. (Like my whole life, perhaps? Perhaps.)

Thinking about things like trying to arrange spiritual friendship groups at my meeting, or maybe--as a friend of mine suggested--trying out something like spiritual formation groups. I've been reading the Bible, not because I'm a convert to Christianity, but because I feel that I need to become familiar with its poetry and the resonances of its myths in order to be able to hear the depths in vocal ministry and the writings of other Quakers, and wondering if there might not be a way to reach out to other non-Christian Friends interested in doing the same thing, or maybe to Quakers without regard to their theology who are interested in being in a theologically-mixed group that is trying to do this same thing, either through reading the Bible together, or reading the scripture-saturated (but also sensuously experiential) works of early Friends.

And I've been thinking about the practice of lectio divina--contemplative, even prayerful reading of spiritual material.

That's a practice I've actually had for a very long time, though it has been many years since I've engaged in it regularly as I once did. But I well remember, as a new Pagan, in the two years before I discovered Pagan community to worship with, how I would regularly cast a circle in my bedroom--light the incense, the quarter candles, set up an altar and make an offering to the gods--before settling in with my latest Pagan reading material. This was back in the day when there was no Internet shopping, and, though there was a terrific small bookstore within walking distance of my home, finding out the titles of books that might be worth reading was itself a matter for intense study. So when I put my hands on a book of some value, it was something I knew to be very grateful for; I still remember the reverence with which I cracked the cover of Stewart Farrar's What Witches Do.

I realize the title will not appeal to many Quakers. Nor is it the best possible reading material for Pagans, of whatever tradition, any more. Nonetheless, I find myself remembering everything about those long ago reading-as-ritual sessions: the flickering of the candles, the smell of the incense (pine--still a favorite), and the quiet happiness of touching on Mysteries unfolding and unfolding and unfolding as the pages turned. I loved the peace of those moments, and (the old cliche, but it is still true) the feeling of coming home.

As I say, I've been rethinking this process, as I deepen into Quaker life. One of the things often recommended for a regular spiritual practice and for preparation for meeting for worship is a "time of daily retirement" for reading spiritual material.

Participating in the Quaker blogosphere has become a kind of spiritual practice for me. Contrary to the prevailing image of the Internet as a hasty, addictive world, I'm finding it leading me deeper and deeper into spiritual reflection, on a near-daily basis. I am drawn to Quaker bloggers like Liz Opp, Peggy Senger Parsons, and Robin M., and as I read their words, I find myself drawn deeper into a kind of spiritual reflection... and sometimes, on to another title or another blogger. Some writers speak to my condition immediately and deeply, while others wait their turn--the overt Christianity of Micah Bales' The Lamb's War blog initially put me off, for instance, but I am finding his ability to search and sit with truth and Spirit is calling to me more and more lately. And all of these writers both challenge me to greater integrity, and refresh my spirit when I need that.

Typically, though I have no time to write during the week, I will spend my lunch break skimming over whatever is new in my favorite blogs. This is not an exclusively Quaker pursuit--I never miss a new post at Jason Pitzl-Waters' The Wild Hunt, for instance--nor is it always fruitful; even the best bloggers have off days and ordinary entries. But often, in the middle of the harried day of a high school teacher, I find an encounter with a spiritual writer that causes me to pause and remember--oh, yeah! There is a spirit which I feel that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong... As it bears no evil in itself, so it conceives none in thought to any other...

And my heart grows more quiet and gentler within me. I become more open to the Light that owns my soul, and that's a good thing, in the middle of a day of hard work.

So, the concept of lectio divina is one that speaks to me, and seems important to me. But, perhaps because I am such a lover of good books, I am realizing how, for me, it is not avowedly spiritual reading material alone that can bring me to that good place, but that, very often, it is a work of fiction that can have that power to scour away my bitterness and cynicism, and open me up to God.

This morning, I have been trying to feed my hunger for a "time of retirement" for slow, spiritually-sounded reading. I've got quite a stack of books I've latched onto recently for that purpose: Bownas' A Description of the Qualifications Necessary to a Gospel Minister, Parker Palmer's The Courage to Teach, and a book on Quaker Bible reading which I'm gradually making my way through, Michael Birkel's Engaging Scripture: Reading the Bible with Early Friends. On the Pagan side of the bookshelf, I've set aside copies of Diana Paxon's Trance-Portation and Brendan Myers' The Other Side of Virtue. And I have been reading, a bit at a time, from all of these books over the course of the winter. (Birkel has been especially helpful for me.)

