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Thoughts from the Curb

To the many Pagans who said supportive things about my last post--thank you. Your kindness was much appreciated. That said, this one is going to be a pretty Quaker-centric post--I don't want you to think your support wasn't important, though, so I'm mentioning it first.

If, to strain a metaphor I used in my last post, the Quaker family had put me out on the street, it would be difficult to explain the many supportive comments I received.
I wrote that last post, "Theologically Queer," feeling braced against rejection by the Quaker community.

But almost as soon as the post went up, folks began trickling out of the house and sitting down next to me on the curb. Really kind, lovable folks. And nobody called me names, or even pointed out how silly I was being. Nope. They just came out to see how I was, and to wait patiently with me until I felt a bit better.

Peggy Senger Parsons--a woman I consider to be one of the spiritual grown-ups of the world--came out and sat next to me on the curb. Then Anj sat down next to me and held my hand. Haven reminded me of the lively interconnections between Quakers of different branches within the convergent Friends movement. Kent not only told me he was unhappy I was hurting, but let me know that my queer and heretical writing has sometimes moved and affected him despite our differences. And Friends whose views are evangelical also brought empathy for the experience of rejection, and affirmed that they could, as Quakerboy/Craig put it "still see the Light in...Pagan friends" whether believing we're mistaken in our beliefs or not.

Friends circled around. There were hugs. I think there may have been group hugs. I may have heard someone singing "Kumbaya." And if I extend the metaphor of being on the curb outside my (Quaker) family home, I think I'd have to say that the family meal was brought outside and passed around the crowd, picnic style. It was reassuring and warm, and a good reminder of why I care so much about this particular spiritual family.

This has been a good image to sit with this week.

At the same time, I believe that the issue of how Quakers hear or refuse to hear the voice of Spirit coming from those we see as Other is a true concern. We have not figured this one out yet. I'm a pretty brassy dame, and if I feel shouldered aside, then I do wonder, what voices may have left the meeting house already, silenced before they could begin to speak?

One voice that is silenced too often, I am told, is that of Christian Friends in liberal meetings. I have heard stories that concern me very much. I know that I will do what I can to prevent this, in any meeting I attend, and in my company, at least, universalist will not mean "anti-Christian."

Another sometimes marginalized voice among us--though, gratefully, not always or everywhere among Quakers--is that of gays and lesbians. And while not all Christian or evangelical Friends reject gays and lesbians as members of the family, some do. They base that rejection on the Bible; and so a concern over how Quakers use that book seems merited to me.

I'm tempted to try to refute Biblical authority for condemning homosexuality on Biblical terms: to point out that the eating of shrimp or the wearing of mixed-fiber garments is likewise condemned, and yet I don't see picketers outside of Red Lobster... And Yada yada ya.

It's not just that I'm not much of a Bible scholar, but more importantly, I know that the Bible is, to me, a closed book--and ought to remain so, rather than be used in a dry, dead way. I might play games with logic and reason, but that has nothing to do with waiting on Truth. As Fox asked, speaking of the apostles, "What had any to do with the scriptures but as they came to the Spirit that gave them forth?" I've seen Friends draw living Spirit from the pages of that book, and I know the difference between that and rhetoric. Without a living connection to those passages, I know they are not mine to read.

So I'll leave the examination of Bible passages to those who can read them in the Light of Spirit-- to handle those serpents without harm, to quote my friend David Miley on that same topic.

But it seems to me that far too many of us are thieves, as Margaret Fell once put it, reading the Bible without waiting for the "Spirit that gave them forth." I strongly suspect that it is not Spirit-led scriptural authority that leads some Friends to condemn gays and lesbians. I strongly suspect that only those who know a love as strong as rivers for our GLBT friends, sons, sisters, brothers and daughters can wrestle properly with a true discernment around those passages. Perhaps the only Quakers who can hear God in those passages will be GLBT Friends themselves.

Likewise, I suspect that whatever is inspired by the Spirit I know from living among Friends will not seek to turn us away from one another over our differences of theology and belief. While we are waiting patiently on that Spirit, I do not think I need to be too worried about being kicked to the curb. And if there are those who are deaf to me or to the ways that I find help, well, so am I deaf to some of the sources of Light that others know. Happily, what limits us does not limit God.