Still, after picking up and putting down one or another of these titles this morning, I realized that what I really was longing to read was Wally Lamb's latest novel, The Hour I First Believed. I yielded to that longing, and I think I rediscovered something very important to the place that reading plays in my spiritual life.

Wally Lamb's previous novel, I Know This Much is True is one of a handful of novels that do such a good job depicting the Truth of human experience, including the ugly and terrible alongside the loving and good, that they wind up being a kind of affirmation of God. (Michael Dorris' A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, Russell Banks' The Sweet Hereafter, and Sarah Stone's The True Sources of the Nile are three other books that do much the same thing.) Lamb has such a talent for telling the truth about who humans are and how we fail one another, and how we still haltingly, hesitantly, try to do better, that his characters have the ability to crack the hard shell around my heart wide open. My compassion for his characters--not a cheap bathos or sympathy, for his characters are far too real for that--teaches me compassion and deep listening in the world beyond the covers of his books. His novels open me up to God, and I am better for reading them.

I think this may say something about the inherent value of telling a truth fully, richly, and unflinchingly.

So, though I am still intrigued by the notion of doing explicitly spiritual reading with a community of other readers, I think I'm going to try to remember that, for me, at least, reading certain masterful works of fiction can also be a sacred study for me. Not because Wally Lamb and others like him have mastered great secrets of religion or philosophy, but because, like me when I am at my best, they are willing to sit with the ambiguity and pain of the questions at the heart of human experience, their books are, for me, great spiritual teachers.

Novels as lectio divina. It may not be a universally valuable practice, but I think I'm willing to name it as one of my own.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Vitality and Ministry in the Monthly Meeting: One Participant's View

NOTE to my Pagan readership: This is going to be one of those posts where I'm going to write almost entirely from a Quaker point of view. It's not that I don't think these ideas have implications for Pagan leadership and spiritual communities, because I do. But I have not yet digested this material very well, so I am (mostly) setting that question aside for this post.

As I've said, I had a pretty wonderful--if overwhelming--weekend at Woolman Hill, attending the retreat Vitality and Ministry in the Monthly Meeting, led by Jennie Isbell and Jay Marshall of Earlham School of Religion.

Though they never said it in so many words, the weekend seemed to be a kind of experiential "train-the-trainers" approach. There were at least six specific "units" of study, packed into less than forty-eight hours of time, and the pace at times seemed blistering. (When Jay acknowledged that, in the end of session wrap-up, there was a pretty universal laugh of recognition in response.)

The core of the weekend took observations from Jay's research on vital Friends' meetings across the theological spectrum, and insights from Jennie's work on developing a leadership model among Quakers, and drew on them both to explore how we, engaged in our meetings, could perhaps take ideas and techniques from the workshop home with us, to help our monthly meetings deepen and grow stronger.

That might sound like there was a single model for what that vital meeting might look like, or for what good Quaker leadership or ministry would be, but that was not the case. Instead, what Jay and Jennie seemed to be saying was, look to your strengths (your own and your meeting's) to begin looking for your spiritual gifts; explore the implications of those gifts and of your shared values together, and you may find ways out of some of the stuck places our meetings sometimes get trapped in. You may find where Spirit is calling you to be present for one another.

That's quite philosophical, I suppose, and at times, as when Jay was summarizing his research after dinner on Saturday, it did seem abstract. (Though sleepiness from a good supper might have contributed to that, at least on my part.) Overall, however, the approach was practical and hands-on. We did a lot of direct work, trying out techniques for discussion we might want to bring back to our meetings.

The first session after the overview, for instance, focused on vocabulary. I think we all know that there are words that push people's buttons, words that it may not feel safe to use in our Quaker meetings. There is a temptation I often hear expressed to self-censor, even to censor vocal ministry, when it might lead us into using Forbidden Vocabulary.

However, rather than evade the charged or difficult language we carry, or enter conflict about it, Jennie led us in an exercise in identifying vocabulary that will allow us to enter deeper communication with one another. A lofty goal, but a pretty straightforward process: she shared with us a list of terms that had the potential to cause strong positive or negative reactions among Quakers. Our list included:
  • Obedience
  • Discipleship
  • Worship
  • Stewardship
  • Authority
  • Gifts/Giftedness
  • Witness
  • Ministry
  • Body of Christ
  • Membership
We were then asked to identify the words that had the strongest positive and negative associations for us (marked on the flip-chart with a + or - for each time the word was named) .

The next step was forming small groups--three people each--that were assigned two of the most highly charged words (positively or negatively--it made no difference) and given the task of working out our definitions.

We were given a resource, a set of definition pages designed for this exercise from Jennie's book, but otherwise not told how to approach our job. Some groups read the sample definition immediately and created their own in response to it; some groups created their own definitions and turned to the sample ones only after finding some agreement together.

There was no one right way to approach the task, and as is probably obvious, it was the process and not the outcome which was important. Admittedly, in this group, establishing trust was not exactly difficult, but it did seem as though the process would likely yield interesting discussions in almost any group. And since the object was not to create binding definitions in any legal sense, but to get a sense of the personal meanings (connotative as much as denotative) of significant terms in our spiritual discourse, it was the journey that mattered.

My own Ministry and Worship committee has been talking for the past two years about perhaps having some form of exploration of our different spiritual vocabularies; we've wanted to do so in a way that makes room for our extraordinary spiritual diversity, and that is not adverserial or confrontational, but supportive. Will this process work for us? I don't know, but I'm certainly going to bring it back to the committee for discussion and discernment.

I'm also glad that Jennie's book is available for follow-up. As with any potentially charged work, I want a chance to sit with this process and return to it, review it, before I'm sure I understand how I feel around it. But I'm very pleased to have had the chance to experience it as a participant before reading about it on the printed page; I don't know that the impact of it would have been clear from merely reading it.

This activity stands out for me in my memory the most clearly. Perhaps that is because it was early in the workshop; perhaps it is because, as a both/and Quaker Pagan, I have a particular concern for clearly defining otherwise potentially divisive terms.

It also sounds much more "work-shoppy" than it was, in practice. Because we really centered down in silence before beginning our work together, and because we crow-barred in worship both days (as well as at least a brief worship on Friday night), we were able to speak to and hear one another from a fairly worship-ful place. Jennie spoke at the closing of how challenging it was for her, as facilitator, to balance the need to present a large amount of content in a short span of time--what she'd come out to do, after all, not merely to worship with us--with the need to be open to God's leadings and to where the body of Friends met over the weekend found themselves led in the present moment. I don't envy her the task! Though she was pretty good at keeping that balance. On the other hand, it does emphasize for me the part that traveling in the ministry--as opposed to traveling in the workshoppery--has played in the life of Quakers. Sometimes, surely, staying in the worship and being willing to utterly abandon an agenda is the answer. I think it is a testament to how deep the periods of worship went that the tension was there, and that the comparison to traveling in the ministry is a natural one.

Without going into other parts of the weekend in the same level of detail, let me cover a few more of the high points.

In addition to the vocabulary discussions, we examined a series of other topics--sort of a microcosm to macrocosm look at what makes spiritual communities prosper. We spent one session, as I've mentioned, looking with Jay in detail at what some of the elements are of a whole spectrum of succesful Quaker meetings (and churches), including a Friends church with a charismatic/evangelical orientation, a Quaker meeting behind bars, and a suburban unprogrammed meeting. Some of the points that emerged included the importance, not only of worship in the shared life of each meeting, but also a sense of clarity of purpose, and the ability to speak explicitly about purpose and whatever sense of mission the members of each meeting held. Those missions varied tremendously: from a sense of purpose focused on outward, evangelizing activities, to more inwardly focused, pastoral concerns. One point Jay made was that vibrant meetings do not have to do everything well, but whatever shared vision a meeting possesses is lived out with integrity in a way that is evident to its members.

This led to a series of discussions and exercises intended to get us each reflecting on our own meetings, and on what ways the activities we engage in together as a community reflect our individual and our corporate (ie, communal) experiences of God. Speaking of the common terminology, "convinced Friend", Jennie asked us, "What is it you are convinced of?" After a bit of chalk-talk around that, we switched gears, and asked a different question, on how rooted our testimonies are, not just in our convincement, but in the "conversion" process following, which Jennie shared was not seen as the instantaneous transformation the term implies in some modern evangelical Christian circles, but rather, a lifelong process of spiritual unfolding and transformation as we attend to the leadings of Spirit.