I will trust that the Spirit that speaks to me speaks also to those whose theology is vastly different than my own, and that, when we are all united with that Spirit, we "will know one another though the divers liveries [we] wear here make [us] strangers."


Yewtree said…
Dear Cat, I'm glad to have read the comments on the previous post and to know that there is now a party going on out there on the curb.

I took these photos for you and kept forgetting to send them to you!
kevin roberts said…
Cat, I wouldn't worry too much about being excluded from groups that happen to share a common but distant ancestor. While the groups that call themselves "Friends" these days all stem from a common source, it's undeniable that the tails of the distribution are far apart, and have begun to overlap with other, formerly separated groups reflecting fairly dissimilar theologies.

It's not politically correct to point out the schisms, but they exist nonetheless. Many modern traditions of Friends are no closer together in their conception of their religion, or even what religion is, than faith traditions that have historically been considered totally separated paths.

I'm afraid it's inevitable. I don't worry about being excluded from some groups calling themselves Friends any more than I worry about not being accepted as a Parsee or a Wisconsin Synod Lutheran.

If you're genuinely following the Light, then you'll get where you need to go.
Well, Kevin, I do worry that it's the name of Quaker that I'm concerned with--and, to the extent that my concern is with that, it's a superficial one.

But, you know, despite the theological differences between us, for example, I would like to believe that we could sit together in worship and be united in the same great covering Spirit. I feel that it is likely, in fact, and that I am able to be reached by the ministry of those so superficially dissimilar to me is one of the things I love best about Friends.

I also love the notion--which is almost certainly not true, or not true yet--that I could one day offer my gifts (if led) to Friends beyond North America. Peter and I are both teachers, and the idea of perhaps teaching at, for instance, Ramallah Friends' School, is one that is breathtaking, humbling, and deeply meaningful to me.

Not yet, at least. It becomes clearer to me day by day that, though I continue to support the work of Friends United Meetings around the world, FUM is not perhaps eager for me to do so. (My Pagan understanding of what it means for me to support a group that aims "to energize and equip Friends through the power of the Holy Spirit to gather people into fellowships where Jesus Christ is known, loved and obeyed as Teacher and Lord," would surely shock many in FUM as much as the words, taken without reflection, must utterly shock my Pagan readers.)

But I see the gathering together of those who can hear that Voice in the Silence as a good and important thing. I'm for it. Even if some of those who are also for it are agin' me bein' for it, I'm for it.

Mind you, that and a dollar will get me a cup of coffee downtown... But I remember a Friend from my meeting asking, prior to our leaving to attend last years Sessions of our dual-affiliated Yearly Meeting, when it was ever God's will for Friends to split from one another.

That gave me pause.
judy said…
Glad to hear you are doing well after the shock of rejection. Judy from over at carl's
Anonymous said…

Thank you, again. You always touch to the heart of things.

BTW, you write in a comment:

"I would like to believe that we could sit together in worship and be united in the same great covering Spirit."

My take on this is:

Since there is only the one "great covering Spirit," all life sits together under it, united by it, whether we notice and worship or not.

It's sad that so many do not notice, or try to deny that they notice, or fight--even violently--to keep themselves and others from noticing.

But every ray of Light reveals the truth.

And so it is.

Blessed Be,
Michael Bright Crow
Anonymous said…
Dear Cat,

While I would be happy to come sit with you on the curb any time you were actually thrown out of Quaker meeting, I don't see how that has happened in this case. You are secure in your own Quaker community at the far left of the Quaker spectrum, which is the place on the spectrum that you and I both know you'd want to be in any case.

The far right end of the spectrum rejects what you stand for, but they obviously have no intention of coming to your meeting and taking physical control. Their stated determination to keep their faith the way they want it, and their denunciation of your position as wrong, leaves you and your meeting absolutely free to keep your own faith the way you want it, and free to denounce their position in turn. It doesn't feel loving, either to you or to me, but it is at least a fairly civil and violence-free way of handling an intensely emotional disagreement; it beats heck out of the way such disagreements were handled back in the Reformation era.

The ancient Chinese sage Sun Tzu observed, in his book The Art of War, that a wise general always allows the enemy a line of retreat. Why? Because people fight like fury if they are backed into a corner, but they fight with much less intensity if they know they have an escape to use when events turn against them.