From there, we looked at the ways our transformations inform our witness in the world. It was fun to spend time on the question, how could someone who knows you outside of your meeting tell you are a Quaker? We came up with some of the obvious stuff, like bumper stickers, comfortable shoes, and an unwillingness on the part of women members to wear make-up... but when encouraged to look at ways our individual practices connect to our lived experience of God--the ways, essentially, our witness in the world is guided by Spirit--we found deeper changes, which also formed patterns. We shifted gears again, and tried to detect patterns of witness among us, and to see how rooted in our corporate understandings of God's expectations of us our meeting's witness might be.

We examined the ways our meetings, in common with other vital meetings, were able to speak to each other and form common understandings that might help us see our spiritual communities as an anchor in the world, including things like the ever-prickly subject of what sources of authority we were willing to accept as legitimate, and how similar or different our own weight given various authorities (direct spiritual experience, reason, Scripture, and Friends' traditions) were with our perception of our meeting's sense of where authority properly resides. Again, as with the earlier discussion of vocabulary, the emphasis was not on settling the right relationship for all meetings with these sources of authority, but on how to create conversations which allow meetings to openly reflect together on how, as a community, they approach these authorities. We were a bit rushed at this point, and also perhaps more homogenous in our understandings than I might have wished us to be for walking through this exercise, but it did seem like a worthwhile and straightforward way to begin a conversation on otherwise difficult topics within a community. (Have I made it clear enough that there was no one correct answer implied by the process? The conversation, surely a first step to corporate discernment processes, was the point--not any given set of answers.)

On a related subject, we looked at our ability, as Friends, to accept and receive different styles of leadership. Often, I hear members of committees decry the difficulty of getting Friends to engage in service to the meeting--and more often than I would like, I have seen the ways Quakers are not immune to the human tendency to make sure that no good work, especially in leadership, goes unpunished. Stated more positively, it is clear to me that for Quaker process to work, Friends need to place an enormous amount of trust in their clerks and committees to do the time-consuming work of discernment of many, many matters. Clerks and committee members then must live up to that trust, practicing discernment rather than secular decision-making, and truly relying on the Holy Spirit to guide their work together. The level of trust required is beyond anything I have seen any other religious body, let alone secular organization, even attempt, and when it works, it is a very beautiful thing to witness.

When it does not work, and matters carefully and prayerfully discerned by a committee are reopened, not because of a carefully-tested individual concern for an item of business, but through an inability to trust to Quaker process--to trust God to lead and the people to follow--it gets ugly.

So Quakers do need to spend time reflecting on what forms of leadership we are prepared to accept, what forms of leadership will be difficult (or maybe even, for a particular body, inappropriate for us to accept) and what forms may be difficult to accept but worth laboring to better understand and accept as we are able.

The method Jay and Jennie chose to allow us to begin that reflection was to begin with our visions of God. How do we think of God? As liberal Friends, we came up with many descriptions that were quite abstract: a Light, a fountain, living water... but also a few old standards: God as father, God as "mother hen", God as teacher. We acknowledged that some historic visions of God (such as the warrior God of the Old Testament) are probably not acceptable to modern liberal Friends--and so, authorities that reflect some of the traits of such a being (authoritarianism, use of force, anger, etc) would not likely be acceptable to our communities. And while, obviously, there are other readings of the Old Testament God that are more nuanced, and no human will have the gifts or authority we accord God, what forms of authority we are likely to see as good for God we are likely to be most able to accept in one another; and vice versa.

Reflecting on the images of God, we asked ourselves how we would expect a "mother hen" God to behave, for instance. (Involved, sheltering, present, and so on.) We took this approach to each of the recurring images that we had arrived at as a group, and were encouraged to think about how an activity like this might be one way to bring a community into a discussion about forms of leadership, even on a human level, that we might be more or less able easily to accept and follow. The point again was not so much to push toward one acceptable form of human authority or leadership style as it was to begin to engage together in explicit conversations on the nature of leadership, in order to build up a culture of respect and trust that will allow more fruitful participation both as leaders and as followers--roles we will most of us take on in one place or another at some time in our lives as Friends.