The far right has left you with an escape and a place to retreat to: your own meeting, where they obviously do not plan to come. They follow Sun Tzu's precept.

But what was this place you feel "thrown out of"? Whose meeting was it? It certainly was not your own; your own meeting accepts you fully. So was it not theirs? Are you letting them have their meeting to themselves as a last place of retreat, or are you trying to enter that place and make it not-just-theirs-any-more? If you are trying to enter their own last place of retreat and take it away from their control, is it any wonder that they lash out at you? What right have you to complain of your treatment, when you do this?

On another topic, there is a difference between the way Christianity handles moral issues, like sexual infidelity and theft, and the way it handles the Jewish ritual-cleanliness rules of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, which cover things like the eating of shrimp and the wearing of mixed-fiber garments.

It is generally agreed that God set aside the Jewish ritual-cleanliness prohibitions for Christians, and that this was spelled out to Peter in the revelation described in Acts 10:9-16, which opened the door to Gentiles to become members in the Christian church without becoming subject to Mosaic rules. (The interpretation of the revelation is given in Acts 11.)

Moral prohibitions, however, are equally in force for Jewish Christians and for Gentile Christians: Jews are expected to know them from the law, but Christians from the teachings of Christ and of the Spirit in their hearts. This is spelled out in more detail in Romans 2:11-29, which is the passage through which George Fox reached Margaret Fell.

What is crucial, then, for Bible-focused Friends, such as those in EFI and FUM and Ohio Yearly Meeting, is that Paul, presumably guided by the Spirit rather than the Law, wrote against homosexual activity — particularly in that same letter of Romans, immediately before the passage Fox used to reach Margaret Fell: Romans 1:20-2:1. Paul thus makes the homosexual activity he was describing a moral violation, like sexual infidelity and theft, rather than merely a violation of the rules of ritual cleanliness, like eating shrimp.

At least some Christian defenders of gay marriage, such as myself, respond to this challenge, not by throwing the whole Bible out the window, but by saying that Paul was writing in Romans 1 about a specific kind of homosexual activity, the kind that is engaged in by people who turn to homosexuality because they have built their lives around creaturely pleasures — lust and lust's fulfillment — and are seeking in homosexuality yet one more sexual thrill. This seems to me to be fairly clearly spelled out in vv. 1:24-27.

My reading of this passage seems to me to leave the door open to saying, homosexuality and heterosexuality are both fine from a Christian standpoint if people are building their lives around the Creator, and not just serving their own lusts. And that is what a clearness committee for marriage ought to be about in any case: helping the applicant couple see clearly whether they are drawn together by the call of the Creator or by hormones. There should be careful discernment on a case-by-case basis, regardless of whether the couple is heterosexual or homosexual, rather than either sweeping condemnation or blanket approval.

A final point. You write that the Bible is, for you, a closed book. You are of course free to see it as such. But you should know that one of the crucial differences that historically defined Friends ("Quakers") as different from all the so-called Christians around them, is that the so-called Christians treated the Bible as a closed book, not open to fresh revelation or deepened understanding, while the Friends treated it as an open, living part of a never-ending adventure in the Spirit.

When Fox said, "What had any to do with the scriptures but as they came to the Spirit that gave them forth?", he was not saying, none should have anything to do with the scriptures; he was saying, Scripture should be read in the light and life of the Spirit. Fox wrote in his book The Great Mistery, "...The spirit of light owns scriptures, and the scripture doth not judge spiritual light, and they are not one against the other, but in unity." Our calling is therefore not to be intolerant either of scripture or of Spirit, for to be intolerant of either one is to reject the other's acceptance of that one and thus, ultimately, to be closed off to both. Our calling is to find our way to that place where they are in unity.
Hi, Marshall,
You write you would "come sit with you on the curb any time you were actually thrown out of Quaker meeting, I don't see how that has happened in this case," and you are right. My writing is perhaps less clear than I meant it to be; when I wrote that I had written my last post "feeling braced against rejection by the Quaker community," I meant to imply that my exile to the curb was my own fault.

I actually had some nice sentences that spoke about my having stormed out of the family domicile in ana adolescent snit, which Peter persuaded me to take out, on the grounds that, while the writing was amusing and made my point, it maybe made it a bit too well, and trivialized real concerns I have about how various branches of the Quaker tree perceive one another.