As an aside, this was among the more fruitful exercises of the weekend for me. Perhaps it is my grounding in Paganism that draws me immediately to look into the shadow side of a question. I found it helpful, personally, to reexamine my instinctive rejection of some forms of authority--the angry Old Testament God, for instance. How is my rejection of that way of seeing God different from the knee-jerk reaction many Christians might have to some of the darker, cthonic deities of Paganism? Is not Odin a god of the berserker as well as of hospitality and mystery? Is not my beloved Herne a god of death and dying as well as fertility and the hunt? It is only because I have looked deeply into those god-forms, spent time with them and listened to them, that I understand that the simplistic way of seeing them as violent or bad is itself a distortion. If I can see what many Christians will miss, the compassion and love of a god apparently of violence or death, what am I unable to see in Yahweh that at least some spirit-led Christians may be perceiving? And, to draw the conclusion that springs from the context of the exercise, what forms of right authority am I cutting myself off from in myself, as well as in the world, by my blindness?

I don't have answers, but I am finding it fertile to sit with the questions, and see if answers will come.

I also suspect that, given our polytheism, this exercise might be a very useful one to do with a group of Pagans. We are notorious for our inability to accept even the most benign leadership! Could discussing the forms of acceptable divine authority lead us, in our communities, into some helpful reflections on the forms of human authority we may be able to accept with a bit more grace than we sometimes do?

Other areas we visited together: our needs and wishes for ministry and witness to the world. What would it be like to corporately, not just individually, find ways to witness to our convincements, our leadings together, in the world? What is the Light we have to share with the world?

We also asked what are the needs we feel in our own meetings? Pastoral care emerges everywhere as an important element, but we also noted the hunger for increased intimacy within our spiritual communities, a need to nurture gifts and ministry within our meetings, and the importance of bringing prayerfulness and discernment to the nominating process: that there is a relationship between nurturing and naming gifts and filling committee slots, and the need to fill blanks on a roster cannot be the driving force behind nominating committee work. As Jim L. said early in the weekend, "to increase vocal ministry, appoint more elders"--elders in the old-fashioned sense of those who support and nurture the developing ministers.

Finally, one way of reflecting on the whole smorgasbrod of the weekend was the importance, within our meetings, of encouraging theological thinking. It may be helpful for us, in examining our practices, to ask ourselves, what does this practice say about God (as we have come to understand Her)? What does it say about us as people? What does it say about how we are in relationship together--humans and the divine?

There was more. Much more--too much to digest easily, and I am certainly going to have to return to these ideas for longer looks before I will be able to find roots growing from them. But it was very, very helpful to work with these ideas, even in a blitzkreig schedule, in a small group, hands-on, taking them off the pages of a book and into our hearts before taking them forward into the world.

As I mentioned in my earlier post, Earlham has begun an explicit practice of offering this kind of work as outreach to Quakers all over the country--and a variety of other workshops, too. Apparently, they began by putting out the word to their faculty, that if there are gifts they know they would like to share, they should name them. Those have been put out there for local monthly, yearly, and quarterly meetings (or other Friends' organizations) to take advantage of. And when approached by such groups, Earlham is also willing to work to try to meet areas of locally-identified need. This workshop was possible in large part because Earlham was willing to sponsor it--and I can't say enough good things about how rich the weekend was, for me at least, and I think also for the more seasoned Friends in attendance too.

I know that the issues we were discussing are among the issues I hear Quakers from all over the country raising as concerns. Here's a resource; I think it's one worth investigating. (But take your vitamin pills... or, if you can, allow a longer period than a single weekend to absorb all this wisdom.)

For a more subjective look at this weekend, and how it affected me personally, see my earlier post, Back from Woolman Hill.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Back From Woolman Hill

NOTE: A more objective, content-centered post on this weekend is available here.

I've just returned from Woolman Hill, and from Jay Marshall and Jennie Isbell's workshop on Vitality and Ministry in the Monthly Meeting. Jay is the author of Where the Wind Blows: Vitality Among Friends; Jennie has written Leading Quakers: Discipleship Leadership, A Friends Model. Their presentation to us was sponsored by Earlham School of Religion. I take it they have done similar presentations all over the country, and one of the many satisfactions of attending it was both the grace with which they were able to slip into our New England variation on Quaker culture, and their willingness to offer contrasting experiences and perspectives from differing Quaker cultures across the country.