From your words, I take it I did not find a happy medium. You are right that no one is coming into my meeting and attempting to eject me from my bench, and to the extent I implied otherwise, I plead guilty to being a bit of a drama queen. Apologies if that's what I communicated.

I don't mean to dictate to others, either. I think that the ways I have re-visioned Christianity, since becoming a Friend, have given me a little more humility on that count than I once had. Still, I think that there must be ways to share concerns without dictating. And I also think that Quakers, from whatever part of the spectrum, are unusually good at hearing one another even when we do not agree. So I will try to be open to surprises from Friends I think are in the wrong on matters such as their ideas about homosexuality and how to read the Bible, and I will hope that they may sometimes be open to me. I trust that the Spirit that led Fox and Naylor will lead us when and how it's right to be led, and I'll wait in hope for the rough places to be made smooth.

Sometimes, I admit, I feel as if I personally am just one big rough place! But I'm a fair bit smoother than once I was, so there's room for a little encouragement even there.

Thank you for sharing your more nuanced reading of the Biblical passages you mention. I will certainly give the ones you quote--and particularly Romans 2:11-29.

Perhaps you already understood this from my post, but my reference to the Margaret Fell story was indeed getting at the point you make here: that "Scripture should be read in the light and life of the Spirit." I am not (and this is new for me, so I may be a bit confusing on the subject) advocating "throwing the whole Bible out the window," but rather, refusing to read it except in the Spirit.

When I say that the Bible is to me a closed book, I do not mean that I reject it, but rather that I find that I am not, myself, able to draw the Spirit-led sustenance from that book that other Quaker Christians I know clearly do. For me, the Bible is not a live document... except as I receive it from those who are able to read it "in the life."

I think that you are one of those Friends for me; I know that there are several such that I have been nourished by at Mt. Toby and in NEYM. For the moment, at least I can "find my way to that place where [scripture and spirit] are in unity" with help only.

So I try to accept the help when it comes to me, to set aside the knee-jerk rejection of scripture that comes from growing up in a culture where it is so often used legalistically (or the temptation to respond to that legalism in kind) and to listen as well as I can for the Voice of Spirit when and where I do find it.

I'm very grateful that liberal Friends affords a home to heterodox seekers like me.
Morgan said…
Dear Cat, Thank you for inspiring me for some work I need to do on my own blog. While you may be sitting out on the curb, I think I'm out in the back yard -- possibly up a tree, possibly in a lawn chair -- trying to worship through the haze of my own unhappy feelings, and wishing some folks would come sit with me. And bring dinner, too! But folks have to know I'm sitting out there longing for company, first; therefore, the work on my own blog. Grace and peace, Stasa
Anonymous said…
Well, to return a compliment, you are one of the very few pagans I've ever met from whom I myself receive some spiritual nourishment. And I'm grateful! It's why I read your blog so faithfully.

I share your quest for "ways to share concerns [with traditionalist steeplehouse-goers] without dictating." My only clarity at present is that a personal example of lovingkindness can be a powerful thing even when all other avenues of communication have been closed off.

On nuances: I don't think I'm offering "nuances" of Romans 1 & 2, but rather, much more drastically, trying to replace a very bad established interpretation of those chapters with a more accurate one. The apostle Paul was an extraordinary man; he'd have stood out for his genius in any century. But he wasn't always a clear writer; he'd often get all tangled up in some complex thought, make a mess of the logical structure in the sentences in which he tried to convey it to his readers, and leave us something closer to a suggestive muddle like a Rorschach blot than to any clear teaching.

The business in Romans 1 & 2, covering homosexuality and the issue of the Law vs. the Spirit (among many other things), is not nearly as bad that way as some other parts of Paul's writings, but Paul didn't take the time to spell his openings out in sufficient detail in these chapters, and in the many centuries since he died, translators and interpreters have further obscured his meaning by overlaying it with their own social and religious prejudices and preconceptions. At this point, the average churchgoer might have to spend years just unlearning the prejudices and preconceptions before she or he could fully grasp what Paul was originally getting at.

I yearn for a translation of the Bible by someone who has really thought through the meanings of the original Hebrew and Greek words and phrases in the light of the insights of the early Friends! It would be a breakthrough in religious teaching, if it ever happened. But it's not likely to happen in my remaining lifetime, or yours.

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