Another satisfaction was the chance to eat, work, chat, learn, and worship with men and women I mostly knew only slightly from New England Yearly Meeting, but whose faithfulness and depth are plainly part of the reason that body is such a strong and vital part of my spiritual journey.

It was a hell of a rich weekend, but it was crammed to bursting. So much to think about--so much to write about! And not only do I have not enough time, not enough energy, not enough brain cells that are still firing--I have not even got enough emotional stamina remaining, to begin to process all this.

I need to grade papers. I need a nap. I need a week of reflection and settling in. And I'm not sure I'm going to manage any of these things...

What I want to write about:

  • How it feels to be the pip-squeak in a room full of weighty, seasoned Friends.
  • How it feels to know that I'm outgrowing my pip-squeakery; recognizing the warning signs of another stage of spiritual growth coming on.
  • How, despite its lack of outward degrees and hierarchy, the 1st degree, 2nd degree, 3rd degree stages familiar to me from Wicca do fit some of the inward transformations of my Quaker journey; what it is like to find myself reduced to childhood, then struggling with adolescent identity issues, not just in my life as a Friend or my life as a Pagan, but in my marriages, my careers, and as a way of a life lived in (sometimes nervous or neurotic) transformation.
  • The importance of eldering and of naming and raising up gifts in spiritual communities of all sorts. (Gee--given the last couple of notes, can you guess why that's on my mind?)

  • My increasing certainty that the way I am hesitantly beginning to be able to read the Bible, as poetry and myth, is not only acceptable among Quakers in North America, but may actually be normative.
  • The irony of realizing that I actually have a "favorite translation" of the Bible, and the increasing frequency with which Biblical language and metaphor rises within me comfortably in worship...AND
  • ...The irony that I have a favorite psalm, and that a favorite piece of Wiccan liturgy seems to me pretty plainly to echo it. (ie: What's a nice Pagan girl like me doing in a religion like this, anyway?)
  • Why I feel it is so important to participate in the world of Friends beyond one's own monthly meeting (or even yearly meeting).
  • The slightly terrifying discovery that Googling "Quaker" and the words "Exodus", "Genesis", or "Book of Job" will bring up posts at this site within the top five suggested results. (What's that say about the need for other Quaker bloggers to spend time reflecting on this book? More unnerving, what does it say about my and Peter's responsibility to careful reflection and discernment as we write about our own reflections?)

  • The hunger I have for deeper and more intimate involvement with all of my spiritual communities.
  • The possibility of bringing some of the Quaker insights about leadership from this weekend (and in general) into my Pagan communities in the next few years.
  • The ways Herne (or perhaps the "angry god" of the O.T.?) can be a god of limits and limit setting for me, and perhaps guide me into a somewhat more benignly-ruthless leadership style: I am so paralyzed by the fear of letting someone down!
  • My growing realization that I need to be more willing to fail; that lack of time/energy or lack of any sense of leading should be the only reasons I say no to a suggestion prayerfully discerned by a nominating committee.
  • My uncertainty that I can take on anything more, anything at all, working at my current level of time and energy at my job.
  • My continual physical exhaustion, and occasional spiritual depletion, from my job.
  • The warm, deep, satisfying sense of being well used at my job--of doing a difficult thing creatively, empathically, and well on a regular basis.
  • My yearning to live where I hear birds rather than traffic, and my long-deferred spiritual need to feed my biophilia by seeing the natural world without an intervening windshield.
  • The inconceivability of moving without continuing to work at my current level of time and energy at my job.
  • How good it felt to be fully present in a body of mature, seasoned Friends... and to know that I did in fact belong, and had something to bring to the table.
  • How good it is to be seen and understood and appreciated by those we admire (revere?) in our communities.

Oh, yeah. And a summary of the actual activites and content of the weekend that started all these thoughts would probably be good, too.

Off the top of my head, I can think of at least two fFriends beyond my own meeting who would have been excited to have been present for the workshop, and whose meetings would be richer for their having been there. It would be good to offer at least a taste, for those who may wish to contact Earlham to see about arranging a similar workshop in their own locality.

Apparently, Earlham is being much more proactive about creating this kind of opportunity--traveling in the ministry of outreach to local meetings and gatherings of Friends to offer expertise. If this weekend was a good sample, we should all be jumping all over this.

For now, I'm going to rest my mind, though... and buy the groceries.

How I wish I had a week to write!
There was an error in this gadget